By this point in the 5-Star Match Reviews series, you’re probably wondering why I keep going to back to 1990s All Japan Pro-Wrestling matches. Well, there’s a bunch of reasons why. First and foremost, the in-ring action is just amazing. Not too fast, not too slow, and with the right blend of carefully-layered action mixed with detailed, unpredictable and logical stories. And secondly, AJPW’s top wrestlers were just that, wrestlers. There were no ridiculous gimmicks or insane angles. Stories were told in the matches themselves. And those stories are really worth revisiting because, a) they were really well done; and b) we can take those stories and the lessons from them and apply them to the modern wrestling landscape.
Make no mistake, pro wrestling in 2021 isn’t in a particularly good place, at least not from a popularity perspective. Neither of the biggest two American companies have been able to create new stars for one reason for another. No one in pro wrestling right now is big enough to expand out of the pro wrestling bubble and draw in people that might not have cared about wrestling beforehand.
AJPW had a similar problem in 1996 when one of their top tag teams split up. And because that company had built a reputation for putting on amazing wrestling matches, fans tuned in to see that crazy action, even though it was unsustainable long-term. To remedy that (or at least, put a Band-Aid on it), AJPW took a lower-card guy and made him into a star in order to breathe new life into their main-event scene. This is the match that transformed Jun Akiyama into from a perpetual fall guy into a future star.
It’s the tag team title match between Misawa & Akiyama and the Holy Demon Army from May 23rd, 1996.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
The mythical era of The Four Pillars of Heaven (Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada and Taue) and their four-, six- and eight-man tag matches ended earlier in 1996. Kawada made some controversial public statements about the company and was punished for it. And since he had been the top challenger for Misawa’s world title, someone else was needed for that role. Thus, promoter giant Baba took the opportunity to give younger wrestler Kenta Kobashi his singles push. Kobashi broke away from being Misawa’s partner and began being groomed to be world champion. And because Kobashi left Misawa, Misawa no longer had a right-hand man. Then he saw Akiyama and decided to elevate him to that position just he had elevated Kobashi in 1993 when Kawada turned on him.
For Akiyama, this was a huge opportunity. He was less than four full years into his wrestling career at this point, but had taken to it like a fish to water. He was incredibly talented as an amateur wrestler and adapted more quickly than anyone had anticipated. He had spent most of his early years taking the fall in tag matches and losing in big singles challenges. But those days were over; Akiyama needed to prove that he could become a bigger star. But to do that, he had to prove he belonged in the ring with not only his partner Misawa, but with The Holy Demon Army, Kawada and Taue. This was no small feat, as the fans had very high expectations of anyone that teamed with Misawa, and the Holy Demon Army was the top tag team in All Japan.
So the question was, would Akiyama be able to succeed?
This is for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Taue and Akiyama start things off with a quick clean break on the ropes. They take turns chopping each other’s chest with neither man backing down. Akiyama applies a headlock and it transitions into the ‘immovable-object-shoulder-tackle’ spot. Akiyama ducks one big boot from Taue but not the second. Akiyama answers with a forearm smash and an Exploder suplex. Taue kicks out at one and escapes the ring, which is a bad idea because Misawa takes advantage and hits his elbow suicida. Misawa tosses Taue back into the ring and Akiyama lands a diving forearm smash for a two-count, then tags Misawa in.
Akiyama whips Taue into Misawa who lands a running spinning lariat. They continue the double-team with a corner forearm/whip into a spin kick combination. All that work gets Misawa a two-count on Taue. Tiger Driver by Misawa. Taue kicks out at two yet again. Misawa goes for a German suplex but Taue resists. Akiyama comes in to try and help, but Kawada comes in and yakuza kicks Akiyama away mid-charge and elbows Misawa. This allows Taue to DDT Misawa and tag in Kawada.
Kawada lands some step-kicks and teases a Dangerous Backdrop, but Misawa fights back with elbows. Rolling elbow smash, Kawada ducks. Dangerous Backdrop! Kawada spikes Misawa on his head. Damn, that one looked brutal. Kawada pins but Misawa barely kicks out.
Taue tags in and guillotine drops Misawa throat-first on the top rope, targeting the same neck Kawada just tenderized. He lands a trio of short-ranged clotheslines and pins but Akiyama breaks it up. Kawada tags in and drops a knee onto Misawa’s neck twice for another two-count. Kawada applies a front chancery but Misawa pushes him to the ropes, breaking the hold. Misawa tries to fire back with elbows, but Kawada drops him with a yakuza kick. Taue tags in and lands a running big boot and a super atomic drop. He pins but Misawa gets his foot on the ropes.
Kawada tags in again and stomps away on Misawa’s neck and shoulders. Kawada lands an ax kick but Misawa kicks out at two again. Kawada scoop slams Misawa and lands a second-rope diving knee to the head for another two-count. Kawada applies the Stretch Plum but Misawa crawls to the ropes. So Kawada drags him back to the middle of the ring and re-applies it, but Misawa powers out of it. Kawada gets right back up and charges with a yakuza kick, but Misawa grabs his leg and drops him with an elbow smash. Desperation tag to Akiyama.
Akiyama fires away with forearms and slaps then drops Kawada with a jumping knee. He dropkicks Taue off the apron and goes to Irish whip Kawada, but Kawada counters with a spinkick. Except no he doesn’t, Akiyama blocks, grabs his leg and tosses him down. Great counter sequence.
Akiyama lands another jumping knee and goes for a vertical suplex, but Kawada counters into an armbar. Akiyama escapes quickly and Kawada kicks him in the face. But this only angers Akiyama. Kawada lands some step kicks, but Akiyama roars and lands knees to Kawada’s face. Which Kawada tanks like a boss and fights back. Akiyama ducks Kawada’s attacks and hits a big forearm that makes Kawada sink to his knees. There’s a great example ‘delayed selling’ that Kawada’s famous for.
Taue tags in and lands a quick chokeslam on Akiyama, but he gets right back up. Akiyama ducks a clothesline and slaps Taue, but Taue blocks his dropkick. Taue whips Akiyama, Akiyama ducks both his big boot and a clothesline, Akiyama goes for a chokeslam, but Akiyama rolls out of it. Akiyama fires back with some slaps and we have a standoff at the ten-minute mark.
Taue goes for a DDT but Akiyama counters into a northern lights suplex and tags in Misawa. They land double dropkicks on Taue and Misawa drops him with a spinning back suplex. A frog splash gets Misawa a two-count. Misawa goes for a Tiger Driver but Taue powers out. Misawa lands on his feet and goes for a Tiger suplex, and Akiyama charges in to knock Kawada off the apron and stop Taue from resisting. Misawa lands the bridging Tiger suplex but Taue kicks out at 2.6.
Akiyama tags in and they double suplex Taue. He lands some Hogan leg drops for a two-count Akiyama follows with an Exploder suplex but Kawada comes in and stop him. Akiyama’s quickly overpowered by both Kawada and Taue and Taue lands a backdrop suplex on him. Misawa comes in to get some revenge but he too gets overpowered quickly and Kawada drops him with a Gamengiri kick and a chokeslam. Kawada tags in and lands stiff chop takedowns and a hard punt to Akiyama’s back. Another hot tag to Taue and the Holy Demon Army take turns slapping the taste out of Akiyama’s mouth. Akiyama looks like he’s about to pass out and the referee checks to make sure he’s still conscious. Kawada tags in following a big boot from Taue and hits a wide variety of different strikes, all of them stiff.
We’re fifteen minutes in as Kawada continues slapping Akiyama around. Kawada kicks the shit out of Akiyama’s face, but with each kick Akiyama starts powering up. he makes it to his feet against the ropes and Kawada lands a running yakuza kick in the corner. Taue tags in and lands a Samoan drop for a two-count. Taue tosses him out of the ring and Kawada launches him into the steel ring barricade. Then he yakuza kicks Akiyama again for good measure. Akiyama tries to fire back with forearms but Kawada’s still stronger and kicks him back down.
Kawada tosses him back into the ring allowing Taue to his him with a powerslam for two. Kawada tags in and does the scoop slam/punt kick to the back combo, and he hits as hard as possible judging by the sound it makes. Kawada pins but only gets two, so he tags Taue in again and Taue lands a big powerbomb on Akiyama. Kawada charges in and kicks Misawa off the apron as Taue pins but Akiyama somehow manages to kick out. Frustrated, Taue stomps on him some more then teases the chokeslam from the apron. Misawa tries to make the save but Kawada cuts him off again. Akiyama tries to resist Taue’s big move, but Kawada kicks him in the face. Taue tries again but Akiyama holds on for dear life, clinging to anything he can get a hold of. And just when all seems lost, in comes Misawa with the save. Elbows for both Taue and Kawada. he drags Akiyama to his corner and he makes a tag.
Misawa makes a beeline for Taue at ringside and smashes him into the barricade before tossing him into the ring. He lands a top-tope diving elbow smash and a German suplex for a two-count, then applies his facelock. Taue crawls to the bottom rope, breaking the hold at the twenty-minute mark.
Taue reverses an Irish from Misawa and hits a big boot and charges, but Misawa no-sells the boot and counters into a Tiger Driver. But before he can land the move, Kawada comes in and hits a huge lariat on Misawa. Big boot from Taue. Kawada tags in. corner yakuza kick. Tons of brutal knees and kicks to Misawa’s head as he sinks into the corner. Powerbomb by Kawada. Akiyama breaks it up. Taue comes in and boots Akiyama. Misawa’s all alone. Holy Demon Special! Chokeslam/Backdrop Driver combination! Kawada pins, but Misawa kicks out at 2.8. That was a very close call. The crowd erupts, chanting Misawa’s name.
Kawada goes for another powerbomb, but Misawa counters into a frankensteiner. He blocks Kawada’s gamengiri and lands a huge rolling elbow smash. He tags Akiyama who pins Kawada for a two-count. A bridging northern lights suplex gets another two-count. He goes for an Exploder, but Kawada fights out with elbows. Akiyama lands a jumping knee and goes for another Exploder, but Kawada reverses again. They trade stiff strikes and Akiyama ducks a lariat and goes for a German, but Kawada fights out again with a kick. Gamengiri to the face. Both men go down. Kawada looks to have hurt himself in the process. He’s clutching his leg and can barely move. Taue comes in and tries to drag him to his corner as Misawa did earlier, but Misawa puts a stop to that. Misawa and Taue fight for a bit, but Misawa ducks a charge and sends Taue flying out of the ring. Corkscrew plancha by Misawa onto Taue. The crowd goes wild.
Back in the ring, Kawada crawls over to pin Akiyama, but Misawa makes the save. Kawada gets up slowly, basically hobbling on one leg. Akiyama takes advantage of this and lands a dragon screw leg whip, using that bad leg of Kawada’s. bridging German suplex by Akiyama. Taue makes the save and pushes Akiyama into Misawa, sending Misawa off the apron. Taue goes for a back suplex, but Akiyama counters into a crossbody press in midair.
Misawa comes back and drops Taue with a rolling elbow and then drops Kawada with a German suplex. Bridging German suplex by Akiyama. Kawada kicks out at 2.9. Exploder suplex. Kawada gets right back up. Another Exploder. Kawada’s on auto-pilot. Akiyama with a running knee in the corner. A third Exploder suplex. Akiyama goes for the pin. Taue’s within reach of breaking up the pin. But Misawa holds him by his leg. The referee counts one, two, three! There’s the match! Akiyama has pinned Kawada. We have new champions!
Winners and NEW AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 27:26: Mitsuharu Misawa & Jun Akiyama
This was yet another spectacular wrestling match from AJPW. I enjoyed this match a lot. Even after almost twenty-five years, it still holds up incredibly well. This match is proof that tag team wrestling can be just as good as, if not better than, singles matches and rivalries.
The story of the match featured Misawa and Akiyama dominating early, to the point that they got overconfident with their double-team maneuvers. This made sense because Akiyama hadn’t been Misawa’s main partner for long and thus needed a different strategy than what Misawa had used when teaming with Kobashi. And that relatively hot start brought a much-needed change of pace compared to the usually slower and more methodical openings with all four Pillars of Heaven.
But Misawa and Akiyama did too much too soon and got taken off guard once Kawada entered to put the breaks on their constant double-teaming on Taue. And from there it was about Akiyama doing the heavy lifting for his team as Misawa gradually became weaker and weaker. And boy did Akiyama have to work hard here. Kawada and Taue absolutely destroyed him. It reached a point that he looked to be almost unconscious following some really stiff slaps and Kawada just mocked him for even daring to be in the ring with them.
And from there this match’s biggest story really took off. Though on the surface this match looked like a typical AJPW main event – complete with stiff strikes, crazy twists and turns, vicious suplexes and tense drama – there was also the story of launching Akiyama to another level. At first, barely anyone in the crowd bought the idea of Akiyama going toe-to-toe with the Holy Demon Army. But as he fought and survived, they got behind him more and more. he took a ridiculous beating and then fought incredibly hard to beat two extremely dangerous opponents. And over time, the crowd gradually grew more invested in Akiyama’s fight and grew to not only believe he could win but wanted to see him score the fall.
And really, that’s what makes this match stand out so much and retain its high quality. Yes, it had amazing in-ring action. But instead of getting lost in the shuffle among the myriad of similar matches, this one’s story makes it pop. The match’s story appears to go in one direction at the beginning, until a sudden twist takes place that, at first, doesn’t seem all that convincing. But through carefully-structued action and airtight psychology, that twist becomes more and more convincing until you become fully invested in it and want to see that story reach its logical conclusion. And in this case, when that conclusion happened, it blew the roof off of Budokan Hall. The fans had been relatively quiet during Akiyama’s earlier offensive portions; but by the end they were screaming for him like he was Misawa. He had proven that he could hang with three legendary wrestlers, two of which had more than a decade of experience over him.
As a modern example, imagine if there was a tag team match between Undertaker & Bray Wyatt and Shawn Michaels and Triple H, with Akiyama being the equivalent of an as-of-yet-unproven Bray Wyatt in this context. At the start of the match, no one believes Wyatt would accomplish anything beyond taking the pinfall from either Michaels or Triple H. But instead of that happening, Wyatt holds his own and takes the best both HBK and HHH has to offer. By the end of the match, viewers are more interested in seeing Wyatt get the fall than ‘Taker. And then, Wyatt pins Michaels while ‘Taker holds Triple H at bay. It would be a star-making performance for Wyatt, and that’s exactly what happened with Akiyama here.
Final Rating: *****
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: these 1990s AJPW classics really do stand head and shoulders above pretty much everything else before or since. And that’s because, more often than not, all of these big matches differ from each other down to the tiniest of details while still telling an amazing story. Even though all four of these wrestlers had their own signature and finishing moves, there was absolutely no way of knowing what would happen in a match and how it would end. These wrestlers crafted such an intricate and compelling story that watching the matches leaves you fully captivated and watching every detail. For over twenty-five minutes, these wrestlers weave such a complex in-ring story while keeping people guessing and watching with anticipation over what would happen next.
As for this match’s story, it accomplished its goal of making Akiyama into a star. He entered the match as an untested tag team fall guy and left the match as the guy that scored the pinfall on Kawada, the bigger star of the Holy Demon Army. Akiyama would go on to become something of a tag team specialist and has become a shining example of putting on high-quality tag team matches that are in the same conversation as legendary singles matches.
Although I personally think these four men would have a much better match later that year in December, this match still stands tall on its own merits. Really fun to watch overall.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.