The wrestling style of 1990’s All Japan Pro-Wrestling wasn’t called ‘King’s Road’ for nothing. The wrestlers that performed in that style were simply amazing. So much so that they basically stood head-and-shoulders above pretty much everyone during that decade. But King’s Road wasn’t limited to the famed Four Pillars of Heaven; others were involved as well. This match showcased the newest top-tier AJPW star, and answered the question of whether he belonged in the same conversation as that legendary quartet or not.
Today we look at the finals of the 1996 World Strongest Tag Determination League between Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue and Mitsuharu Misawa and his new partner, Jun Akiyama.
As a reminder, I am reviewing 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.
There is an important backstory behind this match centered on Toshiaki Kawada. Earlier in the year, Kawada publicly criticized AJPW owner/promoter Giant Baba’s booking philosophies. Baba was a rigorous isolationist that didn’t want his AJPW wrestlers working anywhere else. This was in stark contrast to rival New Japan, whose talent exchanges with WWE and WCW had allowed their stars to gain worldwide exposure.
Now, a wrestler criticizing their employer in a public forum would be a no-no anywhere in wrestling. But Kawada’s actions were essentially sacrilegious in Japan. In Japanese culture, criticizing one’s in-group is deeply frowned upon. One doesn’t openly talk badly about one’s friend group, family, or even one’s country. So you can imagine how Baba reacted to such an action from one of his top stars.
Kawada’s singles push was dropped and he spent much of 1996 in tag team matches and lower-card singles matches. So what does that have to do with this match? Well, given that Kawada wasn’t in a position to challenge Misawa for the Triple Crown Heavyweight title, Baba needed someone else for that purpose. Kawada’s partner Akira Taue won the 1996 Champion Carnival and then beat Misawa soon after for the world title. But shortly thereafter, Kobashi beat Taue to become world champion. And in doing so, Kobashi began teaming with Misawa less often.
By the end of the year – which is when this match occurred – Kobashi was basically on his own and no longer Misawa’s right hand man. He had been fully elevated to championship level and had escaped the shadow of being Misawa’s partner. So Misawa needed a new regular partner and – as he had done before – elevated a lower-card wrestler – in this case, Jun Akiyama – up to being his regular partner.
So now the 1996 WSTDL featured three of the famed Four Pillars of Heaven instead of the entire quartet. The question on everyone’s mind was, would Akiyama be able to rise to the occasion and fill the massive void left by Kenta Kobashi?
Kawada and Akiyama start things off as the fans chant Kawada’s name. A nice technical exchange ends with Kawada booting Akiyama in the face. Akiyama charges with a jumping knee but Kawada dodges and boots Akiyama again. But this time Akiyama tanks it like a boss and drops Kawada with a forearm and another jumping knee. He tags in Misawa and the crowd goes nuts. Akiyama dropkicks Taue off the apron and Misawa lands his elbow suicida on Kawada. Very hot start to the match.
Misawa lands some elbows to Kawada back in the ring. Kawada ducks a rolling elbow and teases a Dangerous Backdrop but Misawa escapes with more elbow smashes. Tiger Driver from Misawa. Kawada kicks out at two. Misawa goes for another one but Taue breaks it up. Kawada tags Taue who tries a suplex, but Misawa reverses that, only for Taue to plant him with a DDT. Taue lands a big kick and goes for the chokeslam, but Misawa rolls out. Taue kicks both Misawa and Akiyama and plants Misawa with a huge powerbomb. He pins, but Misawa kicks out at two.
Taue teases an avalanche chokeslam, but Akiyama breaks that up with a backdrop suplex. Misawa lands a diving elbow and tags Akiyama. Akiyama fires away with forearms and knees, but Taue answers with a huge bitchslap. Taue goes for a kick but Akiyama answers with a dragon screw leg whip. In comes Kawada who drops Akiyama with a yakuza kick of his own. Chokeslam on Akiyama from Taue at the five-minute mark.
Kawada tags in and pins but only gets two. He kicks Akiyama hard many times then teases the dangerous backdrop. Akiyama wisely reaches the rope as quickly as he can. So Kawada massacres Akiyama’s chest with chops and kicks then tags in Taue. Taue scoops him up and drops him face-first on Kawada’s knee. A pair of short-range lariats gets Taue another two-count on Akiyama. Kawada tags in again and they land double team boots to Akiyama’s face.
Kawada lands a hard vertical suplex that sends Akiyama out of the ring. Akiyama tries to fight back against Kawada but eats a spinkick for his efforts. He tags in Taue who lands a hook kick for a two-count. He lands an enzuigiri for another two-count and Kawada tags back in. He lands a chop/kick flurry and teases a dangerous backdrop but Akiyama blocks it, so Kawada turns this into a sleeper. Taue comes in and stands between them and Misawa to prevent Misawa from breaking it up. Kawada maintains the sleeper until Akiyama reverses it into a backdrop suplex of his own.
He tags Misawa and in comes the green machine. He lands a diving spinning lariat and kicks Taue away as he tried to enter the ring. He and Kawada start brawling. Elbow smashes from Misawa. Step kicks from Kawada. They keep tanking each other’s big strikes. Neither man’s staying down. Spinning back elbow from Misawa. Gamengiri from Kawada. Both men go down. The crowd erupts in cheers.
Taue tags in and rubs his boot in Misawa’s face then lands Snake Eyes. He teases an apron chokeslam but Misawa knocks him down. Akiyama tags in and lands a diving forearm from the apron to Taue. He lands another diving elbow and a northern lights suplex for a two-count. Akiyama drops Taue with his own guillotine drop. He dropkicks Taue’s head and applies a headlock at the fifteen-minute mark.
Akiyama continues to target Taue’s neck with a legdrop that gets him a two-count. He tags Misawa, who lands a diving dropkick and a spinning backdrop suplex for two. He applies a facelock but Taue reaches the ropes. Akiyama tags in and whips Taue into Misawa, who lands an elbow as Akiyama lands a jumping knee and Misawa lands a diving elbow. Great tag team work there.
Akiyama attempts an Exploder but Taue blocks it, so Akiyama drills him with a knee and then lands an Exploder. Kawada comes in and kicks Akiyama and blocks a forearm from him, but Akiyama answers with a discus lariat. And one for Taue for good measure. He pins Taue but Taue kicks out at 2.5. Akiyama tags Misawa, who lands a frog splash for a 2.6-count. Misawa teases the Tiger Driver but Kawada blasts him with a running lariat. Akiyama attacks him but Kawada tosses him out of the ring. German suplex by Taue.
In comes Kawada. He slams Misawa and lands a knee drop as Taue lands a top-rope elbow drop. Kawada teases a powerbomb but Misawa frankensteiners his way out of it. Great reversal.
A massive yakuza kick by Kawada drops Misawa again. Kawada charges with a clothesline, Misawa ducks and teases a German suplex, Kawada reverses that into a huge kick to Misawa’s shoulder, and Misawa answers that with a running elbow. Yet another crazy reversal sequence.
Misawa isn’t done punishing Kawada because he drops him with a vicious German suplex. Holy shit, that one was brutal. Kawada landed on his neck. Kawada looks like he’s out cold. Misawa pins and Kawada BARELY kicks out at 2.9. Tiger Driver by Misawa. Taue breaks it up. Akiyama charges, Taue tries to stop him with the guillotine drop, but Akiyama blocks it. They double team Taue and knock him down. This is absolutely spectacular.
We’re now at the twenty-minute mark. Misawa teases a Tiger Suplex but Kawada blocks. German suplex by Misawa followed by a German suplex from Akiyama. But Kawada ragdolls and falls out of the ring. Great ring awareness by Kawada. He’s so out of it from all that damage, yet he still has the wherewithal to escape the ring to save his chances of winning.
Misawa slowly pulls Kawada back into the ring because he can’t win out there. Kawada can barely stand as Misawa lands another Tiger Driver. He pins but Kawada kicks out at 2.9 again. Misawa teases the Tiger Suplex ’85, but Taue blocks it. Kawada escapes the ring as Taue lands a running neckbreaker on Misawa. Akiyama lands a jumping knee on Taue and charges with a clothesline but Taue ducks and drops him on the top rope. He pulls Akiyama to the apron. Chokeslam from the apron to the floor! Crazy move.
Back in the ring, Taue lands a single-leg dropkick to Misawa and drags the legal man (Kawada) back into the ring. Taue tags in and teases a powerbomb but Misawa reverses into a frankensteiner for a two-count. Running elbowed by Misawa! They brawl back and forth. Coconut crash by Taue. Taue whips Misawa, who ducks a kick from Taue and charges with a flying elbow, but Taue dodges and sends Misawa falling face-first. Taue attempts a chokeslam, Misawa reverses it, and taue dropkicks him. Suicide dive by Taue out of the ring.
Taue teases the apron chokeslam at the twenty-five-minute mark, but Akiyama grabs his leg to stop him. Kawada interjects and pulls Akiyama away. But Misawa fights back again and knocks Taue down. Misawa rolls to his corner but Akiyama isn’t there. He’s been decimated by Kawada. Kawada tags in and starts blasting Misawa in the corner with kicks, knees and stomps.
Kawada attempts the Dangerous Backdrop Driver but Misawa elbows out of it. Taue comes in but Misawa sees him and elbows him as well. Misawa tries to fight them two-on-one, but Kawada ducks a rolling elbow. DANGEROUS BACKDROP DRIVER! Misawa just got planted! The crowd is going nuts. Kawada lands the folding powerbomb. The referee counts one…two…thr—No, Misawa kicks out at the last possible moment.
In comes Taue and he starts brawling with Misawa. Chokeslam by Taue. But he isn’t finished. Dynamic Bomb by Taue. Akiyama makes the save. Holy Demon Special (Chokeslam/Dangerous Backdrop) combo by Kawada and Taue onto Akiyama. He got dropped on his head as well! German suplex on Misawa by Taue. But Misawa gets up right away! Elbow smash to Taue followed by a rolling elbow! He just won’t die.
Both men are down. Kawada tags in and goes for a gamengiri kick, but Misawa blocks it. So Kawada answers with an abisengiri (rolling kick) that drops Misawa. Kawada picks Misawa up but Akiyama comes charging in to save his partner. Kawada starts attacking Akiyama, but Akiyama starts hulking up and fighting back. Kawada has had enough of this kid and drops him with another Dangerous Backdrop Driver!
We’re at the thirty-minute mark as Kawada teases the folding powerbomb again. Misawa blocks that move but eats a chokeslam from Taue for his efforts. Kawada lands a massive gamengiri on Misawa and goes for the pin. The referee counts one…two…thr—no, Misawa kicks out again.
Kawada goes for the powerbomb yet again. Akiyama’s inches away as he tries to break up the pin. Taue sees this and holds him back. Kawada puts all his weight on Misawa for the pin. The ref counts one…two…thr—NO, Misawa kicks out yet again! These near-falls are insane!
Kawada gamengiris Akiyama to keep him down. Kawada goes for yet another folding powerbomb. The referee counts one…two…three! Kawada pins Misawa! There’s the match! Kawada and Taue have won!
Winners of the 1996 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League after 31:37: The Holy Demon Army (Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue)
WOW! That was an unbelievably awesome match. It’s easily one of the best tag matches I’ve ever seen in my life. Both teams were awesome. They more than delivered here. Those thirty minutes of wrestling just flew by. There wasn’t a single dull moment at all. They wrestled incredibly well from bell to bell. The crowd was great too. They made tons of noise from the beginning, applauding, cheering, booing, and roaring with excitement. This was way better than anything else put on that year.
To answer the big question, yes, Akiyama more than earned his spot as Misawa’s partner. He brought something different from what we’re used to with Kobashi in his spot, which made this contest so refreshing. Kobashi’s biggest strength is his ability to go toe-to-toe with someone and make it a drawn-out battle of equals while still fighting from underneath to a degree.
Akiyama’s different. He does a much better job of fighting from beneath and maintaining that position in a tag team setting. Basically, he takes a shitkicking long enough for his stronger and more experienced partner (Misawa) to recover and do the rest of the heavy lifting. And boy did they complement each other well here. Akiyama was outstanding as a partner here, performing spectacular double-team sequences alongside Misawa with perfect execution and storytelling.
But they weren’t alone in making this an epic; Kawada and Taue played their roles masterfully as well. They picked their opponents apart ruthlessly by throwing bombs at them from the opening bell.
Kawada and Taue took advantage of Akiyama’s relative inexperience and kept Misawa away from the action as best they could. They knew that Akiyama would play the ‘younger brother with something to prove’, which they exploited. Then when Misawa came in, both of them threw bombs at him knowing how hard he is to keep down.
It was anyone’s match until the last eight minutes or so. Once Kawada and Taue began double-teaming Misawa, his days were numbered. And once Misawa got dropped on his neck and shoulders, it was only a matter of time. Kawada and Taue had spent so much time targeting Misawa’s neck, which eventually enabled Kawada to score another critical pinfall on his archrival.
Final Rating: *****
This was yet another reason why the King’s Road style is so gratifying. The action was incredible from the opening bell and never slowed down. That made it such a standout match from the prototypical AJPW formula. There was no slow feeling out process or drawn-out breather for either team. Both team dove straight into each other and came up with some truly unique strategies and sequences. And they landed those sequences flawlessly.
These AJPW wrestlers have a talent that you don’t see much anymore. Instead of creating similar, copy-and-paste matches that drag a rivalry out, these guys improve upon what had worked in the past and do their best to eliminate what hadn’t. It’s incredibly hard to do, but these guys – and indeed, 1990’s AJPW in general – were able to change and shift their matches so that no two matches were truly identical. That ability speaks volumes of the incredible talent these wrestlers had, and of how much of a genius Giant Baba was in letting them wrestle in this style.
If anything, this match is like watching a great series for the first time. You enjoy seeing a random episode and you get really into it and you’re happy you saw it. Then you discover there’s entire series behind it and you’re like, “where has this been all my life?”
Though I personally wouldn’t call this the best tag match ever, it’s definitely in that conversation. Highest recommendation possible.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.