Anytime you want to see great no frills pro-wrestling without complexity or an overabundance of unnecessary glitz and glamour, 1990s All Japan, and specifically guys like Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi, has what you’re looking for.
1990s All Japan is still considered by many longtime wrestling fans to be the gold standard when it comes to delivering in-ring classics on a regular basis. The wrestlers of that era kept things simple in terms of booking and presentation and put all of their effort into making their matches mean the most and give the fans more than their money’s worth.
As I’ve covered many times before, some of the best matches of the decade, and indeed, of all time, involved the two men in this match and possibly some others thrown in as well. The Misawa/Kawada and Misawa/Kobashi rivalries have produced some of the best matches ever, but could Kawada and Kobashi deliver the same degree of greatness? 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.
This was the 25th singles match between Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi going as far back as 1988. In that time, Kobashi had never managed to beat Kawada even once; the closest he got was five 30-or-60-minute draws between January 1995 and one week prior to this match. Kawada had won all twenty of their other matches, but the 1997 Champion Carnival was still full of surprises.
After the near-month-long round-robin tournament was over, Kawada, Kobashi, and Misawa all finished with nineteen points each. To solve this problem a three-way playoff was booked with all three wrestlers facing off on the same night. In the first playoff match, Misawa and Kobashi went to a 30-minute draw in an excellent match that, unfortunately, was only released in a clipped commercial version that cuts some of the best stuff out of it. In the second match, Kawada destroyed Misawa in just over six minutes. That left Kobashi, who was fighting both exhaustion and the weight of history. But given his unyielding burning spirit, could Kobashi overcome a relatively fresh Kawada?
This match originally took place on April 19, 1997. It was rated ***3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer, which is an astonishingly low rating for him for these fabled wrestlers. Let’s see if said rating still makes sense over 25 years later.
After teasing a lock-up, Kawada goes for a cross armbreaker to build on Misawa’s earlier armwork but Kobashi escapes almost instantly. After a quick chain grappling sequence Kobashi rushes Kawada with kneelifts and a stiff chop but Kawada no-sells. They trade chops until Kawada switches to roundhouse kicks which Kobashi counters with a dragon screw leg whip. Kawada hits a big boot but he’s not as sure-footed anymore. Kawada hits another kick, Kobashi blocks a German suplex, but Kawada wrestles into a double wristlock and follows with a kneedrop to Kobashi’s weakened right arm. He starts working that arm but then misses a second kneedrop and weakens his own knee in the process.
Kobashi applies a half crab but Kawada gets a ropebreak. Kobashi follows with a standing knee breaker and a dropkick to Kawada’s bad knee. He tries a Figure-4 leglock but Kawada punches him away and then another standing chop exchange ensues. Kawada tanks several chops to his neck, ducks two discus chops, and then takes a stiff discus chop to the back of the neck. Kobashi appears to hurt his own hand in the process but still hits a vertical suplex for a one-count at the five-minute mark.
Kobashi tries a powerbomb but Kawada resists and applies a Fujiwara armbar. Kobashi squirms to the ropes and recovers ringside. Kawada pulls him to the apron and hits some forearms, and when Kobashi tries rolling out of another Fujiwara armbar Kawada counters into a cross armbreaker. Kobashi resists with all his might but Kawada locks in the armbreaker. Kobashi bounces to the ropes again for a break but Kawada drops a knee onto it again.
Kobashi bails to ringside but Kawada chases him and kicks Kobashi’s bad arm some more and then smashes it into a ringpost. Back in the ring, Kawada lands some over-the-shoulder armbreakers and keeps kicking the bad arm but Kobashi fires up and dares Kawada to kick him harder. Kawada does and Kobashi hits back with some kicks and a running (left side) shoulderblock. Another shoulderblock downs Kawada again and Kobashi fights through the pain to hit a right-arm lariat. Kobashi takes massive recoil damage and goes for another half crab but Kawada blocks by kicking the bad arm. Kobashi answers with a snap German suplex but Kawada fires up. Kobashi charges but Kawada boots him. Kawada counters a lariat with a judo arm throw and then hits a gamengiri. Kobashi hits back with a lariat. Both men collapse.
Kobashi gets up first and goes for a suplex into the ring but Kawada counters with more over-the-shoulder armbreakers and then hotshots the arm onto the top rope. Kobashi pulls himself out of another cross armbreaker attempt and blocks another gamengiri, but that blocks hurts his hand something fierce. Kobashi blocks another cross armbreaker so Kawada punts his arm and shoulder. Kobashi counters yet another armbreaker with free-hand chops to Kawada’s face. Kobashi hits a pair of DDTs followed by a guillotine leg drop. Kawada resists powerbomb so Kobashi lands another leg drop to the neck. Kobashi lands the powerbomb but only gets a two-count. Kawada gets up before Kobashi can land a moonsault so Kobashi boots him and hits a diving guillotine leg drop. One, two, Kawada kicks out.
Kawada ducks a Burning Lariat so Kobashi hits an enzui lariat with his left arm. Kobashi fights through the pain and goes for another running lariat but Kawada hits first with another gamengiri. Kawada follows that with a Dangerous Backdrop Driver and yet another gamengiri. One, two, Kobashi kicks out. Kobashi blocks a Folding Powerbomb so Kawada goes back to another armbreaker. Kobashi tries rolling out again so Kawada switches to a Stretch Plum. The crowd chants Kobashi’s name as he looks to be unconscious. One, two, and – Kobashi kicks out at 2.8.
Kobashi fights back with chops to Kawada boots him down and then hits an enzui lariat/gamengiri combo. Kobashi staggers, out on his feet, but still charges for a lariat, only to run into another armbar. But Kawada cuts him off with a proto-Rainmaker for a very close two-count. Folding Powerbomb connects. One, two, and – Kobashi survives again. Another gamengiri staggers Kobashi but he hits back with chops. Kawada answers with two rolling koppu kicks and yet another gamengiri. Fifteen seconds go by until Kawada covers Kobashi. But the big man is still out cold. One, two, three! Kawada wins the Champion Carnival for the second time.
Winner of the 1997 AJPW Champion Carnival after 21:27: Toshiaki Kawada
That was a fun match and I have no idea why Meltzer rated it so low. Anytime these two were in the ring together you were all but guaranteed to have an exciting, compelling, and hard-hitting match. On one hand, it was a far simpler affair from what AJPW usually put in its main-events. Kawada destroyed what was left of Kobashi’s arm after Kobashi’s earlier match with Misawa, Kobashi tried fighting back with everything he had, failed, and lost. There was little need for the match to go much longer, especially since Kobashi went into this match barely at 50%.
On the other hand, this attempt at creative booking missed the mark. Kawada got a win, yes, but it wasn’t against a fresh opponent. He basically came across as a scavenger who picked apart the remains of a dying Misawa and then did the same to Kobashi. It wasn’t the decisive win Kawada needed to maintain his status as AJPW’s #2 star, a position that Kobashi was quickly catching up to.
In terms of action, it was straightforward and logical with Kobashi trying to fight from beneath while Kawada targeted his arm and went for submissions over and over. Kawada had a superior mat game since he was a national amateur wrestling champion so he was able to stay one step ahead of Kawada, which in turn built more sympathy for Kobashi as he tried to escape his plight. Kobashi tried going for Kawada’s leg but he didn’t go as deep on that limb as Kawada did to him. It was far from a battle of equals and Kawada came across as vicious and somewhat underhanded by going all in with the win-by-any-means-necessary mentality.
The result here was something that we don’t see much today: a wrestler focusing on a situation-specific strategy more than hitting his biggest hits. Kawada went after Kobashi’s arm more than anything else and did so over and over at every opportunity. Kobashi’s babyface fire and on-the-spot adaptation didn’t mean much when he couldn’t hit as hard as usual and became predictable when hitting from an uncomfortable position. This wasn’t the dramatic epic that these two had before and would have in the future but it was still a tremendous little story of Kawada cementing his place above Kobashi…at least for one more year.
Final Rating: ****1/4
This was another excellent match from two of the best wrestlers of the 1990s. Kawada and Kobashi had amazing chemistry together and told a great story that built on the unique circumstances they found themselves in on this night. Kobashi was seriously disadvantaged but fought like a true underdog hero while Kawada came across as such a cruel and remorseless bastard that got the win he was so hungry for.
I don’t think these two could’ve done more given what their surroundings and given what had already happened. For Kobashi to fight back further and have more control would’ve undone all he had suffered at Misawa’s hands earlier in the night and if Kawada took more punishment then he would’ve looked weaker as well. It made complete sense to build this into a story of seeing how long Kobashi could hold out for before running out of gas instead of making into a true 100% even and competitive match.
Of course, this issue could’ve been resolved if AJPW didn’t book the three-way play-off in the first place. It would’ve been better as a straight singles match between Kawada and Kobashi as the finalists and then they get their moment to duke it out as equals. Misawa didn’t need another moment in the spotlight; he was such an entrenched and institutional force in AJPW (albeit for very good reason) that he could’ve come in second or third in the tournament and it wouldn’t have hurt him in the slightest.
Kawada and Kobashi were forced to work with the creative limitations they were given, and the match they put on was the best that it could be.