5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada - June 6th, 1997, by Alex Podgorski

So far in this series of match reviews, the general consensus has been that 1997 was something of a golden year. Wrestlers everywhere must’ve collectively decided, ‘let’s make sure that no one ever forgets what we do in this ring.’ And for the most part, they succeeded. Bret Hart and Steve Austin put on the greatest match in WrestleMania history. Shawn Michaels and The Undertaker had a classic of their own in the first-ever Hell in a Cell match. Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio had a technically flawless contest on a random WCW PPV that stole the show. And perpetual rivals Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi put on an epic for the ages that many people consider the single-greatest wrestling match of all time.

It’s one of those latter two names that we’ll revisit today. It’s another All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW) classic, the 1997 singles bout between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada.

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.

The story

Misawa and Kawada share a long, complex history. They were friends in high school,  and both were wrestling fans at the time. Misawa was older, and he was the one that convinced Kawada to join All Japan instead of New Japan. After they started training, both went on foreign excursions around the same time, though with different levels of success (and happiness). While Misawa achieved success in Mexico, Kawada was sent to Canada and the United States and worked for promotions across both countries. Kawada was said to have hated these experiences, and upon his return to Japan, was rumored to be jealous of Misawa’s success and that Misawa got to be Tiger Mask, not him.

Although they partnered together for many years, Kawada grew jealous of seeing Misawa in all the top spots and as company ace. Kawada split from Misawa in 1993 and became his archrival, teaming instead with miscreant Akira Taue in a team known as the Holy Demon Army. They fought Misawa (and his main partners Kenta Kobashi and later, Jun Akiyama) many times in some of the most spectacular, critically-acclaimed matches ever.

When this match took place, Kawada was still in the #2 or #3 spot in the company, but he still had a problem. He had beaten Misawa clean at least once before, but that was in a tag match (and a bloody awesome one at that). But Kawda had never beaten Misawa in singles competition, and that irked him like crazy. He wanted to prove once again that he could beat AJPW’s ace and supplant him as the company’s golden boy. The question was, if Kobashi couldn’t do it in January, could Kawada do so now?

The match

After the bell rings the two stare each other town in the typical AJPW faceoff to set the atmosphere. They lock up and quickly exchange rear waistlocks and elbow smashes until Kawada kicks Misawa in the side and then Yakuza kicks him in the face. They lock up again and Kawada goes to town on Misawa with chops, knees and his trademark step kicks.  He elbows Misawa into a corner and charges with another Yakuza kick, but Misawa fights back.

We get a great back-and-forth corner elbow strike exchange as these two guys look like they want to genuinely murder each other. Misawa wins the exchange (seriously, who’d ever think it wise to try and out-elbow smash Misawa?) and drops Kawada with a big rolling elbow. Kawada tries to recover outside, but Misawa has run out of patience and drops him again, this time with a Tiger Driver on the ringside mats.

Eventually, Kawada does recover and returns to the ring, only to be met with another elbow flurry from Misawa. Kawada looks like he’s getting angry, so he judo trips Misawa. Misawa gets back up and elbows some more, so Kawada lands a deadlift German suplex, dropping Misawa hard. Damn, that was grea—wait, no, Misawa’s back up already! He charges, Kawada Yakuza kicks him again, Misawa elbows, then Kawada Gamengiris Misawa right in the face. Awesome exchange.

Kawada pulls Misawa up and goes for another Gamengiri but Misawa blocks it with his arms. That look like it hurt Misawa a lot because he’s holding both arms. So Kawada capitalizes by locking in a cross armbreaker. Misawa struggles but eventually reaches the ropes, breaking the hold at the five-minute mark.

Kawada starts kicking Misawa in the arm HARD and then attempts another cross armbreaker but Misawa escapes this one right away. Misawa tries to elbow Kawada some more, but Kawada ducks and locks in yet another cross armbreaker Misawa tries to resist, keeping his hands clutched together. But Kawada’s strength and kicks are too much for him as he wrenches the arm as hard as he can. Misawa reaches the ropes again so Kawada hits a huge knee drop on that damaged arm.

Misawa escapes the ring but Kawada gives chase. He drives Misawa arm-first into the steel ring barricade then kicks him hard, sending him over said barricade. As soon as Misawa shows any sign of recovery, Kawada does the same thing again, smashing Misawa’s arm into the steel. He places Misawa’s arm on the barricade and lands a high downward ax kick onto the arm. Great selling by Misawa. He makes the damage look serious and realistic.

Kawada rushes Misawa as he tries to enter the ring. Misawa uses the bottom rope for protection, so Kawada kicks him in the back. Kawada lands some standing armbreakers, another knee drop and another cross armbreaker, all to the same arm. Now this is wrestling psychology. Misawa escapes the submission hold with a knee to Kawada’s face then hits a running elbow for a two-count at the ten-minute mark.

Misawa cinches in a facelock but Kawada drags himself to the ropes. Misawa starts hitting hard elbows, but it’s still causing him some pain. He teases a Tiger Driver but Kawada blocks it, so me Misawa attempts a German Suplex but Kawada blocks that too. So Misawa dropkicks him, then lands a snap German that drops Kawada on his head. But wait, Kawada won’t stay down. He musters through the pain to get up…only for Misawa to drop him again with a running elbow. Wait, no, he gets up from that too. Talk about fighting spirit. Kawada blocks a running elbow and kicks Misawa in the damaged arm then drops him with an elbow smash of his own. This is great so far. The fans roar with approval, cheering both guys equally.

Kawada lariats Misawa for a two-count. They exchange elbows until Kawada nails an Abisengiri kick and then knees Misawa in the corner. Kawada lifts Misawa up for his Folding Powerbomb finisher, but Misawa counters, only to walk into a knee from Kawada. He tries the Powerbomb and lands it this time, but it only gets a 2.5-count at the fifteen-minute mark.

Kawada attempts a Gamengiri, Misawa ducks it and tries a rolling elbow, but Kawada ducks that and hits a huge BACKDROP DRIVER! Misawa got dropped on his head. What a crazy move. Kawada catches Misawa outside the ring and attempts another powerbomb but Misawa fights back, so Kawada ax kicks him hard. Then Kawada lands the powerbomb on Misawa and officials go check on him. Somehow, he musters enough strength to get back into the ring. Kawada tries the powerbomb again but in the ring this time, yet Misawa still powers out. Kawada answers this defiance with more step kicks to the face. But Misawa absorbs all of those like they’re nothing and starts fighting back.

They exchange stiff elbows and Misawa starts overpowering Kawada. He whips Kawada but Kawada tries to reverse into a hook kick, but Misawa catches his leg and throws him to the ground. There’s another example of great chemistry between these two because they know each other so well. Misawa slaps Kawada as revenge for an earlier slap and goes for a kick of his own. Kawada catches one leg and can’t block the other and goes down. A running elbow smash and Tiger Driver from Misawa lead to a 2.5-count. Misawa climbs the top rope and attempts a diving elbow smash but Kawada has him scouted and kicks him in mid-air. Amazing counter.

We’re at the twenty-minute mark as both men get up slowly. Misawa charges but eats a Gamengiri from Kawada. Kawada’s leg is hurting him so he can’t capitalize. Another vicious Backdrop Driver by Kawada! Man these moves are brutal. But Kawada’s not done. He hits another savage Backdrop Driver! Wow! Misawa has taken three savage head spikes. The guy must be made if iron. Stretch Plum by Kawada! He’s locked in his signature submission hold. He’s going to tear Misawa’s head off. The fans are chanting Misawa’s name as he kicks out of Kawada’s next pin attempt at 2.75.

Kawada tries for yet another powerbomb. He heaves as much as he can, but both men collapse, exhausted. Kawada tries yet again, but this time Misawa powers out of it, only for Kawada to lariat him in the back of the head. Another Backdrop Driver by Kawada. That makes four. Four incredibly vicious head spikes in one match. Kawada’s not done, though. He picks Misawa up…Brainbuster! WOW! He almost never uses that move! But he’s not going for a pin. Instead, Kawada locks in a Triangle choke-live submission hold. He wants to make Misawa tap out. Misawa’s fighting as much as he can as the fans chant his name some more. Misawa gets his foot on the rope at the twenty-five minute mark.

Kawada continues his relentless assault with a fifth Backdrop Driver…but Misawa gets up right away. Holy shit, is this guy ever tough. Misawa charges and lands a huge running elbow smash. Both men are down. They get up slowly and start trading elbow smashes. Kawada goes down but gets right back up. Misawa sees him coming and attempts a rolling elbow. Kawada ducks. He tries another Backdrop Driver, but Misawa elbows his way out of it. Another rolling elbow attempt, but Kawda blocks this one. Gamengiri, no, it too gets blocked. Misawa dropkicks Kawada right in the face. Suplex by Misawa, but it only gets 2.5. Another German suplex by Misawa, but this time Kawada gets up right away.

He charges, but Misawa ducks his attack. Yet another German suplex. Misawa charges…but runs right into a Gamengiri by Kawada. They both struggle to get up. Kawada’s up first and charges with a Yakuza kick, but Misawa catches his leg. Misawa lands a huge ROLLING ELBOW! Kawada staggers but doesn’t go down. Another Tiger Suplex by Misawa. Kawada ragdolls and lands on the ropes. Kawada’s selling is incredible; he makes it look real while also adding more drama to his movements. He struggles as much as he can to avoid a third Tiger Suplex, so Misawa hits a rolling elbow to the back of his head. Talk about brutal. Bridging German suplex by Misawa! Kawada kicks out at 2.75.

Misawa raises Kawada up at the thirty-minute mark. Kawada looks like he can barely stand as he eats more hard elbow strikes from Misawa. Misawa charges for an elbow smash for the win but Kawada slumps down. He’s completely spent. So Misawa grabs him and attempts another Tiger Driver, but Kawada still has some fight left in him.  Suddenly, Kawada explodes and start hammering Misawa with strikes. Misawa fights back with elbows. He goes for another rolling elbow but Kawada blocks it. Kawada lands a huge close-fisted punch. But Misawa absorbs it. Rolling Elbow by Misawa! Kawada still musters some strength to get up, so Misawa charges. Running Elbow Smash!

The referee counts one…two…thr—NO! Kawada kicked out! I don’t know how, but Kawada’s still in this fight.

An angry Misawa lifts a seemingly unconscious Kawada up. Bridging German Suplex. The referee counts one…two…NOW he gets three. There’s the match.

Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 31:22: Mitsuharu Misawa

Mitsuharu Misawa vs Toshiaki Kawada (June 6, 1997)

Review

Another fantastic outing by AJPW’s two biggest stars, and indeed, two of the greatest wrestlers of all time. They had incredible chemistry, and that was shown throughout the match. They weaved so many unexpected twists and turns into their match that you never knew when or how it would end. Both of them also showed incredible toughness, kicking out of brutal moves that would knock lesser men out cold.

Everything in this match was done with a purpose. I loved how Kawada went for the cross armbreaker so many times early in the match. No one – not even Kawada himself – believed that would end the match. But that wasn’t that move’s purpose. Kawada’s strategy was to punish Misawa’s arm as much as possible. Not to end the match, but to weaken Misawa’s elbows to the point that he wouldn’t be able to spam them so much throughout the match or try to win with the spinning or running versions as he had against Kobashi earlier in the year. That’s also why Kawada hit as many Backdrop Drivers as he could; to make it even harder for Misawa to land his vicious elbows that had put so many opponents (including Kawada) away before.

And all of that early work came into play at the match’s conclusion. Misawa drilled Kawada with a brutal elbow, but Kawada kicked out. Something did look off here, as Kawada barely moved if at all. I’m not entirely sure if that was a botch or not, but the match still went on. So from the looks of it, Misawa had to come up with a finish that made sense. He could’ve done anything here, but what he chose was a standard Bridging German Suplex (which is the AJPW equivalent of the ROLL-UP OF DEATH used in North America).

But in this case, using such a simple move to win made sense. Kawada had been thrashed by Misawa throughout the match. So much so that he could barely stand up on his own, much less long enough for Misawa to hit another elbow smash. So Misawa grabbed Kawada by the waist and dropped him German style, dropping him on his neck and upper shoulders.  It made sense because Kawada was basically like a house of cards; the slightest bit of force would be enough to put him down. He had survived so much damage from Misawa yet he still had the slightest bit of energy left to continue. Kawada ended this match looking like a warrior, having absorbed as much punishment as Misawa if not more.

Final Rating: *****

I enjoyed this match tremendously. It was a back-and-forth war that featured that old clichéd notion of ‘no wasted motion’. But it wasn’t cliché here because everything made sense. Misawa and Kawada didn’t put on a match filled with high spots done to excite the crowd. They went to war with one another and brutalized each other, AJPW-style. These two have fantastic chemistry every time they set foot in the ring with each other. Their ability to tell a new story while also following the same general King’s Road formula is nothing short of amazing. It’s not the best AJPW match, but it’s a solid one nonetheless, which still puts it head and shoulder above most modern wrestling matches.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.