Few wrestlers have had as exciting and historic an in-ring rivalry as Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi.
The matches these two have had in the 1990s and in 2003 are still widely hailed among diehard wrestling fans as genuine classics. Even if some matches draw more money, have louder crowds, or feature wilder action, there’s still something to be said about the classics these two have put on over the years. I’ve reviewed several of their biggest matches and now we’re going further back to a time before Kobashi ever challenged for Misawa’s world title for the first time.
Were these two that great long before their in-ring rivalry really took off? 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.
Misawa and Kobashi were regular tag partners at this time but both of them put friendship aside for AJPW’s annual singles tournament. Kobashi wanted to show his more experienced partner that he could stand on his own two feet and wanted to give Misawa a taste of what he had been dishing out to their opponents in tag settings for the better part of two years.
But Kobashi was also fighting against history here. Going into this match, Misawa and Kobashi had only faced each other three times prior and Misawa won all of those matches. There was one technicality, though, as the two were supposed to face each other in the 1994 Champion Carnival but Giant Baba booked an injury angle that saw Misawa forfeit most of his matches, including one against Kobashi. So technically Kobashi had a win over Misawa on paper, but that meant nothing to him; he wanted to beat the ace cleanly and honestly.
That was next to impossible, especially in 1995 when Misawa was in his absolute prime. Misawa had big problems since there were the likes of Stan Hansen, Kawada and a soon-to-start-his-miracle-run Taue in the tournament. But what would happen if he chose not to take Kobashi as seriously as those other guys?
This match originally took place on March 26, 1995.
Nothing happens for the first minute aside from Kobashi getting some clean breaks on lock-ups. He lands some shotgun blast-like chops but Misawa hits back with elbows. Kobashi avoids a standing dropkick and drops Misawa with a Giant Baba neckbreaker for a two-count. Misawa rolls to ringside for a breather and takes his time returning. When he does they lock-up and Kobashi takes Misawa’s left arm until Misawa gets another ropebreak. On their next lock-up Kobashi powers Misawa to the ropes and lands an explosive chop flurry that sends Misawa to the canvas. The referee confirms Misawa’s OK to continue so Kobashi hits him with a shoulderblock for another two-count.
Kobashi applies a chinlock but Misawa gets another ropebreak. Misawa kicks out of a single-knee backbreaker and then gets to the ropes again as Kobashi cranks another chinlock. Kobashi lands more chops followed by a vertical suplex for a two-count. Misawa eventually powers out of another chinlock so Kobashi chops him until Misawa counters a corner Irish whip and hits a monkey flip. After another short stare-down Misawa hits more stiff elbows and then applies a seated double-arm stretch. Kobashi fails to counter this on his first try and when he tries a second time Misawa answers with a standing back kick. Kobashi answers with a sudden shoulderblock that sends Misawa to ringside. Kobashi goes for a plancha but Misawa dodges, hits a dropkick through the ropes, and then lands a corkscrew plancha of his own.
Back in the ring, Misawa hits his spinning lariat for a two-count. Misawa hits a forearm club but Kobashi retaliates with kicks to Misawa’s gut. Misawa powers out of a powerbomb and lands some jumpkicks but Kobashi no-sells them and fires up. A chop/elbow exchange ends with Kobashi landing a thrust kick to Misawa’s chin followed by a machine gun chop barrage. Misawa answers with more elbows and an enzuigiri to counter Kobashi catching his leg. Kobashi staggers but he blocks a rolling elbow and hits a rolling elbow of his own. Kobashi lands another machine gun chop barrage but Misawa retaliates with another elbow flurry and a successful rolling elbow that gets him a two-count.
Kobashi reverses a corner whip and hits another thrust kick as Misawa goes for a counter elbow but Misawa answers with yet another elbow, only for Kobashi to answer that with not one but two running lariats for a close two-count. Misawa tries blocking a Backdrop Suplex but Kobashi breaks his guard and connects with the head-spiking suplex for another two-count as Misawa gets his foot on the ropes. Misawa elbows out of another Backdrop and goes for another rolling elbow but Kobashi ducks and lands a bridging German suplex for a two-count.
Misawa resists another powerbomb and eats another gut kick as a result. He blocks a charge with an elbow and counters another lariat with a Tiger Driver account. Kobashi powers out of that and counters a sleeper with a judo arm throw. He charges again but this time Misawa’s sleeper works and then he switches to his facelock which weakens Kobashi enough for a two-count. Misawa applies another facelock but Kobashi gets a ropebreak. Kobashi blocks another Tiger Driver by rushing Misawa into a corner and hitting corner shoulder thrusts. Misawa goes for a springboard back elbow but Kobashi catches him and hits a Benoit-style German suplex that flips Misawa onto his stomach. Kobashi follows that with a jackknife powerbomb. One, two, Misawa kicks out…twice.
Kobashi slams Misawa and teases the moonsault but when Misawa starts moving Kobashi slams him again and lands a leg drop to keep him in place. Kobashi lands the moonsault but only manages a two-count. Kobashi lands another leg drop and tries another moonsault but Misawa rolls out of the way. Misawa ducks a chop and goes for a spinkick but Kobashi counters by catching his leg and hitting a Backdrop suplex for another two-count. Misawa resists a suplex so Kobashi chops his neck some more. He tries again but Misawa lands behind him and hits a devastating elbow combo. Both men collapse.
They get up after some time and trade standing strikes. Kobashi charges for a lariat but Misawa blocks and tries a Tiger Suplex. Kobahsi resists so Misawa spins him around for another elbow and then connects with the bridging Tiger Suplex. One, two, Kobashi kicks out. Both a frog splash and a Tiger Driver get more two-count. Kobashi kicks Misawa to stop another charge nut eats more elbows for his defiance. Kobashi staggers around some more but then Misawa hits a bridging Tiger Suplex ’85 and gets the three-count just like that.
Winner after 22:31: Mitsuharu Misawa
This is by far the least impressive Misawa/Kobashi top-level singles match I’ve seen so far but it’s still better than most wrestlers’ best matches. It was shorter, simpler, and faster-paced than most of their more fabled epics, but it still had some of the elements that have made them into wrestling legends. It was filled with hard-hitting strikes, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it counters and big moves, a palpable sense of tension brought about by a competitive evenness, and a simplified sports-like presentation. This is what wrestling as a sport is meant to look like and it was as exciting as it was believable. These two heavyweights threw almost everything they had at each other, with Kobashi spamming lariat and hard strikes to Misawa whenever possible and Misawa spamming stiff elbows and clever suplexes of his own.
Kobashi tried to keep Misawa on his toes by landing surprise moves during the narrowest of openings, and in doing so he made significant progress in his long quest to eventually dethrone Misawa. But there was no way he was losing here. Despite hitting incredibly hard and out-powering Misawa whenever possible, Misawa was more experienced and used his veteran knowledge to out-fox his younger opponent. Misawa hit Kobashi with some of the stiffest elbow strikes I’ve ever heard out of an All Japan ring; seriously, watching this match you can hear the impact of Misawa’s padded elbow connecting with Kobashi’s jaw as if it were 100% skin-on-skin contact with all the force in the world behind them. Misawa respected Kobashi enough that he didn’t hold back, even though these two were friends and partners.
Misawa cycles through several finishers and eventually won with a surprise Tiger Suplex ’85. It was somewhat surprising but it made complete sense in context: Misawa weakened Kobashi so much that a “lesser” move was enough to put him down for the three-count. There was no need to escalate things further, but Kobashi would take this experience and use it to continue improving.
Final Rating: ****1/4
No force on this earth can compel me to rate Misawa and Kobashi less than 4.25-stars if they’re main-eventing together. These two were just that good together. Even with a somewhat subdued crowd, some early stalling, and a clear sense that these guys were experimenting and testing the waters with some new sequences, the end result was an exciting, realistic, and tense match.
While this is far removed from some of their better epics, it was clear that some of the stuff seen here would return in their later matches, particularly their October ’95 epic which I think is one of the best they’ve ever had. If these two men can put on such a great match on a random night with much lower stakes, one shouldn’t be surprised that their bigger title matches still stand the test of time for their quality.