Monday, June 4, 2018

The Greatest Matches of All -Time: Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa (03/01/03)

Revisiting the last truly great one-on-one encounter between the two most beloved purorseu titans of all-time.

By: Jimbo X

I know I've already said this before, but it needs reiterating quite a bit these days: FUCK Dave Meltzer

Way back in the day, he used to be the authoritative voice on what was great and what was crap in wrestling. And while he had a few dropped passes every now and then, by and large if the Meltz gave something five stars before the 2010s rolled around, it was almost guaranteed to be a fucking tremendous match-up. But today? The asshole hands out SIX STAR ratings like candy out of a pedophile's van, bestowing scale-breaking scores every time Kenny Omega or Will Ospreay takes a shit. Hell, he even said Zack Sabre's sucky ass was the best technical wrestler on the planet — between this and all of his leftist politicking bullshit on Twitter about gun control and the electoral college, I think it's officially safe to declare old man Meltzer as about as irrelevant to the world of wrestling as goddamn Herb Abrams.

Considering Meltzer apparently assigns star ratings based on the number of times he masturbates during matches now, it's quite likely he's going to do something stupid this weekend and give Omega/Okada IV a seven star-rating, or maybe even a ten-star rating, or hell, maybe 15 stars with three yellow moons and two purple unicorn clitorises. The tragedy, of course, is that the IWC masses will lap up the retarded rhetoric of this rasslin' Rasputin like manna out of Jesus' buttcrack, and sure as sugar the R/SquaredCircle and ProWrestlingOnly hivemind will almost certainly start championing the upcoming NJPW bout as "srsly, the best EVA 4 REALZ," apparently unaware that pro wrestling existed prior to Money in the Bank 2011.

Although I admit it's kinda' stupid to assign superlatives to something as intrinsically stupid as pro 'rasslin, I nonetheless think pro wrestling — as an interpretative artform and imitation of actual sport — hit its apex around 1994. Or, more specifically, June 3, 1994, the date of what pretty much all none-retards consider the single greatest pro wrestling match ever.

Of course, longtime readers of TIIIA know we've already covered that one, so for the first proper installment in our new Greatest Matches of All-Time series, we decided to turn our attention to what might very well be the single best pro-wrestling match of the 21st century thus far. And no, it sure as hell didn't happen in the WWE in 2018 or New Japan in 2017 ... it went down in Pro Wrestling NOAH on March 1, 2003.

I'll just come out and say it — Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi is the single greatest rivalry in pro wrestling history. Yes, even better than Misawa/Kawada, which spawned what is generally (read: universally) regarded as the consensus GOAT bout. As good as Misawa/Kawada may have been (and yes, it was goddamn extraordinary), EVERY single time Kobashi and Misawa went at it in singles competition it was guaranteed MOTY-caliber stuff. Go ahead, look up their stats for yourself and prepare to have your goddamn minds blown. If Okada and Omega went 90 minutes once a week for the next five years, I highly doubt they'd be able to put together a total oeuvre better than what Kobashi and Misawa gave us over the course of their careers.

And even weirder, it wasn't a resent-fueled rivalry. They never did anything bullshitty to one another, they never tried to cheat, they never cheap-shotted or showed disrespect to one another. Theirs wasn't a feud built around hate, but mutual respect. They each knew they were the No. 1 and No. 2 wrestler in the world, and every time they locked horns it was an opportunity to swap positions. The only other thing I can think of comparing Misawa/Kawada to is LaMotta/Robinson in boxing, and even then Sugar Ray and Raging Bull didn't give us as many awesome match-ups over the years. 

Now, to the best of my knowledge, the clash between the long-time rivals on March 1, 2003 was their second to last singles encounter (but considering their subsequent bout was a ten minute TV draw around Christmas 2004, I suppose it’s still apropos to say this was their last real “big-time” one-on-one match-up.)

And considering how many flat out classics and outright MOTYs these two guys have given us in the past, expectations for this one, naturally, were sky high. Alas, heading into “Navigate for Evolution 2003” (boy, don’t you just love those clunky Japanese titles, folks?), a lot of puro purists were skeptical that this Mis-Kob match-up could live up to the standards set by their bajillion-star epics in All-Japan. After all, the perennially injury prone Kobashi had just returned from a blown-out knee, and at this point, Misawa’s stranglehold on NOAH’s booking was almost, well Levesque. Some wondered if the Mighty Emerald One would be willing to afford his old rival a competitive contest for the ages, let alone agree to drop the Global Honored Crown (GHC) to his greatest in-ring foe (yeah, I said it, even greater than Kawada.)

So basically, everybody on the Internet knew what these two men were capable of, but at the time nobody was 100 percent certain they’d be able to deliver the goods this go at-it.

And, as fate would have it? They went out there and gave us what may very well be the undisputed match of the decade … if not the whole dadgum 21st century thus far.

But don’t take my word for it … let’s allow the match to speak for itself, why don’t we?

If you don't consider this performance art at its finest, I seriously hope you get AIDS.

As soon as the lights dim and that Castlevania sounding music starts playing, the Japaheeno fans start losing their collective shit. That's when the lasers stop, the arena goes pitch black and "Grand Sword" starts playing. Fuck it, I have goosebumps already. We cut to Kobashi in the back, with his eyes momentarily closed. Maybe he's praying, maybe he isn't, but as soon as he gets the cue he starts making his way ringside, cutting through a cloud of fog in his furry boxing robe. The "Kobashi!" chants are deafening. The lights turn low again and the staccato notes of "Spartan X" begin. "Misawa!" chants pick up immediately. Of course, he comes out rocking his green sequin robe and, much more importantly, the GHC Championship. Kobashi is in the corner, staring holes into Misawa. He's completely motionless, as Misawa rocks side to side, flailing his arms. Their body language couldn't be any more diametric. Both men get one final look at the championship and a dude in a Squaresoft jacket takes it back to the timekeepers' table. Huh, imagine that — a promotion actually treating its belt as something to be revered instead of a TV soap opera prop. Kobashi gets a flurry of purple streamers when his name is announced, and Misawa gets showered in a parade of green ticker tape. Another deafening "Kobashi!" chant picks up. The bell sounds, and the fans — normally considered the quietest in the industry — start clapping their hands and stomping their feet like parents at a high school football championship in Texas. And with our first tie-up of the evening, this match is officially on like Donkey Kong.

Kobashi goes for a spinning chop right off the bat and Misawa dodges it all casually as the audience gasps. They've bought into the fact that EVERYTHING these men do could end a match, and it makes every single move of the bout something worth paying attention to. Kobashi takes Misawa down with a shoulder tackle, about as basic a move as you'll find in pro wrestling, and the fans STILL react to it like a triple moonsault off the balcony. Now it's time for our first striking exchange of the contest. This leads to an outstanding reversal-counter-reversal spot that begins with Misawa falling atop Kobashi during a back body driver attempt and culminates with Misawa momentarily locking in a headscissors. Misawa gets an armdrag in and immediately begins wrenching Kobashi's elbow. Kobashi reverses it, and Misawa immediately counters it. Misawa starts working an over the shoulder wrist crank and drags Kobashi back to the mat. Kobashi is back to his feet and he's slowly beginning to peel away from Misawa's wristlock.

Misawa tries to roll away, we have another beautiful counter-reversal-sequence (in which the men trade about seven or eight different slams, tosses and submissions over the course of four seconds) and Misawa goddamn SPIKES Kobashi with a back body driver, and that Japanese nigga lands RIGHT ON TOP OF HIS HEAD. The fans gasp again and Kobashi rolls to the safety of the floor below ... only for Misawa to climb the top rope and hit Kobashi with a diving elbow. Then Misawa hits a running cannonball dive off the apron, which is really effective because the camera didn't pan on him setting it up for thirty seconds and it just kinda' happens out of nowhere. Misawa throws Kobashi back into the ring , and Misawa hits Kobashi with a fucking' meaty missile dropkick. He climbs the adjacent turnbuckle pad and hits a frog splash, but it's only good enough for a two-count. Now Misawa is working a Fujiwara armbar. Kobashi grimaces in pain, but he manages to get a foot on the rope to break the hold. Kobashi looks like he's about to start crying — his selling is downright Oscar-worthy. Misawa, being the opportunistic sonofabitch he is, immediately starts working the wristlock again. Kobashi bullies Misawa into the corner and hits him with a chop, and Misawa drops him with a MEAN elbow shot. Kobashi gets a few more chops in, but Misawa drops him with another spinning elbow on Kobashi's attempted shoulder block. Kobashi launches Misawa into the turnbuckle pad and momentarily locks in a sleeperhold, only for Misawa to escape and send him reeling out of the ring with another fat-as-fuck dropkick. Misawa follows suit with a baseball slide, then he feigns doing a plancha (complete with that funky flip over the ring ropes), but then he changes that midflight into a flying elbow and Kobashi grabs him while he's in the air and sends him jawfirst onto the guardrail. And just like that, the momentum of this match swings 180 in favor of Kobashi.

Hey, I just now noticed the Xbox ad on the mat. Yeah, good luck selling that shit in Japan in the early 2000s, Billy Boy. Outside the ring, Kobashi lifts a hamhock and fuckin' boots Misawa over the head with the heel of his boot as Misawa hangs over the guardrail like yesterday's laundry, and each one looks positively brutal. Misawa is bleeding from the mouth, and Kobashi mulls hitting him with a full nelson bridging German suplex ... and he DOES. Naturally, Misawa lands DIRECTLY on his neck, while Kobashi LITERALLY rolls back into the ring to hit the L button on the shoulder pad of his Game Boy Advance to suck in air a'la Fire Pro Wrestling. He retrieves Misawa's half-dead ass and drapes his 95 percent unconscious body over the turnbuckle pad. Kobashi drops a few DEMONIC looking elbows to the back of Misawa's neck, then he hits him with a face-first front-lock suplex. Misawa kicks out at two. Now Kobashi is wrenching Misawa's neck in a head vice. It's such a great visual because Misawa is spewing blood all over his biceps. Kobashi hits Misawa with a chop and stomps on his back while he's on his knees. Misawa is back up and it's chops versus elbows, with Kobashi ultimately landing a gut kick and a Fame-Asser that's approximately 100 times more brutal than it looked whenever Billy Gunn used it. Just a two-count.

Kobashi applies a front face lock. Ever had an angry 280-pound Japanese man try to squeeze the eyeballs out of you skull before? Well, now you know what it looks like, at least. Kobashi goes for a pin and Misawa kicks out ... and instead of the fans yelling "TWO!" like ironic hipster assholes, the fans enthusiastically clap because they DON'T want this match to end anytime soon.

Kenta throws Misawa onto the rampway. Like the ring, it's neon green, too. Kobashi fucking PLANTS Misawa with a DDT, and the thud from his head hitting the structure is just sickening. Kobashi rolls Misawa back into the ring. Again, Misawa kicks out at two. It's worth stating again: you just FEEL like these two men are so powerful that any move could potentially end the match. That is something that you just don't plain see in wrestling anymore, and that makes me a sad, sad puppy.

Kobashi has Misawa in the corner, and he's chopping the dog shit out of Misawa, almost like he's trying to get back at him for not really selling his karate chops at the beginning of the match. Misawa goes for a desperation monkeyflip and Kobashi Snake Eyes' that motherfucker right on top of the turnbuckle, and again, the thud will make you want to vomit. Kobashi immediately follows suit with Half-Nelson Release German Suplex, and of course Misawa lands on his neck yet again. He lands another one and immediately locks Misawa into a full nelson, complete with his legs grapevined around Misaw's abdomen. And all the while Misawa's just spittin' the red stuff out of his mouth and it just looks gruesome as fuck. Like, you honestly believe Kobashi could kill a man with that hold if he had to. Eventually Misawa gets a rope break, and Kobashi chops and stomps Misawa, but Misawa all of a sudden MISAWAS UP and gets in Kobashi's grill and now it's time for a duel of forearm shots and chops and Kenta hits a backbody drop driver and Misawa STILL kicks out at two.

Misawa lands a billion elbow shots, Germans Kobashi, elbows him some more and hits a release tiger suplex, but HE KOBASHIS UP and starts chopping Misawa and then Misawa all stoically and shit drops Kobashi dead in his tracks with a perfectly timed rolling elbow smash. Misawa goes for an exploder, Kobashi lands some defensive chops, than Misawa clubs Kenta on the back and hits him with a rolling senton kick. TIGER DRIVER MOTHERFUCKER! Kobashi kicks out. Misawa has this look on his face look "oh fuck, what do I have to do to put this guy down for a three count?" Cue the Tiger Suplex ... and Kobashi kicks out of that, too.

Seeing an opportunity, Misawa locks in in another facelock variation. Kobashi gets to the ropes. There's another Tiger Driver, and yep, Kobashi kicks out yet again. Misawa teases the EMERALD FLOWSION but Kenta counters it with a Single Wing Dragon Suplex but Misawa TOTALLY no sells it, only to get caught in a sleeperhold, which Kenta turns into the most badass TAZZMISSION-PLEX you've ever seen in your fucking life. Misawa tries to jump onto Kobashi backfirst off the second rope, but of course, Kobashi just punches him in the spine on his way down. KOBASHI LANDS THE LARIAT-O! But a good goddamn, Misawa KICKS OUT!

Kobashi is up and sweating like a whore in church. He tries to set Misawa up for a brainbuster, but Misawa flips over the top rope, allowing Mitsuharu to brainbust Kenta right on the rampway. Yep ... that looked like that hurt like ten or eleven different motherfuckers, right there. Then Kenta gets up looking like he's ready to kill somebody for real and Misawa retaliates with a plancha through the middle and top ropes. Man, that shit looked beautiful. Now Misawa is attempting to Tiger Drive Kobashi ON THE RAMP ... ONLY TO DRAGON SUPLEX THAT JAPANESE NIGGA OFF THE RAMP ONTO THE FLOOR BELOW. The crowd completely forgets this shit is scripted and you can hear a pin drop ... they are legitimately worried that both men just killed each other for their entertainment. Naturally, "KOBASHI" chants pipe up shortly thereafter ... hey, nobody said this wasn't a partisan crowd, after all.

Now both men are struggling to get back into the ring. The audience is cheering both men to re-enter the fray, and you can hear their voices get more desperate as we hit the 18-count. When Kobashi rolls in at 19.9999, the crowd positively FREAKS THE FUCK OUT. Misawa goes for a quick pin, and Kobashi kicks out at two. The crowd freaks out again. These people have totally forgotten this is a pro wrestling match and it is beautiful.

Misawa lands a wheel kick to Kobashi's noggin, and Kenta kicks out once more. The crowd is still buying EVERY move as a potential match-ender, and you can literally FEEL the anxiety emanating from the crowd. Kobashi lands some chops, Misawa lands some rolling elbows and Misawa lands the EMERALD FLOWSION. Kobashi kicks out and the fans start acting like the Emperor has been re-installed as head of state. Misawa teases another Tiger Driver and Kobashi finally backdrops him to the crowd's roaring approval. Yep, over a backdrop ... that's how hot this crowd is. Kobashi lands another lariat-o, and Misawa kicks out. Fuck, even MY heart is starting to race a little now. Kobashi hits Misawa with the SICKEST fucking brainbuster you've ever seen in your life and Misawa KICKS OUT. These two men have the crowd eating out of the palm out of their hands at this point. Everytime one of them lifts a finger they react like it's Vertebreaker through a flaming table.

Kobashi hooks Misawa up for the BURNING HAMMER and THAT is what finall brings this 21st century classic to a close, 33 minutes and 28 seconds in.

Adding to the realism, both men lay exhausted on the mat. Hell, they probably ARE that exhausted for real. The trainers are all checking on them and looking supremely concerned ... again, that's probably legit concern. About three minutes later, Kobashi finally gets to his feet and he's handed the GHC championship and a huge ass golden trophy. After his hand is raised, he staggers across the ring to shake Misawa's hand, and the fans all of a sudden start chanting "Misawa" because they KNOW a fucking all-time performance when they just saw it. Misawa heads to the back flanked by his trainers , Gracie Train-style, while Kobashi does a very UFC-like post-fight interview. He has to use the trophy as a walker to stay upright. Of course, I don't speak the Japanese, so I have no clue what he's saying, but considering it's Kobashi, it's probably something awesome. He gets his hand raised again and the fans all clap like they won the Stanley Cup and personally get to drink Mountain Dew Pitch Black out of it.

"Grand Sword" starts playing again, Kenta takes a bow, the fans chant "Kobashi!" one more time and the new champ gingerly walks off into the sunset ... err, back to the locker room, but you know what I mean. Confetti falls from the sky, Kobashi ambles through the curtains and that's all she wrote, kids.

Fun fact: instead of necks, Japanese people's skulls sit upon a viscous, Jell-O like substance.

Man, that match was absolutely EVERYTHING I remembered and then some. It's amazing just how much of the old King's Road style has disappeared from the modern fascia of wrestling. Instead of beefy powerhouses like Misawa and Kobashi, whose sheer-force could result in a KO at any minute in the match, now we've got anorexic butt-fuckers like the Young Bucks and Marty Scurll doing 870 degree moonsaults off the bottom rope for two-counts for 15-minutes straight before one of them botches a piledriver variation for the three-count.

Take note, soy-boys: real men like Misawa and Kobashi didn't have to do dives every 30 seconds and fruity looking shit-submission holds to make a match work. Rather, they made their bouts work by FEELING as real and athletic as possible. I've always said the ultimate indicator of a ***** match is that by the end of it, you completely forget it's fake and you're buying into its authenticity the same way you would any boxing or MMA contest.

You felt like this match could end after every suplex, DDT and sleeperhold. When these motherfuckers started swinging, you FELT the force behind each blow. Even the most rudimentary "transition" holds FELT like possible match-enders, and deconstructing the bout, it just now dawned on me: these two guys literally built their matches like 2-minute skating sessions in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 2 on the Dreamcast.

Seriously, go back and watch this one closely. Today's wrestlers just go high-spot-power-move-dive-flip-twisty-submission-shit-dive over and over again, and nothing ever feels real or visceral anymore. Well, what Misawa and Kobashi did was find a way to link all of the high-impact, concussion-causing shit together a'la manualling in THPS2. Those sleeperholds and abdominal stretches and forearm exchanges were used as the glue and bassline that kept the match tempo as a whole going. It wasn't just big move after big move, it was one, continual smooth ride interspersed with Tiger Drivers and Burning Hammers. That's a subtlety of the craft that's been completely lost on modern wrestlers, who think winning over the crowd means hitting 450 splash after corkscrew moonsault after top-rope brainbuster until the cows come home. Ultimately, the composition of a great pro wrestling match eerily mirrors the composition of a great jazz song; you have peaks and valleys and volleys and sudden crescendos, but without that constant underlying beat, it's just bombast for the sake of bombast.

Those cruiserweight clusterfucks in NXT and New Japan are the rasslin' equivalents of old D.R.I. and MDC songs — just explosive fury and familiarity. Meanwhile, Kobashi and Misawa were dropping the wrestling equivalent of Gustav Holst and Sergei Prokofiev ... epic, sprawling, nuanced masterpieces of beautiful force.

If you want to see a real five-star match, this is what it looks like, kids. Glorified indie soy-boys, take note ... this is what you should aspire to as performers, even though we all know ain't none of you are capable of being so fuckin' awesome.


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