In Japan Kenta Kobashi is legendary at what he does: con onlookers into believing he’s in a ball-crunchingly real fight. The stolid Kobashi stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 265 pounds, with a wide chest and a variety of facial expressions that put Jim Carrey to shame. If he embodies a Japanese archetype it’s that of the fearless warrior, though the wrestling ring is too expressive a place to allow for a warrior’s perpetually staid demeanor. On this uncommonly hot October evening, he enters the New Yorker Hotel Ballroom on Eighth Avenue wearing a black robe and red underwear. The crowd chants his name as he climbs into the ring. Standing across from his opponent, tri-state independent wrestler Joe Seannoa, he takes his palm and slaps it against “Samoa” Joe’s sumo-like chest. The crowd explodes.
At home, Kobashi wrestles in front of 20,000+ fans, but the New Yorker ballroom is on the small side for a bar mitzvah. A mere seven or eight feet above the gladiators hangs an ebullient glass chandelier, nearly scraped hours earlier by the head of an undercard wrestler performing a top-rope suplex. During intermission a member of security tells a fan, “If the fire marshal comes, we hope it’s after the main event.” The American group hosting tonight’s event calls itself Ring of Honor, and enforces a rule specifying that combatants must shake hands before the match, long after they have planned out the details backstage.
I thought I saw Seannoa, 26, smiling as the 38-year-old Kobashi entered the ring. Like the other 700 people crammed into the ballroom, Joe was largely familiar with his opponent’s legendary abilities from the internet. In the early ‘90s the dawn of wrestling-tape trading brought together a supremely nerdy group of fans eager to separate themselves from the “marks”—spectators who simply boo and cheer for their favorites. Instead, this raucous group of “smarts” immersed themselves in the backstage details of a secretive business. Wrestling found its first reputable journalist in California-based sportswriter Dave Meltzer, who extended his coverage to a global scope, making his readers aware that the best wrestling was happening thousands of miles from their homes. Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter uncovered the bizarre up-and-downs of the worldwide performance art/fighting business in a way that had never been done. Meltzer invented the idea of wrestling expertise, and thereby begat legions eager to become experts themselves.
One of those self-proclaimed experts was a Canadian mathematics professor named Herb Kunze, who helped popularize a five-star system (originally invented by Norm Dooley, who wrote a wrestling newsletter titled Weasel’s World) on which matches might be rated on their artistic merit. Writers like Kunze elaborately described the rigorous construction of matches like Kobashi v. Joe. The best matches, according to Kunze, were those in which “the psychology in the match was based on previous bouts.” In this way, the expectations of fans, especially in a crowd as well versed as the one in this ballroom, have changed substantially from the sort that Roland Barthes explicated in Mythologies. A punch isn’t merely a punch—it refers back to punches past, other matches and wrestlers and situations, forming part of a complicated net of allusions and histories.
My excitement for Kobashi’s appearance was based for the most part on VHS tapes that arrived at my house in unmarked brown packages like pornography in the late 90s. It didn’t matter that the announcers couldn’t be understood, or that it took as much time to sort out the participants in a particular match as it did to watch the match itself. In these moving images Kobashi was a legit legend, his never-say-die Superman persona enhanced by the sad knowledge that he works with severely banged-up knees, a recurring injury that almost ended his career in 2001 and will cause him pain for the rest of his life. Especially notorious are his never-ending battles with one-time mentor Mitsuhara Misawa; these matches are regarded by purists as the most aesthetically pleasing action ever to occur in a wrestling ring.
While muscleheads like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior needed to work out every move of their notorious match at Wrestlemania VI in repeated rehearsals with company officials, ring generals on the level of Kenta Kobashi and the young master Samoa Joe improvise many of their exchanges. On this evening they feed easily off the crowd’s energy, attempting moves jaw-droppingly complex in composition and pleasantly violent in execution. For example: one of Joe’s regular routines is to place his opponent in a chair outside the ring. Once incapacitated there, Joe charges at him with a running start and plants his foot in his adversary’s face. But tonight Kobashi, anticipating Joe’s act, flips Joe up and into the air behind him on his approach, splattering the 300 pound behemoth into the first row. A few minutes later, heavyweight Joe launches his entire body headfirst through the middle rope and lands outside the ring atop a winded Kobashi. The crowd goes berserk.
Putting together a wrestling match to engender the kind of reaction Kobashi vs. Joe brings to this jaded, demanding group of fans is no easy task. As recently as the late 1980s all that was required of a good “worker,” in wrestling terminology, was to be on steroids and have a pulse. With the advent of weekly television, all the possible permutations of “face” (good guy) and “heel” (bad guy) have been rehashed over and over again, while the standard of athletic competition in the ring has become increasingly violent and athletic, resembling more closely its Japanese counterpart. In this encounter between Joe and Kobashi, there is no clear heel-face delineation. Joe was the local hero of the promotion, chosen to face Kobashi because of their similar approach, called “strong-style” in Japan, which mandates putting real force behind their suplexes, punches and kicks. “Strong-style” attempts to help the audience suspend disbelief by leaving out contrived moves, such as Hulk Hogan’s dropping of a leg on his opponent. The combatants wound each other in far more authentic manner, so that when Kobashi kicks out of a pin attempt after a big offensive move by Joe, it’s actually somewhat surprising.
Barthes saw wrestling as “pure signification,” in which there were no symbols: each action in the ring was presented for what it was. And yet in one portion of the match, Joe has us all chanting the name of Kobashi’s most famous opponent, “MIS-A-WA,” simply by imitating his most popular move, in which he lowers his opponent’s face to his knee-level and administers a series of soccer-style kicks to his face. Such layered signification is deeply satisfying, but pales in comparison to the moments when sheer spectacle wins out, as when Kobashi puts Joe in a standing half-nelson and flips him over his own head so that Joe lands directly on his cranium. The raging assembly surrounding them chants in unison, “WE LOVE HEAD BUMPS.”
Kobashi has come to New York mostly to generate the photographs and accounts that will run in Japanese magazines—these accounts, conveniently, will cite his match in Manhattan without mentioning the size of the crowd. His awareness of the photographers, combined perhaps with a Japanese sense of duty, leads him to put on a performance worthy of the Tokyo Dome. The crowd is overcome with gratitude throughout, reaching a truly apoplectic level when Kobashi and Joe exchange slaps to the chest until both are disturbingly maroon and bruised. As in any match, the ending plays a disproportionately large role in how it will be rated by the internet community. Kobashi, of course, has to win—local star Samoa Joe is honored just to step into the ring with such an idol, and does not lose any face in losing. Instead of closing with their most complicated move, Kobashi finishes Joe with a running punch to the face, which resonates both for its Japaneseness and its sheer simplicity.
The same crowd that took great pleasure in urging a female manager to strip earlier in the evening then gave a strange honor to Kobashi, chanting “ARIGATO” at the legend as he left the ring. I bowed. Some in the room were actually near tears; dozens of poor souls lose their voices for the weekend. If Kobashi hailed from Germany, an unknowing intruder would have been fair in mistaking the setting, filled with streamers and goatees, for a beer hall putsch.