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5-Star Match Reviews: Toshiaki Kawada vs. Kenta Kobashi – January 19th, 1995, by Alex Podgorski

When most people read the words ‘All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW)’, one of two rivalries usually comes to mind: Misawa vs. Kobashi or Misawa vs. Kawada. There are many good reasons for that to happen. Both rivalries have spawned some of the best professional wrestling matches of all time, many of which have become classics. But what those same people tend to overlook is a third rivalry: one between an angry veteran (Kawada) and the rising star seeking to take his spot (Kobashi).

Today we look at one of their best singles matches together which, incidentally, is also one of the highest-rated 60-minute matches of all time. It’s their famous heavyweight title match from January 19th, 1995.

As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.

The story

Kobashi and Kawada don’t like each other. At all. Kobashi never forgave Kawada for betraying him and Misawa in 1993 and joining with the villainous Akira Taue. By this point, both men have been in hundreds of tag team matches together as opponents. And more often than not, when Misawa was involved and there wasn’t someone lower on the totem pole teaming with him, it was Kobashi that took the fall for his team.

But there’s more to it than that. No matter what he did, Kobashi just couldn’t seem to beat Kawada in singles competition. He had pinned him a few times in tag matches, but Kobashi had Misawa as his partner to save him and to dish out additional punishment on Kawada.

In fact, Kawada had been getting the better of Kobashi as far back as in 1988 when Kobashi was still a rookie. EVERY TIME they faced off one-on-one, Kawada won. Every exhibition match, every Champion Carnival match, every special singles match. Kawada beat Kobashi in all of them.

And in one of their random singles matches in 1993, Kawada added insult to injury by beating Kobashi with the Stretch Plum, a submission hold. This was a very big deal because AJPW booker Giant Baba despised submission holds and rarely wanted them used beyond a tool for a wrestler to wear their opponent down for something ‘cleaner’.

But for this match, things were a bit different. This was Kobashi’s second-ever Triple Crown title shot and his first against someone that’s not a gaijin/foreigner. He lost in his first world title match, but didn’t go down without a hell of a fight.

In this match, Kobashi’s opponent wasn’t a gargantuan Oklahoman that out-powered him on every occasion. Instead, it was a fellow native Japanese wrestler, albeit one with a notorious penchant for kicking people into oblivion. But he could work that more easily given his near-bottomless well of endurance and strength advantage over Kawada.

Or so he hoped.

And Kawada had his own ax to grind with Kobashi as well. He saw the writing on the wall with Kobashi’s singles push. Kobashi was being groomed for the top spot and was going to become champion sooner or later. Kawada preferred it be later because he was trying to prove something of his own. He had just won the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship from ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams (the man Kobashi failed to beat in September 1994) in October ’94, and Kobashi was his first challenger.

Not only did Kawada want to keep this young punk down and maintain his spot, but he wanted to show everyone that he was at least on par with Misawa. You see, just as Kobashi couldn’t beat Kawada in singles competition, neither could Kawada beat Misawa. Misawa was the company’s ace and Kawada wanted to prove that he was on Misawa’s level. And since Misawa wasn’t in the world title picture when this match happened, Kawada hoped to try and have a strong, successful reign as champion. But to do that, he had to beat Kobashi, which was a big challenge in and of itself.

The match

This match originally took place on January 19th, 1995 and is for AJPW’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. The match opens with some standard lockups and Kawada starts shoving Kobashi. Kobashi shoves back and they have an icy staredown. Kawada headlocks Kobashi and takes him down with a shoulder tackle. Kobashi tanks one running kick and blocks a second, then hits Kawada HARD with a rolling back chop and a lariat. Kawada dodges a running shoulder tackle and a dropkick, then the two of them trade stiff kicks to the face. Kobashi chops Kawada’s chest but he absorbs it like a boss.

The crowd’s firmly behind Kobashi as they do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Kobashi gains the upper hand but Kawada kicks Kobashi’s injured knee to escape. Kawada tries to catch the leg but Kobashi catches him in a facelock of sorts. Some amateur grappling ensues and Kawada tries for an armbar but Kobashi reaches the ropes.

Kobashi applies a rear waistlock but Kawada takes him down with some amateur grappling. He mounts Kobashi and slaps the back of Kobashi’s head like a d**k because he can. Kawada applies the double-arm underhook lock putting intense pressure on Kobashi’s shoulders and back. Kobashi gets to his feet and reverses the hold on Kawada, but Kawada soon counters it back onto Kobashi and nails him with a big German suplex.

Kobashi gets up slowly and Kawada dropkicks the back of his knee hard. Outside the ring, he places Kobashi’s knee on the barricade and kicks the barricade, causing immense damage to Kobashi’s leg. Kawada lands some stomp/knee crusher combo moves and goes for a single leg crab but Kobashi fights out of it with chops. Kawada maintains control by pressing his knee into the back of Kobashi’s until Kobashi reaches the ropes. Kawada goes for a standing knee breaker but Kobashi escapes with a kick and a running leg drop to the neck.

Both men go down as Kobashi can barely move due to the leg damage. He lands a rope-hung Undertaker-style leg drop and drags Kawada out of the ring. Kawada gets whipped into the steel barricade and takes another leg drop to the neck from Kobashi. Kobashi pins in the ring but Kawada kicks out at one, so Kobashi pulls a Kawada move and kicks him in the back.

A Hogan leg drop gets Kobashi a two-count so he applies a chinlock. Kawada reaches the ropes and a big chop to the neck sends Kawada back down. You can tell by his movements he’s trying his best to fight through the pain, but not even hardnosed Kawada can tank many Kobashi chops.

Kawada escapes a pin at two and Kobashi apples a figure-4 neck lock. But again, Kawada reaches the ropes quickly. Kawada fights back with a chop but Kobashi just kicks him down. Kawada tries to escape a headlock with an Irish whip but Kobashi refuses to let go. That’s a big challenge for Kawada considering how massive Kobashi’s arms are.

Kawada tries to counter the headlock with a Backdrop but Kobashi hangs on. Kawada breaks the hold on the ropes so Kobashi chops him and lands a jumping shoulder tackle. It’s back to resthold city with a grounded sleeper. Kawada tries to get him off by pushing him into the corner but Kobashi doesn’t let go. Kawada eventually escapes and fires back with chops as the crowd cheers both men equally.

Kobashi reverses a whip into the corner and goes for a jumping knee but Kawada knocks him down. Kawada smashes Kobashi into two turnbuckles and goes for a vertical suplex but Kobashi resists it and after a struggle lands a suplex of his own for a one-count. He tries for a Tiger Suplex but Kawada escapes. Kobashi lands multiple brutal knife edge chops but Kawada absorbs them like they’re nothing. Kobashi tries smashing Kawada face-first into the turnbuckles but Kawada’s completely unaffected. Kawada resists getting whipped and dropkicks Kobashi hard. Now Kawada chops Kobashi but Kobashi tanks them in kind. But not for long as a chop to the throat downs Kobashi quickly.

Kobashi rolls out of the ring but Kawada just slams him on the ringside mats and dives off the apron with a stomp to the gut. Ouch. Back in the ring, Kawada lands a scoop slam and a diving double stomp to the gut for another two-count. Kobashi quickly escapes a facelock so Kawada punts him in the back. Another slam/back kick combo to Kobashi followed by a sleeper. Kobashi reaches the ropes so Kawada applies another sleeper in the ring, this time with bodyscissors. The crowd really starts chanting for Kobashi as he reaches the ropes.

Kawada lands a powerbomb but can’t capitalize on it right away. Dangerous Backdrop! Nasty landing for Kobashi. Kawada goes for another powerbomb but Kobashi back body drops him over the rope and out of the ring. Kawada launches Kobashi into the barricade but he fires back with a big shoulder tackle. Kobashi tries to get back to the ring but Kawada lands a running apron lariat. Kawada tries the move again but Kobashi blocks it. He goes for a diving shoulder tackle but Kawada kicks him in midair. But in doing so Kawada hurts his own leg. That looks like it was too big of a risk.

Sensing an opportunity, Kobashi dropkicks that injured leg. Kobashi gets some revenge with some stomp/knee crusher combos. He foes for a Figure-4 leglock but Kawada holds one of Kobashi’s legs with his free arm to prevent the hold from being locked in all the way. There’s some great storytelling because Kawada’s trying to avoid that painful hold with all his might. But he fails and Kobashi applies the hold fully, causing Kawada to scream in pain. They keep reversing it on each other, and sliding back and forth. Talk about toughness. Both men are in immense pain yet muster enough strength to pull themselves and each other in one direction or another using only their arms.

Kawada breaks the hold on the ropes so Kobashi tosses him out of the ring. Then he lands a knee breaker drop right onto the wooden announcer’s table. Keep in mind that these are Japanese tables; they aren’t gimmicked to break. That’s a regular solid table that Kawada gets smashed through.

Back in the ring Kobashi applies a single leg crab but Kobashi kicks free with his other leg. Kobashi attacks that leg some more and locks in a Texas Cloverleaf. Kawada reaches the ropes so Kobashi locks it in again. Kawada pushes with all his might and reaches the ropes again, so Kobashi applies a toehold. Kawada tries to escape with an enzuigiri but Kobashi blocks it, but he exposes his injured knee allowing Kawada to dropkick that. Smart work there.

Both men go do down after kicking each other’s knee. Kawada’s up first and slams Kobashi then lands the chop/kick combo for a two-count. A bunch of chop takedowns land Kawada another two-count. Kawada goes for a powerbomb but Kobashi powers out. Twice. He lands some yakuza kicks in the corner and goes for a jumping kick but Kobashi counters with a big punch. Kobashi tanks a big boot and lands a big lariat, sending both men down.

Kobashi lands a flurry of chops to Kawada’s neck and a powerbomb of his own. Kawada kicks him away and tries to stand but ragdolls. He’s so battered he can barely stand. Amazing selling.

Kobashi goes for an Irish whip but Kawada can’t even reach the opposite ropes. He crumples to the mat but somehow manages to kick out at two. Backdrop Driver by Kobashi. Both men are down once again. Kobashi goes for another but Kawada elbows out of it and lands one of Kobashi’s signature moves, the rolling back chop. But Kobashi answers with a dropkick. He charges for a lariat, Kawada ducks, so he hits a bulldog and a leg drop. He goes for the Moonsault but Kawada rolls away, so Kobashi DDTs him twice.

Kobashi slams Kawada. He goes to the top. Diving Moonsault. No, Kawada rolls away at the last second. Kobashi lands painfully. They trade chops and Kobashi lands machine gun chops in the corner but Kawada tanks them all. Another chop to the throat downs Kobashi.

Kobashi blocks a running lariat, Kawada tanks a punch from Kobashi, and then drops Kobashi with a gamengiri kick. A second gamengiri gets Kawada a two-count. Folding powerbomb by Kawada. One, two, no, Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. Another Dangerous Backdrop. Kobashi kicks out at 2.9 AGAIN! The man’s a beast.

Kawada goes for the Stretch Plum but Kobashi throws him away. But not for long as Kawada cinches it in soon after. He wrenches the hold as hard as possible. Another pin…and another kickout. Another Stretch Plum. Kobashi goes limp…yet still kicks out once again.

Kawada lifts Kobashi up and he can barely stand. Kobashi blocks a gamengiri, eats a big punch to the face and a kick to the knee, and then ducks another gamengiri. Running forearm smash out of nowhere from Kobashi.

We’re now fifty minutes in. Kobashi goes for a dragon suplex but Kawada hang on. He tries a backdrop suplex but again Kawada resists. Kawada fights out and tries another Stretch Plum but Kobashi counters into a rolling cradle for a close two-count. Loud Kobashi chants now. He chops Kawada then goes to whip him, but Kawada goes for the reverse into the hook kick, but Kobashi sees it coming and slams Kawada down.

A Giant Baba-style running neckbreaker gets Kobashi a two-count. After some resistance Kobashi lands a jackknife powerbomb on Kawada for another close two-count. Diving Moonsault press by Kobashi. Kawada still kicks out. Kobashi pins again but Kawada still kicks out. Kobashi goes for a diving leg drop but Kawada rolls out of the way.

Five minutes left.

Kobashi goes for a dragon suplex but Kawada reaches the ropes. Kobashi refuses to let go so Kawada powers out. Rolling abisengiri kick. Both men go down. Kawada lands a second kick for another close two-count. Dragon suplex by Kawada. Kobashi kicks out at 2.99! Kawada lands some step kicks and goes for a Dangerous Backdrop, but Kobashi counters midair into a crossbody. Kobashi blocks a yakuza kick, Kawada ducks a rolling back chop, Kobashi blocks a German suplex, and lands a bridging German of his own. Another fantastic sequence. One, two, no, Kawada kicks out.

Two minutes left.

Kobashi goes for another German but Kawada kicks out of it. Nasty German suplex by Kawada. Kobashi’s on auto-pilot selling now. He stays by the ropes and holds on for dear life. But Kawada keeps chasing him. Another German suplex by Kawada. Kobashi clings to the bottom ropes with all his might. Kawada drags a nearly catatonic Kobashi to the middle of the ring. He’s going for the powerbomb again. He lifts with all his might but Kobashi keeps resisting.

The bell rings. Both men crumple to the mat. The match is a DRAW.

STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion due to 60-minute time-limit draw: Toshiaki Kawada

Review

Let me get something out of the way first: this match was slow. VERY slow, in fact. But that wasn’t a drawback in this case. Instead, it actually made this match better since it allowed for smoother story progression.

This was not the same sort of Kobashi/Kawada match-up most people might be used to. Because of its gargantuan length, both wrestlers had to come up with an altogether different approach to make this work. If they went down their usual path with trading bombs, brutal suplexes, countless stiff exchanges and raw intensity, then there’s no way they’d reach that 60-minute mark.

To that end, they replaced pure brutality with strategy and technique here. It wasn’t about hitting each other the hardest or brutalizing each other quickly. Instead, it was all about wearing each other down gradually in an endurance contest. They didn’t forego their hallmarks entirely; the match still featured some brutal strike exchanges and exciting reversal sequences that both looked great and made sense in the larger story of the match.

A great example was how both men’s knees were targeted at various points. Kawada got the hit in early, which made it harder for Kobashi to fire back with his typical charges. He still landed some big leg-based moves, but it was much harder for him to capitalize on anything because he had work through the pain barrier to do so. Of course, this work by Kawada would haunt him later as he hurt his own leg in kicking a flying Kobashi.

And while that spoke volumes of the lengths Kawada went through to win, it also gave Kobashi an avenue to dish out some much-needed revenge for Kawada’s earlier legwork. And in a similar story that would be told in New Japan seventeen years later between Tanahashi and Suzuki, it became a raw endurance contest of which man’s limb would give out first. And in an interesting twist, all that wearing down of the limbs and building up on previous work had the opposite effect of what I expected. Instead of one all that limb-targeting and the plethora of finishers shortening the match, it actually dragged it out.

While some parts of the match felt really slow with the myriad of restholds and slow recovery, those never felt like wasted time. The restholds/submission holds were done with reason and felt like they belonged in the larger story, while the long down moments underscored how brutal a beating both men had taken. Yes, they could’ve moved faster from the start. But doing so would’ve made the match feel unrealistic and psychologically-shallow.

The match had one of the most creative and exciting finishes I have ever seen. Kobashi knew he was beaten but refused to lie down and die. He couldn’t beat Kawada by that point, but he’d be happy with a draw. That way he’d show he could, at the least, be seen as Kawada’s equal. So Kobashi hung on to the ropes with all his might to prevent Kawada from landing any big move. Even on auto-pilot, Kobashi had the wherewithal use the ropes to keep himself up and crawl away from Kawada as best he could. But Kawada didn’t want Kobashi the satisfaction of the draw and chased him closely.

Then, with Kobashi no longer to escape, Kawada tried to lift him into the powerbomb. All Kawada needed to put Kobashi away was one more move. But Kobashi’s strategy succeeded. He outlasted Kawada and got his draw, leaving Kawada with the consolation prize of keeping his title but not winning in his first defense. This gave both men an out and, just like in the first Flair/Steamboat match, created a logical justification for a future rematch.

I loved all the little things in this match. Kobashi put on a clinic on how to sell limb damage and incorporating that into his own moves. He couldn’t keep a sustained assault on Kawada because each big move he landed required him to take a quick breather to fight through the pain in his leg during the earlier part of the match. And from a story perspective, it made Kobashi look like brave because he risked aggravating an already-weakened limb with his offense. Yet he needed to take that risk if he hoped to beat Kawada.

And Kawada was a master seller as well. At one point, Kobashi chopped him hard in the corner and he slowly sank to the mat with this look of immense pain on his face. That ‘delayed selling’ is a trademark of his and is what made his matches so captivating. He’d take a massive hit and fight through it with an immediate reply, and THEN succumb to the pain from his opponent’s attack.

Final Rating: *****

This is a match that definitely requires some patience to get through. Things are drawn out and stretched for a purpose, which might not be to some fans’ liking, especially given the modern landscape. But just because it’s slow doesn’t mean it’s bad. On the contrary; the slower pace allows the viewer to see things more closely and digest the action at a more reasonable pace.

Instead of throwing countless bombs at one another and dizzying the viewer with an overwhelming experience, things are more nuanced and balanced here. There are definitely some minor things one could harp on here like the poor commentary, long stare-downs and a few needless chinlocks. But those things get lost in the story, which gets told carefully and meticulously.

And while it lacks the explosiveness and sheer brutality of other matches of its era, it makes up for it in demonstrating pure endurance and desperation to survive.

Ultimately, I think this match is so great because of how different it is from most King’s Road matches while still being faithful to the style. Most people come into these 1990s AJPW classics and expect face-breaking stiffness, terrifying head spikes and Kenny Omega-style explosiveness. In comparison, this match might come across as…subdued, with its slower pace and greater focuses on gradual wear-down (emphasis on the ‘gradual’).

But that only speaks to the creativity and skills of the wrestlers involved. It’s hard to put on a captivating twenty-minute wrestling match, harder still to keep a match engaging for half an hour, and damn-near impossible to put on a truly epic one-hour marathon. But these two men did it. They might not have put on the flashiest or most iconic 60-minute match, but they told a deep and compelling story while keeping the ideal pace for the story to unfold logically and organically.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.