It’s often said that history repeats itself in many aspects of life, and that also rings true with this match between Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama.
These two men had plenty of history together as both partners and as opponents. They’ve had some outstanding matches over the years, but despite that there was a problem that nothing could change, not even time.
These two weren’t introduced as a tag team but they just started teaming together at one point. They followed the same formula of established guy and younger rising star, and stayed together until the eventual point where the younger guy would want to prove himself. And what better way to prove himself than by turning on his partner and using that established wrestler’s star power to elevate himself?
We’ve seen this formulaic story told many times over the decades across many promotions. But it hasn’t always worked; in some cases attempts at building a younger star into the top guy of tomorrow fails for a multitude of reasons. This match can help us understand why Jun Akiyama, a wrestlers respected within the business and among fans for his skill, never surpassed the class above him.
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.
This was NOAH’s second show ever and the second half of a two-night debut special. On the first night’s show, Kobashi and Akiyama – still teaming together under the Burning stable – won a two-out-of-three falls tag match against the team of Mitsuharu Misawa and Akira Taue. In that match, Akiyama scored both falls for his side, which included a submission decision over Misawa two minutes in. It was clear that NOAH was building Akiyama up and positioning him as the centerpiece in NOAH going forward. But then Akiyama shocked the world when he turned on Kobashi and attacked him after the match was over.
Naturally Kobashi wanted revenge while Akiyama wanted to follow up with his shocking betrayal. Despite the shock of the angle, the match had contradicting expectations going into it. On one hand, few people believed that this surprise angle would be negated the following night with Kobashi winning so soon. On the other hand, Akiyama had never beaten Kobashi before and he still lacked the credibility needed to do that in many fans’ eyes.
Then again, in one night he already beat two of the Four Pillars in less than twenty minutes and there was only one left for him to face. But could Akiyama do it, or would Kobashi obliterate him with a lariat as he had done many times before?
This match originally took place on August 6, 2000. It was rated ***3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Kobashi comes out with his right elbow taped up and wearing the ugliest blotchy orange-and-blue trunks I have ever seen. The opening lock-up quickly turns into a strike exchange as Akiyama bounces off the ropes with a clothesline but Kobashi no-sells it. Some strikes hit, some miss. They go back and forth until Kobashi knocks Akiyama to the floor. Akiyama takes his time with a breather and upon returning to the ring he double-legs Kobashi and locks in a Boston Crab. Kobashi powers out but there’s already some damage done to his leg. They exchange holds until Akiyama takes Kobashi down by the leg again. Akiyama works over the leg until Kobashi wrestles out and applies a vicious-looking headlock. Kobashi was always great at making basic moves look as painful as possible.
Akiyama gets a ropebreak and then the two do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock spot. Akiyama counters with an overhead suplex for force a stand-off and then Kobashi resorts to chops. A standing strike exchange ensues and ends when Akiyama hits a running jumping knee. The fight continues ringside where Kobashi counters an Irish whip and sends Akiyama into and then over the steel barricade. Then Kobashi hits a big powerbomb on the ringside mats and recovers in the ring as Akiyama gets back in before the ref’s twenty count.
Kobashi suplexes Akiyama over the rope and into the ring but only gets a two-count. Then he applies a facelock, which he amplifies by twisting the move way farther than normal. There’s some good wrestling logic: instead of doing some ludicrous high-risk moves to get a pop, Kobashi simply extends or tweaks an existing simple move to make it deadlier. Akiyama resists the hold and then kicks out at two so Kobashi goes for his double kneelift/leg sweep combo. But this time he lets Akiyama go halfway through to keep him guessing and lands a standard kneelift followed by a cobra twist. Kobashi tries blocking Akiyama’s leg from reaching the ropes but Akiyama succeeds and the hold is broken.
Akiyama lands a forearm but Kobashi retaliates with a big discus back chop. Kobashi goes for a dragon suplex but Akiyama resists long enough to get a ropebreak. Kobashi responds with a brutal corner chop flurry, a half-nelson suplex, and then a grounded full nelson hold. Akiyama gets a ropebreak and then escapes another half-nelson so Kobashi stiffs him some more. Akiyama reverses a corner whip and attempts another jumping knee but Kobashi blocks and throws Akiyama down. Kobashi attempts a suplex but Akiyama lands behind him and dropkicks his bad knee. Kobashi writhes in pain and then Akiyama lands a running dropkick to that same knee. He follows with a sharpshooter. Kobashi crawls to the ropes so Akiyama switches to an STF. Kobashi reaches out with his hand so Akiyama traps his arm. But despite Akiyama’s best efforts, Kobashi still powers himself through to get a ropebreak, only for Akiyama to pull him back and applies an ankle lock/heel hook.
Kobashi gets yet another ropebreak so Akiyama tries another sharpshooter. But this time Kobashi counters so that both men are in simultaneous leglocks. Kobashi rolls to the ropes but Akiyama takes a very long time untying himself from Kobashi and kicks at Kobashi’s knee the moment he’s free. Kobashi rolls to ringside to get some feeling back in his knee and returns to another knee assault from Akiyama. Akiyama lands a full-power running dropkick to the knee and goes for a northern lights suplex but Kobashi counters with a front chancery lock and then a neck lock suplex. Akiyama charges and runs into a sleeper hold and then a sleeper suplex. Kobashi fights through immense pain in his knee and tries a powerbomb. Akiyama resists so Kobashi lands another discus chop and then connects with the powerbomb. But when he goes for his jackknife cover Akiyama reverses the cover and gets a two-count.
Kobashi hits a shoulderblock followed by a second half-nelson suplex for another two-count. Kobashi teases a lariat but Akiyama hits first with a forearm. Kobashi charges again. Akiyama ducks and lands a German suplex. But before he can pin Kobashi floats over into a kimura lock. Akiyama starts crawling over but Kobashi hooks his neck, only for Akiyama to still get a ropebreak.
Kobashi goes for a discus chop. Akiyama blocks and tries an Exploder suplex, and then switches to an armbar. Kobashi breaks free and hits an enzui lariat. He charges for another lariat. Akiyama ducks and hits an Exploder. Kobashi bounces up and connects with a lariat. One, two, Akiyama kicks out. Kobashi charges for another lariat. Akiyama hits first with a jumping knee and two more Exploders. Kobashi tries fighting back with chops but Akiyama hits another Exploder for a close two-count. Then he hits yet another Exploder and then locks in his King Crab Lock/guillotine choke submission hold. Kobashi goes completely limp after about ten seconds in the hold. The ref takes one look at Kobashi and immediately orders for the bell to be rung, giving Akiyama the win.
Winner via knock-out/choke-out/referee stoppage after 24:25: Jun Akiyama
Post-match, the referee begins performing CPR on Kobashi with chest compressions because Kobashi looks to be legitimately knocked out. Meanwhile, Akiyama attacks and throws around various rookies and some of Kobashi’s stablemates to ham up his heel turn. This gives the match, in my opinion, a contradictory sense of realism mixed with some theatrics that make it hard to tell whether this match is supposed to be real or more melodramatic.
There’s an interesting story that has persisted about this match ever since it first happened. It’s alleged that Kobashi legitimately passed out at the end while trapped in Akiyama’s King Crab Lock and the referee ending the match so suddenly was out of genuine shock that Kobashi actually passed out. I’m not sure if it was meant that he passed out from Akiyama’s guillotine choke specifically or from the general pain he was in. If it was the former then it’s a bit hard to believe since the guillotine choke hadn’t been taken seriously as a finisher in Japan for decades. But if it was from the latter then that is believable because Kobashi was a walking middle finger to God and the rules of nature because he continued wrestling long after doctors told him not to so and ignored the pain he experienced on a daily basis.
That finish concluded a two-day project of getting Akiyama over as the biggest threat in NOAH. In 24 hours he pinned Taue, submitted Misawa after only two minutes of action, and choked out the one man that he had yet to beat up to that point. It was the most blatant push imaginable yet it was done without insulting fans’ intelligence or making it seem artificial. It worked, though only in the short term as this match actually made Kobashi as much of a sympathetic babyface as it made Akiyama a hated heel.
That story helped give this match a special aura, which is important because it was critical for NOAH to have some kind of hook to keep people coming back after their debut show. As a match, it wasn’t the epic or historic big fight that these two had in 1998, later in 2000, or in 2004 (all of which are, in my opinion, absolute classics that you should go out of your way to see). But it was still a solid match on its own for different reasons.
It was more story driven with Akiyama having his first real test to see if his new heel attitude had any merit and it did. Akiyama shamelessly attacked Kobashi’s weak points, ignored ropebreaks, slowed the match down to work the crowd, and generally acted without the same sportsmanship and righteousness that he had in the past. Without knowing any context, Akiyama’s moves and actions in this match gave all the explanation one needed to understand what he was about and what his role was in this match.
As for Kobashi, he looked far more worn down and exhausted in this match than either before or after, but he still wrestled very well for a guy with so many limitations. He picked his spots carefully. He didn’t exhaust himself by doing anything overly fancy. He got the most out of his relatively limited mobility by hitting power moves, extending and amplifying submission holds, and wrestling a more psychologically-driven match. He and Akiyama made the most out of matwork with plenty of surprises and tense moments. He sold like he was in legit pain during the second half of the match. And when things turned desperate he tried to rely on his trusted lariat, only for Akiyama to work around that and spam enough Exploders to put Kobashi down long enough to then choke him out.
Final Rating: ****1/4
Even with the relatively small and subdued crowd this match still kicked ass. It was competitive, unpredictable, intense, and came across as realistic even though it was clear both guys were playing the hits and doing more storytelling than pure athletic wrestling. This match had a clear purpose: to get Akiyama over as a legit threat and it achieved that, though perhaps not as successfully as everyone might’ve wanted.
Despite having all the right pieces in place and the wrestlers doing everything right, this match still didn’t give off the right message. It wasn’t that Akiyama won, it was that Kobashi lost. Those two things aren’t necessarily one in the same since the focus of the match during the action and after the final bell rang was Kobashi and not Akiyama.
Even though Akiyama did everything right and acting as villainously as he possibly could without turning into a WWE-style cartoon character, fans cared about Kobashi more. In many ways, Kobashi stole Akiyama’s thunder and remained the target of fan attention more than the guy the company wanted to push.
These might be small nitpicks, but they’re important given NOAH’s complicated history what happened here could happen to any promotion. The guy the company wanted to push, the guy who got strapped to a rocket ship and launched to the moon, the guy who went over every established top star as legitimately and as believably as possible, didn’t get over with the audience in the way the creative forces intended. And despite wrestling a great match, Akiyama didn’t translate into long-term success for NOAH. It was Kobashi who carried NOAH to new heights from 2003 to 2006 and not the younger and healthier Akiyama.
As Meltzer once described, Akiyama was a guy better suited as chasing a title than being champion. This match proved that theory in its own way: even when he was dominating and out-performing the established stars above him, he just couldn’t get over with that same audience to the same degree. Which is unfortunate, given the long list of amazing matches he has had over his career.