‘On This Day’ is a commemorative article series. It is dedicated to specific events, matches, and occurrences in wrestling history. We revisit those key moments and look back at how they went down and what they meant to the wrestling industry. Kenta Kobashi vs Kensuke Sasaki is that match.
Kenta Kobashi and Kensuke Sasaki. You couldn’t find a more perfect pairing in Japan for a big dream match. The two of them were arguably the two strongest wrestlers in the country. Both were known for their power-based offense, hard-hitting strikes, and devastating lariats. They had both been champions from their respective companies and were adored by their fanbases.
Today we’ll look at their epic singles match on the second-biggest NOAH show every Destiny 2005.
Kobashi vs Sasaki | Background
By mid-2005, Kenta Kobashi had done it all. He was GHC Heavyweight Champion for over two full years. His run as champion included a plethora of fantastic wrestling matches. He managed to prove all the naysayers wrong by working at a godlike level despite the physical wear-and-tear on his body. And he was the key to keeping the wrestling industry alive in Japan during its darkest period ever.
From 1999 to about 2004 or so, the puroresu scene in Japan was dire. Thanks to the MMA boom and Antonio Inoki’s failed ‘Inokism’ experiment, puroresu was suffering from an image problem. Viewed as fake and dated, Japanese audiences turned more to MMA and less to wrestling with each passing year. This trend devastated both New Japan and All Japan, which had been the unquestioned kings of wrestling in Japan the decade prior.
The only company relatively unaffected by this MMA boom was NOAH, which had Kobashi as its top star. He kept fans coming to NOAH shows nonstop and the company was enjoying incredible success thanks in no small part to Kobashi’s star power. To capitalize on that, NOAH needed him to face a big star on their second-ever Tokyo Dome show. The year prior, Kobashi was in the main-event against Jun Akiyama that set the bar even higher for NOAH shows.
In 2005, Kobashi was no longer champion but was still considered its top full-time performer. Seeing that all the important NOAH stars had matches, the company’s promoters looked outside to try and find someone worthy of a big match with Kobashi.
And boy did someone ever answer the call.
Kensuke Sasaki had been a NJPW mainstay for over a decade until he left in 2002. He became a freelancer soon after and began working all over the place. And inJapan, freelancers were able to get work in Japanese promotions very easily. So Sasaki answered Kobashi’s challenge and the match was on.
Kobashi vs Sasaki | Testing the waters
The match started on a high note as Sasaki landed a backdrop suplex right away. This put Kobashi at an immediate disadvantage given that he had been dropped with that move many times over the years. But Kobashi wasn’t going to let this outsider make a mockery of him. Kobashi hulked up King’s Road-style and went right to work fighting Sasaki with all his might.
The two went back-and-forth for a long time, neither maintaining control for long. Kobahsi stayed in his comfort zone, landing variations of his feared knife-edge chop to wear Sasaki down (while also foreshadowing what was to come). But Sasaki benefitted from taking bigger risks, landing a diving splash to the floor and a top-rope frankensteiner, despite being a heavyweight.
Then things went to the next level
The chop battle
The next four minutes went something like this:
For almost five full minutes, these two brutes had a titanic hoss fight for the ages. They hit each other as hard as possible with absolutely vicious knife edge chops. Chops so hard that they echoed throughout the cavernous Tokyo Dome. Yet neither man so much as flinched. Both Kobashi and Sasaki fought like men, neither one backing down despite incredible pain. Even as they got the wind knocked out of them with each chop, neither man faltered.
It took 181 chops between them for that little war to finally come to an end. And when it did, 62,000 people roared with approval. This was the first match between Kobashi and Sasaki, yet they already had done enough to make this encounter into an instant classic.
“I hope this never ends.” – Yoshihiro Takayama, on commentary as the legendary chop exchange unfolded.
The war continues
After both men were completely exhausted from their chop battle, it was Sasaki that got control. He had Kobashi scouted almost completely. Even as Kobashi landed his trademark Half-Nelson suplexes, Sasaki wouldn’t stay down for long. He drilled Kobashi with a Northern Lights Bomb (a type of brainbuster) from the apron to the floor, and nearly won with a Tiger Suplex.
But just because he knew what Kobashi would do didn’t mean Sasaki had it in him to survive that sort of damage. Because Kobashi is nothing if not strong, and hits like a runaway freight train. So Kobashi reversed a Tornadobomb into a lariat and channeled his burning spirit to overcome whatever Sasaki threw at him.
So Sasaki tried to emulate Kobashi in the middle of their match and tried to absorb Kobashi’s big moves. But no one can out-Kobashi Kobashi, and Sasaki answered for this attempt at bravery with several insanely stiff rolling chops and a lariat from Kobashi. All of that was enough for Kobashi to win, which brought the fans in attendance to their feet.
Kobashi vs Sasaki | Legacy
This match serves as a great example of how to distinguish American wrestling with Japanese puroresu. The key difference between the two is where you, the viewer, invest your emotion. With North American wrestling, viewers seek to project themselves onto the characters and stars. They want to be those larger-than-life characters they see; or at the very least, live vicariously through them.
That’s why a character’s story often took precedence over the story of a match. Fans loved ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin because of his anti-authority persona and war with evil corporate overlord Mr. McMahon. They loved Hulk Hogan and John Cena because they were positive role models and symbols of success for those that embraced those wrestlers’ positive messages. And fans loved the underdog stories of guys like Daniel Bryan, Eddy Guerrero and Chris Benoit because it allowed them to empathize with smaller ‘lower-importance’ guys that worked so hard but had been overlooked or ignored by management. It was the fans’ desire to project themselves onto these wrestlers that made them watch those wrestlers.
In puroresu, it’s different.
Fans invest in the wrestler’s struggle and their fighting spirit (as cliché as that might seem). The fans appreciate the risks and physical toll the wrestlers put themselves through and want to see them overcome the odds. But they don’t want to see such victory through complex promos, over-the-top characters or soap-opera-style melodrama; they want to see it through athleticism. A wrestler that overcomes incredible pain and high-risk moves is respected and admired for their fighting spirit. And that’s what Kobashi and Sasaki showed here. This match was their interpretation of ‘the irresistible force meets the immovable object’. Two incredibly strong wrestlers doing whatever it took to wear the other down enough for the three-count.
This is a rare type of match in that it features two men that look like absolute stars before, during and after the match. They respect each other, but aren’t afraid of destroying each other to win. And it features one of the sickest and manliest back-and-forth struggles in wrestling history. It’s a treasure of a match and is definitely worth re-watching.
You can watch the full match here.