No wrestling company did tag team wrestling better than 1990s All Japan Pro-Wrestling. Thanks to a combination of incredibly-talented wrestlers and masterful booking and promotion, AJPW managed to have a critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful decade-long run the likes of which few companies have ever managed to do. And today we look at one of those great matches.
This seemingly-random six-man match was one of many AJPW matches to be rated 5-stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. And the reason I’m looking at it is because of that ‘random’ nature. This isn’t some big grudge match or some important title defense. This is very much a random match on one of AJPW’s many long tours. And yet, this match is alleged to have all the qualities of what amounts to a perfect match. Let’s see if that’s true almost thirty years later.
Today we revisit the six-man tag match between Misawa’s Super Generation Army and Kawada’s Holy Demon Army from July 2nd, 1993.
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.
On May 14th, 1993, the landscape of AJPW changed forever. That was the night on which Toshiaki Kawada and his former archrival Akira Taue teamed up together for the first time, creating the Holy Demon Army. It was the beginning of a new age in All Japan and it was borne of a deep and personal betrayal. Previously, Kawada had been Mitsuharu Misawa’s right hand man and regular tag partner. But when Misawa captured the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship the prior summer and replaced Jumbo Tsuruta as company ace, Kawada needed to do something to escape Misawa’s shadow. Thus, he broke away from Misawa after spending the better part of three long years at Misawa’s side to strike out on his own. Both Misawa and Kenta Kobashi (who had been the third man in Misawa’s Super Generation Army) felt deeply betrayed by Kawada and wanted revenge.
Soon afterward, both Misawa’s SGA and Kawada’s HDA expanded to include new members. Kawada and Taue enlisted Yoshinari Ogawa, who was a scrawny rat of a wrestler that spent more time training other wrestlers than he did wrestling himself. Meanwhile, Misawa and Kobashi added Jun Akiyama to their team. Akiyama was something of a wrestling prodigy at the time: a national champion in amateur wrestling, he was growing and improving as a rookie with each match. Misawa was so impressed with Akiyama’s natural gifts and talent for wrestling that he had to add him to his ranks.
Here, Misawa and his crew hoped to get revenge on Kawada and his newfound allies while Kawada and Taue (along with Ogawa) hoped to continue the positive momentum they’d had since they first started teaming. In less than two months, they had won All Japan’s tag belts and had also defeated Misawa and Kobashi in their first defense. Both of those things were monumental achievements for them and they hoped that the addition of Jun Akiyama to their opponents’ ranks wouldn’t be enough to stop their momentum in its tracks.
Ogawa and Akiyama start things off. Akiyama quickly takes control with a dropkick and a slam. Ogawa tries to escape from a headlock with a backdrop but Akiyama fights out and ducks a clothesline leading to a stalemate. Ogawa pokes Akiyama’s eye and lands some forearms, but Akiyama fires back with strikes in the corner, and then tags Kobashi. Kobashi lands a running leg drop for two and tries to take control with chops, but Ogawa lands a big kick and tags Taue. Kobashi dropkicks Taue right away but Taue shoves him back. Taue takes control with a big clothesline for two and tags Kawada. In response, Kobashi tags Misawa and the crowd goes nuts.
Kawada lands some big kicks and takes Misawa down with a clothesline. They trade stiff shots and Misawa dropkicks Kawada out of the ring, he prepares for his elbow suicida but Taue catches him on the ropes. That split-second interference allows Kawada to dodge Misawa’s charge. But in response to that, Misawa skins the cat and lands a diving elbow from the apron. Kobashi prepares to dive onto Kawada as the illegal man, but Taue stops him and chokeslams him off the top turnbuckle. But Taue fails to take Akiyama into account and Akiyama lands the top-rope dive that Kobashi was planning on doing. Akiyama tosses Kawada into the ring, allowing Misawa to land a scoop slam/senton combo before tagging Akiyama in.
Akiyama lands a dropkick for a one-count and goes for a suplex but Kawada escapes easily and lands brutal kicks to his chest. Taue tags in and lands an Akiyama jumping knee…on Akiyama. He slams Akiyama and applies a single-leg crab, but Kobashi makes the save. Except he doesn’t because Taue doesn’t let go right away. Taue’s man enough to not break the hold after one kick. Kobashi’s forced to land a running bulldog to break up Taue’s submission hold. Ogawa tags in and lands some knee strikes and stomps and gets a one-count off a jackknife cover. He Irish whips Akiyama but Akiyama counters into a sunset flip pin for two.
Ogawa tags Kawada who lands mocking kicks to Akiyama’s head. Akiyama tries to fire back with forearms but Kawada drops him with chops to the chest and a soccer kick to the back. Kawada follows with a high-angle Boston crab as the fans chant Akiyama’s name. Akiyama reaches the ropes, so Kawada tags Taue. Taue lands a drop suplex and locks in an abdominal stretch and then tags Ogawa, who lands a jawbreaker. He goes for a suplex but Akiyama resists and lands one of his own before tagging Misawa.
Misawa lands hard elbows and a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker for two. He lands a monkey flip from the corner that sends Ogawa flying across the ring and then tags Kobashi, who lands a big vertical suplex for two. He follows with a single-knee backbreaker and a single-leg crab that goes on for a bit until Ogawa reaches the ropes. Kobashi tags Misawa and Misawa lands a big back body drop and applies a camel clutch. Misawa tries to follow up with another back body drop but from the corner, but Ogawa kicks his way to freedom and tags Kawada. Kawada lands multiple step kicks to Misawa, but Misawa tanks them like a boss. They trade different stiff strikes until Kawada drops Misawa with a massive spinkick for a two-count. Kawada lands another big suplex for two and tags Taue, who lands Snake Eyes in the corner. Taue goes for his own suplex, but Misawa lands on his feet and drops Taue with his own spinkick.
Kobashi tags in and lands some shoulder tackles and insanely hard chops to Taue’s chest. He goes for a suplex but Taue counters into a DDT and tags Ogawa, who lands a facecrusher upon tagging in. Ogawa continues with cheapshots and then tags Kawada, whom Kobashi targets with a flurry of kneelifts. They go back and forth with their respective strike flurries and Kawada lands a big kick to Kobashi’s face. Kobashi reverses an Irish whip and lands a kneelift in the corner, but Kawada blocks his second one, kicks Kobashi hard in the back, and applies a facelock as a middle finger to Misawa. Misawa sees this and stomps on Kawada, but it takes many stomps to make Kawada let go. The referee tries to keep the illegal man (Misawa) away from the legal man (Kawada), but they continue fighting. This back-and-forth culminates with Kawada hitting Misawa with a big gamengiri kick against the ropes.
Kawada tags in Taue and whips Kobashi into a charging Taue, who drops Kobashi with a clothesline. Taue returns the favor by whipping Kobashi into Kawada, who sets Kobashi up for his finisher. Folding powerbomb. No, Powerbomb/Chokeslam combination. Amazing double team move. Taue pins. Both Misawa and Akiyama make the save. A big brawl ensues. Misawa drops Taue and fights hard with Kawada. Misawa overcomes Kawada and drops him too as everyone else brawls at ringside. The legal man, Kobashi and Taue, continue fighting inside the ring. Taue bitchslaps a nearly-unconscious Kobashi as the crowd chants for Kobashi. Kobashi narrowly escapes a pin attempt and Taue tags Ogawa. Ogawa whips Kobashi into Taue who drops him with an enzuigiri. Ogawa pins but only gets two. He lands a backdrop but only gets two again. Kawada tags in and lands more vicious chops and kicks. Backdrop Driver. Akiyama saves Kobashi on the pin.
Kawada tags Taue, who whips Kobashi into a charging Kawada. Lariat from Kawada to Kobashi. Kawada goes to whip Kobashi into Taue but Kobashi dropkicks Taue instead. Taue kicks a charging Kobashi and goes for a clothesline. But Kobashi ducks and charges….only to walk into a chokeslam from Taue. One, two, no, Akiyama saves Kobashi again. Taue tries for another chokeslam. Kobashi escapes and counters into a Russian leg sweep. They clothesline each other and both men go down. Kobashi tags Misawa. Taue tags Kawada. The two archrivals go to war. Kawada ducks Misawa’s trademark diving spinning lariat. Big clothesline by Kawada. Followed by a stronger running lariat. Kawada goes for the powerbomb, but Misawa escapes. Misawa ducks a second running lariat. Bridging German suplex. Kawada kicks out. Akiyama tags in. He tries to wrest control away from Kawada, but Kawada’s too experienced for Akiyama’s rookie bullshit. Kawada answers a rear waistlock with a big kick to Akiyama’s face. Akiyama charges but Kawada boots him again and tags Ogawa. A backdrop suplex gets Ogawa a two-count. He goes for another but Akiyama counters in midair into a press pin for two. Akiyama tries to follow-up but Ogawa dodges his corner knee strike and tags Taue.
Taue kicks a charging Akiyama and drops him throat-first on the top rope. He lands a release drop back suplex for two and goes for a powerbomb, but Akiyama reverses into a pinning predicament for a one-count and tags Kobashi. Kobashi lands a top-rope shoulder tackle and machine gun chop in the corner. But Taue tanks them and rakes Kobashi’s eyes. Big dropkick from Taue. Snake eyes into his team’s corner. In comes Ogawa with a swinging neckbreaker for two. He lands a perfectplex on Kobashi for another two-count. Kobashi reverses Ogawa’s Irish whip but runs into a boot from Ogawa. Ogawa charges, but Kobashi ducks and lands a desperation lariat. A rolling cradle gets Kobashi a two-count. Kentucky Bomb (Pumphandle Powerbomb) by Kobashi. Taue makes the save.
Akiyama tosses Taue out of the ring. Kobashi slams Ogawa for the moonsault. Kawada and Taue both interfere and Taue manages to drop Kobashi in his tracks. Ogawa tries to super back suplex Kobashi, but in comes Misawa to super back suplex Ogawa. Kobashi lands another diving shoulder tackle and a scoop slam. The fans are going nuts. Diving moonsault. Misawa holds Kawada against the ropes. One, two, three! There’s the match!
Winners after 25:36: The Super Generation Army (Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama)
Another fantastic tag match from All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s best ever wrestlers. To this day, no one has been able to beat AJPW in the fantastic tag match department. It was a straightforward match between two sides that loathed each other, and everyone got a chance to shine in one way or another.
Each wrestler had a specific role and played it perfectly. Misawa and Kawada were the leaders of their respective teams that hated each other and used their interactions to maintain a level of seriousness in the match as it progressed. Kobashi and Taue were the right hand men that did a lot of heavy lifting for their respective teams but in different ways. Kobashi used his power advantage to do some literal heavy lifting while Taue was the crafty cheater that cut corners wherever he could. Lastly, Akiyama and Ogawa were very much the lower-level members of both teams and were thus limited in what both of them could do. But they were limited in different ways as well. Ogawa was the smallest man in the match so he had to rely on more underhandedness than Taue and had to do quick pins and shifty moves to gain any sort of momentum for his team. As for Akiyama, he was only nine months into his wrestling career but he had taken to it like a fish to water. He couldn’t do very much, but what he did do he did perfectly. He had great timing, he hit his maneuvers as needed, and he sold for his opponents. He was great here, especially for someone with less than a full year’s worth of experience under his belt.
And yet, the star of this match was Kawada. The best moments in the match were when he was in there with Misawa or Kobashi. He shined in his interactions with them by bringing out a raw intensity that no one else in the match had. He furthered his rivalry with Misawa by engaging in brutal strike exchanges and high-octane exchanges with him. And he also furthered his budding rivalry with Kobashi by having equally-brutal strike exchanges with him. But beneath both sets of interactions were two separate yet interwoven plotlines. Kawada wanted to go prove he was at least on Misawa’s level, which forced Kawada to hit as hard as he possibly could. And he also grew tired of Kobashi getting involved in his business and wanted to keep Kobashi at a level beneath him by doing the same. Those two stories led to some exciting moments that were further amplified by a vocal crowd that loved every minute of it.
Speaking of Kobashi, he did a tremendous job of playing the babyface in peril as he took a ton of punishment during the second half of the match. He had this incredible knack for taking an ungodly beating and selling even the simplest move like it hurt him for real. That made it so easy and natural for people to rally behind him. And he had such a terrific sense of timing. During that extended heat segment, he was thrown around between Kawada and Taue like a ragdoll. But he made some last-minute counters that turned the tide for himself and his team. He made those counters with such precision that it was impossible to predict what would happen. Clearly his time spent teaming with Misawa helped him improve as a wrestler.
But most importantly, this match did its job of further elevating the Holy Demon Army as a credible unit in All Japan. At the time, the Kawada/Taue pairing was still fairly new, and the first two-on-two tag match between them and Misawa & Kobashi had taken place only a month prior. But even in defeat, Kawada and Taue left this match looking like monster threats. They double-teamed Kobashi like experts and functioned like a well-oiled machine here. Both of them absorbed a ton of punishment while they were applying submission holds, which made both of them look even tougher. And since it was Ogawa that took the fall, both Kawada and Taue remained strong when the match ended.
And yet, I wouldn’t call this a 5-star match. Don’t get me wrong; it had all the right moving parts to make a legendary tag match: great heat, quick tags, well-told interwoven stories, nail-biting tension, unpredictable twists and turns, and so on. But it just doesn’t hold up to the standard these wrestlers set for themselves. Compared to the matches they had amongst each other before and after this one, this match is clearly inferior. Kawada’s heel turn was still fresh in the minds of AJPW’s fans, but his delivery on that heel turn here felt muted. He only teased his newfound brutality and hatred for Misawa and Kobashi and, in my opinion, didn’t deliver to the standard I was expecting. He left me – and likely the live audience at the time – wanting more of his raw intensity and hatred but never really delivered in this match. I also think that the match peaked early and by the time the finish came about it felt less impactful. It was as if these six wrestlers had complete control of the audience but lost it around five minutes before the final pin was counted.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match, while strong on its own, suffers from being overshadowed by bigger and better matches that took place before and after it. Compared to other historically-great matches, those ones had all the things this match had and did them better. I think this match would’ve been better if the final five minutes went a bit differently and they tried to pack more tension into it to create a proper crescendo to end on. That relatively deflating ending, coupled with a lack of urgency and intensity that was commonplace for these wrestlers at the time, made this match fall short of the incredibly high standard these wrestlers set for themselves.
This is a great match on its own, just not historically-great. And yet, there’s something about this match and other like it that make it so much fun to watch. You have six wrestlers that all get their chance to shine in their own way. There’s a neat blend of intense action and subtle storytelling. And Kawada and Taue were a much better unit at this point in time than Misawa and Kobashi were.
If you’re willing to ignore the language barrier and somewhat inferior video quality, I’m sure any wrestling fan that watches this video will enjoy something this match offers. After all, four of the six men involved in it weren’t called ‘The Four Pillars of Heaven’ for nothing.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.