15 Years Ago, Samoa Joe and Kenta Kobashi Had The Best U.S. Indie Match Ever

Going into the week of Japanese wrestling legend Kenta Kobashi’s lone set of matches of American soil, expectations weren’t actually that high. Sure, Kobashi was just seven months removed from the end of his two year reign with Pro Wrestling NOAH’s top prize, the GHC Heavyweight Championship, and he had significantly tweaked his wrestling style to adjust to the sorry state of his knees after years of a 250 pound body hitting moonsaults. But even as beloved as Kobashi was, nobody was really expecting much more than what other Japanese legends had delivered in previous Ring of Honor dream matches: A very good to great match that satisfied the paying fans, but wasn’t up to the standards of what the same wrestler would bring to a main event level match on a major show in Japan.

ROH charging regular ticket prices probably didn’t help that perception. Neither did live reports of Kobashi’s actual first American match, against Wade Chism for Harley Race’s WLW, which was purportedly good, but also more along the lines of what was expected from Japanese legends on American indie shows. The expectations changed just hours before Kobashi wrestled Samoa Joe in the first of his two Ring of Honor matches that weekend, as the latest issue of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter started arriving in subscribers’ mailboxes.

“Kobashi asked for as much info as possible on Joe because he wanted to put together a ‘perfect’ match for what most people were considering his U.S. big match debut,” Dave Meltzer wrote in the issue cover dated October 3, 2005. (The following week, Meltzer would clarify that Kobashi “studied tapes of Joe and had told people in the days before the match that he felt the need to deliver a ‘perfect’ match.”) Suddenly, Kobashi’s weekend in Ring of Honor, featuring the iconic Joe singles match (on October 1 in New York City) and a tag with Homicide vs. Joe and Low-Ki (on October 2 in Philadelphia) was a monumental event. Would the man considered by many to be the greatest in-ring performer in the history of the genre deliver on his lofty goals?

The answer was a resounding yes.

Being a local, with the venue down the block from Penn Station, I didn’t think twice before ordering my ticket for the show, getting what I recall was third row for a measly $25 or $30. And even before the main event hit the ring, it was a particularly strong Ring of Honor card. Everything was either very good or incredibly short, with the surprise tag title change (the new team of Tony Mamaluke and Sal Rinauro unseating B.J. Whitmer and Jimmy Jacobs), a big angle (Jade Chung finally turning babyface on The Embassy to join Generation Next), and some well-placed comedy (Colt Cabana’s debut of his Homicide diss track creating the distraction that gave the opening for the latter to lose to Jack Evans) further livening up the proceedings. But as soon as the ring was cleared following the Homicide vs. Evans co-feature, the energy in the ballroom completely changed. Back then, ROH didn’t usually have ring steps, so with one match left to go and it featuring a legend with famously compromised knees, the crowd reacted to the furniture delivery the only way that it could.

“KO-BA-SHI!”

“KO-BA-SHI!”

“KO-BA-SHI!”

“When we set up in NYC that Friday, Ken [Hirayama] from NOAH oversaw everything we were doing and watched the ring as we set it up,” recalls ROH wrestling school graduate Pelle Primeau. “It’s common knowledge we had a really bouncy flex beam ring, and Ken said there was no way it would work for Kobashi’s knees—he couldn’t risk it. So we literally had people run from hotel room to hotel room in the New Yorker and steal queen-sized blankets and wrap them around every single flex beam on the ring. But we also knew ahead of time that we needed ring steps for Kobashi to get in, and my god, those were some shitty steps. [ROH Vice President] Syd Eick made them at the school/office in Bristol PA. I’m shocked they even lasted that entire weekend.” (Then-ROH owner Cary Silkin confirmed the details of Primeau’s story.)

The moment the fans saw those stairs, with their utility so obvious in the context of that night, what had started as a pro wrestling card turned into a religious experience.

Joe entered first, followed by Kobashi to the loudest possible noise you could ever expect to hear from 750 people. On video, Kobashi is clearly taken aback by the pop and needs a few seconds to collect himself before continuing his entrance. As it turns out, there’s a very good reason for that.

“It was funny, man, Kobashi coming into America, he really thought that nobody knew who the hell he was,” Joe recalled in an interview on The Steve Austin Show. “He thought he was gonna be booed like he was Mr. Fuji or something. I mean, that was really his perception of what would happen in America; he’d never been over here before. And I’m trying to explain to him in my somewhat conversational Japanese: ‘Everybody out there knows you. Everybody out there knows who you are. Trust me: Your tapes have been sold illegally to all these people well before this match was ever put in place, so they know everything.’ We’re starting to put together this match and he’s making it kind of…you know, the ‘60s heelish, evil Japanese guy. And I remember at one point stopping everything and looking to him, explaining to him: ‘Trust me: Big babyface.’”

“He had a little bit of a hard time taking my word for it,” Joe continued. “When he walked through that curtain, I think that fan reaction was enough to convince him that ‘Alright, these people are here to see me.’”

“The feeling as Kobashi came out was just..immense,” recalled longtime wrestling fan Richard Kirk, who sat in front of me during the show. “Like we knew something truly great was about to happen. I get goosebumps kind of thinking back to it. I’ve seen ‘better’ put together technical matches live probably but I don’t know that any match ever topped this one for me in terms of what it made me feel right then in that moment. It’s my favorite match I’ve seen live.”

As it turned out, the normal ticket prices and thus the relative bargain of a booking fee (Meltzer reported it contemporaneously as $9,000 for the weekend; Silkin remembers it as $10,000 plus travel costs) were just a consequence of how much Kobashi wanted to do this. By the time he debuted for All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1988, the promotion had stopped sending its dojo graduates abroad for the traditional “learning excursion,” so he just never had the opportunity to wrestle in the United States before. Of course he wanted to have “the perfect match” on the most high-profile show of his first American trip!

And he did.

On that night, for that crowd, Kenta Kobashi and Samoa Joe could not have done any better than the match they worked. It’s a master class in taking what is, at its root, an incredibly simple match with very few highspots, and building the emotional peaks and valleys around the wrestlers’ reactions. Kobashi, in particular, shows why he was the best in the business from pretty much the opening bell, getting the “Kobashi look” on his face after Joe slaps him to start things off. All of the most memorable moments in the match are simple things where Kobashi manipulates the audience’s expectations, from using his facial expressions to dictate the reaction to the slap, to stopping one of Joe’s “olé kicks” and returning with an “olé chop” of his own, to slowing down his machine gun chops in the corner only to speed back up again, to freaking the crowd out with the sleeper suplex. (Joe getting dumped on his head and neck at awkward angles doesn’t age well, but it’s entirely to be expected for a Kobashi dream match from 2005, and in the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor part of the match.)

“It really hit me hard as both men stood face to face in that ring,” wrote Colt Cabana in a blog post that went up a few weeks after the match. “Evenly matched. My team vs. their team. The perfect building, the perfect setting, the perfect fans reacting in the perfect way. Of course, that all really did make for the perfect match.” Cabana further added that before the match, he was talking to Ace Steel, his original trainer who had moved on to helping run Harley Race’s school, who explained how, when Kobashi was in Missouri, that Kobashi had repeated his goal of having “the perfect match” with Samoa Joe. “That’s exactly what he said and after it was done, that’s the only thing I can describe it as.”

I’ve gone to plenty of pro wrestling events in my life, and, excepting tribute shows and the like, there are three moments I can think of where watching them on video feels like it’s transporting me back to being there live. One is the semi-main event of SummerSlam ’98 at Madison Square Garden, where Triple H’s Intercontinental Championship victory over The Rock got what’s probably still the biggest, most cathartic pop I’ve ever heard. Another, much more recently, from the 2018 iteration of Wrestlecon’s Mark Hitchcock Memorial Supershow during WrestleMania weekend in New Orleans. At a show built around surprises, the left-field arrival of Hiroshi Tanahashi as a surprise participant in a six man tag team match caused a warehouse full of well over 1,000 fully grown adults to jump up and down, hugging the strangers next to them in glee. And the third is, you guessed it, Samoa Joe vs. Kenta Kobashi.

Being there in the New Yorker Hotel ballroom for Joe vs. Kobashi was then, and still is now, the absolute pinnacle of the live wrestling experiences I’ve had the privilege of enjoying. Something was in the air that night, something that I’m lucky enough to be able to relive when I watch the video, which was deliberately released without commentary so that the match would translate the same way it did live.

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