Cubed Circle Newsletter 176 – Samoa Joe vs Kenta Kobashi & 3 Weeks to Mania 31
In this week’s newsletter we cover something a little different, as we look back at Samoa Joe vs Kenta Kobashi nearly a decade ago, Ben Carass continues his coverage of WWE on the Road to WrestleMania 31 with a review of RAW, SmackDown, and an unrelated NXT. A fun issue as always.
Samoa Joe vs Kenta Kobashi – A Classic 10 Years On
For me personally, there exists a set of matches for which the very act of analysis becomes daunting – matches that hold such gravitas that discussing in retrospect seems too momentous a task to bare. Significant anniversaries for two such matches of mine will occur in 2015, one being Jumbo Tsuruta versus Mitsuharu Misawa from June of 1990, and the other Samoa Joe versus Kenta Kobashi from Ring of Honor in October 2005, which we will be looking at today.
As a preface to our look back at the match itself, and perhaps more importantly, what it meant for the company, the legacy it holds, and to what degree it still stands as a legendary match, I believe it to be important to explain my personal ties to the bout. It was in 2008 that I began to follow Ring of Honor, reading reports, listening to fan opinions, and watching the occasional video on YouTube. However, at the time, technological restrictions proved a major barrier in the streaming and downloading of content in South Africa – bandwidth was expensive and speeds slow. Similarly, international shipping was, and still is, exceedingly expensive, delivery sluggish, and even more importantly, incredibly unreliable. As a new enthused fan of an exciting product and its rich history, at least for a six year-old promotion in 2008, it was tremendously frustrating to not only be restricted to watching WWE content on a three-week delay, but also possessing no reasonable means through which to access an alternative. During the multi-week estimated download time of ISO files, or a fourth attempt at tracking down .rar file part 32 of 53 for a DVD rip, which was inevitably password protected anyway, something amazing emerged on local internet shopping site kalahari.net (now kalahari.com) – ROH had, but a few months earlier, released its first set of commercially available DVDs: ‘Best in the World’, ‘Bloodstained Honor’, ‘Greatest Rivals’, and ‘Stars of Honor’. Regardless of the price inflation or estimated delivery time of 15 working days, I placed an order for ‘Best in the World and ‘Bloodstained Honor’, spawning an agonizing, multiple week long wait.
Appearing in the mailbox subsequent to a wait sufficiently longer than 15 working days, was a small white paper slip, one I used to triumphantly claim my introduction to mid-2000s ROH from the post office. How this long and admittedly convoluted story relates to Samoa Joe versus Kenta Kobashi in New York , is that not only was it a major selling point of the ‘Best in the World’ DVD, but additionally served as my first true Ring of Honor experience, one that rapidly transformed my pro-wrestling viewing space not only in terms of ROH, but the broader indie and international landscape in general.
To say that Kenta Kobashi and Samoa Joe were unfamiliar to me at the time would be a gross overstatement, as not only had I followed Joe for years on TNA television, but had additionally read and seen highlight videos of Kobashi, together with an occasional random match, on the internet. However, as far as big matches wrestled in what was essentially the AJPW style of the 1990s, this was as major an introduction as any. Upon my original viewing Joe and Kobashi had quite easily performed the best match I had ever seen, a sentiment that endured upon secondary, tertiary, and quaternary viewings, as I proceeded to play the match over for anyone with even a passing interest in pro-wrestling – and to some who didn’t have as much as that. Most were unmoved, but it mattered not to me as a fan of the match, as I continued to revisit it every six months or so during the ensuing couple of years. However, the unfortunate reality that many of those reading this will know, is that as time marches on, free time grows scarcer and available content ever more abundant. This is of course a sad reality, because as a child or early teenager time may have been plentiful, but in many cases media was not – in the years that follow the inverse becomes true. And it is for this reason that, as of last week, a good four to five years had passed since my last encounter with ROH’s ‘Best in the World’ DVD, given the vast sum of modern pro-wrestling available easily through a cheaper, faster, more stable internet in South Africa.
Samoa Joe, however, announced but a couple of weeks ago that he would not be renewing his contract with TNA, for monetary reasons presumably. What followed only a few days subsequent was another announcement from Joe, this time proclaiming that he would begin work for Ring of Honor in March, his first appearance for the company in close to five years, and perhaps his first full-time run with them in nearly six. This doesn’t directly relate to the ‘Best in the World’ DVD or Kobashi/Joe, but even more so than AJ Styles in 2014, I predict Joe to reemerge as one of the world’s best workers in 2015. And the best way reminder of exactly how great Joe was as a performer, and could very well be still be was to revisit one of his greatest career triumphs in the Kobashi match.
With Joe/Kobashi placed firmly upon one of my highest mental pro-wrestling pedestals, there of course existed a fear that it wouldn’t live up to its memory, as a match that was as much dependent on context as it was on content. After viewing days or weeks worth of wrestling in a similar style over the past few years, would it truly hold up? Sitting through as easy a 23 minutes as any, the answer would seem to be a resounding “yes”.
In terms of structure and layout the bout wasn’t quite as colossal as in my recollection, but much in the same way as how context defined my original viewing, the very context of the match itself defines the battle upon revisit. Where Kobashi and Joe moved slower than I had recalled, the crowd was all the more electric and Joe’s ability to stand opposite one of the greatest wrestlers of all time more impressive than I had ever cared to take note of before. The match was also visible from another additional perspective subsequent to Steve Austin’s podcast with Joe last year, where Joe recalled Kobashi’s intent to work not like the All Japan legend and GHC Champion, but as the stereotypical Kinji Shibuya style Japanese heel, before Joe convinced him of his status amongst the Ring of Honor audience. With this fact in mind – and of course this may very well be my own fabricated projection in lieu of the Austin podcast – Kobashi seemed genuinely moved by a not only positive, but red hot reaction pre-and-post-match reaction.
Despite the existence of these positives, there nevertheless remained several disappointments throughout this revisit, not as a consequence of the match itself, but rather of my idealized mental representation of it. A prime example is my recollection of a greater, more dramatic, and match defining “please don’t tap” submission spot during the matches later half – this spot was obviously present, but, as I discovered, greatly embellished by memory. Likewise, what I recalled to be a feverish exchange on the floor was, within the grand scheme of the match, nothing more than a brief side note. Additionally, the New York crowd wasn’t quite as respectful as I had once believed, as there were occasional “I can’t see s**t” chants, and verbal gestures of that ilk, although they subtracted little, if anything, from the match itself.
Of course what many people remember most about the Joe/Kobashi match is its closing sequence, which, in comparison to Tanahashi/Suzuki, Misawa/Kawada, Shibata/Ishii, Han/Tamura, Taker/Michaels II and so on, still stands as one of the most spectacular exchanges in all of professional wrestling – Joe slapping Kobashi repeatedly seemingly as hard as possible, before succumbing to a series of neck chops and a lariat.
A single closing sequence does not a great match make, but couple that with interplay between Kobashi at his NOAH peak and Joe at his Ring of Honor one, together with a supremely knowledgeable and mostly respectful crowd, and it was most certainly a classic. But more than that, like so much of pro-wrestling history, it has not only a value as a hallmark for a very distinct period for ROH, indie wrestling and the business as a whole, but also for me personally as a fan of professional wrestling. I have seen a rare few better matches since, but when accounting for all factors, including the intangible ones that made Joe/Kobashi so special, nudging it out of my top ten becomes an exceedingly difficult feat.