Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi | Their Longstanding Rivalry

There are some wrestling rivalries that are defined by how well each wrestler can insult one another. Others are defined by how vicious the brawls are or how personal each side makes it. This is not one of those rivalries. It’s one that’s based on excellence inside the ring. It forgoes the in-your-face obviousness that some wrestlers put into their matches and replaces it with subtleties added on over time. It’s a rivalry between two of the best pro wrestlers of all time: Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa.

__________________

Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi
– The Beginning

Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa met in All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). By the time Kobashi debuted there in 1988, Misawa was making waves as the second iteration of the Tiger Mask character. Both of them worked for Giant Baba, the promoter of AJPW who had a relatively unique wrestling and booking philosophy called ‘King’s Road.’ You can find a more detailed description of the King’s Road style here and here. The important things to note are that the King’s Road style was built on both incredibly physical matches and long-term, nuanced storytelling. Baba planned his wrestlers’ careers out long in advance and had the matches between them play out in a certain way to tell a certain story.

For Kobashi and Misawa, they began as partners. Between 1990 and early 1993, Misawa had a feud going with then-company ace Jumbo Tsuruta. Each side had their own faction, with a central wrestler, a main tag team partner, and a #2 partner. More often than not, it was the #2 partner that would take the fall in six-man matches. Kobashi was Misawa’s #2 for that period and remained in that spot until 1993, when Toshiaki Kawada, Misawa’s regular #1 partner, turned on him and joined the villainous Akira Taue.

Often Aligned Rarely Opponents

Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi teamed together for years but rarely fought each other throughout the year. Because AJPW’s roster was so small, singles matches between wrestlers were rare, and title matches rarer still. The only time any AJPW wrestler could face anyone regardless of allegiance was during the annual Champion Carnival tournament. This round-robin G1 Climax-style tournament took place every spring, and the winner earned a shot at the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship.

In those early years, Kobashi was still a lower-ranking rookie and didn’t have what it took to be a credible threat. In their first-ever Carnival match encounter in 1991, Mitsuharu Misawa defeated Kenta Kobashi handily, and then he did the same in 1993.

But in 1994, something different happened: Kobashi beat Misawa in a singles competition. That was a big deal, but not the major upset one would think. Due to the round-robin nature of the Champion Carnival, it was expected that Kobashi would win over Misawa sooner or later. So when he did, it wasn’t seen as a big deal; it was in the Carnival, after all. But if Kobashi could beat Misawa outside the Champion Carnival, that would be a different story.

Their First Major Encounters in the 1990s

Misawa and Kobashi didn’t have a major, non-Carnival singles match until October 1995. They were still partners at the time, but Kobashi was being groomed to break out on his own eventually. He needed to prove he could be a credible future title challenger and be believable as someone that could win the big one. To that end, for his third-ever Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship challenge (after losing to ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams and going to a draw with Toshiaki Kawada), Kobashi challenged Misawa.

 

It was meant to be a friendly match, in the sense that it was between two tag partners. Kobashi proved this when he offered his hand to Misawa before the bell rang. But as soon as the match started, all pretense of ‘holding back’ was out the window. These two gladiators tore into each other with unbelievable intensity. From the opening bell to the deciding fall almost thirty-five minutes later, these two went back and forth without wavering. They hit each other with unbelievably stiff strikes. Both guys suplexed and slammed each other with incredible force. And both of them built their offensive strategies up so well that by the twenty-minute mark, any move would’ve ended the match, and it would’ve made sense.

And yet, the match’s result was a foregone conclusion from the very beginning. Kobashi was still an upper-mid carder and not a main-eventer, and Misawa was, well, Misawa. He had managed to drop and defeat pretty much everyone around him. This was Kobashi’s first Triple Crown title match against Misawa, and there was no way that he’d win against someone of Misawa’s caliber so soon.

Baba’s Awareness That Their Rivalry Would Succeed With Time

But AJPW promoter Giant Baba was a master of long-term and thorough booking and knew this rivalry would become even better with the benefit of time. So Kobashi lost this time, but damn if he didn’t go down without a fight. He showed he could hang with Misawa from the opening and even continued to wrestle after all 240 pounds of Misawa landed on his leg five minute in when an Orange Crush Bomb went a bit bad. He kept going, and it took Misawa everything he had to keep Kobashi down.

1996 wasn’t a particularly strong year for Kobashi at first. He split from Misawa early on to break out on his own, but this left him without a regular tag partner. That proved to make big matches difficult, especially since All Japan was largely a tag-centric wrestling company. His only major singles match against Misawa happened during the annual Champion Carnival tournament, which, as expected, Misawa won.

Misawa’s Win Proved He Was More Dangerous Than Kobashi First Thought

But it wasn’t a typical Misawa victory; Misawa won with a random move off the top rope and not with anything that had won him a match before. That sent a message to Kobashi: that Misawa was far more dangerous and unpredictable as he might’ve thought. Kobashi took that message to heart and used it himself. Four months after losing to Misawa, Kobashi pinned Akira Taue to win his first Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship.

It was a huge achievement for Kobashi, but Kobashi was far from being considered ace of the company. To prove that he was worthy of such a moniker, he had to beat the two native wrestlers that were still considered above him: Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. The latter wasn’t a problem because he wasn’t challenging for the world title at the time due to internal politics. But the same couldn’t be said of the former. And six months later, Misawa and Kobashi faced off again.

And so began a series of world-breaking singles matches.

Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi
The Greatest Wrestling Match of all time?

Misawa challenged Kobashi for the Triple Crown title on January 22nd, 1997, in what many fans have since called the best AJPW match ever and possibly the best singles wrestling contest of all time. There’s a lot of evidence to support that claim. For 42 minutes, Misawa and Kobashi fought like hell and raised the standard they had set for themselves to newer, greater heights. The match was so captivating that even the emotionally detached businessmen that sat opposite the camera were smiling and cheering once it was over.

It was a pro-wrestling masterpiece. Kobashi had always been a guy that fought with his heart and not his mind, but he couldn’t afford to do so here. He needed to fight smart against Misawa, and he did. After hitting Misawa as hard as he could throughout the opening minutes, he used Misawa’s own mistake against him. Kobashi dodged Misawa as he dove from the apron to the ringside with an elbow, which caused Misawa to hit said elbow on the steel barricade. Kobashi then began wrestling with his mind when he spent the bulk of the rest of the match attacking Misawa’s arm with surgical precision.

Kobashi’s Determination To Defeat Misawa

Not only was it exciting to see a younger wrestler in Kobashi using common sense to try and beat the company’s biggest star, but it was great because it was logical. Misawa’s right arm was the one he relied on for his patented elbow smashes, especially since they had won him many matches before. If Kobashi could destroy that arm to the point that Misawa couldn’t fight back, he stood a better of chance of outlasting Misawa since Misawa wouldn’t be able to hit those elbows reliably or with enough force to keep Kobashi down.

But Kobashi’s focused strategy had one glaring flaw: he spent so much time on Misawa’s arm that he neglected to pay attention to Misawa’s legs. And if there was one thing Misawa had shown in his litany of epic matches, it’s that he can use his legs with just as much power as his arms. And that’s how he saved himself here. Kobashi went for a powerbomb off the apron, but Misawa managed to counter it into a Frankensteiner at the last possible moment, sending Kobashi hard to the floor.

From there, it became the pro-wrestling version of the Tortoise and the Hare. Misawa’s arm hurt him like hell, but he stayed patient and kept chipping away at Kobashi with everything he had. Meanwhile, Kobashi found himself in desperation territory and threw bombs at Misawa, hoping one of them was strong enough to stop Misawa dead in his tracks. But Misawa’s patience won in the end. Despite getting ragdolled and dropped on his neck and shoulders, Misawa survived a stronger, fresher, and seemingly more determined Kobashi.

Overcoming Misawa’s Onslaught

But it wasn’t decisive by any means. Kobashi, too, survived an onslaught from Misawa like never before. In fact, Kobashi forced his way into the AJPW history books by becoming the first and only wrestler to ever kick out of Misawa’s ultimate super-weapon finisher, the Tiger Driver ’91. Misawa had busted that move out on his toughest opponents in the past – including Kobashi, and it had brought him victory each time. Not so here. Kobashi’s defiance/stubbornness/determination was so overpowering that not even Misawa’s tactical nuke of a secret weapon could keep him down.

And yet, it was a running elbow smash of all things that did Kobashi in. Sure, it made sense for something simple like that to drop him after he survived Misawa’s super-finisher. But it also sent a message to Kobashi: Misawa was still tougher than him, and not even destroying his main weapon would be enough to keep Misawa down.

The Rest of 1997

Misawa and Kobashi faced each other three more times in 1997. The first two matches took place during the same Champion Carnival tournament. Kobashi won the first one, and then they faced each other again in the finals. But the finals that year was different from prior years because Kobashi, Misawa, and Kawada all had the same final score. Thus, a three-way single-elimination mini-tournament was held, and Misawa and Kobashi went to a thirty-minute draw.

Kobashi tried to get revenge on his January loss and follow the momentum of his CC win with another title challenge in October 1997.

Although they were much more subdued here compared to the January match, they still brought their A-game. Many fans have called this the worst Misawa-Kobashi world title match. Yet if any other feuding wrestling duo put on a match like this, they would call this the best match of their career.

A Different Strategy For Kobashi

Kobashi looked for another strategy here, which gave this match more of an experimental feel. He realized that scientific grappling and traditional limb targeting wouldn’t work against a wrestler of Misawa’s legendary caliber. Thus he went with a simpler approach: he threw tons of high-impact bombs targeting Misawa’s neck. He came incredibly close many times, but Kobashi’s singular goal came at the cost of his own well-being. Kobashi fought with his heart here and acted like a runaway freight train. He knew only one speed and did his best to be on offense at all times.

But Misawa was too smart for that. Misawa used Kobashi’s momentum and strategy against him and stopped Kobashi dead in his tracks using the same approach. He dropped Kobashi on his head and neck with the same brutality and intensity that Kobashi had used on him. And when all was said and done, Misawa survived Kobashi and put him in his place. At least, for the rest of 1997.

Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi
The Best Match of 1998

The two gladiators fought once again in the 1998 Champion Carnival, and this time, Misawa beat Kobashi. The message being sent was clear: that Kobashi was close to reaching Misawa’s level but still lacked something to get there. Misawa’s message to Kobashi was loud and clear because their next big match was a completely different type of war. The deep psychology and ‘traditional’ limb targeting from their January 1997 match was replaced with something more akin to a real fight between two people that knew each other deeply.

There was less ‘control’ segments here where one wrestler dominated the other. Instead, this match had more outward intensity as both Misawa and Kobashi blocked, countered, dodged, and reversed each other. From the opening sprint to the closing bomb-fest, both men had each other scouted to the point that it was nearly impossible for either of them to land any move right away.

And once the closing stretch began, the crowd was on their feet and for very good reason. Both men had weakened the other so badly and so viciously that either one could’ve won at any moment. Either Kobashi or Misawa could’ve landed a simple bridging suplex, and the match could’ve ended. Or one of them could’ve hit one of their patented stiff striking finisher, and that would’ve won them the match as well. But Kobashi also had an ace up his sleeve. His ultra-finisher, a move he had debuted only a few months earlier: The Burning Hammer.

The Birth of The Burning Hammer

It was a move that Kobashi saved for his biggest of matches, and he had debuted the move on Misawa himself, no less. So Kobashi knew he had something that had shown to be powerful enough to beat Misawa decisively. But he didn’t go for it right away; why would he? Misawa was well aware of that move’s awesome power, so he had reason to be extra cautious. And Kobashi knew of this, which is why he fought Misawa so hard for such a long time. He needed to weaken Misawa (not an easy task no matter who you are) to the point that he would be vulnerable enough to get him in the position for the Burning Hammer. That strategy nearly worked to perfection, but Misawa escaped before Kobashi could neck him and win.

When all was said and done, both Misawa and Kobashi had decimated each other with a litany of the most brutal wrestling moves ever seen. Both of them got dropped on their head or neck, especially Misawa. Both guys hit each other with incredibly stiff strikes to the head. And once again, they progressed their already deep rivalry even further when Misawa failed to beat Misawa with the simple running elbow smash that got him the victory in January 1997. In this case, it was a sudden STIFF one-two elbow smash combination that looked like it knocked Kobashi unconscious that brought Misawa victory.

And while Kobashi lost to Misawa once again, he did achieve something important: he replaced Kawada as Misawa’s biggest archrival. Fans seemed to be more invested in Kobashi’s ‘pure’ rivalry with Misawa that was built on a professional desire to become champion and preferred it over Kawada’s personal and jealousy-filled rivalry with Misawa.

1999

Once again, a pattern took place between Misawa and Kobashi in All Japan. They faced each other in a Champion Carnival match and then in a big singles match later that year. In the 1999 Carnival, Kobashi beat Misawa. But once again, that win was considered lesser than a win outside of the tournament. If Kobashi really wanted to surpass Misawa, he needed to pin Misawa in a big title match. And those matches didn’t get any bigger than beating Misawa to win the Triple Crown title.

In their biggest matches to date – on January 10th, 1997 and October 31st, 1998 – Kobashi defended the title against challenger Misawa and lost. Here, the roles were reversed. And that shift in dynamic worked wonders because, at this point in his career, Kobashi was better suited to chase the champion instead of defending a title.

By this point in the feud, Misawa and Kobashi had faced each other fourteen times. Of those fourteen matches, Kobashi had won four matches, but all of them were Carnival matches that carried much less significance. But Kobashi had grown as a wrestler, from being Misawa’s pin-eater in big matches to his new top rival. Their matches had become so engrossing and so deep that they had to keep raising the stakes and going to greater heights, which they did here.

 June 11th, 1999

This match combined all the elements of their previous matches into one amazing contest. It had the underdog fight story that Kobashi showed in the 1995 match psychological elements of the January 1997 match and the epic bomb-fest of the October 1997 and October 1998 matches. And yet, it didn’t come across as a patchwork of those matches, but as a completely new story. Yes, they had callbacks to their earlier matches, but there was also a sense of novelty here. Kobashi opened the match with an MMA-style armbar, and Misawa was quick to avoid it.

Misawa dropped him with a litany of elbow smashes and even managed to tank a sequence of rolling chops to the neck that would’ve dropped a lesser man. They bought like hell by brutalizing each other on the apron and constantly teased big moves, only to avoid each other and come up with something just as clever or logical to use instead. They brought tons of callbacks to their previous matches to show how much both of them had developed and evolved. There was even a callback to a match from 1993 that didn’t even involve Misawa. Kobashi tried to land the Burning Hammer, but Misawa kept fighting out. In response, Kobashi smashed Misawa with a lariat from the top rope, which was how Stan Hansen crushed Kobashi six years earlier.

Remarkable Storytelling

And the conclusion was nothing short of storytelling genius. Despite both guys spending much of the match landing brutal, high-impact bombs, there was still an overarching story here. Kobashi had attacked Misawa’s arm, just like in earlier matches. But in those earlier matches, Misawa had been able to overcome that weakening of his arm and land a decisive elbow smash to win. Not so here. Misawa wasn’t able to pin Kobashi following an elbow smash of any type. And just like before, Kobashi had kicked out of the Tiger Driver ’91. And yet, Misawa had something new that Kobashi was unprepared for: the Emerald Flowsion, a side Tombstone/powerslam move that Misawa came up with after Kobashi kicked out of the TD91.

Emerald Flowsion – TD91

It stood to reason that Kobashi was able to survive everything Misawa had used before, but not this new move. Misawa had to go further and deeper to beat Kobashi, who was getting closer to his level with each passing match with him. Ultimately, Misawa realized that his old strategy was no longer enough at this point, so he used a new, rarely-used last-ditch secret weapon to keep Kobashi down for the three-count.

And although Kobashi lost once more, he once again proved that he deserved to be seen on Misawa’s level. Misawa barely survived Kobashi’s relentless onslaught, and Misawa was only able to eke out a victory because of a last-ditch desperation head spike. Kobashi was getting better, stronger and tougher with time, while Misawa was reaching his peak. It was only a matter of time before Kobashi would reach and then surpass Misawa.

Alas, we would have to wait almost four full years before seeing that.

Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi
The Final Confrontation

The final major match between Misawa and Kobashi took place almost three full years after their last one. Kobashi had spent almost all of 2001 and much of 2002 having knee surgeries and struggling hard to get back into tip-top shape. And to be honest, he never really did. He returned, but this Kobashi was different from before. He was slower, more deliberate, and liked to draw things out.

Of course, that was to be expected since he had worse knees than Terry Funk, The Great Muta, and Rey Mysterio… combined. Misawa, meanwhile, was WAY past his prime. All Japan’s golden decade of the 1990s had taken their toll on everyone, but none more so than Misawa. He started having neck issues and had never really taken much time off. But NOAH needed him because he was an incredible draw and the company lacked other top stars as champion.

And yet, Misawa and Kobashi put on an epic that, to this very day, is regarded as their magnum opus. Some people have said it’s better than their January 1997 match. But it was so incredibly good because of the quality of wrestling they put on. Few people expected 2003 Misawa and post-surgeries Kobashi to live up to their incredible standard. But they did. Despite having two of the most worn-down and injury-riddled bodies of any wrestlers active at the time, both Misawa and Kobashi put on their best. They brought a decisive finality to their storied rivalry.

And at long last, Kobashi surpassed Misawa.

Kobashi had spent the bulk of the prior decade trying to reach, and then go beyond, Misawa. He fought incredibly hard to achieve that goal, but it was always a case of close-but-no-cigar. That ended here. Misawa tried to put Kobashi down time after time, but Kobashi’s iron will could not be denied here. Misawa tried to use the same moves that had brought him victory in the past, but none of them worked. Kobashi survived Misawa’s vicious elbow smashes, Tiger Drivers, and other vicious head spikes. He even survived an insane Tiger Suplex off the elevated entrance ramp to the floor.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Kobashi also kicked out of Misawa’s new super-finisher, the Emerald Flowsion. Desperate, Misawa tried to land the Tiger Driver ’91, but never got the chance. Kobashi survived Misawa’s biggest nukes and still had a few big moves in his arsenal. He tried a lariat, but couldn’t get a three-count because of how badly Misawa had weakened his arm throughout the duration of the match. He adopted the Sheerdrop Brainbuster from Misawa’s earlier archrival Toshiaki Kawada and made it his own, but that too wasn’t enough in this case. Even after Kobashi ruined Misawa’s neck with big move after big move, Misawa kept kicking out. There was only one thing left to do. Kobashi busted out the pro-wrestling equivalent of the Tsar Bomb, the Burning Hammer, to beat Misawa with decisive finality.

And with that, their epic rivalry came to an end.

Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi
–  Legacy

Many wrestling fans have praised Misawa and Kobashi as two of the best wrestlers to ever live, and this feud provide ample evidence to support such an argument. Their matches together put them in a league of their own, head and shoulders above pretty much everyone else. What other duo can have so many long and brutal matches that have so many similar elements yet still feel distinct from one another?

No rivalry in pro-wrestling holds a candle to this one. It is the Citizen Kane of wrestling rivalries. You can watch any of their big singles matches and leave satisfied that you had watched an instant classic. And if you watch more than one of their matches, then their story really comes alive. Their years-long feud is the pinnacle of the King’s Road wrestling style. Not only is the in-ring action physically intense and brutal, but each match layered on top of what was already told.

Their Story Reads Like A Novel

Each match had its own story in three distinct acts, with stuff from the beginning being built on and playing an important role in the overarching match narrative and influencing the finish. And each match itself was part of an even bigger story that was told over the span of years. Because of that, the story of Mitsuharu Misawa always winning in big matches didn’t harm Kenta Kobashi in the slightest. With each passing match he got stronger and Mitsuharu Misawa had to dig deeper to win, until Kenta Kobashi eventually surpassed him in 2003.

Fans and commentators have used different comparisons to describe this rivalry. It has been likened to a symphony involving countless instruments, to an intricate tapestry telling a complex tale, to a machine involving countless moving parts. Any one of those descriptions fit this rivalry perfectly. It really is the greatest professional wrestling feud of all time.