Get ready for another wrestling classic from the 1990s. What we’re about to look at is something of a lost classic. Few people know of this match, which is a shame because it was, and still is, really freaking good. It pitted two of the toughest sonsofbitches to ever lace up a pair of boots in a titanic clash that was way better than it had any right to be. And now, after more than three decades, we’re looking back to see just how good it really was.
Today we revisit the match between Stan Hansen and Kenta Kobashi from September 4th, 1991.
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.
In 1991, Kenta Kobashi was still largely seen as a rookie and very low on All Japan’s totem pole. He was the third man in Mitsuharu Misawa’s Super Generation Army, which meant that he was the guy taking the fall for his team more often than not. But there was something special about Kobashi. He exuded a babyface fire that few wrestlers could. And despite losing more matches than winning at this point in his career, Kobashi was exceptional at being the Face in Peril (FIP). Seriously, he rivaled Ricky Morton in terms of playing the underdog in danger in a wrestling ring. And ‘Playing Ricky Morton’ is an actual wrestling term used to describe a wrestler that appeals to the crowd to get them to cheer the babyface as they overcome the odds.
One reason Kobashi was so good at playing Ricky Morton was because he could survive an absolute thrashing and somehow survive by the skin of his teeth. That ability was put to the test here. In this match, Kobashi took on the legendary Stan ‘the lariat’ Hansen, which was a very big deal. Hansen is quite possibly the biggest and most successful foreigner in Japanese wrestling history. He is the wrestler JBL wishes he was. Hansen had the reputation as the stiffest wrestler to ever live because he hit people with unbelievable force. When people perceive wrestling as phony, choreographed and unrealistic (“they’re not even hitting each other for real”), Hansen was the best example of the polar opposite. Hansen was basically a god in Japan because people truly believed he mauled his opponents with such malice and brutality.
Thus the stage was set. On one side there was Kobashi, a lovable local hero with a never-say-die attitude that did his best no matter what. On the other side was Hansen, a former multi-time world champion that was so skilled and convincing in what he did that people thought he genuinely wanted to hurt his opponents whenever he wrestled. But which one of them would win? There was only one way to find out.
This match originally took place on September 4th, 1991. It never received a formal rating from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, or any other high-profile wrestling publication for that matter. Now that thirty years have passed, let’s see how well this match holds up to time.
The ref does the customary gear check for foreign objects, and as soon as he turns to Kobashi, Hansen WRECKS Kobashi with a Western Lariat! Damn, Kobashi is completely out. Hansen pins but the ref doesn’t count. The match hasn’t even started. Hansen gets in the ref’s face, while the ref stands firm refusing to pin, proving that he has brass balls under that uniform. The ref finally rings the bell as Kobashi starts moving. Already more pissed off than an angry bull, Hansen punts Kobashi’s near-lifeless body out of the ring. He beats Kobashi up some more and pins but Kobashi barely escapes at 2.5. Hansen follows with more stiff kicks and a horrifying elbow drop but Kobashi still kicks out. A vertical suplex leads to another two-count for Hansen as Kobashi wisely escapes the ring again. Hansen follows him out and then powerbombs him into the exposed floor. OK, maybe not so wise after all.
Hansen tosses Kobashi back into the ring and pins again but Kobashi gets his foot on the rope. He lands some knee drops – including one with a fully exposed knee – and pins for yet another two-count. He continues to stiff Kobashi with hit after hit, until Kobashi fires back with one slap. That’s enough to get a huge reaction out of the crowd. But Hansen the angry gorilla answers with even harder strikes and Kobashi goes back down. And yet, Kobashi still kicks out of pin after pin after pin. But all this does is anger Hansen even more, to the point that he throws a table right onto Kobashi’s head.
Back in the ring, Hansen lands more stiff strikes until Kobashi fires back with a sidekick at the five-minute mark. Hansen answers with even more brutal strikes followed by a second rope elbow drop that looks like it has genuine malice behind it. Hansen goes for a Boston crab but Kobashi holds onto the ropes for dear life and lands some kicks of his own. Hansen answers with more kicks and a grounded full nelson. Kobashi reaches the ropes so Hansen answers by slapping Kobashi’s head as hard as he can. Kobashi starts getting fired up and lands stiff slaps of his own. Kobashi staggers around the ring as he tries to maintain what little momentum he has. But it’s short-lived as Hansen drops him with another boot to the face for yet another two-count.
Hansen goes for an elbow drop but Kobashi dodges and lands a Misawa-style running elbow and a dropkick. He continues with his own strike onslaught and pins but Hansen kicks out with authority. Kobashi tosses Hansen out of the ring and then DDTs him onto the exposed floor. Great bit of revenge for earlier. Hansen gets onto the apron but Kobashi lands an enzuigiri followed by a DDT. He pins but only gets two. Hansen resists a scoop slam so Kobashi lands an elbow flurry. Then he slams Hansen down and goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault press connects. One, two, Hansen kicks out. Kobashi goes for a missile dropkick. Hansen blocks and applies a Boston crab. The fans will Kobashi on as he crawls to the ropes to safety. But Hansen takes his time letting go, just because he can. Then he tosses Kobashi out of the ring and slams him knee-first into the top of the steel barricade and then applies another Boston crab. Hansen seems to be punishing Kobashi for ever being born. He slams Kobashi back-first into the steel ringpost and then tosses him back into the ring.
Once back in, Hansen lands some corner chops but Kobashi fires back with a desperation high kick and lands a giant Baba running neckbreaker. But he can’t pin right away because of the damage to his back. He makes it to pin eventually but Hansen quickly kicks out. Kobashi ducks a chop and applies a sleeper hold. Hansen reaches the ropes but Kobashi reapplies it seconds later. Hansen answers the second one with a backdrop suplex. Kobashi lands hard but maintains the sleeper. Hansen starts fading as Kobashi cinches the hold in deeper and deeper. Then he pins. One, two, thr—no, Hansen kicks out.
Desperate, Kobashi lands multiple leg drops for a two-count and then locks in another sleeper. Hansen tries to escape by rolling out of the ring but Kobashi stays on him and keeps it applied. He pushes them both into the side of the ring and over the barricade but Kobashi doesn’t let go. Kobashi makes it to the ring first as the ref starts yelling at Hansen to come back. Kobashi loses patience and goes after him…and walks into a massive Western Lariat. Just like that the tables have turned. Hansen recovers in the ring as Kobashi tries to reclaim the soul that just left his body. He struggles and struggles but eventually makes it to the apron and is met with an angry Hansen. Hansen lands some chops. Kobashi counters with an enzuigiri. Hansen tries to back suplex Kobashi over the ropes. Kobashi flips into a pin in midair for two. Hansen charges for the lariat. Kobashi ducks. But Hansen uses the momentum to spin around. And he just murders Kobashi with another one! Western Lariat connects again! One, two, three! There’s the match!
Winner after 18:36: Stan Hansen
Another tremendous classic from All Japan. It was a very simple match with a straightforward theme: hope. You couldn’t find two opponents better suited to tell that sort of story than Kobashi and Hansen. And even though Kobashi lost, he left the match looking better than he entered while Hansen got his win. Everybody won here, which doesn’t happen often in wrestling.
The story here was that Kobashi was fighting a losing battle from before the match even started. Hansen was far stronger and more experienced than Kobashi, yet he decided to drill him with a sudden lariat that looked like it knocked Kobashi out legit. From there Hansen pretty much just toyed with Kobashi, and in doing so established himself as a seemingly-insurmountable obstacle for Kobashi to overcome. All looked lost but Kobashi kept trying. He had no chance and he knew it but he tried all the same. He did his best to survive Hansen’s merciless onslaught and the crowd adored him for it. Hansen was such a credible threat and so dangerous an opponent that anything Kobashi did gave them hope that he would somehow win. Hansen did such an amazing job of beating Kobashi to a pulp that it looked like this match would be a total squash. But then Kobashi started kicking out time and again. With each passing kickout, Kobashi grew more determined and Hansen grew more frustrated.
And Hansen’s frustration caused him to go as far as he could to keep Kobashi down. And in the end, it took a total of three Western Lariats over the course of the match to keep Kobashi down. The first one established Hansen’s dominance, the second one ended Kobashi’s comeback, and the third one ended him period. With that result, Hansen proved that he was still a top threat in All Japan, while Kobashi proved that he could take much more of a beating than people might’ve thought.
This match came across as something that belongs on a pro-wrestling instruction DVD. You had Hansen, the veteran, kicking the ever-loving s**t out of Kobashi, the local hero. Hansen had the legitimacy and believability as a menace to the hero. And not only did Hansen back up that reputation with how he wrestled throughout the match, but he got the crowd to hate him with an underhanded trick behind the referee’s back. It was so easy for the crowd to rally behind Kobashi and rally behind him they did. Even if this wasn’t the most technically-adept match or the most athletically impressive one, its story was simple but executed perfectly. Kobashi tried his best to overcome a major threat and the crowd wanted to see him win so badly. But he didn’t (and rightfully so) because Hansen was just too brutal and too experienced.
But losing didn’t hurt Kobashi at all, which demonstrated the magic of Giant Baba’s booking back in the 1990s. Kobashi took on the most savage and dangerous force AJPW had at the time and lost. But it wasn’t an easy victory for Hansen. Kobashi took WAY more damage than Hansen expected and survived longer than almost everyone in attendance expected. Sure, he lost this match. But he left it with battle scars that made him look so much tougher than when he entered. Hansen had to go the extra mile to keep Kobashi down long enough for the three-count, which in turn made Kobashi look so much tougher and much more of a credible threat. Even if he didn’t do that much damage to Hansen, he survived much longer against such a dangerous opponent. That alone makes this match more of a success in terms of what it accomplished.
Final Rating: ****3/4
I know some people might see this as sacrilegious, but I think this match was better than their 1993 rematch. There was a better story here with Hansen being a dangerous menace and Kobashi being established as the underdog in peril from before the bell even rang and there wasn’t such a blatant styles clash as their 1993 encounter. It’s not the most technical or athletic match, but it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes the best pro-wrestling matches are those that are driven by pure story, and this is one such a case.
Together, Kobashi and Hansen told an outstanding story that transcended the language barrier. Kobashi was the ultimate FIP that took on a menace way stronger and more accomplished than he was. He had no chance of winning but fought to the bitter end all the same. He acted heroically and it showed through the fans’ unyielding support of him.
Maybe, just maybe, if more wrestling matches were like this one, then it wouldn’t be dismissed so easily as such a phony means of entertainment.
Thanks for reading.