Get ready for one of the most brutal and stiff wrestling matches to ever take place. On one side you have the most notorious striker in Japanese wrestling who made up for his small stature with the collective kicking strength of an entire soccer team. On the other side you have perhaps the only man in all of independent wrestling daring enough to match that stiffness blow for blow. It was a veritable wrestling dream match when it first happened, and it was a terrific way to cap off the year 2005.
Today we look back at KENTA’s ROH debut against Low Ki from Final Battle 2005.
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.
Two months earlier, KENTA’s mentor Kenta Kobashi made his ROH debut in a monumental, fantastic match with Samoa Joe. Determined to have an equally-big impact on his debut, KENTA brought his GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship to ROH and sought a deserving challenger. Luckily for him, a volunteer was found in Low Ki.
Low Ki – who was also known as Senshi in TNA and Kaval in WWE – had as fearsome a reputation on the American independent scene as KENTA did in Japan. He had and still has a very traditionalist view of pro-wrestling and sees it as a pure combat sport. That approach has been reflected in how he wrestles: he hits people brutally hard and maintains a strict, focused demeanor in his matches. His style is heavily influenced by the shootfighters of the 1980s and 1990s, and by stiff strike masters like AJPW’s Toshiaki Kawada and NJPW’s Yuji Nagata.
These traits made Low Ki the perfect opponent for KENTA because he was very much KENTA’s American equivalent. KENTA too was known for making up for his small stature with brutally-hard strikes. He kicked, slapped and elbows people as hard as he could and became feared for his in-ring viciousness. And while some questioned whether such overt stiffness really fell under the guise of professional wrestling, it was something that fans were desperate for during the mid-2000s. Fans salivated at the prospect of seeing a wrestling product that emphasized realism and a more combat-sports-like approach instead of the character-driven silliness put on by bigger companies.
That’s why there was so much hype going into this match. It was an indy wrestling dream match that featured the two hardest-hitting smaller guys in the world at the time. And even though Bryan Danielson wasn’t in this match, most people were sure that at least one of these two wrestlers ‘was going to get their f**king head kicked in’.
This match originally took place at ROH Final Battle 2005 on December 17th, 2005. It was rated ****1/2 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 to time.
This is for KENTA’s GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship. KENTA gets a clean break on the ropes and Low Ki dodges a big roundhouse kick. They lock up again and KENTA pushes Ki into a corner but Ki quickly counters into a cross armbar on the ropes. Some excellent chain grappling ensues and Ki attacks KENTA’s arm again with arm wringers. KENTA counters with a hammerlock but Ki reaches the ropes and lands a massive chop to the chest. Ki knocks KENTA down with a shoulder tackle and kicks him hard in the chest. He rushes the ropes but KENTA chops him down and then it’s KENTA’s turn to kick Ki’s chest in. KENTA lands one more big chop that downs Ki and pins for a one-count.
KENTA starts mocking Ki with foot taps to the face but Ki no-sells them and gets to his feet. The fans cheer and applaud wildly as they go shot-for-shot until Ki downs KENTA with a back kick to the neck. KENTA kicks out of a pin so Ki starts elbowing and chopping the hell out of his chest. Ki sends him into a corner and charges but KENTA counters with a tornado stungun on the top rope and then locks in a sleeper with bodyscissors through the ropes. KENTA lets go and lands a diving clothesline for a two-count, then lands a stiff soccer kick to Ki’s back for another two-count. he tosses Ki out of the ring and slams him around the barricades and then kicks him some more. Back in the ring, KENTA teases a big slingshot dive move but instead lands on his feet and rubs his foot in Ki’s face. This guy is awesome at being a d**k in the ring.
KENTA pulls Ki to his feet and hits more strikes and charges, but walks into a rolling koppu kick. Low Ki suplex drops KENTA onto the top rope and lands a sickeningly-hard punt to the chest that echoes throughout the arena. The fans chant for Low Ki as he runs to the top rope and dives with a clothesline onto KENTA on the floor below. KENTA kicks out of a pin, so Ki returns the favor with mocking kicks and foot taps of his own. KENTA absorbs another stiff kick and then gets right in Low Ki’s face. He tries to fire back with stiff forearms but Low Ki downs him with an enzuigiri.
Low Ki starts hitting big slams and kicks but KENTA continues to kick out of quick pins so he applies a bodyscissor. KENTA reaches the ropes so Ki lands some corner shoulder thrusts to further target KENTA’s ribs. KENTA makes a sudden escape and lands some quick strikes and charges. He goes for a sunset flip but Ki counters with a double foot stomp right to the ribs. Great counter. Low Ki pins. KENTA still kicks out. Ki applies another waistlock to maintain pressure on KENTA’s ribs but KENTA reaches the ropes once more. KENTA gets tosses out of the ring some more and Ki drives him ribs-first into both the barricade and the side of the ring. He stiffs KENTA even more and pins in the ring but KENTA still manages to kick out.
KENTA tries to fight back but Ki sends him into the ropes and lands a diving double foot stomp to the back. KENTA writhes in pain but still manages to narrowly kick out of another pin attempt. Ki sends him into a corner again and charges but KENTA fights out and lands a sudden powerslam counter on a second charge. Both men collapse. KENTA lands a corner yakuza kick and a single leg dropkick. He connects with a KENTA rush and a springboard dropkick and pins for two. KENTA lands more strikes. Low Ki fires back with chops. KENTA catches his arm and floats over into a butterfly suplex and then into a cross armbreaker. Low Ki reaches the ropes so KENTA answers with a Falcon Arrow for another two-count. KENTA regains control as he places Ki on the top rope. He goes for a diving Falcon Arrow but Low Ki fights out. KENTA ends up tied in the tree of woe. Low Ki lands a massive double foot stomp. Both men collapse again. The fans give both men a standing ovation. Ki crawls over for a pin but KENTA survives.
Low Ki lands Kobashi-style machine gun chops and tries to Irish whip KENTA but KENTA holds onto the ropes. Ki lands more chops and charges but runs into a big spinning back kick to the gut. KENTA lands another martial arts rush and runs to the ropes but Ki cuts him off and lands a springboard dropkick right to the head. The fans chant loudly for Low Ki as he pins. One, two, no, KENTA kicks out.
The fans chant for both guys as Ki lands Kawada-style stepkicks to KENTA’s face. Ki goes to the top rope, when suddenly KENTA pulls a Shelton Benjamin and jumps onto the top rope. Diving Falcon Arrow connects! One, two, thr—no, Low Ki kicks out. Both men struggle to their feet and start trading stiff strikes. Chops turn into punches turn into slaps. Both men duck each other and KENTA lands a huge chop to the head for another two-count. KENTA signals the end. He lands his martial arts rush and goes for the Busaiku Knee. He charges…but Ki catches him in midair and lands a Ki Crusher (Fisherman Brainbuster). One, two, no, KENTA still kicks out.
Ki sends KENTA into a corner and lands a handspring enzuigiri. Ki signals the end and goes for another Ki Crusher. KENTA counters with Go To Sleep. No, Ki escapes and tries his finisher. No, KENTA counters that with a bridging Tiger suplex. One, two, no, Low Ki kicks out. KENTA lands another martial arts rush but goes for one chop too many. Ki blocks one and dropkicks KENTA so hard he goes flying into the corner. Low Ki climbs the top rope and lands Warrior’s Way (diving double foot stomp)! One, two, thre—NO, KENTA survives yet again. Low Ki goes back to the top rope. Phoenix Splash misses. KENTA lands Go To Sleep. And follows with a full-impact Busaiku Knee. One, two, three! There’s the match! The champion retains!
Winner and STILL GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion after 24:56: KENTA
What an insane, brutal match. That was a terrific indy-style war. Low Ki was the perfect opponent for KENTA and they fought incredibly hard against each other. There wasn’t a single dull moment in this match. If you ever wondered why and how ROH got such a great reputation during the 2000s, this match should explain it for you.
There was very little in terms of grace, artistry or flowery offense that has come to define ‘indy-style’ wrestling. Instead, this was an ugly 25-minute fight in which two guys tried to beat the SHIT out of each other. Both wrestlers hit each other incredibly hard and tanked each other as much as possible. They were like two bulls locking horns in a fight to the death. But instead of staying grounded, they also flew around the ring a bit to show that they were as agile as they were hard-hitting. And thanks to the rabid crowd that was into the match and not cheering to get themselves over, the match had a great atmosphere that made even the slower selling sequences fly by.
The match got progressively crazier with both men having to dig deeper to try and win. Low Ki tried different strategies until he found a solid one in targeting KENTA’s torso. He targeted that part of KENTA’s body relentlessly and hit some of the most vicious foot stomps I have ever seen. Even after all the matches I’ve seen, I still find it amazing how guys like Low Ki can land double foot stomps without caving their victims’ chests in. but such was the level of skill both wrestlers demonstrated here.
Speaking of KENTA, he was his typical self here. He hit Low Ki hard and mocked him whenever he could. Under most circumstances he would be booed for being such a blatant d**k, but not in ROH. The fans appreciated his gall and his douchebaggery, especially since Low Ki returned it in kind. Even though the match had its fair share of obvious high spots, it also had enough stiff brutality to create a strong illusion that suggested that these two men were having a real fight, or at least, as close to a real fight as one can get in pro-wrestling.
But this match isn’t without its flaws, though. Even though the fans chanted ‘Five-Star match’ after it was over, I don’t think it reached those heights, especially when compared to its predecessor Joe vs. Kobashi. Although both matches had similar atmospheres and levels of intensity, there was something lacking in this match that leaves it a cut below that legendary heavyweight war. Part of it came from quite a bit of no-selling from KENTA towards the end. Low Ki had attacked his torso so thoroughly for so long and by the end KENTA’s selling became a tad inconsistent.
And in terms of finish, I think they went a bit into overkill territory. KENTA survived by the skin of his teeth thanks to a lucky miss by Low Ki, and then instead of hitting the Go To Sleep to end it, he waiting a bit more to land his running knee strike to land the final blow. Maybe I’m nitpicking here, but I found the finish a both a bit excessive and underwhelming at the same time. It reached several points where something should’ve ended the match, but they kept going and building further towards a climax that didn’t really live up to the hype in the end.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Despite some barely noticeable flaws, this was an outstanding match that still holds up very well today. If you like your pro-wrestling brutal and filled with realistic and stiff martial-arts-inspired offense, this is the match for you. It has a level of realism that’s increasingly hard to find in pro-wrestling. the trend over the past several years has been to add more and more layers of choreography and acrobatics to create athletic displays instead of scripted combat sports contests.
Maybe I’m just like Low Ki and have that traditionalist view of pro-wrestling as a combat sport. Because this match still holds up incredibly well and is, in my opinion, much better than many of the matches that have taken place in its aftermath.