Kenta Kobashi: A TrailBlazer in Puroresu

What does the perfect wrestler look like? If you were to ask the illustrious Tokyo Sports in 2000, then they would show you a photo of Kenta Kobashi. Standing at 6’1, weigh 250lbs. and possessing one of the most chiseled physiques ever seen in Japan, Kobashi was a sight to behold. But it wasn’t just his look that captivated audiences. Kenta Kobashi is, quite possibly, the greatest professional wrestler that ever lived. And this isn’t simply one person’s opinion; this is based on the successes, both critical and commercial, of the companies he has worked for during his stellar pro wrestling career.

Kenta Kobashi was quite possibly the biggest beneficiary of All Japan Pro-Wrestling booker Giant Baba’s King’s Road booking style. Baba always planned for the long term, and from the very beginning he saw a bright future for Kobashi. So he did what any smart booker did: he booked him to lose his first 63 matches. But this wasn’t a condemnation to a career of insignificance. With each loss, Kobashi got ever closer to winning. A kick out here, a second wind there. He kept trying and trying, never giving up.

This went from Kobashi’s debut on February 26th, 1988 until May 1989, when he finally won his first singles match. He was the lovable underdog that never quit, and that would become his defining feature for the next twenty years.

Kenta Kobashi:

The Early Years

In 1990, Kobashi’s career became forever intertwined with All Japan’s newest rising star: Mitsuharu Misawa. From 1990 until 1992, the central feud in AJPW was then-ace Jumbo Tsuruta and his allies versus Misawa and his ‘Super Generation Army’, which included his then-tag team partner Toshiaki Kawada and the much-newer Kobashi.

During this two-year period, Kobashi would show the world just how versatile he was. When he was teaming with either Misawa or Kawada – both of whom were much more experienced – he’d be the fiery underdog that wouldn’t give up no matter what, but whose relative inexperience often got him in trouble when he fought craftier veterans.  When he teamed with smaller opponents – such as AJPW junior mainstay Tsuyoshi Kikuchi – he’d be the big powerhouse that would run in and clean house, causing the crowd to jump to their feet.

That latter story was on full display in one of Kobashi’s biggest and best matches as a rookie. On May 25th, 1992 in Sendai, Japan, Kobashi took part in one of the most legendary matches of the early 1990s. He and tag partner Tsuyoshi Kikuchi won the AJPW All Asia Tag Team Championships from Dan Kroffat and Doug Furnas. In Kikuchi’s hometown. Although Kikuchi was the star in front of his hometown fans, it was Kobashi who scored the deciding fall, sending the fans into an absolute frenzy.

The Ability To Convince His Audience

Kobashi demonstrated one of the biggest assets a pro wrestler needs: the ability to tell a story through facial expressions and body language. All Kobashi had to do was hit someone with a standard scoop slam and make a fist, and they knew he was going for the moonsault (which was often hit perfectly) . Even if he didn’t win with it that was enough to make fans go crazy. That match became a must-have within the wrestling tape-trading community of the early 1990s, and it was the first time (out of a record six!) that a Kobashi match was voted Match of the Year by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.

As the early 1990s progressed, Kobashi became the poster boy for being inhumanly tough. He would take ridiculous amounts of punishment in his matches and still somehow find the strength to continue. One of the best examples of this was in a match against ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams from  August 31st, 1993. At the conclusion of that match, Kobashi withstood not one, not two, but three vicious Dangerous Backdrops.

It was obvious that Kobashi had a natural toughness that made him almost impossible to keep down, which is why he soon caught the attention of the company’s ace.

From #2 To #1 Partner:

Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa

In 1993, Mitsuharu Misawa’s war with Tsuruta ended and he became the new ace of the company. It was also around this time that his partner Kawada turned on him, forming a new team with former opponent Akira Taue called The Holy Demon Army. Misawa needed a new partner and Kobashi stepped up to fill that role.

From then on, these four wrestlers would put on some of the greatest pro wrestling matches ever seen. Collectively known as The Four Pillars of Heaven, Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada, and Taue continued to tell an elaborate, complex story that spanned years and years. As Misawa’s right-hand man, Kobashi would defend his partner at all costs, even risking his own well-being.

In one of their most famous matches, from June 9th, 1995, Kobashi wrestled with a taped-up leg that was targeted mercilessly by Kawada and Taue. But after that leg was all but destroyed, and Kobashi couldn’t do anything useful, he still showed that undeniable heroism that had become his trademark.

As Kawada and Taue beat Misawa down, Kobashi would put himself in harm’s way and use himself as a human shield to protect Misawa, since his partner could still fight and he couldn’t. Even without understanding the Japanese language, Kobashi was able to tell an incredible, emotional tale. And this was all without speaking a single word.

Kobashi also fought brutal yet outstanding singles matches with many other wrestlers during this period, including Stan Hansen, Steve Williams, and Toshiaki Kawada. All of these wrestlers were more experienced than him, and they each brutalized him in their own way. But Kobashi’s iron will couldn’t be stopped, and even in defeat he still looked incredibly strong.

From Partners To Rivals:

Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa

In 1996, things changed dramatically for Kobashi and AJPW in general. Toshiaki Kawada had publicly criticized AJPW boss Giant Baba and his isolationist policy. For this he was punished severely. Kawada spent most of that year doing nothing, and Misawa needed a new opponent. So, like Kawada before him, Kobashi went from partner to challenger. Then, on July 25th, 1996, Kobashi defeated Akira Taue to capture his first Triple Crown Heavyweight title.

As the decade wore on, Kobashi continued to put on stellar performances, especially with Misawa. The two of them had perfect chemistry, and it was virtually impossible for them to have a bad match together. But there was one problem for Kobashi: Misawa would always win when it mattered most, i.e. in title matches. Sure, Kobashi won some singles matches here and there, including big wins in Championship Carnival matches. But whenever the Triple Crown Heavyweight title was on the line, Kobashi would always reach a roadblock in the form of Misawa.

“Kawada, Kobashi, Misawa, Akiyama, Stan Hansen, those dudes were bringing forward a style that really couldn’t be reproduced anywhere, and you really had to watch it in All Japan or you wouldn’t see it anywhere else…You really knew you‘ve made an impact on wrestling history when people from across the globe, from that point on and for years to come, are trying to copy that style, are trying to take that style and make it their own — or just shamelessly rip it off. ” – Kenny Omega sharing his thoughts on Kenta Kobashi among other pillars of Japanese wrestling. To read the article in its entirety please click here.

Misawa vs Kobashi A World Title Rematch

That proved true on January 20th, 1997, when Misawa defeated Kobashi to recapture that world title. Kobashi and Misawa put on an absolute epic that exemplified King’s Road wrestling: a 42-minute rollercoaster of a match. The psychology was air-tight, the suplexes were brutal, and the near-falls were unbelievably dramatic. Even the submission sequences were presented in such a way that they could’ve ended the match, and Giant Baba as a booker despised using submission holds.

Kobashi and Misawa would continue this war a year later, only with the same result. But that’s how good of a wrestler they both were: they were able to craft another legendary bout that felt as exciting as the first, even though there was less limb targeting and more brutal suplexes.

But Kobashi just wouldn’t give up, and in 1999, Kobashi challenged Misawa for the title. No matter what Kobashi did, he couldn’t beat Misawa. The Emerald Emperor was the one obstacle Kobashi couldn’t overcome. But Kobashi kept trying. He kept adapting his strategy to find a weakness, and remembered the big things that happened in his previous challenges (read: losses). But even though this felt like a new chapter in the grand narrative of King’s Road, it had the same ending: Kobashi just couldn’t defeat Misawa, but damn if it wasn’t fun watching him get closer than ever before.

It also helped that, later on in the 1990s, he created the ultimate maneuver, the finisher of finishers. The one move guaranteed to score him a pinfall. The ultimate weapon, only brought out for the toughest of opponents, the Burning Hammer:

Pro Wrestling NOAH and the Reign of Excellence

When Misawa left AJPW to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, his plan was to have Kobashi as his main draw. But Kobashi desperately needed time off to get knee surgery as years of moonsaults and the intense King’s Road style had taken their toll.

At the end of 2000, Kobashi defeated Jun Akiyama in a fantastic match that many people thought was his swan song. So many people thought he was done since his body was so worn down. There was no way he could come back and perform at the same level, right?

WRONG.

After eighteen months and countless knee surgeries, Kobashi made his return, and became #1 contender for the GHC Heavyweight Championship. Then, on March 1st, 2003, Kenta Kobashi defeated Mitsuharu Misawa in arguably the best wrestling match of the decade. In doing so, not only did he win the title and fulfill his destiny, but he also did what he couldn’t in the 1990s: he finally defeated Misawa in singles competition. The torch had been passed. Kobashi had surpassed Misawa as a wrestler, and he had the big gold belt to prove it.

Kenta Kobashi:

The Title Reign of All Title Reigns

From there, Kobashi proceeded to have the title reigns of all title reigns. For 735 days (the longest world title reign in Japan, a record that stands to this day), Kobashi reigned as GHC Heavyweight Champion. He took on all-comers, both from within Pro Wrestling NOAH and from outside it. His reign set the standard of what a world champion’s reign should be: he took on all types of challengers and still won, while those challengers looked great in defeat.

Aside from the Kobashi-Misawa match that kicked things off, that title reign featured a myriad of fantastic title matches. These include: against Tamon Honda (whom Kobashi was so impressed with that he made Honda his regular tar partner), against NJPW workhorse Yuji Nagata, against the seemingly indestructible freelancer Yoshihiro Takayama (of Pride 22 fame) and a massive Tokyo Dome match against bitter rival Jun Akiyama.

During this period, Kenta Kobashi was arguably the top wrestling draw in the entire world. Japan was going through an MMA boom and pro wrestling was largely viewed as dated and less credible by the wider Japanese sports audience. But Kobashi was considered the lone exception. He was an enormous draw for NOAH; that company made money hand over fist and sold out venue after venue with Kobashi in the main event. There was no way that NOAH would’ve been able to sell out the Tokyo Dome without Kobashi once, let alone twice.

Kenta Kobashi:

His Drawing Power

After losing the GHC Heavyweight title, Kobashi still managed to prove that both his wrestling skill and drawing power hadn’t diminished. In 2005, the now championship-less Kobashi took part in two famous ‘dream matches’. The first was against fellow powerhouse Kensuke Sasaki at Destiny 2005 in the Tokyo Dome. In that match, Kobashi proved to the world why his chops are more powerful than Ric Flair’s.

The second took place on October 1st, 2005, and was Kobashi’s first high-profile appearance in the United States. He wrestled Samoa Joe for Ring of Honor, in what has become the standard-bearer for ‘indy’ wrestling matches. Samoa Joe himself recounted how Kobashi was convinced no one in North America knew who he was, and he (Joe) had to persuade Kobashi that it was the opposite; that people had been watching his matches on tapes for years and that he was a widely-beloved legend.

Kobashi still didn’t believe him, so the fans had to tell him themselves.

Not only did that match help establish ROH as arguably the top independent wrestling promotion of the 2000s, but it did wonders for Samoa Joe as well. Kobashi, a Japanese wrestling legend, was brought in to fight one of ROH’s best wrestlers. Although Joe lost that match, he came out of looking like Kobashi’s equal. His own stock rose, and it helped him become one of the best wrestlers in North America as well.

Cancer, Return, and Retirement

As the years progressed, Kobashi began to slow down even more. But things took a sharp turn for the worse in June 2006 when Kobashi left wrestling to fight cancer. His battle with that illness took a lot out of him and even cost him one of his kidneys. But Kobashi the person is just like the wrestler: the living, breathing personification of never giving up. And on December 2nd, 2007, Kobashi returned to wrestling in one of the most emotional returns in Japanese history.

Kobashi didn’t do much in this final run of his, as he was way past being in the world title picture. He was a nostalgia draw if anything, but was critical to NOAH’s success all the same. If a show didn’t have either Kobashi or Misawa on it, ticket sales plummeted. He was that integral to a show’s success, even if he wrestled in the opening match.

As the 2000s wound to a close, Kenta Kobashi spent more time sidelined with injuries than wrestling. Eventually, NOAH’s struggling finances caused the company’s decision-makers to make a terrible choice: they released Kobashi because they could no longer afford to pay him. This sent shockwaves throughout NOAH and led to many resignations. However, Kobashi was able to negotiate with the NOAH figureheads and both sides agreed to a retirement show.

Final Burning in Budokan

That show, called ‘Final Burning in Budokan’, received widespread media attention (the good kind), the likes of which NOAH hadn’t gotten since Kobashi’s stellar performance before his fight with cancer. The Final Burning Show was an immediate sellout, and movie theatres across Japan streamed it live. In fact, Kobashi’s retirement was so significant that it was likened to Pélé’s retirement from football. Even one of Japan’s former prime ministers came to the event because Kenta Kobashi was his favorite wrestler.

So what kind of legacy does Kenta Kobashi leave behind? Well, he regarded by his peers and by wrestling historians as one of the best in-ring performers of all time. He has an extensive catalogue of critically-acclaimed matches, many of which were so well-received in Japan that shows for subsequent tours would sell out within hours and fans would rush the box office to buy tickets to see Kobashi wrestle.

In the span of ten years, from 1990 to 2000, he went from a lower-tier rookie to a wrestler capable of carrying an entire company on his (incredibly-broken down) body. And in the 2000s, despite enduring multiple knee surgeries and being way past his prime, Kobashi carried Pro Wrestling NOAH through arguably the darkest period in Japanese wrestling history. He was to puroresu what Pélé was to football, and his retirement did indeed mark an end of an era.

Where is his place in history?

Kenta Kobashi will go down in history as one of the biggest critical and commercial successes in pro wrestling history. His career is a treasure trove of incredible wrestling matches that demonstrate superhuman endurance and pure wrestling skill. He is the Ironman of Japanese pro-wrestling, and the world will never see his kind again.

To leave you with some of the best of Kobashi’s career, here are a few catalogs of his brilliance as an in-ring performer: here