On 11 May 2013 the wrestling world said goodbye to Kenta Kobashi as an in-ring performer. After twenty five years, the All Japan and NOAH legend went out a winner with one final moonsault in front of a huge crowd, competing in the same ring as legends who bowed before him and younger wrestlers who’d looked up to him for their entire careers. That show, entitled “Final Burning” and held in front of 17,000 fans and screened across the country (including numerous cinema showings), was the final time Kenta Kobashi wrestled a match. It was also the final time that Pro Wrestling NOAH ran Budokan Hall, a building that Kobashi had headlined on many occasions, and was the last time that NOAH would ever reach such heights.

In reality they had been in decline for some time; plagued by tragedy, mismanagement and a variety of other factors, they were in turmoil. Months before Kobashi’s final show NOAH had released him from his contract, leading to Jun Akiyama, Atsushi Aoki, Go Shiozaki, Yoshinobu Kanemaru and Kotaro Suzuki quitting out of loyalty and jumping to All Japan. This final show at Budokan was the compromise for both NOAH and Kobashi; Kobashi was allowed that one final time in the spotlight to end one of the greatest careers in the history of pro wrestling, and NOAH got a mighty (and much needed) payday out of it. No such paydays have followed, with business collapsing in the subsequent years, leaving NOAH on its knees on multiple occasions. It’s been a rollercoaster ride to follow them and not a pleasant rollercoaster at that.

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The streamers thrown for Kenta Kobashi during his final ring introduction.

In recent years the joke has been about finding NOAH’s saviour. While NJPW have dominated the 2010s, the previous decade’s giant has struggled to find their centrepiece to rival the likes of Tanahashi and Okada. Many have tried, all have failed. The introduction of Suzuki-gun from New Japan as an invading faction in 2015 (coinciding with New Japan assisting NOAH with their financial difficulties) seemed like the perfect way to build this new star; instead, quite the opposite happened. Minoru Suzuki seized the GHC heavyweight title in March of that year and lost it that December to Naomichi Marufuji, only for Takashi Sugiura to win it in Marufuji’s first defence and immediately join Suzuki’s faction, essentially resetting the entire NOAH vs. Suzuki-gun storyline. The home wrestlers were presented as second class citizens in their own promotion, losing most of the big battles and never really having that cathartic victory. By the time they did win most fans had stopped caring.

When Suzuki-gun and other New Japan wrestlers were pulled from the promotion at the end of 2016 (after NOAH was purchased by IT company Estbee) NOAH had been left with zero credibility and nothing to build from. Suzuki-gun had terrorised most of the company, Go Shiozaki had been comprehensively beaten by Katsuyori Shibata, the junior heavyweights were fighting perrenial NJPW pin-eaters (and bookers) Jado and Gedo, and one of the few wrestlers to overcome Suzuki-gun was New Japan prankster Toru Yano. The men who had run roughshod over NOAH were gone and those that remained had been established as second rate. The company that had been keeping them afloat for years had cut all ties with them. NOAH, for all intents and purposes, was considered dead and buried. This was impetus for NOAH THE REBORN, their new direction under former All Japan president Masayuki Uchida.

NOAH THE REBORN could have been considered a simple rebranding exercise, and it very much was that in part. However, the shows were very different almost immediately. The philosophy of the promotion changed. Whereas the promotion was stagnant during the Suzuki-gun feud, the wrestlers had fire. The undercards were not littered with meaningless six and eight man tag team matches, they were heavy on singles matches. The core roster of NOAH had shrunk but those that remained had cranked up the intensity to a whole new level. To put it bluntly, the wrestlers were beating the shit out of each other, and it became hard not to take notice of this. The roster began to fill out with independent stars hungry to step up and earn a spot.

One match that stands out is a singles match between Hi69, best known previously from Kaientai Dojo, and Alejandro Saez, a Chilean wrestler who had just wrestled in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic. This match had no long term impact and was simply an undercard match on a Korakuen show that many may have skipped, but they went all out and the match was incredible. They held nothing back. Hi69 earned himself a regular roster spot from this early REBORN run and it’s no surprise. He was not the only one adapting to the REBORN style. Naomichi Marufuji settled into a grizzled old veteran role, adding to his pre-existing arsenal of chops with knockout knees, including matches where he legitimately knocked Maybach Taniguchi out with a tiger knee strike and one where he brutalised the rookie Kaito Kiyomiya. Atsushi Kotoge moved from the junior heavyweight division to the heavyweight division and decided to see if he could headbutt his skull into dust during every match he had. This stylistic change was drastic, thorough and – more importantly – incredibly entertaining. The promotion also established relationships with international promotions, joining the bizarre conglomerate involving Impact Wrestling and The Crash. This lead to some extremely diverse cards and, more importantly, Taiji Ishimori carrying around a belt covered in stickers for the last few months of the year.

Leading the pack on NOAH’s roster throughout 2017 was Katsuhiko Nakajima as the champion, the man who vanquished Suzuki-gun and the individual positioned as the ace of the company. While his reign as the champion didn’t turn business around – NOAH’s numbers dropped significantly after the departure of the New Japan talent – it provided them stability from which they could build. He achieved seven successful title defenses (the most since KENTA reached nine in 2013) and among those were some of the best matches of the year, including an outstanding contest with Brian Cage at Korakuen Hall. Perhaps he hadn’t had the effect that other promotions’ golden boys had – the most interesting comparison being to Kento Miyahara in All Japan, considering the history between those two men – but by the time Nakajima lost his title to Eddie Edwards on 26 August the promotion seemed to be in a better place than it was when he won it just over 300 days earlier. He provided reliably good main events, something that had become a chore as NOAH chased the 30 minute epics of yesteryear. While he provided this, the rest of the card was stepping up to similar levels. Cards with Nakajima at the forefront went from being laborious to easy viewing. For this reason I can’t see his reign as a failure. It wasn’t a riproaring success in all respects but he became champion in a difficult time, lost his title in a more positive time and did all he could during his run. The title change, when it eventually came, also allowed for a change of direction, and for NOAH things were about to become a bit more interesting.

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The Die Hard Flowsion, Eddie Edwards’ tribute to Mitsuharu Misawa

Eddie Edwards’ reign as the GHC heavyweight champion was a short but memorable one, a reign that showed the benefit of a transitional champion. In the most literal sense, a transitional champion is to transfer the title from point A to point B. These reigns are not always memorable in and of themselves, and for sure, Edwards’ run will not live in the memory of many for years to come. However, it’s hard to think of a more effective champion of this kind in quite some time. When he won the title from Nakajima it was hard not to feel positive. Here was a man who had wrestled in NOAH on and off for the better part of a decade, starting as a rookie gaijin eating the pins in the openers. His stature had risen so much that by the time he won the belt the fans believed in him, they respected him and they accepted him as the champion. He’s a well-liked wrestler among his peers, often underrated in the wider world of wrestling but always appreciated for his effort. While he’d spent a lot of his career in the last few years in TNA, this is a man who loved Pro Wrestling NOAH. He wore the emerald green tights, adapted moves from Mitsuharu Misawa, even twisting his own moves to pay tribute to the great man, and was proud to hold the belt. The belt clearly meant something to him and him holding it added value to it, as well as giving Eddie that “seal of approval”. It was reward for his loyalty.

As with many of these types of reigns, it wasn’t to last long. Point B was on the horizon. Point B, in this scenario, was Kenoh. Stepping up from junior heavyweight to heavyweight this year (just as Kotoge did), Kenoh has made a big impression. Wrestling a fast, physical style, heavy on kicks and knees, the transition was not a difficult one. Similar to KENTA in years prior, it didn’t really matter if he was physically smaller than the rest if he could hit harder than the rest. And Kenoh sure could hit hard. Fortunately, this isn’t as much of an issue in the NOAH THE REBORN years, as the entire promotion has an “openweight” feel to it, meaning that wrestlers declaring their intent to go heavyweight pretty much means “I really want to wrestle for the heavyweight belt” and not necessarily change anything. It also helps that he’s possibly the grumpiest man on the roster, a man capable of committing great violence but incapable of showing a single moment of joy. Kenoh’s run to the title, which saw him defeat Go Shiozaki to win the Global League and Edwards in the title match, yielded multiple match of the year contenders and has really given him momentum as the champion going into 2018. The matches have drawn well and the fans have loved them, so all is looking good at this very early stage.

As of late Kenoh has been speaking of those who came before him and where NOAH is heading. He speaks of Misawa in particular, the founder of NOAH and one of its greatest champions who headlined many of the promotion’s biggest cards. The ultimate goal for Kenoh is to take Pro Wrestling NOAH back to Budokan Hall, the venue for so many of its biggest moments but a location that has not viable for them since their fall from grace. Kenoh also speaks, more radically, of tearing that history apart in order to rebuild the promotion up to the heights it once reached. “I will build my era and bring you bastards to Budokan!” This is something he’s done before; as Michinoku Pro’s new “ace” following the departure of Yoshitsune in 2012, Kenoh made a similar declaration before beginning his notable feud with Hayato “Jr.” Fujita. Just as he was then, Kenoh is now presented as a revolutionary and this is the right direction. For so long NOAH has been haunted by the ghosts of its past, people trying to emulate Kobashi and Misawa, to be their successors, when those are big shoes to fill. Some great, great wrestlers have stepped up to that challenge and not been able to get past it. Many of them are still on the roster today. The way forward is not necessarily for NOAH to follow the same path to Budokan, but to walk an entirely new one.

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The hard-hitting style of Kenoh, representative of NOAH’s change in 2017

Truth be told, while Kenoh is a standout and may become positioned as the ace, the real success of NOAH THE REBORN is its ensemble cast. Alongside Kenoh you have the likes of Katsuhiko Nakajima, Masa Kitamiya, Atsushi Kotoge, Takashi Sugiura and Go Shiozaki. Men who were written off as “past it” like Maybach Taniguchi and Mohammad Yone have become big time players as part of tag teams, particularly Taniguchi, whose resurgence after dropping his masked gimmick is one of the most remarkable I’ve ever seen. The RATEL’S group have become highlights of the junior heavyweight division on the undercard, be it in singles matches or tag team matches. Taiji Ishimori continues to be consistently amazing, forming an excellent tag team with Hi69. Hajime Ohara might be one of the most underrated wrestlers in the world. Kaito Kiyomiya has returned from excursion and is immediately being positioned as a main event player, perhaps not the face of NOAH’s present but their future. The truth is, when people looked for NOAH’s saviour they were going about it wrong. There’s no one individual who will take them back to where they once were, or even anywhere close. The future is brighter for NOAH and it’s because of the collective effort.

At the moment the numbers don’t support the fan feedback, as attendances haven’t noticeably increased since their shows became consistently high quality again, but I’m a big believer that these things do eventually turn around if you keep being good enough for long enough. In the spirit of positivity this is the attitude I choose to take. Whether they will ever get back to Budokan Hall, who’s to say. Considering that a year ago many had written the promotion’s obituary, maybe it’s time to sit back, watch and enjoy.

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