I’ve covered All Japan Pro Wrestling extensively in this match reviews series over the past few years. That company’s golden age ended over twenty years ago yet the majority of the matches showcased have stood the test of time. I’ve praised those matches for the sheer quality, realism and intensity of the wrestling showcased during that period.
What we’re looking at today is something different. This is not a traditional AJPW-style ‘wrestling match’. Instead, it’s one of the most violent and realistic brawls I’ve ever seen. Since most people that watch and look back at AJPW do so to watch some amazing grappling contests, this particular bout often gets ignored. Yet it’s important to revisit it because it’s an integral point in the detailed and complex narrative that helped make 1990s All Japan so iconic.
Today we look back at the singles match between future tag team partners Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue from January 15th, 1991.
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.
Beginning in 1990, the world around Toshiaki Kawada began to change. His regular tag team partner and real-life close friend Mitsuharu Misawa unmasked after spending years wrestling as Tiger Mask II. Then, on June 8th, 1990, Misawa beat then-company ace Jumbo Tsuruta. That win served as a critical juncture in the direction of All Japan as Misawa’s main-event push began in earnest. As this took place, Kawada found himself as Misawa’s right-hand man. He was the first to join Misawa’s Super Generation Army and served as gatekeeper to anyone wanting to challenge Misawa one-on-one.
At the same time, Kawada found himself one step behind Misawa and needed to do something to make a name for himself. While Misawa found himself in the ‘professional wrestling’ rivalry opposite Tsuruta, Kawada found himself in a violent war with Taue. Taue was to Tsuruta what Kawada was to Misawa: his gatekeeper that served as the big test to see if someone was worthy of facing Tsuruta.
Taue was part of Misawa’s Super Generation Army at first, but when Genichiro Tenryu and many others left to form Super World of Sports, alliances were re-drawn among the remaining wrestlers in All Japan. Although Misawa’s June 8th win was historic, he failed to capitalize on it. He lost a Triple Crown title challenge against Stan Hansen a month later, and then lost his big rematch against Tsuruta to crown a new #1 contender two months after that. Taue realized that Misawa was not the leader he needed and thus abandoned the Super Generation Army to join Tsuruta. He rationalized that he would learn a lot more by teaming with the guy that was still seen as the ace instead of a guy who, thus far, only had one fluke win under his belt.
The SGA didn’t take his betrayal lightly. Instead of them being something like a perfect AJPW version of the Four Horsemen, teaming together as a quartet of rising stars all growing at the same time, Taue defected and joined forces with someone he felt was better suited to help his career grow. With that decision, new battle lines were drawn. Misawa’s SGA and Tsuruta’s Tsuruta-gun stable started a war that would go on for another two years. This war saw many intense matches, some of them singles and some of them multi-man tags. And within each stable was a hierarchy. Misawa and Tsuruta were the leaders and thus were saved for the biggest matches. Kobashi and Fuchi (plus some other lower-carders added and changed here and there) were often relegated to opening matches and served as fall guys.
And in the middle of each stable were Kawada and Taue. Kawada wanted to punish Taue for betraying the SGA, while Taue wanted to punish Kawada for…existing.
Maybe he thought he’d be rewarded for joining Tsuruta’s side, or maybe he just wanted to carve his own path. Whatever the reason, Taue seemed to have nothing but hatred for Kawada. He attacked Kawada constantly and brawled with him all over the arena, even into the fans. Many of their matches ended with one of them being slammed onto the exposed concrete floor. In fact, All Japan’s first match of 1991 saw exactly that. Their first show of the calendar year featured an elimination-style battle royal. But the 1991 edition saw Kawada and Taue want to kill each other, win and losses be damned.
And so, to try and settle things, a singles match between them was announced (All Japan could only try; the animosity between Kawada and Taue couldn’t be contained or extinguished in a single match).
This match originally took place on January 15th, 1991. It was originally rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Over thirty years have passed since this match first took place, so let’s see how well it holds up.
Taue enters the ring first and stares daggers at Kawada during his entrance. But before Kawada can even enter the ring, Taue tackles him off the apron and to the floor. Taue whips him into the barricade and smashes his head into the ring post. The bell rings and Kawada counters an Irish whip and hits a huge lariat. He applies a headlock but Taue shoots him into the ropes and hits a lariat of his own. Kawada gets back onto the apron but Taue dropkicks him to the floor. He sees Kawada stirring and dives through the ropes. The fans chant for Taue as he lariats Kawada over the barricade and into the fans. There are no disqualifications in All Japan so Taue grabs a chair and smashes it on Kawada’s knee. Brutal and violent start to the match.
Kawada hobbles back towards the ring but Taue stomps on his head before he can actually re-enter it. Finally, Kawada has had enough. He drags Taue out of the ring by his foot and slams him to the floor. Kawada then grinds Taue’s head against the top of the steel barricade and grabs a chair of his own. Taue gets busted open. With how badly he’s bleeding, it’s hard to say if it was a bladejob or if it was the hard way.
Taue gets whipped into the barricade buy defiantly bounces back, only to eat a huge kick to the chest. Kawada tries to maintain momentum but Taue smashes leg into the barricade and re-enters the ring. Kawada makes it in eventually and Taue starts working over his leg. Kawada tries hitting back with stiff kicks to Taue’s head using his free leg but Taue fires back with punches and applies a heel hook. Kawada keeps trying to kick his way to freedom but Taue kicks first with a boot to Kawada’s chin. Taue tosses Kawada back to the floor and lands a knee crusher onto the announcer’s table. Damn, what a bad landing for Kawada.
Taue’s senior Tsuruta watches from the back as Kawada rolls into the ring. His face is a bloody mess as he kicks Kawada’s knee further and goes for a Figure-4 leglock. Kawada tries to block it from being applied fully so Taue smashes it into the ringpost and then smashes the back of his knee with another chair. Desperate, Kawada starts fighting by hitting haphazard kicks with whichever foot will land. He doesn’t care, as long as something connects with Taue. Kawada tries to mount a comeback with kicks and elbows but Taue hits harder with punches. Kawada tries some kneelifts. Taue single-legs him and goes back to the leg submission holds. He applies another full heel hook. Kawada fights on with free leg kicks and eventually escapes. Both men make it to their feet and Taue starts landing head-butts. Kawada fights back with forearms until the two men start trading slaps. Taue ends up with Kawada’s bloody handprint on his face and then lands a facecrusher. He pins but Kawada kicks out at two.
Kawada’s bleeding too now as he counters an Irish whip with kicks. Taue escapes a powerbomb attempt and connects with more head-butts. Kawada fires back with elbows. Taue sumo thrusts him into a corner and lands a bottom-rope DDT for two. Taue goes to the top rope but Kawada cuts him off. Kawada goes to slam him but his leg gives out and Taue lands on top of him in a pin that also gets two. Taue lands an atomic drop. Kawada charges for a lariat but Taue boots him first. Taue charges but Kawada hits first with a lariat. Kawada tries another powerbomb. His leg gives out and Taue uses Kawada’s momentum to land in another pinning position. One, two, Kawada kicks out.
Taue lands some more stiff strikes but Kawada can only muster a few kicks from the mat. Taue goes for a suplex. Kawada counters with a cradle for two. Taue lands some head-butts and sumo palm thrusts when suddenly, Kawada unleashes all his fury. ENZUI LARIATO! Kawada lariats the back of Taue’s head! Kawada staggers over and pins. One, two, three! Kawada wins!
Winner after 11:41: Toshiaki Kawada
That was a masterclass in realism and using action to tell a story. Even without the earlier ‘story’ section setting the tone for the match, what happened here was so simple and transcendent that background details weren’t required to enjoy this contest. Kawada and Taue wanted people to believe that they genuinely hated each other and they want to incredible lengths to tell that story convincingly. Taue threw sportsmanship and the ‘purity’ of Baba’s vision of wrestling aside to attack Kawada before the bell. He brawled with Kawada and attacked him with weapons.
It was like something out of classic NWA or pre-Wellness Policy WWE. Kawada was made into the sympathetic babyface at first when he took a savage beating from Taue and then got his leg worked over. But then he threw that aside to show that this wasn’t just a competition between two athletes. This match was built on hatred and aggression and that was expressed in a way that makes this so different from everything else AJPW showcased and has become famous for.
The first half of the match was all about Kawada surviving Taue’s onslaught and trying to get the slightest bit of control. Taue showed a level of aggression that hadn’t been seen before and thus cast him in a different light. Instead of being the whipping boy for Tsuruta’s army, here he brought the fight to Kawada and went to great lengths to make Kawada’s life a living hell. Kawada did get a brief moment of control when he bloodied Taue, but all that accomplished was that it gave Taue the motivation he needed to destroy Kawada’s knee and take away Kawada’s main weapon.
That’s where things got really special as from there the match delved into submission hold territory. But whereas going to the mat would usually be the low point in a match built up as an intense war, it was the opposite here. Kawada and Taue continued striking and fighting with the same intensity on the mat as they had on their feet and at ringside. They turned what would’ve been a meandering and senseless ‘working’ segment into an intense fight for control built on stiff kicks to the face. This sort of logical decision-making was but one of the reasons why these wrestlers were so awesome; they took something out of left field for this type of match and made it into something that fit the match perfectly.
As the match progressed, Kawada became less concerned with being the babyface and more concerned with mauling Taue. The second half saw Kawada start to fight back, even though Taue was still in the driver’s seat. Kawada was so desperate and vengeful here that he didn’t really wrestle. He fought, punched, kicked and threw different strikes like someone would in a real fight. With desperation on the minds of both wrestlers, Kawada and Taue threw everything they had at each other: stiff elbows, forearms, kicks, knees, punches (usually discouraged in All Japan) and eventually, head-butts. But while it looked like Taue would regain control long enough to win, Kawada unleased a massive knock-out blow with a sudden lariat. He lived up to his ‘Dangerous K’ moniker and hit Taue with such incredible force that I’m surprised he didn’t break his own arm.
Final Rating: ****1/2
That was without a doubt one of the most violent yet exciting short matches I’ve ever seen. Both Kawada and Taue didn’t really wrestle here; this was as close to a fight as it got under the parameters of professional wrestling. Not only did this match tell its own great story, but it underscored just how far Kawada would go later on to surpass Misawa. Here, Taue and Kawada wanted to kill each other. Two years later, Kawada and Taue became regular tag team partners and the greatest tag team in AJPW history. If Kawada was willing to team up with Taue after what he did here, one can only imagine how much anger, jealousy and bitterness simmered within him for him to betray his one-time close friend.
There were no vicious head-spikes, scientific grappling sequences, dragged out exchanges, or ‘high spots’ here. This was twelve minutes of brutal and bloody fighting with some small bits of wrestling sprinkled in here and there done for the purpose of weakening one combatant’s main weapon.
By no means is this some kind of legendary marathon or epic, but its merits make it stand out enough to warrant re-watching. Besides, it’s such a short match yet it breezes by and tells an amazing story. For all those reading this tired of watching 20-, 30-, 40-minute matches or longer, this is a refreshing change of pace that still tells a key part of the larger All Japan story.