(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama – AJPW Champion Carnival 1999
Anytime you just want awesome great bell-to-bell wrestling action without need for context or exposition, all you need to watch is 1990s All Japan.
Even with commentary in a different language, those 90s AJPW matches had an incredible simplicity and straightforwardness to them that make them so easy and fun to watch. Whether it was a random singles or tag match, or a high-stakes title match, guys like Kobashi and Akiyama gave it their all and left it all in the ring.
Take this match for example. It’s not one of the most well-known 1990s AJPW matches, yet it was still given a modicum of praise by Dave Meltzer. And now, after more than twenty years, let’s see if it still holds up in terms of quality.
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.
Even though Kobashi and Akiyama were AJPW World Tag Team Champions at this time and close friends, they put aside that camaraderie for the Champion Carnival. Like New Japan’s G1, the CC was all about personal glory. For Akiyama, this was a particularly challenging situation because he was 0-9 in singles matches against Kobashi.
And yet, even with stats on his side, victory wasn’t guaranteed for Kobashi. The last time these two met in singles competition was in July ’98. Kobashi didn’t beat Akiyama in that match; he only managed to survive. Akiyama had proven himself to be a dangerous credible challenger.
But there was more to this match: watching from ringside was Vader, the then-Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. Vader came to All Japan after his WWE run and made a remarkable comeback as a wrestler. He was pushed as a true monster and within four months of his debut he won AJPW’s world title. Kobashi and Akiyama needed to send a message to Vader, but that was easier said than done. Could these two tag partners and close friends really go to the extreme against each other? Or would they hold back because of their friendship?
This match originally took place on April 4th, 1999. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
After a clean break, they do the immovable object shoulder tackle spot until Kobashi knocks Akiyama down. They do a Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Kobashi powers Akiyama down. Kobashi gets a quick one-count but Akiyama wrestles into an armlock. Kobashi escapes and then a chop/forearm exchange ensues. Kobashi reverses an irish whip and chops Akiyama’s chest but Akiyama tanks it like a boss. A strike block sequence ensues. Akiyama counters a chop with a judo arm throw and applies a cross armbreaker on Kobashi’s right arm, only for Kobashi to get a ropebreak.
Akiyama works over Kobashi’s arm with strikes, holds, and several over-the-shoulder armbreakers. He grinds his knee into that arm and lands different arm-targeting attacks. Kobashi hits back with his left arm but Akiyama amplifies his arm attacks. Kobashi stubbornly retaliates with chops but hurts himself in the process. He follows with a kneeelift/Russian legsweep combo for a two-count, but even something like a eg sweep causes pain to his arm. Akiyama hits forearms but Kobashi absorbs them like they’re nothing. More stiff chops stop Akiyama from running around but Akiyama endures the pain. Vader watches from ringside somewhat unimpressed as Kobashi gets some time to recover.
Kobashi gets a two-count off a vertical suplex and locks in a Boston crab. Akiyama gets a ropebreak so Kobashi – whose arm now appears to be better – lands machine gun chops to Akiyama’s neck followed by a big DDT for another two-count. He follows with a bow-and-arrow hold but Akiyama flips over into a cover for a quick one-count. Then Kobashi goes for another suplex. But this time, Akiyama lands behind Kobashi, ducks a chop, and dropkicks Kobashi’s knee. Huge opening for Akiyama.
Akiyama applies a leglock until Kobashi gets a ropebreak. Kobashi blocks a hiptoss, but Akiyama’s one step ahead as he does a Goldberg-style roll-through heel hook. Kobashi writhes in pain until he gets another ropebreak. Akiyama follows with a standing knee crusher and then locks in an STF. Kobashi tries firing back with chops but Akiyama keeps going back to the leg. Kobashi blocks a second knee crusher and chops away at Akiyama, but Akiyama tanks more hits and lands a dragon screw leg whip.
Kobashi sells like a man in real pain as Akiyama lands a bridging northern lights suplex for a two-count. Akiyama follows with a missile dropkick to Kobashi’s knee and locks in a sharpshooter. Kobashi crawls to the ropes, but this time Akiyama pulls him back away. He keeps the submission hold locked in until he runs out of strength for a moment and then taunts Kobashi as he stomps on Kobashi’s weakened knee. Kobashi gets up to a sitting position, then to one knee, and then to his feet. Akiyama charges…and runs into a half-nelson suplex. Kobashi gets another chance to recover.
Kobashi fights to his feet and lands several chops to Akiyama’s neck, followed by a second half-nelson. His leg’s still giving him trouble so he can only crawl over for a cover but only gets a two-count. Akiyama resists a powerbomb so Kobashi lands more machine gun neck chops. He’s able to land the powerbomb but can’t capitalize because his leg gives out.
After more downtime, Kobashi goes after Akiyama but Akiyama keeps him at bay with another kick to the knee. Akiyama rolls to ringside to recover some more but Kobashi gets to him before he can get to Kobashi. Kobashi goes for a half-nelson off the apron. Akiyama blocks with kicks to the bad knee and bulldog off the apron to the floor.
Akiyama follows with a Blue Thunder Bomb on the ringside mats and an implant double-arm DDT in the ring. he dives off the top and hits a diving knee followed by an Exploder suplex. One, two, and – Kobashi kicks out. Akiyama followed that with a running corner jumping knee, a German suplex, and a second Exploder. One, two – thr – Kobashi kicks out again. He tries a third Exploder but Kobashi fights out. Akiyama dropkicks Kobashi’s bad knee yet again and charges. Kobashi catches him in a sleeper hold and then lands a sleeper suplex. One, two, Akiyama kicks out. Kobashi charges for a lariat. Akiyama blocks with a knee to the arm. Kobashi charges again. Akiyama ducks and lands yet another Exploder. But Kobashi bounces up and connects with the lariat but then collapses. He slowly crawls over. One, two, and Akiyama survives yet again.
Akiyama tries to create some space but Kobashi shuts him down with a rolling back chop. Kobashi teases a short-range Burning Lariat. Akiyama hits first with a sudden school boy roll-up for a two-count. Akiyama hits another elbow. Kobashi retaliates with a chop and an enzui lariat. And then Kobashi flips Akiyama over with a massive running lariat. one, two, and three! Kobashi beats Akiyama!
Winner after 24:37: Kenta Kobashi
You just can’t go wrong with these two. Once again they put on a tremendous and competitive wrestling match. Even in such a random, relatively inconsequential match, these wrestled so well and put so much compelling action into an almost-25-minute match. One of their worst matches is better than most wrestlers’ best matches. There was no need for angles, gimmicks, or hype videos to build this up. All these two needed was the freedom to wrestle however they wanted for their brilliance to shine through.
Since the match’s story/raison d’être was Akiyama’s win/loss record over Kobashi, Akiyama needed to convince people that he stood a chance of beating Kobashi. To do that, he had to copy the strategy he used in July 1998: go after Kobashi’s limbs. In 1998, he targeted Kobashi’s leg exclusively; here, he split his focus between the bad knee and Kobashi’s lariat arm. And whenever Kobashi tried hitting back, Akiyama moved fast enough to counter with suplexes of his own. Akiyama was so smart, so relentless, so on his game that it looked like he actually had Kobashi’s number.
But no matter how hard Akiyama tried, he just couldn’t keep Kobashi down long enough. Kobashi was the embodiment of toughness and unyielding spirit. He took incredible punishment, including some direct shots without covering up, and not only held firm but pushed forward. His comeback wasn’t all at once; it was staggered as he had to overcome both Akiyama’s continued offense and his own body being weakened from Akiyama’s earlier work. There was no way Kobashi could rely on most of his big power moves; if a single powerbomb made him collapse, then doing anything else like the moonsault or the Burning Hammer would’ve been too risky. So he had to rely on his lariat.
And even though he wasn’t hitting it at full power, it was his only chance. It was the only move he could hit out of nowhere and blindside Akiyama with. That’s the only real reason Kobashi won here: he was able to hit a few big moves in a short burst. I think the match would’ve been better if there was a more drawn-out or sustained comeback from Kobashi to really hammer home how tough Akiyama was. And yet, the fact that Kobashi won out of nowhere and by the skin of his teeth also told the story of how perilous the situation was and how close he was to losing.
Final Rating: ****1/2
For a random match without any major background or build, this was and is excellent. Even after over two decades these 1990s All Japan matches hold up so incredibly well as competitive and realistic contests. No two matches were/are alike. These wrestlers were so skilled at making every interaction and every key sequence truly unique. There’s something to be said about wrestlers that can face each other countless times and make each encounter truly different from the rest while still wrestling in the same style and while still delivering top-quality matches consistently.
This match was all bell-to-bell action. No soaking in the crowd, no silly angles, no needless stare-downs, and no melodrama. It was realistic, compelling wrestling between two athletically-gifted competitors that took their craft seriously. That showed in how they moved, sold, and fought. They put the competition at the forefront of their actions.
It may not have been the deepest or most emotional match but it didn’t need to be. It was all about putting on a competitive match while telling a believable story. This match succeeded on both of those fronts and then some.
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.