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#14 Kenta Kobashi
Every generation there seems to be a wrestler that has the complete package, a natural blend of god-given talent, athleticism, drive and charisma. If Ric Flair was the quintessential 1980s wrestler who was the total package, and The Rock was the quintessential wrestler of the 1990s; then Kobashi was the wrestler who bridged those two generations.
There was very little that Kobashi was not capable of doing in the ring. A terrific athlete, he was capable of flying around the ring, winning many matches with his patented moonsault. His background in judo made him one of the best technical wrestlers in the world, and his thick physique allowed him to stand toe-to-toe with American heavyweights like Steve Williams and Stan Hansen. Blessed with tremendous charisma, Kobashi was able to sell as well as any other babyface in wrestling and was known for his fierce and tenacious comeback. On Cagematch.net, a German website that ranks thousands of professional wrestlers on a 1-10 score, only Shawn Michaels has a higher average rating; pretty impressive considering Kobashi rarely toured outside of the Far East.
Kobashi practiced judo in high school and also was a standout rugby player. After graduating he began to practice bodybuilding. Kobashi was one of the first Japanese wrestlers to regularly train with free weights and the result gave him the best physique of any major Japanese wrestler. In 1987 he applied to join the All-Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo and his size and athleticism immediately impressed AJPW management and he was pegged as a star for the future.
When Kobashi debuted for AJPW in February of 1988, he was the beneficiary of one of the more brilliant booking decisions in wrestling history. Naturally, when a new wrestler enters the promotion it is common practice for the company to have the new wrestler win a lot of their early matches, giving them a certain level of credibility when selling them to the audience. Giant Baba saw things a little bit differently and decided to have Kobashi lose not only his first few matches, but his first 63! It was like the opposite of Goldberg's debut; instead of dominating his opponents, Kobashi would always lose, but his charisma and never-give-up attitude would shine even in the loss and slowly he got over with the fans, who paid to come see Kobashi try and get his first victory.
A frequent saying about wrestling in Japan is that it is very difficult to get over, but when you do get over, you are over for life. Unlike in other parts of the world, nobody really cracks the main event scene and eventually fades away. Once Kobashi got over with the fans because of his plucky attitude, he was set for the rest of his career. Unlike Goldberg, whose first loss really marked the beginning of the end for his time as a major superstar in wrestling, when Kobashi finally won his first match (a 1989 victory over Mitch Snow) it was really only the start of his great career.
After picking up his first victory; Kobashi immediately assumed an important role in the company as one of the three upstart wrestlers who would push AJPW into a golden age of wrestling. Along with the more experienced Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada, Kobashi would become known for drawing huge audiences and having the best main event matches on the planet for AJPW. The idea that Kobashi, Misawa and Kawada were the leaders of a new era would come to fruition when the group, known as Super Generation Army would battle a rival trio, led by aging company ace Jumbo Tsuruta in a series of critically acclaimed matches. In October of 1990, Super Generation Army would lose to the trio of Tsuruta, Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi in what was quite possibly the best six-man tag team match in the history of professional wrestling. A 25-minute barnburner, the match redefied what AJPW was capable of and altered the course of the company by assuring management that Kobashi, Misawa and Kawada were indeed the future of AJPW.
During the early-1990s, Kobashi was probably the most versatile wrestler in AJPW. He split time between teaming with the Super Generation Army, as well as with Tsuyoshi Kikuchi. When he worked with Kawada and Misawa against Tsuruta, he would play the underdog role, often getting beaten on for extended periods of time before making a comeback and tagging in Kawada or Misawa, who would then clean house. When he tagged with the undersized Kikuchi, it was Kikuchi who would withstand tremendous punishment until he would tag in Kobashi, who assumed an older brother role in their tag team and would produce one of the best hot tags in wrestling history to the delight of the crowd.
On May 31, 1992, Kobashi and Kikuchi challenged Dan Kroffat and Doug Furnas for the All-Asia Tag Team Championships. The match took place in Kikuchi's hometown of Sendai and the audience adored Kikuchi and popped huge for his signature move, the Zero-Sen Kick, which he hit about a hundred times in the match and the crowd lost their mind every single time. Kikuchi got beaten down for most of the match, before hitting one last Zero-Sen Kick to tag in Kobashi, who probably delivered the best hot tag performance in the history of the industry, beating down both Kroffat and Furnas to win the match and the championships. The match was named the Match of the Year by many wrestling publications, including The Wrestling Observer and is regarded by many as being the very best tag team match of all-time.
In 1993 Tsuruta had to reduce his wrestling schedule after being diagnosed with Hepatitis. Since Tsuruta could no longer be the ace heel for AJPW, Kawada was chosen to replace him, turning on Kobashi and Misawa and aligning himself with Taue and Fuchi. This made Kobashi Misawa's main tag team partner and put him as the definitive number two babyface behind Misawa. A key moment in his career came in December of 1993, when Kobashi pinned Kawada in a tag team match. This was Kobashi's first pinfall victory over the top heel in the company and it also won Kobashi and Misawa the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. This marked a change in Kobashi's career path, he wasn't just Misawa's sidekick and an ace tag team wrestler; he was going to be a future champion.
In 1994 he defeated Stan Hansen in the Champions Carnival, and would receive his first Triple Crown Championship shot against Steve Williams, failing to capture the championship. Although he didn't win the championship his star continued to bloom. In January 1995 he challenged Kawada for the Triple Crown Championship in a match that was called by Dave Meltzer as "the greatest 60-minute draw in the history of professional wrestling". Critical acclaim was something that Kobashi had become known for, throughout his career he wrestled in an astounding 23 matches that were awarded a perfect five star rating from The Wrestling Observer. During his prime in AJPW, Kobashi was surrounded by terrific talent that enabled him to have these jaw-dropping matches. The peak of AJPW during the 1990s was the best era for main event matches in wrestling history; any main event was capable of being the Match of the Year and often times it was; Kobashi won six Match of the Year awards from The Wrestling Observer and eight from Tokyo Sports. If you are only evaluating wrestlers based on the quality of their best matches; Kobashi has as good of a case as anybody to be the greatest wrestler in history.
Kobashi and Misawa would drop the tag team titles in June of 1995 to Kawada and Taue. After the loss the dynamic team of Kobashi and Misawa would pitter out, with the young Jun Akiyama rising up to replace Kobashi as Misawa's partner. While this took Kobashi out of the dynamite tag team matches he was having against Kawada and Taue; it also took him out of the shadow of Misawa, who was undisputedly the top babyface in the company.
On July 24, 1996, Kobashi's long climb that began with those 63 losses finally came to fruition when he defeated Taue for the Triple Crown Championship. The championship in AJPW arguably never meant more to a promotion; it wasn't defended with great frequency which made matches that involved the title even more special. Kobashi had long been one of the most popular babyfaces in the company, and today if someone was as popular as he was in every company in the world would be looking to give him a yearlong title reign. Instead Kobashi had to bide his time forever until he was finally given the green light, about half a decade after he had surged into the main event spotlight which made the culmination of his efforts that more memorable.
Kobashi would defend the championship only a couple times, pinning Stan Hansen and wrestling Kawada to another terrific draw. Kobashi was then set up in a program with his former partner, Misawa. Misawa had long been the ace for AJPW, a sensational wrestler who possessed a charisma equal to Kobashi and a mystique with the Japanese fans that had been absent since the heyday of Rikidozan. As good as Kobashi was, he still wasn't as relevant as Misawa, and even though he now had the championship, Misawa was still considered the ace of the company. While they were never really rivals in a storyline sense, the battle between Misawa and Kobashi would be a titanic clash between arguably the two most universally beloved wrestlers of the 1990s.
Misawa would defeat Kawada in January of 1997 to capture the Triple Crown Championship. Kobashi would exact a measure of revenge against Misawa a few months later, defeating Misawa in the Champions Carnival. Kobashi would win the AJPW World Tag Team Championships with Johnny Ace as his partner, defeating Williams and Gary Albright. In October he would again challenge Misawa for the Triple Crown Championship, but once again Misawa was able to defeat him.
While Kobashi desperately chased Misawa for his lost championship, it was Kawada who defeated Misawa for the title, winning it at the first ever AJPW show at the Tokyo Dome in May of 1998. Shortly after, Kobashi would defeat Kawada for his second world championship. Unfortunately, knee injuries would cut his title reign short, and he dropped the championship once more to Misawa in October. Kobashi would reduce his work rate due to his bad knees, while he should have been recovering and not wrestling. This decision would later impact his career, as in his later years while Kobashi was still one of the best, he no longer displayed the tremendous agility that helped make him a star.
By the end of 1998, Kobashi would form a tag team with Akiyama. Titled "Burning" they would dominate the tag team division in AJPW, winning the World's Strongest Determination League in both 1998 and 1999. In addition, Kobashi began to feud with a new heel. Vader had been a dominant force in New Japan Pro Wrestling earlier in the decade before moving back to working in North America full-time. After leaving the World Wrestling Federation Vader returned to Japan, signing with AJPW and once again began waging war throughout Japan. In February 2000, Kobashi defeated Vader for his third Triple Crown Championship. Kobashi followed that accomplishment up by winning his first Champions Carnival, defeating Misawa (his first televised victory over Misawa) in the process. With the title and Misawa behind him; Kobashi looked poised to have the best year of his career in 2000.
Behind the scenes, a riff in AJPW began to develop between Misawa and the executives of AJPW. Misawa was critical of the booking of the company following the death of Giant Baba and Misawa was eventually removed from his position as president of AJPW. Disgusted with AJPW, Misawa left the company and formed his own promotion, Pro Wrestling NOAH. With Baba gone there was nobody to really hold AJPW together; and most of the talent were more loyal to Misawa than to the executives of AJPW. All native talent (including Kobashi) with the exception of Kawada and Fuchi left AJPW for NOAH; effectively crippling the promotion.
At this point in his career, Kobashi's knees needed time off, but once again Kobashi pushed them aside and helped establish NOAH as a premiere wrestling outlet. Unlike pretty much every other upstart promotion, NOAH had true star power behind it. With Misawa, Kobashi and Akiyama, NOAH employed arguably the three most popular wrestlers in Japan and fleshed out the roster with valuable veterans and talented young undercard wrestlers. Kobashi tagged with Akiyama to defeat Taue and Misawa in the main event of the first NOAH show in August of 2000. The next day Kobashi's knees were utterly destroyed, yet he wrestled another match, this time a singles bout against Akiyama. The match ended when Akiyama put Kobashi in a crab hold and Kobashi legitimately passed out because of the pain in his knees. Kobashi would hang around until December of 2000, wrestling at NOAH's biggest show of the year and defeating Akiyama.
After the match Kobashi couldn't delay any longer; he took 13 months off; going under multiple surgeries on his knees. He returned in February of 2002 where he tagged with Misawa for the first time in years, losing to Akiyama and Yuji Nagata. Following the match Kobashi concluded that he came back too soon and took another five months off to let his knees recover.
At this point in his career, it would be reasonable to decide that his career was pretty much over. Kobashi had been a great wrestler, a tremendous babyface during an extremely popular period of wrestling. However, his body was breaking down to the point that no matter how long he seemed to rest; he was still coming up with injuries after just wrestling one match. There was no shame in Kobashi walking away; he would go down as a tremendous, all-time great wrestler who could have gone a bit longer if his knees wouldn't have given out. Amazingly though, the reality was that despite all of his accomplishments, Kobashi was about to go on the best run of his career.
Kobashi returned in mid-2002 and a slow build began for Kobashi to challenge Misawa for the Global Honored Crown Heavyweight Championship; the NOAH equivalent of the World Heavyweight Championship. Eventually Kobashi got his shot, and defeated Kobashi in March of 2003. The victory for Kobashi marked a turning point in NOAH. NOAH may have been Misawa's company; but Kobashi was by far their biggest star. In fact, Kobashi's run as the GHC Heavyweight Champion was a rollicking, two-year tour de force that launched NOAH into unforeseen success.
Kobashi's reign as the GHC World Heavyweight Champion was BY FAR the most successful world title reign out of any major promotion in the new millennium. In the ring Kobashi was superb, having a litany of legendary matches, including successful defenses against Masahiro Chono at a NJPW show in the Tokyo Dome and against Jun Akiyama at NOAH's first Tokyo Dome show, Departure, that drew 60,000 fans and also received a perfect 5 star rating from the Wrestling Observer. From a business perspective, Kobashi's run as champion allowed NOAH to surpass NJPW and become the top wrestling promotion in Japan. While wrestling companies across the globe saw their business slide downwards, NOAH was peaking.
In March of 2005 Kobashi would finally drop the championship to Takeshi Rikio. Even though he did not have the championship, Kobashi continued to dominate wrestling. He co-main evented NOAH's biggest show in history, Destiny, in July against Kensuke Sasaki, in front of 62,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome. Throughout the next year Kobashi would still remain arguably the best wrestler in the world, having terrific outside-the-box matches, such as against junior heavyweight KENTA (who adopted the name because Kobashi was his idol) and legendary wrestlers like Genichiro Tenryu. He also traveled to North America in 2005, wrestling Samoa Joe at a Ring of Honor show in a match that also was given a perfect five star rating, the first match in North America to garner that rating since 1997.
Kobashi continued to travel throughout the world, appearing in promotions in the US, England and Germany. Unfortunately on June 4, 2006, Kobashi announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer. Kobashi missed significant time while he was treated for cancer, eventually beating the disease and he was announced to come back and wrestle Akiyama and Misawa in a tag team match in December of 2007. Misawa pinned Kobashi in a dramatic match and Budokan Hall gave Kobashi one of the loudest post-match ovations in wrestling history. In September in 2008 Kobashi missed time with arm surgery, and returned in 2009 and became more of preliminary wrestler as he began to slow down in the ring.
In December of 2009 Kobashi suffered significant nerve damage in a match, and was forced to miss 19 months in the ring. He returned in July of 2011 and began to slow down in the ring and cut back on his schedule. In December of 2012 Kobashi announced he would be retiring in 2013 and he went on a final, farewell tour. His final show, Final Burning, took place in May of 2013 and he teamed with fellow legends Akiyama, Keiji Mutoh and Sasaki to defeat their protégés, KENTA, Go Shiozaki, Maybach Taniguchi and Yoshinobu Kanemaru.
If we are talking about the most complete wrestlers in the history of the industry, Kobashi ranks right up on the top of the list. Not only was he a great draw with tremendous appeal and charisma, he was one of the best in-ring performers to ever lace up a pair of boots. Kobashi may have never been quite as popular as Misawa in AJPW, but he outlasted all of his major rivals during the 1990s and became the most popular wrestler in Japan into the new millennium. Despite battling numerous injuries, Kobashi continually gutted out matches, having spectacular contests against a variety of different opponents. In addition to being one of the best pure wrestlers, Kobashi was arguably the toughest and most durable as well, a true icon who possessed skyscraping potential as a young wrestler and fully matched it.
Next week, #13 will be revealed, a global megastar who largely defined the term "sports entertainment".
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi