On July 10th, 2004, the Tokyo Dome bore witness to one of the most intense and exciting pro-wrestling matches ever. 58,000 fans packed the arena for a match that was twelve years in the making. It was to be the conclusion of a rivalry born of that one unshakeable human emotion: jealousy & it was that jealousy that caused one wrestler to betray the other and turned a tag team into bitter rivals. This took place on the thirteenth and final big match between Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama, and their feud was supposed to conclude at an event called NOAH Departure.
It did, but it had the wrong ending. Why was it wrong? Read on to find out.
Kobashi and Akiyama had known each other since September 1992. Akiyama’s first pro-wrestling match was against Kobashi, and although he lost, he put up a very competitive effort in his debut match.
Kobashi was so impressed with Akiyama that he went to then-AJPW ace Mitsuharu Misawa and asked that Akiyama join their team. Misawa agreed, and shortly thereafter, Akiyama became a member of Misawa’s Super Generation Army. Over the next several years, Akiyama spent most of his time teaming with established wrestlers like Misawa and Kobashi. As AJPW’s ace and world champion, Misawa had the misfortune of having his partners turn on him one by one. First, it was Kawada in 1993, then it was Kobashi in 1996, and then it was Akiyama in 1998. And when Akiyama did it, he left Misawa to join Kobashi to form the group known as ‘Burning.’ Together, ‘Burning’ achieve some mild success by winning both tag tournament and title belts.
But under the surface, things were starting to change for Akiyama. he was being groomed to become an eventual main-eventer. And for that reason, he needed to start racking up singles wins. His biggest win came on February 27th, 2000, when he defeated Misawa in singles competition. It was a huge win for him. Misawa had been AJPW’s ace for the prior decade, and Akiyama beat him clean. It was a huge boost to his credibility, and it elevated him to the position of credible title challenger.
But there was still one person Akiyama couldn’t beat: Kobashi.
Throughout the 1990s, Akiyama lost each and every singles match he had against Kobashi. No matter what he did, Kobashi always beat him, which caused history to repeat itself. In August 2000, on one of Pro Wrestling NOAH’s first shows, Akiyama turned on Kobashi, betraying him after years of tag team cooperation. Akiyama wanted to break out on his own and surpass Kobashi, just as Kobashi had done to Misawa.
Angered, Kobashi demanded a match against Akiyama, and it was granted. The match took place on December 23rd, 2000, and it was a 35-minute war. Kobashi and Akiyama demolished each other, and Akiyama seemed to have the match won. But fate was on Kobashi’s side as he managed to survive long enough to weaken Akiyama to the point that he couldn’t counter or escape Kobashi’s ultimate super-weapon, the Burning Hammer.
After this match, both men encountered difficulties. Kobashi took over a year off to have multiple knee surgeries and recover from over a decade of being an overachiever in the punishing world of King’s Road All Japan. His body was in such poor condition that many people thought his December 2000 match with Akiyama was his last…but it wasn’t, not by a long shot.
Akiyama, meanwhile, became NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Champion after pinning Misawa to win the title. It was the biggest, most symbolic win of his career. The owner of NOAH and ace of both NOAH and its spiritual predecessor, All Japan, was beaten by this young kid. It should’ve been a perfect torch-passing moment that would’ve led to a successful reign for Akiyama. But it wasn’t. The fans didn’t buy into Akiyama. He wasn’t as successful a draw as everyone hoped. With his reign deemed a flop, Akiyama lost the title, which was then passed around until it landed back around Misawa’s waist. And Misawa then lost it to the returning Kenta Kobashi on March 1st, 2003, in one of the greatest wrestling matches of all time.
Kobashi returned from injury, put on a Match of the Century-level fight against Misawa, and embarked on a world title reign that is, to this day, the longest world title reign in Japanese wrestling history. but after losing, Misawa had a nagging question on his mind: ‘who will take the title off of Kobashi?’ As great as Kobashi was, he wasn’t immortal, and his body was barely holding together. NOAH needed someone credible to beat Kobashi. They needed someone strong, naturally gifted, and possessing both a history with Kobashi and a connection with its fanbase. And after many challengers came and went, it was finally Akiyama’s turn again.
Showdown in the Tokyo Dome
After more than three years, Akiyama was finally in the world title picture again. He had beaten Kobashi once before and hoped to do it again. But this time, it would be in front of the biggest crowd in NOAH’s history.
The match was as intense as they get. It was a combination of technical chain-grappling, tests of strength, clever strategy, and iron will. Kobashi had made a name for himself as being the wrestling equivalent of a freight train: his entire wrestling style was to hit his opponent until they stopped moving, and even if he got hit, he’d shake it off and keep moving forward. Akiyama knew this, and yet he still tried to go strike-for-strike with Kobashi early on. But that plan backfired because Kobashi was a chopping machine who hit so hard that his opponent felt his chop to their chest in their spines.
Once that approach failed, Akiyama tried a cleverer strategy: he targeted Kobashi’s knees. Akiyama tried to be clever and attacked Kobashi’s knees with kicks, leglocks, and anything else he could think of. This actually made some fans turn on him because he had the gall to attack Kobashi’s knees. Yes, it was smart, but it was cowardly in a way. Fans watching didn’t like this too much because, to them, Akiyama was doing something underhanded instead of fighting honorably against Kobashi. But that strategy didn’t get Akiyama very far; in fact, it only managed to make Kobashi angrier and strengthen his resolve to win.
Akiyama tried another combined strategy.
He attacked Kobashi’s arm to weaken Kobashi’s signature lariat, and he also went for his King Crab Lock, a guillotine choke that had knocked Kobashi unconscious in a previous match. After weakening Kobashi’s main striking weapon and softening up his neck, Akiyama tried to choke Kobashi out. But again, Kobashi just wouldn’t give up. He refused to be embarrassed by another submission loss and fought through to escape.
With that strategy gone, Akiyama resorted to the last possible thing he could do: trade bombs with Kobashi. since scientific grappling and deep psychology wouldn’t work, he figured he might as well spam high-impact moves, hoping one was strong enough to down Kobashi for the three-count. Except this too was a terrible strategy because Kobashi rarely lost in those sort of bomb-fest sequences. He really did have a bottomless well of endurance. But Akiyama tried and tried. He hit suplex after suplex, knee lift after knee left, head spike after head spike. He even went the extra mile by hitting an Exploder suplex from the top rope to the floor. But even that wasn’t enough. And once Kobashi countered a Fisherman buster into a Brainbuster, it became a matter of time.
Akiyama, getting more desperate, threw all of his biggest moves, including his super-finisher, the Wrist-Clutch Exploder. But Kobashi kicked out of everything. Akiyama tried to do the same by surviving everything Kobashi threw at him, including a diving moonsault, only the second one Kobashi had done since 2000. But when Akiyama kicked out of that, Kobashi still had his one secret weapon. All he needed was his tsar bomb, the Burning Hammer. And just like in December 2000, Kobashi planted Akiyama into the canvas and pinned him to retain his title.
In doing so, it continued Kobashi’s historic title reign…
…and it marked the beginning of NOAH’s downward spiral
Kobashi & Akiyama – Why The Wrong Guy Won
Even though Kobashi was the bigger star on this night, Akiyama needed the win. Since 2000, he had been locked in a triangle power with himself, Kobashi and Misawa. Once all three of them reached the main-event level, they found themselves deadlocked: Kobashi couldn’t bear Misawa, Misawa couldn’t beat Akiyama (anymore), and Akiyama couldn’t beat Kobashi. In 2003, Kobashi finally beat Misawa, so following that logic, later on, Akiyama should beat Kobashi to achieve the same end. But that didn’t happen. On this night, Kobashi beat Akiyama with such a resounding, decisive finality. It wasn’t just a nail in the coffin of their feud & it was a giant metallic spike. It was so impactful of a win for Kobashi that it forever cemented Akiyama’s place in NOAH’s pecking order.
With Akiyama’s loss, he would forever be beneath Kobashi.
Nothing, nothing Akiyama could do going forward, could change that. He had thrown everything he had at Kobashi, and he still lost. He wouldn’t surpass Kobashi as Kobashi had surpassed Misawa. Even if Akiyama pinned Kobashi in less than one minute on their next big show, no one would buy him as better than Kobashi. This match had that much of a lasting effect on both men’s careers.
And on NOAH itself.
With this match, Kobashi went on to hold the world title for another eight months while Akiyama went on to do a whole bunch of nothing. Kobashi lost the title to Takeshi Rikio in the upset of the century. Rikio was a rookie NOAH had pegged as a future star, but he ended up being an enormous flop. Desperate to put someone with credibility into the picture, they had Rikio lost the title to Akira Taue, a popular AJPW veteran past his prime. Taue filled his role as a transitional champion as he lost it to Akiyama. He had another reign, but it did little to improve NOAH’s fortunes. Even though he was on top, NOAH’s fans didn’t buy tickets just to see Akiyama. They were still mostly interested in Kobashi and Misawa, even if those two weren’t in the world title picture.
And thus, NOAH problems began to snowball. One world champion after another struggled to reach the level of Kobashi and Misawa. With few people on that top-level, fan interest waned. These problems were exacerbated when Kobashi was sidelined with kidney cancer and another rising star, Takeshi Morishima, failed to draw. This left Misawa in the unenviable position of being champion and wrestling as he did in the 1990s. This incredibly taxing schedule and its expectations caused his body to deteriorate even further and ultimately led to his untimely death.
Kobashi & Akiyama – The Lessons Learned
If there’s one thing this match teaches us – besides just how awesome both wrestlers were in the ring – it’s the importance of timing. When a wrestling rivalry or storyline is going in a certain direction, eventually, there comes a time to pull the trigger with an idea. WWE understood this with Hulk Hogan’s return in 2002. He was supposed to be the villain in his WrestleMania X8 match with The Rock but left it a returning hero. And fans loved him so much around that point that WWE pulled the trigger and made him WWE Champion in the ultimate ‘feel good’ nostalgia moment that made both the fans and the company happy.
NOAH didn’t learn that lesson here. Instead of pulling the trigger on Akiyama to make him into a credible top champion for the future, they went with the safer option and stayed with Kobashi. Had Akiyama won here, Kobashi wouldn’t have had the pressure of being champion on his shoulders (and knees) any longer. Akiyama could’ve had compelling title challenges against not only heavyweights like Misawa and Kobashi himself but also with NOAH’s rising smaller stars like KENTA and Marufuji.
It’s probable that NOAH’s mid-2000s decline wouldn’t’ve been so severe had they made Akiyama into a bigger deal. They had that opportunity on this night, and they squandered it.