This is the tag match that started it all. This was the first two-on-two tag match between Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada and Taue. It started a series of tag matches that set the bar so high that even now, no tag team match has managed to replicate what they accomplished. The chemistry these four wrestlers had with each other was something else. And while a lot has already been said about their later, peak matches, I think it’s important to look back at where it all began.
Today we revisit the first-ever two-team tag match between Misawa & Kobashi and Kawada & Taue from June 1st, 1993, which is 28 years ago today.
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.
Two months prior to this match, All Japan Pro-Wrestling held their annual Champion Carnival tournament. During that tournament, Kawada and Taue – two men that hated each other – fought to a 30-minute draw. But instead of continuing the brutal war they had fought since 1990, something unexpected happened: Kawada offered his hand to Taue. They shook hands and soon after, Kawada and Taue went from bitter rivals to unlikely allies. Kawada did this because he wanted to break away from being in now-former-partner Mitsuharu Misawa’s shadow. Thus, the Holy Demon Army was born.
This decision was equal parts wrestling story and equal parts real-life tension. The friendship between Misawa and Kawada began to deteriorate not long after Misawa became AJPW’s unquestioned ace. Kawada wanted that top spot, but seemed bitter that AJPW booker Giant Baba wasn’t high on him. This interpersonal bitterness was amplified by the fact that Misawa and Kawada worked their animosities into their matches, to bring out the best in each other. Sadly, that added intensity came at the expense of real friendship. It also stemmed from the fact that Misawa’s earlier rival Jumbo Tsuruta could no longer wrestle at a main-event level due to illness and Baba needed someone new to be Misawa’s long-term archrival. Kawada fit the bill perfectly.
So going into this match, the Holy Demon Army were AJPW World Tag Team Champions and Misawa and Kobashi were the challengers. Kobashi had just been elevated to being Misawa’s new right hand man and wanted to prove himself capable in that role. He had also teamed with both Misawa and Kawada when all three of them were part of Misawa’s Super Generation Army in their feud with Jumbo Tsuruta from 1990 to 1992.
Needless to say, tensions were running high as this match began. Misawa and Kobashi felt betrayed by Kawada’s decision, while Kawada wanted to break away and become his own man. At the time, Kawada and Taue were defending tag team champions, having beaten the Miracle Violence Connection (Terry Gordy and ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams) less than two weeks earlier.
This match originally took place on June 1st, 1993 and was rated ****1/2 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It should be noted that this is the first-ever two-on-two tag match between these four wrestlers, but it isn’t considered the first ‘Four Pillars-style’ tag match. The unique (and of course amazing) wrestling style come to define how these wrestlers fought wouldn’t be displayed or really defined until their second encounter on December 3rd, 1993.
A clean break between Taue and Kobashi starts the match. They trade arm wringers until Taue rakes Kobashi’s eyes. They lock up again and Taue slaps the hell out of Kobashi’s chest, and then knocks Kobashi down on a shoulder tackle. Kobashi answers with a dropkick and then dodges a running kick from Taue, leading to a standoff. Then Taue tags Kawada. And Kobashi tags Misawa. The crowd and the commentators all go absolutely NUTS over this.
Misawa and Kawada lock up and trade strikes, then Misawa dropkicks him down. Misawa Irish whips Kawada into a corner, Kawada reverses, Misawa blocks out of the corner with his foot and goes for a high kick, Misawa blocks it, but eats a stiff forearm from Kawada. Kawada charges into the corner but runs into an elbow smash. Misawa charges for a kick, Kawada blocks and goes for a lariat, Misawa ducks that, Kawada ducks a spinkick, and Misawa dodges a yakuza kick. Fantastic sequence. The crowd goes wild again.
Kawada applies a waistlock but Misawa counters into a hammerlock and tags Kobashi. Kobashi lands some stiff chops to Kawada’s chest but Kawada absorbs them like they’re nothing (though even with this grainy video quality, you can clearly see Kawada’s chest turning red). Kawada and Kobashi trade different stiff strikes and Kobashi goes for a suplex, but Kawada resists going up in any way he can. Kawada wrestles his way out of that and into a double-arm stretch and digs his foot into the small of Kobashi’s back. Great work on Kawada’s part to weaken Kobashi’s arms and back to take away his power game. Despite Kobashi’s resistance, Kawada keeps the hold applied as Taue tags in. Taue lands a dropkick and goes for a powerbomb but Kobashi powers out and tags Misawa. Taue tries to cheap-shot Misawa as he enters through the ropes, but Misawa just beats the piss out of him.
A running crossbody from Misawa gets a two-count and he applies a chinlock before tagging Kobashi back in. Kobashi gets two off a shoulder tackle, and then two again off a vertical suplex. He lands some chops and goes to whip Taue, but Taue counters it and lands a bulldog, followed by a guillotine drop onto the ropes. Kawada tags in and lands some brutal chops and then drops Kobashi with a brutal spinkick for another two-count. Kawada tries both the Stretch Plum and a standard facelock but Kobashi crawls to the ropes right away before either is fully applies. Taue tags in and lands a Hogan leg drop on Kobashi, even though that’s typically a Kobashi move. Kobashi kicks out of a pin and Taue throws him out of the ring. Taue then whips him into the steel barricade, then guillotine drops him onto the top of it. Damn, Kobashi goes throat-first into the steel barricade.
Back in the ring, Taue puts on an abdominal stretch as the fans chant for Kobashi. He then tags Kawada, who goes for an abdominal stretch of his own, but Kobashi counters into a rolling cradle for two. In comes Misawa with jump kicks. Kawada answers with stiff kicks to Misawa’s leg. Single leg crab by Kawada. Misawa crawls to the ropes almost immediately. Taue goes for a knee breaker but Misawa counters by applying a tight headlock. So Taue counters that into a Backdrop suplex. Great counter. Taue goes for another back suplex but Misawa lands on his feet and tags Kobashi. Kobashi lands some chops and a running leg drop but Taue kicks out at one. Taue fights out of a chinlock with a stunner and tags Kawada. Kobashi fights back with chops and tries to kick Kawada down, but when he charges Kawada picks him up and throws him out of the ring. Kawada suplexes Kobashi over the apron into the ring for two, then lands his scoop slam/soccer kick to the back combo that always looks and sounds brutally painful. Kawada lands some more stiff chops and kicks and tags Taue once again.
The Holy Demon Army double shoulder tackle Kobashi and Taue lands a release suplex for two. He follows with a release back suplex toss for another two-count and Kawada tags back in. Taue whips Kobashi into a charging Kawada, who drops Kobashi with a big lariat. And Kawada follows this by whipping Kobashi into a chokeslam from Taue. Amazing tag team work there.
Kawada goes for the Stretch Plum but Kobashi fights out. He tries to tag Misawa but Kawada cuts him off and applies the Stretch Plum fully. Kobashi sinks to his knees. Taue knocks Misawa off the apron. Misawa comes back and reaches out as far as he can to Kobashi. They’re fingertips away from each other. With one final heave, Kobashi tags Misawa. The fight is back on.
Kawada rushes Misawa and lands some step kicks but Misawa tanks them. He tries again and Misawa drops him with an elbow smash. Kawada springs back up and lands a flurry of stiff slaps. Misawa fires back with slaps of his own and another stiff elbow smash to Kawada. Plus one on Taue for good measure. Diving spinning lariat. Kawada kicks out at two. Misawa goes for the Tiger Driver. Kawada powers out and goes for a running yakuza kick. Misawa blocks it. Rolling Elbow Smash! Kawada kicks out at two again. Facelock. Taue lands some forearms to Misawa but Misawa doesn’t let go. Kobashi catches Taue and puts on a sleeper hold to keep Taue at bay. Double submission holds. The crowd is going crazy. Kawada looks like he’s fading, but then makes it to the ropes. LOUD applause for Kawada.
Misawa goes to Irish whip Kawada, but Kawada counters into a spinkick. Except he doesn’t, because Misawa catches his leg and slams him down. Misawa tries to maintain control but Kawada kicks him several times and tags Taue. A lariat from Taue gets a two-count. He goes for the chokeslam, but Misawa counters with an arm throw. Taue blocks an elbow smash and goes for the chokeslam again. Misawa resists, so Kawada lands a gamengiri kick to Misawa’s head. Taue’s chokeslam connects. One, two, thr—no, Misawa kicks out at 2.8. Taue goes for another chokeslam, but Kobashi makes the save. Taue tries to keep Misawa in the ring but Misawa escapes him and tags Kobashi. Missile dropkick by Kobashi. Basement dropkick by Misawa. Basement dropkick by Kobashi. Misawa charges for the elbow suicida but Taue dodges, so Misawa skins the cat. Apron diving elbow smash.
Back in the ring, Kobashi lands a some kicks followed by machine gun chops in the corner. He whips Taue, Taue reverses and launches Kobashi into a corner, Taue charges, Kobashi ducks and lands a big kick. Taue kicks his way out of the corner and then drops a charging Kobashi with a sudden chokeslam. In comes Kawada. Kawada kicks the crap out of Kobashi as the crowd chants Kobashi’s name. Kobashi hulks up All Japan-style as Kawada lands some sickening chops. They trade stiff shots until Kobashi wins the exchange. Kobashi whips Kawada but Kawada kicks him hard in the face. Kobashi fights back and goes for another whip but Kawada dodges him this time. Kawada lands a high kick, and Kobashi answers with a huge running lariat. Kobashi follows with two DDTs in a row. He goes for a third but Taue cuts him off and then Misawa attacks Taue. DDTs in stereo. Both Kawada and Taue get dropped. Scoop slam by Kobashi. He goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault. Kobashi pins. Taue saves Kawada. Jackknife Powerbomb. Kawada barely kicks out.
Kobashi goes for the moonsault again but Kawada cuts him off. Kobashi slams Kawada a second time and goes for a rope-assisted leg drop to keep Kawada in place, but Kawada moves at the last second, so Kobashi tags Misawa. Misawa lands some hard elbows and a spinning back suplex. Diving elbow smash from Misawa. Kawada kicks out. Misawa lands a suplex and goes for a running elbow smash, but Kawada counters into a gamengiri. Brutal kick right to the face. Taue tags in and lands snake eyes on Misawa. Twice. Taue goes for a powerbomb but Misawa counters into a picture-perfect Frankensteiner. Taue barely kicks out at 2.9, so Misawa lands a hard spinkick. Taue blocks an elbow smash so Misawa dropkicks him and tags Kobashi. Double-team dropkick on Taue. Kawada tags in and Kobashi unleashes on him with knee lifts. Kobashi lands one DDT and goes for a second but Kawada counters into a suplex and a yakuza kick. Kawada charges for a lariat but Kobashi ducks. Bridging German suplex. Kawada kicks out. The camera starts shaking from all the clapping and stomping the fans are doing in response to this awesome match. Kobashi goes for the moonsault once again but Taue cuts him off. Misawa goes to stop Taue but Kawada knocks Misawa away. Diving chokeslam by Taue.
Kawada goes for the pin. One, two, thr—no, Misawa saves Kobashi. Taue chokeslams Misawa as Kawada powerbombs Kobashi. Somehow Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. Kobashi fights out of one more powerbomb from Kawada. Taue lariats the back of Kobashi’s head and then chokeslams him. Taue knocks Misawa away and holds him on the apron. Folding powerbomb by Kawada. One, two, three! That’s it! Kawada and Taue retain their titles!
Winners and STILL AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 29:12: The Holy Demon Army (Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue)
This match kicked so much ass. It was simply phenomenal. I went into this expecting a throwaway tag match and left happy, having watched one of the best ‘start-of-a-rivalry’ matches ever. It wasn’t as epic or deep as their later tag matches, but it set the tone for what to expect from them all the same.
The story was that Kawada and Taue took turns bullying Kobashi, the weaker team member, while doing their best to keep Misawa at bay. They did an awesome job of this, so when Misawa tagged in to shine the crowd went nuts. He did his best but not even Misawa could overcome the crafty tag combinations Kawada and Taue came up with. And from a larger narrative it made complete sense for the Holy Demon Army to win here. Kawada had just broken away from Misawa and needed a huge win to prove himself worthy of calling himself Misawa’s new archrival. This match gave him the platform he needed to show he could stand outside of Misawa’s shadow. And even though it was Kobashi that took the fall, that too made sense. Kobashi was still new to being in Kawada’s former spot and wasn’t ready for the devious combos that Kawada and Taue demonstrated here.
But even in defeat, Misawa and Kobashi looked tremendous as a tag team. Kobashi very well might be the greatest hero-in-peril in pro wrestling history. Even though he and Taue debuted at more or less the same time, Kobashi was perfectly cast as the underdog that took a shitkicking and needed to be saved. And as he demonstrated that babyface fire, Misawa acted as his perfect counterweight, exuding this confidence and badassery that just couldn’t be shaken. And when he made that big hot tag, it brought the match to its first real peak.
And from there the match became truly awesome. These four wrestlers crafted this unpredictable tale of non-stop twists and turns. The big moves, counters, dodges and pin-falls, all fit perfectly. Everything made sense based on what happened earlier on in the match. And once Misawa and Kobashi started gaining steam, Kawada and Taue had to bring out the big guns. Their tag team combo moves here were outstanding. They had only been teaming with each other for a short time, yet wrestled like they knew each other perfectly. They set each other up and helped each other big time, to the point that their double-team near-falls were truly believable as finishers. Misawa and Kobashi tried to copy this strategy, but overall Kawada and Taue blew them out of the water with their tag team psychology.
At the same time, I think that this match failed to reach that higher level. Don’t get me wrong, this match was tremendous for what it was. But none of these wrestlers ever took things to the highest level. If we compare this to other legendary singles and especially tag matches involving any combination of these four wrestlers, this match just falls short. There wasn’t the psychological depth of their later matches, nor the sheer wild excitement of some of the early six-man tags involving these four and others. What these four wrestlers did in this match was awesome, but not five-star-perfect-match awesome.
Final Rating: ****3/4
There’s a lot to love in this match. It has amazing tag team psychology, to the point that you can watch it without understanding any of the story, context, or commentary, and still be satisfied once it’s over. At this point in time, these four wrestlers have only scratched the surface in the years-long narrative they would go on to tell, so expectations here weren’t as high compared to their later matches. And yet, they still put on an awesome match, especially Kawada and Taue, who, in my opinion, put on a clinic on how to convince people that two seemingly-thrown-together-at-random wrestlers could become an excellent, well-oiled machine of a tag team. While it’s not a world-beating epic, it’s an outstanding tag match that comes across as the textbook definition of a ‘seemingly throwaway match that’s way better than expected.’ Truly a fun wrestling match.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.