Everyone loves a big surprise return, but few wrestling companies ever do a proper planned return.
In an industry that’s built on surprise as much as it is on promotion, it’s rare for wrestlers stateside to announce returns on a specific date. Returns are usually kept secret until the last moment so that fans can be swept up in the moment.
But what about the few that go in the opposite direction? What about those wrestlers that announce “I will be back in the ring on this date” and then try to live up to the hype? Can a match built around one wrestler returning from a long time off be as great as a match featuring less build and more of a surprise factor? Read on to find out.
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.
I want to try and picture yourself in the following scenario. You’re Kenta Kobashi. You work your ass off day in and day out at the gym until you look like a Japanese John Cena. You have no experience in amateur wrestling or any combat sport beyond judo but bodybuilding and rugby help you bulk up. At age 19 promoter Giant Baba finds a photo of you, takes a gamble and signs you to his company. You spend several years as the promoter’s personal aide/gofer, all while training insanely hard. You lose your first 63 matches consecutively but your never-say-die attitude and positive demeanor make you likeable to the audience without you coming across as corny or artificial.
You spend the next decade teaming with the best the company has to offer (and sometimes as the promoter’s right-hand man), all while improving steadily and consistently year after year. With each match, no matter how big or small, you give 110% effort until even your biggest critics can’t help but appreciate your overachieving nature.
Yet on a nightly basis you work a taxing style that destroys your body, especially your knees. Your matches are filled with bridges, suplexes, and moonsaults, to the point that by age 24 many reporters describe your knees as “thrashed”. But out of passion and dedication for the business you don’t take time off to heal or get surgery. You keep wrestling 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60-minute matches like Ric Flair and put on so much damage yet to still keep going.
Then come 2000 you follow one of your closest friends and professional rival to his new company after internal squabbling makes staying in that original company impossible. That departure sends a shockwave through Japan but despite now wrestling in smaller venues and with an uncertain future, you still wrestle at the same top level out of loyalty and respect for your peers, your fans, and your profession.
But your body creeps closer and closer towards capitulation, until you can barely stand on your own. Then, three weeks after wrestling what many people consider your swan song match, your knees give out and you have to be helped to the back. You go to the hospital and x-rays show that you have to get massive iron rods implanted into both knees just for you to be able to walk. You don’t know if you’ll ever come back to your dream profession again. And if you do, no one knows if you’ll be able to wrestle like before. But you still promise to come back. You train as hard as possible despite having to come back from around a dozen different surgeries. You spend thirteen months undergoing surgery, rehabbing, recovering, and then training to get back into top form. And in the process of training your hair literally changes color, that’s how much drive you have to get back to what you love most.
Then, after over a year of being sidelined, your first match back is announced. Instantly you sell out the Japanese version of Madison Square Garden. Fans flock from all over to see if you’ve lived up to the hype and you’ll be able to live up to historic expectations. Your first match back is in a tag match in which you team with the one guy you’ve never been able to beat against the tag partner that turned on you on your new company’s first show and his new buddy from a competing promotion. Additionally, your former partner is now the company’s world champion and he promises that he will surrender his title if he can’t beat you. After all, while you’ve been on the sidelines he has been wrestling on a nightly basis carrying the promotion on his back. If he can’t beat you, what does that say about him?
The pressure is on more than ever. You have such a sky-high reputation and you don’t want to disappoint anyone. You want to live up to expectations but you don’t know if your body will hold up given the taxing style you’ve chosen. You’re worried that your body won’t hold up but will your spirit break under the pressure as well? There’s only one way to find out.
This match originally took place on February 17, 2002. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Misawa and Nagata start with an amateur exchange that ends in a stalemate. They lock-up again and Nagata takes Misawa down with kicks to the calf and locks in a heel hook. Misawa gets a ropebreak and then out-strikes Nagata on a standing exchange. After another tense standoff Akiyama tags in and so too does Kobashi. The crowd pops for Kobashi as he gets a clean break on Akiyama and answers a forearm with a big chop. Akiyama headlocks Kobashi but runs into a brick wall on a shoulderblock. Akiyama immediately goes after Kobashi’s bad leg and Kobashi hops to the ropes as quickly as possible. After another stalemate they do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock which goes on for a bit until Akiyama breaks it with a forearm, only to eat another chop. Kobashi fires up as he eats forearm after forearm. Akiyama tanks a chop, Kobashi blocks a jumping knee, both men hit simultaneous shoulderblocks, and Akiyama hits a dragon screw leg whip. But Kobashi fires up and lands another sboulderblock and dares Akiyama to come at him. The crowd goes nuts as Kobashi looks to be unfazed by Akiyama’s blatant attempt at a smart yet underhanded shortcut.
They lock-up again and Kobashi powers Akiyama into a corner. He hits a spinkick, proving that his leg’s just fine (at least for now). He follows with machine gun chops and a delayed vertical suplex and the camera zooms in on Kobashi’s face and he’s clearly gritting his teeth. He gets a two-count and then tags Misawa. Misawa hits some elbows and forearms but Akiyama hits back and drops him with a forearm. Both men go back-and-forth dropping each other with running strikes, which leads to more applause.
Nagata tags in and starts working over Misawa’s left arm. Misawa eventually escapes and tags Kobashi. Kobashi tries chopping him in a corner but Nagata blocks and bitchslaps Kobashi. The same thing happens a second time as Nagata dances around Kobashi until Kobashi gets him in a different corner and chops him into oblivion. Kobashi follows with his double kneelift/Russian legsweep combo for another two-count and then applies a deep abdominal stretch. Nagata escapes via hiptoss, trips Kobashi and then starts kneeing him in the side and head. Kobashi escapes a headlock and hits more chops and goes for another vertical suplex but Nagata resists. Kobashi escapes an armbar attempt and chops some more and completely no-sells forearms to the face. He charges to the ropes but Nagata low kicks his knee. He follows with a punt to Kobashi’s spine, then tags Akiyama, and Akiyama knees Kobashi’s face for a two-count of his own.
Akiyama locks in a Boston Crab to put even more pressure on Kobashi’s knees until Misawa’s forced to intervene. Kobashi hulks up King’s Road-style by taking kicks to the face and getting angrier with each one. Kobashi gets to his feet and has another stiff strike exchange. Akiyama sends him into a corner but Kobashi blocks a corner jumping knee and throws Akiyama down. Kobashi charges for a neckbreaker but Akiyama counters with a drop toehold into an STF, forcing Misawa to intervene again. Nagata tags in and kicks the back of Kobashi’s surgically-repaired knee for a two-count. A chop/roundhouse kick exchange ensues and goes on until Nagata ducks a discus chop and hits an overhead belly-to-belly suplex. Then Nagata goes for a modified figure-4 as Akiyama knocks Misawa off the apron. The crowd goes wild for Kobashi, willing him on as he crawls to the ropes, pulling all his weight (and Nagata’s) behind him to get a break.
Akiyama tags in and hits a corner forearm. Kobashi blocks a northern lights suplex with a front chancery into a neck lock suplex. Kobashi tackles Akiyama again and then tags Misawa. Misawa wins another strike exchange, dodges a jumping knee, and hits both a running elbow and an elbow suicida to the floor. Akiyama interferes and sends Misawa into the barricade but Misawa hits back with another elbow. Back in the ring, he hits a diving elbow and tries a Tiger Driver but Akiyama but Akiyama blocks it and stops a corner back elbow. Akiyama goes for a powerbomb out of a corner but Misawa counters with a headscissor. Akiyama blocks another Tiger Driver and lands an Exploder Suplex. Nagata tags in and kicks Misawa as Misawa tries another springboard back elbow. Nagata follows with more roundhouses, an enzuigiri, and a bridging belly-to-belly for a two-count. Then he lands a DDT into a crossface-type hold but Kobashi breaks it up. Nagata goes after Kobashi but eats a rolling elbow from Misawa for his efforts. A Tiger Driver gets Misawa a two-count so he tags Kobashi.
Akiyama stops Kobashi from hitting a half nelson suplex and eats a discus chop to the neck for doing so. Kobashi suplexes Nagata but only gets a two-count. He lands a powerbomb but Nagata counters it into a triangle choke as Akiyama takes out Misawa again. Kobashi gets a ropebreak but Nagata catches him in another belly-to-belly. Akiyama tags in but runs into a sleeper hold which becomes a sleeper suplex. Misawa takes Nagata down as Kobashi covers Akiyama for a two-count. Orange Crush Bomb by Kobashi. Frog Splash by Misawa. Akiyama kicks out at 2.7. Kobashi tries another powerbomb. Nagata kicks out his bad leg from behind. Misawa drops Nagata with a one-two elbow combo. Akiyama escapes the Frozen Emerald and lands another Exploder. Kobashi charges for a lariat. Akiyama blocks and tries another Exploder. Kobashi counters with a close-range lariat that gets a one-count. Kobashi tries another lariat. Akiyama kicks his arm and counters into his King Crab Lock guillotine choke. Nagata trips Misawa and locks him in an STF. Thunderous Kobashi chants echo through the arena as their hero tries to survive the move that knocked him out almost two years earlier. Akiyama goes for a cover. One…two…thr – no, Kobashi kicks out.
Kobashi tries fighting off Akiyama and Nagata one-on-two but Nagata drops him with a wheel kick. Akiyama lands yet another Exploder but this time it’s Kobashi who kicks out at one. Kobashi channels his auto-pilot from years ago and clings onto the ropes for dear life. He tries chopping Akiyama away to create some separation but Akiyama hits a jumping knee to the back of his neck and then lands a head spike-style Exploder. One, two, Kobashi kicks out once more. Nagata holds Misawa by the ring apron as Akiyama lands his Wrist-Clutch Exploder super finisher. One, two, three! Akiyama beats Kobashi!
Winners after 26:49: Jun Akiyama & Yuji Nagata
Great match though not at that top level as I was expecting. Given Kobashi’s obvious weakness I was hoping both Nagata and Akiyama to actually obliterate his knees as Akiyama had done in their amazing singles match in 1998 to tell a better story. Alas, Kobashi’s vulnerability being exploited was limited to only a few short moments throughout the match while the rest of it was your typical hard-hitting Japanese-style match. It wasn’t bad by any means, just a bit disappointing given what options these four men had. None of the interwoven plot threads surrounding this match were used to their fullest beyond some mild work on Kobashi’s legs and Akiyama beating Kobashi clean. And even though that was a big deal for him it should’ve felt even bigger. It was as if all the right parts and story pieces were right there in front of these guys but they veered off course towards the conclusion and ended up telling a somewhat inferior story to the one that they could’ve told.
The match built on existing plot threads well enough: Kobashi returning, Akiyama being NOAH’s #1 guy, Misawa’s status as legend still being intact, and Nagata being the obnoxious and disrespectful outsider running amok during the match. All four guys got to showcase what they were capable of, but Kobashi was the most important guy here. Fans wanted to see how he would wrestle and he mostly delivered. Kobashi was in excellent form here yet it was clear he was playing it safe when it came to his knees. He took a beating to his usual spots and got hit hard in safe places, especially with all the kicks and suplexes. He looked like he was made of iron as usual, but the way both Nagata and Akiyama attacked him made it clear that he was still somewhat vulnerable. Kobashi cycled through his biggest moves and made a solid babyface comeback, only to lose at the end for a simple, commonsensical reason: he hadn’t been wrestling regularly for over a year and all the training in the world wasn’t the same as being in the ring on a nightly basis. Since the other three guys in this match – especially Akiyama – were in top form and Kobashi was not, it made complete sense for Kobashi to lose in his first match back.
But damn if he didn’t try. Kobashi showed the world that he was as healthy as can be and entered the match with all the confidence in the world. Akiyama and Nagata attacked his weak spot as any sensible wrestler would, but then they stopped. Akiyama in particular didn’t want to beat Kobashi by taking the easy route; if he did people would see it as a cheap and “incomplete” win because he beat a guy that wasn’t at 100%. Instead, attacking his leg was used as an avenue to break through Kobashi’s guard and hit other “pure” moves that just hit hard. Nagata helped Akiyama shatter Kobashi and hit as many suplexes as he could to end the match cleanly. It was a solid win for Akiyama – who was still seen as inferior to Kobashi in many ways – but something was still off here.
If Kobashi was going to lose the whole time, then there should’ve been more work done to his leg to slow him down and take away his power game. The submission segments weren’t as impactful as they should’ve been; had they been longer then there would’ve been more time for the wrestlers to garner sympathy for Kobashi and build towards a more exciting climax. And even though Akiyama won this match “the right way”, it was largely for naught since Kobashi just his knee a few days later again and had to take another five months off anyway.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match is an excellent way to showcase a wrestler returning from a long time away without hitting the audience over the head with drama and cheesy feel-good storytelling. There’s a delicate balance between that sort of emotion and the harsh reality of the sport that few companies ever get right because most of them focus on the emotion a bit too much since it’s easy/low-hanging fruit storytelling.
This match struck the right balance between realism and emotion but failed to strike the right chord when it came to executing that story to perfection. The match lacked the tension and heroism expected of the main character (Kobashi), which in turn created an inferior final product. This is especially visible now given that, five years later, three of these four men would be involved in a similar situation that ended up doing everything this match was supposed to do and so much more.