Before either man reached solo superstardom, the 1989 Tomorrow League saw Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi lay claim to the decade ahead.
July 1, 1989
All Japan Pro Wrestling
Summer Action Series
Tomorrow League '89
Imagine that a new wrestler debuts on WWE television with seemingly endless promise. This wrestler is adored within the company because of his attitude and drive, and virtually everyone sees him as a future superstar. Now imagine that guy losing every singles match for the first 15 months of his career. It’s likely that WWE would face a fanbase revolt played out by live crowds booing the company’s chosen ones in an attempt to force their own preferred booking direction. It didn’t happen in 1988 when Kenta Kobashi debuted, nor did it happen at any point over the next 15 months, even while it was clear that Kobashi had something special.
While it’s true that culture and technology have had a major impact on wrestling fan mentality over the last thirty years, Shohei “Giant” Baba’s booking rewarded fan patience above all. This measured approach to superstardom was uniquely possible in All Japan Pro Wrestling, as other wrestling companies usually had too many ups and downs. Reserved goodwill during a hot period usually results in most fans assuming the best, just as creative transgressions minor and major are immortalized during a decline. After all, which do you remember more -- HHH accusing Kane of murdering Katie Vick and raping her dead corpse in the downturn of 2002 or Chaz’s girlfriend Marianna making domestic violence accusations during the boom of 1999?
On this evening, Kobashi would wrestle Toshiaki Kawada, a future singles star in his own right, in the Tomorrow League, a tournament where the name itself suggested some degree of long-term commitment. It was a promise fulfilled when the two had more than a few classic matches against each other over the following decade, even if on this night, they wouldn’t provide the same type of match that we would see between 1993 and 2000. They didn’t even look the way that most of us think of them in our heads -- Kobashi still wore red trunks and white boots while Kawada hadn’t turned into much of a Genichiro Tenryu clone just yet. They weren’t yet torchbearers, so they stayed within the framework created by those who were.
In the late 80s, the upstart Universal Wrestling Federation was the hottest company in Japan, powered by the naive belief that they presented “real wrestling”. The key to the facade was in the working style. Mixed martial arts wasn’t a thriving sport yet so fans had no concept of what real combat sports looked like, and UWF matches were mostly exciting but no-frills, mat-based affairs. The UWF drew massive crowds even without television exposure, which changed the course of pro wrestling in Japan. Just as four years earlier, the traditional style that dominated All Japan bit the dust when incoming New Japan star Riki Choshu and friends jumped ship and challenged the top stars to pick up the pace, the UWF’s emphasis on clean finishes demanded the abolition of the double countout, a long-time All Japan fallback finish.
Kawada and Kobashi represented a hybrid of the UWF emphasis on matwork and the freshly-elevated All Japan pace. Even in moments of brilliance, they also exposed their lack of ring time -- Kobashi expertly attacking Kawada’s leg for the body of the match only for Kawada to completely stop selling it during his comeback will drive the purists among us nuts -- but admittedly, that criticism ignores the spirit of the moment. It was the Tomorrow League, something far more about youthful idealism and future potential than seasoned work. The match succeeded on its own terms in that regard, and the overall impression is the desired one: that one day, these guys are going to carry the company and be great doing it. For those only interested in the top matches in each style, this provides little value, but for those who enjoy watching formative wrestling, even when it isn’t quite great, this hits the spot.