Hiroshi Hase vs. Kenta Kobashi
The first ever singles match between two of the greatest workers to ever grace us with their presence in the squared circle. A dream match to some fans, but due to the Babas typically hideous booking, it was relegated to the secondary match on the secondary show of the tour, and didn't draw flies. The match was really out of place because it was totally different from what we typically see in AJ rings. To me, it was a breath of fresh air. I don't think AJ should be so narrowly defined that there isn't a place for this kind of match, but now it's starting to sound like I'm talking juniors, which on some levels, I am.
This was a traditional match. It was mainly mid 1980's NJ juniors during the UWF period (post Sayama and pre Liger) where Nobuhiko Takada, Shiro Koshinaka, Kazuo Yamazaki and Hase were featured. It was also somewhat like a Ric Flair match before his workrate went to hell, mainly because of the way Hase slowly debilitated Kobashi's leg and knee. It was slow paced because they were going long, but the pacing was perfect within the context of the match they were working. It was the best technical match in AJ since Misawa/Kobashi 1/20/97. This aspect could have been better because Kobashi's matwork was rather mediocre, particularly lacking smoothness going from hold to hold, but Hase is such a technical expert that he pretty much made up for it. Obviously the ringwork was great, thought it could have been better if these two were more familiar with each other. There was minor miscommunication, but you should expect that in a first ever singles meeting. The match built excellently, and what teases they used were really effective.
What added a lot to the match though, was that they unfolded their deck so slowly. It was a great example of how to utilize the key spots to maximize their importance. Furthermore, it wasn't one of those matches where you could see that, for instance, Taue either pins Misawa right here with the Dynamic bomb or he's jobbing. Instead, you had the simple storyline of Hase working Kenta's bad leg/knee, but you also saw them work up to the big spots so the match would peak with that spot, but then it wouldn't be the finish and they'd move to working toward another finisher. The psychology and selling weren't tremendous, but they were still better than the vast majority of wrestling you'll see, no matter where you look. Anything done in AJ rings is held to the standard set by Misawa and Kawada, who are the two best in the world at selling and psychology. It's kind of like the Atlanta Braves pitching staff. You could make the claim that John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and perhaps even Denny Neagle are all great pitchers, but none hold a candle to Greg Maddux. So, yes Kobashi's selling could still use some work, and they had questionable judgment on occassion. However, Hase looked like the third best pro style heavyweight in the world, which was amazing given how long it had been since he was involved in an all out match, and Kobashi was up there as well, though looking like Jun had surpassed him because he's simply more technically sound and a better seller.
To me, this match was about two great wrestlers going at it as equals. It was about combining skill, technique, and stiffness, not spots, to beat your peer. The way they worked this, the loser didn't lose a thing. No fan who watched this match is going to think that Hase was the lesser man. Sure, Kobashi was slightly better on this particularly night. However, it was like two teams playing a perfect basketball game, with one team eventually draining the game winner with 1 second left in the third overtime. Speaking of the third overtime, on the surface this match was booked ridiculously long, it had to be one of the longest singles matches of Hase's career. If you want to complain that this overextended a guy who wasn't in peak condition or raised the bar, you have a fair argument. However, Hase got over in the loss and Kobashi was elevated in the win, which last I checked was the idea of booking.
Hase did a great job of carrying this match, which was worked in his style, proving that he still "has it in him." His overall game was 1 if not 2 notches above Kobashi on this night. You could tell Hase isn't quite what he used to be as far as his conditioning goes, especially when you see him ready to do his kip up after his missile kick, but then think better of it, but that comes with advanced age and working a part time schedule.
Stiff chops back and forth were a motif of the match. There was a reason these were continually no sold, to show parity between the two. Anytime you thought one of the two might have gained an advantage, they went back to dueling chops with neither man gaining a decisive edge through the chops. The combatant's strategies in this match were simple. Hase wanted to take it to the mat since that is his strength and Kobashi's weakness. Kobashi, of course, wanted to do spots, knock the old man around, but Hase was craftier, thus able to force Kobashi away from his strength more often than not.
Hase started working the knee, but it wasn't immediately obvious that he was shooting at the bad wheels. As the match progressed, and Hase ended a sequence of chops back and forth by kicking Kobashi in the knee then stretching it, his m.o. became much more obvious. Working your opponents biggest weakness was simple, but highly effective psychology last time I checked. Kobashi eventually came back from Hase's legwork, but he was selling the bad leg between his spots. The high spots didn't kick in until the 15-minute-mark with Hase using his Russian leg sweep to set up his missile kick off the top. However, Kobashi cut Hase off with a nadare-shiki no (In Japanese, no is used to connect two nouns and has no actual meaning) brainbuster (superplex). Kobashi tried the giant swing, which was good psychology that the fans immediately recognized since he was using Hase's most over spot on him. Hase avoided the first attempt, but Kobashi gave the sign and went right back to it and wound up doing probably the worst and most embarrassing giant swing you'll ever see. In what would turn out to be the key spot of the match, Hase ducked Kobashi's first lariat attempt and turned it into his uranage for a big pop. Hase followed with his giant swing, which was only 13-reps, but I guess you can't expect 30 reps when he's swinging a guy Kenta's size, and the match was long enough without going crazy on the most draining spot.
After 18 minutes of nearly even action, the tide swung in Hase's favor when he counted Kobashi's suplex and hit two kneecap dropkicks followed by a sweet jumping takedown into a hiza jujigatame (kneebar). I don't recall Hase ever getting a win with the hiza jujigatame, so the fact the fans reacted in a big way to this spot, a drumroll when Kenta got the rope break, is a testament to worth of the early legwork, and shows that the simple psychology was indeed very effective. As far as the crowd's reactions were going, this was the type of match where the fans weren't going to pop for everything (every match is that way, but you know what I mean, I hope), but they reacted well to all the key spots, so the match was working for them. Hase worked for the scorpion, finally getting to the point where he thought he had it. However, just as he was stepping over, Kobashi hooked Hase's planted leg and turned it into a reverse hiza jujigatame. The spot itself was choice because Hase took a really nice bump, but the spot was great for a lot of reasons beyond that. It was a new spot that totally came out of nowhere, and this is Kobashi, not Kiyoshi Tamura, so who would ever expect Kenta to pull something like this out? Beyond the element of surprise, it had credibility because all the action before this made you think that these guys were so even that there was a good chance neither man would be able to get a decisive win. Also, if Kobashi could get a submission here, he would have beaten Hase with his own leg strategy.
Hase came back with a kneecap dropkick, which Kobashi sold big. With Kobashi's knee in a bit poorer condition, Hase was now able to apply the scorpion. The spot worked for the crowd because Kobashi's knee was that much more debilitated than it was earlier when he had been able to avoid this hold, so, within the context of this match, a deadly leg submission like the scorpion had credibility on the level of a regular Hase finisher like the Northern light suplex. They teased the finish well here with Kenta coming within inches of a rope break, only to have Hase walk him back into the center of the ring. Hase put Kobashi in the figure 4 right after the rope break, which Kobashi rolled and both men wound up on the floor. In the earlier sequences of the dueling chops, Hase would break the trend and take the offensive, so this time Kobashi was wise to it and ready to block Hase's slam and deliver one of his own. He tried a powerbomb, but Hase shifted his weight and Kenta's weakened base couldn't hold so Hase landed on top. Back in the ring, Hase was finally able to hit his missile kick, and he went back to his figure four. However, Kenta rolled it again and this time it "injured" Hase's leg.
After a brief flurry of high spots, Hase hit his Dragon suplex for a 2 3/4 count. The crowd was really hot now. After 28 minutes there had been one failed lariat and zero attempted Northern Light suplexes, so it was looking obvious that it was going to take someone's the best finisher to win now, but they still weren't going to let the cat out of the bag so to speak. Hase went back to his Dragon suplex, but one thing about this match is that it was a"fool me once" kind of affair. Since these two had never worked together, Kobashi "didn't know" Hase's spots that well, but he "learned quickly" and refused to get caught in the same spot twice. Kenta reversed position on the Dragon suplex and tried to knock some sense into the politician by dropping him on his head with a Tiger suplex '85. Kobashi crawled over to Hase and got one arm over him for a 2 3/4 count and a drumroll from the crowd.
Kobashi blasted away on Hase's neck with chops to set up the lariat, but Hase came back with more of the "I'm going to debilitate your knee and leg" offense. Kobashi knew the uranage, so he blocked it, but Hase took him down with an STO type maneuver for a near fall. Hase tried for the uranage again, but Kobashi DDT'd him. Kobashi worked the neck more, decapitating running neckbreaker drop then guillotine leg drop. He dug deep into his arsenal, as wanted to dust off his old moonsault finisher, but Hase cut him off with kicks to the leg and did a new big spot, NADARE SHIKI NO URANAGE! Hase picked Kenta's limp carcass up, the first Northern lights suplex of the match. The crowd was rocking for the sure finish, 1....2...kickout. Hase scooped Kobashi up for another Northern light suplex, but Kenta "knew" this spot now too, so he countered with a DDT. What garbage! Right out of the Koji Kanemoto vs. El Samurai 6/5/97 playbook. I understand the reasoning of Kenta's comeback because everything done earlier pointed to Kenta countering the second Northern lights. However, you just converted Hase's new killer spot and his legendary finisher to continue the trend of Kenta's counters. If it were up to me, Hase gets the pin right there and we give him a TC shot against Misawa on the next Budokan he's available for.
Hase no sold Kobashi's DDT, which I thought was a stupid spot because his neck should still have been damaged from Kenta's earlier flurry, and put Kobashi down with high kicks. Hase went back to his missile kick, but Kenta transformed into Masa Chono and used a nadare-shiki no blockbuster. Kobashi used powerbombs that were supposed to be in succession then a jackknife, but Hase sneaked his head out just in time. Hase is fired up and confident, but he plays possum. Seeing Kenta has the lariat set up, he seemingly wobbles right into it. Just before Kenta crushes him, Hase ducks the lariat and tries to go into his uranage again. Of course, Kobashi counters this, delivering a series of blows to the back of Hase's neck, basically weakening the back side to set up the one big blow to the front that was going to take the head right off. Kobashi runs off the ropes, lariat, all she wrote. The finish worked for the crowd. The post match applause wasn't huge, but it was in an appreciative type of way. The match was really better before their finishers kicked in, as the goofiness somewhat negated the beauty of the traditional style. 32:49. ****1/4
Repost note: Tthe decision to not include Hase in the title picture in AJ greatly limited his usefullness, and thus his potential to churn out high end matches. Granted Hase was never really a heavyweight title challenger in New Japan (12/11/94 against Hashimoto was his only challenge), but he was always a featured player in the tag division, which was his stronger discipline. Even disregarding tag though, since New Japan tried to give everyone of note stories and feature them at least sometimes, his lack of big show main event singles matches in New Japan didn't negatively impact his ability to have excellent singles matches all that much whereas it killed him in All Japan because by the time he arrived they were doing little beyond focusing on the big show main events. That said, this Hase that wrestled and training when politics allowed also rarely approached the level of pre retirement brilliance he displayed on this particular night, and in fact this match turned out to be the highpoint of his post retirement career.