If you know this man’s career, you are almost certainly saying “Really? Satoshi Kojima?” And yes, I agree he shouldn’t be in an article series about underappreciated wrestlers, but with KENTA facing (and defeating) the leader of the Bread Club at Wrestle Kingdom 15, fans who might not have seen Kojima at his peak could have wondered if KENTA was wasted on a man like Kojima.

We know that is simply not true.

Once again, this series is targeted toward a specific subset of wrestling fans, fans who might not be as familiar with puro or lucha libre as they are with mainstream US wrestling. So let’s wake up and see exactly who we’ve been sleeping on.

The 2000s were a relatively dark time for the two titans of Japanese wrestling: All Japan and New Japan. With Antonio Inoki pushing talent based on their MMA record and All Japan still reeling from the NOAH exodus, neither company was operating at their peak. Great matchups like Keiji Mutoh vs. Genichiro Tenryu in All Japan or Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Yoshihiro Takayama in New Japan existed, but by and large, this is a period of time both promotions would rather forget.

Still, they survived, and any Japanese promotion who wants to survive needs main event workhorses, guys who can put on consistently great matches with anyone who shows up at the top of the card. They’re not your ace necessarily, but they’re always a threat to take the world title when they appear. This is where guys like Randy Savage in 80s WWF and Mick Foley in the Attitude Era thrive. They can move up and down the card depending on where they’re needed but are always capable of showing up in the main event.

For All Japan, their workhorse for the 2000s was Satoshi Kojima.

Kojima’s career begins in New Japan in 1991. Scouted by head trainer Animal Hamaguchi, Kojima was earmarked for success, winning the 1994 Young Lions Cup over fellow future world champion Manabu Nakanishi. He later teamed with Nakanishi as The Bull Powers, capturing the IWGP Tag Team Championship from Riki Choshu and Kensuke Sasaki in 1997.

In 1998, however, he formed the tag team partnership that would follow him for the rest of his career as he began teaming with Hiroyoshi Tenzan as Tencozy. As part of Keiji Mutoh’s nWo Japan stable, Tencozy captured the tag belts an additional two times between 1998 and 2002. Tencozy’s matches with teams like Takashi Iizuka and Yuji Nagata, Mitsuya Nagai and Toshiaki Kawada, Nakanishi and Nagata, and Jim Steele and Mike Barton (yes, that is Bart Gunn) are all recommended as a show of how good Tencozy could be at delivering solid tag team action. As a singles wrestler, Kojima’s work with Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono, and Toshiaki Kawada are excellent examples of a younger Kojima’s skill and promise during this time period.

In 2002, Kojima along with mentor Keiji Mutoh—unhappy with the rising tide that was Inokism in New Japan—jumped ship to All Japan. There, Kojima really came into his own.

Training under Stan Hansen to enhance his already-powerful Lariat and an 11-year veteran, he was ready to be a top star for the company. In 2005, he defeated Toshiaki Kawada to win All Japan’s Triple Crown Championship and captured New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship from former tag partner Tenzan, becoming the first wrestler to hold both titles simultaneously.

Until 2010, Kojima remained as a top star for All Japan, capturing multiple tag team championships and a second Triple Crown title. Kojima would also reform Tencozy and take All Japan’s World Strongest Tag Determination League. This 8-year period is Kojima’s peak, and matches with Tenzan, Kawada, Genichiro Tenryu, Shinjiro Otani, Masato Tanaka, Mitsuharu Misawa, are all classics that show Kojima as more than capable of hanging with some of the greatest pro wrestlers in existence. 

In 2010, Kojima made his return to New Japan. Here, Kojima continued the success he had in All Japan, claiming the G1 Climax over Hiroshi Tanahashi and defeating Togi Makabe to win the IWGP Heavyweight Championship for the second time. Kojima later formed his own stable, Kojima-gun, which was eventually usurped by Minoru Suzuki to become the spiteful gang of lovable miscreants known as Suzuki-gun.

Since losing his stable, Kojima has largely stuck to the tag division as part of Tencozy and, slowly, sliding down the card, becoming a member of what is affectionately known as the New Japan Dads along with Tenzan, Yuji Nagata, Manabu Nakanishi, Togi Makabe, and Tomoaki Honma. Matches with Tanahashi, Shinsuke Nakamura, Kazuchika Okada, Shingo Takagi, Tomohiro Ishii, and NOAH’s Naomichi Marufuji show that, though he is a Dad, Kojima is still more than capable of putting on hard-hitting, entertaining matches with the best of them. 

Kojima’s style could be described as pure, distilled puro.

Between his fiery charisma, arsenal of signature techniques, and stiff strikes, he is about as baseline a Japanese pro wrestler as you could create in any Fire Pro game. This isn’t a knock either, as it is this beautifully-simple style that makes him uniquely suited to having a solid match with just about anybody. If a match calls for something akin to modern New Japan’s main event style, he can work it; if a match calls for more of a King’s Road feel, he can work that too. Need a solid tag team match? Kojima can more than do his part. This is why he was so vital to All Japan’s survival in the 2000s. The man could be relied upon to wrestle just about any type of match the company needed, and it allowed them to fluidly move him between divisions and opponents without worrying about him losing his aura. Even now, at the age of 50, he’s been relied upon by New Japan to put on solid matches with the likes of Shingo Takagi, who was attempting to break into the Heavyweight division. Approaching his 30th year in the business, Kojima is obviously not top 10 in the world the way he was in 2005, but he’s still a great wrestler. His match with KENTA at Wrestle Kingdom 15 briefly reminded everyone why he was the first wrestler to hold the Triple Crown and the IWGP Heavyweight Championships simultaneously.