On August 31st, 1993, menacing monster “Dr. Death” Steve Williams faced rising star Kenta Kobashi. They were two of All-Japan Pro Wrestling’s most powerful wrestlers going at it for a chance to become the number one contender for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship.
At the culmination of their match, The Dangerous Backdrop finishing move lived up to its name in a very disturbing way. Kobashi faced permanent paralysis and his life. But then, Williams delivered it two more times!
Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi: The Night of the Dangerous Backdrop Driver
In the 1990s, hardcore wrestling fans – newsletter subscribers and tape collectors alike – turned their attention to All-Japan Pro Wrestling.
AJPW lacked the flash and innovative booking of New Japan, but the promotion was on fire at supernova levels. Incredible five-star championship main events drove the popularity and numerous sellouts.
But things crashed heavily (literally speaking) in a classic bout when Oklahoma wrestling-and-football-icon-turned-pro wrestler Steve Williams’s suplex launched Kenta Kobashi like a rocket. Downward. Straight to the mat. On his head.
Prelude to a Bump
Many have written about the Steve Williams and Kenta Kobashi bout from night ten of the AJPW Summer Action Series II at the City Gymnasium in Toyohashi, Aichi, Japan, on August 31st, 1993. Expect more to be written in the years to come. A great match that concludes with an incomparable ending can deliver historical significance.
Little in wrestling history (up to that time) compared to the dangers that finish presented. Even today, after hundreds of subsequent crazy and dangerous bumps, the backdrop driver finish still shocks.
The "Dangerous Backdrop Driver"
The "Dangerous Backdrop Driver" is a more vicious variant of the highly risky brainbuster suplex. Instead of lifting a wrestler in a vertical suplex and dropping the grappler straight down headfirst, the opponent uses a back suplex.
The risky move ensured the match would do more than establish the number-one contender to the AJPW Triple Crown Championship. It elevated two top stars to another level.
The conclusion that saw Williams’ finisher nearly kill Kobashi still doesn’t cease to shock, not only because the move is brutal and dangerous. The finish pulled all the necessary emotional strings.
How can you not feel emotional when it appears a wrestler legitimately broke his neck… and won’t quit?
Steve Williams and Kenta Kobashi: Going to the Next Level the Hard Way
Steve Williams and Kenta Kobashi stood out as featured performers in 1993, and both needed something to take them to the next level. A great match alone wouldn’t do it since All-Japan delivered state-of-the-art matches routinely. A featured singles bout between the two needed something extra.
Steve Williams channeled his legitimate athletic credentials far more effectively in Japan than in the United States. Still, he could never outshine legends, Stan Hansen and Bruiser Brody.
Williams rose to the top American star in AJPW by default. Stan Hansen’s retirement years loomed, and the original choice for a replacement, Terry Gordy, suffered personal issues and health scares that sidelined plans. Williams served as the logical choice, but he wasn’t Gordy.
Kenta Kobashi suffered a similar dilemma. As great as he was, the promotion’s top stars were the incomparable technician Mitsuharu Misawa and tough guy tactician Toshiaki Kawada.
Kobashi did have something those two icons lacked – the ability to evoke pure babyface sympathy. Kobashi played the traditional likable "young lion" role – a role requiring him to suffer a terrible beating in a match only to come back and win against the odds…or lose in such a way he became more popular in defeat.
Everyone has their favorite wrestlers, and many fans rally behind a wrestler who deserves a better push than they receive. Kobashi ranks as one of the all-time greatest in the ring. The problem for Kobashi was that he wrestled in the same promotion as two wrestlers, Misawa and Kawada, who could also claim such accolades.
Don’t think promoter Shohei Baba didn’t know what he was doing. While Misawa and Kawada traded pinfalls and Triple Crown title reigns, Kobaski always fell short when facing Misawa for the prestigious championship.
Baba milked that chase – and the chance to see Kobashi score a win over Misawa into numerous Budokan Hall sellouts.
Kobashi would eventually win the Triple Crown title three times, defeating Kawada, Vader, and Akira Taue. He’d also lose the belt twice to Misawa. Kobashi never won the championship in AJPW, but he’d eventually defeat Misawa for the Global Honored Crown (GHC) Heavyweight Championship in Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Williams would also win the Triple Crown title one day, cementing his place as the top foreigner. The top contenders’ match set things in motion for both wrestlers to become world champions. The match required Kobashi to lose since beating Williams would hurt the monster tough guy image.
However, Kobashi had the talent to rehab himself after a loss. Incredibly, he lost in a manner that made him even more popular and beloved. Why wouldn’t fans appreciate his work? Kobashi could have lost his life with that finish.
A Most Dangerous and Risky Bump
With Kenta Kobashi slated to lose a high-profile match by clean pinfall, he needed to look strong with the finish. Enter: The Dangerous Backdrop Driver.
The two backdrop drivers prove memorable for the most apparent reason: they’re sick. Kenta Kobashi risked paralysis or, worse, landing the way he did. Tragically, we have proof of how dangerous the bumps were.
Kobashi’s rival Misawa would tragically die after taking a deadly bump. A cervical cord injury took Misawa’s life after the puroresu icon took a suplex in a tag match in Hiroshima.
In hindsight, Kobashi is fortunate not to have suffered either a career-ending or life-ending injury after the match.
Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi: A 5-Star Match
The iconic "Stone Cold" Steve Austin once said the one thing people remember most about a wrestling match is how it ended. True, and how the wrestlers build towards the ending helps make it memorable. Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi didn’t only deliver an unbelievable ending; they presented an incredible match filled with one meaningful move after another.
That’s not to suggest the bout’s a "spot fest."
What is ironic about the match is how many of the moves aren’t high-risk or out-of-the-ordinary. There’s a lot of chopping, stomping, slapping, shoulder blocking, face-locking, and other traditional moves in the match.
Yes, there’s a fantastic spot where Kobaski whips Williams into the steel guardrail and then climbs onto the top of the guardrail to deliver a DDT, but much of the match contains many moves fans saw in the 1970s and 1980s in the United States. The big difference is how shockingly stiff the moves are – Kobashi and Williams truly pound on each other.
A little perspective here – The special occasion of the two top stars fighting it out for a title shot allows them to do so. No wrestlers could beat each other like this six days out of the week.
"The Doc" comes off as mean and unrelenting, while the talented Kobashi’s hunger to rise to the top powers his aggression against a bigger, stronger foe. Stiff and brutal shots combined with relentless mat wrestling keep the match from ever coming off as slow.
The irony here is that the cutting-edge match has many "punching, kicking, chopping" and other old-school moves, including face locks and slams. Don’t look for one highspot after the other here. (Although an outside-the-ring DDT Kobashi delivers after climbing on top of the steel guardrail is slick.)
The match comes off as "meat and potatoes," stiff, believable wrestling, but with greater physicality and emotional power than the average U.S. match.
Both Williams and Kobashi’s facial expressions drive everything home. The intensity in both men’s faces stresses the importance of getting an edge over an opponent and winning the match.
The Backdrop Driver Curtain Call
Once the match passes the 20-minute mark, the pace picks up, and Steve Williams and Kenta Kobashi move into high gear.
Both wrestlers go for the win, meaning several false finishes follow one another. Kobashi goes for an (ironic) German suplex and pin attempt, followed by a moonsault and another near pin.
The crowd goes wild when Williams kicks out at two.
Kobashi drops a leg on Williams, frustrated by the inability to get the pin. His facial expressions display exasperation perfectly.
Frustration clouds the mind, though. Kobashi attempts another moonsault, but Williams gets his knees up, and Kobashi crashes into them, allowing Williams to regain the upper hand.
Doc messes up a gut-wrench suplex, and Kobashi gets one more near the pin, causing the crowd to go wild again.
That’s the magic of an All-Japan main event. The crowd reacts enthusiastically even though they know a mere body slam and moonsault won’t end the match. However, the moves signal the end is coming. It’s just a question of how, when, and who. The crowd responds in anticipation of the actual finale.
And the when/how of the finish comes as a surprise.
Both wrestlers charge at one another and try to gain clinch control when they collide, circling each other in a dance-like fashion.
Kobashi goes for the most direct, logical, and economical move available to him: he tries to grab either a standing headlock or a sleeper hold.
The "smart" decision to slow Dr. Death proves to be a tremendous mistake.
Williams uses Kobashi’s arm positioning against him and turns it into a brutal backdrop driver. It’s brutal because the unprepared Kobashi gets caught so that off-guard Williams can launch him straight up and straight down.
A facedown, pancaked, and seemingly unconscious Kobashi appears finished, but he manages to kick out, shocking the crowd.
A stunned Williams goes for the only move he thinks will end things: another backdrop driver.
A standing and struggling Kobashi tries to fight his way out of Williams’ grip, but the Doc nails him with a lariat and delivers an even more vicious second backdrop driver.
An exhausted Williams doesn’t cover his opponent, giving Kobashi a chance to crawl to the ring ropes on his knees and try to use the ropes to stand. Or is he trying to crawl out of the ring and escape the beatdown? There’s ambiguity here: is Kobashi trying to reengage the fight or run away?
No one knows for sure because Williams ends the bout with a mercy finish: He picks Kobashi up for another backdrop driver but delivers a weaker, more traditional backdrop suplex followed by a fisherman’s cradle intended to keep his opponent in place and shoulder’s down.
Steve Williams did what he had to do to end things, winning with sportsmanship and not heel cruelty.
Besides the legendary Pat Patterson versus Sgt. Slaughter MSG Alley Fight, has there ever been a more memorable or influential finish in wrestling history?
The 1993 Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi match continues to draw new fans who discover the classic bout.
Today is a much different landscape than the early 1990s tape trading era. YouTube makes the classic main event accessible to any fan or budding wrestler wanting to watch it.
If the match had a legacy, there’s the good and bad. The bout displays realistic, hard-hitting professional wrestling at its best, certainly inspiring.
The drawback is that the match has become known mainly for its dangerous finish. Likely, the ending contributed to the overall industry desire to take dangerous bumps and risk serious injuries.
Maybe the classic confrontation reflects an equal mix of what great wrestling is and a cautionary tale.
Watch: Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi: The Night of the Dangerous Backdrop Driver
Steve Williams and Kenta Kobashi would meet again in another classic match in 1994, another bout worth watching.
These stories may also interest you:
- The Super-Finisher: 11 Dangerous Wrestling Finishing Moves!
- Mitsuharu Misawa: A Wrestling Legend Taken Too Soon
- “Dr. Death” Steve Williams and Steve Ray: A Shoot in the Ring
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