A welcome return for the ‘Matches from History’ column and James has thrown a bit of a curveball: Mistuhara Misawa v Kenta Kobashi from Pro Wrestling NOAH in 2003.
Up to this point in this feature, our focus has been on mostly WWE matches, whilst occasionally looking at bouts from other American promotions, such as WCW. But there is a wealth of brilliant battles from all around the world out there, and the greatest wrestling hot-bed outside the US is Japan. So, for a change of pace this week, we’ve decided to look at a stone-cold classic between two of Japan’s most beloved stars, who had an impressive number of memorable encounters over the years.
Misawa and Kobashi were two giants of the Japanese wrestling scene from the early ‘90’s up until Misawa’s untimely death in 2009; they wrestled in All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) as tag team partners, before having a lengthy rivalry, which carried over to Pro Wrestling NOAH, which was formed by both men and many other ex-AJPW workers in 2000. They started from the bottom in AJPW, guided and built up slowly by the legendary wrestler and promoter Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba. Beginning in the junior heavyweight division, Misawa shot to prominence sooner, as the second Tiger Mask. After proving their worth as juniors, both were elevated to the heavyweight league, Misawa capturing the AJPW Triple Crown first when he defeated Stan Hansen in 1992, and Kobashi following in 1993 with a win over Terry Gordy. They dominated AJPW during the 1990’s, and had classic feuds and compelling matches with the likes of Toshiaki Kawada (who had very real rivalry with Misawa), Akira Taue, Jun Akiyama, Steve Williams, amongst others.
Although it is almost impossible to definitively state what their best match is, due to the sheer number of contenders, this one surely makes the Top 3. Prior to this contest, Kobashi had been out of action for much of the previous year, and the last time he challenged Misawa for the GHC Heavyweight Championship, he left empty-handed. From the get go, there is an electricity in the air, and the crowd is clearly anticipating a war. They tie up a few times, with neither man gaining much advantage, and exchange a few wear down submissions. After skilfully building some tension, they trade stiff looking forearms and chops, before Misawa lets rip with a big backdrop. Kobashi roles outside to recover, but Misawa hits a diving forearm from the top, followed by a big splash for near fall. The athleticism displayed by Misawa, then 41, is pretty astounding. Solidly in control, he works over Kobashi’s arm with various submissions; Kobashi momentarily takes charge, with some more full-on chops, but a diving shoulder barge is cut of mid-air, by a vicious forearm smash. The tide finally turns when Kobashi roles outside again for respite; Misawa attempts a flying lariat, but Kobashi dodges and Misawa eats guardrail. Seeing the opportunity, Kobashi hits his patented half-nelson suplex on the floor. Back in the ring, they hit more big moves, including front suplex off the top, before spilling out onto the entrance ramp.
By this point the crowd is super-hot and cheering both men’s effort, and in something only really seen in Japanese wrestling, applaud the most exciting and well-timed sequences. At the half way point, Kobashi is back in control, and pummels Misawa with several more half-nelson suplexes and stiff chops, and continues the wear down with a full-nelson with body scissors submission. The psychology of the bout, with advantage skilfully swung back and forth, and both using logical moves to break each other down, is done without the flamboyance and theatricality of WWE; instead the focus is on believability and the impact every move has. And as things progress, the sequences of moves only gets heated and full-on; Misawa hits a German suplex, a spinning forearm, a double underhook suplex, a rolling leg-lariat and a Tiger Bomb, but Kobashi won’t stay down. Kobashi manages to slip on a sleeper, and follows though into a sleep-suplex. Things eventually move to the entrance ramp again, where Misawa hits a beautiful diving forearm, before a mind-blowing double underhook suplex off the ramp to the floor. Many of the audience leap to their feet and strive to get a better look, not quite able to believe what they have just seen.
An incredibly tense count-out sequence then takes place; Misawa makes it in at 18 and Kobashi just behind at 19, and the crowd are once again on their feet applauding, enraptured by the herculean display by both. In all my years watching WWE, I don’t remember this oft-used heat-builder works any where near as affectively. They trade off a few more massive suplexes before Misawa hits his signature move, Emerald Fusion, and things are seemingly over. Kobashi shockingly kicks out though, and recover enough to finish off Misawa with the fierce looking Burning Hammer, and regains the GHC Title.
A brutal, fiery epic between two of Japan’s greatest, this match deserves to be viewed by all wrestling fans; if you have never watched any previously, this is an absorbing, yet accessible starting point. If you are already a fan, then you know exactly what to expect from two legends. Few battles in WWE ever manage the sheer intensity on display here, and if you are feeling jaded about the current WWE or TNA product, this could be just what you need to help you remember what is great about wrestling at its peak.