(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. 'Dr. Death' Steve Williams - July 28th, 1994, by Alex Podgorski

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. 'Dr. Death' Steve Williams - July 28th, 1994, by Alex Podgorski

‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams would’ve been an awesome villain in WWE if they didn’t screw up his career with the Brawl For All Tournament. He was mean, legitimate, strong, tough and all around badass. He would’ve been the perfect villain, the kind of mountain that smaller wrestlers would have to really struggle to climb. He could’ve been an excellent goon for a higher power, bodyguard to a smaller mouthpiece, or a standalone monster to face top babyfaces.

And one of the reasons he would’ve been so successful was because of his ability to wrestle incredibly well, as seen here. In this classic 4.75-star match, Doc took on the legendary Mitsuharu Misawa for one of if not the most prestigious championships in Japan, AJPW’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. It took place over twenty-five years ago, so let’s see how well it holds up when we look at it with a modern lens.

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.

The story

When this match happened, Mitsuharu Misawa was the defending Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion and the unquestioned ace of AJPW. He was considered the best wrestler in the company, and possibly in Japan or even the world, at the time. It was extremely rare for him to ever lose, and in tag team matches it was his partner that took the fall almost all the time.

But his opponent was arguably the top foreigner/gaijin in AJPW at the time: ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams. Doc had spent the better part of the prior four year on a rampage in AJPW, especially in its tag team division. And now he was looking to break into singles competition as well.

He certainly had the reputation and credibility of a top-tier challenger. Doc was a former All-American, and was a wrestling champion in both high school and college. He had made a name for himself in various US promotions and had come to Japan because of the more sports-like presentation and aura that the AJPW product provided. And prior to this match, Doc had also earned a reputation for toughness and brutality. One need only look at how much he mangled Misawa’s tag partner Kobashi the year prior to see what Doc was made of.

This match was Misawa’s eight consecutive title defense, a record at the time. His most recent successful title defense occurred a month earlier on June 3rd in a match widely hailed as the singles match of the decade. The question was, would Misawa be able to topple the super-strong Oklahoman nicknamed ‘Dr. Death’, or would Doc become the third-ever foreigner to win the legendary AJPW Triple Crown?

The match

This match originally took place on July 28th, 1994 and is for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. It was originally rated 4.75-stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

The bell rings and the crowd is firmly behind Misawa as a tense standoff begins. Doc waistlocks Misawa and he’s already looking for an opening to land his Dangerous Backdrop Driver. After a quick technical exchange, they start slapping each other in the face. Then Misawa hits an elbow and gone is his trademark stoicism. He looks genuinely angry now. Misawa elbows Doc, lands an Irish whip and drops him with his diving spinning lariat. He tries to lock in a sleeper hold but Doc throws him off with great force. Misawa applies a sleeper again that grounds Doc. That’s a great strategy since it’ll make it harder for Docs to land his big power moves if he’s too exhausted from the get-go.

Doc reaches the ropes so Misawa applies a front chancery, which Doc answers with a bearhug. We’re at the five-minute mark as Doc starts clubbing Misawa’s back. He applies a rear bearhug but Misawa reaches the ropes. The usually silent and stoic Misawa is screaming in pain already. Misawa blocks a chop with an elbow smash but can’t capitalize on it.

Doc gets Misawa in the corner and lands shoulder thrusts to his gut. Then Doc lands a running dropkick right to Misawa’s sternum, dropping the champion and getting the first two-count of the match. Doc slams him and lands a huge elbow drop for another two-count. Then he pulls a Kawada and punts Misawa right in the back, and follows this with a double armlock. Misawa escapes with a standing kick and tries to maintain control with an Irish whip. But as Misawa dives, Doc catches him in midair and plants him with a spinebuster for a two-count. Amazing counter.

Doc continues assaulting Misawa’s back and teases a Tiger Suplex, but Misawa reaches the safety of the ropes. But Doc keeps the arms locked in a submission hold, putting more pressure on Misawa’s back. Doc chops Misawa’ but Misawa lands enough elbows and dropkicks to send Doc out of the ring. Elbow suicida by Misawa!

Misawa’s in control as he lands a diving elbow smash for a two-count. He teases the Tiger Driver but Doc powers out, only got Misawa to land on his feet. Misawa lands one running elbow smash but Doc doesn’t go down. So Misawa goes for a second…only to run into another huge spinebuster from Doc. He pins Misawa but only gets two.  The crowd’s getting really loud now.

A belly-to-belly suplex by Doc gets another two-count, so he tosses Misawa out of the ring. Then he smashes Misawa spine-first into the steel ringpost before slamming him onto the mats. All of that gets Doc another two-count, so he applies another submission hold to further weaken Misawa’s back.

We’re at the fifteen-minute mark as Doc continues to weaken Misawa’s back with strikes and turnbuckle smashes. He goes for the Oklahoma Stampede and smashes Misawa into one corner but Misawa holds onto the second one. A powerslam from Doc gets another close two-count. He follows this with a Boston Crab, but Misawa reaches the ropes quickly. Doc doesn’t let go right away, which causes the crowd to boo. He goes to press slam Misawa into the corner, but Misawa blocks it and fires back with a big elbow smash. That gives Misawa a crucial moment to try and recover.

But Doc will not have it. He kicks Misawa hard in the chest and lands a massive stinger splash in the opposite corner. Another big bearhug by Doc. Then he does a clever pin while keeping his arms wrapped around Misawa’s torso. Yet somehow Misawa manages to escape and starts his comeback with kicks and elbow smashes. But Doc grabs his leg and tosses him away and lands some jabs to send Misawa down. He charges with a lariat, Misawa ducks, teases a German suplex, Doc escapes and teases the Dangerous Backdrop Driver. Misawa rushes to the ropes as fast as he can. A lariat to the back of the head drops Misawa out of the ring. Suicide dive by Dr. Death. A near-300-pound man just dove through the ropes. That was insane.

Twenty minutes have now passed and Doc hits a diving shoulder tackle from the top rope. Then he lands the Doctor Bomb. The referee counts one, two, thr—no, Misawa kicks out. Doc tries the Dangerous Backdrop Driver again, but Misawa hooks the leg so he barely lifts off the ground. Clever move. So Doc teases it again but Misawa escapes once more. Misawa with the facelock, but Doc reaches the ropes almost right away.

Misawa hits some elbows and goes for a rolling elbow smash but Doc blocks it. He goes for a jab but Misawa blocks that. Rolling elbow smash. Misawa pins but Doc kicks out at 2.5. Tiger Driver by Misawa. Doc kicks out at 2.8. Frog splash by Misawa. Doc kicks out once again. Senton/frog splash combo. Dr. Death still kicks out. The crowd explodes in Misawa chants. Doc powers out of a Tiger Driver, so Misawa elbows him. Doc ducks a rolling elbow again. DANGEROUS BACKDROP DRIVER! Misawa got planted so hard he fell out of the ring. The ref slaps Misawa’s face and shouts his name to see if he’s even conscious.

We’re at the twenty-five-minute mark as Doc tosses a barely-conscious Misawa back into the ring. Doc goes for the pin…but Misawa kicks out. Misawa kicks out at 2.999! Everyone’s going nuts.

Doc tries for another Dangerous Backdrop Driver, but Misawa somehow has enough strength to resist. Misawa lands some big elbows, but can’t even stay on his feet. Another DBD tease, and again Misawa reaches the ropes. He’s doing whatever he can to avoid that big move. Doc lands a big back suplex! Both men go down.

Misawa gets up first and lands an elbow, but Doc absorbs it. Oklahoma Stampede! The referee counts one, two, thr—no, Misawa kicks out again. He tries desperately to weaken Doc with elbows. Another Dangerous Backdrop Driver! Misawa got spiked! Doc crawls over. The referee counts one, two, three! That’s it! New champion! So ends the legendary reign of Mitsuharu Misawa.

Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 27:39: ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Steve Williams (July 28, 1994)

Review

This was lots of fun. It was all about making Dr. Death into even more of an absolute monster and they pulled that off perfectly. It was rare for a foreigner to reach the top in All Japan, so Misawa went out of his way to make Dr. Death into the real deal. He sold like a boss for him, let him shine throughout the match, and made his loss feel truly historic.

But more importantly, this match got Williams’ Dangerous Backdrop over like a million dollars. Misawa spent 90% of the match avoiding that move and there was always a sense of urgency and danger whenever Williams teased it. And the first one he landed was absolutely devastating. Not just because of the landing, but also because Misawa sold it as if he was legit knocked out. The referee had to slap him in the face loudly enough for fans to hear to wake him up. Then the second one happened and the ref did that again and it looked like Dr. Death knocked him out again.

It’s small details like that which made 1990s AJPW wrestling matches such timeless classics. They looked, felt, and sounded like real fights. There was this sense of legitimacy in the moves and in the overall struggle the wrestlers endure. These wrestlers went out of their way to blur the line between scripted and reality without sacrificing the integrity of the wrestling itself. So when big moves happened in this match, the audience gasped and sounded worried for their hero Misawa.

All that being said, I don’t think this was a perfect match. Misawa was on defense for 80% of the match, and had little-to-nothing in terms of a comeback. This match was all Dr. Death, as he did way more work in beating Misawa from the very beginning. And while it’s nice to see such a drastically different story in the larger narrative, it doesn’t make for a 5-star standalone match. Misawa had to fight from beneath from the start, yet spent more time in Doc’s various submission holds than he did fighting back. And his comeback didn’t really feel credible because he didn’t actually do much to weaken Doc to the same degree than Doc had weakened him. Yes, Misawa landed tons of brutal, high-impact elbows. But he needed to do more than that if he hoped to at least catch up to Doc in terms of damage.

For me, a 5-star match isn’t one in which on wrestler dominates the action and can be telegraphed as the impending winner. A 5-star epic has a sense of believability in which both sides have an equal chance of winning and are in control in more or less equal amounts throughout the match. And since Doc was in control most of the time here, calling this a perfect match just doesn’t do it for me.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This match was fun to watch because of the legitimacy in its presentation. Too often nowadays wrestling matches are choreographed to hell and presented in a phony way. This match was different. It looked like a real sport with legitimate throws, stiff strikes, and a sense of hardnosed aggression from both wrestlers. These two wrestlers told an amazing story by showing how tough they were. Doc no-sold some of Misawa’s trademark stiff elbows, which made him stand out from the many opponents Misawa had put before him. And Misawa endured an absolute thrashing here. But by the halfway mark, it was no longer about Misawa winning, but about Misawa surviving. Basically, Doc had Misawa’s number and it became a matter of time before Doc found the opening he needed to drop Misawa on his head.

And while the shock of Misawa losing clean made this a big shock (think of this loss for Misawa as being akin to the Undertaker’s Streak being broken), the match itself still lacked some elements that made it great. The one-sidedness of it made Doc look super-strong while also making Misawa’s comeback seem hollow and uninspired. And there was also the issue of Doc’s back work, which really didn’t feed into the finish.

That said, this match teaches us the importance of selling something ‘worked’ as something realistic. Your intelligence as the viewer doesn’t get insulted here, nor does this feel like corny, vaudevillian melodrama. When the referee had to slap Misawa just to see if he was even awake, that underscored the severity of Doc’s Dangerous Backdrop Driver. It showed everyone why the commentator and the audience shrieked with concern each time Doc teased that move. That’s just something that’s ignored nowadays. No one seems to want to make their wrestling or big moves feel truly ‘real’. Modern wrestlers seem to think that since fans all know it’s scripted anyway that there’s no point in hiding it anymore, leading to a complete and utter lack of suspension of disbelief. This match, and the wider King’s Road style of AJPW, shows us why it’s wrong to think that way.

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