Pro wrestling, at its core, is a manly profession. It’s the embodiment of toughness, determination, intensity, and the iron will to win. And no wrestling company understood that better than All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW). Their original owner and creative figurehead, Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba, built his entire wrestling style around this philosophy. That style, called ‘King’s Road’ is considered the pinnacle of professional wrestling.
It combines the classic American style of storytelling with legitimate Japanese martial prowess and physical intensity. That led to a golden age in AJPW that lasted from 1990 to 2000. And one of the best examples of that story was this match. It featured a seemingly unstoppable foreign menace taking on a homegrown hero that just would not lie down and die.
Today we look at the iconic 1993 encounter between AJPW hero Kenta Kobashi and Steve Williams ‘Dr Death’.
Kenta Kobashi and Steve Williams
– Their Iconic 1993 Encounter
You could not have a more perfect duo for a classic, hard-nosed wrestling match. On one side, there was Kenta Kobashi. He was a rising star at the time, looking to prove he was more than just a tag team wrestler. Kobashi was considered by many in Japan to be ‘the perfect wrestler’.
He had the perfect combination of traits: natural toughness, incredible strength, a great sense of timing, the technical experience brought about by training in real martial arts, and innate charisma. He could do anything and everything. Yet his time as a singles star was still years away. He had to climb the mountain first, and this was his biggest obstacle.
On the other side, there was ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams, a monstrous Oklahoman with an even more impressive pedigree than Kobashi. Doc was an All-American in both pro wrestling and football. He boasted incredible natural strength and stamina and, like Kobashi, was naturally tough. But he was also devilishly quick when he needed to be and could throw people around with ease.
This made him a natural fit in AJPW, as Baba wanted credible, menacing foreigners in his roster. In Japan, there was (and to some extent still is) this trope that foreigners/gaijins are menaces to Japan. Thus, anyone coming to Japan from abroad was cast as a villain. Dr. Death embraced this role perfectly and eventually surpassed Stan Hansen as the most feared gaijin on the roster.
Doc and Kobashi aren’t just competing for glory in this match; there’s a big reward at stake. The winner of this match would become the #1 contender for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, AJPW’s top prize. So both men brought their A-game.
Kenta Kobashi vs. Dr Death – Jockeying For Control
From the opening bell, this match was intense. The wrestlers forewent the typical slow feeling-out process and tore into each other. They fought (not wrestled, fought) at a blistering pace, with neither man holding back. The match opened with stiff slaps, hard takedowns, and painful submissions galore.
Doc thought he had control at first when he dropped Kobashi with a spinebuster, but Kobashi fought from beneath and took control after landing a diving shoulder tackle from the top rope to the floor. Kobashi knew he couldn’t out-power ‘Dr. Death’, so he’d try and beat him with speed and better conditioning.
That was unwise.
Doc was simply a mountain, willing to absorb whatever punishment Kobashi dished out. He reversed out of almost every move Kobashi landed; and what he didn’t escape or reverse he simply absorbed like a boss. At one point, Kobashi tried to chop Doc down to size with his famously-stiff knife-edged chops. But Doc didn’t just absorb them; he did so with a smile on his face.
There was Kobashi, landing chops to the chest strong enough to send chills down one’s spine. And Doc was there grinning ear to ear.
Kenta Kobashi and Steve Williams –
Danger Looms Overhead
With Kobashi at a disadvantage, Doc continued his onslaught. He smashed Kobashi spine-first into the steel ring post and generally threw him around like he was weightless. At one point, Doc went for his Doctor Bomb to finish the match, but Kobashi somehow held on. Then Doc teased another different finisher, and the tone of the match changed.
The commentary and the overall atmosphere switched from that of a professional combat contest to one of imminent danger for Kobashi. Because Doc had just teased the Dangerous Back Drop Driver, the king of vicious suplexes.
Imagine a back suplex, except the poor soul being thrown lands directly on their neck. Now, most Japanese wrestlers didn’t have that much of a problem taking moves at a higher angle than in North America. Wrestling trainees in almost every Japanese promotion spend years training their necks to make them more flexible and resistant to damage.
But Doc’s secret weapon was something else. Even with the most intense training possible, this was such an utterly terrifying move to take. And thus Kobashi’s priorities shifted. Not only did he have to try and wear this mammoth of a human being down to win the match. But he also had to avoid getting dropped on his head with the pro wrestling equivalent of an atomic bomb.
Kenta Kobashi and Death Steve Williams
– The Drama Intensifies
Despite this new worry, Kobashi soldiered on. He fought Doc as best he could, wrestling control away from his larger foe in small doses. He won a strike exchange, and dropped Doc with a big move there.
And when out-powering Doc proved to be ineffective, Kobashi decided to just out-last him through superior conditioning. Kobashi answered Doc’s power with explosive bursts of speed and high-impact counters.
Slowly but surely, Kobashi started to regain the advantage. And he almost had the match won. He targeted Doc’s neck with leg drops, high-impact strikes, and bridging suplexes. All done to make it harder for Doc to kick out by expending more and more energy.
And when none of these tools worked, Kobashi resorted to his big finisher, the diving moonsault press, hoping that was enough to pin ‘Dr. Death’.
But Kobashi’s momentum came crashing down as Doc got his knees up. And then he followed through with one big move after another. Another Doctor Bomb. Some high-impact football tackles. A lariat of his own after Kobashi’s failed to do the job. The Oklahoma Stampede. Yet none of these were enough to keep the gutsy Kobashi down. Both men were desperate yet also on equal footing as possible winners.
But not for long
Kenta Kobashi and Steve Williams –
A Legendary Ending
As both men charged each other, Kobashi tried a sleeper hold. But Doc used Kobashi’s own momentum against him and reversed it…into the Dangerous Backdrop Driver. Doc just planted Kobashi with that move. Kobashi looked like he was unconscious. Doc had to push Kobashi onto his back to pin him, but astonishingly, Kobashi kicked out. He actually survived the Dangerous Backdrop Driver.
Not satisfied, Doc teased another one. Sensing danger, Kobashi tried his best to escape, but Doc just smacked him with a lariat and dropped him again. A second Dangerous Backdrop Driver.
And this was both looked and sounded more vicious than the first; if you listen closely, you can hear two distinct ‘thuds’ when Kobashi hits the mat. The first is when his head and neck hit the mat, and the second is when the rest of his body does.
And yet, despite all of that, Kobashi wasn’t just still conscious, but he was moving. He was crawling around, his body on auto-pilot. He had no idea where he was, his body was simply acting on instinct, trying to escape a major threat to his well-being.
But Kobashi just couldn’t escape ‘Dr. Death’, who came from behind and planted him with a third DBD. That was enough to score a pin and the win.
Kenta Kobashi and Steve Williams –
Twenty-seven years later, this match still holds up as a legendary performance. This match was to Kobashi what WrestleMania 13 was to ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin. It was Kobashi’s star-making performance. He proved to the world what a bough SOB he really was. Kobashi knew he was the underdog in this fight, yet he fought with all his might anyway.
He tried his best to out-wrestle and out-last a much stronger and more experienced opponent, but it wasn’t enough. And like Austin, Kobashi’s will to survive shined through in this match. It took not one, not two, but three of the most vicious neck-cranking suplexes imaginable to keep Kobashi down long enough for the three-count. And even though Kobashi lost, he gained a ton of respect and admiration from everyone watching.
He took an epic beating from one of the biggest badasses in pro wrestling history and survived. In retrospect, this is the match that first helped build Kobashi’s reputation as being ‘the Ironman of puroresu’.
Kenta Kobashi and Steve Williams – Legacy
This is a match that looks and feels like a fight. It’s carefully structured to suggest genuine animosity between the combatants. And they both go in and come out of this match looking like genuine badasses. It feels less like a scripted, theatrical performance and more like a fight.
That’s something that’s becoming increasingly harder to find in today’s modern pro wrestling landscape. Too much emphasis is given to agility and displays of acrobatics. While there’s indeed a time and place for such things, one mustn’t forget that pro wrestling is all about selling a fight, or at least the idea of a fight. And no one does or did that better than the legends of AJPW.