For the record, writing an article like this is far from easy. Talking about the history and evolution of a company while keeping the flow of the piece is not easy because there are many topics to cover, some of which just won’t get the attention they deserve. But enough with that, lets board the Ark.
In Japan, “Pro Wrestling” is called “Puroresu,” or “puro” for short. In the year 2000, though no one knew it at the time, the popularity of puro was about to come crashing down, and only one man had the ability and tools to save it.
That man was Mitsuharu Misawa.
Misawa, in all probability the greatest in-ring worker in Japanese history, and for my money the best worker anywhere ever, spent the first 17 years of his career working for All Japan Pro Wrestling (other than an AJ-sponsored training stint in Mexico in 1983). 1990's All Japan is where the wrestlers worked the most realistic wrestling style ever performed, and where the vast majority of puro fans feel the best workers and best matches resided. Thus the style of wrestling being deemed "King's Road."
In 1999, after taking over as President of All Japan from Shohei “Giant” Baba after Baba’s death, Misawa, already the booker since 1998, realized that working with Motoko Baba (Giant Baba’s widow & the Linda McMahon of AJPW) was going to be next-to-impossible. Baba felt that wrestling had peaked years ago and wanted to maintain status quo so as not to upset the profitability of the product (the old “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it” concept).
On the other hand, Misawa had wanted to expand and invest, in order to further grow the brand. This made more sense seeing as the Four Corners of Heaven (Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, and Akira Taue) weren’t getting any younger, and only Jun Akiyama had stepped up as a suitable next generation Main Eventer with the potential to draw.
This fatal difference of opinion forced Misawa to realize that he could not work with Mrs. Baba, so he decided to start his own promotion. He went to the executives at NTV, one of the largest broadcasting companies in Japan, who currently ran AJ on their station, and told them of the situation and his idea. They were supportive of the idea, but also defensive because they didn’t want to look bad publicly by shunning the recent widow of a legendary Japanese figure.
This led to Misawa and NTV creating a strategy for a new company. Misawa would announce the formation of the company in mid-2000, when everyone’s yearly contract renewal was about to take place, and NTV would “board the ark” shortly thereafter.
The most interesting, or amazing aspect of all of this is the sheer volume of All Japan wrestlers who left AJ and joined up with Misawa’s NOAH promotion. Of the 26 homegrown workers from AJ, 24, including Misawa, Kobashi, Taue, and Akiyama all left NOAH. Only Toshiaki Kawada, who had had a falling out with Misawa in the mid-90’s, and legendary Jr. wrestler Masanobu Fuchi stayed with All Japan.
In the beginning, the goal of NOAH was to put over Jun Akiyama as the “Ace” of the promotion (as it is referred to in Japan). Akiyama, who earlier in the year had unquestionably the 2000 Match of the Year (MOTY in future references) with Misawa, was ready for the role in every way. However, pushing Akiyama as Misawa had wanted to became an impossible task for reasons out of his control.
NTV, which began broadcasting NOAH in 2001, gave them a garbage midnight timeslot, which simply didn’t garner enough of a viewship to elevate Akiyama to the level of a full-fledged draw that a company could be led by. This led to Misawa & Kobashi, who were the best-known wrestlers and also the most broken down, to force themselves to work through myriad serious injuries, a trend that in one way continues to this day, and in another contributed to the tragic death of Misawa (if you’re reading this and haven’t read my Misawa tribute, I further touch on his decision to work through everything here.)
Kobashi missed all but the first half of January of 2001 when his knees finally completely gave out. Akiyama was not able to be fully elevated. Takeshi Morishima was hit-and-miss. Takeshi Rikio played a great underdog babyface (despite his size), but it was too soon to push him as he wasn’t established, and these things take years in Japan. And Takashi Sugiura was a sub-6 foot, not-quite-heavyweight wrestler who was phenomenal from the word go both in his work and his character, but the weight and rookie status meant it would be a few years for him to. So who was left to carry the ball?
Misawa won the tournament to anoint the inaugural GHC (Global Honored Crown) Heavyweight Champion, defeating Yoshihiro Takayama in the tourney finals. Akiyama took the title from Misawa a few short months later, and after an 8+ month reign that just didn’t get over like it could have with better TV coverage, dropped the belt to Misawa’s real-life best friend, Yoshinari Ogawa.
If you saw Ogawa, who can’t weigh 200 lbs in a vat of beer, you’d know why this wasn’t a good decision. A quality underdog heel worker who does clever things in the ring and can work, he just wasn’t the type of guy to build a promotion around. He held the title for five months, before Takayama defeated him for it. Unfortunately though, that was done moreso to get the title off Ogawa and to give Takayama a token run before Misawa took the belt back (I would venture a guess that Misawa didn’t want to defeat his best friend for the title).
This of course led to 3/1/03 (with Japanese matches, you know it’s something special when it’s referred to simply by it’s date), and Kenta Kobashi’s first GHC title match.
Kobashi, who came back for one match in February of 2002 before taking several more months off after re-injuring himself in a classic tag match featuring him and Misawa teaming up for the first time since the mid-90’s vs Akiyama & New Japan’s ace, Yuji Nagata, returned again several months later, and before too long had won a No. 1 contender’s match vs Taue.
Kobashi and Misawa, while unable to work the style that had made them legends in All Japan, worked a hybrid style, featuring more intelligence to cover up for any physical limitations (Kobashi’s knees, Misawa’s knee & back), and had arguably the greatest match in NOAH’s history.
Kobashi’s victory in the 2003 MOTY reinvigorated NOAH, and his two year run as the GHC Heavyweight Champion is seen as the high point in NOAH’s history. It was during these two years that NOAH was the No. 1 wrestling company in Japan.
See, Kenta Kobashi is seen by fans the same way that Ric Flair and Shawn Michaels are seen, only with a great deal more passion. People like myself, who love Kobashi like few other wrestlers, live and die with every chop he throws. We see matches that he’s in as a main event, whether it is or it isn’t. We enjoy his matches more, because he is the type of wrestler who gets you to care about him on a level that few other wrestlers are capable of.
His absence kept NOAH at half-mast for 2001 and most of 2002. His reign however was nothing short of epic. Great matches with everyone from Nagata during the NOAH-New Japan feud, and Taue. The 2004 MOTY vs Akiyama in the main event of the first Tokyo Dome show NOAH ever ran (drawing 52,000, and even if that number includes some comps, it’s safe to say that at minimum, 40,000 were paid, which is a very successful number). Even matches vs perennial mid-carders such as Tamon Honda (a member of Kobashi’s “Burning” stable) and Akitoshi Saito were special matches far better than they had any business being, because of Kobashi’s ability to make everyone look like a credible threat, and the pure magic his matches possessed.
During this time, the best workers outside of Akiyama were featured in NOAH’s Jr. Division. One of the changes that Misawa made to the All Japan structure was to feature the Juniors prominently. This was a smart idea because if he could turn the Jr’s into draws, it would make up for the dearth of young quality in the heavyweight division.
The NOAH Jr’s were and are still led by Naomichi Marifuji (who works both now), and KENTA, who today is the leader.
Their series of matches is easily the best series between two Jr’s in puro this decade. During this series they traded the GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title, and even had an epic battle during Naomichi’s surprise GHC Heavyweight Title reign, during which KENTA came within a hair of becoming champion. Just last year, Marifuji, the All Japan Jr. Heavyweight Champion (doing a crossover as the companies now get along well) fought KENTA, the GHC Jr. Champion, to a 60 minute draw.
People either loved or hated this match. I personally loved it. Marifuji is the most innovative wrestler on the planet, and said innovations keep his big matches fresher than anyone elses. He also has a chemistry with KENTA that no other Jr’s have. And KENTA, well KENTA is straight-up one of the best handful of workers in the world, combining a fierce desire to win, a vicious streak a mile wide, fearless heart and passion, and tremendous athleticism into an incredible package. If he was a heavyweight and worked his style, NOAH wouldn’t have drawing or TV issues until he couldn’t work anymore.
Back to the heavyweight division. Kobashi dropped the GHC Title in 2005 to Takeshi Rikio, who was no longer an underdog, but also no longer had the spark that made him so popular and fun in his halcyon years.
The title change got a big reaction when it happened, but he was then booked poorly, wrestling against people that he couldn’t work magic with like Kobashi did. Rikio’s first defense vs Saito is just horrible compared to what Kobashi did with Saito. In Japan, the heavyweight champion better be able to deliver the best match on the card, and before long, it was obvious that Rikio wasn’t going to do that.
This caused enough of the crowd to turn on Rikio that his pinning Kobashi clean meant nothing before long, and the title had to be taken off him.
This led to three years of instability with the GHC Heavyweight Title, and we all know from watching the E what instability with the world title means, and it’s nothing good.
Akira Taue, the last of the greats from All Japan who had yet to hold the title, took it off Rikio in a tremendous feel-good moment. That’s all it was meant to be however, as Akiyama took the title again just two and a half months later.
Akiyama had his second unspectacular reign, before losing if a very good match, but from something of a fluke moment as Marifuji won the title with a high-angle roll up.
Marifuji’s reign lasted three months and a day, before Misawa defeated him for the title at the end of 2006. This was done because a few months prior, Kobashi had been diagnosed with kidney cancer, and with NOAH’s main draw out long-term, business was dwindling. With Kobashi gone, Misawa was still far and away the most over worker in the company, and the title needed both stability and a draw. So Misawa entered 2007, the year he had originally planned to retire, as the Ace of the company.
Misawa held the title for over 14 months, before finally dropping it to Takeshi Morishima. For many people, this was one of the top matches of 2008. Morishima is my favourite from his generation of heavyweights, as he combines massive size with the agility & high-flying of KENTA. Not to mention he looks like the Japanese version of Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, I mean, it’s just a fantastic package.
On December 2nd, 2007, Kenta Kobashi made his return from his battle with cancer. Kobashi and Yoshihiro Takayama lost to Misawa and Akiyama in easily my favourite match from 2007, and certainly one of the best of the year.
Getting back to Morishima. Unfortunately, whether it’s because Morishima won the tltle two years after the crowd had wanted him to (something I believe), or because business never fully recovered after Kobashi left to fight cancer (also completely true), Morishima’s reign is seen as rather uneven. In fairness though, that’s as good as it gets when it comes to a non-Kobashi reign (even Misawa’s was rather meh, as he was a shell of his former self & had no one to have great matches with).
Morishima dropped the title to freelancer Kensuke Sasaki, the former IWGP Heavyweight and Triple Crown Champion (New Japan & All Japan respectively), making Sasaki the first to ever hold all three major puro heavyweight titles.
By this point, Kobashi, whose style was called “Chopbashi” as his completely destroyed knees left him a far cry from his giftedly athletic self in the 1990’s, left again with an injury to his right elbow, due to throwing 60-100+ chops in every match he was in. Kobashi wouldn’t return again until March 1, 2009, still completely immobile, still magical all the same.
At this point, however, Sasaki is a lesser version of Kobashi in the ring, working a chop-based style without the magic that Kobashi brings to the ring (though they did have likely the best singles match of 2005 at the Tokyo Dome that year that I highly recommend to anyone wanting to see a unique epic battle).
Sasaki dropped the title to Akiyama in March of this year, in a match that even Akiyama couldn’t make good. Akiyama vacated the title the day after Misawa died. He cited a herniated disc in his back that had actually caused him to collapse immediately upon arriving backstage before Misawa’s match that fateful June 13th night, and left him as the only wrestler not to come to the ring when everyone realized that Misawa was in serious danger.
Go Shoizaki, Misawa’s tag team partner and Kobashi’s protégé, won the vacant GHC Heavyweight Title on June 14th in the main event of an incredibly sad and emotional night, defeating Takeshi Rikio, who had originally been scheduled to face Akiyama for the title that night.
While the now slightly larger Takashi Sugiura has morphed into the best heavyweight worker in NOAH, and in my opinion all of Japan, Shoizaki is seen as the great puro hope for NOAH, and Misawa’s passing, combined with Kobashi’s inability to be a main event worker right now – if not ever again – led to Akiyama, long the booker of NOAH, to put the strap on Shoizaki in the hopes that he would grow into the role.
Shoizaki is already close, and by all reports NOAH is getting tremendous support from the fans in the wake of Misawa’s passing. However, Shoizaki has been very hit-or-miss as a big match wrestler, and those of us who love NOAH can only hope that it clicks with him and he becomes the wrestler we all know he can be, while at the same time developing an emotional bond with the fans the likes of with the Four Corners will always have with the fans. It may be the only way the Ark stays afloat.