KENTA taught me you can be a genius at kicking people in the head.
That weighty word is normally saved for composers, physicists, chess players, and other such mentally impressive types. But watching prime killer KENTA in his mustard and brown tights thrash a man with strikes, you have to reconsider expanding the definition.
Watch the craftmanship of each kick. Listen to the ugly thud of his boot landing. Feel the blistering intensity behind it all. That’s a genius of violence at work.
The current incarnation of KENTA, wearing a cocky smile and a Bullet Club t-shirt, is plenty entertaining, but it’s not the same bruising force that once tore through Ring of Honor and Pro Wrestling NOAH. As much as we (KENTA included) wanted to see him reclaim his old in-ring assassin self when he left WWE and came to NJPW in 2019, it’s not possible.
That man no longer exists.
KENTA’s physical, severe wrestling style wore his body down. A knee injury. A torn ACL. Left shoulder surgery. A serious neck injury in 2016. WWE handcuffed his style and dampened his confidence, but the physical limits of the human frame have done just as much to transform the Saitama, Japan, native into a faded version of himself.
If all you’ve ever seen of KENTA is his Bullet Club jerk act or him struggling to find his footing as Hideo Itami on WWE NXT and 205 Live, you owe it to yourself to see him at the height of his power.
In 2006, KENTA was a spellbinding force.
The GHC junior heavyweight champ at the start of the year, he went on to challenge for the GHC and ROH world titles. He main-evented in NOAH and ROH, in Japan and on the East Coast. Along the way, he told stories of brutality and bravado in classic after classic.
His thriller against Naomichi Marufuji in October won Match of the Year from both Tokyo Sports and Nikkan Sports. Of the five matches rated highest by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter in 2006, three of them starred KENTA. And only Bryan Danielson finished ahead of him in the Observer Most Outstanding Wrestler (h/t Chris Harrington) award race.
2013 was a tremendous year for KENTA, as well. But its highs didn’t reach as deep into the stratosphere as 2006’s highs did. Let us revisit that grand year of artful violence, looking back at his battles against his Marufuji, Danielson, and the icon who trained him.
KENTA vs. Naomichi Marufuji (NOAH First Navigation)
By 2006, KENTA and Marufuji had shared the ring as either tag team partners or opponents over 150 times, their paths intertwined like electric wires.
This time around, Marufuji attempted to take KENTA’s GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship from him. Both men were evenly matched, trading kicks, forearms, slaps, bursts of hard-hitting offense. The steel railing rattled repeatedly as the fight kept flowing outside the ring.
The level of violence and danger escalated as KENTA and Marufuji realized how much it would take to finish each other off.
Excellent chemistry, avalanche moves, and steady, sizzling intensity made for a stunner of a title bout. It’s one that doesn’t get nearly the credit it should because these two would outdo themselves with the Match of the Year nine months later.
KENTA vs. Kenta Kobashi (NOAH Navigate for Evolution)
A defiant, disrespectful KENTA looked to cut down his master in Tokyo.
The legendary Kobashi trained his namesake. He mentored him as the leader of the Burning faction. But now KENTA was out to prove himself, to show that not only could he outstrike Kobashi but that he could thrive against heavyweights.
The fight was the ultimate test of KENTA’s toughness. Kobashi suplexed his trainee on his head and chopped him into the third circle of hell. KENTA fought back by attacking Kobashi’s tree trunk-sized arm.
By the later stages, the pace was scorching in this back-and-forth battle. KENTA more than looked like he belonged on the same stage as Kobashi but a Burning Hammer ended his dreams of victory.
KENTA and Naomichi Marufuji vs. Bryan Danielson and Samoa Joe (ROH Best in the World)
A battle of NOAH versus ROH main-evented in New York City. Samoa Joe, coming off a terrific 2005, teamed up with the best indie wrestler on the planet. KENTA, meanwhile, brought along his sometimes rival, sometimes brother-in-arms.
As Danielson and Marufuji mixed it up, the tension between KENTA and Joe tension swelled. Joe wanted so obviously to dig his claws into the cocky kickboxer. The teases to their eventual collision felt like we were watching someone wave a lighter in front of a powder keg.
A hot crowd pumped energy into a match already full of it.
With this collection of talent, you wouldn’t expect anything less than the masterwork they made here. Each man fit perfectly into the puzzle of violence and athleticism that was this tag bout.
In the end, a Go to Sleep kept Danielson down, and the two ROH outsiders proved themselves better on this night.
KENTA vs. Takashi Sugiura (NOAH Northern Navigation)
High octane from the get-go, KENTA and Sugiura’s battle for the GHC junior heavyweight title is a showcase of stinging strikes.
Each man overwhelmed the other with kicks to the chest. They looked to be trying to collapse each other’s throats with resounding chops.
Sugiura eventually snared KENTA’s leg and weakened it over time. In the tremendous final stretch, the champion’s ankle proved to be his undoing. Forced to submit in Sugiura’s grip, KENTA suffered his first singles loss of the year.
After 321 days, the GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship no longer belonged to KENTA. A shift was underway. KENTA would soon slide into the heavyweight division in search of gold in that realm.
KENTA and Naomichi Marufuji vs. Takeshi Morishima and Takeshi Rikio (NOAH Summer Navigation)
Two smaller asskickers took on two behemoths in a match where the teams pushed each other to their physical limits. It’s one of those matches a fan can parachute into with next to no knowledge of anyone involved and appreciate anyway.
KENTA and Morishima tore it up when they went against each other. There is a wild, rumbling energy to each of their encounters. And when not the legal men, the wrestlers often fought on the apron, creating a constant scramble just outside of the main action.
Creative double team moves, oh-so-close near falls, and a frenzied crowd help make this something special.
NOAH’s rising stars KENTA and Marufuji looked tremendous here – their fighting spirit bursting through the screen. They were made to look like equals against the giants. No amount of roll-ups, lariats, power moves, and knockout blows were enough and the two teams went to a 30-minute draw.
KENTA vs. Bryan Danielson (ROH Glory by Honor V)
In the summer of 2006, KENTA was a revelation in Ring of Honor. His kick-heavy, take-no-prisoners style fit in perfectly. Strong matches against Austin Aries, Davey Richards, Roderick Strong, as well as a barnburner against both Danielson and Samoa Joe at In Your Face, highlighted his stint.
The apex of this tour came in August at the Manhattan Center with KENTA aiming for Danielson’s ROH World Championship.
A title win for the NOAH star felt imminent. KENTA had not lost a singles match in ROH to this point. Plus, Danielson wrestled this thing with a legit shoulder injury.
Rather than shy away from the injury, the wrestlers chose to make it the center of their story. During his domination of Danielson, KENTA cranked and kicked his bad arm like the limb had cheated on his wife. Plenty of times, the action swung into uncomfortable territory.
This all forced Danielson into survival mode and saw KENTA shine as an unfeeling predator.
The ROH title tilt features some of the best near falls you’ll ever see. The best of which came when KENTA caught Danielson midair for a GTS but he landed the move too close to the ropes and his best shot at dethroning the chance was lost.
It’s a bout American Dragon looks back as fondly as fans do. In his autobiography, Danielson wrote, “With the emotion of the crowd, the physical intensity of the crowd, and the story that was told throughout, it is undoubtedly one of my favorite matches of my career.”
KENTA vs. Naomichi Marufuji (NOAH Autumn Navigation)
Months after clashing over the GHC junior title, the rivals locked horns again as heavyweights with the GHC World Heavyweight Championship the prize at the center.
This title bout is an absolute achievement, an exploration of just how ferocious and emotional wrestling can be. Jeffery Harris of 411 Mania rightly called it “over 35 minutes of brutal awesomeness.” KENTA and Marufuji go from wanting to defeat each other, to wanting to hurt each other, to trying end each other completely.
A DDT on the ring apron to KENTA early on looks as if it will be the highpoint of violence. But it is simply the gateway to the suffering that follows. On a moonsault on the outside, Marufuji catches his head and neck on the railing. KENTA has to wipe waves of blood from his face. The two men eventually start flinging each other out of the ring like there are dumping bodies overboard.
Amid all this intense fighting, it feels as if KENTA is simply one pinpoint Go to Sleep away from a win, but Marufuji, the roaring warrior champion, hangs on.
This was a special performance by both men, the highpoint of one of the decade’s best rivalries.
KENTA vs. Bryan Danielson (NOAH Winter Navigation)
The majority of KENTA’s year after falling short against Marufuji consisted of tag team matches. Some of these, including KENTA and his protégé Davey Richards against Austin Aries and Roderick Strong at ROH’s Honor Reclaims Boston event, are quite good.
His last great hurrah, though, came when Danielson traveled to Yokohama to continue their rivalry. The American Dragon had won their match in America four months prior, but now KENTA owned the homefield advantage.
When the match stayed on the mat, Danielson had the edge. Things turned in KENTA’s favor when they got into strike exchanges.
European uppercuts aplenty, suplexes from the top rope, and dives out into the stands were among the highlights of what proved to be the third best match in their series.
KENTA withstood Danielson’s best shots. And after 25 minutes, his offense prowess led to a win. A Go to Sleep sent Danielson tipping over like a flagpole erected in mud.
They would pick back up their feud in 2007, but for now KENTA stood tall. And soon a marquee year came to a close after a pair of tag wins and a draw against Morishima in Tokyo’s Differ Ariake.
In 2006, KENTA clashed with some of the world’s best talent and thrived. His star power ballooned; his list of greatest hits now teemed.
He went to kill in for several years as one of NOAH’s cornerstones. His whole run with that company is well worth digging into.
Today, he stars for NJPW using an altered set of tools. Older, a step lost, KENTA relies more on character work and charisma now. It’s been a chance to show off that he’s more than just a striker. His New Japan run has given him the space to be a snarky, sharp-tongued villain, and he’s excelling.
KENTA has shed his skin several times over and is now a whole new snake. That’s the mark of a great wrestler, the ability to readjust and reinvent as circumstances change, as one’s body is not able to do what it once did.
We should expect no less from a genius.
The Year of Years is an ongoing series looking back at the best bell-to-bell years of great wrestlers. Check out the Jushin Liger edition, and keep your eyes open for future installments.