(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa – AJPW, January 20, 1997
Mitsuharu Misawa. Kenta Kobashi. Two of the greatest, most legendary wrestlers to ever set foot in a wrestling ring. They were partners for years and then they became opponents. Their chemistry with each other was otherworldly. Together, they’ve had more 5-star matches and MOTY contests than anyone else in wrestling history.
So far in this review series, we’ve looked at them as partners and their final confrontation as opponents. Their work in All Japan Pro Wrestling made that company home of the best wrestling in the world at the time. But just how good was it? Let’s find out.
This is the first match in a series of three legendary singles encounters between Misawa and Kobashi. If you go anywhere online, this match, the one from October 31, 1998, and the third one from June 11, 1999, have gotten rave reviews by almost everyone. The other two were both rated 5-stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and were both voted Match of the Year in their respective years. This match, meanwhile, was only rated 4.75-stars, but is widely considered to be even better than those later two. Let’s see if that’s true. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
Kobashi was the defending Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion defending against Misawa, who was the company ace. Think of this as a 1990s version of the legendary feud between NJPW’s Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada, when Okada was champion but not a proven draw yet. The fans clearly love both wrestlers, cheering loudly as they do ring intros. They even make extra noise when Kobashi enters by jumping over the rope, which must be hard for him given his history of knee problems.
They lock up and a clean break at the ropes occurs. A stiff strike exchange ends in a brief stalemate until Misawa whips Kobashi and hits a standing dropkick to send him down. Baseball slide by Misawa followed by an Elbow Suicida (!) in the opening seconds of the match as Misawa shows off his agility. As Kobashi gets back to the ring, Misawa elbows him and back suplexes him over the top rope into the ring. That was cool.
Misawa hits a standing senton and gets the first two-count of the match. He teases the tiger driver early but Kobashi reaches the ropes and Misawa must let go. Misawa whips Kobashi and tries the diving spinning lariat but Kobashi dodges by rolling. Another chop/elbow exchange starts and Kobashi kicks Misawa hard in the gut followed by a big DDT to get a two-count of his own. Now Misawa rolls out of the ring and both guys get a chance to recover.
Once they’re both back in the ring, they strike each other hard again, but this time Kobashi wins the exchange with STIFF rolling back chops to Misawa’s neck. Misawa avoids a vertical suplex by Kobashi and charges, so Kobashi answers with a high knee to Misawa’s gut. Kobashi hits running knee strikes followed by a Russian leg sweep for a two-count, and then starts hitting Misawa in the stomach some more. Misawa tries to regain control with elbows, but each time he charges Kobashi knees him in the gut to main the advantage. Kobashi’s in control at the five-minute mark.
Kobashi hits hard strikes to Misawa’s stomach in the corner followed by a gourdbuster and a bow-and-arrow hold to put more pressure on Misawa’s stomach muscles. Excellent psychology. Kobashi maintains control with an abdominal stretch as the crowd chant’s Misawa’s name and applaud when he reaches the ropes. Kobashi continues his chop onslaught, with each one sounding like a gunshot going off. Kobashi whips Misawa into the opposite corner, but Misawa was preparing an elbow strike reversal, but Kobashi had him scouted and kicks Misawa in the chin.
But instead of going down, Misawa shrugs that off and sends Kobashi down with a hard elbow strike instead. Misawa fires back with hard elbows and kicks and gets a two-count, and then cinches in a double-arm submission hold. We get the classic ‘strength struggle’ as Kobashi tries to escape the hold as Misawa fights to keep it locked in. Kobashi succeeds in reversing it, only for Misawa to escape by doing a standing flip and elbowing Kobashi in the face as he tried a running shoulder tackle. These are some awesome sequences. Misawa hits a diving spin kick at the ten-minute mark and Kobashi briefly rolls out of the ring.
Misawa hits a double-arm suplex and the strike exchange continues, with Misawa winning this one. Scoop slam by Misawa followed by a diving elbow drop and a tiger body press (frog splash) with Misawa changing position in mid-air RVD-style, but all that gets another two-count. Misawa applies a camel clutch but Kobashi reaches the ropes, so Misawa flips him over and applies a facelock in the middle of the ring where Kobashi can’t reach the ropes so easily. Kobashi struggles, inching his way closer to a rope, so Misawa wrenches the hold to make that escape harder. Kobashi eventually reaches the rope and Misawa breaks the hold. Misawa starts elbowing Kobashi in the face but he stats hulking up, eating each strike like it’s nothing. He catches Misawa’s leg on a kick and chops the crap out of Misawa’s chest and neck, and when Misawa hits a trio of hard elbows to the face, Kobashi ignores the pain and barely moves. The man is a freaking tank.
Misawa hits elbows again, so Kobashi hits a running kick to the face. Misawa eats it like it’s nothing and hits a running kick of his own, but Kobashi barely moves as well. They have an intense brawl in the middle of the ring that Misawa narrowly wins thanks to his vicious elbow strikes. Misawa runs the ropes and skins the cat but Kobashi grabs one of his legs but gets kicked into the steel ring barricade for his efforts. Misawa climbs the turnbuckle from the apron and tries a diving elbow smash, but Kobashi moves at the last second and Misawa goes elbow-first into the steel barricade. That’s gotta hurt. Now Misawa’s at a huge disadvantage as we reach the fifteen-minute mark.
As Misawa struggles to re-enter the ring, Kobashi hits a huge running lariat that sends Misawa back down. The fans chant Misawa’s name as both men recover. Kobashi rolls Misawa into the ring and gets a two-count. Misawa tries the elbows to keep Kobashi away but his arm is too badly hurt, so Kobashi starts hitting huge strikes to Misawa in the corner. Kobashi takes Misawa out of the ring and smashes Misawa’s arm into the steel ring barricade and hits a leg drop onto it as well. Kobashi continues to show proper psychology by attacking that arm with unrelenting brutality, including a standing shoulder armbreaker over the steel chain that connects the turnbuckle to the ringpost and over the top rope. Kobashi hits a hammerlock DDT and then locks in a cross armbreaker, but Misawa reaches the ropes at the twenty-minute mark.
Kobashi chops away a Misawa’s arm and hits another hammerlock DDT for a two-count. More shoulder armbreakers by Kobashi to destroy that arm and weaken Misawa’s elbows. That proves correct seconds later because Misawa hits an elbow strike and Kobashi isn’t even phased. Kobashi continues with running strikes to Misawa’s arm and then hits a Half-Nelson suplex out of nowhere, dropping Misawa on his neck. He then locks in a Fujiwara armbar. Everyone’s going nuts as Misawa struggles in the middle of the ring. After a long struggle, Misawa reaches the ropes and the hold is broken. Kobashi maintains the advantage by locking another Fujiwara armbar each time Misawa tries to strike his way out of Kobashi’s control.
Again, Misawa reaches the bottom rope with his foot and the fans applaud loudly. We get another great sequence as Kobashi hits another standing armbreaker followed by a German suplex (which Misawa gets up from right away!) and Kobashi answers a Misawa charge with a judo arm throw into yet another cross armbreaker. The psychology here is insane. Misawa reaches the ropes a third time. The guy’s ring awareness is on point tonight.
We’re at the twenty-five-minute mark as Kobashi continues to chop Misawa’s arm. Misawa tries a side kick, but Kobashi catches him and hits a backdrop suplex. Kobashi charges but eats a kick to the head from Misawa and then Misawa elbows Kobashi’s lariat arm. Now both guys have weakened arms as Kobashi escapes from the ring. After recovering, Misawa hits a baseball slide kick and then hits a plancha over the rope onto Kobashi. Misawa gets a two-count back in the ring and begins his comeback with the diving spinning lariat. Misawa teases the tiger driver but it gets blocked, and Kobashi tries a lariat but Misawa blocks that and hits a huge German suplex. Tiger Driver by Misawa, but Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. Misawa elbows Kobashi again and climbs the top rope and tries a diving shotgun dropkick, but Kobashi lariats him in mid-air. Holy shit, what a move. Kobashi crawls and pins Misawa, but that too gets a 2.9-count. Misawa kicks out yet again right away as we reach the thirty-minute mark.
Both men are down ringside at the thirty-five-minute mark. Once back in the ring, they strike each other again and Misawa hits another German suplex. Misawa hits a rolling elbow but Kobashi gets back up, so he hits another one but again Kobashi gets back up almost right away. Kobashi auto-pilots his way to the ropes and as Misawa tries a third rolling elbow, Kobashi answers with a lariat out of nowhere. But he can’t pin right away because his arm is still hurt from earlier. Misawa hits three brutal elbow smashes, but Kobashi no-sells them and hits a German suplex of his own, dropping Misawa right on his head. Good God, what a sick landing.
They hit each other hard once again, and Misawa blocks a Kobashi charge with his head to Kobashi’s gut (as revenge from earlier) and hits a massive rolling elbow smash to the back of Kobashi’s head. Kobashi’s hung up in the ropes and Misawa teases the tiger suplex but Kobashi fights on, desperate to not get his arms hooked. His struggle fails because Misawa hits the tiger suplex perfectly but Kobashi kicks out at 2.85. Kobashi tries to fight back with chops, but Misawa ducks a rolling back chop and hits the Tiger Driver ’91. TIGER DRIVER 91! My God, what brutality. Kobashi got dropped on his head and his whole body folded over top of him. Misawa crawls over, hooks the leg, the match is over. No one kicks out of the TD’91. The referee counts one…two…thr—NO! KOBASHI KICKED OUT! THE CRAZY BASTARD ACTUALLY KICKED OUT OF THE TIGER DRIVER ’91!
We’re now at the forty-minute-mark as the crowd is going nuts. Kobashi out of instinct hits a few weak lariats that Misawa absorbs easily. Misawa counters the third one and hits the Tiger Suplex ’85, dropping Kobashi on his head and neck once more. As soon as Kobashi’s up, Misawa hits a huge running elbow smash dropping Kobashi. The referee counts one…two…three! That’s it, the match is over.
Winner and new AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 42:06: Mitsuharu Misawa
I’m going to need a thesaurus because there are so many words I could use to describe how awesome this match was. This was the epitome of the King’s Road wrestling style. It was a long match that didn’t really feel long or tiresome. It had a clear set of three acts/phases: an opening act with a feeling out phase as the two wrestlers jockey for control; a brutalizing middle during which the wrestlers brutalize and wear each other out with submission holds; and a highly climatic closing third act with false finishes and brutal head drops that makes you question whether these wrestlers are human or not. But most importantly, it featured two wrestlers showing some of the finest wrestling psychology ever produced.
Kobashi, in particular, targeted the arm non-stop, creating one of the most dramatic submission sequences in AJPW history. This is important given that AJPW rarely allowed submission finishers; 95% of falls were pinfalls, so Misawa tapping out would’ve meant an even bigger feather in Kobashi’s cap. But those armbars weren’t done just for the sake of creating drama; they fed into the final act when Misawa kept trying to gain momentum through his elbows but couldn’t because Kobashi had all but destroyed them. So Misawa had to tenderize Kobashi’s head and neck in any way he could, including busting out the Tiger Driver ’91, a killer super-finisher that had never failed him before. Yet Kobashi being the Iron Man that he is, he kicked out of it, becoming the first and only person to ever do so. That speaks volumes not only of Kobashi’s toughness, but of his star power. Only a top star on the same level as Misawa would be allowed to kick out of such a brutal move.
Also keep in mind that this match – and indeed, any All Japan match in the 1990s – took place before the big MMA boom. Because of that, these wrestling matches were treated as sporting contests by the audience. That sports-like presentation still exists today, but the audience wants more entertainment in their wrestling nowadays as opposed to the ‘pure’ sports-like presentation of the 1990s. So the audience was going nuts during this match because they were witnessing an outstanding athletic contest that they knew wasn’t real but appreciated the athleticism all the same. They were incredibly loud throughout the match, especially through all the crazy reversals. One minute they’d go ‘OOOOHH’ at an unexpected reversal, and the next thing you hear is thousands of people cheering wildly over a submission hold or a brutal suplex. It takes a lot to get Japanese fans to make noise like that, so clearly Misawa and Kobashi did a phenomenal job.
Final Rating: *****
There’s no way in hell this match deserves anything less than five full stars. This is an outstanding, mesmerizing, spellbinding masterpiece of a wrestling match. Many people consider it Kobashi’s best singles match, his magnum opus as a wrestler. For Misawa, it was definitely one of his best, but given his stellar career, that’s like comparing The Rock’s individual promos in his prime.
This is an absolute clinic of a wrestling match. There’s never a dull moment as Misawa and Kobashi put on a match that demonstrates toughness, intelligence, determination, perfect selling and execution and adaptability, all at once. Very few matches have so much going for it. This a piece of wrestling history, and it should be studied by wrestlers and their fans alike.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.