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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi vs. Naomichi Marufuji – NOAH 04/23/06

Kenta Kobashi and Naomichi Marufuji. They are two of the most influential pro-wrestlers of the past thirty years. Kobashi was once described as ‘the perfect wrestler’ and is on many fans’ shortlists of greatest of all time. Meanwhile, Marufuji is undoubtedly the Rey Mysterio of the 21st century. He has had more influence on modern ‘indy’ style wrestling than anyone else alive, with countless wrestlers copying his speed, style, and signature moves. Both of them have become celebrated legends, and today we look back at one of their few singles matches together.

Today we revisit the singles match between Kobashi and Marufuji from April 23rd, 2006.

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

In 2006, Kobashi and Marufuji were at two different points in their respective careers. Kobashi was basically the god of puroresu, a certified legend with an extensive catalog of insanely great matches and unyielding fan support. Meanwhile, Marufuji was a rising star chosen to be one of NOAH’s flagbearers going forward. He had spent the first six years of his career as a junior heavyweight, but the time came for him to ‘graduate’ to the heavyweight division.

To complete his ‘graduation’, Marufuji had to wrestle different heavyweight opponents and prove he could beat them. He had beaten a handful like Jun Akiyama and Akira Taue thanks to his penchant for clever counters and flashy pins. But that stuff wasn’t likely to work against Kobashi. He had seen it all over the past eighteen years and had been through wars against far more dangerous opponents. And yet, Kobashi was facing Mitsuharu Misawa’s protégé, so there was that expectation that he would be as unpredictable and hard to fell as his master.

Needless to say, the stakes were high here as NOAH’s future hung in the balance. Would the legendary Kobashi have one last big victory, or would NOAH’s future ace defeat the most dominant and beloved champion in the entire country?

The match

This match originally took place on April 23rd, 2006 in Tokyo’s famous Nippon Budokan Hall, the venue famously associated with NOAH and its predecessor All Japan Pro-Wrestling. The match was originally rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Over fifteen years have passed since this match first took place, so let’s see how well it holds up.

They shake hands and Kobashi gets a clean break on the ropes. Marufuji applies a headlock and Kobashi sends him into the ropes. He tries to knock Kobashi down but Kobashi doesn’t budge, so he charges again but walks into a nasty chop to the chest. Marufuji does his best to no-sell and tries to chop Kobashi. Naturally, Kobashi tanks them like they’re nothing and fires back with more chops of his own. But Marufuji start ducking them and hitting his own successfully. But Kobashi catches onto Marufuji’s scheme quickly and drops him with a big chop after a fake-out. No one out-chops Kobashi. No-one.

They trade armlocks until Marufuji Dynamite Kid flips his way out. This flusters Kobashi who answers with more chops, which leads to a tense standoff. Marufuji tries and fails to out-power Kobashi in a Greco-Roman knuckle lock, so he answers with a headscissor roll-over. He keeps his focus on Kobashi’s neck and tries to keep the pressure but Kobashi chops Marufuji’s leg so hard he’s forced to let go. Kobashi does more chop-based offense at ringside and then pins for a two-count.

Marufuji escapes a facelock and then finds an opening by blocking a chop and dropkicking Kobashi’s knee. He follows with a dragon screw leg whip through the ropes and then attacks that knee some more, but Kobashi kicks out at one. Marufuji lands a flurry of kicks and, despite getting hit with more Kobashi chops, nails another dragon screw. Kobashi escapes one Figure-4 leglock but can’t avoid a second one, so he pulls both himself and Marufuji to the ropes. The strength difference in this match is staggering.

Marufuji goes for a Liger-style surfboard and stomps on Kobashi’s knees when Kobashi fights on. He keeps targeting Kobashi’s knees with different attacks and holds, but Kobashi fights on and reverses a figure-4 onto Marufuji. Both men roll out of the ring but Marufuji gets up first, wraps Kobashi’s leg through the barricade, and then lands an apron dropkick onto it. Kobashi struggles back to the apron. Marufuji catches him and goes for another dragon screw. But Kobashi hits first with chops and then pulls Marufuji onto the top rope. And then Kobashi chops him so hard that he falls off the top rope and to the floor.

Kobashi tries to cave Marufuji’s chest in with chops but Marufuji still kicks out at two. Marufuji kicks desperately at Kobashi’s knees but Kobashi refuses to go down. He tries again with an onslaught of kicks but Kobashi catches his leg and chops him down for another two-count off those chops and following a delayed back suplex. Kobashi launches Marufuji onto the elevated entrance ramp and DDTs Marufuji onto it but only gets two once more.

Kobashi applies a deep abdominal stretch but Marufuji survives and tries to go chop for chop with Kobashi and fails. Kobashi continues his onslaught with corner machine gun chops and then lands a pair of kneelifts. He goes for his Burning Sword (hangman’s chop to the chest) but Marufuji catches his hand and resists with all his might. Marufuji lands a sudden lariat but Kobashi’s completely unfazed. He tries another one. Kobashi doesn’t budge. That leaves Marufuji with only one choice. Superkick to the nose. Kobashi breaks. That allows Marufuji to land a big running lariat. Both men go down.

Marufuji dropkicks Kobashi out of the ring and lands a suicide dive. It’s hard to tell how badly Marufuji hits Kobashi on that, but Kobashi sells like his face has been broken (again). Kobashi crawls into the ring but Marufuji’s waiting for him with a missile dropkick to the face. Arm-trap bridging German suplex. Kobashi kicks out. Kobashi fights out of a Shiranui but gets superkicked for his defiance. Shiranui connects. One, two, no, Kobashi kicks out. Marufuji lands a corner splash and charges…but gets chopped and eats a Half Nelson suplex. Kobashi’s in control as he lands a massive discus chop and a turnbuckle powerbomb. He goes for another Half Nelson. Marufuji counters with a Shiranui attempt and lands behind Kobashi. Low-angle Tiger suplex. Kobashi kicks out. Marufuji lands a pair of stiff superkicks and both men collapse. Kobashi rolls to the floor and Marufuji ends up on the apron. Suddenly, Marufuji springboards and lands a dropkick from the top rope to the floor. Good God, this man is insane.

Marufuji pushes a seemingly-unconscious Kobashi into the ring for a pin but Kobashi kicks out at 2.8. he lands a Shiranui but doesn’t pin right away. Instead, he sends Kobashi into another corner and sets up a Super Shiranui. Marufuji signals the end but Kobashi fires back. He chops the hell out of Marufuji’s neck and lands an avalanche Half Nelson suplex. Kobashi crawls over to pin but Marufuji kicks out. Kobashi signals the end and goes for the Burning Lariat. Marufuji ducks and lands a superkick. Kobashi tanks it and goes for a dragon suplex. Marufuji lands on his feet and lands a superkick. He tries to follow with a Perfect Inside Cradle. Kobashi counters with a lariat. One, two, thr—no, Marufuji kicks out. Sheerdrop Brainbuster by Kobashi! One, two, three! There’s the match!

Winner after 26:30: Kenta Kobashi

Review

That was a great main-event-level match with the wrong finish. Everything was going incredibly well until the closing moments. Marufuji fought valiantly against Kobashi and looked like he was making a solid and well-deserved comeback. But all that came crashing down in a sudden twist ending that saw Kobashi come out on top. And while the wrestling and drama were undeniably great – this was Kobashi and Marufuji after all – the ending just didn’t make any real sense.

The story here was that Marufuji was in an underdog fight against the legendary Kobashi. Marufuji was quite a bit shorter and lighter than and nowhere near as strong as Kobashi. Because of that, his only avenue to success would be to hit as many high-impact bombs as possible. To achieve that goal, Marufuji uses his speed advantage, which worked well against Kobashi’s sluggishness. Marufuji found opening after opening and targeted Kobashi’s weak points – such as his knees – whenever possible. He wrestled smartly, but needed to go one step further to convince NOAH’s fans that he was more than just a clever grappler.

He had already proven he could beat heavyweights with his clever cradles and flashy pins. But this was not the right place for that sort of win. Winning with a flashy counter pin would come across as a fluke and wouldn’t elevate Marufuji to the heavyweight division properly. Only a decisive pin could do that. But as hard as Marufuji tried – and boy did he ever, given his disadvantages in facing Kobashi – he just couldn’t get it done. And I think that’s where this match failed.

Kobashi’s sole purpose around this period was to elevate the next generation of stars. And for most of the match he did exactly as he was meant to. He no-sold Marufuji to bring out the best in him and then sold like a boss for his offense. Kobashi looked to be in genuine pain several times during the second half of the match. He made Marufuji look like a threat. But then as the match reached his conclusion, he made it seem like overcoming Marufuji was easy to do. Sure, it took more than one finisher to fell Marufuji, but it still never looked like Kobashi was in any real danger. He did a much better job of making NJPW’s Yuji Nagata look like a threat and Nagata was an outsider.

At this point in his career, Kobashi was no longer world champion and didn’t need big wins anymore, whereas Marufuji did. That’s what made the ending so weird. Even though it was cool, it didn’t make sense. Kobashi gained nothing in victory while Marufuji lost. The heavyweight Kobashi winning over the rising star Marufuji preserved the status quo instead of challenging it. Marufuji needed a big win, especially since he was being groomed as NOAH’s breakout star. And since he was Misawa’s protégé, he had huge boots to fill and was doing a passable job of that with his fast-paced and wild wrestling style. But all the flashy moves mean nothing if they don’t lead to meaningful victories. Had Marufuji won here, it would’ve been HUGE for him.

Final Rating: ****1/4

This match gave me John Cena vs. Daniel Bryan vibes but with the opposite result. Even though it featured great wrestling given Marufuji’s size disadvantage and Kobashi slowing down due to wear-and-tear on his body, the match’s story went in one direction and the ending went in another. The logical conclusion to the match should’ve seen Marufuji win against a heavyweight legend that had no purpose beating rising stars.

I get that there’s an argument about ‘welcoming him to the heavyweight division’ and setting him up as an underdog. But that’s not what NOAH needed in 2006. They needed credible guys that could put on believable matches against any challenger. Kobashi’s 2-year world title reign was a great example of that because he took on different challengers and put on spectacular, tense, and unpredictable matches. NOAH needed Marufuji to do be put into the same role, but more work needed to be done to make him even half as convincing as Kobashi was in that position. And by booking this match with Kobashi going over, they shot themselves in the foot.

In a way, this match set Marufuji up to fail from the beginning. Marufuji won the GHC Heavyweight title about five months after this match. And while that was a big win, it didn’t help NOAH as much as they had hoped. Marufuji’s credibility wasn’t at the level expected of a world champion so people didn’t really believe that he could take on heavyweight opponents successfully. That’s why his only successful title defense in 2006 was in his godly war against fellow junior heavyweight KENTA, and why poor Misawa was forced to beat his protégé and wrestle as champion well beyond what his body could support.

All in all, this match makes for a great heavyweight-vs-cruiserweight match, but the end result – though logical from a common sense perspective – had serious long-term repercussions. So if you want to see Kobashi’s last great singles match before he got sidelined with kidney cancer, this is the match to watch.

Thanks for reading.

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