(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi – AJPW, March 31st, 1996
Anytime you want to watch great wrestling without the need for gimmicks or complicated angles, just watch Misawa and Kobashi.
These two have put on some of the best matches ever, either as opponents or as partners. Both of them always gave fans more than their money’s worth; I’ve reviewed hundreds of top-tier matches and Misawa and Kobashi have yet to disappoint. We’ve already covered their mostfamousmatchesbefore but there’s plenty more to their extensive history together, including this relatively obscure match. But did these two legendary wrestlers put in the same level of effort here as they did in their ‘bigger’ matches? 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.
All Japan was ‘pure’ pro-wrestling; tickets were sold based on the action between the bells. Angles were almost non-existent. Post-match promos were the same that you’d find in sports like tennis, football, or hockey. Rivalries were based on wins and losses and the desire to be the best. This all seems like it’s very surface-level but All Japan’s booking went much deeper than that.
In this case, it’s the story of Kobashi wanting to break away from Misawa’s shadow. Misawa was the company’s ace, regardless of whether he held the title or not. Whosoever partnered with him would struggle to lift himself up and be able to stand on his own two feet as a wrestler. Toshiaki Kawada knew this, which is why he turned on Misawa back in 1993. And when that happened, Misawa elevated Kobashi to the role of his right-hand man. And for almost three full years, Kobashi excelled in that role. He and Misawa had some of the besttag matchesever thanks to their incredible chemistry together.
At the same time, Kobashi started to grow as a singles wrestler. He challenged for AJPW’s world title several times but failed every time. He did get some draws, but no title wins. He even challenged Misawa for the title in a “friendly” senior vs. junior match. But even though Kobashi lost, it was clear that he was going to break away from Misawa and eventually strike out on his own.
That time came in 1996 and Kobashi began building himself up to be his own man. But his departure wasn’t like Kawada’s; there was no sense of betrayal or any ruined friendship. This was Kobashi telling Misawa “I need to do this on my own from now on” and Misawa understood. And so, Kobashi left the Super Generation Army hoping to find more success. To do that, Kobashi had to beat Misawa, which was an almost impossible task. Misawa was more experienced than Kobashi and, depending on whom you asked, tougher and harder to keep down. But Kobashi was stronger, hit harder, and more willing to take risks to win. Plus, Kobashi did have one win over Misawa from the Champion Carnival two years earlier. Beating Misawa was doable but extremely unlikely. But if anyone could do it, it was Kobashi.
This match originally took place on March 31st, 1996. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
The match is slightly clipped so we miss the first minute or so. They shook hands before the bell rings and then the video skips ahead and both guys are in opposite corners. Kobashi overpowers Misawa with a knuckle lock and then hits a nasty chop against the ropes. Misawa hits back with another elbow strike to force another stalemate. Kobashi headlocks Misawa and then grinds his head with those massive arms of his. Misawa tries fighting out but Kobashi’s just too strong and keeps it cinched in. Then Misawa escapes with a quick roll-up for a one-count, which isn’t something he does often. That surprises Kobashi and once again the two have a stand-off.
Misawa elbows Kobashi and then lands his trademark diving spinning lariat for a quick two-count. He follows with a chinlock but Kobashi escapes that via Stunner. Kobashi hits more brutal chops and reapplies his headlock and keeps it on as Misawa tries pushing him off using the ropes. It takes more elbows for Misawa to break free but when he does Kobashi comes running at him like a freight train with a shoulderblock. Kobashi charges for a lariat. Misawa blocks and tries a Tiger Driver. Kobashi powers out and blocks a German suplex with an elbow. Misawa elbows back and lands a German that sends Kobashi to the floor. Great sequence. Misawa sees Kobashi moving and dives through the ropes with an elbow suicida. He tosses Kobashi back into the ring and goes for a top-rope dive. But once he’s in midair Kobashi dropkicks him right in the stomach.
Kobashi gets up first and lands a spinkick to Misawa’s gut. He follows with two running kneelifts and pins for a two-count and a delayed vertical suplex for another two-count. Misawa gets a ropebreak before Kobashi can fully apply a Boston crab so Kobashi hits more chops. Misawa hits back with an elbow and applies his own headlock. But Kobashi counters with a Backdrop suplex. Kobashi pins but Misawa gets a ropebreak with his foot.
Ten minutes have passed as Kobashi hits corner chops and a corner jumping knee. Misawa hits back out of nowhere with more elbows and stiff kicks. Misawa goes for an Irish whip but Kobashi reverses it into a Giant Baba neckbreaker drop, also out of nowhere. Kobashi channels Kawada for a moment and kicks Misawa’s spine, then lands a Russian leg sweep for another two-count. Then Kobashi applies an abdominal stretch, only for Misawa to power out. But Kobashi maintains control with a running kick to Misawa’s face for yet another two-count. Clearly he’s desperate to win by any means necessary.
Misawa resists being suplexed at first but then Kobashi lifts him up anyway. Misawa lands behind him and the two have an elbow/chop exchange that Kobashi wins when he lands a chop flurry to Misawa’s neck. Kobashi attacks Misawa’s neck some more. Misawa hits back with a stiff elbow. Kobashi chops again and dumps Misawa on his head with a German. Misawa bounces right back up and lands a running elbow. Both wrestlers collapse. Kobashi gets up first and lands a kick but Misawa explodes with a barrage of elbows and forearms. But that only angers Kobashi as he retaliates with kneelifts. Misawa tanks those strikes and lands another elbow strike flurry and another German. But Kobashi gets to his feet. LARIATO! Both wrestlers collapse again.
Kobashi gets up first and lands many more chops to Misawa’s neck. Then he spinkicks Misawa’s gut again and lands a powerbomb. But Kobashi’s just as hurt as Misawa and staggers into a corner. Misawa rolls to ringside and Kobashi lands a sliding dropkick. Kobashi sends Misawa into the barricade twice and goes for a powerbomb onto the ringside mats. But Misawa counters it into a Frankensteiner. Kobashi gets up and lands a shoulderblock to keep Misawa grounded and then throws Misawa into the ring. one, two, Misawa gets a ropebreak.
Kobashi fires up and goes for a dragon suplex but Misawa grabs the ropes. But Kobashi breaks Misawa’s grip with chops to the neck and then lands a bridging dragon suplex. The referee counts one, two, and Misawa kicks out. Kobashi teases a Tiger Driver on Misawa but Misawa blocks it so Kobashi lands a guillotine leg drop onto the back of Misawa’s neck. Then Kobashi connects with a Tiger Driver. One, two, Misawa kicks out. Kobashi slams Misawa and goes for his moonsault. Misawa rolls away and when Kobashi picks him up he hits more stiff elbows. But Kobashi doesn’t give up and tries again. Misawa hits an elbow and goes for the same spinkick that he hit earlier. But this time Kobashi traps Misawa’s leg and hits a bridging overhead Backdrop suplex. One, two, Misawa barely kicks out. Kobashi slams Misawa again and this time adds a running leg drop. Then he dives with the moonsault. One, two, and th – no, Misawa kicks out again. Another chop/elbow exchange ensues. Kobashi wins and spikes Misawa with a half-nelson suplex. That’s followed by a springboard guillotine leg drop for yet another two-count.
Misawa elbows Kobashi to get away from him but Kobashi hits back with a running knee to the back of his neck. Kobashi tries pulling Misawa away from the ropes but Misawa holds on for dear life. Many more chops to the neck break Misawa’s grip, but when Kobashi goes for an Irish whip Misawa lands a last-second counter into an elbow strike. Then he lands his patented rolling elbow smash. Kobashi staggers…into a Tiger suplex. Misawa gets some critical recovery time as the crowd chants Kobashi’s name. Kobashi ducks a rolling elbow. Misawa ducks a discus chop and then hits another elbow and another Tiger suplex. Misawa covers but Kobashi kicks out once more. Then Kobashi powers out of a Tiger Driver from Misawa and both guys charge at each other. Misawa hits first with an elbow and then lands his own Tiger Driver for a very close two-count.
Misawa goes to the top rope and Kobashi tries cutting him off. Misawa absorbs several chops and drops Kobashi with another elbow. Then Misawa lands a diving Baba-style neckbreaker drop. One, two, and three! Misawa beats Kobashi out of nowhere!
Winner after 24:07: Mitsuharu Misawa
Yet another awesome match from two of the best pro-wrestlers to ever live. What it lacked in terms of high highs and the deepest of storytelling it made up in its tension and atmosphere. Both guys fought like hell and took a lot of punishment. They showed tremendous ring awareness and made use of where they were in the ring like few others could. Every big counter sequence meant something and was almost impossible to predict. These two mastered the art of making viewers watch each action closely because you never knew what would be countered or blocked and what would change the direction of the match. And once again, Misawa looked like a monster by absorbing such an onslaught from Kobashi and still coming out on top.
The match really sold the idea that Kobashi is a ‘runaway freight train’ whose power comes from his momentum and speed. He ended Misawa’s early momentum with a counter midair dropkick and then showed how smart a wrestler he was by targeting Misawa’s ribs and gut for most of the match thereafter. But that was only an opportunistic strategy and not Kobashi’s main one. He didn’t start the match going after Misawa’s ribs; instead, he started by targeting Misawa’s neck. But Kobashi was a smart wrestler and switched his strategy to make a two-pronged assault by attacking Misawa in different ways. It seemed like that approach was working; Misawa was getting weaker and couldn’t withstand so many punishing attacks in two places at once. But Misawa soon learned how to use that against him enough to turn the tide of the match in his favor. Misawa relied on his explosive and dangerous elbows which won him many matches before. Since all he could do at first was hit during short openings, he blasted Kobashi whenever he could. Over time, Kobashi got weaker and weaker until all he could do was act like a one-track freight train that could only move forward. That allowed Misawa to surprise Kobashi with a sudden finish that I’ve never seen from Misawa. He won with the most out-of-left-field move he’s ever done, but it made sense here to a degree. It sold the idea that Kobashi’s guard had been broken so badly that the simplest of maneuvers was enough to beat him. It was similar to Misawa’s June 1997 match with Kawada in which Misawa beat Kawada with a simple bridging German suplex because Kawada was incapable of defending himself any further after surviving such a monumental beating.
There’s a comparison to be made between these 1990s All Japan matches and 2010s and 2020s New Japan matches. There are many similarities between them but there’s one key difference. Many of these top New Japan matches have their best counters and most dramatic sequences saved for the closing moments and therefore leave the opening bits and middle moments a bit mechanical or empty. The 1990s All Japan matches, including this one, spread those same elements out more evenly throughout the match.
This match didn’t have a handful of extremely high peaks saved towards the end; it had multiple high peaks throughout. There were several moments that changed the wrestlers’ momentum or were believable enough to end the match.
It’s a different viewing experience compared to most modern New Japan matches, many of which have been praised on this site and elsewhere. In many of those NJPW matches, you have to sit through a slow beginning and decent middle that builds to an exciting and satisfying finish that, for the most part, makes up for the earlier parts’ shortcomings. Here, the finish doesn’t have to ‘make up for the start’ because there’s no slowness or plodding parts to begin with.
This match, like others of its time, is one single cohesive story that has the same level of wrestling quality and cohesive storytelling at the start as it does in the middle and towards the end. There’s no sense of ‘just get to the good stuff already’ because Misawa and Kobashi set a proper pace and spread out their biggest spots well enough to keep the match from dipping in quality or losing the viewers’ interest.
And yet, the match’s finish, while creative and justifiable to an extent, hurt the match as well. It was a bit flat and rushed, and failed to reach the same dramatic high notes that’ve defined the Misawa-Kobashi rivalry. Furthermore, this match would’ve benefitted from further limb targeting, which is something Kobashi did both before this match in October 1995 and a few months later in January 1997. In both those cases, Kobashi attacked Misawa’s arm extensively to prevent Misawa from spamming elbow strikes. That strategy would’ve been welcome here – even if used briefly – so that Misawa would lose yet another avenue to victory. But since Kobashi neglected to target Misawa’s main weapon, he left himself open to full-power elbow strikes, which is what allowed Misawa to open Kobashi up for the surprise win in the first place.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Meltzer was right on the money with this one. Misawa and Kobashi really do live up to the hype. Even after over two decades of change in the wrestling business, their matches together still hold up incredibly well. Few wrestlers were or are able to deliver such top-tier wrestling between the bells. Even without angles, flashy personalities, or complex storylines beyond ‘winners and losers’, these two are still entertaining.
Matches like this hold up so well because they show wrestling as a serious endeavor and the wrestlers involved go out of their way to convince the viewer that the action is as close to 100% real as can be. That’s sorely needed these days; even though it might be hard to put the genie back into the bottle, it’s still doable. If more of today’s wrestlers tried to sell the idea that what they were doing was difficult and not everyone could do it, then maybe pro-wrestling wouldn’t be dismissed so easily as something silly and niche.
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.