I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: The best in-ring pro-wrestling history came from 1990s All Japan Pro-Wrestling. That company’s golden decade produced so many great matches that’ve either maintained their initial status or have improved with age. As such, I decided to go back once again and revisit a lost classic that most people might not have heard of.
This match pitted two of AJPW’s most vicious and remorseless wrestlers against each other for the most prestigious and coveted prize in all of wrestling. There was no hero in this match; it was a match between two villains. Yet they fought so well that by the end both of them were being cheered wildly by the crowd. How did they manage to pull that off? Read on to find out.
Today we look back at the World Title match between ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams and Toshiaki Kawada from October 22nd, 1994.
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.
Four months earlier on June 3rd, Kawada challenged Misawa for his Triple Crown Heavyweight title and lost. Despite wrestling in arguably the greatest match to ever take place, Kawada still came up short. And yet, he did enough damage to Misawa in that match to make Misawa’s next challenge even more difficult. Sure enough, on July 28th, Misawa lost the Triple Crown to ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams. In doing so, Doc became an overnight superstar in All Japan. He managed do end Misawa’s reign after 705 days and in the process went from an upper-card tag wrestler to AJPW’s #1 gaijin star. In Doc’s first defense, he managed to defeat Kenta Kobashi in a grueling 40-minute-plus epic. But even though Kobashi lost, he left Doc with some battle scars just as Kawada had done to Misawa in June. Kobashi had weakened one of Doc’s knees badly in their match, to the point that said knee wasn’t fully healed going into this match.
This was Kawada’s big chance. He wasn’t able to dethrone Misawa and that irked him to no end. At the same time, neither Misawa nor Kobashi were able to stop Dr. Death’s rampage, especially since he beat both of them with his murderous Dangerous Backdrop Driver.
Going into this match, everyone wondered if Kawada could do what Misawa couldn’t. Would Kawada – AJPW’s perpetual #2 star – become world champion by defeating the most terrifying menace in the company? Or would he succumb to the monstrous Oklahoman and his Dangerous Backdrop just like everyone else?
This match originally took place on October 22nd, 1994. It was rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Looking back now after almost thirty years, let’s see how well this match holds up.
This is for Doc’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Kawada goes after Doc’s bad leg right away but Doc amateur grapples out. They wrestle again and Doc takes Kawada down. More amateur-style grappling leads to a tense nose-to-nose standoff. They lock up once more and Kawada kicks Doc’s bad leg a few times. Doc knocks him down and tries to shake off those attacks. Kawada takes Doc down to the mat and traps his head and arm. Doc rolls into a quick pin for a one-count and then escapes using a headscissor. He tries to lock in a cross armbreaker but Kawada holds on so Doc traps him in a guard. Kawada escapes and as Doc tries to get up he dropkicks Doc’s bad knee. Doc rolls to the floor clasping his knee. He does a great job of bringing everyone’s attention to that leg and tries to work through the pain. He tries to re-enter the ring and makes the ref force Kawada back.
Doc comes back in but Kawada attacks anyway like a shark smelling blood. Doc tries fighting back but Kawada powers through and locks in a torturous single leg crab. Doc gets a rope break and tries to keep Kawada at bay but Kawada goes back to that knee with kicks and kneedrops. The ref asks Doc if he can continue and he says yes. That’s all Kawada needs to continue his assault. He puts his foot on the back of Doc’s bad knee and drives it hard into the mat. Twice. Doc rolls to ringside and pulls off his kneepad to make sure his knee is still in one piece. He limps around the ring to regain feeling and gets back into the ring. But instead of going right for Kawada to fight he hobbles into a corner to get as much strength back into it as he can.
Kawada does the honorable thing and waits for him to get away from the ropes and then drop toeholds him into an STF. Kawada switches into a side grounded headlock but Doc starts getting to his feet. Then he wraps his arms around Kawada’s torso. Dangerous Backdrop time! Kawada blocks it. Doc sends him into the ropes and doesn’t budge on a shoulder tackle. Kawada charges. Doc drop toeholds him and goes after Kawada’s main kicking leg. Doc traps both of Kawada’s legs in a stretch and then grabs both his arms for the test of strength double-arm hold. After a long struggle Kawada powers through and reverses the hold on Doc. Suddenly Doc counters back and hooks both of Kawada’s arms. Tiger suplex by Dr. Death. Kawada gets dropped hard. Kawada tries to fight through the pain and gets up but the damage is too much and he staggers out of the ring. Man, Kawada’s delayed-fight-through-the-pain selling is awesome.
The fans chant for Kawada as he recovers ringside and Doc recovers in the ring. Kawada returns and Doc lands stiff jabs and forearms. Kawada dodges a lariat at the last second but falls to the floor, allowing Doc to lock in a facelock. Doc continues to target Kawada’s neck with chokes and stiff forearms. He goes to pick Kawada up but Kawada lands more kicks to Doc’s bad knee. Doc fires back with kicks to Kawada’s spine and Kawada fires back with a stiff forearm. But it’s Kawada that goes down, not Doc. Doc presses Kawada over his head and then drops him throat-first on the top rope. Doc follows with two big corner clotheslines. He goes for a third but Kawada collapses to the mat from the damage. Kawada struggles to his knees as Doc rains ax handles on his head and foot chokes him in the corner. Doc follows with a Stinger Splash and goes for a suplex. Wait, no. Sheerdrop Brainbuster! Doc drops Kawada on his head. But he can’t pin right away because of the toll it took on his leg. Doc crawls over for a pin. One two, Kawada kicks out.
Doc applies a Figure-4 neck lock but Kawada gets to the ropes. Kawada kicks out to block a corner charge but Doc tanks it like it’s nothing and attempts another Dangerous Backdrop. Kawada rushes the ropes right away for safety. Doc hammer fists and Irish whips him. Kawada counters with a leg lariat. Awesome counter. Kawada follows with kicks and chops but Doc starts hulking up. Doc drops Kawada with a big right hand. Doc starts toying with Kawada until Kawada fires back with forearms and a corner yakuza kick. Kawada goes for a rope-assisted corner kick but Doc throws him away. Kawada answers with another stiff yakuza kick. Doc blocks a corner whip and lands a football tackle. he lands some dropkicks on Kawada but aggravates his knee in the process. Still, Doc fights through the pain and lands his Oklahoma Stampede running powerslam. He hits one corner and goes for the other, but his leg gives out before he can finish. Kawada takes advantage with a dropkick that sends Doc to the floor.
After checking on his knee again, Doc gets to the apron and answers Kawada’s forearms with a shoulder to the gut. He goes to the top rope but almost loses his balance because of his knee. That momentary hesitation allows Kawada to land a midair high kick as Doc dives. Both men collapse. Kawada gets up first and lands a high kick and a running lariat but only gets a one-count. Kawada goes for a powerbomb but Doc resists, so he lands stepkick to try and weaken Doc’s resolve. Doc escapes and gets right in Kawada’s face. He no-sells Kawada’s stiff slaps and lands a jab. Both men stagger. Kawada goes down following more jabs and slaps until Doc pulls him back up. Kawada lands a desperation kick to Doc’s calf. Dangerous Backdrop by Kawada! Kawada drops Dr. Death with his own move. One, two, no, Doc kicks out. Stretch Plum submission hold. Doc falls to the mat but still kicks out at two. Kawada reapplies the hold and pins again but Doc survives once again.
Doc rolls out of the ring but Kawada tosses him back in. Kawada lands a second-rope kneedrop and goes for another Dangerous Backdrop. But this time Doc elbows out and charges. Kawada counters with a sleeper and turns it into a choke. The ref makes him break it up so he applies another sleeper. Doc gets hit foot under the ropes so Kawada starts kicking his face and tries another powerbomb. He tries and tries but Doc’s too strong as he counters with a spinebuster.
Doc struggles to get to his feet due to his knee as the thirty-minute mark passes. He goes for another Tiger suplex but Kawada gets to the ropes. He tries his own Dangerous Backdrop but Kawada reaches the ropes again. Doc answers with a forearm to his back, followed by a successful Tiger suplex. Doc follows with a gutwrench powerbomb. One, two, no, Kawada kicks out. The fans chant Kawada’s name as Doc wraps his arm around him. Kawada tries to break free but can’t. Dangerous Backdrop Driver! Doc connects with his terrifying finisher. Doc crawls over to pin Kawada but Kawada holds onto the ropes for dear life and then escapes to ringside. Great ring awareness by Kawada. Doc lifts up a near-dead Kawada and tosses him into the ring for the pin. One, two, th – no, Kawada barely kicks out. Even after all that time, Kawada barely kicks out. Such was the awesome power of Dr. Death’s Dangerous Backdrop.
Kawada rolls back out but Doc catches him. He teases a Dangerous Backdrop onto the ringside mats. Kawada counters by pushing off the apron, sending both of them into the barricade. Doc gets up first and drags Kawada back into the ring. He lands a T-bone-style powerslam and pins but only gets two. He goes for another move but Kawada kicks him away. Kawada fires back with a rolling kick to Doc’s head. Kawada lifts with all his might…and drops Doc with a powerbomb. One, two, Doc survives. Kawada tries again. Doc powers out. Kawada answers with a yakuza kick to Doc’s face. He charges for a lariat. Doc counters with a judo arm throw. Doc follows with some snap jabs that make Kawada stagger. Dangerous Back – no, Kawada reaches the ropes again. Doc tries pulling Kawada from the ropes by his tights. Kawada answers with a stiff backfist and another kick to Doc’s bad knee. Jumping enzuigiri. Kawada tries for his gamengiri kick to the face but Doc blocks it. Kawada lands hard on his own bad knee but still fights on. Doc blocks another rolling kick but can’t block the next attack. Jumping gamengiri kick connects. Doc staggers into the ropes. Kawada lariats Doc in the back of the head. Doc remains standing. One more gamengiri kick to the face. Doc does down. Kawada pins. One, two, and three! Kawada wins! Kawada does what Misawa couldn’t and beats Dr. Death! Kawada is World Champion! People are crying and screaming at Kawada’s victory!
Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 37:58: Toshiaki Kawada
Hell yeah, what a war. That was an awesome world title match. It was brutal and realistic. These two wrestlers tore each other apart for almost forty minutes in a match that was part scientific and part brawl. Even with some slow parts and a somewhat-quieter-than-normal crowd, this match kicked ass. If you want to see two wrestling badasses destroy each other in exciting and realistic ways, this is the match for you.
Kawada was the underdog here as he sought to dethrone the much bigger and stronger Dr. Death. He knew that going mano-a-mano with Doc was a fool’s errand so he decided to take advantage of an existing weakness to keep Doc on the defensive. That was smart on his part as it showed him applying common sense. Why would he ignore such a clear opportunity to take Doc down, especially in such a high-stakes match? Kawada did an amazing job of going to that injured knee that Kobashi first weakened in September time and again throughout the match. Each time it looked like Doc was going to destroy him, Kawada went back to the knee and cut Doc’s momentum from beneath him.
Doc sold incredibly here, such as when he staggered around the ring, almost lost his balance on the top rope, and couldn’t capitalize on big moves right away. This was a clinic in how to sell a limb properly and incorporate into the entire match as opposed to only doing so at short points in the match. This made the match feel more real and kept the tension high without it ever really fading. Even during its slowest points there was this omnipresent threat on Doc’s part. Would his knee give out? Would he lose his power advantage? Would he able to land all of his most important moves and keep Kawada down? Those questions were answered as the match progressed, and unfortunately for Doc, he wasn’t able to get the answers he wanted.
Doc was forced to forego any real strategy and resorted to throwing bombs, hoping something would stick. With Kawada attacking him so relentlessly, Doc had to rely on pure brawling and stiff strikes to try and win. His amateur credentials weren’t enough because Kawada was able to find opening after opening and exploit them, which forced Doc into a corner. But Kawada did have a weakness in his neck, which Doc was more than willing to take advantage of. Doc was able to weaken Kawada significantly by spamming high-impact bombs and stiff strikes to counteract Kawada’s psychology-driven assault on his knee. And Kawada likewise sold like a boss here. Once again, he showed a kind of selling that’s extremely rare in today’s wrestling: his patented ‘delayed selling’. There were several moments when Kawada took a massive bump and tried his hardest to fight through it but couldn’t. His will to fight was overcome by his body giving up on him momentarily.
But the audience appreciated Kawada’s toughness so much here that they cheered him like he was Misawa. The normally-despised Kawada, AJPW’s #1 heel, was given a hero’s welcome when he won the match. He overcame a seemingly impossible force in Dr. Death and managed to eke out a victory. And even though Kawada was on offense for more time in the match, he took as much damage as Doc did, if not more. Kawada got spiked on his head and neck several times, including from a Brainbuster, two Tiger suplexes, and of course, a Dangerous Backdrop Driver. That horrifying, head-spiking back suplex on steroids was the most feared move in the world at the time. Kawada’s bitter archrival Misawa lost the world title to that move. Kobashi, in his first-ever world title defense, somehow survived three of them. But neither of them did what Kawada did here. Not only did he survive such a brutal move, but he managed to turn the match around and win. After decimating Doc’s knee to the point that he couldn’t mount a sustained comeback, Kawada fought fire with fire and hit Doc with bomb after bomb. In the end, after several incredibly stiff strikes to the head and neck, Kawada was able to put Doc away and win his first world title. It was as cathartic a moment as possible for Kawada, who managed to re-establish himself as being on Misawa’s level and not beneath him, as most people believed him to be.
All of this being said, I the match wasn’t without its faults. The biggest issue here was its length, clocking in at almost 38 minutes long. And while I’ve seen lots of great match go that length or longer, it didn’t translate to perfection here. There were too many moments of dead air and wasted motion throughout the match. It was as if they went long just for the sake of it, to prove that both were tough and conditioned enough to do so. And yet, this wasn’t the same as the Doc-Kobashi 42-minute epic from the prior month. That match was much more airtight and had better pacing whereas this one didn’t. The opening fifteen minutes dragged a bit and there was a marked lack of urgency in the action, in spite of its technical flawlessness. They could’ve shaved off five to ten minutes and moved a bit faster and this would’ve been a much stronger and more impressive match overall.
Secondly, while Doc’s selling was remarkable here, it was also a tad inconsistent. Throughout the match he kept going down to one knee and slowing down because he was in such pain. Yet moments later he was running across the ring with his Oklahoma Stampede or landing dropkicks, which seemed completely illogical. If his knee was causing him such trouble, why would he risk doing further damage to it knowing Kawada would pounce on him right away? I get that he was trying to sell like he was a tough sonofabitch for fighting through immense pain, but there were some small actions that Doc did here that weren’t necessary. He could’ve forewent the dropkicks and the high-speed charges across the ring and focused more on hitting brutally hard and spiking his opponent whenever possible. Doing so would’ve made more sense, even if it would’ve made him look more sluggish. After all, if he was worried about his knee giving out on him at any moment, it would’ve been more sensible to wear Kawada down with submission holds and hit bombs than to sprint across the ring and do football tackles since those did just as much damage to him as they did to his opponent.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This match holds up incredibly well after almost thirty years. Even if it wasn’t as quick as modern matches, it told a better and more consistent story. The in-ring wrestling was logical and commonsensical; and although it didn’t have the most airtight psychology or flow, it made up for those minor flaws by being exciting and brutal. So many modern matches are structured in ways that made them come across as ‘performances’ while this one is almost a pure fight. If you enjoy that sort of hard-nosed and realistic wrestling, this one’s worth a re-watch.
It’s too bad that ‘Dr. Death’ had to mess up his career by being misused in WWE. I’m sure the money WWE offered him was great, but there’s just no way he would’ve been used right. Doc was a grizzly bear that unleashed mayhem by wrecking people in ways that looked almost shoot-like. In his best matches – including this one – he thrived by making it look like he had no regard for his opponent’s safety. That was his appeal: he was such a skilled professional that he was able to convince viewers that he was being unprofessional with how he manhandled his opponents.
I’ve heard that he was supposed to be brought in to be a major challenger for ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin’s WWE Title. To be honest, I’m glad that match-up never took place, because there’s no WWE would allow Dr. Death to be himself against a post-neck injury Steve Austin. As such, it’s best to look back at Doc’s prime, which was when he was in All Japan during their golden decade.
Thanks for reading.