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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 18-21, PART TWO [KOBASHI, 1990-1992]

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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 18-21, PART TWO

For the second post of this batch, we will look at Kenta Kobashi’s arc in the early 90s.

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On September 7, 1990, Kenta Kobashi & Johnny Ace defeated the Fantastics to win the tournament for the All Asia Tag Team titles, which had been vacated in the wake of co-champion Shinichi Nakano’s departure from the company. Ace had worked three tours for AJPW in the late 1980s, but that summer he had signed an unusual deal to work fulltime for the promotion [Wrestling Observer Newsletter, 7/9/90]. Ace & Kobashi would enter the 1990 RWTL as a unit, and made their first successful All Asia title defense against the Wild Bunch the following January. Two months later during the Champion Carnival tour, they retained against the Southern Rockers. However, two days later Ace reportedly suffered an avulsion fracture to his left elbow when doing a moonsault on Cactus Jack in a midcard tag match. A second title defense against the Dynamite Kid & Johnny Smith had been scheduled for that tour, and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi was substituted therein; the #4 of the Super Generation Army took a diving headbutt from his idol to end the reign.

As Ace made a handful of Stateside appearances which cast doubt on the legitimacy of his injury, from a WWF house show job in West Palm Beach to Col. Mustafa to a street fight against Terry Gordy at UWF Beach Brawl (which went to a double countout), Kobashi & Kikuchi unsuccessfully challenged the Can-Am Express for the All Asia belts in June. When Ace returned in July, he and Kobashi would win the belts back on the 8th before dropping them to the Wild Bunch ten days later, who in turn were transitional champions for the Can-Am Express to swoop in and beat eight days later. Many years later, Kobashi would admit in a book that he had been frustrated by how Kikuchi had been relegated to a fill-in partner.

Two days after the All Asia loss, Kobashi teamed up with Misawa to wrestle Stan Hansen and Danny Spivey in Yokohama. While it was the semi-main event of a show in a major market, it would not be broadcast; between the Jumbo/Williams Triple Crown match and a JIP of two-thirds of a Kawada/Taue singles match, I guess Puroresu Newzzzzz cut into whatever time it might have otherwise gotten. However, Ichinose cites this match as a notable one for Kobashi. He recalls that it was a match “without any particular theme”, but Kobashi made it memorable when he broke rank, said  “Hey, Stan!”, and went for Hansen’s injured left eye. Misawa followed suit, and soon enough Hansen had juice. Blood had become an unusual sight in the wake of the decree of tanoshiku puroresu (“fun/cheerful pro wrestling”),1 but sure enough, there it was. As for the “Hey, Stan!” part, Kobashi claims he was inspired by how Richard Slinger would greet Hansen like that. He couldn’t go “Hey, Jumbo!” to Tsuruta, but against a foreign wrestler he could drive a wedge in tradition and forego honorifics. Kobashi would pay for his disrespect, earning an assault by chair upon his lower back and submission by crab from Hansen. 

Deputy Editor Kiyonori Shishikura, who was in charge of the Weekly Pro match report that night, headlined it with “This is the most humiliating way to lose!” However, Kobashi was confident in his postmatch comments: “I was beaten up by Hansen, but I’m young, so all I have to do is train my body to withstand his attacks.” 

On August 24, All Japan held a b-show at the Sandanike Park Gymnasium in Kobashi’s hometown of Fukuchiyama. It was rare that the promotion came to this northern Kyoto town, as they had not done so since July 1987. It was that year that Kobashi had moved to Tokyo to start his new life, and he had not returned to Fukuchiyama since. Ichinose had asked Kobashi on several occasions if he would do so, but he always got the same answer. Kobashi had resolved not to return to the place of his birth until he had made it. Well, by the time they held that show Kobashi was a regular presence on AJPW television; in other words, he had made it. They rolled out a reliable Chosedaigun/Tsurutagun six-man that night, and in 30:06, Kobashi got the pinfall with a moonsault to Fuchi. The hometown boy bowed deeply to his fans in all directions. Next time he came back, he vowed to himself that he would be a top star.2

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Kawada and Kikuchi help Kobashi back to his feet after a postmatch Hansen lariat on August 29, 1991. [Source: Weekly Pro Wrestling Issue #453, dated September 17, 1991 (photograph included in free preview of the issue’s archived digital copy)]

Five days later, Kobashi tagged alongside Kawada for a televised (if JIP) tag against Hansen & Spivey. While he was not involved in the result as it was written, he had made it possible by shoving Spivey into the path of a Western Lariat that the gaikokujin had been holding Kawada in place to receive, allowing Kawada to get the pinfall. Despite being scheduled to face Kobashi at the Budokan show in six days, Ichinose recalls that the match started as if Hansen was ignoring his opponent. However, Kobashi’s work upon his arm redirected his attention, and Hansen would brutalize our orange boy. In the aftermath of Kobashi’s clutch save, Hansen would lariat him in revenge.

Before September 4, 1991, Kobashi had wrestled Hansen five times in a singles context. The first time, at a February 1990 Korakuen show, he hadn’t even lasted long enough to get on the Cagematch matchguide, as he fell to a lariat in 4:08. Kobashi wrestled Hansen twice that July, losing a televised match at the start of the tour in 12:09 and an untelevised rematch in 11:34. At a Korakuen show the following January, he hadn’t even made it ten minutes. When he entered the Budokan arena that late summer night, the longest that Kobashi had lasted against Hansen was 13:41, in their Champion Carnival encounter on April 15.

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Kobashi DDTs Hansen onto the exposed floor of the Nippon Budokan on September 4, 1991. [I got this from a Japanese Yahoo! auction listing of photographs from this and another match that just happened to be active while I was writing this.]

This time, it would take Stan twenty minutes to put him down. He’d started it in ruthless fashion, ambushing Kobashi with a Western Lariat as referee Joe Higuchi was still checking Kobashi’s person for foreign objects. Hansen hooked his leg for the pin but the match had not begun, and an argument ensued, but by the time Higuchi signaled to Yoshihiro Momota to ring the bell, Kobashi had recovered just enough to begin a roll to the outside. The match which proceeded would present an essential early Kobashi babyface performance, with him surviving two more lariats before the pinfall. They laid it out well enough that the Western Lariat’s reputation as a one-hit kill move was not subverted past credulity, but Kobashi’s perseverance and endurance were nevertheless what defined this match. Their next significant encounter, an untelevised Kobashi/Ace vs. Hansen/Spivey tag on October 24, saw them again mine the outside brutality that had marked their Budokan match, with Kobashi repeating the DDT-to-concrete spot which had consolidated the comeback he had earned then, and Hansen hitting Kobashi’s neck with three connected chairs. 

That would be the last time Kobashi worked alongside Johnny Ace for half a decade. Not that Laurinaitis would be any less of a presence on AJPW cards in the years to come, but starting with his 1991 RWTL entry alongside Sunny Beach, ol’ People Power would be booked alongside foreign talent until he and Kobashi reunited as GET in 1997.3 When the participants of the 1991 RWTL had been announced six days earlier, Kobashi was nowhere to be seen. This had been Baba’s call, as he was deeply hesitant about booking the 90kg Kikuchi in the tournament. However, Ichinose claims he insisted at a subsequent creative meeting that Kobashi & Kikuchi be added. Even if they had not even won the All Asia titles together, and even if Kikuchi would inevitably drag Kobashi down as far as the results were concerned, Ichinose maintained that fans would want to see them participate. Baba would acquiesce, and after Tsuruta defended his Triple Crown against Kawada in the main event of the October 24 show, Baba gathered the press to announce the last-minute addition of a thirteenth team.

The team would only win two league matches, but they did so against teams that had held the All Asia belts that year. On November 28, they avenged their April loss to the Dynamite Kid & Johnny Smith with a Kobashi moonsault to Smith. On the final date, they would beat the Wild Bunch with a Kikuchi bridging German to Billy Black. Ichinose’s confidence in Kobashi & Kikuchi’s connection to the fans would be vindicated even before their first win. On November 21, they faced their Chosedaigun teammates Misawa & Kawada in a block match at the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. This match was mentioned earlier in the book for the Misawa eye injury, sustained during a bar fight with Kawada, that would officially (and extremely dubiously) be blamed on this match. What Ichinose did not mention, though, was that Osaka had been a difficult market for AJPW to attract large audiences. For some time, Osaka residents had clearly known they were playing second fiddle to Tokyo, and attendance had suffered. The November 21 show, though, saw the building filled to capacity. The Super Generation Army match must have been a significant factor in ticket sales.

1992 didn’t see Kobashi reach the highest echelon, but he did show some growth. On one hand, he won the same amount of matches in the Champion Carnival that he had the previous year—three; he got two freebies this year because Billy Black had to cancel last-minute for personal reasons and Taue got hurt—but on the other hand, the one match where he survived long enough for a time-limit draw was against Steve Williams. Two months later, the chase for the All Asia titles would end in Kikuchi’s hometown of Sendai on May 25. The Can-Am Express had held the belts for ten months, with three successful defenses against the Blackhearts, the Wild Bunch, and the State Police. But in a match that the hometown boy would call the best memory of his career, one which he knew had been rated the best match of the year in “some American magazine”, Kobashi hit the moonsault on Furnas to win in 22:11. At the end of the tour, Kobashi received his first shot at the AJPW World Tag Team titles. With Kawada challenging for Hansen’s Triple Crown in the main event, Kobashi was called up to team with Misawa against Tsuruta & Taue. One could bemoan the fact that the last match ever wrestled by a totally healthy Jumbo was arguably more about the relatively fresh Kobashi/Taue matchup than about him; then again, Taue needed a win, and against Kenta he got it.

Like the Can-Ams before them, Kobashi & Kikuchi’s lengthy reign would only have three successful defenses; against Fuchi & Ogawa on July 5, against the returning Express on October 17, and against Akiyama & Ogawa on January 24, 1993. However, Kobashi is proud of this chapter in his career. He had always thought that the lower-ranked All Asia titles had had their “own charm”, and he was happy to elevate them alongside his friend. He recounts that the show-stealing January match had been particularly successful at this aim.

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Kobashi tries to keep Hansen in control on July 8, 1992.  [Source: Weekly Pro Wrestling Issue #505, dated July 28, 1992 (photograph included in free preview of the issue’s archived digital copy)]

In the meantime, Kobashi would manage once again to make it twenty minutes against Hansen. In a televised warmup match to Hansen’s Triple Crown defense against Taue, the #3 of the Super Generation Army. While he had fallen to the lariat in just under fifteen minutes during their Carnival match back in March, here Kobashi lasted just one second less than he had at the Budokan.

Kobashi & Kikuchi would be split up for the 1992 RWTL. Rusher Kimura and Andre the Giant would work that tour, but neither would enter the tournament. Instead, Baba would team up with Kobashi, almost four years after he had worked alongside the then-rookie in Kobashi’s first title shot. Meanwhile, Kikuchi entered alongside Dory Funk Jr, for what would be his final stint in the tournament until he and Tamon Honda went 1-8 in 2010. While Kikuchi would get the same number of wins he had last year, Kobashi & Baba would place fourth, only losing to Misawa & Kawada and the Miracle Violence Connection.

Between tours in March 1993, Ichinose conducted an interview with Kobashi, in which he asked him about “taking a step forward”. The journalist knew that someday, Kobashi would be the biggest star in puroresu; it was just a matter of when. But for all of Kobashi’s ambition, 1992 had seen him in what, on some level, seemed like a holding pattern. Kobashi responded that he wanted to “move forward with his fans”. This interview was printed in the Weekly Pro issue dated April 6, and in an excerpt, Kobashi discussed how he wished for his fans to forget about their daily worries when they saw him wrestle: how he wanted to “encourage them” through his fights. Ichinose asked Kobashi whether he believed a main-eventer needed charisma, to which Kobashi responded that he was unsure. Just as the interview ended, though, and as Ichinose was about to stop the cassette recorder, Kobashi said “it’s never a waste of time to think about charisma, is it?” 

Kobashi won four of his matches in the 1993 Champion Carnival, and went the distance against both the Patriot and Terry Gordy. A freebie due to Jun Akiyama’s early injury brought him to twelve points.

Spoiler

1. Much earlier in the book, Ichinose recalls an incident that I didn’t mention in the post covering its respective chapter. On August 25, 1988, Ichinose was in the front row of the press box for a televised Yoshikawa show, whose antepenultimate match was a Tenryu/Hara vs. Tiger Mask/Taue tag. From what I recall in my 2020 watchalong of 80s AJPW, it was the best of the three matches which aired, due to the reliable intensity of Revolution. However, this match saw Taue get bloodied, and Ichinose recalls that he then heard a couple of mothers in the audience. He didn’t look behind him, but it sounded like they had five or six children between them, and their disgust at the spectacle stuck with him: “I’ll never let my children see such a barbaric thing again.” While blood wasn’t totally phased out then and there or anything, this incident is framed in such a way that implies the “cheerful pro-wrestling” that the company would shift towards in the coming years was a reaction to this kind of sentiment.
2. AJPW’s next show in Fukuchiyama was on August 28, 1993, headlined by a Super Generation Army/Holy Demon Army six-man. Not only did Kobashi not get the win that time, his team didn't win period.
3. Ace wasn’t the first fulltime foreign talent to not be booked alongside the natives. Richard Slinger had slightly preceded him, presumably due to his relation to Terry Gordy. Looking at the history of how these things had gone before suggests that these shifts were made to adapt to AJPW’s increasing isolation from the Western industry, even as native vs foreign matches remained a staple of their booking. The suddenness of these shifts were further markers of their insulation by this point.
See, fulltime gaikokujin had switched sides in their booking, but whether or not they did so upon returning for a fulltime run or just on a single-tour basis, they usually had done so after having spent a significant amount of time working overseas. Gaikokujin ex-sumo recruits Prince/King Tonga and John Tenta never worked alongside gaikokujin in the All Japan upper card, and even on the tours that the renamed King Haku worked for SWS/WAR from 1991-3, he was mostly booked alongside a native faction. This trend extended to other Japanese promotions in the Showa period. When IWE exchange student Gerry Morrow/Jiro Inazuma worked heel, he had generally done so under a masked gimmick invented for a tour on which they needed him to fill in a slot on the foreign side. While Allen Coage had plenty of singles matches against native NJPW talent during his original run as Buffalo Allen, it wasn’t until his 1980 return from excursion as Bad News Allen that he started regularly working against them in tags. Pat Tanaka was a product of the NJPW Dojo, but did not work alongside fellow gaikokujin until four years working in the States. Black Cat never really made that switch in the two decades he spent wrestling for Nooj (well, unless you count that one time he dressed as a hockey-masked pirate and interfered in an Inoki/Saito match, only to botch the finish by handcuffing the wrong guy to the ropes). Even if we want to count the Destroyer, who had been a heel in the nine years of Japanese appearances he had made before signing a full-time contract with AJPW, he never tagged alongside fellow gaikokujin until the last tour of his run, when he worked some matches alongside his brother-in-law Billy Red Lyons leading up to his final rematch against Giant Baba.

 

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