This is one of, if not, the greatest ‘David vs. Goliath’ wrestling stories ever told.
Kenta Kobashi’s two-year world title reign is what every world champion should strive for. He took on all comers, looked like an unstoppable monster with each victory, and showed versatility and adaptability in each match. He faced a wide variety of threats: Olympic-level grapplers, outside invaders from other companies, stronger brawlers, crafty cheaters, and more.
But none of them up to this point in his reign were as dangerous and as serious a threat as this man: Yoshihiro Takayama.
Takayama was the biggest threat Kobashi had to face up to that point, both literally and metaphorically. He stood 6’5, which is huge by Japanese standards. Going into this match, he was one of the most decorated wrestlers in Japan: a former IWGP Heavyweight Champion, NWF Heavyweight Champion, AJPW All Asia Tag Team Champion and AJPW World Tag Team Champion, and a WAR World Six-man Tag Team Champion. He was also a former GHC Heavyweight Champion (having lost the belt to Mitsuharu Misawa, whom Kobashi defeated to begin this historic run), and was also reigning IWGP Tag Team Champion alongside Minoru Suzuki, who accompanied him to the ring in this match.
Yet while those accomplishments are impressive, they weren’t what made Takayama world-famous; this was:
At Pride 21, Takayama fought Don Frye in one of the most famous and vicious fights in MMA history. Despite the huge gap in experience and skill, Frye and Takayama pummeled each other for six minutes straight in what has been called ‘the fiercest brawl in the history of the sport of MMA’. Despite losing, Takayama emerged from that brawl looking like a true monster. He became famous for being seemingly indestructible and taking a ridiculous and inhuman amount of punishment. He also had a wide array of stiff strikes in his arsenal, which were far more credible given his foray into MMA.
So not only did Kobashi have to deal with a guy who could legit knock him out, but that guy was also much bigger than Kobashi and could out-power him easily (which wasn’t something he was used to). Given all of these attributes, Kobashi clearly had a mountain of a challenge ahead of him.
When this match originally came out, it was rated 4.5 stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Today we find out if that rating was deserved, or if it should be something different.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
They do introductions and the Budokan Hall crowd is firmly in Kobashi’s corner. Takayama does some fake outs to get the crowd excited. As they try to lock up, Takayama lands one hard kick to Kobashi’s leg which Kobashi no-sells by slapping his own legs. They try a lock-up again but Takayama pushes Kobashi away and ‘dusts himself off’. A third lock-up ends in a lengthy stalemate. Takayama ducks one rolling back chop in the corner but eats two more to the side of the head. Kobashi attempts the Half-Nelson suplex but Takayama powers out and tries a Half-Nelson of his own, only for Kobashi to escape that as well. Then, Kobashi attempts the running shoulder tackle but Takayama takes advantage of his long legs to boot Kobashi right in the face, sending him down to the mat.
Snapmare by Takayama followed by a huge running kick to Kobashi’s torso. But instead of staying grounded, Kobashi gets up and he looked PISSED. They have this angry stare-down and Kobashi tosses Takayama aside. He gets back up instantly and Kobashi chops him in the chest. They begin a nice back-and-forth where Kobashi chops and Takayama hits hard forearms to Kobashi’s chest as the crowd cheers along. Kobashi wins that exchange and chops Takayama some more. He hits a snapmare of his own and locks in an inverted double-arm lock. Takayama gets to his feet but Kobashi keeps the arm lock hooked in. A test of strength ensues as Kobashi tries to maintain control. Takayama nearly reverses it but Kobashi manages to roll through and maintain pressure on his larger opponent as the crowd applauds. This hold goes on for quite a while until Takayama stomps on Kobashi’s foot and reverses the hold.
Takayama adds more pressure to the hold by pressing one of his feet into the small of Kobashi’s back. There’s some great psychology there as Takayama is targeting both Kobashi’s arms and back early on in the match. In doing so, Kobashi’s lariat arm will be weakened and he’ll have a harder time doing any lifting moves (which make up the core of Kobashi’s arsenal) with a weakened back. Takayama goes for a back suplex, but Kobashi reverses it into a headlock takeover into a grounded headlock to bring them both to the mat. Takayama tries to roll Kobashi up but he only gets a one-count. The headlock continues for a while and they both get to their feet. Takayama tries to escape the headlock but Kobashi keeps is cinched in as we reach the five-minute mark.
Takayama reaches the ropes and the hold is broken, so Kobashi hits a snapmare followed by a figure-4 neck lock to weaken his opponent’s neck for his later signature moves. As Takayama breaks the hold, we see the next title challenger Jun Akiyama (whose match with Kobashi I reviewed here) looking on. Kobashi tenderizes Takayama’s chest with brutal chops and tosses him out of the ring. The chops continue ringside, but Takayama answers with a hard punch to the face. It appears Kobashi didn’t like that, because he answers by tossing Takayama into the guardrail and removing the protective mats around the ring. Kobashi DDTs Takayama directly onto the hard ringside floor and tosses him back into the ring, but only gets a one-count on his pin attempt. He continues to chop Takayama’s chest into oblivion and attempts a vertical suplex on his much larger foe. Amazingly and despite having the worst knees in wrestling, Kobashi does get Takayama vertical, which the crowd enjoys. But he can’t land the move fully, because Takayama reverses the move into a guillotine choke in the centre of the ring. The hold goes on for a long time until Kobashi reaches the rope with his foot.
The referee gives Kobashi some time to get up, and as soon as he gets up, Takayama drills him with a MASSIVE kick to the chest that Daniel Bryan only wishes he could do. He hits a huge leg drop on Kobashi to follow-up but that only gets two. Takayama whips Kobashi into the opposite corner and hits a CM Punk-like running knee lift, followed by a heaving double-arm suplex that gets another two-count. He then locks in a chinlock on Kobashi and drills him with hard elbows each time he tries to escape. After another chinlock, Takayama kicks Kobashi in the back hard and then hits multiple hard kicks and knees to Kobashi once he gets up at the ten-minute mark.
Takayama continues his onslaught with a barrage of hard kicks to keep Kobashi from getting any respite. As Takayama attempts another corner charge, Kobashi puts his foot out to kick him. But Takayama sees the obvious block and takes Kobashi down leg first and kicks him on the back of his surgically-repaired knee as hard as possible four times. Takayama puts Kobashi in the tree of woe and hits a big running knee smash to Kobashi’s chest as the champion crumples to the mat. Kobashi rolls out of the ring as the referee begins the ring count. He gets back in, and they start another chop-forearm exchange. But as soon as Kobashi starts getting the slightest bit of momentum, Takayama strikes the arm with his arm and his massive knee, which sends Kobashi back out of the ring once again.
Takayama’s in full control and has virtually negated Kobashi’s lariat arm completely. Kobashi does an excellent sell job, checking his grip to see if he has feeling in his arm at all. The referee even checks on him to see if he can continue, and Takayama, like a shark smelling blood, attack a supine Kobashi as the crowd starts to boo. Well, you don’t see that from a NOAH crowd very often, so clearly Takayama knows what he’s doing. Takayama hits another hard kick to Kobashi’s arm, followed by a running dropkick that literally drops Kobashi out of the ring. At ringside, Takayama whips Kobashi into the steel ring barricade, but somehow Kobashi musters enough strength out of desperation to hit a lariat that sends Takayama down. The camera focuses on Takayama, and you can see a portion of his upper torso that is a noticeable shade of purple in color. THAT is how powerful Kobashi’s chops are.
Both men are down ringside at the fifteen-minute-mark. That lariat must’ve taken a lot out of Kobashi because he’s writhing in pain ringside, clutching his right arm. Kobashi tries to roll into the ring, but Takayama catches him as he’s on the apron and hits a German Suplex from the apron to the ring floor. Wow, that was a sick move. Both guys are down as the referee counts, and Takayama makes it back into the ring at 18 and Kobashi at 19. Kobashi tries to get his comeback started, but even hitting one chop hurts him a lot, so he tries left-handed chops. Those don’t work, because Takayama absorbs them like they’re nothing. Takayama does the snapmare and tries the running kick like before, but this time Kobashi catches his leg, gets up and hits two rolling back chops. Unfortunately, he can’t capitalize beyond that because his arms are too hurt. Great selling! The crowd gets louder as Kobashi resorts to head-butts, because he has no arms to use against his opponent. A desperation Giant Baba running neckbreaker gets only a two-count.
Kobashi attempts the Half-Nelson again, but like before, Takayama powers out and hits his double-arm suplex. He tries to lock in a cross armbreaker, but Kobashi holds on for dear life. Kobashi tries to roll through into some kind of pinning position, but Takayama seems to have a better ground game and maintains the armbreaker pressure as much as he can. Kobashi cannot hold on any longer and Takayama fully locks in the cross armbreaker as Kobashi moves around desperately to find any ropes to reach with his feet. In a last-ditch effort, he rolls onto his stomach and reaches a far rope, forcing Takayama to break the hold. They both get up and Takayama hits three standing armbreakers, but Kobashi musters his inner Burning Spirit to turn that into a standing sleeper hold. That hold goes on for quite a bit until they both reach one corner. Kobashi goes to the top turnbuckle and tries a diving shoulder tackle, but Takayama answers with a huge knee to Kobashi’s face at the twenty-minute mark.
Takayama decides to add insult to injury by hitting Kobashi with a Half-Nelson suplex of his own, followed by a running knee to the back of Kobashi’s head. Kobashi can barely stand when Takayama lifts him up and hits the Everest German Suplex, which is his finisher. It’s always cool to see big dudes hit bridging moves.
The referee counts one…two…thr—no, Kobashi kicks out at 2.999. The ref’s hand was literally one inch away from counting three. That was a really close call. The crowd explodes with cheers and applauds as their hero survives just a little bit longer and starts chanting Kobashi’s name in unison. Takayama tries for the Everest German again, this time by locking the arms, but Kobashi seems to have some fight still left in him, so Takayama dropkicks him and hits a hard running knee to Kobashi in the corner. As Kobashi gets up slowly, Takayama tries for the Punk corner knees again, but Kobashi throws him off somehow. Kobashi dodges a corner big boot and hits his rolling back chop to the side of Takayama’s neck and then SOMEHOW hits his Half-Nelson suplex. Where is Kobashi getting this energy from?
This time, the referee keeps Kobashi away as he checks on Takayama to see if he hadn’t been knocked out. Kobashi tries to suplex Takayama but can’t because of his back, so he hits a few knees to Takayama’s gut followed by a Michinoku Driver for a two-count. Kobashi signals that he has some strength left and the crowd roars. He goes for the Burning Lariat, but Takayama blocks it and hits a Dragon suplex out of nowhere. Wow, that was insane. Takayama pins Kobashi, but he only gets a 2.8-count. Kobashi gets to his hands and knees, but Takayama hits a running knee to the face to send him back down. As the referee starts his count, Takayama takes off his knee pads and prepares another strike, while the camera focuses on a downed Kobashi, who has blood on his lips. It appears one of those strikes must’ve hit him harder than anticipated. Kobashi gets up at the count of nine and answers Takayama’s running knee with a HUGE lariat out of nowhere. Damn, what an impact.
We’re at the twenty-five-minute mark as they both get up at the count of nine. Kobashi hits another lariat that sends Takayama down and then slaps Takayama in the face as he’s getting up, which pisses Takayama off a lot. As soon as he’s standing, Takayama unleashes a flurry of kicks, punches, forearms and other strikes all over Kobashi’s body. It looks like he lands several hard punches to Kobashi’s face that send the champion down. Takayama looks to be very angry as he continues to kick Kobashi in his bad legs while he’s down. He even tosses the referee aside after the ref tells him to stop attacking (which doesn’t cause a DQ in NOAH). Takayama hits a running Yakuza kick to Kobashi in the corner, and Kobashi responds with another massive Half-Nelson suplex. Then, astonishingly, Kobashi musters what little strength he has left and somehow manages to hoist Takayama up and hits a sheerdrop Brainbuster out of nowhere. Holy crap! That was insane. The guy has awful knees and had his back destroyed yet he still has the power to do something like that. Kobashi goes for the cover, but Takayama kicks out at 2.9. What a close call!
Kobashi gets up and tries to hoist Takayama up for the Burning Hammer, but Takayama elbows his way out of that. He hits Kobashi with a few more hard strikes, but Kobashi answers with another huge lariat, but that only gets a 2.5-count. At this point, Takayama’s strategy has succeeded. He spent so much time attacking that arm, and now Kobashi can’t use it to beat him. So now Kobashi finds himself in serious trouble. He can’t lift Takayama, and his go-to lariat has proven ineffective. But despite those problems, Kobashi still gets up. With a murderous look on his face and blood on his lips, Kobashi signals to the crowd. Something big is coming. A few people knew what Kobashi means to do, but no one – absolutely NO ONE – thought he’d actually go through with it. Especially after over a dozen knee surgeries that sidelined him for almost two years. But then Kobashi scoop slams Takayama. And then the crowd goes absolutely INSANE. It’s as if this were Steve Austin returning at Backlash 2000. Because they know what Kobashi’s about to do. Kobashi climbs the turnbuckle, and in a last-ditch surge of desperation, Kobashi hits the DIVING MOONSAULT PRESS, a move he hadn’t used in four years, right onto Takayama’s face.
The referee counts one…two…THREE! That’s it! The crowd explodes yet again and one guy in a red shirt literally jumps out of his seat with joy.
Winner and still GHC Heavyweight Champion after 28:47: Kenta Kobashi
Holy shit, what a match. Even if you don’t understand Japanese, at the very least, I beg you, watch the last two minutes of this match. You won’t be disappointed. That was one of the most exciting and suspenseful ‘big man vs. smaller guy’ matches I’ve ever seen. This match featured the perfect pacing, a solid amount of back-and-forth momentum shifts, and some outstanding psychology. Both Kobashi and Takayama did some ‘smart’ wrestling here, targeting body parts and exploiting known weaknesses. They both came across as both tough and intelligent wrestlers, which isn’t seen that often in today’s wrestling world.
Takayama wasn’t just a generic big man that did generic big man things. He came in with a strategy and it worked. He attacked Kobashi’s arm from the beginning and spent the match rendering his opponent’s key offensive moves useless. He also proved how tough he was by absorbing a ridiculous amount of punishment, including a DDT on the exposed floor and a brainbuster, both of which must’ve been scary for someone his size. He also absorbed a ton of sickening knife-edge chops which, as I’ve been told by many professional wrestlers, is one of if not the most painful thing you can take in wrestling.
As for Kobashi, he was out of his comfort zone in this contest. He had to fight from beneath, which wasn’t normal for him during this title reign of his. He faced off against an opponent that was bigger, stronger, and, depending on whom you ask, tougher. Kobashi was at a serious disadvantage because most of his big matches up to this point allowed him to play the power game with great success. Not so here. Kobashi was the underdog, and had to find a way to put away a monster of a man that was famous for being a damage sponge of legendary proportions.
That dynamic was on full display here. Takayama attacked Kobashi’s arms, neck and back to make it harder for Kobashi to use his power. He also attacked Kobashi’s legs to make it harder for Kobashi to do much of anything. Kobashi struggled to land his big moves, and despite hitting a lot of chops and hard strikes, Takayama still absorbed almost everything Kobashi dished out, which made Kobashi desperate yet still determined. And people believed in Kobashi, they loved his never-ending Burning Spirit and will to win. That’s why the crowd was so firmly behind him; while they appreciated Takayama’s effort, they all wanted to see their champion emerge victorious.
It was that determination that made the final minute so awesome. Kobashi wears special knee braces for a very good reason. His knees have been in bad shape for years, yet despite the pain he still soldiered on. Between the end of 2000 and mid-2002, he had over a dozen knee surgeries to help him get back into ring shape. He was supposed to return to full-time in-ring action in 2002, but his knees gave out in that match, which in turn delayed his world title run. Upon his full-time return in 2003, his entire strategy and match psychology had to be changed, which basically meant no more diving moves for him.
Yet in this match he had no other choice. Takayama was too tough for him to chop down to size, too big for him to lift onto his back, and too clever to let Kobashi’s arm stay healthy enough to be useful. So Kobashi had to dust off a signature move that had brought him success in the past, the diving moonsault press. It was extremely risky for Kobashi to do this, but it also showed how determined he was. The fans knew this, which is why they collectively lost their shit when Kobashi ascended the top rope. It was a beautiful moment. Kobashi soared through the air like he had in years past. For one brief moment, time stood still and Kobashi was back in his pre-surgery form.
Final Rating: *****
I’m going with a full five-star rating here. This was an awesome, perfectly-structured wrestling match in front of a raucous Budokan Hall crowd. They cheered wildly, they chanted for their hero, they even booed when Takayama started fighting dirty, and they became completely unglued in the match’s closing moments. Because they knew they had just witnessed a classic. Kobashi showed his classic babyface fire and fought against seemingly insurmountable odds to overcome an enormous challenge and still win.
In essence, this is the perfect way for any wrestling company to book a smaller babyface against an evil giant. Have the giant absorb and ignore the underdog’s offense, while also using some logic to weaken that hero’s attacks. Then, the babyface has to resort to something desperate which is enough to not only win the patch, but to demonstrate that ‘this guy is such a huge threat that my normal moves won’t work, so I have to bring out the big guns’ sort of storytelling.
Even if you’ve never heard of either wrestler and don’t understand what’s being said, they tell a great story in the ring, and that’s what matters. I recommend this to anyone and everyone to watch.