“The King’s Road is paved with broken bodies and ruined friendships.”
I remember hearing those words and found them to be perfect in summing up the rivalry between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. They were the top two wrestlers in All Japan Pro-Wrestling during that company’s 1990s Golden Era. They started off as real-life friends that worked and teamed together. But once one of them was handpicked to become the company’s new golden boy, the seeds of jealousy and doubt were planted in the other.
This led to something of a real tragedy. Their friendship gradually deteriorated into nothing and they even worked that animosity into their matches. That in turn led to some of the best wrestling matches to ever take place, but those came at a steep cost. And today we look back at the first chapter in that hatred-filled arc. It’s the first time that Misawa and Kawada faced off not as friends but as foes. It’s their big singles match from July 29th, 1993.
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.
This is the seventh singles match between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. In all their previous matches, Misawa and Kawada were best friends and fought each other under purely professional circumstances. But this match was different. On March 30th, 1993, Kawada lost to Misawa during the annual Champion Carnival tournament. Two weeks later during that same tournament, Kawada fought his bitter archrival Akira Taue to a 30-minute draw. And when that match ended, something unexpected happened: Kawada and Taue shook hands. Their three-year-long feud was over. Less than two months later, Kawada officially split from Misawa and joined Taue to form The Holy Demon Army.
As a duo, the HDA achieved immediate success by winning AJPW’s World Tag Team titles and successfully defended them against the team of Misawa and Kobashi in a thrilling match. Kawada had momentum on his side and earned a shot at Misawa’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship.
For Kawada, this was his next big chance at singles glory. He challenged Misawa back in October 1992 and came up short. He hoped that now, with some newfound confidence and fan intrigue behind him as All Japan’s new #2, he could wrest the prestigious title away from the Misawa. And even though Misawa was the company’s ace, many people still saw Kawada as the better wrestler of the two.
Speaking of Misawa, he went into this match downright furious. He was betrayed by his best friend, whose desire for glory and something shiny trumped the real friendship that had carried them together through their All Japan careers since 1982. Misawa may have been the stoic, but underneath his expressionless face there was a simmering rage waiting to come out. He was desperate for revenge and to punish Kawada for his transgressions.
The fans knew how deep this rivalry ran and thus were determined to see it live. Budokan Hall, Japan’s Madison Square Garden, was completely sold out once again, with over 16,000 fans in attendance to see AJPW’s top two wrestlers square off in the big one.
This match originally took place on July 29th, 1993 in Tokyo, immediately after this amazing singles match between Kenta Kobashi and Stan Hansen. This match was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. I’ve already gone through a few matches that I think Meltzer under-rated so let’s see if this ends up being one of those.
Extremely loud chants fill the arena as the bell rings to start the match. Misawa gets a clean break on the ropes, goes for an elbow and Kawada flinches but no contact is made. They trade armlocks on the ropes and Kawada goes for a kick but Misawa blocks it. Kawada out-grapples Misawa with a judo arm throw and starts working over Misawa’s main striking arm. Misawa gets a ropebreak so Kawada lands a parting shot to his spine. They lock up again and Misawa lands a stiff elbow strike but Kawada tanks it like a boss. That very move has caused Kawada so many problems before and here he is eating it like it’s nothing. Kawada fires back with a stiff kick right to Misawa’s throat and Misawa goes down.
Kawada applies a headlock and Misawa sends him into the ropes. Kawada knocks him down with two shoulder tackles but Misawa manages to fight back and land a dropkick that sends Kawada out to ringside. Kawada recovers but Misawa rushes him on the apron and blasts him with kicks and elbows. In the ring, they lock up yet again and Kawada lands a dropkick as the five-minute mark passes.
Kawada maintains control with kicks to Misawa’s right arm and follows with a standing armbreaker. Kawada attacks that arm with surgical precision as he kicks at it and locks in a kimura. Misawa fights to his feet so Kawada stiffs him some more and goes for a cross armbreaker. Misawa fights on with all he can but Kawada breaks his grip and attempts to hyperextend Misawa’s main weapon. Misawa gets a ropebreak but Kawada goes right back to the arm with another armbar and some kneedrops. Misawa reaches the ropes so Kawada kicks him some more. But Kawada forgot to take Misawa’s legs into account and Misawa fires back with hard kicks of his own. Misawa outkicks Kawada and lands a huge dropkick that downs Kawada. He charges for another attack but Kawada counters with a powerslam for two.
Kawada lands more hard kicks and a running lariat for another two-count. Misawa escapes a powerbomb so Kawada lands another lariat to the back of Misawa’s head and then applies a chinlock. Kawada starts elbowing Misawa but Misawa fires back, only to be taken down with a judo arm throw. He suplexes Misawa, lands a knee drop and gets another two-count. He goes for a powerbomb but Misawa kicks his way out. Desperate, Kawada lands his patented step kicks to Misawa’s face. Misawa answers with kneelifts. Kawada no-sells. Both men have an icy stare-down. It’s at this point that Kawada realizes that there’s no going back. Their friendship is dead and going forward, it’s going to be an all-out war.
Kawada lands more step kicks. Misawa answers with more knees and then slams Kawada down. Kawada escapes a frog splash but Misawa charges at him. They start brawling. Even with a badly-weakened arm, Misawa drops Kawada with a savage elbow strike. No one hit elbows better than Misawa. No-one.
Misawa lands two frog splashes and each one only manages a two-count. he applies his facelock as some fans start chanting for Kawada. Misawa pins but only gets two, so he goes back to the facelock. Kawada drags himself to the ropes. Misawa goes for a Tiger Driver but Kawada resists so Misawa elbows him really hard. Then the Tiger Driver connects. Kawada kicks out of a pin. Misawa goes for a Tiger Suplex. Kawada rushes the ropes immediately since that move cost him their match in October. Misawa tries again. Kawada goes back to the safety of the ropes. They trade waistlocks and Kawada lands a lariat to the back of Misawa’s head. both men collapse.
Kawada goes for the Stretch Plum submission hold. Misawa tosses him off, so Kawada fires back with a big dropkick. He tries for it again, and again Misawa knocks him off. Gamengiri kick. Kawada blasts Misawa in the face. One, two, Misawa kicks out. Kawada gets the Stretch Plum locked in. He wrenches the hold as much as possible to stretch Misawa’s head one way and his collar the other way. Misawa gets to the ropes. Both men tumble out of the ring.
Kawada gets to the ring first and dropkicks Misawa off the apron. He tosses Misawa back in and kicks his head mockingly, then nails his Folding Powerbomb finisher. One, two, thr—no, Misawa kicks out. The crowd comes alive seeing Misawa kick out of Kawada’s finisher. Misawa lands a desperation elbow. Kawada fires back with step kicks and even lands a close-fisted punch. Those are usually banned in All Japan, but that’s how desperate Kawada is to win. Bridging German suplex. Misawa kicks out. Kawada lands another punch to the face and another Folding Powerbomb. Misawa kicks out yet again. Kawada lands more mocking kicks and goes for another punch, but Misawa blocks it. Rolling elbow smash! Followed by a bridging Tiger suplex. One, two, Kawada kicks out. Misawa lands another rolling elbow smash. Kawada goes down but Misawa can’t capitalize right away because of the damage to his arm. He eventually crawls over for the pin. Kawada narrowly kicks out. Misawa pins more but Kawada remains defiant. A desperate Kawada double-legs Misawa. Misawa escapes right away, but walks right into a Dangerous Backdrop! Misawa tries to fight back with a running elbow smash. Kawada answers with another Gamengiri kick. Budokan Hall erupts in wild cheers and screaming as both men collapse.
Misawa gets up first and plants Kawada with a vicious German suplex. Kawada double-legs him once again. Misawa lands an even more brutal German suplex in retaliation. One, two, no, Kawada still kicks out. A third German suplex by Misawa. he lifts a near-dead Kawada to his feet. Bridging Tiger suplex. One, two, and three! Misawa pins Kawada! The champion retains!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 25:53: Mitsuharu Misawa
Apparently this was the first-ever official King’s Road-style AJPW wrestling match. Previous big matches had built up or experimented in that style, but this was the first one in which that fabled wrestling philosophy was specifically narrowed down and defined. Unfortunately, despite that reputation and the great story behind it, I don’t think this match was anything special.
The story in the match was that Kawada was looking to neutralize Misawa’s right arm as much as possible. He hoped to keep Misawa from spamming his lethal elbow strikes and eventually wear Misawa down enough to pin him with his Powerbomb or Backdrop finishers. But that strategy failed for two reasons. First, while Kawada’s strategy was sound in principle, it didn’t look that convincing in execution. There was a notable lack in tension and urgency in Kawada’s early armwork. The way he executed those arm-targeting moves seemed slow and thus didn’t really tell the story of how concerning those elbow strikes were to him. Second, Kawada neglected to take Misawa’s legs into account. While Misawa is famous for his elbow strikes, he can kick hard enough if necessary, which is what happened here. Once Misawa realized his elbows would be inefficient, he resorted to hard kicks, and those were enough to at least stun Kawada and wrest control of the match away from him.
Desperate to defy Misawa and stay in control, Kawada landed some step kicks and Misawa answers with knee lifts. Kawada responded by no-selling those knees and staring down Misawa. As I mentioned earlier, in that moment Kawada realized that their friendship was well and truly burned and unsalvageable. But there was something else at play in that moment as well: that was the moment that the futility of Kawada’s offense was fully realized. It dawned on him that Misawa was just too tough for him, and that was shown through the rest of the match. All of Kawada’s remaining big moves – the Gamengiri kick to the face, the Folding Powerbomb, the Dangerous Backdrop, and the Stretch Plum – weren’t enough to put a dent in Misawa, much less keep him down. Misawa had a relatively easy time recovering from Kawada’s big moves, and even recovered his arm enough that he could land his elbow strikes with their typical lethality.
And while the match really did exemplify the best elements of 1990s All Japan, it wasn’t an even match by any means. Yes, Kawada had his moments of control. But even though he fought so hard, there was never a moment whereby Kawada could convincingly win. Kawada did all that he could and Misawa was still able to make a full comeback. The silver lining here is that Misawa’s comeback while short, was explosive and memorable. He demolished Kawada with some of the most vicious elbow strikes and German suplexes I have ever seen. And for those that were on Misawa’s side in the feud, they got to see Kawada get what he deserved for his betrayal.
Final Rating: ****1/4
I fully agree with Meltzer’s original assessment here. Not only was this match very much hidden in the shadow of the Kobashi-Hansen match that preceded it, but looking back, this match is also completely overshadowed by both the Misawa-Kawada match from October 1992 and their mythical, outstanding rematch from June 1994. There’s a neat little symbolism there, as well. This match is overshadowed by two better contests just like how Kawada himself was very much in Misawa’s shadow for so long.
It’s just a bit unfortunate that Kawada was made to look like he didn’t belong on Misawa’s level in this match. Despite having some great action and a solid story, Kawada did not come off as a credible #2 heel directly beneath Misawa here.
Funny enough, though, this loss of Kawada’s must’ve set off some kind of chain reaction for him. He would go on to have a catalogue of outstanding matches that elevated him into some kind of wrestling master. He would go on to maul Kobashi in October, wrestle one of the best tag matches of all time in December 1993 and then again in May 1994, have a historic epic with Misawa in June, have four epictag matches in 1995 alone, fight Kobashi in one of the best 60-minute draws ever, and would have another great match against Misawa almost two years to the day from this one.
So maybe losing here wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.