When you hear the words ‘the perfect wrestler’, what image comes to mind? Do you picture John Cena, a man that’s capable of selling out arenas around the world thanks to his immense popularity and great physique and strength? Do you picture Shawn Michaels, a masterful storyteller and adept technical wrestler capable of having a great match with a broom?
Or do you picture Ric Flair, a master of ring psychology that could tell a fantastic story with his actions just as well as he could with his words?
Now, what if I told you that there was once a wrestler that had all the above qualities and then some? You’d probably think I was joking or exaggerating to some degree. I’m not. For there was once a wrestler that was called ‘the perfect wrestler’ by Tokyo Sports. His name was Kenta Kobashi.
Kenta Kobashi is what you get when you take John Cena’s physique and charisma, combine them with Shawn Michaels’ technical ability and selling and mix Ric Flair’s mastery of ring psychology and storytelling. He wrestled for twenty-five years, debuting in 1988 and retiring in 2013.
During that period, Kobashi grew from a never-say-die rookie to an excellent tag team partner any wrestler would love to team with, to a dominant champion the likes of which have not been seen since before the 1990s.
He held Pro Wrestling NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Championship for just over two full years, the longest title reign of any major Japanese wrestling Promotion since Misawa’s 705-day run back in the 1990s. He was a jack of all trades, capable of filling any role needed by the bookers.
Like his fellow Four Pillars, Kobashi’s love for pro wrestling was so profound that nothing could stop him from getting into the ring, not even cancer.
From the moment AJPW booker Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba saw Kobashi, he knew he had something. There was an unquenchable fire that existed in Kobashi’s heart that could not be extinguished.
Baba had seen the lengths Kobashi had gone to just to be considered for an application to work for All Japan, so he decided to turn that fire into one of the most successful underdog stories in wrestling history.
Baba booked Kobashi to lose his first 63 consecutive matches, all of them singles bouts. You might think that this is a terrible way for someone to get over, but here’s the cleverness of Baba’s booking.
Each time Kobashi lost, he’d get ever so much closer to winning, kicking out one additional time or hitting one more move that would inch him closer to victory, only for that win to be taken from him at the last moment.
By showing off his fighting spirit (an element that has always been huge in Japanese wrestling), the fans got behind this newcomer with ease. They wanted to see him win so badly, and each time he lost, they didn’t give up on him, but kept supporting him instead. So when he finally did win in 1990, the reaction he got was enormous, and he wasn’t even a top guy yet.
That was a surefire sign to Baba and everyone else that Kobashi was a top-tier talent.
Kobashi spent the majority of the next decade feuding and teaming with fellow Four Pillars Akira Taue, Toshiaki Kawada, and Mitsuharu Misawa. During that period, Kobashi proved himself to be quite possibly the most versatile worker in all of wrestling. In any of his matches, you could see him showing off his skills in a variety of fields.
He’d execute a delayed Vertical Suplex to show off his unbelievable strength. He’d execute Springboard moves like someone much smaller than himself. His chops were considered to be the most vicious and punishing in all of wrestling. Finally, he could execute a Diving Moonsault with the grace and precision of a Cruiserweight.
It wasn’t surprising that fans tuned in in droves to see him wrestle.
Soon, word of this impressive young Japanese wrestler began spreading to the United States. North American fans, looking for an alternative to WWE and WCW, started to tune in to Japanese wrestling, and were mesmerised by this young kid in All Japan.
In particular, Kenta Kobashi had a 5-star match in 1992 against Doug Furnas and Dan Kroffat. The tape of this match was sold illegally and traded throughout the English-speaking world, and soon Kobashi’s name was on many wrestling fans’ radars.
The ‘90s ended up being the best stint of Kobashi’s career. He had at least one 5-Star match every year in that decade except for 1996 and 1997, but he made up for that by having five 5-Star matches in 1995 alone. That is an astonishing record when you think about it.
What’s even more amazing is that the first two of his 5-star matches that year took place within five days of each other. The sheer quality of his matches was a testament to his ability to put on a spectacular performance. Even if he wasn’t in the top world title matches all the time like Misawa was, Kobashi was still one of the best wrestlers All Japan had to offer.
Kobashi excelled in both dishing out punishment and taking it. During the 1990s, All Japan went through a period during which ‘head spike’ moves were all the rage, and everyone was using and taking them, including Kobashi. But a big part of Kobashi’s gimmick was that he could take an inhuman amount of punishment because his fighting spirit was so powerful.
An example of this was when ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams delivered three consecutive Dangerous Backdrops to Kobashi in one match.
Kobashi took three high-angle Backdrop Suplexes in a row, with the first two being especially vicious. With the second one, you could clearly see him landing on his head, only to get up seconds later, desperate to keep going. That was his unyielding spirit refusing to die, which is what made him so badass. It almost became a running joke of sorts.
Most of these moves looked like they would cripple or kill an ordinary human being, but Kobashi kept getting up. So profound was his toughness that commentators started calling him ‘Tetsujin’, Japanese for ‘Ironman’.
But Kobashi was more than just a glutton for punishment; he delivered some truly vicious wrestling manoeuvres, many of which are too extreme or too dangerous to be used anywhere outside of All Japan and NOAH. His main finishers for a long time were a Lariat (which he wielded with absolute devastation), and a Moonsault.
But over time he started using moves that no one else had thought of, which helped him earn a secondary nickname ‘the Maximum Innovator’. First, there was the Orange Crush, a Vertical Suplex into a Powerbomb:
Then, he went even further with the Black Crush, a Vertical Suplex into an RKO:
Then, he created a move he has used only once: the Diamondhead, a Powerbomb into a DDT:
Then there was his magnum opus, his ultimate finisher, one that no person has ever kicked out of (at least, not when he used it), the Burning Hammer:
It’s no wonder so many fans loved watching him; he was like Superman in terms of strength and toughness, yet he’d still sell his opponents’ offence like Michaels or Flair.
Like all wrestlers, however, Kobashi wasn’t immune to the long-term effects of wrestling and gradual wear and tear on his body. Years of heavy lifting and high-impact Moonsaults devastated his knees, and by 2000, many people thought his career was over.
But no; he returned to the ring in 2002 after 13 months off and countless knee surgeries, and still managed to enjoy one last spectacular run as NOAH’s World Champion. To prove just how much fans around the world respected Kobashi, consider his match with Samoa Joe in 2005.
Prior to that match, Kobashi had never wrestled in the United States on a major level, yet Ring of Honor asked him to work for them for two shows, as part of a talent exchange with NOAH. But Kobashi was convinced that no one knew who he was, and was initially determined to play a 1960s’ style evil Japanese heel.
Samoa Joe told him now wrong that mentality was:
When Kobashi arrived for that event, he received a thunderous ovation, much like the ovation Nakamura got when he debuted for NXT. The cultural and language differences didn’t matter to these wrestling fans; Kobashi was a star in their eyes, and they respected him for everything he has done in the wrestling business.
As the years went on, Kobashi’s injuries mounted. He had to take even more time off to deal with his knees, then he was diagnosed with cancer (which he completely no-sold), and then had severe nerve damage in his arms (presumably from chopping most of his opponents half to death).
By the 2010s, it was clear Kobashi’s career was coming to an end, but he was still a widely-respected wrestler whose status became akin to the Undertaker’s in WWE: revered, respected, loyal, and well-regarded. In fact, he was so well-regarded, that he had his own retirement PPV, titled ‘Final Burning in Bukodan,’ which sold out hours after it was announced.
Kobashi’s legacy will be one of true wrestling greatness. He was ‘Mr. Versatile’ whenever he stepped through the ropes. He could play the gutsy underdog and the dominant veteran, depending on the situation.
He had a mastery of storytelling and selling through facial expressions and key movements. He knew how to get you to cheer for him without having to do very much. He also knew how to get the crowd to react to whatever he did, whether that meant dropping people on their heads, getting dropped on his own head, or taking part in a 4-minute chop battle.
Simply put, Kenta Kobashi was, without a shadow of a doubt, the perfect wrestler.
-3-Time Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion
-1-Time GHC Heavyweight Champion (longest single reign to date)
-12-Time Tag Team Champion between AJPW & NOAH
-23 5-Star matches as per the Wrestling Observer, the most of any living wrestler
-8-time Match of the Year Winner according to Tokyo Sports
-6-time Match of the Year Winner according to the Wrestling Observer
-Innovator of Multiple wrestling moves (Double-Arm DDT, Orange Crush, Black Crush, Burning Hammer, etc.)
-No-sold cancer and severe nerve damage
I know this might’ve been a lot to read, so here’s a final gift for you, dear reader. It’s a link to one of the greatest matches I have ever seen: Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa, for the GHC Heavyweight Championship:
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