The goal of this series was to look at a variety of matches. Sometimes it would be a match that I wanted to spotlight, other times it would be an old personal favorite. Today I'm looking back at a match that has been considered by many to be one of the greatest matches of the first decade of the millennium (thank you to Dave Meltzer for the suggestion).
Back in 2000, a change in management at All Japan Pro-Wrestling led Mitsuharu Misawa and several other workers to leave the company and start their own. Pro Wrestling NOAH took their name from the biblical Ark story as a group of survivors left behind the old ways. Misawa was their inaugural champion. Already a top star in Japan, Misawa had previously portrayed the famed Tiger Mask for many years. His work along side with three others earned them the nickname "Four Pillars of Heaven". Also in this select group was Kenta Kobashi.
Kobashi was one of the many workers to leave AJPW for Misawa's NOAH. Prior to this, Kobashi and Misawa had been a successful tag team, holding multiple tag titles. The two men had already had a pair of Observer Matches of the Year (in 1997 and 1998). Now in 2003, injuries had mounted as Kobashi had been dealing with a knee issue. It should also be noted that Kobashi had never beaten Misawa for a singles title. This match would be for the GHC Heavyweight Championship, NOAH's top belt.
The title match took place from the Nippon Budokan arena in Chiyoda, Tokyo, Japan. Both men are welcomed by the crowd and during the course of the match I don't get a sense of the standard heel/face dynamic. It's the battle of two legends.
Opening Bell - 9min
The first section of this match is all Misawa. While reversals are employed by both competitors, it's Misawa who is able to land more strikes and grapples. He works the arm of Kobashi, the same arm that Kobashi uses for his Burning Lariat finisher. Misawa hits a series of dives (including a great looking frog splash) in an effort to put away Kobashi early. Unfortunately, one of these dives to the outside is dodged by Kobashi resulting in Misawa taking a hard landing onto the metal railing. This results in a busted mouth for Misawa and a change in momentum that favors Kobashi.
9min - 15min
Now the match is in Kobashi's control. For over six minutes the only offense that Misawa can offer is a pair of strikes. Kobashi dishes out elbows, submissions, and his chops that look brutal. It seems that every knife-edged chop is a aimed at Misawa's collar bone and I wince with every one.
I recorded a single taunt from Misawa during this match and it's so subtle that it's sublime. Kobashi has Misawa down on his knees after a series of strikes. Kobashi fires up and Misawa pops his head up and locks eyes with his former tag partner. It's not a big motion but the crowd recognizes the defiance and fight in the champion. It's a look that says, "it's going to take more than that to put me down."
Momentum swings back to Misawa. During this segment the fight moves to the elevated rampway that leads to the ring. Misawa locks up Kobashi and hits a Tiger Suplex to the floor below. It's one of the craziest spots I've ever seen and the audience agrees as they leap to their feet (most having believed that they just witnessed a murder).
Kobashi is able to hit a Burning Lariat but so much damage has been done to his arm that it's not 100% and Misawa is able to kick out. Misawa is able to hit his Emerald Flowsion but Kobashi kicks out.
33min - END
Misawa has given it his all. The Emerald Flowsion didn't work and after that he only has some obligatory strikes to throw at Kobashi. In return, Kobashi fires up and hits a Burning Hammer on the champion. This move has been the subject of countless gifs and I remember back in the early 2000s the move being whispered about due to it's danger factor. In hindsight you can see how professional Kobashi is in protecting Misawa, but it still looks terrifying. Kobashi gets the pin and wins the GHC Heavyweight Championship.
Points: Strike = 1, Strikedown = 3, Grapple = 4, Dive = 5, Submission = 1/5seconds, Finisher = 10
The match would go on to win the Wrestling Observer's Match of the Year for 2003 and for good reason. It's both an incredible athletic competition and great drama. Kobashi would hold the GHC Championship only once, but he would do so for 735 days, a record that still stands. Misawa would tragically suffer a fatal in-ring injury in 2009. It was a simple belly to back suplex that resulted in the vertebrae in Misawa's neck getting dislocated. He was 46 years old. It's a stark reminder that every move holds the potential for injury. NOAH was never the same after Misawa's passing. Alleged dealings with Japanesse Yakuza and falling viewership resulted in some dark days for the federation. As of 2020, NOAH merged with DDT Pro Wrestling under the parent company CyberAgent and would continue to stream their combined product as CyberFight.