Kenta Kobashi: Establishing the Gold Standard of the 1990s
By Steven Verrier
The WWF–WCW rivalry—perhaps best represented by the “Monday Night Wars” in the United States—wasn’t the only major promotional battle to rock the professional wrestling world in the 1990s. In Japan, home to a variety of thriving promotions in the 1990s, a heated competition was taking place between that country’s two dominant promotions—Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling and Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling.
To many fans around the world, New Japan set the standard when it came to presenting junior heavyweight matches of the highest order. But to fans favoring heavyweight competition, All Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1990s was widely regarded as the promotion presenting the hardest-hitting, most believable, most athletic, and most compelling heavyweight action on the planet. Driving that reputation were the in-ring efforts of heavyweight standouts Stan Hansen, Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Jumbo Tsuruta, Steve Williams, Terry Gordy, and perhaps the best heavyweight wrestler in the company—and in the world—at the time, Kenta Kobashi.
During most of the 1990s, when All Japan was delivering a serious, athletic quality of wrestling perhaps previously unseen, Kobashi was regarded by many as the wrestler furthest ahead of the curve. His matches weren’t the flashiest or the most theatrical—but that wasn’t the vision Giant Baba, All Japan’s founder and leader, had for his promotion or wrestlers. Baba’s view of wrestling was more along the lines of St. Louis promoter Sam Muchnick’s—noted for athletic realism and believable storylines often based simply on athletic competition— and Kobashi, for many years during the peak of his career, was a convincing challenger or champion who exuded confidence, competence, and competitive hunger in a manner that very few other wrestlers ever did. His 1990s matches—typically, bruising match ups featuring Kobashi’s signature rapid-fire chops to the chest and a moonsault that did no favors to the knees of a muscular 250-pounder—were often considered state-of-the-art, and they continue to stand up against top matches of the current era.
Kobashi’s rise to the top of his profession didn’t come easy, however, after he joined All Japan as a 20-year old stud who’d made his mark as a high school athlete specializing in judo and rugby. Though clearly among the cream of the crop in the All Japan dojo, Kobashi, whose debut match was in late 1987, suffered a long string of losses—many lasting well under 10 minutes but demonstrating Kobashi’s determination to improve with each showing—before picking up a few tag team wins with more established partners and slowly moving up the ladder.
Yet it wasn’t until May 16, 1989—following a year and a half of solid undercard matches against a variety of Japanese and “gaijin” opponents—that Kobashi apparently won the first singles match of his career. His opponent that night in Kani, Gifu Prefecture, was American journeyman Mitch Snow. Kobashi defeated Snow again the following week but, from there, continued to lose the majority of his singles matches during the remainder of 1989. He fared a little better in tag team matches, especially when paired with the likes of Tsuruta and Baba, and in six-man matches teaming with the British Bulldogs, Dynamite Kid and Davey Boy Smith. While teaming with the Bulldogs, Kobashi often saw another top tag team of the era, Dan Kroffat and Doug Furnas, across the ring.
Kroffat and Furnas—often regarded as one of the most underappreciated tag teams of their era—played a significant role in Kobashi’s development from 1990– 1992. Three times during those years, the Kroffat Furnas Can-Am Express held All Japan’s All Asia Tag Team title—and, all three times, they lost the All Asia title to a team that included Kobashi. The first Can-Am Express title loss to a team including Kobashi was on April 9, 1990, when Kobashi’s partner was the second incarnation of Tiger Mask, Tiger Mask #2, played by Mitsuharu Misawa. Within a few years, Misawa and Kobashi, though continuing to team frequently, would engage occasionally in singles matches widely regarded as among the best in the world at that time—or during any period.
By 1993 Kobashi was regarded as a world-class wrestler, delivering state-of-the-art athletic matches and clearly on the verge of breaking through and joining Misawa, Kawada, Hansen, and Williams at the head of the pack in the All Japan promotion. Yet it would be three more years until Kobashi—falling just short on numerous occasions from 1993–1995—would finally win his first singles title, All Japan’s Unified Triple Crown Heavyweight title, with a victory over another “pillar” of All Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1990s, Akira Taue, at Tokyo’s Budokan on July 24, 1996. During those three years before reaching the pinnacle in All Japan, Kobashi wrestled in many main events throughout Japan, often partnered with Misawa—no longer wearing a mask—as the two were All Japan’s most dominant tag team during that period. Opponents Kobashi faced during his rise to the top from 1993–1996 included fellow legends such as Hansen, Williams, Kawada, Gordy, Abdullah the Butcher, Ted DiBiase, and Misawa. While Kobashi was surely ready—in terms of athleticism, ring psychology, and fan perception—to rise to the top of All Japan’s singles ranks long before he did, there were few fans who didn’t see him as a convincing and deserving champion by the time he finally captured the Triple Crown title.
Over the course of the following decade—in All Japan and then Pro Wrestling NOAH, the All Japan offshoot established by Misawa in 2000—Kobashi was a dominant singles wrestler, four times having strong runs with the promotions’ top singles titles and usually being counted on to deliver exciting main events to close out shows highlighting a roster of skilled and well-trained wrestlers. Kobashi’s two-year run with NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight title from March 2003–March 2005 played a key role in anchoring NOAH when it was getting established as a successful promotion. Twenty years later, that GHC Heavyweight title run remains the longest in the history of the promotion, which is still in operation today.
Following his two-year run with the GHC title, Kobashi made a few appearances outside Japan but generally wound down his wrestling career with a few more title runs in Japan, a victorious bout with cancer, injury-related surgery, and work behind the scenes for NOAH. His retirement match in May 2013—more than a year after he’d essentially called it a career—was a mere formality but gave fans a final opportunity to get out to the Budokan to show their appreciation for one of the most skilled and athletic wrestlers who ever lived. To sum up Kobashi’s outstanding career, it isn’t farfetched to say that his body of work from about 1990–2005 measures up to any 15-year stretch in the career of any wrestler before or since. Just as significant, perhaps, is that his work for All Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1990s was pivotal in establishing that promotion during that era as the worldwide gold standard for heavyweight wrestling.
Steven Verrier is the author of Professional Wrestling in the Pacific Northwest: A History, 1883 to the Present; Gene Kiniski: Canadian Wrestling Legend; George Gordienko: Canadian Wrestler, Artist and Renaissance Man; and an upcoming biography on Wilbur Snyder (with coauthor Richard Vicek). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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