Happy Wednesday Everyone!
Let’s pick these up again.
For those not acquainted, there’s a nine hour plus video up on YouTube that covers all of Kenta Kobashi’s near two year GHC Heavyweight Title reign. A while back I decided to review every match on the collection, with us closing out Part Two with Kobashi successfully defending the Title against Yoshinari Ogawa.
This week Kobashi will defend against Takuma Sano, Takeshi Rikio and Yoshihiro Takayama. Let’s see how many stars he can accrue along the way!
25th January 2004 – First Navigation Tour – World Hall in Kobe
GHC Heavyweight Title
Champ: Kenta Kobashi Vs Takuma Sano
Sano was known as one of Jushin Liger’s early big feuds in New Japan. Following that run he moved over to the UWFi and became a freelancer after they folded. He worked a lot in NOAH around this time and was pretty much a roster regular, so he was given some wins and built up as a challenger to Kobashi. Outside of this singles run he usually tagged with Akira Taue in a grumpy old man tandem and with Daisuke Ikeda in a “shooters” style team. Sano wasn’t seen as an especially strong challenger coming in to this match though, which hurt the draw somewhat, even with the show taking place in Kobashi’s hometown.
Sano actually holds his own with Kobashi in an early strike exchange before giving The Champ a big German Suplex, which establishes him as someone Kobashi (and by result of that, the crowd) will need to take seriously in this bout. It’s very simple story telling but it works well and it’s helped by the fact that Kobashi sells for Sano to make it look like he’s on his level. And as we all know, few men in the world of professional wrestling are better at selling than Kenta Kobashi.
There’s a fair bit of fighting outside the ring in this one, as both men take trips into the metal railings around ringside and both throw plenty of chops and other strikes at one another. Kobashi even delivers a DDT out on the pretty blue mats at one stage, as he’s actually been more of the aggressor on the outside stuff for the most part. It’s interesting that they’ve done very little on the mat for the most part and have mostly spent the match clobbering one another and throwing each other around the place.
Sano is kind of the de facto babyface here, as he had the better of things in the early going in what basically amounted to the shine, and he’s been on the defensive ever since Kobashi threw him to the floor and followed up with that DDT. Kobashi grounds Sano back inside and they focus the story on Sano trying to get back to a vertical base so that he can fight himself back into the match, with Kobashi cinching in a tight side headlock at one stage to prevent that from happening.
Sano finally has enough of this and clocks Kobashi with a closed fist punch, which causes the referee to intervene and chastise the challenger. Kobashi sold the punch big as well, as they made one strike really mean something. Kobashi decides to punish Sano for his insolence by delivering ALL THE CHOPS in the corner, which Sano sells great, before getting a big spinning back chop to leave Sano slumped in the corner.
If you wrote down all the moves in this match there wouldn’t be loads of them, but what they’ve done is make every move and spot they have delivered really count. Less really is more when you sell moves and pace the match so that simple spots are things you can highlight as a big deal. Sano finally manages to get himself some sustained offence by dropkicking Kobash in his always injured knee, leading to the challenger working the knee over in classic Bret Hart/Ric Flair style. Kobashi is of course excellent at selling all of that.
Sano works through all of the traditional leg based submission moves, including the Figure Four at one stage, as they continue to tell a straightforward story of the experienced pro working through all the holds he knows in an effort to wear The Champ down, whilst Kobashi keeps trying to either find counters or fight his way to the ropes in order to buy himself some respite. I could see some finding this to be a little bit on the deliberate side, but I like what they’re going for here and it helps that not only is Sano’s execution on point but Kobashi’s selling is also top notch.
Sano takes things to the outside at one point and wraps Kobashi’s leg around the metal railings before following with a TOPE SUICIDA now that he’s slowed Kobashi down significantly with all the work on the knee. Sano follows up with a suplex out on the floor as well before heading up top for his trademark Double Stomp, which he delivers to Kobashi as he is laid out on the floor. The crowd really started to buzz when Sano headed up top there as they recognised what was coming, although part of me wonders if they really buy the possibility that the Title is in real jeopardy here.
They’re certainly doing everything they can to make you think it is, especially when Sano comes off the top again with another Double Stomp back inside, which Kobashi sells like death. Sano follows up with a Brain Buster following that, which gets two in a good near fall. The crowd did bite on that near fall, so they’ve succeeded in gripping them here, and they’ll have good heat for the closing stretch of the match now too as the fans are willing to buy that the belt might just change hands.
Kobashi manages a desperation pair of suplexes for a double down, as he continues to do a great job selling for Sano. Without Kobashi’s dedication to make his challenger look good this match wouldn’t have been anywhere near as entertaining as it’s been. Sano gets to kick out of a Lariat at one stage as well, which just continues to make him look good and more than just a warm body who is just there for Kobashi to get a win over. Kobashi follows up with a Brain Buster after the Lariat though and that’s enough for three after a game effort from Sano.
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: KENTA KOBASHI
I can see some thinking this was a bit on the slow side, but I enjoyed it and felt it was a textbook example of how you take a guy who might not be considered a “strong challenger” and still get the match over by selling for them and building the match in such a manner that the crowd buys the upset might be on the cards. Most importantly though, Kobashi’s selling for Sano achieved the goal of making Sano look good without making Kobashi look like a lesser star in the process, which is an incredibly difficult skill that not all wrestlers possess.
Akira Taue comes out to yell at Kobashi following the match, to plant a seed for an eventual match between them, although that’s down the line still.
6th March 2004 – Navigate for Evolution – Nippon Budokan
GHC Heavyweight Title
Champ: Kenta Kobashi Vs Takeshi Rikio
Rikio is a hefty lad who often teamed with Takeshi Morishima around this time. NOAH had big plans for both guys and they would both eventually find themselves in the GHC Heavyweight Title picture. Rikio was a pushed guy and was usually protected, but he was hardly a massive star at this point ether, which makes the near 16,000 attendance at Budokan for this match all the more impressive, especially when the under card didn’t really have much on it aside from Liger coming in to wrestle Makato Hashi. It’s a testament to just how much of a draw Kobashi was in Budokan Hall during this Title run.
They start this one hot, with both men throwing strikes at one another, with Kobashi focusing on chops whilst Rikio goes more for slaps and shoulder blocks. Rikio actually manages to cause Kobashi to slump into the corner following some slaps before following up with a Lariat and Splash combo for two. Just like in the previous match, Kobashi is perfectly happy to sell for Rikio to make him look good, and Rikio’s offence looks solid for the most part.
The fight heads out onto the ramp way (which is going right up to the ring apron on this show like how WCW used to do for a while) which leads to Kobashi back body dropping his way out of a powerbomb attempt before delivering a DDT out there to finally bring Rikio’s onslaught to a temporary halt. Kobashi controls things back inside, getting a very impressive delayed vertical suplex on Rikio at one stage, which was impressive both for Rikio’s post as well as Kobashi’s strength.
Some of the chops Kobashi throws at Rikio are absolutely brutal, with Rikio showing his toughness by staying on his feet for a bit before finally getting knocked down to the mat. Kobashi actually busts out a Stump Puller of all things at one stage, which remains one of my favourite submission holds. Someone should bring that one back. Rikio decides he’s going to take a page out of Sano’s book from the previous match and work the knee over, getting a low dropkick before wrapping the knee around the railings at ringside.
Rikio’s submission game isn’t as strong as Sano’s is though, so this part isn’t quite as effective, even though Kobashi retains the same excellent sell job. Heck, by this stage Kobashi was used to selling his legs seeing as the majority of his in-ring career had been filled with him having bad knees due to him regularly delivering a Moonsault despite being in the 245-280 weight bracket depending on how much bulk he was carrying at any one time.
Kobashi eventually manages to get himself back into the match with an enziguri, which leads to both men trading head butts with one another. Thankfully they aren’t Shibata styled head butts, although they do look good and the crowd gets into it. Rikio gets the better of that and flings Kobashi into the corner with a Buckle Bomb before dragging Kobashi out of the corner for a big splash off the top for two in a good near fall.
Kobashi manages to get the old Hart Attack clothesline for a double down and that leads to him making a comeback with some spinning back chops and a Half Nelson Suplex. Rikio sold that suplex great, taking a good bump and reacting like his lights were completely turned out. Rikio responds with a back suplex off the second rope, but Kobashi manages to kick out at two, leading to Rikio getting a pair of Lariats for another good near fall.
The crowd is really getting into this now and are buying that Rikio might be winning the belt, popping big when Kobashi manages to kick out of a powerbomb. Kobashi manages to feed off the crowd and make a comeback, wearing Rikio down with slaps before getting another Half Nelson Suplex, only for Rikio to do the old no sell at first. Kobashi chops him down for his insolence though and then Lariats him down following that for three.
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: KENTA KOBASHI
I didn’t feel the stuff with the leg was as effective here as it was in the previous match and it caused the middle portion to drag a bit for me following a hot start, but the closing stretch was well done, with Rikio getting some close near falls until Kobashi was able to outlast him with the big chops, slaps and suplexes
Kobashi and Takayama trade barbs on the mic following the match, leading to a match getting booked between them when NOAH is back in Budokan. This was after Takayama had fought Don Frye and held the IWGP Heavyweight Title, so the two facing off was a big deal.
25th April 2004 – Encountering Navigation – Nippon Budokan
GHC Heavyweight Title
Champ: Kenta Kobashi Vs Yoshihiro Takayama
Takayama had originally been from the UWFi and had jumped to All Japan when that promotion folded. From 2001 on Takayama had been more of a freelancer, having runs in New Japan as well as taking some fights in PRIDE. He had a notable fight in PRIDE with Don Frye, which saw Frye give Takayama an absolute battering. Takayama bravely kept fighting though and it got him over even in defeat. This translated into making him a notable star in the Pro Wrestling world as well, leading to him becoming a Main Event level guy for both NOAH and New Japan in the 00’s.
This one definitely has the “big fight feel” to it, with the crowd being really into Kobashi but also viewing Takayama as a big star, so the atmosphere crackles in the early exchanges between the two. The match itself has really good intensity to it as well; with both wrestlers being happy to throw strikes and be all grizzled. It benefits from having such an invested crowd, as even basic chain wrestling is well received due to the fans being so impressed by the star power on display.
We see that Jun Akiyama is watching from the crowd as he’s due to be in line for a Title shot at the Tokyo Dome and wants to see which of these two men he’ll be facing. Kobashi takes things to the floor at one stage to once again deliver a DDT on the floor like he did in the match with Sano, with it being one of his main offensive moves in these matches thus far. Takayama is able to counter a Brain Buster into a Guillotine Choke back inside the ring for a submission tease though, before delivering some more snug strikes when Kobashi makes the ropes.
Takayama works Kobashi over for a bit following the Guillotine, with Kobashi selling well and the crowd getting genuinely concerned for him as Takayama continues to clobber The Champ with kicks and knees. Kobashi has some joy fighting back with chops, so Takayama catches his arm and does a brutal knee job on it, thus taking away not only Kobashi’s chops but also his Burning Lariat finisher. This is not only very smart from a story telling perspective but it also differentiates this match from the previous two, as it’s not just another match where the challenger goes after Kobashi’s bad knees.
Kobashi is excellent at selling the arm, and in a nice touch he still uses it as part of his offence at points, but doing so always causes him to collapse in pain, thus never really allowing him to capitalise. It’s great because we still get to see things like Lariat’s but they’re done in a way that makes sense, with Kobashi making a visible show of gutting through the pain. It means all of the arm work isn’t for nothing as it is having a direct effect on Kobashi’s wrestling, but we still get to see him deliver trademark moves but just with a different connotation to them.
Takayama gives Kobashi the Everest German Suplex on the floor at one stage, which gets a big pop from the crowd, and both men sell that one big, leading to a double count out tease before both men make it back in at 19. Takayama tries an arm bar back inside following that, with Kobashi smartly wriggling around so that Takayama never really gets it on cleanly in order to excuse why it isn’t an instant tap out before finally making the ropes to break the hold. In a world where MMA is so well known, you can’t just sit there in a cross arm breaker anymore because fans know it’s an immediate match ender or you get a broken arm.
Takayama gets the German Suplex following the arm bar submission tease, with Kobashi kicking out at two in a great near fall. Takayama delivers some more knees following that and we actually get a Knock Out tease, but Kobashi makes it back to his feet and then manages to pull off a desperation Half Nelson Suplex in order to buy himself some time. The selling from both men has just been great here, with all of the big moves really meaning something due to how both men have sold them. Kobashi even busts out a Michinoku Driver of all things at one stage due to his arm giving out on a slam and him needing to improvise, which is a very nice touch.
The near falls keep coming and the crowd is completely gripped by the action, with Kobashi only just making it to his feet at 9 on another KO tease before catching Takayama with a Lariat OUTTA NOWHERE for a big double down. Kobashi throws another big Lariat following that, with him making sure to show that his arm is still hurting but he’s fighting through it due to his adrenaline and fighting spirit, which leads to Takayama throwing some more kicks and knees to tease that we might get a ref stoppage. Kobashi survives that though and gets another Half Nelson Suplex before following up with a Brain Buster for two.
Takayama only just kicked out there, with it being one of those Inoki styled kick outs where you just barely lift up your shoulder at the last moment. Kobashi teases the Burning Hammer following that to a big pop, but Takayama manages to fight that off so Kobashi takes him down with another Lariat and then heads up with a Moonsault to finally pick up the victory after an absolute WAR.
WINNER AND STILL CHAMPION: KENTA KOBASHI
This was fan-smegging-tastic! It had everything you’d want from a big World Title fight. It had an engrossed crowd, great wrestling, consistent selling and a well-built story that climaxed at just the right time following the perfect big finishing move. I know quite a few people who got into NOAH itself thanks to this match as it was a hot ticket in the tape trading world at the time and it also got a lot of coverage in the wrestling magazine Power Slam over here in the UK with them dedicating a couple of pages to it in one of their issues. Just a darn great bit of Pro Wrestling and it’s well worth going out of your way to watch it!
The crowd is going nutso for Kobashi following that, as they loudly chant his name whilst a gaggle of medical personnel and wrestlers tend to him. Minoru Suzuki comes in to check on Takayama following the bout as well, almost showing the human emotion known as empathy, which is one I didn’t think he was programmed with by the aliens that sent him down to Earth in order to destroy mankind. Both Kobashi and Takayama are eventually able to drag themselves to their feet and share a respectful nod.
Well we closed out on a pretty great wrestling match there didn’t we? Next time out we’ve got Kobashi taking on Jun Akiyama, Akira Taue and Akitoshi Saito, so I hope you’ll join me for those battles.