There’s this cliché in the pro wrestling fandom that wrestling in Japan brings out the best in someone. Because athleticism and physical talent are emphasized more than character and gimmick work, you see more of a wrestler’s athletic potential over there than you do in North America. There have been some cases where this cliché has been proven to be absolutely true: Hulk Hogan, ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams, Juice Robinson, the Steiner Brothers, and Big Van Vader. There have also been cases where that cliché was proven to be either wrong or contentious: Shelton Benjamin, MVP, Chyna, and, depending on your opinion of the guy, Kenny Omega.
Today we revisit a case of the former. It involves local Japanese heroes taking on two American monsters in a prestigious tournament final. On the local side is one of the company’s biggest stars and his protégé, who would later become arguably the most feared wrestler in AJPW history. On the other is a legendary wrestler from the Fabulous Freebirds stable and the most feared and respected foreign wrestler in Japanese wrestling history.
It’s the classic tag team match between Stan Hansen & Terry Gordy and Genichiro Tenryu & Toshiaki Kawada from the 1998 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League tournament finals.
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.
All Japan Pro-Wrestling has long used a tried-and-tested formula: local heroes vs. outsider menaces. Promoter Giant Baba’s connections to the old NWA allowed him to bring in top talent from the United States as credible threats to his top stars. And that’s what Stan Hansen and Terry Gordy represented here. They were the monstrous gaijins looking to make a name for themselves at the expense of one of the company’s top stars (Tenryu) and his protégé (Kawada), who were not only looking to achieve gory for themselves by winning this tournament final match but also wanted to protect the integrity of the company by defeating their dangerous foes.
Aww, look at young Kawada. He looks so youthful and optimistic. There’s no lust for murder in his eyes and he still has all his teeth.
This match originally took place on December 16th, 1988. It is for the vacant AJPW World Tag Team Championship and for the prestige of winning the tournament. Kawada and Gordy start things off with a clean break. Gordy lands a shoulder block and a vertical suplex for a one-count. He tags in Hansen who hits a few stiff strikes. Hansen whips Kawada, Kawada reverses, Hansen dodges a spinkick and we have another stalemate.
Hansen hits a few more hard strikes and whips Kawada again, but Kawada counters into a sunset flip for a one-count. He tosses Kawada out of the ring and Gordy throws him into the barricade. Kawada gets thrown back into the ring and Hansen scoop slams him. Gordy tags in and whips Kawada but he counters and lands the spinkick. Huge pop from the crowd. The crowd goes absolutely nuts for Tenryu as he tags in. The heels regroup outside the ring. After a breather, Gordy returns and gets knocked down and kicked in the head by Tenryu. A vertical suplex gets Tenryu a two-count.
Gordy reverses an Irish whip and hits a dropkick for another one-count. Hansen tags in and he and Tenryu start brawling Hansen wins the exchange (because HANSEN) and continues mauling Tenryu both inside the ring and outside it. Hansen hits a back body drop and applies a chinlock before tagging in Gordy. Gordy lands a few chops but Tenryu no-sells and fires back. They go back and forth until Tenryu gets to his corner. Kawada tags in and lands some big kicks and a crossbody press for a one-count. Gordy quickly overpowers him and tags in Hansen who stiffs Kawada with more kicks and forearms. Kawada manages to reverse an Irish whip and dropkicks Hansen out of the ring. Plancha by Kawada. But Hansen’s unfazed. He tosses Kawada onto the apron and chokes him on the bottom rope, until Tenryu makes the save.
Kawada lands some more kicks but Hansen out-powers him and drags him to his corner. Gordy tags in and lands a Samoan drop, but Tenryu breaks up his pin. Kawada reverses yet another Irish whip and lands a clothesline and tags in Tenryu. They double team Gordy with simultaneous kicks and Tenryu pins, but Gordy gets his foot on the rope. Tenryu hits a running corner clothesline and a swinging neckbreaker and pins, but Hansen kicks him before the ref can count. Tenryu applies a figure-4 neck lock that goes on for quite a bit until Hansen comes in and stiffs Tenryu with slaps. Gordy whips him into the corner and lands his own corner clothesline, which hits so hard Tenryu sinks into the corner. Hansen tags in but Tenryu explodes out of the corner with a lariat.
Tenryu gets double teamed around his opponents’ corner, then makes a comeback against Hansen with hard chops. He tags Kawada, who lands an aided corner clothesline and lands some more kicks until Gordy attacks him from behind. Both men are down as the crowd chants for Kawada. Hansen tags Gordy, who whips Kawada into the corner and charges, but Kawada ducks. Bridging German suplex by Kawada. Stan Hansen breaks it up with a hard kick to Kawada’s knee. Both men are down again. Hansen kicks Kawada’s leg some more, just because he can. Kawada reaches to tag Tenryu but Hansen knocks both of them out of the ring before the tag is complete. Since Gordy’s the legal man, Hansen takes the opportunity to beat up both Kawada and Hansen at ringside.
Back in the ring, Gordy lands an elbow drop for a two-count and stomps away at Tenryu. Meanwhile, Hansen has returned to his corner but Kawada followed him and starts attacking him. But Kawada can’t fight at full strength so Hansen beats him up some more. Hansen rips off Kawada’s knee pad and attacks the exposed limb while Gordy lands a Hogan leg drop which gets a two-count. I never thought I’d ever see the words ‘Hogan’, ‘leg drop’ and ‘kick-out’ in the same sentence outside of a description of WrestleMania VIII. Gordy lands a lariat for a close two-count and tags in Hansen as the crowd chants loudly for Tenryu. The gaijins land double shoulder tackles and Hansen lands a knee drop for two. Hansen whips Tenryu and he ducks a chop and lands one of his own.
Tenryu comes in and applies a sleeper and throws Tenryu down. Hansen lands some exposed knee drops to Tenryu’s face for a two-count as Gordy kicks Kawada’s knee outside the ring. Hansen goes for a powerbomb but Tenryu powers out, and then knocks him down hard for the slowest two-count I have ever seen. Gordy tags in and lands his own powerbomb. He goes for the pin. But here comes Kawada. He charges in and breaks up the pin, and then starts hammering on Gordy until Hansen pulls him away. The crowd erupts in screams in cheers for Kawada getting his revenge. Hansen tosses Kawada out of the ring and applies a leg lock. It looks like he’s trying to end Kawada’s career by destroying his left leg.
Back in the ring, Gordy’s in control, but Tenryu counters into a small package, but Gordy kicks out. Gordy tags Hansen and they land a double suplex. Hansen pins but Tenryu kicks out. Hansen kicks Tenryu in the face, and he answers with a takedown and a leglock. He looks like he’s trying to rip Hansen’s leg off. But in comes Gordy to break it up. Hansen hits some running elbow drops for another two-count. If you look closely in the left corner under the turnbuckle, there’s a young rookie in a green AJPW tracksuit watching the match. That happens to be Kenta Kobashi. Just thought I’d point that out.
Hansen maintains control in the ring while Kawada attacks Gordy on the apron. Gordy knocks Kawada over the barricade as Hansen kicks Tenryu mockingly. Then Tenryu starts fighting back. He slaps and chops Hansen as hard as he can. Hansen goes down. Tenryu busted open. Gordy charges and lands a western lariat on Tenryu. Both men get up very slowly. Tenryu lands an enzuigiri. Followed by another. Then he lands a diving back elbow drop. Tenryu pins, but Gordy breaks it up. Gordy whips Tenryu into a corner. Tenryu ducks Gordy’s lariat. Big kick to Hansen right in the face. Another enzuigiri to Hansen. Tenryu lands the powerbomb. He goes for the pin. Gordy stops him with his own powerbomb. And then he goes for a pin on Tenryu, even though he’s not the legal man. Weird. Hansen tries to cover this obvious botch by signaling for the lariat. Which always gets a big pop from the crowd because Hansen’s lariat is LETHAL. Hansen pulls Tenryu to his feet and chops him some more. Irish whip by Hansen. Western Lariat! Hansen damn near cleaves Tenryu’s head off. He goes for the pin. One, two, three! There’s the match.
Winners of the 1988 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League and new AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 21:02: Stan Hansen & Terry Gordy
That was fun, classic tag match. The crowd was absolutely white-hot for it and it isn’t hard to see why. Almost everything in this match was just perfect. Each wrestler had a role to play here and they pulled it off so incredibly well. If there was ever a tag match to show aspiring wrestlers on how to pull off an ideal basic and straightforward tag match, this is it.
It was a classic story with the foreigner heels Hansen and Gordy working over the local heroes Tenryu and Kawada. They spent most of the match on offense here, taking full advantage of the numbers game to isolate either Tenryu or Kawada either inside the ring close to their corner or outside it. They took advantage of Kawada’s inexperience and spent most of the match taking turns beating him up. They used lots of quick tags to isolate Kawada to gradually wear him down to get huge heat from the crowd that wanted to see Kawada overcome their beat-down. And overcome it he did. Kawada demonstrated classic underdog babyface fire and acted as a sponge for the gaijins’ offense until the bigger star Tenryu could make the save and clean house.
But even that wasn’t enough, as Hansen and Gordy did a tremendous job creating hope for the babyface team, especially false hope as they kept cutting Kawada off when he got even the slightest hint of momentum for his team. Eventually, it got to the point where Tenryu found himself fighting Hansen and Gordy two-on-one as the gaijins had basically rendered Kawada useless by destroying his leg, turning him into a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
But if there’s one wrestler in this match that earned the most praise it was Hansen. I hadn’t seen that many of his matches before this one, and so I learned of his fabled reputation mostly through secondhand stories and discussion board opinions. But here, he showed exactly why he had that aura as a terrifying monster heel. Everything he did just screamed ‘gruff monster’. His body language exuded this sense of malice. He hit his moves so stiffly it looked like he was trying to hurt his opponents legitimately. His facial expressions sold him as this uncaged angry bull seeing red. He wasn’t as ‘athletic’ as modern-day wrestlers in this match, but the story he told here and the aura he presented was far more credible and believable than anything I have seen in the last three years of North American wrestling.
Gordy wasn’t half bad either; but while he was great in his role as the hoss heel, Hansen was perfect in it. And the crowd went absolutely insane when Hansen teased, and then landed, his lariat. Because it had been built up as such a devastating move, and Hansen wielded it like a baseball bat, smashing his opponents with it almost recklessly. That, coupled with how he and Gordy had spent so much time stiffing the hell out of Tenryu’s head, made the finish feel logical, decisive, and impactful.
Hansen also demonstrated some excellent psychology by targeting Kawada’s left leg with absolutely brutal kicks. And while Gordy spent a long time beating up Tenryu in the ring, Hansen spent that same amount of time basically ripping Kawada’s leg to shreds. That ended up being the beginning of a very long-term, nuanced story for Kawada over the course of the next decade, as problems with that knee – which began with Hansen’s assault here – could become key struggles in his later matches.
That kind of storytelling is something I really miss from North American wrestling. Stories are told in isolation from each other, with threads from earlier rivalries and key moments rarely being referenced in subsequent ones. A perfect example of this was the Undertaker/Triple H WrestleMania feud in 2011-2012. All the storytelling during that extensive rivalry completely ignored their big match together from WrestleMania X-Seven, even though one could easily find info on that with a simple Google search.
My only issues with this match are that there’s some sloppiness towards the closing moments that ruined the flow of an otherwise perfect finishing stretch. Some double team sequences looked to be either poorly thought out or messed up by accident, and one sequence in particular jumped out at me as being out of place. Right before Hansen teased his lariat, Gordy powerbombed Tenryu and went for a pin, even though he wasn’t the legal man. That interrupted the smoothness of Hansen’s final stretch and came off as a massive spot in an otherwise spotless sequence.
I was also expecting a bit more out of Kawada towards the end but he ended up being a non-issue. Yes, both Hansen and Gordy beat the ever-loving shit out of him because they grew tired of his fruitless attempts at revenge. I was hoping for him to crawl into the ring just as Hansen was winding up for his lariat, forcing Gordy to work really hard to keep him restrained long enough for Hansen to get the three-count. Instead, Kawada just got to the ropes and Gordy simply sauntered over without a care that Kawada could potentially break up the pin. Because of that, this match just didn’t have that truly epic final image as the closing bell rang.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This isn’t really a stellar match based on pure wrestling or theatrics. Instead, it was carried by the weight of the drama in its story and airtight tag team psychology. Each wrestler knew what their role was here and they did a phenomenal job working the audience into a frenzy, getting them fully invested in everything they did.
There’s a lot one can take away from this match. It demonstrated how to create a tense and dramatic contest that feels less like a choreographed display and more of a hardnosed brawl. Hansen and Gordy were amazing as the credible monster threats that exuded badassery and intimidated without needing to do much. Kawada was excellent as the rookie teaming with his mentor with something to prove. And Tenryu looked almost like a god taking such a monumental ass-kicking and still surviving until the very end when Hansen drilled him with a massive nuke of a finisher.
It has some flaws, but it’s still great and is definitely worth re-watching after all these years.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.