Every once in a while a match comes along that ends up being way better than expected. There ends up being a certain something about it that makes it surpass all expectations of it. And that’s exactly what we have here.
This match is a prime example of a dominant champion facing an ultimate underdog. But what makes this match special is that the underdog enters the match as an underdog and doesn’t leave like one. Once the match ends, the underdog undergoes a transformation and ends up a much bigger star. How is that possible? Read on to find out.
Today we revisit the world title match between champion Kenta Kobashi and challenger Tamon Honda from a NOAH show in April 2003.
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.
One month earlier, Kobashi finally beat Mitsuharu Misawa in one of the godliest matches of all time (and also my personal favorite match ever). In doing so, he became NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Champion and the company’s unquestioned ace. He was going to carry the company going forward and was determined to have a historic reign as champion.
But who would be his first challenger? It wasn’t going to be Misawa; he promised he would never challenge Kobashi for the title and, outside of some tag matches and comedy specials, also vowed to never face Kobashi in singles competition ever again.
It wasn’t going to be Jun Akiyama, Kobashi’s other big NOAH rival, either. They were saving him for a bigger show and needed him to rebuild his own credibility after a shocking four-minute loss to Yoshinari Ogawa, NOAH’s version of Toru Yano.
Nor was it going to be an outsider. Even though NOAH had a working relationship with New Japan and had a solid roster of freelancers coming in and out of the company, they weren’t going to have Kobashi defend his newly-won crown against someone with uncertain company loyalty.
So NOAH’s power-brokers scoured their roster and settled on Tamon Honda.
Tamon Honda was a nondescript, lifelong midcarder that spent most of his career up to that point on the lower card of All Japan and NOAH shows. But despite his lower-card status, there was something exceptional about him: Honda was a legitimate Olympic-level amateur wrestler. Granted, he was no Kurt Angle, but he was as close to him as one could get. Honda had competed in both the 1984 and 1992 Summer Olympics, but didn’t win any medals. But he did score pretty highly in other national and international wrestling competitions before moving on to pro-wrestling.
Okay, so maybe Kurt Angle is not the best comparison for Honda. Instead, think of him as a heavier version of Chad Gable. Who, in this match, is challenging KENTA F***ING KOBASHI.
There couldn’t possibly be a bigger mismatch for the world title. EVERYONE knew that Honda had zero chance of winning here, including Honda himself. He was up against Kobashi, a wrestler of mythic, godlike proportions. Kobashi might as well have wrestled blindfolded and with one arm-tied behind his back and he’d still win the match. But people still came in droves to see this match because, after all, it featured Kobashi. I cannot stress enough how much of a draw this guy was at this point. Even with a horrifically broken down body and a drastically-reduced move-set, he was still an amazing in-ring wrestler. People loved him for his work in All Japan from the 1990s and still went out of their way to spend money to see him.
So going into this match – which was Kobashi’s first defense as GHC Heavyweight Champion, it wasn’t a case of ‘could Honda win’ but ‘how long will it take for Kobashi to lariat this man into oblivion?’
This match originally took place on April 13th, 2003 and was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Kobashi gets a clean break on the ropes and then dodges an amateur takedown. Kobashi lands some chops but Honda tanks them and double-legs Kobashi down. Kobashi escapes a grounded hold and a standoff ensues. They trade waistlocks and Kobashi traps Honda’s arm, but Honda counters with an Exploder-type suplex and then lands a Backdrop. He goes for another Backdrop but decides to drop Kobashi forward on his face and goes after Kobashi’s leg. Honda gets a bunch of quick two-counts as Kobashi counters into a grounded front chancery. Kobashi gets to his feet and keeps the headlock cinched in, but Honda counters with an overhead suplex for a one-count. Kobashi tries to maintain control but Honda wrestles into a leglock and Kobashi applies his own as well. Honda regains control and applies a different, modified leglock until Kobashi reaches the ropes.
Honda lands a leg takedown but Kobashi counters into a modified octopus stetch/armbar. Honda gets a ropebreak so Kobashi answers with stiff chops and a delayed vertical suplex for a two-count. He follows with a chinlock that goes on for a long time. Kobashi’s right arm, which is taped up, is starting to give him problems as he lands more chops. Honda counters an Irish whip and goes for a hiptoss but Kobashi counters into an abdominal stretch. Honda counters that into a standing triangle hold, but Kobashi quickly takes him down and applies his own deep headlock. Honda tries to escape with an Irish whip but Kobashi has the headlock on too tight. I’m surprised Honda’s head hasn’t exploded given how massive Kobashi’s arms are. Honda sinks to the mat from the pressure and Kobashi pins, but he only gets two.
Honda continues kicking out of two-counts and keeps trying to escape the headlock but Kobashi’s just too strong for him. He eventually escapes with a Backdrop suplex and charges, but Kobashi counters with a Russian leg sweep and applies a grounded full nelson hold. This is smart of Kobashi; everything he does targets the head and neck to make finishing Honda off much easier. Kobashi applies a bodyscissor to keeps Honda immobile, but Honda frees a leg and gets another ropebreak.
Kobashi places Honda between the ropes and drops a leg across his neck and then lands a DDT on the elevated ramp connected to the ring. Honda crawls back and Kobashi attempts a suplex into the ring, but Honda resists so Kobashi lands some chops. Suddenly, Honda ducks a big rolling chop and applies a sleeper. Then he drags Kobashi over and onto the top rope. Honda lands a German suplex from the top rope to the entrance ramp. Critical move for Honda. Honda drags Kobashi into the ring and pins but only gets two.
Honda’s in control now as he applies a wristlock on Kobashi’s taped up arm and lands an amateur arm toss. Kobashi fight with all he can, so Honda counters into an MMA-style cross armbreaker. Kobashi pushes himself with all his might to the ropes for a ropebreak. It takes him forever because Honda’s such a heavy dude and he has the hold locked in right. Now Honda’s showing wrestling smarts by attacking Kobashi’s offensive weapon to weaken it for later.
Kobashi rolls to the floor to safety but Honda’s in pursuit. He smashes Kobashi’s arm into the steel ringpost and lands a falling armbreaker to the floor. Back in the ring, Honda lands some standing, over-the-shoulder armbreakers to further destroy that arm. But Kobashi still has one free arm and uses that one to chop Honda’s neck. Kobashi goes for a half-nelson suplex. Honda counters into a fireman’s carry and into another armlock. Honda lands more standing armbreakers. Kobashi counters with a sleeperhold and then tries for a sleeper suplex. But Honda has him scouted and counters with an RKO and goes back to the armlock. He lands some forearms in the corner to Kobashi’s arm as Kobashi fires back with left hand chops. Honda goes for an Irish whip but Kobashi counters with a rolling chop using the bad hand. Honda tanks it and tries a lariat. Kobashi absorbs it like it’s nothing and lands another rolling chop followed by a Backdrop of his own. Both men go down.
Honda absorbs more chops so Kobashi kicks him in the stomach and lands a running leg drop. But Honda stays on his feet. Kobashi answers with a jumping DDT. Honda bounces up again, defiant. Kobashi reapplies the front chancery. Honda suplexes him over his head to escape. Both men charge. Kobashi hits first with a chop and a half-nelson suplex. Followed by another one. Kobashi pins but Honda kicks out. He goes for a suplex but Honda counters into a standing armbar. Kobashi fights out, but Honda ducks another rolling chop and applies another standing triangle hold. Kobashi elbows Honda’s head and neck but Honda refuses to let go. Kobashi briefly reaches the ropes. Honda rolls back and reapplies the hold. Kobashi slowly crawls to the ropes to break the hold. The crowd is going absolutely nuts.
Honda lands a German suplex and a wrist-clutch gutwrench powerbomb for a two-count. He places Kobashi on the top rope and despite Kobashi’s elbows, lands a top-rope German suplex. Crazy move. The crowd comes alive as Honda crawls over for a pin. One, two, Kobashi kicks out. STF. Kobashi reaches out with one arm. Honda traps that arm and tightens his submission hold. Then he rolls into an Anaconda vise. Kobashi starts fading. He looks like he’s out cold so Honda pins. One, two, thr—no, Kobashi kicks out, but just barely.
Honda lands a corner lariat and places Kobashi on the top rope again. This time he goes for a powerbomb but Kobashi escapes with a Frankensteiner. Kobashi misses one running lariat but connects with the second. Kobashi drills Honda with a lariat with his healthy left arm. One, two, no, Honda kicks out.
Honda lands elbows, Kobashi charges to the ropes, and Honda takes him down with a spear. He follows with a German suplex, but Kobashi bounces back up and lands another running lariat with the bad arm. Kobashi signals the end. Even with a badly-injured arm, Kobashi’s willing to do whatever it takes to win. He grabs Honda’s hair and cocks his arm. Burning la—no, Honda with an amazing counter into a cradle. He pins. One, two, Kobashi barely kicks out again. Sleeper suplex by Kobashi. Honda kicks out. Burning Lariat connects. Kobashi just decimates Honda. One, two, three! There’s the match!
Winner and STILL GHC Heavyweight Champion after 26:55: Kenta Kobashi
I don’t have a link to the match itself; all I have is a link to a nine-hour compilation of Kobashi’s two-year GHC title reign, which is below. You can skip to the 49-minute mark for the start of this match.
At no point did I ever think this match was up there in the same atmosphere as other genuine historic epic matches. And yet, this match was much better than it had any right to be. On paper, a title match between a legendary world champion (Kobashi) and a lifelong midcarder (Honda) seems ludicrous. But these two wrestlers made it work for a bunch of reasons.
But first, a bit of history for context. As I mentioned earlier, Jun Akiyama was world champion long before Kobashi returned from his injuries. But Akiyama lost the title to Yoshinari Ogawa when Ogawa beat him in less than five minutes with a surprise cradle. So what does that have to with this match? Well, it helped make Honda’s pin attempts in this match more believable. Just look at Honda. He might’ve outweighed Kobashi by a few pounds but Kobashi was MUCH stronger and tougher. Honda knew that he couldn’t match Kobashi blow-for-blow and come out on top, nor could he trade bombs with him consistently. That left Honda with only two possible avenues to success: submissions or quick pins. Thanks to his background in amateur wrestling, Honda was believable with the former. And thanks to what Ogawa managed in a seemingly-unrelated match from over a year earlier, Honda was believable with the latter as well.
Honda was the ultimate underdog in this match and he knew it. That’s why he went with whatever underdog strategy he could find. He was an opportunist here and he took advantage of Kobashi’s weakened arm whenever he could. He tried to get under Kobashi’s skin by trying to absorb and no-sell Kobashi’s punishing offense. And once Kobashi got going with his charges and lariats, Honda started using Kobashi’s own momentum against him to counter into clever pins and roll-ups. Kobashi kicked out of those one by one, but Honda managed to hold his own against Kobashi much longer than anyone expected and even seemed to have control of the match for a few fleeting moments.
Thanks to Honda’s cleverness and tenacity in the face of Kobashi’s unrelenting march forward, this match went from being one-sided and easily dismissible to a shockingly great match. It wasn’t historic by any stretch of the imagination, but it didn’t need to be. The goal here was for Kobashi to have a compelling first title defense, even if everyone and their mother could predict he wasn’t going to lose the belt. But Honda left this match WAY better than how he entered it. Honda endured Kobashi’s punishing offense and forced the champion to hit him with more or less full power. Sure, Honda lost, but he gained a lot more in defeat. Kobashi was so impressed with Honda’s effort here that he demanded that Honda become his regular tag team partner going forward. With that, Honda went from being a bland, forgettable midcarder to rubbing shoulders with the ace of the company. He became a big deal in NOAH thanks to one match. It was easily the best singles match of Honda’s career, and it added more years to his wrestling career.
The reason I’m sharing this match with you, dear readers, is because this match is basically a template on how to build someone up as a bigger star. Honda lasted longer than anyone expected in this match and Kobashi sold for him like he was a genuine threat. It wasn’t a squash or a night off; Honda stood his ground and came close to winning on at least one occasion. And once it was over, Honda earned the champion’s respect.
This is something that’s rarely seen in North America and especially in WWE. When someone wins a world title, 99.99% of the time the former champion demands a rematch, often citing some BS like a ‘rematch clause in their contract’. But instead of that cheap and overplayed direction, it would be fun if a strong and dominant champion had their first defense against someone that clearly had no chance, only for said underdog to last surprisingly long and look great in defeat.
The closest WWE have come to this kind of direction in recent years was when Roman Reigns faced his cousin Jey Uso at Clash of Champions 2020. Uso had zero chance of becoming world champion and he was a major underdog. Their match was okay and Uso lasted pretty long, but it didn’t really elevate Uso as a wrestler because he was already doomed to forever be positioned as a tag team guy. Imagine if, for example, Reigns defended his title against Chad Gable, Dominik Mysterio, or someone else that was an established singles wrestler but had zero chance of winning. It would’ve been a fresh match-up and it would’ve done wonders to elevate said challenger for lasting so long in a big match against such a powerful and imposing champion.
Final Rating: ****1/2
I think this match holds up tremendously well to time and makes for a highly-entertaining wrestling match. It’s clear from the beginning that this is an enormous mismatch. But that’s also why it’s so compelling. Honda has no chance of winning yet he surprises everyone by how well he does against Kobashi. And this doesn’t hurt Kobashi in the slightest. He was facing an Olympian that had a stronger technical pedigree than him and he went into this match at less than 100%. As a result, this didn’t descend into a one-sided squash but instead became a competitive bout that left both wrestlers looking strong once it was over. That doesn’t happen very often, but it did here.
I think match is terrific for what it is and the story it tells. Not every match has to be a 5-star epic with intense reversals and ‘epic’ back-and-forth sequences that go on forever. Sometimes all you need is a good underdog story, and that’s exactly what this is.