As the calendar flips over to December, along with the cavalcade of festivities comes time to decide our respective Wrestler of the Year. I’ve shortlisted five names who are in the running for my Wrestler of the Year selection, with each being featured in their own piece. My fourth pick is firmly back inside the box, after my Chris Brookes pick, as I select GHC National Champion, Kenoh.
The man intrinsically linked with Pro Wrestling NOAH’s red belt has held the belt twice this year – managing to both start and end the year with the belt to his name.
Kenoh: The Case to Be 2021 Wrestler of The Year
The Nakajima Classics
Along the way, Kenoh has produced a series of truly great matches. I’ve waxed lyrical about his clashes with Katsuhiko Nakajima near endlessly, but the puzzle pieces that Kenoh added to the glorious result that was Kenoh and Nakajima’s two matches in 2021 deserve their own spotlight.
Nakajima is regarded by many as the King of kicks, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to tether that proclamation to Kenoh’s name. His kicks are on fire (very literally in the case of his match against the Great Muta)!
Kenoh sets his leg on fire to kick The Great Muta pic.twitter.com/mGbF9wJ9Ec— Pro-Wrestling Noah Eng (Hisame, 冰雨) (@Hi5ame) June 27, 2021
Kenoh offers a believable, realism-based style of pro wrestling which fits the NOAH model especially perfectly. His kicking excellence is intrinsic to this, but his submission skills and striking ability are keen drivers of his style.
Kenoh is a unique wrestler, as he portrays a real fighting style alongside his characteristic stoicism. He gives off a distinct air of solidity and composure, even in the face of barraging attacks by NOAH’s many legendary warriors.
Kenoh’s fight highlight of the year was against one of NOAH’s legendary warriors, as he sparred with Masakatsu Funaki over his GHC National Championship (12 February). Inside the famed Budokan Hall, on NOAH’s much-anticipated return there, Kenoh and Funaki engaged in a short, yet interesting, bout. They wrestled a hybrid between MMA and pro wrestling, with grappling and striking to overriding presences of the match. Though, not to everyone’s taste, it was sure up my street!
This hybrid style carried into Kenoh’s next defence – against powerhouse bruiser Kazuyuki Fujita (21 March). While in keeping with the hybrid style that Kenoh had toted prior to this defence, this battle took on a very different shape given the man Kenoh stood opposite. Fujita is polarising for many reasons, but most recently his use of “statedowns” in matches, like he did here. I fall on the positive end of this marmite spectrum, and I loved this match as a result. Fujita destroyed Kenoh as the champion sold his distraction believably.
It’s clear that these two matches are very different, but the sturdy figure of stoicism didn’t stop there.
Kenoh’s next highlight came in the N-1 Victory tournament, as he reached the final Kongo against stablemate and eventual winner Katsuhiko Nakajima.
He got through his group with some ease, before facing Kaito Kiyomiya in the semi-final (3 October). This was the best match of Kenoh’s tournament up to that point, as he and Kiyomiya went back-and-forth in a competitive match. It highlighted the aforementioned kicking ability of one Kenoh in a stunning sense. He delivered a plethora of kicks to his younger opponent with a crispness that only a few can truly muster.
Achieving victory via a surprise roll-up in the semi-final, Kenoh advanced to the night’s main event – the N-1 Victory Final. Standing opposite his ally, Katsuhiko Nakajima, it seemed poetic that they donned traditional Kongo colours. As if they needed reminding of their alliance before going to mutual war over the sought-after N-1 Victory crown.
Kenoh fell short: Nakajima was the victor.
Despite defeat, there’s no doubt that this was one of Kenoh’s greatest performances of his career. The N-1 Victory Final was a crystal beacon of his world-class quality.
To outdo such a sensational match is no easy feat, yet the pair managed it when they stepped back inside the ring opposite each other at the aptly entitled NOAH The Best show (28th Nov). This time the stakes were even grander, with both Kenoh’s GHC National and Nakajima’s GHC Heavyweight championships on the line in a historic NOAH clash.
In an hour-long draw, Kenoh and Nakajima went to absolute war. They kicked, forearmed, chopped, headbutted, suplexed, lariated and looked to submit one another in a purely attritional battle. We knew the pair were evenly matched, but their awe inspiring back-and-forth tussle is one for the ages.
It’s not an easy feat for an hour long match to be so brutal, so charged, so perfect. Yet, Kenoh and Nakajima managed it.
With two Match of the Year contenders to his name, it would be illogical to not at the very least mention Kenoh in a Wrestler of the Year conversation. For me, Kenoh is an incredibly engaging, believable and intriguing wrestler, because of both his in-ring style and the intense presence his character gives him.
Kenoh has been overshadowed by his Kongo stablemate, Nakajima. While the acclaim for the reigning GHC Heavyweight Champion is more than deserved (he’s in my top 5, maybe even top of it), Kenoh mustn’t be ignored.
Charm, confidence and obvious charisma often superseded stoicism, calmness and a reserved personality, but despite the inherent obstacles Kenoh faces in Wrestler of the Year conversations, he deserves his spot nonetheless. Perhaps, more so because of those obstacles.
Kenoh is intrinsically linked to the GHC National Championship, but now it might be time for him to garner the same connection to Wrestler of the Year plaudits.