All Japan Pro-Wrestling had its golden decade during the 1990s. That period saw AJPW put on some of the best wrestling matches of all time, many of which still stand the test of time. So if you’re someone that wants to do a deep dive into this period when pro-wrestling was actually good, it’s important to know your starting and ending points. Accounts differ on when this golden decade actually started. Some say it was on June 5th, 1989 when the Triple Crown title was being fought over between Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu. Others argue that it was on June 8th, 1990, when Tsuruta suffered his first clean pinfall loss to Mitsuharu Misawa. And while we can argue forever on when this decade started, one thing that’s for certain is when it ended: on May 26th, 2000. With this match.
Today we look back at the first singles match (of two) between Kenta Kobashi and Yoshihiro Takayama.
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.
There are two stories at play here: an on-screen one and a behind-the-scenes one. The behind-the-scenes story helped create the setting for the on-screen one. Behind closed doors, AJPW was facing an uncertain future. After its owner and promoter Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba died in 1999, he made Misawa his successor as company president. But President Misawa had problems from the very beginning with Baba’s widow Motoko. The two were at loggerheads over everything. Misawa wanting to make critical changes while Motoko wanting to maintain the status quo. Things were hard on Misawa because even though he was the company president, most people either sided with Motoko or stayed out of their fights. Because who was going to publicly admonish a recently-widowed woman?
Fed up with Motoko going from a beloved surrogate mother to the mother-in-law from Hell, Misawa had secret meetings with AJPW power-brokers and decided he was going to take AJPW’s roster to form his own promotion. The deal was kept quiet until two days after this match, and NOAH didn’t exist as a publicly-known entity until mid-June 2000.
But while Motoko had much sway as company owner, Misawa was still the booker and had the respect of his fellow wrestlers. To keep fans interested in the guys he knew he could rely on in NOAH, he booked this match in the hopes that AJPW’s fans would follow them (and Misawa) to NOAH.
At the time, Kobashi was arguably the best pro-wrestler on the planet and was in the middle of his third reign as Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. He had also won the 2000 Champion Carnival tournament as world champion so he was seen to be riding a huge wave of momentum. But that wave stopped at Takayama.
Takayama was a very interesting wrestler. He stood at 6’5, which is HUGE by Japanese wrestling standards (seriously, he was given the Big Show treatment in AJPW). But he wasn’t just a big dude; Takayama cut his teeth in UWFi, a shootfighting promotion that laid the foundations for early MMA companies like PRIDE Fighting Championships. Now, this was pre-PRIDE Takayama, so he hadn’t yet bleached his hair or wiped his ass with the concept of blocking punches. Still, he was seen as a very legitimate (and therefore dangerous) wrestler. Even though he might’ve lacked technique or grace, he had a rugged brutality about him because he hit extremely hard and could lock in submission holds that were far more convincing than someone that lacked his shootfighting-inspired training. Think of him as a cross between Bradshaw and Dan Severn.
So here was Kobashi defending his coveted title against a man that seemed to do everything Kobashi did but better. Takayama was stronger, tougher, heavier and more legit as a combat athlete. But Kobashi had his burning spirit and experience on his side. He had endured so much brutal punishment over the course of a decade. And with fans watching hawk-eyed at everything All Japan did at the time, would this be the opportunity for them to pull off something truly unexpected that wouldn’t’ve happened under Baba?
This match originally took place on May 26th, 2000 and is for Kobashi’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Dave Meltzer never rated it so we’re going into this match without his rating affecting it in any way. Let’s go.
They do ring intros and AJPW has this spot where the ref check the wrestlers’ gear to make sure they don’t have anything hidden in their gear (i.e. foreign objects). The ref checks Takayama and goes to check Kobashi but Kobashi’s concerned that Takayama’s getting too close. Takayama backs off by a foot and the ref kneels down to check Kobashi’s boots. As soon as he goes down Takayama lands a massive high kick to Kobashi’s head. Classic d**k move. Takayama demands the ref ring the bell to start the match. The ref makes him wait in a corner as he checks on Kobashi, who hasn’t moved an inch. Kobashi sits up, the bell rings and Takayama rushes him with a running Penalty Kick. The referee counts one, two, no, Kobashi kicks out at 2.8. Takayama argues with the ref and starts stomping away on Kobashi. He continues kicking and stomping but Kobashi starts hulking up. Takayama lands one more big boot. Kobashi bounces right up and fires away with chops. Takayama gets tossed out of the ring. Kobashi chops him so hard he goes over the fan barricade. Takayama fires back with another boot. Kobashi answers with a lariat and then pulls off the ringside mats. The normally-righteous Kobashi is pissed off as he DDTs Takayama right onto the exposed floor. Crazy start to the match here.
Kobashi lands some guillotine leg drops onto the barricade to further attack Takayama’s neck and then lands a surprise vertical suplex for a two-count. That is much more impressive considering that, a) few people outweighed Kobashi in AJPW; and b) his knees were beyond thrashed at this point in his career. He lands some stiff chops to Takayama’s head and applies a deep chinlock but Takayama rolls to the ropes with ease. Kobashi follows with a kneelift/Russian legsweep/Octopus stretch combination but Takayama powers out. Kobashi answers with a double-arm stretch and Takayama almost reverses it on him but Kobashi out-powers him for the moment. Kobashi goes for a Backdrop but Takayama fights out and lands stiff punches and kicks. Kobashi answers with chops. Takayama responds by taking him down and landing mounted close-fisted punches followed by his own chinlock as the five-minute mark passes.
Kobashi reaches out for a ropebreak so Takayama counters into a seated armbar. Kobashi uses his foot to touch the ropes but Takayama takes forever to let go. That’s smart of Takayama to go after Kobashi’s main lariat arm. With that weakened, Kobashi won’t be able to hit as hard as he normally does. Takayama goes after Kobashi at ringside and launches him into and then over the barricade. He smashes Kobashi into any object he can find at ringside and pins in the ring for two. He chokes Kobashi against the ropes and then PKs him as he tries to get up. Kobashi starts hulking up All Japan-style as he no-sells Takayama’s stiff kicks and boots. Takayama lands one more boot. Kobashi unleashes hell with a flurry of stiff chops, damaged arm be damned. He looks like he’s trying to scalp Takayama he’s chopping him so hard. Three stiff rolling chops to the neck down Takayama. Takayama’s partner Takao Omori argues with the referee and then shoves Kobashi. There’s no DQs for stuff like that in AJPW, so the match proceeds and Kobashi hits a similar rolling chop to Omori. Kobashi turns around and takes a massive knee to the stomach from Takayama. That’s followed by another big knee to the face and one to the elbow. Takayama goes after Kobashi’s right arm with move after move, hold after hold. Kobashi reaches the ropes for safety but Takayama just pulls him away and goes back to the arm. Kobashi squirms in pain as Takayama applies a long and deep cross armbar and then smashes that arm into the steel ringpost.
Kobashi gets to his feet and starts hitting chops with his left arm. Takayama’s unfazed so he hits Kobashi’s weakened right arm some more. He goes for another cross armbar but Kobashi holds his hands together with all his might. Kobashi rolls him over and lands some left hand chops but they do nothing. Takayama tries the armbar once more but Kobashi resists even more, so he lands more stiff punches and goes back to the arm holds. Kobashi reaches the ropes and this time escapes the ring to recover.
Kobashi re-enters the ring but is met with more attacks to his right arm. Takayama wraps that arm into the ropes to stretch it some more and Kobashi fires back with chops. To which Takayama answers with stiff knees that look like they knock Kobashi out. But Kobashi keeps fighting and gets to his feet. Takayama charges but eats a kick. So he charges again but Kobashi lands a (left arm) Giant Baba running neckbreaker. Desperation move for Kobashi. Takayama responds with another kick to the arm and goes to the top rope. Kobashi cuts him off with left hand chops and a superplex. With no effective lariats, Kobashi resorts to kicks and jumping leg drops to attack Takayama’s neck like he did earlier. Kobashi lands a double-arm DDT but Takayama kicks out at two. Kobashi goes fort a German suplex. Takayama escapes by trapping his arm. Kobashi fights out with a left hand rolling back chop. Takayama lands another boot to stop Kobashi and knees his arm. Kobashi fights through the pain and lands a right arm short-range lariat. Kobashi hits hard but hurts himself some more in the process. The crowd erupts in cheers. Kobashi goes for another lariat. Takayama hits first with a running knee lift. He follows with his finisher. Everest German suplex! One, two, thr—no, Kobashi kicks out at 2.9!
Takayama signals the end and lands another running knee lift. He goes for another German suplex but Kobashi drives him face-first into the turnbuckle to escape. He lands some more big punches, but now Kobashi’s had enough and lands a big punch of his own. Suddenly the wrestling ends and this contest turns into a boxing match. Both men hit each other with close-fisted punches with Kobashi using only one hand. Kobashi just wails on him as Takayama exposes his head. Takayama goes down against the ropes. The referee checks on him to see if he can continue. Kobashi goes for a finisher but Takayama lands a desperation big boot and sloppy German. He’s so out of it now he’s more concerned about doing damage than landing his moves properly. Takayama goes for another German. Kobashi elbows out and lands a left-arm lariat. Then he cocks his arm. Running lariat with the right arm. One, two, three! There’s the match! Kobashi beats All Japan’s giant!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 21:20: Kenta Kobashi
Once again, All Japan hosted a tremendous wrestling match. It was much shorter than their typical main-event epics but it was exciting from bell to bell. And unlike many of those earlier longer epics, which were carried more by the intense action than any overt storytelling, this match was more even-handed between raw intense wrestling and character-driven narrative.
The story in this match was that Kobashi was at a disadvantage from the beginning. Despite being world champion, Takayama was the perfect foil for him here. Kobashi’s regular opponents were either the same size as him or lighter, so him using his power advantage was usually enough for him to win or at least maintain control. That wasn’t the case here. Takayama was mostly too heavy for him so Kobashi knew he had to rely on his stiff strikes, particularly his right hand chops and lariat. Takayama knew this, which is why he goaded Kobashi into a false sense of control early. He angered the usually-righteous Kobashi into thinking those early big moves would do more damage. But it wasn’t long before Takayama found the opening he needed to attack Kobashi’s arm and neutralize it almost entirely.
Every time Kobashi tried to make a comeback or maintain any sense of control, Takayama shut him down by attacking his arm. Not only was that smart wrestling because Takayama did a tremendous job of getting the crowd to rally behind Kobashi, but he also infused common sense logic into what he was doing. In doing so, there was basically nothing Kobashi could do to win. He couldn’t rely on his power moves and his strikes were rendered almost useless. Thus Kobashi found himself as the face-in-peril (FIP), which is where he has always shined. Few wrestlers, if any, are better suited at getting the crowd to sympathize with them than Kobashi. His facial expressions here were on point. He sold the pain and struggle in this match as if his life was on the line. His pain came across as realistic. His frustration looked genuine. He knew he couldn’t win this match on his own; he needed the fans’ support to give him strength. And like any consummate pro, he fed off their energy and it helped him recover bit by bit. Their cheering and support was enough to get him to hold on long enough to figure out how he could win this no-win situation. And so, he found a solution: he had to punch his way to victory.
Now, this was important because close-fisted punches are usually banned (or at least discouraged) in All Japan. That’s why you almost never see AJPW wrestlers punch each other like they do in WWE. It has been said that wrestling punches are the worst thing in wrestling because they’re so inherently fake. I agree with that statement and it looks like AJPW did too, which is why those punches are only used very rarely. And when they do show up, they come across as real or as close to real punches as you can get in a wrestling context. This match was a case of such punches being used perfectly. Kobashi couldn’t chop Takayama effectively and Takayama grew increasingly frustrated with Kobashi’s burning spirit overcoming his stiff elbows, kicks and knees. So both men chose to punch each other in a rugged slugfest sort of way. It wasn’t pretty or ‘clean’ by any means; it looked like a hardnosed brawl with two men trying to hit each other as hard as possible because neither man had any options left. For Kobashi, it made him look like a true fighting champion that did whatever it took to win. Especially since it was right up Takayama’s alley. Takayama trained in an environment in which stiff punches and realistic submission holds were the norm, so him going toe-to-toe with Kobashi like that was second nature for him.
But even Takayama’s legitimacy and almost-supernatural toughness wasn’t enough to stop Kobashi. Takayama tried everything including hitting him like a runaway freight train and suplexing him right onto his head, but Kobashi’s will to win was too strong. And in the end, Kobashi did win. But it wasn’t decisive. Kobashi barely eked out a victory by hitting a desperation lariat on a man whose head had absorbed like fifty punches minutes earlier. Kobashi retained his title, but it was one of those scenarios that left people wanting more. The fans still cheered for Kobashi in the end because he came across as the conquering hero. But Takayama didn’t look bad at all; in fact, this match helped elevate him to the position of a genuine main-eventer.
The only reason I can’t really call this match perfect is because it’s inferior to what happened later. These two men wrestled again almost four years later to the date with basically the same circumstances. And in that superior match from April 2004, Kobashi and Takayama improved on the formula they created in this match. Their later match had better drama, even more focus and logical psychology, a greater sense of urgency, and a more dramatic and structured finish. In this match, the finish came out of nowhere and while it was dramatic, it was a bit unsatisfying. Their 2004 match fixed that issue with one of the most emotional and exciting match finishes in Japanese wrestling history.
Final Rating: ****3/4
I don’t think this is a perfect match but it sure comes close. This match had tremendous action and an incredible story. And a big part of that was because Kobashi and Takayama had such great chemistry together. This was their first time wrestling one-on-one and it was so much fun to watch. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these two would go one to have many other great matches down the line, especially their 2004 masterpiece.
In a way, this match reminds me of John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar from Extreme Rules 2012, only without the extreme rules. In this match, Kobashi – like Cena – was up against a monstrous threat that had several advantages over him, with strength, toughness and combat legitimacy being the biggest ones. But even though Takayama (like Lesnar) looked to have the match won, Kobashi mustered his inner resolve to win in the end. I’ve heard rumors that deep down Cena is a big King’s Road fan and his wrestling style is as close to King’s Road that WWE will allow. So if John Cena is a fan of wrestling matches like this one, then clearly it’s something worth watching.