Kenta Kobashi is the greatest professional wrestler of all-time.
He has a longer list of great matches than Ric Flair, more longevity than Genichiro Tenryu, and ultimately peaked higher than any of his Four Pillar contemporaries. On May 11, 2013, after surviving cancer, numerous surgeries, and the All Japan exodus of 2000, Kobashi hung up his boots, calling it quits twenty-five years after he began.
The following guide is designed for Kobashi fans new and old. In honor of Kobashi retiring on the 11th, I have composed 11 essential Kobashi matches, some of which are no-brainer slam dunks, others of which I think have flown under the radar as time has gone on.
This is BURNING: A Guide to Kenta Kobashi’s Greatness.
Kenta Kobashi & Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu & Stan Hansen
All Japan Pro Wrestling – July 15, 1989
Kobashi’s first foray into greatness takes place a year after his debut. In his first Korakuen Hall main event, Kobashi teamed up with Jumbo Tsuruta to square off against then-Triple Crown champion Genichiro Tenryu and All Japan’s meanest foreign export, Stan Hansen. It couldn’t have been hard to have a great match against Tenryu and Hansen. I’m pretty sure I could get beaten up en route to a ***1/2 match if I was tangling with Hansen in the late ’80s, but that is no slight on Kobashi’s performance. Kobashi shows the fire that would make him a star and takes a beating of epic proportions that would eventually endear him to wrestling fans around the globe.
Kenta Kobashi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Dan Kroffat & Doug Furnas
All Japan Pro Wrestling – May 25, 1992
Kobashi spent the first few years of the 1990s forming the New Generation Army with All Japan’s prospering fleet of young talent. He spent 1991 getting his clock cleaned by Stan Hansen and failed to gain any momentum in both the 1990 and 1991 Real World Tag League. By early 1992, however, Kobashi and his partner for the ‘91 League, Tsuyoshi Kikuchi, found their momentum by spring 1992, and in front of literally the hottest crowd ever, Kobashi and Kikuchi knocked off The Can-Am Express for the All Asia tag belts on May 25, 1992. This is on the shortlist of wrestling’s greatest matches ever. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling that transcends language barriers and any prior knowledge of these two teams. Anyone with a basic understanding of what wrestling is, and what it is capable of, can parachute into this match and understand why it is still held in such high regard.
Kenta Kobashi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Masanobu Fuchi & Yoshinari Ogawa
All Japan Pro Wrestling – July 5, 1992
Kobashi and Kikuchi continued their tear in 1992 with a bout in Korakuen Hall against Masanobu Fuchi & Yoshinari Ogawa. Fuchi is All Japan’s resident cranky old man. He took pride in tearing apart the New Generation limb-from-limb. Ogawa is young in age but old at heart, and his bitterness is felt loud and clear here. This match is listed because Kobashi makes a hot tag in this match that is so full of energy and grit that it floored me the first time I saw it. After the Can-Ams classic, Kobashi becomes the Kobashi that we grew to know and love. He looks poised and confident in this bout. He stands up to Fuchi and beats down Ogawa. It’s a lost gem from the goldmine of 90’s-era All Japan.
Kenta Kobashi vs. Steve Williams
All Japan Pro Wrestling – August 31, 1993
Kenta Kobashi was the best wrestler in the world in 1993. This is his first year of true, undoubted greatness from January through December. Kobashi’s encounter with Stan Hansen in July is arguably more important to Kobashi’s career, but his match a month later with Steve Williams is far more impressive. Williams is someone who was protected throughout his entire time in All Japan, always struggled to have truly great matches. His encounters with Misawa were too rugged and too awkward, he and Taue never worked well together, and despite achieving greatness with Kawada on a handful of occasions, they do not hit the levels that Dr. Death hit with Kobashi in August 1993. One of the most brutal finishes ever.
Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada
All Japan Pro Wrestling – December 3, 1993
It would be criminally unfair to compare New Japan’s modern-day World Tag League to All Japan’s Real World Tag League in the 1990’s. New Japan gives their top stars a break heading into the biggest show of the year, Wrestle Kingdom, while for a few years, it could be argued that the final show of the RWTL was All Japan’s biggest show of the year. All-star tag teams were pitted against one another in the finals of the 1993 tournament. Kobashi and Misawa represented the good in the world, Kawada and Taue, dubbed Holy Demon Army, represented the overwhelming evil that surrounds us, and are wrestling’s second greatest tag team ever. Kobashi’s selling in this match makes it a contender for the single greatest individual performance I’ve ever seen in a wrestling match. It’s brutal. It’s heartbreaking. I want to yell at my TV and lead the packed Budokan Hall in “Ko-bash-i” chants. I want the man to get up, to fight, and to win. When they eventually do, it makes every second of agony worth it. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.
Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada
All Japan Pro Wrestling – June 9, 1995
Clubhouse leader for the best match in All Japan history. In recent years, I think, for whatever reason, this match has gained more traction than the Kawada vs. Misawa singles match from June 1994. This is day one, required puro viewing for new fans. This is the gold standard. This is All Japan Pro Wrestling at its best. It’s four of the best twenty-five wrestlers of all-time at their peak. The action can speak for itself.
Kenta Kobashi vs. Toshiaki Kawada
All Japan Pro Wrestling – June 12, 1998
I just mentioned that the tag match from 6/9/95 has only grown in stature as time has gone on. For whatever reason, this singles encounter between Kobashi and Kawada seems to have been forgotten. I think it’s one of the best matches of the era, one of Kawada’s best matches ever, and a criminally underrated five-star affair between natural opponents. These two wrestled a ton as young boys in short, clean affairs, but by the time Kawada dawned the yellow and black in the 1990s, their matches were bloated affairs that failed to reach great heights. Most of their televised matches finished in draws, either of the 30 or 60-minute variety. This time around, with the Triple Crown on the line, the two do battle for over a half-hour, decimating each other the entire time. It’s the prototype for Kobashi’s NOAH-era slugfests.
Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama
Pro Wrestling NOAH – August 6, 2000
Speaking of NOAH~! This is NOAH’s second show and the first great match in company history. Akiyama savagely takes it to Kobashi. He was in Kobashi’s shadow throughout their time together in All Japan, but the blue canvas is in the past for these two now, and Akiyama does his best to propel past Kobashi. The bumps are getting bigger, the crowds are getting hotter, and the emotions are intensifying. Misawa is the figurehead of the promotion, but for its first five years, Kobashi is the heart and soul of Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa
Pro Wrestling NOAH – March 1, 2003
My pick for the greatest match of all-time. There’s a handful of matches on this list that such honors can be given to, but for me, this is as good as it gets. The heart, the passion, and the drama are unparalleled in this match. The Tiger Suplex bump is fucking insane. It just is. There’s no other way to describe it. Kobashi wrestled a handful of matches in 2002, but it’s clear his knees are still torched from his 2001 surgery. By 2003, he figured out how to adapt. He doesn’t have the youthful energy that he did in All Japan. The orange tights are gone. This is a new era of Kenta Kobashi, and by proxy, a new era of NOAH.
Kenta Kobashi vs. Yoshihiro Takayama
Pro Wrestling NOAH – April 25, 2004
Horribly violent. Incredibly stiff. Unbelievably great. Kobashi’s run with the GHC Heavyweight Championship is the best title reign ever. It surpasses any of Flair’s individual reigns with the gold, Masaaki Mochizuki’s 2011 Open the Dream Gate run, or Kazuchika Okada’s 720-day run as IWGP Heavyweight Champion. Those are all incredible, but Kobashi’s is better. Once he knocks Misawa off the top of his throne, people splinter off and champion various Kobashi title defenses as his best work of the run. His Tokyo Dome encounter with Jun Akiyama was given five stars by Dave Meltzer, his cross-promotional defense vs. New Japan’s Yuji Nagata gave lapsed New Japan fans something to pay attention to at the height of Inokiism, and fringe groups gravitated towards the simpleness of his defense vs. Yoshinari Ogawa, but for me, nothing tops the sheer brutality of his defense vs. Takayama.
Kenta Kobashi vs. Kensuke Sasaki
Pro Wrestling NOAH – July 18, 2005
In recent years, the sequel to this Tokyo Dome epic, a tag match featuring Kenta Kobashi’s protegee Go Shiozaki and Kensuke Sasaki’s prized pupil/adopted son, a then-17-year-old Katushiko Nakajima, seems to have become the favored bout for whatever reason. It’s a modern classic, but it’s not as strong as the singles match. Kobashi and Sasaki provide the greatest chop battle of all-time. Kobashi is coming off of his historic reign as GHC Champion and Sasaki is wrestling’s greatest freelancer at the time, bouncing between All Japan, New Japan, Dragon Gate, and NOAH during 2005. Sasaki was spread so thin that this match could’ve easily been a disappointment. He was exhausted. They could’ve phoned it in. Instead, they caved each other’s chests in. This is dumb jock wrestling personified.
Kobashi is perhaps the most accessible Japanese wrestler of all-time. As soon as I saw a grainy YouTube upload of his 2003 classic with Misawa, I was immediately hooked. I needed to see everything and I needed to learn as much as I could about him. He’s in an elite tier of wrestlers. He’s one of the few people I even entertain in the GOAT argument. Kobashi, along with Stan Hansen, Genichiro Tenyru, Tatsumi Fujinami, are the only people I truly consider to be in the running as the greatest pro wrestler ever. Guys like Ric Flair, Rey Mysterio Jr, Masaaki Mochizuki, and his Pillar-contemporaries remain a tier below him.
The flame of Kobashi’s career burnt out seven years ago today, but his 25 years of dominance will keep his legacy burning forever.