Picture the following scenario. It’s 1998 and the Monday Night Wars are at their peak. The Undertaker has defected to WCW following extreme dissatisfaction with Vince McMahon and has become WCW World Champion.
But WCW’s roster is gutted of its main talent and they’re left with a skeleton crew. The only wrestler credible enough to give ‘Taker a worthy challenge for the title isn’t a WCW guy, per se, but a guy that became famous in an earlier era, when the NWA still had value and prestige. A guy like Ric Flair or Ricky Steamboat.
That’s what we have here with this dream match.
This is a match that few people thought would ever happen. The stars had to align for something like this to happen. It’s one of the most unique matches we’ve ever looked at in this review series, and it’s one of the few matches that really lived up to expectations as a dream match.
Today we look back at the AJPW World Title match between Keiji Muto and Toshiaki Kawada.
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.
When Mitsuharu Misawa split from All Japan to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, he took all but two of AJPW’s native talent with him. One was Masanobu Fuchi, who was a veteran worker but never one to be a top draw. The other was Kawada, who refused to follow Misawa for several reasons. Misawa and Kawada had been real-life friends at one point, but there was a ceiling above Kawada so long as Misawa was there. So in order to really become his own man, Kawada decided to stay behind instead of risking becoming yet another background player in Misawa’s new company. In doing so, made a huge move that extended his career even further. Instead of being in Misawa’s shadow in NOAH or playing a support role to guys like Kobashi and Akiyama, Kawada became an overnight big money draw. With Misawa and his crew gone, the remnants of All Japan, under the leadership of Giant Baba’s widow Motoko, decided to call their bitter rivals New Japan Pro-Wrestling. And New Japan did something that would’ve been unthinkable in an earlier age: they offered to help Motoko and keep AJPW alive. To do this, Kawada as an AJPW representative got booked in huge crosspromotional matches against NJPW stars. He had some great matches during that period, and became the centerpiece of a year-long All Japan vs. New Japan storyline.
But while that story did wonders to rejuvenate Kawada and make him into the big AJPW star he wasn’t able to be while Misawa was around, it also brought in an unexpected twist: Muto’s defection to All Japan.
Muto, also known to many fans stateside as The Great Muta, had his own career renaissance throughout 2001. Instead of calling it quits in 2000 after fourteen years of incredibly taxing wrestling and the almost-complete destruction of his knees due to his love of using the moonsault, Muto changed himself entirely. He shaved his head, grew out a goatee, adopted a more technical, ground-based style, and created the Shining Wizard wrestling move.
In doing so, he, like Shawn Michaels, created an entire second leg to his wrestling career. Except his second leg is much longer, as Muto is STILL wrestling more or less regularly in 2022. Yet he has successfully managed to extend his entire career so much by simply building his matches around that Shining Wizard finisher of his.
But Muto’s in-ring renaissance wasn’t the only big deal. Muto was New Japan’s biggest star in this AJPW/NJPW story; and when it ended, Muto shocked the world by leaving New Japan and jumping ship to All Japan. He also took some big rising stars with him such as Satoshi Kojima and Kendo Kashin to All Japan, which likewise sent shockwaves through New Japan. Muto did this because he was growing increasingly frustrated with Antonio Inoki’s questionable and nonsensical booking direction at the time. Inoki was sacrificing one NJPW wrestler after another at the altar of mixed martial arts, which caused many wrestlers to worry about their futures. It caused Shinya Hashimoto to leave New Japan and form Pro-Wrestling Zero1, Masahiro Chono to fade into the background and pursue other ventures, and for Muto to pack up and leave. As a comparison, imagine if, during the height of the Monday Night Wars, The Undertaker left WWE for WCW and took The Rock and Ken Shamrock with him. That’s how badly New Japan was affected by Muto’s departure.
As for All Japan, they flourished when he arrived. Not only because they had one of the biggest wrestling stars in the world working for them for the first time, but also because Muto was given immense creative control as well. He was basically given free rein to change the company as he saw fit, and that proved to be All Japan’s saving grace. Muto was a merchandise selling machine and his defection not only gave All Japan a much-needed shot in the arm, but it saved All Japan from closing. Originally, Motoko Baba wanted to keep All Japan open until mid-2002 so that they can reach the 30th anniversary of the company starting out. But Muto coming in was such a success that it enabled All Japan to keep going long past that. Small wonder then that Muto became All Japan’s president not long after.
Of course, there was also the fact that, eight months earlier, Muto defeated Genichiro Tenryu to become All Japan’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. He became one of a very small handful of wrestlers to hold world title gold in both New Japan and All Japan. And now, he had to defend it against his biggest challenger yet: Kawada, the iconic monster of the Four Pillars of Heaven. The most vicious striker in Japan, the man that exemplified King’s Road and Giant Baba’s vision more than anyone else in the company at the time.
As such, it was as big a match as they got. Muto vs. Kawada. Strong Style vs. King’s Road. Realistic submission holds and an emphasis on martial arts vs. NWA-style brawling and carefully-layered high-impact bombs. Two legends from the 1990s squaring off for the most prestigious title in wrestling at the time. But which of them would win?
This match originally took place on February 24th, 2002. It was originally rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Twenty years have passed since this match first took place so let’s see how well it holds up.
This is for Muto’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Some amateur wrestling starts things off and Kawada goes for an armlock but Muto escapes with an arm drag. Kawada goes for Muto’s leg (to lessen the effectiveness of his Shining Wizard) and starts working into a facelock but Muto counters that with his own armlock. Kawada escapes a short-arm scissor with a cross-legged hold and locks in a quick bow-and-arrow hold but Muto escapes that as well. Muto recovers at ringside and attempts a dropkick to Kawada’s knee but Kawada sidesteps. They trade more amateur and MMA-style submission holds until Kawada locks in a heel hook which forces Muto to the ropes.
Kawada starts kicking and stomping on Muto’s head and shoulder tackles him down. He goes for a German suplex. No, Muto counters for his own, no, Kawada escapes and lands a ganemgiri kick to Muto’s head. But Muto powers up and goes for a Shining Wizard. Kawada blocks and attempts another Gamengiri. Muto blocks that. Dropkick to the knee (DTK) connects. Muto lands his corner handspring elbow but can’t land the follow-up facebuster because of the pain from Kawada’s kicks. Can’t say I’m surprised; Kawada’s kicks were lethal.
Muto eventually lands the facebuster and follows with his Flashing elbow drop. He goes for a suplex but Kawada counters into one of his own. But Muto no-sells and gets to his feet. Shining Wizard #1. Kawada tries to fight through it and gets to his feet but he staggers around the ring and falls to the floor. After taking some time to recover, Muto whips Kawada into the barricade and grabs a chair. The referee stops him from using it, which causes the fans to chant for the ref. Because he cares about the integrity of the title match, you see. Frustrated, Muto tosses Kawada back into the ring and lands a diving DTK. That’s followed by two more. Kawada struggles to get to his feet, at which point Muto lands a dragon screw leg whip. Kawada literally kicks out of a Figure-4 leglock and goes for a roundhouse kick, but Muto counters that with another dragon screw. Kawada fires up and runs to the ropes. Running yakuza kick/jumping gamengiri combo. Kawada’s not done. Dangerous Backdrop! Muto gets spiked on his head yet he still fights to his feet. Kawada charges and boots him into a corner. That’s followed by a second Dangerous Backdrop! Kawada pins. One, two, no, Muto kicks out.
Kawada goes for a powerbomb but Muto resists, so Kawada stepkicks him in the face. Kawada charges but Muto counters with a Frankensteiner that gets a two-count and then lands his 5th DTK. Muto gets up and decides to trade strikes with Kawada. That ends badly as Kawada mauls him with chops and different types of kicks. Kawada mounts Muto and starts punching him Steve Austin-style until the referee makes him back off to avoid being disqualified (close-fisted punches get a warning in All Japan and can cause a DQ if used too much). He goes to double-leg Muto but Muto lands a knee to Kawada’s face and then lands a rolling abisengiri kick of his own. Dragon screw leg whip #2 by Muto. Followed by two more dropkicks to the knee and another dragon screw. Muto goes for a Figure-4 leglock. Kawada blocks him from locking it in fully. Muto powers through and overcomes Kawada’s resistance. Kawada screams in pain as he’s locked in the Figure-4. Kawada tries reversing it onto Muto by rolling over but Muto simply rolls back. They go back-and-forth like that until both men reach the ropes.
Kawada kicks Muto’s shin as they both get up and Muto answers with DTK #7. Kawada fires back with a hook kick and goes for another Dangerous Backdrop. But Muto counters in midair and lands a third Shining Wizard. Kawada kicks out of a pin at two so Muto starts spamming DTKs. Kawada staggers with each one but refuses to go down, which causes the fans to get behind him more and more. Muto lands some more dropkicks for good measure, bringing Kawada down at last. Kawada manages to get to one knee but Muto fires back with yet another DTK and his 4th Shining Wizard. The ref checks on Kawada to see if he can continue. Muto crawls over for a pin. One, two, Kawada kicks out.
Kawada lands desperation kicks to Muto’s spine, to which Muto answers with another DTK and another Shining Wizard. But Muto isn’t done. Snap moonsault press! Muto takes one second too many to recover from the impact before pinning Kawada. One, two, Kawada escapes again. Shining Wizard #6. Kawada gets up first and lands two Gamengiri kicks. Brainbuster by Kawada! One, two, thr – no, Muto kicks out. The crowd’s going nuts. Kawada goes for a powerbomb but Muto powers out. Kawada charges with a yakuza kick. It’s countered with a dragon screw. Kawada fights through and hits another gamengiri kick. Muto staggers. Kawada drills him with a running lariat. Folding Powerbomb by Kawada. The referee counts one…two… thr – NO, Muto kicks out again and blocks another powerbomb. Kawada hits a stiff ax kick and tries again but can’t muster the strength to land the same powerbomb again. But he still fights on. Gamengiri! Dangerous Backdrop #4. Muto fights through and lands Shining Wizard #7. Both wrestlers collapse.
Muto gets up first and charges but eats two more gamengiri kicks. Kawada goes for a powerbomb…wait…no…he shifts mid-move. GANSO BOMB! Holy shit! Kawada spikes Muto with the most dangerous move in wrestling! One, two, no, Muto still kicks out. That crazy old bastard just survived the dreaded Ganso Bomb!
Kawada lands one more Gamengiri and lifts Muto up once more. Folding Powerbomb connects. One, two, and three! There’s the match! We have a new champion!
Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 27:37: Toshiaki Kawada
That was one of the most interesting matches I’ve seen in a long time. On one hand it was unbelievably repetitive with both Kawada and Muto hitting the same moves nonstop. On the other hand, by doing in that direction, both wrestlers put on a clinic on how to keep things simple and get the most mileage out of so little. So in that sense this was like a modern Brock Lesnar match, except longer and far more tense.
Muto’s approach was incredibly simple yet deadly effective: wear down Kawada’s legs to the point that he can’t attack or even stand up and then start spamming Shining Wizards until one of them gets him the win. Yes, it was repetitive, but it was also effective. Muto destroyed Kawada’s knees so badly with dropkicks, dragon screws, and Figure-4s that the simple act of standing up straight was seen by the fans as a valiant display of heroism from Kawada. Muto knew his own body’s limitations and so he kept going to this same well knowing it had pretty effective results. But as the match wore on, Kawada’s toughness and fighting spirit became too much for Muto to handle. And even though Muto had a great strategy, it wasn’t foolproof. Interspersed between Muto’s control segments were short bursts of power from Kawada. He hit a few big moves here and there only for Muto to regain control for longer. But Kawada got more big hits in short succession, which gradually wore Muto down enough that he couldn’t block Kawada or protect himself in any meaningful way. As such, Muto was forced to go on full offense and just spam finishers with Kawada. And by abandoning his earlier strategy to trade bombs with Muto, he lost his advantage and cost himself the match. It took Kawada a long time (and LOTS of signature ganengiri kicks, backdrops and powerbombs), but he managed to land enough big moves to keep Muto down long enough for the three-count. In the end, Kawada’s decision to forego the classic King’s Road style and trade bombs with Muto is what won him the title here. It wasn’t the same sort of complex and layered wrestling masterpiece Kawada was known for during the 1990s, but it worked all the same.
And yet, this match’s biggest selling point was also its biggest weakness. Kawada and Muto spammed the same moves over and over again, to the point that a lot of stuff came off as redundant. Both guys were equally guilty of blatant no-selling that didn’t make much sense. Muto took several high-impact suplexes throughout the match yet got up seconds later to land a follow-up move, and there were many times he didn’t bother to sell after hitting that move to create the ‘double exhaustion’ spot. He was inconsistent in his selling all the way up to the Ganso Bomb moment. It was only at that point that Muto really slowed down and sold something as seriously and as severely as the guys Kawada worked with in the past.
Speaking of Kawada, his selling was all over the place here. I’ve stated in other reviews that Kawada was probably the best wrestler in history when it came to selling pain long-term and doing this sort of delayed, fight-through-the-pain-except-no-I-can’t sort of selling. He showed some of that brilliance here, but he also showed some of the inconsistent and illogical selling I’ve seen in later (and supposedly better matches) from New Japan. I’ve mentioned before how many top wrestlers like Omega, Ibushi, Okada, and the like had nearly-flawless matches, with the biggest issues in those contests being unrealistic selling. Kawada was like that here. He spent ¾ of the match getting his knee destroyed by Muto, yet he decided to respond illogically to that. There was one point where he took a huge dropkick to his knee and a dragon screw from Muto and fell to the mat selling like he was in genuine pain. Seconds later, he was sprinting, jumping, and kicking, all of which required the full use of two healthy legs. That sort of illogical match structuring doesn’t make a wrestler look strong or determined; it makes them look silly. If you have a body part that’s being torn to shreds, you don’t immediately land a bunch of moves relying on that body part being 100% healthy. That makes your opponent’s offense look insignificant and detracts from the match’s story and psychology. Had Kawada slowed down or perhaps tried something different to win (like hitting chops, lariats, or his brutal Stretch Plum submission hold), it would’ve taken the match in a better direction.
I’m not saying he should’ve added moves here just for the sake of variety; he should’ve done so to sell the importance of what Muto was doing. Muto was far more limited at what he could do and had already proven that his simplistic strategy was both logically sound and popular with viewers. Meanwhile, Kawada had proven himself to be a guy that could get plenty of mileage out of different moves and by being unpredictable. But instead of doing that, he just spammed the same moves over and over in a way was both effective and underwhelming at the same time.
Final Rating: ****1/2
I fully agree with Meltzer’s original assessment here. Even though this match was incredibly repetitive, it was still very, very, very good. This was less a clearly-structured match with distinct phases and levels of tension and more an extended finisher sequence. Muto and Kawada decided to do something different by foregoing the classic structure of an All Japan-style match and just hit their biggest moves on each other. And because both of them were so good at that, they managed to keep the audience excited and engaged for over 27 minutes. Doing such a thing so successfully speaks volumes to both wrestlers’ skills.
These days most fans are more interested in seeing everything a given wrestler can do in a single match. What these wrestlers did here was the opposite: they only did a handful of moves but made so much out of what little they did. That’s becoming something of a lost art in today’s wrestling landscape, which is a shame because of everyone always does everything in each match, then there’s no reason to want to see them wrestle in the future.