(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: KENTA & Marufuji vs. Kanemaru & Hashi – NOAH, September 12th, 2003

marufuji kenta hashi kanemaru

The 2000s was an interesting era as far as great wrestling matches are concerned.

Anyone that takes Dave Meltzer’s ratings seriously knows that there was a surprising dearth of 5-Star matches between 2000 and 2009. During that decade, only seven matches were (allegedly) so great that they were considered perfect.

But like many of you, I disagree with that assessment. There were many more great matches during that decade that deserve greater praise: Angle vs. Michaels, Angle vs. Undertaker in 2006, Kobashi vs. Sasaki, Austin vs. HHH at No Way Out, and more. And today we look at yet another match that I think deserves more praise than it got when it first took place.

Today we revisit the tag match between KENTA & Naomichi Marufuji and Yoshinobu Kanemaru & Matoko Hashi from NOAH’s September 12th, 2003 Budokan Hall show.

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.

The story

Two months earlier, KENTA and Marufuji won a tournament to become the inaugural GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. And in NOAH, title defenses weren’t regularly scheduled; challengers had to earn their shots. It took a while, but eventually someone did: Kanemaru and Hashi. Kanemaru was one of many junior that started in All Japan but followed Misawa to NOAH. By 2003 he was already being groomed as the centerpiece of NOAH’s (singles) junior division and here he wanted to add some tag title gold to his growing list of accolades.

His partner here was Hashi, the protégé of Jun Akiyama. To be honest, there isn’t much out there about him. Expectations for him were high given that his mentor was one of the best wrestlers from All Japan and a former GHC Heavyweight Champion. He was also the biggest man in this match so he had an easier time hitting power moves and throwing bombs. But would that be enough for him to beat KENTA and Marufuji? With Kanemaru bringing the speed, could Hashi’s power game be enough to dethrone the champs on their first title defense?

The match

This match originally took place on September 12th, 2003, on the same night as this awesome heavyweight clash between Kenta Kobashi and Yuji Nagata. This match was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

This is for KENTA & Marufuji’s GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championships. KENTA & Hashi start things off with a running high kick exchange. Hashi wins that exchange and Irish whips KENTA but KENTA uses that momentum to boot Kanemaru off the apron. Kanemaru rushes in to get in KENTA’s face and so too does Marufuji. All four men get close and the ref is forces to separate both sides.

After a standoff, KENTA drops Hashi with an elbow but Hashi hits back with a boot and a Mongolian chop. KENTA retaliates with more kicks and then tags Marufuji who’s itching to fight Kanemaru. Hashi tags Kanemaru who then has an awesome cruiserweight move exchange with Marufuji that ends in double dropkicks and another stalemate. On their next lock-up, Marufuji and Kanemaru trade armlocks until Kanemaru tries doing a 619 to break out. But his counter fails as Marufuji out-wrestles him and maintains control over Kanemaru’s arm. Marufuji stomps on Kanemaru’s head and tags KENTA, who starts working over the same arm that Marufuji attacked. But Kanemaru hits back with elbows and a dropkick and then tags Hashi. He and KENTA have another brutal strike exchange that ends with Hashi dropping KENTA with Mongolian chops and covering for a two-count. Hashi follows with multiple head-butts for another two-count and picks KENTA up. But KENTA fires up and elbows both Hashi and Kanemaru, but when he charges at Kanemaru, Kanemaru anticipates the boot and kicks KENTA first. That allows both Hashi and Kanemaru to foot choke KENTA in a corner.

Hashi goes for a suplex but KENTA counters into his own for a two-count and tags Marufuji. Marufuji sends Hashi onto the ropes and hits a dropkick for a two-count and starts working over Hashi’s left leg. Hashi tries the usual chinlock/choke leglock counter but Marufuji simply punches the hell out of the leg to break Hashi’s resolve. Hashi gets a ropebreak so Marufuji answers with a senton press onto the leg. Marufuji locks in a bunch of leglock variations and slaps Hashi each time he tries attacking. Marufuji lands a sort of inverted surfboard and then tags KENTA, who kicks Hashi’s calf and likewise starts working that same limb over.

Hashi tries a sleeper/chinlock counter but it doesn’t work on KLENTA so he resorts to head-butts. They break KENTA’s hold but not his control as he tags Marufuji and the two champs land a double leg snap. Marufuji traps Hashi in a corner and kicks his thigh several times. He sends Hashi into the opposite corner but Hashi lands a boot and a diving Mongolian chop. Then he tags Kanemaru, who knocks Marufuji down and KENTA to the floor. He lands a back body drop on Marufuji and then in a split second he’s ringside sending KENTA into the barricade.

In the ring, Kanemaru gets a two-count on Marufuji and goes for a suplex but Marufuji counters into one of his own. KENTA tags in and just brutalizes Kanemaru with a barrage of different yet stiff strikes. He stands on Kanemaru’s chest in a corner and goes for a corner whip but Kanemaru reverses it. KENTA boots Kanemaru to block a charge and lands a tornado hotshot. Kanemaru elbows KENTA before he can land his follow-up springboard dropkick and then boots Marufuji as well. Kanemaru dives onto Marufuji on the floor as Hashi lands a scorpion death drop on KENTA onto the apron. But the challengers aren’t done. Hashi sends KENTA into the barricade and then brings him to Kanemaru, who’s standing on the elevated entrance ramp. Then Kanemaru lands a diving scoop slam from the ramp to the floor.

Back in the ring, Hashi tags in and manages to out-slap KENTA in a strike exchange, which is no small feat in NOAH. KENTA kicks out at two so Kanemaru tags in and locks in a Boston crab through the ropes and then tags Hashi back in. Hashi does the same move as Kanemaru knocks Marufuji off the apron and does a long wind-up running dropkick to KENTA’s head. These are some real clever double-team spots that both look good and make sense. Hashi covers but only gets a two-count so he throws KENTA ringside. He follows with a rib breaker and a diving head-butt from the apron to the floor. Marufuji tries saving KENTA but Hashi sends him back-first into the barricade.

Back in the ring, Kanemaru tags in and applies another Boston crab (this time in the middle of the ring) to further demolish KENTA’s back. KENTA gets a ropebreak and hits both Kanemaru and Hashi with elbows but they double-team him in their corner once again. Hashi tags in again and lands Mongolian chops as KENTA blocks a corner kick and charges back at him. Hashi charges for a lariat but KENTA boots his arm and lands an enzuigiri. Hot tag to Marufuji. Hashi reverses an Irish whip and sends Marufuji into Kanemaru but Marufuji hits back with a dropkick that sends Kanemaru to the floor. Marufuji ducks a charging Hashi and dumps him to the floor too. Then he runs up the turnbuckle and hits a triangle swanton dive onto both of them. Huge ovation for Marufuji.

Marufuji has no patience and so he lifts Hashi onto the apron. He goes for an over-the-rope suplex but Hashi blocks and tries his own. Marufuji blocks it and hits an elbow but Hashi responds with a shoulder to Marufuji’s gut. Hashi re-enters the ring but Marufuji immediately cuts him off with a drop toehold/running basement dropkick to the head combination. It’s satisfying to finally see that combo actually work. Marufuji pins but only gets a two-count. a back-and-forth elbow exchange ends with Hashi landing more stiff Mongolian chops. He charges but Marufuji counters into a mount and hits some punches followed by a triangle choke. Kanemaru breaks it up so Marufuji goes for a German. He and Hashi trade waistlocks until Marufuji lands on his feet off a German attempt. Marufuji lands a thrust kick. Hashi hits back with a lariat and tags Kanemaru. Marufuji reverses a corner whip and lands an elbow splash. Kanemaru blocks a super Frankensteiner and hits an inverted meteora into a headscissor takedown. Then Kanemaru hits a split-legged moonsault. One, two, Marufuji kicks out. Marufuji blocks a Brainbuster and goes for the Shiranui. Kanemaru blocks it and rolls Marufuji up for a pin. He uses the ropes for extra leverage. One, two, Marufuji kicks out.

Marufuji goes for a codebreaker but Kanemaru counters and – no wait, Marufuji counters that with a roll-up for a two-count. Marufuji tries a Boston crab but Kanemaru flips him over into a Frankensteiner for a two-count of his own. Marufuji hits a Pélé kick out of nowhere and tags KENTA. KENTA boots Kanemaru and knocks Hashi to the floor but Kanemaru takes advantage with a German suplex. Then Kanemaru hits a diving moonsault and Hashi attacks Marufuji. One, two, KENTA kicks out. Kanemaru goes for his diving DDT finisher. KENTA kicks him in midair. KENTA hits his martial arts rush and charges for the Busaiku Knee. Kanemaru dodges the knee and gets another roll-up. One, two, KENTA kicks out at 2.8 and lands more kicks. Kanemaru blocks one and lands a dragon screw leg whip.

Hashi tags in and lands a corner wheel kick on KENTA. KENTA blocks a charge with a kick but goes for one kick too many as Hashi blocks one and hits a crazy overhead Fisherman buster! One, two, KENTA barely kicks out. Hashi and Kanemaru hit some synchronized corner clotheslines and Hashi sets KENTA up for Kanemaru. Kanemaru hits a frog splash and then Hashi hits a diving head-butt. One, two, Marufuji makes the save. Kanemaru goes after Marufuji at ringside as KENTA escapes a Backdrop from Hashi. KENTA hits a spinkick and a fisherman Buster, followed by a Falcon Arrow. Then both he and Marufuji climb opposite turnbuckles. Marufuji hits a diving dropkick and KENTA hits a diving kneedrop. Both hit Hashi’s head. One, two, Kanemaru makes the save.

KENTA & Marufuji try their own synchronized corner attacks but /Kanemaru kicks Marufuji out of midair and lariats KENTA. Sheerdrop Brainbuster on Marufuji. KENTA boots Kanemaru and kicks Hashi. He charges for his knee strike finisher…but Hashi counters with a scoop lift scorpion death drop. Hashi tries to cover but collapses as Marufuji lands a Shiranui on Kanemaru using the ringside barricade. Hashi drops KENTA with a wrist-clutch Fisherman Driver. One, two, and Marufuji saves KENTA. Hashi sends KENTA to the top turnbuckle for a super back suplex. KENTA resists long enough for Marufuji to lift Hashi onto his shoulders in the Doomsday position. Doomsday knee strike. One, two, Kanemaru saves Hashi.

KENTA lands another stiff martial arts rush and even more kicks to Hashi’s head. Those are followed by a flying cross armbar. Hashi gets a ropebreak with his foot. Bridging Tiger suplex by KENTA. Hashi kicks out at 2.9 as Kanemaru escapes from Marufuji at ringside. Hashi lands some desperation strikes but KENTA no-sells them like a champ. Another martial arts rush by KENTA. He charges for the Busaiku knee…and runs into an elbow from Kanemaru. But KENTA no-sells that and drops Kanemaru with his knee. Marufuji comes in and ends Kanemaru with a Shiranui. Poor Hashi staggers, barely able to stand. He lands more desperation strikes but KENTA out-hits him. KENTA proceeds to kick Hashi’s skull in with brutal roundhouse kicks. Hashi sinks to one knee…both knees…and then crumples to the mat. KENTA covers. One…two…and three! The champions retain!

Winners and STILL GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions after 25:31: KENTA & Naomichi Marufuji



That was another outstanding wrestling match. It was filled with action, stiff offense, and great drama from start to finish. The tension never fell and the action was never boring. There was nothing superfluous or silly here; it was a straight-up high-octane war that just happened to feature smaller guys that knew how to fly. It was a bit on the unrealistic side as expected with the juniors’ style, but that was countered with some excellent wrestling and a fantastic finish. It shouldn’t surprise anyone reading this that KENTA and Marufuji were voted best tag team of the year for 2003 when they were having barn-burners like this one.

The crowd was raucous from the opening bell and the first exchanges. They stayed at a constant level and grew louder as the match progressed. By the end it was hard to hear the (emotional and electric) commentary because the crowd was applauding and screaming so loudly. If one were to watch this match on mute, then the action would be solid enough. But hearing the crowd and commentators go absolutely nuts really elevated this match into something special.

Marufuji was simply amazing. He can make the most mundane or bland move (like a drop toehold) into something exciting. His conditioning was off the charts as he pulled off these insane chain grappling sequences that, while a bit absurd, still had purpose in the match and weren’t done just for show. And even though he, like everyone else in this match, was a junior heavyweight, he didn’t wrestle like one. He showed plenty of dynamism and a mixture of different things. Somehow, he managed to be believable in every aspect of his wrestling style: high-flying, power moves, strikes, submission holds, reversals and technical grappling, and controlling the crowd. He really was a prodigy at this time; I’m not surprised whatsoever that Misawa picked him to be his protégé.

KENTA was a bit of an issue here because while he was great on offense he wasn’t that good on defense. His selling was spotty, especially regarding his back and ribs. He got stretched for long periods yet by the end he only sold the token exhaustion and nothing deeper. He hit brutally hard and both Kanemaru and Hashi sold well for him but he really didn’t return the favor. That’s one of the main things with matches involving KENTA. While it’s undeniably fun watching him hit people to the point that you’re concerned for his opponents’ (read: victims’) safety, he doesn’t always do a good job of making the match competitive when he’s on defense. It’s hard to take him seriously as a guy that can take so much punishment and not show any sign of pain. Even his mentor Kenta Kobashi would sell a dragon screw leg whip for a bit to make it important. But KENTA? He brushed it off and went right back to running around. KENTA being an unchained kicking machine is fine and all, but it’s hard to really call a match perfect when one wrestler’s selling is so spotty.

But those problems were made up for during the closing stretch that began with Marufuji’s hot tag. The counters, near-falls, bombs, finishers, and strikes were simply insane. Things got so wild that it was simply impossible to predict what was going to happen. And for me, unpredictability’s a major factor in a great match. Not only was it hard to predict who’d win but also how the match would end. Both teams manhandled each other to the point that even the simplest cradle or roll-up was believable as a pin. And while all four of these guys had their own ‘signature moves’, they didn’t land them in perfect order like one might see in a WWE match with the token ‘superstar comeback’ copy-and-paste sequence. Here, it was a struggle to simply land more than one move in a chain. And if a move wasn’t blocked or countered by the legal man, his partner would come in and make a critical save or hit a much-needed counter.

Then of course was the actual finish which elevated KENTA in a big way. His gimmick was that he kicked people exceptionally hard. And yet, this was the first time that he actually used those simple kicks to win a big match. He didn’t use a suplex, or his running knee strike, or some submission hold. He simply broke through Hashi’s guard and kicked Hashi’s head in a few times until Hashi fell to his knees and then went limp. That was a huge boost for KENTA’s credibility; it wasn’t some wrestling move that won him the match but some simple kicks. That small wrestler with a little-man complex convinced fans that his bite was as bad as his bark if not worse. He told everyone he was a dangerous kicker and in this match he proved that.

Of course, equal praise should go to Kanemaru and Hashi. Kanemaru was a textbook example of not judging a book by its cover. He matched Marufuji’s speed and in some ways outclassed him. He had perfect timing when it came to stopping KENTA and Marufuji from completing their combos. Any aspiring wrestler should watch the last ten minutes of this match and pay close attention to how Kanemaru interrupts as many moves as possible to keep the match going while also trying his best to keep momentum on his side.

As for Hashi, this was the first big match I’ve seen him in and he did remarkably well. He kept things simple and left most of the complicated work to Kanemaru. But he did plenty of meaningful things like DDT’ing KENTA on the apron, stopping Marufuji with a lariat, and hitting an awesome finisher. He did something subtle here that I think more wrestlers should do. Instead of hitting his finisher and going for a cover, or hitting his finisher and collapsing right afterwards out of exhaustion, he did both. He reached over to cover KENTA but midway through he collapsed from sheer pain and exhaustion. There was still fight in him despite all that was happening during that closing sequence. Adding small details like that made an already-awesome finishing stretch even more fun to watch.

Final Rating: ****3/4

The only things that really hurt this match were some inconsistent selling and some inconsequential limbwork segments. Other than that, this match really was awesome. Even after almost twenty years of constant change and increasing levels or daring and high-flying lunacy, this match still holds up incredibly well.

And while the wrestling landscape has become way more ‘acrobatics-driven’ in many circles and companies, I think that older matches like this are still better because they keep things real. Despite all the high-flying, running around, spinning and twisting, there was still a sense of believability here. The cruiserweight stuff was mixed with some much-needed martial arts stuff that served as an important reminder that this is a combat sport and not improvisational theater with extra steps.

I know many former wrestling fans have moved on to MMA for ‘the real stuff’. And while this match obviously can’t match modern MMA in terms of realism, it has enough realism of its own to warrant a look for those looking for more serious wrestling.

Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.