“It used to be better.” – The Lapsed Fan Pro Wrestling Podcast

The following transcript from summer 2000 is courtesy the NOAH’s Arkive blog – http://puroprogramtranslations.blogspot.com/2018/02/noah-green-guide-to-history-of-pro.html

“As you all already know, I, Mitsuharu Misawa, have resigned as an officer of All Japan Pro Wrestling. I have also given my notice that I will not be re-signing my contract as a wrestler. In other words, I am leaving All Japan.

For about one year, I have tried my best as President to continue the legend of AJPW, however, I feel there is a disconnect between AJPW and the type of wrestling that I want to do in the future. In order to stick to my wrestling ideals, and not to destroy the AJPW that Baba-san created, I have decided to leave.

Regarding my next step, I will be creating a new promotion with the roster that has joined me here today. To the media, staff and fans, I, along with the rest of the roster, apologize for the trouble and worry we may have created. We are planning to do our best from the start. We appreciate your continued support, thank you.” – Mitsuharu Misawa

Throughout the 2000s, there was no promotion in all of puroresu that drew the box-office appeal and critical acclaim to the level of Pro Wrestling NOAH. Led by Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, and Jun Akiyama, the in-ring performances were the stuff of legend, with major stars that had proven themselves to varying degrees as draws throughout the 1990s.

But as interesting as NOAH would be throughout the decade, its birth is arguably the most interesting part of its legacy. Unfortunately, I am not the best person to provide such a history lesson. But after deep searching, I’m happy to have found some history that inexplicably slipped through the cracks for me several weeks ago.

As someone who’s not a puroresu expert, the best that I can do here before diving in is to provide resources of those who are well-versed on NOAH’s birth. I encourage everyone here that is not familiar with this game-changing moment in pro wrestling history to not only look at the blog that was attached above, but to read the Wrestling Observer Newsletters beginning with the issue dated May 15, 2000. Readers can subscribe at www.f4wonline.com.

There are two parties that did provide some coverage of the 20th anniversary. Firstly, there’s the coverage provided by this very website, Voices of Wrestling, on the June 18, 2020, edition of its weekly flagship podcast, with the discussion lasting approximately half an hour, digging into the company’s birth and history. The timestamp is 2:04:34.

But for a bit deeper, perhaps more substantial dive, here are nearly 40 minutes provided by Post Wrestling as well! Embedded below is the May 31, 2020 edition of the Post Puroresu podcast looking at the company’s birth and history. The timestamp is 51:02.

I can best be described as the epitome of a “casual fan” when it comes to NOAH and puroresu in general. So why has this been added to the journey? There are multiple reasons.

  • When it comes to the phrase that “it used to be better,” there is absolutely no doubt that Pro Wrestling NOAH is one of the very first wrestling promotions that springs to mind.
  • The flagship of this journey is still The Lapsed ROHbot, and in order to get a full texture and appreciation of ROH’s zenith that’s to come, Pro Wrestling NOAH has to be added to the journey, serving as another acclaimed promotion at the same time, and also because of how significant NOAH would turn out to be for ROH’s creative peak.
  • In addition to the other underground federations that are a part of this journey, NOAH featured many ROH talents from top stars to curtain-jerkers over the years. A big part of this journey is to chronicle a significant portion of those stars’ careers.
  • Lastly, why wouldn’t a promotion that was as en vogue as NOAH throughout the 2000s be included on this journey?

Without further adieu, making the assumption that all of you took the time to get educated on NOAH’s birth, the time has come to go further back in time, long before the idea of ROH entered anyone’s mind.

This is The Lapsed Navigation.

We begin not with an event review, but a compilation of well-received marquee matches from 2000. There will be a time that entire events get spotlighted; as for now, buckle up, as these are all historically important matches.

Before getting into the actual matches, here are some interesting tidbits:

“The group put tickets on sale for its first three shows, 8/5, 8/6 and 8/19 at Differ Ariake, a 2,000-seat building, on 7/15. All three shows were sold out within 45 minutes. There were 200 fans that camped out the night before tickets were put on sale to get the best seats. The description of the atmosphere reminded people of when the second UWF was formed in 1988 and tickets would sell out immediately (similar to WWF TV tapings and major market house shows of late)” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated July 24, 2000)

“The NOAH show was a huge success as an event, as fans sensed the debut show would eventually be looked upon as an historical event in Japanese mat history, the biggest chance for a new company to become a full-time major league promotion since the debut shows of All Japan and New Japan in 1972.

Tickets for both shows sold out in minutes. The event itself wasn’t profitable, since ticket were scaled far too inexpensively, leading to incredible scalper demand at the event. The promotion itself spent $100,000, which was more than the live gate of the first show, for a giant screen set up in the parking lot to handle some of the overflow as another 1,300 fans were watching outside the building along with the 1,800 selling out the building. Scalper business outside the building was said to be the craziest in the history of Japanese wrestling, as the $60 ringside seats were going for $2,700 and just to get a standing room ticket in the building was going for $800 and all merchandise was sold out.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated August 14, 2000)

A new company that benefited from a mass exodus and quickly sold out its first events, leading to outrageous secondary market demand. Sound familiar?

Our first match is the debut show’s main event, pitting an all-time great tandem from AJPW’s Burning faction against two other “pillars” of the 1990s.

The following match is available to stream in its entirety on DDT Universe. (I’m not embedding the clipped version found on YouTube.)

The First Main Event in Pro Wresting NOAH History (2/3 Falls Match)
Jun Akiyama & Kenta Kobashi vs. Akira Taue & Mitsuharu Misawa
NOAH Departure 2000 Pt. 1
August 5, 2000 – Tokyo, Japan
PPV air date August 12, 2000

It should be noted that Kobashi was the AJPW Triple Crown Champion when he jumped ship, leaving it behind without ever losing it. The winners of this match headline tomorrow in singles competition.

Kobashi steals the show early with one strike on Taue to save Akiyama, then dropping Misawa head-first with a Wrist Clutch Sleeper Suplex, earning the first fall quickly as Akiyama also dropped the company founder with a DDT and locked on a Dragon Sleeper. Kobashi is just absolute fucking magic, getting so much drama out of so little.

Misawa takes a minute to regain himself, for some reason starting the second fall as the legal man still. Akiyama immediately goes after him but Misawa makes a great comeback to damage Akiyama, allowing Taue to get tagged in finally. Once Kobashi gets in, I have a nice nostalgia kick when Taue hits a Booker T signature, the arm twist with hook kick.

The drama picks up in the second, lengthier fall when Akiyama ate a chokeslam from Taue on the apron ramp, leaving Kobashi none too pleased as he couldn’t save his partner. I really appreciate that when Taue hits a top rope splash on the obviously damaged Akiyama, Kobashi interrupts the count rather than have Akiyama kick out of it. That goes a long way in protecting big moves.

Akiyama makes a comeback when he turns another chokeslam attempt from Taue into an arm drag, leading to a mildly hot tag for Kobashi. After a brief exchange, Taue blocks Kobashi with a knee strike and Misawa tags in. After blocking the same suplex from before and cutting off Akiyama, he tags in Taue and the match mildly breaks down as Akiyama refuses to get chokeslammed onto the floor, but eats it in the ring a minute later.

Big signature moves get traded to the crowd’s approval, ending with Akiyama having control and putting down Taue with the Wrist Clutch Exploder Suplex, Burning winning 2-0. That was the proper booking here to test if Akiyama would get over among the other “Pillars” in this match, and doesn’t hurt either member of Taue or Misawa in any way. I’m definitely looking forward to Akiyama vs. Kobashi coming out of this, especially since Akiyama technically got both pins for his team, while Kobashi clearly did the most damage to win their first fall.

And after their handshake, Akiyama decides to just give Kobashi a Backdrop Driver. Now I’m even more interested in seeing a pissed-off Kobashi. While Akiyama is clearly getting the boost here, it’s still Kobashi left alone in the ring to close out the evening with the crowd, indicating he’s the flagship for now as he should be, having vacated the AJPW Triple Crown Championship to jump ship earlier in the summer. Rating: ***1/2

We obviously head straight to the following day’s main event next.

The following content is also available to stream on DDT Universe.

Jun Akiyama vs. Kenta Kobashi
NOAH Departure 2000 Pt. 2
August 6, 2000 – Tokyo, Japan
PPV air date August 19, 2000

The opening sequence is hot, both blocking blows but still delivering others before Akiyama takes a powder to regroup. Minutes later, Kobashi goes outside to draw Akiyama, putting down his partner from the previous with a Powerbomb on the floor. Oh, how lovely it is to watch a federation that does a 20-count to allow for proper drama and selling.

After a crossface submission on Akiyama, Kobashi then targets his neck with various submissions and a Half Nelson Suplex. The damage is enough to sabotage Akiyama’s comeback attempt until he dropkicks Kobashi’s taped right knee. That’s an obvious strategy after Kobashi reportedly came back early from fucking double-knee surgery. (Who knows if that was kayfabed a bit like what apparently happens annually nowadays with Hiroshi Tanahashi.)

Akiyama keeps up the attack with a Scorpion Death Lock, STF, and ankle lock, and Kobashi’s selling to try getting a rope break is brilliant. Akiyama makes the mistake of going for Scorpion Death Lock again though as Kobashi rolls over, only to still get leg-locked. When they reach the ropes, Akiyama throws in some extra dirty stomps to Kobashi’s right knee for good measure. This storytelling is so tremendous even without it being super dramatic.

Akiyama mistakenly goes for a bear hug, allowing Kobashi to hit a spike DDT and Sleeper Suplex. Kobashi’s Powerbomb nearly gets turned into a roll-through near-fall for Akiyama, so hits another Half Nelson Suplex for another near-fall. Akiyama can’t bridge on a German Suplex, so Kobashi immediately goes for the Kimura Lock and then uses his leg to unsuccessfully block Akiyama from a rope break.

They have a hot sequence with signatures being hit, resulting in another hot near-fall after Kobashi’s lariat with his bandaged right arm. Multiple exploder suplexes can’t keep Kobashi down, so after hitting another one, Akiyama instead goes for the Dragon Sleeper, getting the shocking submission victory! Akiyama beats the shit out of some students that try to make him immediately break the hold, and he’s the king of the world now: he got the victories over the three “Pillars” that jumped over from AJPW, including the former Triple Crown Champion that was never beaten for it!

While this isn’t a great, all-time dramatic match, it didn’t need to be. Instead, this established a new main-eventer for the company to hopefully hitch the wagon to as Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa were starting to break down. That’s far more important than having an acclaimed barn-burner, a lesson that modern federations would be wise to learn from. In addition, I cannot wait for the inevitable rematch(es) between these two, for Kobashi to try reclaiming his position as the top dog. This was a humbling defeat for him to eat, but in hindsight, should’ve been seen as more than plausible. Even though Akiyama had failed in all four of his attempts to become the AJPW Triple Crown Champion, he beat Misawa clean 6 months before this at Budokan Hall.

There’s a full-circle storytelling to this result as well: Akiyama’s debut match 8 years earlier? A defeat to Kobashi.

With the first edition of The Lapsed Midwesterner having been the previous entry in this nostalgic journey, I ended it by saying that I badly needed a palette-cleanser. Consider my palette cleansed now after this. Rating: ***3/4

More interesting newsletter tidbits before moving on to Great Voyage 2000:

“Both the 9/15 and 9/16 shows at Differ Ariake also sold out the first day tickets were put on sale on 8/12. October will be the first real test as they are running shows at Nagoya Aiichi Gym and Yokohama Bunka Gym” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated August 21, 2000)

“They ran an angle on the 8/19 show at Differ Ariake forming a new heel group called “No Fear” (which was the name of the group with Yoshihiro Takayama, Takao Omori, who is now injured undergoing elbow surgery which explains why this angle was done, and Satoru Asako). After a tag match where Jun Akiyama & Yoshinobu Kanemaru beat Takeshi Rikioh & Kenta Kobashi, Akiyama, Kanemaru and Takeshi Morishima all attacked Kobashi. Tsuyoshi Kikuchi ran in to help Kobashi, and then Takayama and Asako helped Akiyama to make it a 5-on-2 and they all shook hands to form the new version of the group mainly to push Akiyama as they’ve done since the company opened two weeks ago. The show, which drew a sellout in the small building, drew a younger crowd than All Japan was drawing for its Tokyo dates” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated August 28, 2000)

“NOAH, once the novelty of the new group runs its course, needs to create new stars for survival, because the old guard thrived and later survived and presenting great matches, and the bodies are banged up badly from that and the matches are neither new, nor can they match up to the memory of what those matches once were.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated September 11, 2000)

“Because of a threatened lawsuit by Motoko Baba, Nippon TV is continuing the wrestling and shoot news format on its Wednesday night shows so NOAH is also without television, which at this point is a major blow to the fledgling group. At this point it appears the earliest date NTV could begin showing NOAH would be in April. Mitsuharu Misawa has begun negotiations with TV Tokyo, another of the Japanese networks, but they are not believed to be close to a deal at this point” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated September 25, 2000)

“They debuted on 9/24 in Kyoto packing the 1,400-seat building (tickets sold out in 20 minutes)

The company has now sold out its first eight house shows, but has yet to run a major sized arena and the company is still a novelty in the cities it has run” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated October 1, 2000)

“The situation involving All Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH as it pertains to Vader and Too Cold Scorpio heated up this week when NOAH announced both men on its next tour which begins on 10/7. Where that heats up is that Scorpio had previously been announced as appearing on the All Japan October tour.

While it had long been expected that Vader would join NOAH and become the foreign booker, in recent weeks there had been talk of him wanting to switch back to All Japan, although most of those rumors started circulating after Vader and Mitsuharu Misawa cut a deal in Hawaii a few weeks ago. Leon White made the first decision to leave about six weeks after his career threatening elbow and wrist surgery when he felt All Japan breached his unique contract and that, combined with the fact it appeared NOAH was getting the Nippon TV deal and that virtually every major native wrestler with the company except one had left All Japan. He made the final decision two weeks ago to go with NOAH after he and Scorpio met with Misawa and is scheduled to sign a contract with NOAH through 2004, presumably at a major press conference in Japan, shortly after this publication’s deadline.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated October 9, 2000)

“Vader had his first match back since the injury in the opener of the 10/7 Differ Ariake show pinning Takeshi Morishima in 2:43, and the fans gave him a standing ovation. Vader challenged Misawa after the match

The company ran its biggest show to date on 10/8 at the Yokohama Bunka Gym before a sellout announced at 5,200” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated October 16, 2000)

“With the bloom off the rose as far as the novelty of seeing a new group, Mitsuharu Misawa had gone into dropping traditional Japanese booking in favor of American booking, introducing run-ins, blading and DQ finishes

The company has booked the Ariake Coliseum for its first major Tokyo show on 12/23, noting that Gaea was able to sellout the building this year for the Crush Gals reunion show. The idea is to book something along the lines of a Misawa vs. Vader and Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama double headliner on the show

The group ran its biggest show to date on 10/11 at the Nagoya Aiichi Gym and it wasn’t a success, drawing 4,200 fans which was less than half a house for the Kobashi vs. Takao Omori grudge match and the introduction of the blade

The 10/13 debut in Hiroshima also failed to sellout despite a strong main event plus the first Misawa-Vader lock-up since the injury angle with only 2,100 fans.

This group now has TV in Osaka on Mainichi TV, with the first show on 9/25 drawing a 3.6 rating, which was considered successful. The belief is that NTV will begin airing this group in April. Misawa on 10/5 said that the group was going to create singles, tag team and junior heavyweight belts shortly.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated October 23, 2000)

“Misawa re-named his own group “Wave” that is composed of himself as the leader, along with Yoshinari Ogawa, Daisuke Ikeda and Naomichi Marufuji

The current tour had a major match on 10/20 in Morioka with the ultimate grudge match having No Fear (Jun Akiyama & Takao Omori & Yoshihiro Takayama) meeting rivals joining forces for one night (Misawa & Kenta Kobashi & Akira Taue) in a six-man tag which ended with Kobashi pinning Takayama in 25:26. The gimmick was that Akiyama would get more power when it came to the booking if his team could beat the established three top stars

Vader and Kobashi re-started their feud from early 1999 on 10/21 when they had a dressing room fight angle” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated October 31, 2000)

“Misawa announced they would have a tournament to crown their first singles heavyweight champion in March, which would mean the tour would go head-to-head with All Japan’s annual Champion Carnival tour. They are expected to decide a jr. heavyweight champion and tag team champions in January

Akiyama announced he was breaking away from the No Fear group after the [11/4] show, saying that NOAH needed more excitement with him wrestling against Takayama and Omori” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated November 13, 2000)

RIP Yoshihiro Momota
March 15, 1946 – November 22, 2000

“In a major surprise after all that has been said, Shinya Hashimoto will debut on the 12/23 Ariake Coliseum show. It was really strange on so many levels because they talked so much about wanting the media focus for the biggest show in company history on the loyal wrestlers and not have the focus on the Hashimoto debut, which they could save for later.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated December 11, 2000)

“After the announcement of Hashimoto appearing on the 12/23 show, tickets started selling well and it’s probably going to be sold out before you are reading this. Reports that the show was sold out before the announcement of Hashimoto appearing were more hype than reality.

They tried to elevate Takao Omori as a serious player before the Hashimoto match on 12/8 in a tag team match teaming with Yoshihiro Takayama beating Mitsuharu Misawa & Yoshinari Ogawa when Omori pinned Misawa after two lariats which would be the first time I can ever recall Omori getting a pinfall on Misawa” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated December 18, 2000)

“It appears they are going to call their world title the GHC title, and will be decided in a tournament in March and April. They are expected to crown junior heavyweight and tag team champions in January

They have their first major show after the 1/28 Tokyo Dome card on 2/25 in Kobe.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated December 25, 2000)

And with ALL of that table-setting since the double-shot debut, it’s now time for the company’s biggest show of the year, Great Voyage 2000. I’ve got high expectations for the triple main event, as they include the anticipated Akiyama vs. Kobashi rematch, Misawa’s first singles match in the promotion as he squares off against Vader, AND the debut of the 1998 G1 Climax winner and former three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion Shinya Hashimoto.

“The biggest show in the short history of the company on 12/23 at the Tokyo Ariake Coliseum was considered a big success, as it sold out 12,000 tickets well in advance, and was said to have been the best of all the major shows of the past week.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated January 1, 2001)

The following content is all available to stream on DDT Universe.

In the under-card, the takeaways are that Takashi Sugiura made his debut and impressed, being compared to Kurt Angle. Yoshihiro Takayama pulled off an upset win in singles action against Akira Taue.

Shinya Hashimoto’s Pro Wrestling NOAH Debut
Takao Omori vs. Shinya Hashimoto
NOAH Great Voyage 2000
December 23, 2000 – Tokyo, Japan
PPV air date December 24, 2000

This is the first time I’ve seen Hashimoto, so please excuse any ignorance I may have, although I’ve looked through the Observers and Wikia’s Fandom site to get some surface-level knowledge on the legend.

Yoshihiro Takayama passes by Hashimoto in between their different singles matches backstage. A shame that particular singles match never took place.

Incredible glorified squash. After a heated strike exchange at the beginning that has the crowd popping, Hashimoto gets the advantage by taking Omori down. He continues getting the better of Omori, knocking him down with kicks. I’m sure this is obvious to those who grew up on Hashimoto – it’s crystal-clear what an influence he was on Samoa Joe. From the gear to the physique to the body language to the strikes, I’m so glad I’ve embarked on this part of this journey, as it’ll now give me a better education on Hashimoto, but a deeper appreciation for his influence on Joe.

When Omori makes a comeback, it’s incredibly energetic and the crowd is totally behind him, but it’s not for long when Hashimoto brings back the devastating standing roundhouse kick, once again knocking down Omori. Just several minutes into this, Hashimoto puts Omori down for the three-count via a Brainbuster. Just like Akiyama vs. Kobashi months earlier, fuck having a barnburner. I’m in love with Hashimoto now and am interested in seeing if Omori rises up or remains in this gatekeeper role that he proved himself excellent at. This is how you bring in a legend and keep him at that status, as Omori lost nothing out of this.

In the post-match, Hashimoto gets a mic; unfortunately, I’m not educated on the Japanese language at all to interpret his promo. I can say that once again, I’m disappointed that he didn’t challenge Takayama to a future singles match, as he was there outside during the match and checking on Omori afterward. Rating: ***1/2

Vader vs. Mitsuharu Misawa
NOAH Great Voyage 2000
December 23, 2000 – Tokyo, Japan
PPV air date December 24, 2000

Vader decides to take the mask off and give middle fingers to Misawa at the opening bell, and it’s returned in kind by the icon. Vader’s sense of confidence is just oozing here after things didn’t work out quite as well as hoped for in WWF. Holy fucking shit I can’t believe how high Misawa goes on a German Suplex and the head-and-shoulder-drop he takes. Would it have really been that unfathomable just to do a full rotation to land on his knees and front torso instead? Nonetheless, this definitely has the big match feel that we wish was more common 20 years later.

I hope Kevin Nash was watching, as Vader throws Misawa down with a gorgeous Jackknife Powerbomb. Vader also shows off his submission skills, applying a modified Kimura Lock, which is smart to try preventing an Island Driver and other finishers from Misawa later. In the short-term, it immediately pays off when Misawa makes a comeback with forearm strikes from the right arm, trying to shake off the pain. But Misawa’s comeback here is outstanding, delivering a German Suplex receipt, suicide dive, and diving elbow off the apron. As someone who’d previously just see mostly Misawa near the end, his athleticism here is really impressive considering the physical toll he’d taken throughout the 1990s.

Misawa targets Vader’s left arm with a Cross Arm-Breaker, perhaps trying to take out anymore Powerbomb attempts later. His focus remains on that joint, only for Vader to cut him off. They brilliantly tease Vader trying to hit another German Suplex on him, then Vader uses his fresher right arm to scoop up Misawa and deliver a one-armed Powerbomb. This is just tremendous.

Vader continues the attack, using the fresher right arm to deliver a chokeslam, only for Misawa to target his left arm again with an Inverted Cross Arm Breaker. The psychology in this match is something to behold and be used at all training schools. Misawa tries clubbing that left arm some more using his damaged, bandaged right arm, but there’s clearly not enough firepower as Vader cuts him off with a strike to the head (Vader uses his fresher right arm of course.)

The psychological brilliance continues when Vader successfully hits a Vader Bomb moments later, but his left arm is too damaged to pin Misawa. The damaged left arm also keeps him from the necessary balance to climb all the way to hit a Top Rope Moonsault, so he improvises and hits a beautiful Second Rope Moonsault for a near-fall, continuing to sell that left arm as the crowd chants for Misawa.

Misawa comes back and continues targeting Vader’s left arm in addition to throwing other strikes, eventually knocking down his fellow former AJPW Triple Crown Champion with multiple forearm strikes for the victory. This finishing sequence reminds me of another match that would come years later around Christmas, and I look forward to catching up to it eventually to make the comparison.

This was a brilliant big match. It didn’t need to be an all-time classic, as it delivered everything I wanted – phenomenal psychology and selling, genuine displays of hatred, and a furious finishing sequence from a determined Misawa to claim the victory. I so wish there could’ve been a crossover arrangement with WCW at this time so these two (and the participants of the next match) could’ve worked Starrcade 2000. Rating: ****

Jun Akiyama vs. Kenta Kobashi
NOAH Great Voyage 2000
December 23, 2000 – Tokyo, Japan
PPV air date December 24, 2000

I absolutely love Akiyama’s flashy robe; he’s earned the flamboyant peacock-strutting after kicking off this company as its ultimate winner, and most importantly, it suits him well. Kobashi looks absolutely pissed and determined walking the apron ramp, again showing how all the little things he’d do should be a part of every wrestling school’s film study.

After the opening lock-up, Kobashi gives a clean break, almost daring Akiyama to try taking advantage. Akiyama takes the bait, only to get chopped down for his trouble. A perfect opening to this grudge match if I’ve ever seen one. Then they have a great blocking sequence, showing they’d scouted each other before reaching a stalemate to the crowd’s approval.

Akiyama gains the advantage when he uses a Knuckle Lock to hit a modified Northern Light Suplex. After the rope break, Kobashi is just fire with corner strikes, including a spinning back fist. They take it outside and Akiyama evades another chop, instead of kicking the Hall of Famer over the guard rail. I like the Snake Eyes he gives Kobashi on the guard rail; damage Kobashi’s chest enough, then perhaps his arm mobility deteriorates, which marginalizes his strikes. Akiyama keeps up the attack on Kobashi’s chest and shoulder too, showcasing a wise strategy. Then he delivers a DDT on the apron ramp, followed up by what resembles a running Superman Punch that would make Roman Reigns proud.

Kobashi makes a comeback when blocks Akiyama’s suplex attempt on the apron, instead reversing it to force Akiyama to bump on the ramp. Akiyama blocks the spinning back fist and attempts a Wrist Clutch Exploder Suplex off the ramp to the floor, but Kobashi blocks it and lands a DDT instead. Kobashi sees this as an opportunity to target Akiyama’s neck, hitting a leg drop and another DDT inside the ring. That’s a wise strategy too to set up Akiyama for the various head-drop suplexes or maybe even the Burning Hammer should the situation call for it.

Akiyama scouts more DDT attempts, only to get lifted up higher than usual to eat a spiked one. At this point, Akiyama is looking outclassed, so damaged and exhausted. When he attempts a comeback with a running knee strike in the corner, Kobashi just blocks and shoves him down, damaging that neck even more. Kobashi also applies a headlock, but Akiyama can’t break it, not even when he backdrops Kobashi. This is a textbook example of an icon weathering an early storm and having the determination to maintain control. They really make this headlock meaningful; even though it doesn’t pop the crowd, they get so much out of it, from Akiyama’s failed attempts in breaking it to Kobashi getting in position for near-falls. It’s not a rest hold in any way here.

Kobashi finally gives up on the headlock and moves on, which proves to be a mistake. Akiyama evades a suplex and goes after Kobashi’s bandaged right knee to even the match. Once they get up though, it turns into a suplex-first, each hitting signatures before Kobashi is forced outside due to a Busaiku Knee. That was a fantastic brief, little exchange to keep the crowd on its toes, similar to a hope spot when someone has an extended control segment, while also showing each other they still had some bombs in the tank.

Akiyama changes his focus to Kobashi’s right arm, and to say Kobashi’s selling is absolutely brilliant is about as shocking as a New England Patriots comeback throughout the 2010s. Akiyama even puts Kobashi’s arm under his knee, jumping from the apron to deliver a knee drop onto the guard rail. This is exactly the vicious strategy Akiyama needs if he wants to prove that the Departure 2000 victory wasn’t a fluke. Inside the ring, Akiyama applies a Kneeling Arm Breaker, and also certainly inspires Pete Dunne and Bryan Danielson by working on Kobashi’s fingers as well. That’s how to take out Kobashi’s chopping and striking ability.

That’s followed up by Akiyama forcing a Hammerlock submission to Kobashi in the ropes. Kobashi has a hope spot by using his left arm to chop, but Akiyama ain’t succumbing to that shit. He goes for a Cross Arm-Breaker, which Kobashi manages to block so Akiyama goes for a submission that Kobashi turns into a pin attempt for himself. Kobashi is lucky that when Akiyama successfully gets the Cross Arm-Breaker applied, his foot’s on the ropes immediately for a break.

Akiyama is undeterred, driving Kobashi’s right arm on top of a corner post and wrapping it around a guard rail as he kicks it, then just keeps up the attack in the ring. However, Kobashi seizes an opportunity to cut off Akiyama with a sudden Sleeper Suplex. Kobashi though lacks the arm strength to powerbomb Akiyama on the apron ramp, getting backdropped on it for his trouble. He hits his right arm even more upon hitting a spinning back fist, but manages to hit what should for all intents and purposes, be the deciding moment in this match, head-dropping Akiyama on the ramp with a Half Nelson Suplex.

Kobashi instructs the ref to not allow a count-out victory for himself, instead dragging Akiyama in the ring to finish him off. The struggle he shows to eventually hit a Powerbomb is once again brilliant, and that’s also a bridge pin near-fall. Although Kobashi is damaged and exhausted, he’s got the necessary adrenaline rush to hit the Black Crush for a near-fall. That speaks volumes about Akiyama here since Kobashi would rarely use that. Akiyama teases that he’ll finish off Kobashi with a sudden Wrist Clutch Exploder Suplex, but Kobashi manages to hit a lariat for a near-fall as the crowd is buzzing.

Kobashi goes for a Top Rope Moonsault, only for Akiyama to seize the opportunity and throw Kobashi down with a Release Powerbomb. However, Akiyama is too damaged and exhausted to go for a pin, instead hitting a Running Knee Strike to the back of the equally exhausted Kobashi’s head. Akiyama tries hitting his finisher on the ring apron, even hitting Kobashi’s knee to prevent it being blocked, but instead they both go down to the floor. Instead, Akiyama removes the outside mat to hit his finisher on the floor, only covered by a nearly paper-thin mat. Akiyama returns the no-count-out victory favor, instead forcing Kobashi in the ring to the crowd’s respect before indicating he’d finish the Hall of Famer.

Akiyama hits a Lifting Dirty Deeds/Paradigm Shift before a Top Rope Elbow Strike from behind to Kobashi, then goes for the Exploder Suplex. The crowd pops huge when Kobashi kicks out of all that punishment, rallying behind him. Akiyama’s guillotine choke is cut short when Kobashi once again lands in position for his foot to be on the rope. Kobashi now has Akiyama’s Exploder scouted, but only enough adrenaline to briefly block it, this time eating one from a higher angle for an even hotter near-fall. I’d have seriously thought that was the finish to this classic had I been in attendance.

Akiyama crotches Kobashi, hoping to deliver a Super Exploder Suplex, but gets knocked down for his trouble. Kobashi is absolutely exhausted though, collapsing to the mat. Akiyama kicks out of a lariat for another hot near-fall, and Kobashi is absolutely sensational in his struggle to get to his feet, then delivers a vicious up-close lariat for an even hotter near-fall. Kobashi’s left eye socket is now swollen, adding to his dramatic exhaustion and selling of his right arm, Akiyama attempts a comeback only to eat a spinning back fist from Kobashi’s right arm. Although Kobashi is still selling it, he gets the adrenaline to hit a fucking BURNING HAMMER. Oh my fucking god I wasn’t expecting that finish!

In the post-match, they shake hands once they’ve both reached their feet, and Kobashi’s left arm just looks terrible. I’m not sure my fantasy of Starrcade 2000 being pushed back a week later for these guys to work that show would’ve been quite so realistic after the damage in this barnburner.

An absolutely outstanding match with a phenomenal finish, this was one for the ages and an exceptional finish for the company’s founding year (I’m aware there was a much lighter card the following day.) I came into this with the feeling that Akiyama should’ve won again to truly cement him as the ultimate top dog, but with the brilliant structure and pacing of this awesome piece of business, it was the right move for Kobashi to make the comeback and still be the face of the company overall. Even in defeat, Akiyama’s stock continued increasing, and although I’ve not watched the acclaimed decade that is 1990s AJPW, it’s difficult for me to fathom this not being Akiyama’s best match of his career up to this point, and that it might still be 2 decades later. Rating: ****1/2

Thumbs way the fuck up for this triple main-event, and since the company’s first main event and Omori vs. Hashimoto don’t appear to be free anywhere, this makes getting a DDT Pro subscription to be my strongest recommendation.

Indeed, these five historic matches prove this true of Pro Wrestling Noah: #ItUsedToBeBetter.

My major takeaways from Pro Wrestling NOAH’s 2000:

  • With AJPW and NJPW both in their dark ages, Pro Wrestling NOAH, while still flawed and experiencing struggles with its live gate and TV situation, was well in position to eventually rise as the puroresu flagship.
  • Although the company was going through many of the same growing pains as AEW would two decades later, it also showed like AEW the art of making stars, and did a better job of protecting the biggest stars of the mass exodus.
  • This company also delivered when it mattered most, providing big matches that accomplished their goals in making stars and providing sensational in-ring action.
  • The three biggest stars going into 2001 are clearly Akiyama, Kobashi, and Misawa; for one of them not to be the inaugural Global Honored Crown Heavyweight Champion come springtime would be a humongous, unwelcome surprise. I greatly look forward to the inevitable singles encounters between the three, and to see what Vader could also do with Akiyama and Kobashi as well (especially after the angle shot with the latter in October.)
  • Speaking of world champions, Kobashi was obviously the uncrowned champion at the company’s birth, having never lost the AJPW Triple Crown upon vacating it for the jump. As far as I’m concerned, Akiyama dethroned him for the non-existent top title in their first match, and Kobashi won it back to close out the year. So in my mind, Kobashi is the uncrowned GHC Heavyweight Champion going into 2001.
  • Lastly, I’ll mention again that I wish somehow, someway, there could’ve been a crossover with WCW; my belief is that it’d be a huge boost to the fledgling NOAH, while providing some depth and all-time great performers to the weakened WCW.

In fact, I will use this opportunity to provide a brief fantasy booking.

Had I been in charge of WCW by mid-2000, I’d have jumped through whatever hoops necessary to convince Misawa to do cross-promotional business. (Obviously, WCW would be a drastically different company than it was in reality back then.) Here’s what I’d have in mind.

  • Air the five big matches from Departure 2000 and Great Voyage 2000 on Turner TV, perhaps on Thunder. This would at least give NOAH some TV exposure in America while waiting for it to happen back home.
  • These matches would all be part of the build to Starrcade 2000 and without interfering with NOAH’s creative plans.
  • Reach what I believe would be a fair agreement on both sides for Starrcade 2000, perhaps lending some talent for Great Voyage 2000 in exchange and set the stage for a strengthened relationship going into 2001.

Now the cross-over matches for Starrcade 2000 (pushed back to New Year’s Eve 2000)

  • Jun Akiyama vs. Rey Mysterio, Jr.

    • Mysterio’s biggest career match to date, he’d put on an incredible underdog performance but Akiyama’s size advantage and experience in bigger matches would prove the difference-maker. With this decision, WCW gets to elevate Mysterio while giving Akiyama a strong showcase win after his defeat to Kobashi.
    • Also, can you imagine Mysterio taking an Exploder from Akiyama? 
  • Sting & Kenta Kobashi vs. Ric Flair & Mitsuharu Misawa 
    • A true dream partner tag team match that doesn’t just bring two worlds together, but two of the defining rivalries of those worlds. With this match-up, it puts four all-time greats all in the same match together, and the match-ups are truly delicious: Sting vs. Flair; Sting vs. Misawa; Kobashi vs. Misawa, and the most anticipated of them all, Flair vs. Kobashi.
    • This would lead to singles dream matches down the road, and most importantly, either Kobashi or Misawa would get the victory over Flair or Sting respectively; with the decision left to Misawa in the negotiations. 
  • Goldberg © vs. Vader (WCW World Heavyweight Title Match) 
    • Leon White’s beef with Paul Orndorff (that led to Vader’s departure 5 years earlier) would be squashed behind the scenes to make this happen.
    • A legitimate dream match that sadly never happened, it’s two generations in WCW colliding for the company’s top prize in the most important match of the year. Vader is an obvious recognized name for American mainstream viewers, providing new but familiar depth after being gone for 5 years. His presence would be fresh and stand as a much different test than anyone else that Goldberg had faced before. Since NOAH’s creative plans also would be left untouched, Vader would come into this match even more irritated than usual after losing to Misawa the week before.
    • In return for putting over Akiyama plus either Kobashi or Misawa, the agreement is that Goldberg goes over clean here in a strong title defense, entering 2000 still the face of the company. The hope is also that perhaps way down the road, he may even collide with other top stars from NOAH, both in Japan and America. I know I’d have paid to see Goldberg vs. Kobashi.

Moving forward, my expectations are even higher going into 2001, with championships being introduced and the undercard getting more exposure. The Lapsed Navigation continues as the next chapter very soon on this journey, en route to the eventual return of the flagship known as the Lapsed ROHbot. And as a reminder, there will also be the debut of The Lapsed Lion King of Sports, and for those unaware, it ain’t exactly a boom period for that company in the early 2000s.

Coming up in what will likely be a two-parter, it’s the next chapter of The Lapsed Navigation. We crack open 2001 to finally see some champions get crowned. The bar’s been set – will this company sustain or maybe even exceed it?