THE SPECIALISTS JAPAN SPECIALIST: A recent great tag team finish in ROH brings back memories of a masterful example in Japan
Oct 17, 2008 - 5:52:02 PM
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By Adam Berry, PWTorch Specialist
Derek Burgan and Sean Radican recently discussed in their PWTorch VIP audio show, with no small measure of enthusiasm or passion, the response of fans at the conclusion of Ring of Honor's ninth pay-per-view taping. As Kevin Steen & El Generico finally captured the tag team titles, after more than a year of pursuit, the crowd reacted with genuine joy.
The response was not scripted by storylines (though the chase was beautifully plotted), shaped by the action (though it was said to be captivating) or dependant on characters (though they are both engaging).
The emotional release described by Sean Radican is one that can only occur if the crowd feels genuinely connected to the wrestlers involved. And in Steen and Generico, performers who fundamentally lack the look to make it, but have a palpable love of, commitment to, and talent in the sport, fans found that connection.
This was not a thing of storylines and characters; it was a thing of respect. Respect for the people behind the facade. And it was probably a sight to behold. But I didn't see it. I did see something as wonderful though and it was not a story of rising above one's station, but of returning to it.
Kenta Kobashi is the greatest Japanese wrestler ever. This is no light statement and it is not one made without support from within the industry. In the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, which is voted upon by critics and wrestlers alike, no performer has ever been voted-in with such a majority. Not Shawn Michaels. Not Keiji Mutoh. Not Ric Flair. Of the 83 people polled in 2002, 81 thought that Kobashi was worthy of entry into the most prestigious hall of fame in professional wrestling. More amazingly still, his performances in 2003, 2004 and 2005, after he was inducted, were some of his most productive. Indeed, he carried away The Observer's Wrestler of the Year award in every one of those years and was involved in The Observer's Match of the Year on every occasion. Had he made more of an impact in the United States (outside of his spectacular one-night performance in Ring of Honor), it would not be unreasonable to consider him the greatest professional wrestler in history. And for a time it looked as if his story would be amongst the most tragic.
In 2006, only months after being recognised as the greatest active wrestler on earth, Kenta Kobashi was diagnosed with kidney cancer during a routine medical examination (he had earlier reported intense pain) and instantly withdrew from the sport. Puroresu fans responded with astonishment and devastation when Misawa made the shocking announcement, at the suitably grim hour of midnight, outside of the Differ Ariake arena, in Tokyo. He also announced that the much heralded dream tag team match featuring Kobashi, Misawa, Akiyama, and Takayama would be cancelled (for which, amazingly, Kobashi publically apologised).
For Kenta Kobashi the man, the month-long wait for kidney surgery must have been agonising in every sense of the word. And terrifying. Even if the surgery was successful, there was surely a very real risk that his career would be over. For a man who would later claim that an inability to wrestle would be equivalent to death, the uncertainty must have weighed heavily upon him indeed. These inner thoughts of a typically stoic man were betrayed upon his return, in a suit and tie, to Budokan Hall some six months later. In his twenty-second speech to puroresu fans, aired live across Japan, Kobashi allayed tears, but the emotion was palpable. His eyes spoke of a battle survived, but scarring; a brief smile that traced across his lips, echoed relief; and his words were both thankful and fiercely defiant - he swore that he would be back “without fail”. On December 2, 2007, Kobashi proved that he was a man of his word.
In a beautiful dove-tail, Kobashi would deliver the dream match that his cancer had denied fans sixteen months earlier, teaming with Takayama against perhaps his two greatest-ever opponents, Misawa and Akiyama (opposite whom he had earned a total of four Match of the Year awards). The crowd, who had been vocal during the entrance and at fever-pitch upon learning that Kobashi would start the match, exploded at the sight of his first chop to Akiyama and his brief exchange with Misawa. But then Kobashi tagged-out and the crowd deflated - perhaps nervous that Kobashi had returned to soon; that he had lost a step; that their hero would not be in the ring that night. They need not have been so concerned.
The match, which Kobashi wrestled the majority of, was filled with emotive selling, thrilling action and a myriad of wonderful little moments. At the nineteen minute mark, the crowd exploded when Kobashi unleashed a flurry of sixty-five consecutive chops in the corner to Akiyama. As Kobashi slowed towards the end of the sequence, Akiyama - who had been wrestling Kobashi for fifteen years - glared at his peer and screamed for more. Kobashi hesitated briefly and then threw a further fifty. The moment may have been scripted, but the emotions behind it were very real; everyone in that arena, Akiyama included, desperately wanted Kobashi to deliver a Kobashi-level performance.
At the twenty-three minute mark, Kobashi illustrated how much he was willing to give in order to produce that performance when he executed a moonsault - the move that he popularised with Mutoh, and that had so damaged him that he had five distinct knee operations in 2001. The crowd, understanding the significance of the move, exploded. Tamon Honda, Kobashi's tag team partner at the time of his cancer announcement, openly cried on commentary upon seeing it.
The finishing sequence was thrilling. With the momentum vacillating rapidly, Kobashi absorbed an exploder, running knee-strike and Tiger Driver, but refused to stay down. He retaliated with a breath-taking half-nelson suplex and lariat, but was denied by a desperate save from Akiyama. As the half-hour mark approached, Kobashi sought the Burning Hammer, but was countered and suffered another running knee-strike and exploder combination from Akiyama, a running elbow-strike from Misawa and, most significantly of all, the Emerald Frosion. When he kicked-out of that, as Takayama desperately clawed at Akiyama to get back into the ring, the crowd went positively mental - might Kobashi's heroic return be given the heroic finish it deserved? It was not to be. Misawa landed a second Emerald Frosion (this time from the second rope) for the decisive, clean, pinfall victory.
For a moment the crowd was silent, but then erupted into a Kobashi chant. The defeat spoke volumes about the man and though there is still an air of Kayfabe about Japanese wrestling, the fans knew it. Kobashi could have dictated any finish he liked (including deflecting the loss onto Takayama), but he choose to lose in his triumphant return match. He did not want the victory. He, more than anyone else, knew that anything worthwhile having in life is worthwhile struggling for. The satisfied smile that crept onto his face in the post-match said exactly that.
It was the greatest match I have ever seen. And it did not have a thing to do with storylines or characters. It was all about seeing the satisfied smile of a man who had truly earned it.
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