When you work through a ‘Best Of’ list, it encourages high expectations, doesn’t it? I’ve been working my way through ‘BURNING: A GUIDE TO KENTA KOBASHI’S GREATNESS’ (click here to see the list), and so far, there have been more hits than misses. With Kobashi, it seems, you can rarely go wrong. A few haven’t reached my expectations of what a great match should be, but even those have been worthwhile watches. I’ve reached the point in the list where the complete ‘Four Pillars’ of AJPW have come together to compete in much-loved, critically acclaimed tag team matches. The first of two on the list, from December 1993, pits Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi against Akira Taue and Toshiaki Kawada. While I’ve seen three of the ‘Four Pillars in action against each other (and invariably put on classic matches), Akira Taue was an unknown unknown for me. Upon seeing him in action, I questioned his value as an AJPW Pillar…
From a physical point of view, he looks out of place. Although not as tall, he reminds me of The Great Khali. Tall, lanky, and limbs that don’t match his body. Oh, Taue even has the infamous ‘chop to the head’ as part of his moveset as well (although it’s not a finisher). Take a look at the other three Pillars. Misawa and Kawada looks like angry, tough S.O.Bs, mean dads that you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley at night. Kobashi is the closest body type to the typical ‘WWF’ archetype that was in vogue at the time, although nowhere near as ‘roided out or as big as some of the WWF wrestlers in 1993 (although, to be fair, WWF started to focus more on wrestling ability than body shape at the time). He’s a fine physical specimen. Next to those three, Taue looks like he’s just wandered in from the crowd.
Of course, never judge a book by its cover. His in-ring style, unfortunately, doesn’t scream out ‘fantastic wrestler’ either. The aforementioned ‘chop to the head’ looks laughable (as it did for The Great Khali). Next to Misawa’s forearms, Kobashi’s chops, and Kawada’s kicks, Taue’s head chops look like John Cena’s punches. Due to his body shape, most everything he does looks awkward as well. Even things relatively simple like Irish Whips and clotheslines look like they are a great effort to him. I’ve read that it’s more about his in-ring presence and in-ring psychology than his wrestling ability, but thanks to his short time in the ring, I didn’t get to see much of that.
His short time in the ring gave me less time to focus on him and more time to focus on the other three Pillars, who were undoubtedly three of the best in the world at the time. I’m sorry to ramble on about Taue for so long, but to view someone so incongruous in the ring compared to those three wrestlers stole my suspension of disbelief. This was my first exposure to Taue, so perhaps I don’t fully understand him yet. But thankfully, as soon as he was out of the way, my suspension of disbelief came rushing back. These three have perfect timing and selling. Misawa acted as the mentor waiting for the hot tag as his protégé, Kobashi, received a hell of a beating. For selling general exhaustion and pain, there are few better than Kobashi. He forces you to root for him as he takes a tremendous beating.
And, talking about selling, Kawada could teach modern NJPW wrestlers a thing or two about that. Midway through the match, he targets Kobashi’s wrapped-up knee, which turns out to be a pivotal mistake for him. He was plagued with knee injuries of his own, and Kobashi turned the tables and focused on Kawada’s knee. And Kawada sold it beautifully, unable to hold the pin after a German Suplex and failing to follow up his Dangerous Backdrop Driver with a pinfall. It’s an injury that Kawada sells throughout the rest of the match, without forgetting it like some modern wrestlers do today. However, that also leads me to my second criticism of the match (after the whole performance of Akira Taue): Kawada braves through his injury like a babyface, when he’s supposed to be a heel.
The backstory between these four wrestlers is one I’ve only briefly read about, and my lack of knowledge perhaps prevented me from enjoying this match to its fullest. But I know that Kawada and Taue are the heels in this match, forming part of the ‘Holy Demon Army’ (what a bad-ass name for a heel faction, by the way!). So why does Kawada (predominantly performing in a heel fashion, treating Kobashi with major disrespect) brave through an injury like a babyface? Even the crowd faintly cheer for him as the match goes on. But maybe that’s just me, nitpicking because of my high expectations going into this bout.
On the whole, this is a great showcase for three of the ‘Four Pillars.’ Kawada, disregarding his babyface-like overcoming of his knee injury, puts on a cracking heel performance. There’s bad blood between Misawa and Kawada, as once upon a time they used to be team mates until Kawada turned on Misawa. Every time they face each other, you can feel the burning hatred between them (this, of course, is before their famed 3/6/1994 bout, an absolute classic…click here for my review!)…and the hatred comes out in their vicious blows. Kawada’s kicks look stiff and brutal, and I don’t think there’s anything as demeaning as a swift boot to the back or head when someone is on the floor…and he does that to Kobashi…a lot! Unlike his rivalry with Misawa, Kawada treats Kobashi as a mere inconvenience, as if Kenta doesn’t belong in the ring!
Kobashi…well, what else can I say about Kobashi that I haven’t in previous reviews? Surely one of the greatest of all-time, but a mere protégé of Misawa’s here, wanting to prove himself among the more experienced senior wrestlers. His performance, theatrical as it may be, implores the crowd to chant his name. His selling even makes Taue’s weak-looking blows look convincing. And Misawa…Misawa is the tough-as-nails father figure, waiting for his protégé to give him the hot tag so he can take down his bitter rival, Kawada. It all leads to a tense, exhilarating final ten minutes, with Taue’s role thankfully reduced to punching bag for Misawa and Kobashi, and Kawada attempting to overcome his knee injury.
With a substitute for Akira Taue, I’d rank this as an easy 5* match. Misawa, Kawada and Kobashi put on great performances, adapting the typical tag team match to their idiosyncratic styles. They weave personal history into the story of the bout, culminating in a final stretch that rivals anything even in the modern era. However, the performance of Taue broke my suspension of disbelief. Everything he did (apart from an impressive dropkick, to be fair!) made me roll my eyes. Even in the context of the bout, he looked like a spare part, waiting for something to do, awkwardly waiting on the ropes for the other three wrestlers to stop being so goddamn amazing. What a shame…
Hammy’s Rating: **** (out of 5)
(Click here for more of ‘A Wrestling Match A Day‘)
My Other Reviews of ‘Burning: The Greatness of Kenta Kobashi’ (in date order)
- 144. Danny Kroffat & Doug Furnas (c) vs. Kenta Kobashi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi (All-Asia Tag Team Championship, AJPW Super Power Series 1992 25.05.1992)
- 146. Kenta Kobashi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Masanobu Fuchi & Yoshinari Ogawa (AJPW Summer Action Series 5.7.1992)
- 143. ‘Dr Death’ Steve Williams vs Kenta Kobashi (AJPW Summer Action Series II 31/8/1993)
- 145. Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada vs. Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa (AJPW Real World Tag League 3.12.1993)
- 147. Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa (c) vs Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW World Tag Team Championship, AJPW Super Power Series 9.6.1995)
- 149. Toshiaki Kawada (c) vs Kenta Kobashi (Triple Crown Championship Match, AJPW Super Power Series 12/6/1998)
- 148. Kenta Kobashi vs Jun Akiyama (Pro Wrestling NOAH August 6th 2000)
- 139. Mitsuharu Misawa (c) vs Kenta Kobashi (GHC Heavyweight Championship, Pro Wrestling Noah Navigate For Evolution 1.3.2003)
- 150. Kenta Kobashi (c) vs Yoshihiro Takayama (GHC Championship Match, Pro Wrestling NOAH Encountering Navigation 2004)
And here are some other reviews of Kobashi’s matches:
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