Welcome to the third and final part of a three-part retrospective about the feud between KENTA and Katsuhiko Nakajima. As two of the most exciting prospects in professional wrestling, with a shared propensity for strikes and kicks, they came to loggerheads between 2008 and 2014 in NOAH and Kensuke Office in a series of fast-paced, intense matches. This part focuses on their last run of matches in NOAH’s Heavyweight division in 2013-14 as KENTA solidifies himself as a champion and Nakajima’s obsessive need to overcome his rival takes hold.
In the last instalment, I examined how conflict reignited between the two in a trilogy of singles matches in 2009. While the end of the conflict between Kenta Kobashi (NOAH) and Kensuke Sasaki (Kensuke Office) brought a brief reconciliation in 2008, the two were back at each other’s throats less than a year later. This time, it was not a youthful imitation of the ferocity of the feud between their mentors but the result of a shared obsession with greatness in professional wrestling. For Nakajima, his crowning in front of a Kensuke Office audience in March 2009 came to naught after losing the belt back to KENTA. He was led away from the ring crying. In NOAH’s Junior League in June, the two were more sadistic than ever, as KENTA wielded a chair and repeatedly kicked Nakajima against a wall. The stage was set for a blow-off confrontation—one which unfortunately never arrived due to KENTA becoming injured.
It would be four years before the two would meet again in singles competition, their paths diverging as the fortunes of NOAH continued on a steep decline. It had once been the leading pro wrestling promotion in the country, but no change in booking was enough to stem the tide of declining attendances or the growing strain on company finances. In 2012, a story broke detailing purported links between high-ranking NOAH executives and the Yakuza—a term for Japan’s semi-legal organised crime syndicates. It was a devastating blow to the reputation of the promotion and led to the cancellation of its regular TV series. Less than a year later, Kenta Kobashi, who embodied the ideals of the promotion more than any other since the death of Mitsuharu Misawa, was released from his contract as a cost-saving measure. The decision aggrieved backstage talent so much that when contracts came up for renewal in January of 2013, five wrestlers—Jun Akiyama, Atsushi Aoki, Go Shiozaki, Kotaro Suzuki and Yoshinobu Kanemaru—left. Together, they would do the unthinkable and jump to industry rival All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW), whose entire roster Misawa had stolen away in 2000 to form NOAH.
And so, we find ourselves in 2013. Mitsuharu Misawa is dead, attendances are lower than ever, the company has been linked to organised crime, and now Kobashi’s proteges have left NOAH to continue his legacy in a rival company. Amidst all of this turmoil, NOAH decides at last to pin their hopes on KENTA. Despite most of his success in the early 2000s coming as a Junior Heavyweight, he had straddled the weight classes, featuring in competitive singles bouts with main event talent like Kobashi, Yoshihiro Takayama and Jun Akiyama. The failure to give him a true main event push was a damning failure of NOAH’s stagnant booking during these years which prioritised older stars who were proven draws. When his GHC Heavyweight Title win finally arrived in 2013, it was bittersweet. Instead of helming the industry leader, setting off on a new voyage across emerald seas, he was bailing water trying to keep the sinking ship afloat.
Meanwhile, Katsuhiko Nakajima was still freelancing for NOAH as a member of Kensuke Office. The intervening years brought his first substantial run with the GHC Junior Heavyweight Title, an important step for the young wrestler and his first title reign independent of Sasaki. Nevertheless, his rapid ascent had plateaued and his failure to match the pace of his rival was eating at him. “I want to be a Heavyweight,” Nakajima explained in a pre-match VTR, his calm delivery obscuring a growing obsession. “KENTA holds a belt, so I want to be in that position too. I joined BRAVE for one reason: to have an intense contest with him.”
Nakajima would finally stake his challenge for the GHC Heavyweight Title after a successful defence by KENTA against Shane Haste (most recently known as Shane Thorne) in September 2013. A match was set for the following month. Although NOAH’s spiritual home in the Budokan was far too large for the struggling promotion to be running at a profit, Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium was a satisfactory compromise and a fitting stage for a title match. That it had not been run for over three years was also sure to draw attention from fans, eager to see how the relationship between the two had changed.
5 October 2013 | Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium | Great Voyage in Yokohama
The build for the title match had two parallel components. Front and center was Nakajima’s relative inexperience and his fixation on not being left behind by his rival. “You have no ambition,” KENTA told him during one of the pre-match promos leading up to the match, ordering him to “seize the opportunity.” The words were crafted to sell a match, of course, but it is easy to imagine that they stung to hear for Nakajima. In spite of benefitting from his relationship with Sasaki, his career had stalled during the intervening years. “I was frustrated most of the time, and I was thinking about quitting,” he explained looking back on Kensuke Office in a 2017 interview. “I was struggling both physically and mentally, there were ten to fifteen matches a month. Wrestling was not as I expected. I had no belt or match progression.” Even his statement at the time that he wanted to achieve a surprise victory over KENTA indicated that the odds were not in his favour.
Alongside this were frequent comparisons to the GHC Heavyweight Title bout between Kensuke Sasaki and Kenta Kobashi in the Tokyo Dome in 2005, one of the most acclaimed wrestling matches to ever be staged in Japan. That match, which centered around a five-minute long chop exchange between the two men, would inevitably draw comparisons with the chest kick exchanges between KENTA and Nakajima. With Kobashi retired and Sasaki firmly in the twilight of his career, was it time for the two younger wrestlers to fully come out of the shadow of their mentors? “We will surpass the legend of Kobashi and Kensuke’s 218-chop exchange,” Nakajima said before the match.
As both walk out to the ring in Yokohama, there is a striking similarity in their self-assurance. Nakajima is older than we last saw him, less eager to throw himself into battles that he knows he will lose. KENTA, now on his seventh title defence, is more hubristic than ever, relishing the attention regularly lavished upon a GHC Heavyweight Champion. It is arrogance backed up by years of success, experience, and toil in the promotion, but it is arrogance nonetheless. While Nakajima steadies himself for battle, KENTA signs his t-shirt and throws it into the crowd.
The opening once again dispenses with the running starts of their early matches, a fluid blend of calculated grappling and sudden bursts of elbow strikes and kicks. The fireworks are there, but they are being set off differently; the match leaning more firmly into the structure of a Heavyweight main event. You might suspect this would put Nakjaima on the backfoot, but he is more than ready for the challenge, finding a critical weakness when he ducks a roundhouse kick to the head and sending KENTA’s leg into the metal ringpost. He seizes upon the opportunity immediately, hoisting him up and dropping him onto a ringside table on his knee. The use of ringside props, in the context of Japanese pro wrestling especially, signals a brutality and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win, a violation of the unspoken codes of respect between combatants. Despite being the good guy, Nakajima is using every advantage in the book.Eventually, the action spills to the outside, with Nakajima crushing KENTA’s chest with kicks on the carpeted walkway to the stage. He tries to set up a brainbuster off the ramp, before compromising with a Penalty Kick and dragging KENTA by his neck back to the ring.
Count-out averted, the two wind up back on the outside, as if compelled by the brutal promise of the railings, the floor, and the ringpost. KENTA throws Nakajima into the railings repeatedly and pulls him up by his hair. He has an idea. The rope-kung diving knee—delivered from the top rope to an opponent slumped, helplessly, over the top rope—had not worked for him in their previous matches. In their March 2009 match, Nakajima pulled himself off the ropes, causing KENTA to crash and burn onto his injured knee and worsening the damage already applied by strikes and submission holds. Now he has the guile and cruelty to drop Nakajima midriff-first onto the metal railing instead of the top rope. The impact winds Nakajima, and is followed by three swift elbows to the back of the neck. What follows defies disbelief, as KENTA climbs to the top turnbuckle and soars into a dropkick, catching Nakajima in the head and sending him flying off the railing and onto the concrete floor. It’s a spot which recalls some of the greatest moments in NOAH history, a combination of awe-striking athleticism and a palpable danger that you can only watch through your hands. Think Misawa suplexing Kobashi from the ramp to the floor in their 2003 classic, Marufuji diving over the railing onto KENTA in 2006, or even Kenoh executing a double stomp from the top rope to the outside during his 2020 title match with Go Shiozaki.
Despite hardly being aware of his own surroundings, Nakajima musters a drop toe hold to send KENTA into the ropes. In desperate need of an advantage, he draws on a well of experience from their previous matches and deploys—as Kenta did in 2008 and 2009—a Death Valley Driver, this time from the top rope into the ring. The venomous bite of a penalty kick and a spike brainbuster might have spelled the end, but KENTA resists the onslaught and kicks out.
It is nearly thirty minutes into the match before the inevitable chest kick exchange. One. Two. Three. Four. They keep coming, an uneven pulse, as each man periodically staggers back from the impact. Five. Six. Seven. Nakajima floors KENTA and collapses to the ground himself, only for the sequence to begin all over again moments later. Tokyo Sports would write that they “transcended time and space” to revive the feud between Kobashi and Sasaki in the Tokyo Dome all those years ago. It is Nakajima who eventually breaks step, slapping KENTA into a bridged suplex. KENTA, showing something of Kobashi’s trademark resilience, powers up and manages to hit a Go 2 Sleep on Nakajima.
Sometimes a match hits the right notes, and you feel like you are watching a spectacle more meaningful than two men pretending to fight each other in front of thousands of paying spectators. The Four Pillars of Heaven—the men on whose shoulders All Japan Pro Wrestling rested in the 1990s—earned that name because of the devotion, passion and euphoria that they inspired and because their matches were speaking to something greater. Similarly, the match between Sasaki and Kobashi at the Dome was a war, between two larger-than-life personalities, on the largest stage in wrestling. As Nakajima and KENTA keep hitting each other, the match teetering on the brink, it takes on some of the brilliant absurdity of that Tokyo Dome match. If only for a second, it feels as if the two have truly come to embody the vision of the professional wrestler they tried so hard to mimic in 2008.
But there must be a winner. And the end arrives after a series of near falls which would feel overdone had the match not built to such an emotional, climactic high. KENTA lands a Go 2 Sleep on Nakajima. He kicks out. Nakajima floors KENTA with a high-kick, but he kicks out. KENTA hits Nakajima with a barrage of stiff slaps and three violently stiff kicks to the head. Nakajima kicks out. KENTA finally lands another Go 2 Sleep. Nakajima is rendered unconscious, unmoving in the ring even minutes after the conclusion of the match. His resolve and spirit was such that the only way for KENTA to break it was to quite literally put him to sleep.
How’s that for no ambition?
27 October 2013 | Sapporo Teisen Hall | Global League
Less than a month later, the two would have their final singles match during NOAH’s annual round-robin heavyweight tournament: the Global League. That it was a tournament match might make you suspect the stakes would be lower, the conflict less intense. Instead, the intimate setting of Sapporo Teisen Hall has brought out a new sense of competition between the two. The last match was for the GHC Heavyweight Title. This one isn’t even really about the Global League. It’s about bragging rights. And the atmosphere in Teisen Hall is tense, especially for the third night of a tournament. Nakajima looks more determined than ever. KENTA is unusually reserved, less cocky than usual. Maybe he knows that what follows will be a challenge.
The match plays out like a game of chess, each man vying for advantage and working for piecemeal gains in grappling contents. The balance between strikes and grappling swings back and forth like a pendulum, reaching greater intensity with each apex. One of the most frenzied, powerful chest kick sequences the two ever had comes early in the match, and yet it is shortly followed up by KENTA applying the STF. This isn’t playing out like the end of a blood feud because it is not that. What we are seeing instead is the end of a gradual shift from furious violence and rage towards measured competition. KENTA is still a bully for SURE, and will do what it takes to win, but it feels more representative of his style of wrestling than a particular antagonism towards Nakajima.
The match continues to escalate. KENTA dropkicks Nakajima off the apron and into the railing, before kicking him backwards over the railing. Nakajima makes a miraculous recovery to prevent another dive to the outside from the top rope by KENTA. He senses an opportunity and immediately goes for a brainbuster from the top rope to the floor. The attempt fails, but Nakajima is able to swing KENTA onto the railing and deliver a thrust kick that sends him crashing down. It is a high-stakes sequence that gives the match a big-time main event feel which feels like it would fit in a much bigger venue. Still, this is a feud which was birthed in Korakuen Hall. It seems only right that the penultimate chapter would play out in front of such a small crowd. The trick of teasing dangerous sequences which do not actually happen is also highly effective here at building tension and drama without having to resort to taking the bump.
Freed from the constraints and pressures of a GHC Heavyweight Title match, having the freedom to experiment in a more intimate setting has spurred the pair onto even greater heights than before. KENTA counters a spinning roundhouse from the turnbuckle by hitting a perfectly timed dropkick. Nakajima counters a Go 2 Sleep into a Dragon Screw. That the two are still inventing new sequences and reversals some nine years after their first singles matches together is nothing short of astonishing.
Nakajima hits a series of thrust kicks into the corner, his boot creating a cloud of sweat and vapour as it collides with KENTA’s cheek. He hits a backdrop suplex, and KENTA somehow finds enough resolve to get back up and hit a tiger suplex. The two hit double big boots and stumble backwards, KENTA running in to hit a lariat. Instead, Nakajima ducks and hits one of the most picture-perfect German Suplexes you will ever see. And still, KENTA kicks out, desperately clawing his way to a Go 2 Sleep which sends both men collapsing into a heap.
There is another kick exchange, both men barely able to stand. Nakajima slaps KENTA. The two begin trading slaps instead of kicks. KENTA punches Nakajima in the throat. He does it twice more and hits a lariat. Nakajima kicks out. KENTA hits the busaiku knee. Nakajima kicks out. It seems inevitable now that Nakajima might once again lose to his elder. KENTA steadies himself, ready to deliver three head kicks to a seated Nakajima. It is a sequence he has deployed time and time again in their finishing stretches to devastating effect. He hits one. He hits two. He readies for the third. And then, Katsuhiko Nakajima gets up and roundhouse kicks KENTA in the head. He pins the unconscious body and the referee counts to three.
It is one of the hallmark moments in his career and one with reams of symbolism. Through all of the twists and turns, nothing symbolises Katsuhiko Nakajima better than the fiery, hard-headed determination that he showed in standing up. Than the decisiveness he took in delivering one swift knock-out kick to the head. On the surface, the feud may have been about the growing experience of the two wrestlers, as we see them deploy new moves and strategies. But here we are at the climax of nearly a decade spent in professional wrestling for Nakajima, and the move he uses to put away his greatest rival is a karate kick.
If you have a quick search on the internet, you can find a video of Nakajima as a fifteen year-old, shortly after being signed in 2003 by Riki Choshu’s short-lived World Japan promotion. The promotion introduces him to the audience, not with a match, but with a karate demonstration and sparring exercises. Fresh-faced and with the same cropped black hair, he wears a black belt and delivers a series of fast, hard-hitting kicks with intensity. And it all becomes clear. His victory did not come because of an innovative new move, the result of years of experience in professional wrestling. It came because he already knew how to kick. He already knew how to get hit; how to try, fail and pick yourself up again.
17 May 2014 | Korakuen Hall | Navigation with Breeze
Katsuhiko Nakajima & Takashi Sugiura vs. Naomichi Marufuji & KENTA
After years of playing the part of the invading heel, Nakajima was recruited into Marufuji’s BRAVE faction at the end of 2013. A face faction in perpetual conflict with No Mercy, BRAVE was the closest thing to a home unit; an assemblage of good guys who protect and fight for the honour of the home promotion. It was a major character shift for Nakajima and one that foreshadowed his growing involvement with NOAH. In February the next year, he finally faced his mentor in a singles match, in his home promotion. Their first singles match, it was a brief but brutal affair in which an older Sasaki subjected Nakajima to all manner of punishment before finally being put away by a sequence of finishers. Two days later, Sasaki would retire. For the only wrestler at the time to have achieved the major title in all three traditional mens promotions and a staple of main events throughout the 2000s, it was a quiet goodbye. Kensuke Office— Diamond Ring as of 2012—was left with Nakajima as its only roster member and would close the following month, after a show in its dojo headlined by a match between Nakajima and dojo trainee, Mitsuhiro (Masa) Kitakiya.
KENTA, meanwhile, had been swiftly completing his to-do list of major accomplishments in NOAH: from title reigns and US appearances to Ring of Honour to wins over the most prominent talents in the company. He had done all there was to do by 2014. Rather than gradually transition into a different role on the roster, he tried his luck in the US, signing a contract with corporate wrestling behemoth WWE. The decision was met with relative acrimony at the time, in spite of the poor financial state that the company was in. He would not be working for a rival promotion (yet) and as with Shinsuke Nakamura, who left New Japan for WWE in 2016, his years of hard work were respected by the fans. This match would be his final appearance in NOAH under the name KENTA. It was fitting that he would be alongside his old friend and tag team partner, Naomichi Marufuji, in their first tag-team match since 2010. Facing off against them was Nakajima and homegrown bruiser Takashi Sugiura.
The match feels fleeting in spite of its run-time, an emotional love letter to the last decade in the promotion, and an encapsulation of KENTA’s feuds against his greatest rivals. I’m reminded of words spoken on commentary during one of the first tag matches after the death of Mitsuharu Misawa in 2009, which I will make a rudimentary attempt at translating: “Past, present and future. The human drama surrounding Misawa converges in the ring.”
KENTA spends most of the match on the backfoot, losing an early exchange with Nakajima and getting pummelled by Sugiura. Marufuji is tagged in and quickly gains an upper hand over Sugiura with his speed and intensity, but Nakajima surprisingly claws back the upper hand against his BRAVE stablemate upon his return to the ring. The crowd pops audibly for him dodging one of Marufuji’s kicks and flooring him with a hook kick, one of their shared moves, such that the ref has to check if Marufuji is still conscious. When KENTA and Nakajima attempt a double-team manoeuvre, Nakajima chest kicks both of them to the floor.
After an explosive sequence between Sugiura and KENTA, Nakajima once again tags in against his old rival. Much as the primary story of the match is about KENTA and his departure from NOAH, there is a secondary one: can Nakajima put away his old foe one last time? KENTA survives a barrage of strikes, including a penalty kick delivered while he is being held into position by Sugiura. He goes for the German Suplex and gets caught in the Go To Sleep. He breaks out and gets hit with the Busaiku knee. The pin gets broken up. After a brief flurry of tag-team offence, there is another trademark kicking exchange. KENTA hits Nakajima with three kicks to the head and it gets broken up again. Even an avalanche Sliced Bread delivered by Marufuji with Nakajima on KENTA’s shoulders, is not enough. It has to be Go 2 Sleep, and it is.
KENTA hugs Marufuji and Sugiura. He walks over to Nakajima in the corner. After all this time, will it be a handshake? Nakajima raises his right hand and slaps KENTA across the face. This time, it’s different, not intended to injure or maim. It almost feels affectionate, a tribute. They both know that a handshake wouldn’t have made sense. KENTA raises his hand, smiles and walks away. For a few minutes, he languishes in the attention of the crowd and leaves the ring.
In a way, the feud between KENTA and Nakajima was about professional wrestling itself. The early matches in 2008 explored the familial relationships which develop between trainers and their students—notable in Sasaki’s case as he semi-adopted Nakajima—and how these relationships play out in in-ring storylines. We saw how the two, who were much alike in appearances, wrestling style and personality, nonetheless came to hate each other in an attempt to mimic the tenacity and fire of their elders. With the two frequently coming to blows after the bell in their matches, it was only after the conclusion of the Kensuke Office and NOAH feud that they finally shook hands.
The trilogy of matches in 2009 examined how the relationship between the two developed outside of the vacuum of the Kensuke Office vs NOAH feud and how antagonism could instead naturally develop between the two. We saw Nakajima fail and burst into tears in the Budokan. In their final match of 2009, the violence and rage spilled over into the arena and left both men too tired to muster so much as a kick after the ringing of the bell for a time limit draw. In a bittersweet collision of real-life concerns with professional wrestling, an accidental injury to KENTA meant that the final blow-off match between the two in 2009 never happened. As wrestling fans, we are all too familiar with the disappointment and concern that injuries can bring. You can only imagine how the two felt not getting to finish the end of the story.
Their matches in 2013-4 returned to the fertile well of the Sasaki—Kobashi connection and demonstrated how each was determined to do whatever they could to gain an edge. It was the older, wiser man who came out on top, however. KENTA had been hardened by his years spent in NOAH and it was his willingness to veer into an almost Shibata-esque sadism which secured him victory. The moment in which he delivered a dropkick from the top rope to a Nakajima draped over the outside railing not only irreversibly turned the tide of that match in his favour, but also serves as one of the most memorable moments in the feud.
But what does it mean for the story, for Nakajima to take the pinfall in their final match? It is hard to dispute that KENTA was the winner of the feud, but Nakajima had still gained his win the previous year in the Global League. He may not be the best, yet, but he had won his victories. Nakajima taking another pinfall showed that he was decisively the weaker man, foreshadowing his further growth and development. The booking of Kaito Kiyomiya’s first title reign in NOAH and the subsequent character shift and losing streak which has forced a complete rebuild, emphasises the dangers of pushing a young wrestler too soon. Finally, the rivalry between the two was not a white-hot angle which needed a satisfactory ending. It was a lengthy story, told across years of real time, interwoven with the rivalry between Kobashi and Sasaki and the myriad booking concerns of the promotion. If it had one key aim: to establish and introduce Nakajima to the NOAH audience, it achieved this without reservation. It was just not his time.
Still, for a brief and fleeting moment during their GHC Heavyweight Title match in 2013, KENTA and Katsuhiko Nakajima scratched the surface of something bigger than professional wrestling. They really did travel back in time to bring to life the exchange between Kobashi and Sasaki in the Tokyo Dome, and yet it still felt new and unique to them. If there is a crowning achievement of the feud, it is this; It is the sheer well of emotion and meaning that the two relative youngsters were able to create, in a promotion that was experiencing some of its worst years to date.
KENTA would spend a spell in WWE’s NXT sub-promotion as Hideo Itami after 2013, incurring several nagging injuries and wrestling underwhelming matches against unmotivated talent. He returned to NOAH as Hideo Itami in 2015 to wrestle Naomichi Marufuji in his 20th Anniversary Show. It was the last time that he would appear in NOAH, and upon his return to Japan, he signed to New Japan Pro Wrestling. He would make his first appearance on June 9th 2019, the same day that NOAH was running a memorial for Mitsuharu Misawa. “You chose today of all days,” Marufuji remarked on Twitter, before following it with, “Do your best! Don’t you ever be buried!” Aside from a brief period at the turn of that year, where he assaulted Katsuyori Shibata (in retirement due to head injury) to cacophanous boos and feuded with a newly crowned Tetsuya Naito, his role has primarily been that of mid-card heel and occasional challenger for secondary titles. Even still, he remains capable of brilliance, as in his G1 bouts against Zack Sabre Jr or his last-minute war at Wrestle Kingdom 15 with Satoshi Kojima.
Nakajima would go on to win the GHC Heavyweight Title in 2016. His run was a success from an in-ring standpoint but failed to make a dent in NOAH’s flagging financials and show attendances. Worse, it tarred him with the brush of being a failed ace when the company so desperately needed one. Perhaps the effort to build him up as representative of NOAH fell flat with an audience who had seen him for so long as the invading heel. The company went back to the drawing board and in 2018 Nakaima reinvented himself as a mop-haired heel with sadistic tendencies. With successful tag and GHC National reigns, N1 Tournament victories and a feud with Kensuke Office alumna Masa Kitamiya under his belt, Nakajima would finally capture the GHC Heavyweight Championship from Naomichi Marufuji in October 2021 in a blistering war of attrition. “I am NOAH,” Nakajima said after winning the title, words which were as much an aside to rival and former tag-team partner Go Shiozaki as a statement of intent. Many cite his performance in 2021 as one of the best had by any, and the hope is that his GHC Heavyweight Title reign is a long one.