If history was any indicator, then December was arguably the best month of the year for tag team wrestling. That month hosted All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW)’s annual tag team tournament, which pitted the best duos in the company against each other to crown the best.
The previous four years had proven how good this tournament is at bringing the best out of its participants. The 1993 final match featured the first-ever official Four Pillars-style tag match and it set a new standard for tag team wrestling in Japan. The 1994 edition did the same but included two hardnosed gaijins that brought a new level of drama to the tournament. The 1995 edition featured another instant classic from the Four Pillars of Heaven. And the 1996 edition featured one of the absolute best tag team matches ever.
So the question on everyone’s mind was, would this trend of legendary tag matches continue in 1997? Today we find out as we review the final match from the 1997 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League. It’s a rematch from the previous year pitting Mitsuharu Misawa and Jun Akiyama against Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue.
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.
Jun Akiyama had been Misawa’s right-hand man since mid-1996 after Kenta Kobashi broke away from him. Since then Misawa’s goal had been to elevate Akiyama into a top star like he did when teaming with Kobashi. And judging on how many great matches Misawa had with Akiyama as his partner, he was well on his way to completing that goal.
At the same time, Misawa and Akiyama were hoping to get revenge from what happened the year prior. Kawada and Taue defeated Misawa and Akiyama in one of the best tag team matches in pro wrestling history. Not wanting history to repeat itself, Misawa and Akiyama hoped that this year they’d finally put the fearsome Holy Demon Army away and win the prestigious WSTDL tournament.
This match took place on December 5th, 1997. Kawada and Akiyama start things off. Some quick technical holds end with Taue tagging in. double big boots by Kawada and Taue lead to a one-count. Akiyama reverses a whip and lands a forearm smash to Taue and tags Misawa.
Taue wrings the arm but Misawa does his flip escape and locks in a front chancery. It doesn’t last long as Taue carries him to his corner and tags Kawada. A really stiff exchange ensues and Kawada goes down. I love how he tries to stay standing but goes down slowly. His delayed selling is simply phenomenal.
Akiyama tags in and lands a jumping knee. Kawada blocks a scoop slam and they both tease suplexing each other. Kawada wins the exchange and slams Akiyama but Akiyama dodges before Kawada can land his usual punt kick to the back. That’s why these King’s Road matches require such careful viewing; no two sequences are ever the same.
Akiyama counters a rear waistlock into an armlock of sorts then kicks Kawada in the back. Misawa tags in and lands his diving spinning lariat. He follows with a spinning back suplex and a standing senton for a two-count at the five-minute mark.
Misawa starts applying the facelock but sees Taue coming in and elbows him hard. He goes back to Kawada who starts firing up. The two of them exchange stiff elbows and this time Kawada wins the exchange with a rolling abisengiri kick. Taue tags in and boots Misawa in the face. Then he cheapshots Akiyama with one, causing Akiyama to charge into the ring pissed off. Taue catches him and drops him throat-first on the top rope, sending him back out of the ring. He tries to land snake eyes on Misawa, Misawa blocks and goes for an elbow, Taue ducks and Chokeslams Misawa hard into the corner. Then he guillotine drops Misawa and tags in Kawada.
Taue whips Misawa into a Kawada lariat and Kawada whips him into a Taue Chokeslam. Those double team moves get Kawada a two-count. He goes for a gamengiri kick but Misawa blocks it, hurting his hand in the process. Kawada follows with a yakuza kick in the corner and knee presses to Misawa’s face. Misawa fires back with a single elbow and goes down, allowing Kawada to drop a knee on his neck. Kawada follows with the Stretch Plum submission hold. Akiyama tries to break it up with hard slaps to the face, but Kawada doesn’t let go. He even taunts Akiyama like ‘is that all you got?’, causing Akiyama to hit an explosive barrage of strikes, which eventually makes Kawada let go. Kawada’s such a badass.
Kawada tags in Taue who lands another guillotine drop and applies a chinlock. Misawa tries to fire back with elbows but Taue Chokeslams him down hard and fast. Then he rubs his boot on Misawa’s chin, putting more pressure on it and his neck. Taue lands a piledriver causing Misawa to roll to the ropes at the ten-minute mark. He goes for the apron Chokeslam but Akiyama saves Misawa. But then Kawada comes in to get rid of Akiyama and yakuza kicks Misawa. Taue’s getting ready for the Chokeslam but Misawa still fights back. They boot each other and Taue goes down. Somersault senton by Misawa.
Misawa tags Akiyama who knocks Taue back off the apron. Once he returns to the ring, Akiyama whips Taue but Taue dodges a dropkick. Taue tries slamming Akiyama down but he gets right back up and fires back with hard slaps and a discus clothesline. But then Taue gets up. Akiyama goes for more strikes but Taue hooks both arms and carries him to his corner.
Kawada tags in but before he can do anything Akiyama slams him down and locks in a cross armbreaker. Then Kawada counters into his own cross armbreaker. They keep switching on each other in a nice amateur exchange. Kawada kicks Akiyama’s leg but Akiyama catches Kawada’s. Akiyama Irish whips Kawada but Kawada counters into a sick hook kick. Nice counter. He teases a Dangerous Backdrop but Akiyama fights out. Akiyama goes for a rolling clothesline but Kawada counters into a judo arm throw and goes for a kick, only for Akiyama to counter into a dragon screw. Another great sequence.
Akiyama goes for a suplex but Kawada resists, allowing Taue to come in and break it up. Kawada slams and punts Akiyama then crawls to tag Taue, who lands a tossing suplex then applies a sharpshooter. Misawa breaks up the hold but Kawada comes in and boots him down at the fifteen-minute mark.
Kawada tags in and stomps on Akiyama’s injured back. He stomps on Akiyama’s face and applies a Boston Crab to weaken Akiyama’s back further as Taue boots a charging Misawa down. Akiyama reaches the ropes and gets kicked out of the ring. Out there, Taue whips him into the steel barricade then slams him onto the ringside mats. Then Kawada jumps off the apron and lands feet first on Akiyama’s back. Damn that looked brutal.
In the ring, Kawada lands the chop/kick combo for another two-count. Taue tags in and goes for his trio of short-range clotheslines. He lands two of them but Akiyama ducks the third, only to eat a DDT from Taue. I don’t think anyone sells getting planted by a DDT better than Jun Akiyama. Taue goes to whip him but Akiyama can’t even reach the ropes. He crumples to the mat, exhausted. Taue pins but Akiyama kicks out at 2.5.
Suddenly, Akiyama dropkicks Taue’s knee to try and escape. But Taue rolls to Kawada before Akiyama can reach Misawa. Kawada stomps him in the back and soccer kicks him again. But this time Akiyama fights through the pain and gets to his feet. But that doesn’t last long as Kawada boots him hard in the face. Kawada goes for a second boot but Akiyama blocks it and nails a big forearm. After a struggle, Akiyama finally manages to tag Misawa. In comes the Green Machine!
Elbow flurry by Misawa on Kawada. He whips Kawada, Kawada tries to counter with the hook kick, but Misawa blocks it and slams Kawada down. Misawa goes for a Tiger Driver at the twenty-minute mark but Taue makes the save. Kawada goes for a powerbomb but Misawa frankensteiners out of it. Then Taue tries a Chokeslam but Misawa escapes with an arm toss. Elbow smashes for both Kawada and Taue. Taue goes down but Kawada fights back with a big boot Kawada charges but Misawa counters. Tiger Driver! Kawada kicks out at two. Misawa blocks a Taue kick and elbow him right out of the ring.
A frog splash gets Misawa another two-count. He tries a Tiger Suplex but Kawada reaches the ropes. Misawa keeps holding on and goes for a German suplex but Kawada kicks out of it, literally. Taue tags in and lands a massive dropkick. He goes for a boot, Misawa ducks that and a clothesline and goes for a flying elbow smash but Taue dodges. Misawa faceplants into the mat. German suplex by Taue. Misawa gets right back up. Elbow smash! In comes Akiyama! Jumping knee by Akiyama. But he can’t capitalize because of the damage to his back. Taue reverses a whip into the corner, Akiyama ducks a lariat and goes for a Northern Lights Suplex. But again, he can’t land the move because of the damage to his back. Amazing storytelling. Taue boots him down and tags in Kawada.
Kawada nails some step kicks but Akiyama fights through them. They trade running forearms and Akiyama drops him with a jumping knee. Exploder Suplex for Kawada. jumping knee for Taue. Another Exploder for Kawada. Taue breaks up the pin. Misawa Tiger Drivers Taue. Followed by an exploder by Akiyama for good measure. Misawa tags in and elbows Kawada hard in the corner. Akiyama nails him with two jumping knees. German suplex by Akiyama into a Bridging German from Misawa. the referee counts one, two, no, Kawada kicks out. Meanwhile, Akiyama jumps off the apron but misses Taue (and the camera misses the dive).
Misawa teases a Tiger Driver on Kawada, sees Taue charging, and counters his charge into a Tiger Driver attempt. But Kawada stops him allowing Taue to Chokeslam him at the twenty-five-minute mark.
Taue tags in and choke-tosses Misawa into Akiyama. But Akiyama still charges with forearms giving Misawa an opening to land an elbow smash. Akiyama tags in and lands a diving forearm smash to the back of Taue’s head. he follows with two German suplexes but Kawada breaks up his bridge on the second one. Misawa comes in and elbows Kawada to the mat. Taue kicks Misawa away and German suplexes Akiyama. Kawada tags in and lands knee drops on Akiyama’s lower back. Dangerous Backdrop! Akiyama got planted.
Kawada’s not done yet. Folding Powerbomb by Kawada. Misawa makes the save. Kawada gamengiris him in retaliation. Stretch Plum on Akiyama. That looks unbelievably painful. He pins but Akiyama kicks out again. Kawada with a lariat. Akiyama still kicks out. Taue tags back in and Akiyama still fights back defiantly. Belly-to-belly suplex by Taue. Followed by a Dynamic Bomb/Batista Bomb. But in comes Misawa to make the save again. Kawada has had enough of Misawa’s shit. He and Taue go for a powerbomb/Chokeslam combo, but Misawa counters both of them. Man what an amazing reversal. Elbows for both of them. And a stronger rolling elbow to Kawada for good measure.
We’re at the thirty-minute mark as Taue lands a Chokeslam. He goes for a second one straight away but Akiyama counters into an Exploder suplex. Misawa’s desperate to tag in. He’s screaming at Akiyama to get to him. Akiyama and Taue keep fighting out of each other’s big moves. Taue manages to land one more big Chokeslam. Running big boot by Taue. One, two…three!? Really? That’s’ the end? I guess so.
Winners of the 1997 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League after 30:52: The Holy Demon Army (Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue)
This match was well on its way to being another true epic from AJPW, until the finish. For some strange reason, Taue lands a running big boot and that’s somehow believable as the finish. Yet Misawa just stands there screaming at Akiyama to get up instead of saving his partner. This was despite the fact that he had interfered and saved Akiyama several times already. Why stop doing that now and scream at your partner to get up? This is All Japan, there’s no limit on interfering to break up fall attempts.
That weird finish was such a stark contrast to the overall match itself. I get that they were trying to tell the story that Akiyama was so beat up that he could lose to such a weak move. And yet, the ending is so…deflating. It seems to come out of nowhere without any hype or tension. And Misawa just standing there in full view of the camera just seemed weird.
I also felt like they only scratched the surface in terms of deeper storytelling. By this point in time, all four men should’ve been very familiar with each other’s big moves and weaknesses. And yet, the only times there was any glimpse of that was when Akiyama landed a dragon screw to weaken Kawada’s kicks and when the Holy Demon Army attacked Akiyama’s back. Those few moments did play a role towards the end of the match. But ultimately their psychology and limb targeting lacked the emotional depth and focused logic that had been shown in their previous confrontations.
But aside from that, this match was still very fun to watch. It felt like a war between two sides that knew each other deeply. This came off through all the clever reversal sequences throughout the match. Kawada and Taue destroyed Akiyama’s back, which not only made him an easier opponent to pick apart for a potentially easier victory, but also made it harder for him to land any of his big moves. This forced Akiyama to fire up and go toe-to-toe with two stronger and more experienced opponents, which made his comebacks more dramatic. But they were just too much for him to handle. The brutish Kawada pummeled him with vicious kicks and painful suplexes, while the devious Taue relied on underhanded tactics to keep both Akiyama and Misawa scrambling to find an opening.
Ultimately, all four men left this match looking like they survived pure hell and looked tough-as-nails for it. Kawada still looked like a monster for dishing out and receiving a beating. Taue left the match more dangerous than ever now that he won a critical match in such a surprising way. Akiyama was further elevated for taking such a savage beating and surviving. And Misawa was, well, Misawa. He did his usual amazing work and did some new tricks and still managed to look like a once-in-a-lifetime wrestler.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This was an excellent AJPW tag match that still holds up incredibly well today. It featured the typical unpredictable sequencing that made this style famous. The wrestlers told a more straightforward story with Kawada and Taue ganging up on Akiyama while isolating Misawa as much as possible. And they did their damnedest to destroy his back to make it impossible for him to make any sort of comeback. And yet, despite all the hard work Kawada and Taue pulled off, they won the match in the most underwhelming way possible. Taue landed a nondescript kick and pinned Akiyama while Misawa stood there and watched. That disappointed me most of all since Misawa should’ve known how bad a beating Akiyama had taken and whether he’d kick out or not.
All in all, this match is still pretty damn great when one looks back at it. And the 1990s AJPW tag team scene is still worlds better than virtually every other tag team scene in pro wrestling history, past or present. It isn’t necessarily a major downgrade to say that this match ‘only’ got 4.5-stars out of five. It’s just that these four wrestlers had an incredible task ahead of them if they hoped to surpass or at least match their previous tag team outings. Obviously they didn’t truly succeed in that endeavor but that’s to be expected given how much mileage all of them had by that point.
If you like pro wrestling, you’ll like this match. If you enjoy brutal wars between evenly-matched sides, you’ll love this contest. And while it might not stack up to other classics like their December 1996 outing, the May 1994 tag match or the iconic June 1995 tag match, you’ll still appreciate what you’ve watched once it’s done.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.