There are many kinds of great matches in pro wrestling history. There are those that are built on deep, personal rivalries that lead to explosive encounters in the ring. Then there are those that are simply chapters in a larger story being told over a long period of time, adding nuance to that extensive narrative. And then there are matches that have very little story behind them, yet become great all the same simply because the wrestlers involved are just that damn good.
This is one of those latter cases. It’s a random match that doesn’t have much historical significance in the grand scheme of things. And yet, the action was so great that it was too good to ignore. It took place over twenty years ago and involves both one of the greatest professional wrestlers to ever live and a challenger that often gets overlooked by wrestling fans that remember the golden age of the 1990s and early 2000s. Today we revisit the singles match between Mitsuharu Misawa and Jun Akiyama from February 27th, 2000.
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.
Going into the match, Jun Akiyama had been with AJPW since his debut in September 1992. Then then until this match in February 2000, Akiyama mostly teamed with Misawa in his six-man tag team matches. Akiyama proved to be a very quick learner and became something of a tag team specialist. After Kenta Kobashi left Misawa in 1996 to break out on his own, Akiyama was elevated to being Misawa’s regular partner. Though not as iconic a pair as Misawa & Kobashi, Misawa & Akiyama had many outstanding tag matches in their own right. Then by late 1997, early 1998, Akiyama followed in Kobashi’s footsteps and sought to break out on his own.
Now, to keep the wrestlers (relatively) healthy, AJPW’s regular touring schedule featured its biggest stars in six-and-eight-man tag matches 90% of the time. There were some exceptions, such as the November-December tag team tournament, the April Champion’s Carnival singles tournament, and a few special singles matches scattered randomly throughout the year. This match is one such a ‘scattered’ singles match. There’s no title on the line, no special stipulation, no tournament bracket. This is a rare singles match in which Misawa the ace is facing Akiyama the rising star. And up to this point, Akiyama had never managed to beat Misawa clean. So the question on everyone’s mind was, could he finally do it now?
This match originally took place on February 27th, 2000, and was rated ****1/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Akiyama does an amateur dive but Misawa dodges. They tease locking up break off. They lock up and Misawa gets a clean break on the ropes. He fires off an elbow but Akiyama fires back. Misawa whips Akiyama, Akiyama reverses and goes for a jumping knee, Misawa blocks it, Akiyama ducks an elbow, Misawa dodges a dropkick to the knee and connects with a dropkick of his own. Misawa charges the ropes, Akiyama dodges and Misawa skins the cat. Diving apron elbow smash. Fun start to the match.
Misawa tosses Akiyama back into the ring and lands a diving shotgun dropkick. He follows with a diving spinning lariat and a standing senton for a two-count. Akiyama counters an Irish whip and goes for his jumping knee in the corner, but Misawa tanks it and fires back with a big elbow smash. Misawa applies a chinlock, which goes on for a while until Akiyama gets to the corner. Misawa responds with more stiff elbow smashes, but Akiyama starts firing up and no-selling them.
Misawa maintains control with more stiff elbows. He whips Akiyama, Akiyama reverses and charges towards Misawa, but Misawa counters with a back elbow. Misawa goes for a springboard back elbow, but Akiyama dodges and Misawa goes down hard. Akiyama whips Misawa and lands a big jumping knee, which sends Misawa out of the ring at the five-minute mark.
Ringside, Akiyama goes to whip Misawa into the barricade, but Misawa reverses and Akiyama goes into it back-first instead. Misawa charges at him, but Akiyama drop toeholds Misawa, sending him neck-first into the steel barricade. Ouch, that looks painful. Sensing an opening, Akiyama lifts Misawa onto his shoulders then drops him neck-first onto the top of the barricade again. Then he kicks Misawa into it, then dives off the apron, putting even more force into that kick into the barricade. Then he places Misawa on the apron and lands a jumping knee strike to the back of Misawa’s head, inspiring Shinsuke Nakamura in the process.
Akiyama maintains control with a piledriver on the ringside mats. He doesn’t give Misawa much time to breathe as he drags Misawa to the apron. He teases an apron Exploder, but Misawa holds onto the top rope for dear life. Misawa’s fighting and fighting, but the younger Akiyama’s stronger. Akiyama traps one of Misawa’s arms, and lands the Exploder. Damn, Misawa landed neck and shoulder-first on the apron. What an impact.
Back in the ring, Misawa tries to fire back with elbows but Akiyama cuts him off with strikes of his own. Akiyama scores a DDT for a two-count, then locks in an arm-and-neck submission hold. It looks like Akiyama’s trying to pull Misawa’s head off with his legs. Misawa tries fighting out, but even the slightest push forward seems to cause him immense pain. Then Akiyama modifies the hold a bit, trapping Misawa’s main elbowing arm. That slight change in pressure allows Misawa to crawl to the bottom rope, forcing a break. Great ring awareness by Misawa.
Ten minutes have passed as Akiyama elbows Misawa in the corner. And the usually stoic and quiet Misawa is screaming in pain, clasping his neck all the while. Akiyama lands a snapmare followed by a dropkick to the neck, and then applies a sort of neck crank submission hold, again targeting Misawa’s weakened neck. This is ring psychology 101 here, as Akiyama demonstrates how to keep things simple while telling a deep story. Another pin gets Akiyama a two-count.
Akiyama lands multiple strikes to Misawa’s neck then applies a chinlock. He maintains the pressure as he transitions into a figure-4 neck lock, which gets him another two-count. Akiyama whips Misawa into a standing sleeper hold, but Misawa escapes by pushing Akiyama into the corner, and follows with a stiff back elbow and a rope-assisted dropkick to the face. Misawa starts regaining control with a running elbow smash and a seated facelock, but Akiyama reaches the ropes fairly quickly as we reach the fifteen-minute mark.
Misawa reapplies the facelock and puts on as much pressure as he can. All the while he’s pushing his knuckles right into Akiyama’s face, which must hurt like hell following that dropkick from earlier. Akiyama’s arm starts going limp, so Misawa pins him but Akiyama kicks out at 2.5. Misawa lands some forearm clubs and whips Akiyama, but Akiyama counters and charges the corner. Misawa blocks with a kick and jumps onto the top turnbuckle, but Akiyama dropkicks him sending Misawa flying out of the ring. running jumping knee from the apron. Akiyama continues by placing his knee on the back of Misawa’s neck and pushing him into the steel barricade. Damn, another painful move.
Back in the ring, Akiyama drops another knee to the neck and gets another two-count. Cradle Tombstone Piledriver. Misawa’s writhing in pain clutching his neck. Diving forearm smash to the neck. Akiyama signals the end. Exploder suplex. One, two, no, Misawa kicks out. Akiyama reapplies the arm-and-neck lock. Misawa reaches the ropes. Akiyama goes for a vertical suplex, but Misawa lands on his feet. Ge goes for a spinkick, Akiyama catches his leg, and Misawa kicks with the free leg. Misawa drops a knee onto Akiyama’s face and lands a frog splash, but Akiyama kicks out at two. Tiger Driver, it’s blocked, Exploder suplex, Misawa fights out. Bridging German suplex. Akiyama kicks out. Akiyama’s bleeding from the nose from that kick from Misawa.
We’re twenty minutes in as Misawa lands a running back elbow into the corner. He lands more stiff elbow smashes and Akiyama staggers. Tiger Driver by Misawa. Akiyama kicks out. Misawa goes for Emerald Flowsion, Akiyama escapes, Misawa ducks his clothesline and lands another German suplex. Another Tiger Driver. Akiyama kicks out at 2.8. Misawa charges, Akiyama boots him in the face. Rolling Elbow Smash! Akiyama no-sells and lands an Exploder. Both men get right back up. Misawa charges, but Akiyama catches him first. Exploder. Both men collapse. What a sequence.
Akiyama gets up first and comes alive with fighting spirit. Jumping knee in the corner. Another Exploder suplex. But Misawa still kicks out at 2.8. Sheerdrop brainbuster! Kickout by Misawa once again. Wrist-Clutch Exploder! Akiyama’s ultimate finisher! One, two, three! That’s it! Akiyama wins. Akiyama defeats Misawa!
Winner after 23:40: Jun Akiyama
Another fantastic match from All Japan Pro-Wrestling. This match was fun to watch. It was intense from the opening bell. The back-and-forth exchanges and constant twists and turns made it an edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster of a match.
The story here was the younger Akiyama taking on company ace Misawa in singles competition with the goal of elevating Akiyama into the star of tomorrow. Akiyama hadn’t been able to beat Misawa in the past and hoped to show that he had learned from his past mistakes. Akiyama brought a different dynamic to this match than Misawa’s previous big-match opponents. Whereas Kawada was comfortable going toe-to-toe with Misawa in brutal strike exchanges and Kobashi tended to out-power Misawa with raw strength, Akiyama was and is more of an opportunist. As we saw in Akiyama’s amazing match with Kobashi from July 1998, Akiyama has no problem taking advantage of an obvious weak point to try and win. And in AJPW, that doesn’t make one a villain; it makes them into a smart wrestler.
In this match, Akiyama targeted Misawa’s neck ruthlessly with stiff strikes, brutal submission holds and high-angle suplexes. He took advantage of that known weakness and managed to make it harder for Misawa to have a sustained comeback in the match. But defeating Misawa is way easier said than done, as any of his opponents from the 1990s can attest to. So Akiyama had to bring out the big guns, including an insane Exploder suplex onto the apron and a submission hold that was as creative as it looked painful.
That opportunism was critical in getting Akiyama the victory. And let’s not forget about Misawa, who sold like crazy for Akiyama. The usually stoic and quiet Misawa shouted loudly in pain several times and looked to be in genuine pain, defying his usual trope of being the emotionless boss that’s always in control. Misawa also helped make Akiyama look tough by delivering his typical stiff offense. Misawa hit Akiyama with some really hard elbows and a stiff dropkick that bloodied Akiyama’s nose, but those things only gave Akiyama more resolve and gave him more of a challenge to overcome.
This match was a major win for Akiyama, as he had never been able to pin Misawa in singles competition before. They faced off for the first time in 1992 when Akiyama was a rookie, and almost every year in the annual Champion Carnival tournament. Misawa won every year except in 1999 when they went to a 30-minute time limit draw. With this win, Akiyama was able to show everyone he deserved to be in the main event conversation.
All that being said, I don’t think this is a perfect, five-star match. This match was 80% Akiyama in control. And while that amount of control did a good job of showing him as a smart wrestler when he’s in the driver’s seat, that came at the expense of the challenge he had to overcome.
It wasn’t a dramatic, back-and-forth tug-of-war between Akiyama and Misawa. Misawa got some offense early and had a limited comeback, but the bulk of the middle and the closing sprint were all Akiyama. Akiyama didn’t take enough of a shit-kicking to show he could survive Misawa’s dangerous moves. It should’ve been a bit more competitive, with Akiyama kicking out of more of Misawa’s biggest moves aside from the Tiger Driver. After all, the purpose here was to make Akiyama into a top-level star. And while the result definitely proved that Akiyama was on Misawa’s level, it wasn’t the decisive performance that would’ve shown Akiyama as being above Misawa.
I can’t help but compare this match to Misawa’s matches with Kobashi. In those matches, the battles were drawn out and both wrestlers spent a long time in control and each man survived almost everything each one of them had to offer. Here, that wasn’t the case. Akiyama took a few big moves from Misawa and then spammed a ton of Exploder suplexes until one of them was strong enough to get him the win. And while that’s all fine and good, it doesn’t feel like Misawa was all that threatened by Akiyama in the same way he would’ve been if this were Kobashi or Kawada he was facing. If it were, Akiyama would’ve kicked out of more of Misawa’s bigger moves, which would’ve caused Misawa to bust out his most dangerous super-finishers.
Personally, I think this would’ve been much better if Misawa landed his ultra-finisher, the Tiger Driver ’91, on Akiyama, only for Akiyama to kick out of it (instead of Misawa basically skipping a step and going straight for Emerald Flowsion). Had that happened, Akiyama would’ve been only the second person to ever kick out of Misawa’s legendary TD’91, the first being Kobashi. And since those two also had their own interesting rivalry, having Akiyama kick out of this move would’ve made him look like a much tougher star and more worthy of being treated with utmost respect by AJPW and its fans.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This match felt just right. It didn’t go too long and wasn’t too short. It had plenty of action to make the 23-minutes-and-change fly by while telling an amazing athletic story. And that story was all about taking an upper midcarder (Akiyama) and making him into a main-eventer by beating the legendary company ace (Misawa). They had excellent chemistry together, as demonstrated by their perfect pacing, great move sequences, and logical story. At no point did the match ever drag, and aside from a brief moment of Exploder suplex spam, they never went overboard with crazy moves. Everything in this match served a purpose.
And yet, for some strange reason, Jun Akiyama doesn’t get the same level of admiration and respect as the fabled Four Pillars (Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada and Taue), even though he spent most of the 1990s teaming with and fighting against them. This singles match, though not 100% perfect but very close to it, proved that he does indeed belong in the same conversation as that mythical quartet.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.