This is how you build up stars in pro wrestling.
As wrestling fans, we’ve often heard and read about some companies’ inability to create new stars. Their rosters are so deep and full of talented wrestlers, yet none of those wrestlers become big enough to carry their companies into the future. Sure, different companies try different tactics or approaches to create new stars, but none of them seem to work.
That’s why, for this entry into the (almost) 5-star match reviews series, we’re looking at a wrestling company in Japan that tried something different and it worked perfectly. This match took place over fifteen years ago. At that time, it featured two teams of one legend and one rookie. Fifteen years later, both of those rookies are now established stars in Japan. Let’s take a look at their strategy to see how it worked, and how it can apply to wrestling companies elsewhere
We’re revisiting a classic tag team match between Kenta Kobashi & Go Shiozaki and Kensuke Sasaki & Katsuhiko Nakajima from Pro Wrestling NOAH.
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.
This wrestling match featured something you don’t see that often: a legend/rookie vs. legend/rookie tag team match. So many wrestling companies are obsessed with having established stars or ‘dream matches’ only happen in singles competition. NOAH understood that their fans wanted to see more of Kobashi and Sasaki fighting each other, especially after their awesome Tokyo Dome match four months earlier. But instead of putting all the focus on the established stars, NOAH decided that it would make more sense to have both Kobashi’s and Sasaki’s star power rub off on wrestlers that were being groomed for future success.
And here we are with the result of their creative decision.
Thus, this is a tag team match between NOAH ace (and general pro wrestling god) Kenta Kobashi and his protégé Go Shiozaki on one side, and on the other side is former NJPW star and then-freelancer Kensuke Sasaki and his protégé Katsuhiko Nakajima. The stories between them followed typical puroresu storyline directions, but all of them made sense going into this match. Sasaki and Nakajima were outsiders from Sasaki’s Diamond Ring promotion wrestling in enemy territory on a NOAH show. Sasaki was looking for revenge on Kobashi after losing to him at Destiny 2005, while Kobashi wanted to prove that victory wasn’t just a fluke. Sasaki’s protégé Nakajima was less than two years into his pro wrestling career and was only 17 years old when this match happened. Not only was Nakajima out to prove himself to his mentor Sasaki, but he also wanted to out-perform his NOAH counterpart Shiozaki, who was six years older yet had debuted six months after Nakajima.
To put in perspective how big this match was, imagine if Bret Hart in his prime and a rookie AJ Styles took on an in-his-prime Chris Benoit and a rookie Bryan Danielson. That is the kind of match-up we have here.
Interestingly, as I write this, I recently learned of a singles match between Shiozaki and Nakajima from NOAH that took place on November 22nd, 2020 that is getting rave reviews and being called a MOTY contender. Maybe it’s fate that I’m reviewing the match that seems to have started all, which took place fifteen years ago.
This match originally took place on November 5th, 2005 in the famous Budokan Hall. It was rated ****3/4 stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Shiozaki and Nakajima start things off with an explosive strike battle. They take turns kicking each other, trade forearm smashes, and then dropkick each other for a standoff. After some loud cheers from the crowd, Kobashi asks to be tagged in and so too does Sasaki. The two heavyweight legends get in and the crowd goes crazy. Kobashi tanks a shoulder tackle and both men tease a chop battle. What, do they want to destroy each other’s chest again? Changing his mind, Sasaki takes control with the Greco-Roman knuckle lock/test of strength spot. After a standoff, Sasaki pushes Kobashi into his corner, allowing Shiozaki to tag in. they lock up and Sasaki quickly overpowers Shiozaki with big power moves. Shiozaki fires back with chops to the chest, but Sasaki drops him with a hard slap to the face. Shiozaki tags in and hits some hard middle kicks to Shiozaki for a two-count. Nakajima charges but runs into a dropkick from Shiozaki, who then tags Kobashi.
We’re five minutes in as Kobashi lands running knees and the Burning Sword downward chop to Nakajima. He lands another killer chop to Nakajima’s chest for a two-count. Nakajima tries to chop Kobashi (bad idea) and eats brutal chops from Kobashi for his efforts. Shiozaki tags in and lands another standing dropkick for two and then slams Nakajima down hard before applying a camel clutch. This doesn’t last long as Sasaki breaks it up with a thunderous chop to the neck, WALTER-style. To which Shiozaki answers with a dropkick to Sasaki. Shiozaki applies the Romero special, and the referee gets distracted by Sasaki, allowing Kobashi to land a chop to the chest on a helpless Nakajima. After a kickout from Nakajima, Shiozaki tags Kobashi who fires away with yet more chops. Kobashi whips Nakajima into a corner and charges but Nakajima dodges and lands a diving dropkick. Then he tags in an angry Sasaki, who lands a chop/lariat combo in the corner followed by a bulldog. Then the chop battle begins once more:
CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! CHOP! Sasaki lands a backdrop suplex! Sasaki goers for more chops. Kobashi blocks. Burning Sword! Shiozaki tags in.
Shiozaki lands forearm smashes to Sasaki but Sasaki chops him down to the mat. He keeps charging with forearm smashes but Sasaki won’t budge. Four running forearms are enough to finally drop Sasaki. The camera zooms in on Sasaki and you can see his skin scarring from those Kobashi chops.
Sasaki lands one big chop and tags Nakajima. He lands some corner forearms and a snapmare/Kawada kick combo for two. He goes for a scoop slam but Shiozaki resists and slams Nakajima instead. Nakajima gets back up and goes for a suplex but Shiozaki resists again, so Nakajima knees him in the gut. A modified suplex slam gets Nakajima a two-count Nakajima applies a chinlock but Shiozaki manages to crawl to the ropes. Sasaki tags in and hits an interesting lariat combo to the chest and the back of the neck. He pins but Kobashi makes the save.
Sasaki tackles Shiozaki so hard he goes into the opposite corner and Sasaki gets a close near-fall. Nakajima tags in and he and Shiozaki have another strike battle, which Nakajima wins with a kick to the head, leading to a 2.5-count. Nakajima goes to whip Shiozaki, but Shiozaki’s so out of it he collapses halfway to the corner. The ref checks on him and makes Nakajima wait until Shiozaki gets to his feet. Shiozaki BARELY gets up at a count of seven and Nakajima dropkicks him for a 2.8-count. Nakajima slams Shiozaki and tags Sasaki, who goes for a suplex but Shiozaki starts stirring. Then somehow, the much smaller Shiozaki musters enough strength to suplex Sasaki. Nice counter. A desperate Shiozaki tags Kobashi, and immediately fires off with machine gun chops in the corner. 122 chops between them, including a brutal rolling back chop from Kobashi. Damn!
Kobashi goes for the Half-Nelson suplex, but Sasaki resists. So Kobashi chops him hard in the back of the head. Half-Nelson suplex connects. Sasaki powers up and jumps to his feet! He charges with a lariat. Kobashi ducks. Another Half-Nelson on Sasaki. Nakajima charges in. German suplex on Kobashi. That just leaves Shiozaki. Backdrop Driver on Nakajima. Shiozaki charges at Sasaki with a lariat. Sasaki ducks. Dragon suplex! All four men are down. This is awesome.
Kobashi and Sasaki get up. Sasaki eats on rolling back chop but blocks the second and lands a massive over-the-shoulder judo hip toss. Stranglehold Gamma by Sasaki. He’s stretching Kobashi’s arm and neck. Kobashi reaches the rope with his foot. He tries to mount a comeback and charges, but walks into a powerslam from Sasaki. Nakajima tags and lands a diving shotgun dropkick onto Kobashi. He gets Kobashi in a corner and does Kobashi’s taunt. But instead of chops, Nakajima fires with kicks to the chest. Twenty in a row. He whips Kobashi into another corner and lands a running dropkick. Then he goes for a standing one, no, Kobashi literally swats him away with a chop. Kobashi applies a Texas Cloverleaf. Sasaki comes in and kicks Kobashi in the head. But Kobashi doesn’t break the move. Hell, he doesn’t even flinch. So Sasaki charges to the ropes for a running kick. But Shiozaki catches him in the ropes and applies a sleeper. Amazing teamwork. Eventually, Nakajima makes it to the ropes.
Shiozaki tags in and knocks down both Nakajima and Sasaki. He lands a diving shotgun dropkick of his own for a 2.8-count followed by different running corner strikes. Fisherman Buster by Shiozaki. Nakajima kicks out at 2.75. Shiozaki goes for a German suplex, but Nakajima fights out. Nakajima walks into a kick from Shiozaki in the corner but wheel kicks Shiozaki off the top turnbuckle. Picture-perfect Bridging German suplex by Nakajima. Kobashi breaks up the pin. Sasaki tosses Kobashi out of the ring.
The two veterans have a strike battle ringside while the two rookies fight it out in the ring. Shiozaki lands some kicks and tries to escape one German suplex but can’t escape the second. German suplex into the turnbuckle. Oh, wow that’s brutal. Shiozaki with a Bridging German suplex of his own. Kobashi holds Sasaki on the apron. One, two, thr—NO, Nakajima kicks out at 2.9. Shiozaki signals the end and scoop slams Nakajima. Then he signals the moonsault. He’s doing Kobashi’s iconic finish. Moonsault by Shiozaki. Nakajima gets his knees up. Nakajima gets up. He and Shiozaki have another strike battle. Nakajima wins with another wheel kick.
Both wrestlers are down as both Kobashi and Sasaki try to get the crowd behind their respective juniors. Sasaki tags in first and charges, but walks into a superkick from Shiozaki. Shiozaki goes for a dragon suplex, but Sasaki powers out. So Shiozaki slaps the taste out of Sasaki’s mouth and Sasaki starts reeling. Shiozaki charges with a lariat, but walks into a huge lariat from Sasaki. Sasaki pins. Kobashi saves Shiozaki again. Kobashi and Sasaki duke it out again. Sasaki gets the upper hand and then throws a charging Nakajima into Kobashi, sending both of them out of the ring. Tornado Bomb by Sasaki! Shiozaki kicks out at 2.9! Sasaki charges once again. LARIATO! Shiozaki gets flipped end over end! Sasaki pins. One, two, three! That’s it. There’s the match!
Winners after 24:58: Kensuke Sasaki & Katsuhiko Nakajima
This was a fantastic match. I enjoyed it a lot. This wasn’t your typical tag team match with control shifting from side to side in a traditional sense. Instead, it was an explosive, unpredictable rollercoaster with the dynamic constantly changing and control shifting in the span of seconds. There wasn’t a single dull moment here, making it one of the most satisfying twenty-five-minute matches I have ever seen.
This match had an interesting dynamic that isn’t seen very often in today’s wrestling. You had two established top stars that everyone wanted to see fight for a second time (after their legendary Tokyo Dome encounter). But there was also the rivalry between the two protégés, each one looking to prove that they could be great stars. So any combination of wrestlers in the ring at a given time had a story that was believable, easy to follow, and entertaining. Kobashi and Sasaki wanted to destroy each other as usual, with Sasaki wanting revenge for losing at the Dome. Shiozaki and Nakajima were the rookies that wanted to prove themselves to their respective mentors while also wanting to beat each other. And when either Nakajima was in the ring with Kobashi or Shiozaki in the ring with Sasaki, the rookie tried to show how tough he was against the established star.
Each wrestler brought something interesting to the match here. Kobashi, though far removed from his in-ring prime of the late 1990s, was an absolute beast here. He brought an intensity to any match few wrestlers could, and knew how to control a crowd and build up a big move with ease. Sasaki went toe-to-toe with Kobashi and showed his own brutality against Shiozaki. He overpowered Shiozaki at every opportunity, which only made Shiozaki’s fire more convincing. And both Shiozaki and Nakajima shined as rising stars, with Nakajima getting the edge over Shiozaki as a wrestler in this match. Despite being so young and relatively inexperienced, 17-year-old Nakajima shined in this match more than anyone else. He looked like a star and actually held his own against Kobashi quite well, especially with the machine gun kicks in the corner spot.
What the match lacked in move complexity (especially from Kobashi, whose offense was 90% chops here, but he made it work) it made up for with raw intensity, inner story, and drama. Nothing in this match was unnecessarily complex. There were no stupid dives, no laborious set up sequences that didn’t justify their work, and there was virtually none of that unrealistic video-game extended no-selling. Everything was done with a purpose, to further the story. For example, when Shiozaki had Nakajima in the Romero Special, Kobashi helped Shiozaki with a chop to Nakajima’s neck. Doing the move that way allowed Kobashi contribute something positive to that segment without taking the spotlight off of the rookies.
It was fun watching Shiozaki and Nakajima as rookies fighting as hard as they could against Sasaki and Kobashi, respectively. Watching the match you didn’t expect the rookies to get very far against such big stars (both literally and figuratively), but they did. Kobashi and Sasaki both sold quite a bit for the rookies, and make them look like much bigger stars. Nakajima in particular got to look like a true wrestling star by kicking Kobashi’s chest in. as for Shiozaki, he took a huge trashing in the closing moments as Sasaki manhandled him with his finishers. By taking so much punishment, Shiozaki looked strong in defeat while Sasaki got a win over Kobashi (at least, on paper).
Final Rating: *****
I’m basing my rating here solely on my inability to find anything genuinely ‘wrong’ with this match. It has everything you could possibly ask for. The crowd was loud and intense for the entirety of the match, reacting to all the big moves and making certain sequences feel more important. The story of the match was simple and easy to follow, but it never came across as too simple or childish. And of course, the action and drama were off the charts. These four wrestlers managed to pack a ton of action into twenty-five minutes without it every feeling like overkill and the match never really died down to the point of dragging things out.
If you enjoy seeing extended hoss fights, then Kobashi and Sasaki delivered on that front and then some. If you enjoy seeing a heavyweight star beat the crap out of a cocky rookie, then this match delivered some of that as well. And there was also plenty of fire and determination from both rookies as well when they stood toe-to-toe with the legends.
What makes this such a must-see match is how the rookies-and-legends dynamic works so well. I just wish more American companies followed this approach to elevating stars they’re investing in for the long-term. Imagine seeing 2013’s The Rock and Roman Reigns vs. The Undertaker and 2013’s Bray Wyatt. You’d tune in to see the legends tear into each other, but you’d stay to watch the dynamic with the rookie Reigns attacking the Undertaker or the younger monster Wyatt playing mind games with The Rock.
To put into perspective how solid the wrestling was in this match, Kenta Kobashi was the least impressive wrestler in this match. And considering what he has accomplished in his legendary career, that should tell you what kind of action you can expect in this match. Highest recommendation possible.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.