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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Yoshihiro Takayama – NOAH Double Feature

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Everyone loves a good David vs. Goliath fight. It’s one thing to see two even-sized wrestlers face off with both of them being on equal footing. But there’s something special in a fight between two greatly mismatched opponents. Let’s take a look back at a pair of matches between NOAH wrestlers Mitsuharu Misawa and Yoshihiro Takayama from the early 2000s.

The matches we’re looking at today fall into that second category. On one side is an average-sized wrestler while on the other is a guy that, by Japanese standards, is a giant. But instead of falling into the same pitfalls and telling the exact same story as has been told many times before, these two wrestlers manage to take the classic David vs. Goliath dynamic and make it into something special. How did they do that? Read on to find out.

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.

Misawa vs Takayama – NOAH April 15th, 2001

The story

Pro Wrestling NOAH first formed on June 16th, 2000 following a mass exodus of talent from All Japan Pro Wrestling. Their first year saw them establish themselves as a company and setup all the basics that were needed to run a wrestling promotion. For the rest of 2000 and the first quarter of 2001, NOAH’s sole focus was establishing themselves as a brand.

It wasn’t until spring 2001 that the company actually created their world title, the GHC Heavyweight Championship. And to determine the inaugural champion, a 16-man tournament was held. In that tournament, Misawa, the company founder, scored victories over midcarder Akitoshi Saito, his right-hand man Yoshinari Ogawa, and top-level star Jun Akiyama. Meanwhile, Takayama beat midcarders Jun Izumida and Kentaro Shiga, and then scored a big victory over Vader.

And so it came down to two: Misawa and Takayama. One was a wrestling legend from the prior decade that led his wrestlers to the promise of glory in his new company. The other was a giant known for being nearly impossible to keep down. Only one of them would walk away as champion, but which one would it be?

The match

This match originally took place on April 15th, 2001. It was originally rated **** out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

The winner of this match becomes the inaugural GHC Heavyweight Champion. The crowd chant for Misawa as Takayama gets a clean break on the ropes. Some amateur grappling follows as Misawa tries to take a limb but Takayama remains cautious and locks in a front chancery. Takayama takes Misawa to the mat with a headlock and uses his massive legs to trap one of Misawa’s arms. Misawa gets a ropebreak and on their next lock-up tries the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Takayama overpowers him easily and when Misawa gets a glimpse of control Takayama counters with a double wrist suplex and pins for a one-count.

Misawa waistlocks Takayama but ends up in a rear facelock. Takayama keeps this hold in for a while until Misawa gets a ropebreak, at which point Takayama kicks Misawa’s spine. Ouch. He pins with one foot on Misawa’s chest but only gets two. Takayama takes control with some STIFF forearms to the back and neck. But then Misawa starts hitting back with elbows. Misawa charges for a running elbow smash, Takayama gets his foot up for a big boot. Misawa jumps over his foot and connects with the elbow. Awesome counter. Takayama falls to the floor. Elbow suicida by Misawa. Misawa tosses him into the ring and goes for a top-rope diving elbow. But Takayama counter with a knee lift to Misawa’s gut. Misawa goes down hard. Takayama dropkicks him to the floor.

Takayama waits for Misawa to get to his feet and then hits a basement dropkick. He follows Misawa to ringside and then back suplexes him onto the commentator’s table. And since it’s a Japanese table, it doesn’t break, so Misawa lands extremely hard. Misawa recovers and re-enters the ring and is forced to kick out of quick pins. Takayama attempts a cross armbreaker but Misawa keeps his arms clasped; and when Takayama breaks them apart Misawa rolls to the ropes as quickly as he can. Takayama lands some more stiff kicks that echo throughout the arena. He follows with a jumping knee and another front chancery, but Misawa gets to the ropes and starts hitting back with elbows. He charges but Takayama ducks. Misawa lands on his feet on the elevated entrance ramp. Takayama hits a huge boot and then back suplexes Misawa onto the apron. What a painful landing for Misawa. But Takayama’s not done. He goes up the ramp and gets a full head of steam. Full-power jumping knee against the ring ropes. Takayama pins but only gets two.

In the ring, Takayama facleocks Misawa and when he gets a ropebreak, Takayama lands a leg drop for a two-count. He powers Misawa into a corner and starts trash-talking him, when suddenly, Misawa starts hulking up and hits his trademark elbows. Takayama tries to go blow-for-blow with Misawa. Big mistake. Misawa drops him with an elbow smash and then pushes him into a corner. Takayama counters a corner whip but Misawa blocks a corner charge. Misawa goes for a spinkick. Wait, no, he switches to a double-leg takedown and locks in a kneebar. Takayama crawls to the ropes. Misawa goes for another running elbow. Takayama blocks with a big boot with one leg and then a stiff kneelift with the other (weakened) leg. Both men go down as Takayama risks his own body to beat Misawa. Then both men get up. Takayama has a longer reach and hits first with two massive high kicks to the head. Misawa falls to the mat unmoving and Takayama pins. One, two, Misawa barely kicks out. Takayama signals the end. Everest bridging German suplex. One, two, th – Misawa kicks out again and goes to the corner. He tries to hold onto the ropes for safety. Takayama answers with another high kick. Second Everest German. Misawa somehow survives. The crowd explodes in applause.

Frustrated, Takayama decides to destroy what’s left of Misawa’s body with stiff punts to the spine. And on his third one, he shakes things up and kicks Misawa right in the collar and then lands a Hogan leg drop. All of that gets Takayama a two-count, but that kick busts Misawa’s collar open. Misawa’s blood pours onto Takayama as he lands forearms and goes for another cross armbreaker. Misawa gets a ropebreak and Takayama reluctantly lets go. Takayama attempts more German suplexes. Misawa elbows out and then lands a massive one-two elbow smash combo. Takayama goes down but kicks out of a pin.

Misawa lifts Takayama up but he powers out and lands another kneelift and attempts a German. Misawa wrestles out and into a grounded Fujiwara armbar. Takayama reaches the ropes with his long legs so Misawa pulls him back to the middle of the ring and reapplies an inverted cross armbreaker (with Takayama on his stomach instead of his back to do extra damage to the arm). Takayama gets to the ropes so Misawa locks in yet another armbar. Takayama counters by deadlifting Misawa into a powerbomb, inspiring Roman Reigns in the process. Takayama goes for a follow-up move but Misawa catches by surprise and reapplies the armbreaker, only for Takayama to roll over and hit the ropes.

Takayama goes for a big boot but Misawa elbows his leg. And then his face. Tiger Driver. Kick-out. Misawa tries a second one. Takayama powers out and kicks his spine again. Bridging Tiger Suplex by Takayama onto Misawa. Misawa kicks out. Both men get up and start trading stiff strikes. Misawa blocks a kick and elbows the hell out of Takayama’s face. Rolling elbow smash! Takayama kicks out. Running elbow smash! Takayama gets a shoulder up. Misawa scoops him onto his shoulder and drops him down. Emerald Flowsion! One, two, and three! There’s the match! The first champion is crowned!

Winner and inaugural GHC Heavyweight Champion after 21:12: Mitsuharu Misawa

Review

That’s how you crown a first champion. That match was a twenty-minute war between two diametrically-opposing forces. It was NOAH’s version of the superhero vs. monster story that has been told many times in pro-wrestling. But instead of going down the same path as the wrestlers that came before them, Misawa and Takayama told a newer, different story that makes this a pretty damn good match all things considered.

The match was fairly straightforward: it had an early section dedicated to both wrestlers looking for weaknesses to exploit, a middle portion controlled by the much-larger and stronger Takayama, and a race to the finish that saw Misawa surpass his opponent and eventually beat him. Misawa showed why he was a world-class wrestler here: he had to rely on amateur grappling and legit submission holds to try and weaken his mammoth opponent. He tried strategy after strategy while his arm recovered, until it was healthy enough for him to start raining elbows. And once that happened, it became a matter of time. In the end, Takayama got his guard opened and just ate elbow after elbow, almost like in that fight with Frye. But he remained defiant until the bitter end, which forced Misawa to switch things up and drill him with an Emerald Flowsion. It was one thing for Takayama to keep kicking up after all those elbow smashes; after all, Misawa’s arm wasn’t at full 100% when he went on that finisher spree. But the fact that Misawa had to unleash his new super-finisher to keep Takayama down also underscored how big of a threat he was.

Speaking of Takayama, there’s a reason why I keep reviewing his matches: he is a much more believable monster giant than most that’ve come and gone here in North America. Takayama wasn’t just a generic big dude; he cut his teeth in UWFi and came to All Japan and later NOAH with legit amateur grappling experience. So not only was he bigger than most of his opponents; he was also tougher from spending years eating full-contact strikes and was very comfortable applying real submission holds. In simpler terms, he was dangerous. He wasn’t a pure grappler like Kurt Angle or a powerhouse like Batista; his move-set was limited to a few key moves that he did extremely well. His kicks looked and sounded incredibly stiff. His submission holds were convincing, as were his escapes and counters since he was adept on the mat. He absorbed ridiculous punishment to the point that people started wondering to what lengths Misawa had to go to if he hoped to win. And of course, he proved he can match Misawa at his own game with his own suplexes.

There’s this belief that giant wrestlers should never leave their feet. I say otherwise. Seeing smaller wrestlers bounce off an immobile, lumbering giant is boring and passé. At the same time, it wouldn’t make sense for a guy like Takayama to do Frankensteiners and flips. But he found a solid milieu with his running knees, dropkicks and sudden bursts of speed. His moves weren’t graceful, which seems to be what a lot of modern wrestlers strive for; they were brutal. Everything Takayama did here looked like it hurt like hell (and considering how stiff he was, it probably did). He was so great as a monster heel because he proved he wasn’t a one-trick pony; instead of doing the old school shtick of eating punishment and not moving, Takayama made things bad for Misawa by eating punishment and matching Misawa in terms of speed and agility. He was an agile monster, which made him so much more compelling than a monster that doesn’t move. In that sense he was like The Undertaker, only without the character. And we all know how great of a wrestler Undertaker has proven himself to be.

Final Rating: ****1/2

This was a great way to set the bar high for a new championship. It might not have been a historic classic by any means, but it had its moments. Misawa was the company hero and figurehead that could do no wrong and Takayama was perhaps the most credible threat NOAH had at the time. In the end, Misawa reigned supreme but Takayama more than made it tough for him to get to the top. Misawa might’ve ended the match as winner and champion, but Takayama left the match looking better than how he entered.

After all, Misawa was Misawa; he was a legend no matter what he did. But Takayama, a guy that was largely unused in All Japan before Misawa’s NOAH exodus, got a monster push (pardon the pun) and proved he could hang with one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. So really, this was a win-win situation for everyone, even if Takayama did lose the match.

 

Misawa vs Takayama – NOAH September 23rd 2002

The story

A lot changed in the year-plus between the first match and this one. Misawa lost the GHC heavyweight title to Jun Akiyama, the guy NOAH pegged to be their new ace and carry them forward, especially since no one knew when (or if) Kenta Kobashi would return. But Akiyama flopped as a champion and so he lost the title in shocking fashion to Misawa’s right-hand man Yoshinari Ogawa. And a few months later, Ogawa lost it to Takayama.

But this wasn’t the same Takayama as the one that almost beat Misawa in the above match. Takayama was a freelancer who wrestled wherever he wanted and NOAH just so happened to be his home base. So during that freelance period, Takayama decided to dabble in MMA, even though it was largely seen as career suicide considering how many of New Japan’s guys got their careers nearly destroyed by doing so (Nagata, Hashimoto, etc.).

Takayama fancied himself a Japanese Mick Foley and decided to push the limits of how much punishment he can handle. Takayama lost his first two fights, but everyone that saw them agreed that they stole the show and elevated Takayama’s status as a star and as an athlete.

And then…there was this.

On June 23rd, 2002 at Pride 21, Takayama fought Don Frye in a fight so great Dave Meltzer said the following about it:

“You could have said the first two minutes of the match were the greatest two minutes in the history of MMA, boxing, kickboxing, pro wrestling and just about anything short of sex, and not have been disappointed, because it was.” – Dave Meltzer, Wrestling Observer Newsletter, July 8th, 2002.

Takayama endured ungodly punishment in that fight with Frye. And even though he lost, he came back to pro-wrestling a bigger star than ever. He now possessed this aura of an indestructible monster and people believed it more than ever before. Even the skeptics and the jaded that saw wrestling as phony and dated believed in Takayama’s bottomless well of durability. His career was already on something of an upswing, but that match catapulted him into superstardom in Japan. Almost three months to the day after that fight, Takayama won the GHC Heavyweight Championship.

But his celebration was short-lived as Takayama had his first title defense only two weeks after winning the belt. Not only that, but his opponent was Misawa, the man that beat him to become the first champion.

And so, Takayama found himself in the biggest match of his career. He was defending NOAH’s top prize against their company’s founder and one of the best pro-wrestlers to ever live. He had proven he could hang with Misawa before, and his MMA career showed that he was extremely hard to keep down. Then of course, there was Misawa’s physical state. Time was catching up to him and Misawa was very much on the downside of his career. He had already taken countless ungodly bumps to the point that he likely suffered more damage to his body over the course of his career than Takayama did across both his wrestling and MMA careers. So with all of that, the match became hard to predict. Would Misawa become a 2-time world champion? Or would Takayama get revenge for his loss from a year earlier and continue his upward momentum following the best MMA fight ever?

The match

This match originally took place on September 23rd, 2002. It was rated ***3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s take a closer look and see how well it holds up now.

Takayama gets a clean break on the ropes and arrogantly puts his hand over Misawa’s face and Misawa shoves it aside. Unfazed, Takayama marches forward and gets right in Misawa’s face. Instinctively, Misawa hits one of his patented elbow smashes. But Takayama doesn’t even flinch. Misawa hits two more. Takayama no-sells and lands a punch of his own. They trade stiff strikes like this is that MMA fight. Misawa realizes that strategy won’t work and goes for a double-leg takedown. Takayama counters with a guillotine choke and goes for a cross armbreaker. Misawa rolls to the safety of the ropes, leading to a stalemate.

They do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock and Takayama rushes Misawa into the ropes. he unloads with elbows and then lands a STIFF high kick to Misawa’s chest. After a getting a breather ringside, Misawa takes Takayama down by his legs and applies some sort of cross-legged hold. Takayama gets a ropebreak and walks around, showing no ill effects of that legwork. He applies a double-wrist lock and powers Misawa into a corner, and then hits a flurry of kneelifts. He follows with an armtrap facelock but Misawa manages to power out. At the five-minute mark, both wrestlers start kickboxing, scoring stiff kicks on each other. Misawa tries and fails as Takayama easily out-kicks him and drops him into a corner. The ref starts counting Misawa to make sure he can keep going, and it takes him up to the count of eight to get to his feet. They lock-up again and this time Misawa’s elbows manage to do at least make Takayama flinch. Takayama counters a corner whip but gets his charge blocked. Misawa prepares for a diving dropkick but Takayama cuts him off and boots him from the apron to the floor.

Takayama whips Misawa into the steel barricade and then boots him over it, ten years before Okada started making that a regular thing. Eventually Misawa makes it back to the ring, and Takayama pins with his foot on Misawa’s chest for a two-count. Takayama lands some stiff kicks and a running dropkick which cause Misawa to squirm in pain as if he’s having trouble breathing. He makes it to his feet but needs the help of the turnbuckle to stay up. The ref orders him to leave the corner and he does, which leads to another Greco-Roman knuckle lock. This time it’s Misawa that lands the counter double wrist suplex and he applies a headlock, only for Takayama to reach the ropes quickly. Misawa follows with a facelock but Takayama escapes with knees to the head. Misawa doesn’t like that and answers with knees of his own. Takayama looks out of it for a moment and then starts stirring, at which point Misawa walks over and starts hammering him with forearm clubs and kneelifts. He fires away with those strikes until Takayama dumps him out of the ring and onto the entrance ramp. Takayama jumps over the rope and stomps on Misawa’s back. He goes to whip Misawa, Misawa counters it, then pulls back and hits an elbow. Running elbow smash. Both Misawa and Takayama tumble back into the ring.

Takayama counters an Irish whip but Misawa ducks his kick and lands a running elbow smash and then dropkicks him to the floor. Misawa follows with his elbow suicida through the ropes. Misawa maintains control with another elbow smash from the apron. Takayama goes careering through the barricade door out into the stands. The referee starts his ring-out count and Misawa tosses Takayama into the ring at seventeen. He goes to the top rope…dives…and collides with Takayama’s knee. Bridging butterfly suplex by Takayama. Misawa kicks out. Takayama starts booting him in the face. Misawa catches his leg and hits elbows. Takayama counters with a cross armbreaker. Misawa gets a ropebreak but Takayama takes a long time letting go. Takayama snapmares Misawa and goes for the running PK to the chest. Misawa ducks and eats a kick to the spine instead. Takayama charges again. Misawa catches his leg and takes him down. Running elbow smash. Rolling elbow smash. Bridging German suplex. Takayama kicks out. A Tiger Driver gets Misawa another two-count, as do a frog splash and a facelock submission hold. Takayama fights out of a Tiger suplex and Misawa dodges a yakuza kick. Misawa hits elbows, tanks one kick to the face and elbows Takayama’s leg on another. Another running elbow smash. Takayama kicks out yet again.

Misawa hits another running elbow but this time Takayama remains standing and lands a high kick to Misawa’s head. Both men go down but Takayama still pins for two. He goes for another butterfly suplex but Misawa resists. In response, Takayama unleashes a flurry of kneelifts to Misawa’s head and gut. Misawa slumps into the corner. Takayama follows with a running corner dropkick and a snapmare/running kick combination. One, two, Misawa kicks out. The crowd’s going nuts chanting for Misawa as Takayama signals the end. Everest German suplex. One, no, Takayama rolls through for another one. A second Everest German. Misawa kicks out. Takayama tries again. Misawa elbows out and lands an arm-trapping suplex. Misawa hits some stiff elbows and goes for the Emerald Flowsion. Takayama reverses and throws him over his shoulder and pins but Misawa gets a ropebreak.

Takayama’s face is bloody as Misawa continues hitting him with elbows. He counters one of them with an arm throw and goes for a kick. Misawa dodges and Takayama tries for a German. Misawa dodges that too and lands a fireman’s carry. One-two stiff elbow combination. Rolling elbow smash. One, two, and thr – NO, Takayama still kicks out. Misawa starts a ground-and-pound elbow flurry. Takayama counters with a kneebar until Misawa reaches the ropes. With nothing left, Takayama starts hitting stiff punches to match Misawa’s elbows. Misawa blocks a high kick and lands one more running elbow smash. One, two, three! There’s the match! We have a new champion!

Winner and NEW GHC Heavyweight Champion after 23:50: Mitsuharu Misawa

Review

That was without a doubt one of the most brutal matches of the past twenty years. There was little room for grace or artistry here; instead, it was a hybrid between old school pro-wrestling and MMA. But instead of sucking, as most MMA/wrestling crossovers did back in those days, these two wrestlers actually did a great job working the gimmick of the match, and in turn created a pretty notable and worthwhile fight.

Takayama started things off very cocky and arrogant, and well, he had every right to be. What was Misawa compared to Don Frye in terms of striking? But that arrogance disappeared pretty soon as Misawa reminded everyone that he was a national amateur wrestling champion and decided to take things to the mat. Unfortunately for him, that strategy didn’t really work because Takayama was more adept in submissions and managed to shrug off whatever groundwork Misawa tried. So when Misawa got frustrated, he tried winning a strike exchange with Takayama, but that didn’t work, at least at first. Takayama was a simplistic wrestler; most of the time he only did a few things in the ring but he did those few things incredibly well. That included stiff strikes, a few heaving suplexes, and some realistic submission holds based on his experience in UWFi.

Then, just to be a smug d**k, Takayama did things he didn’t really need to like a bridging butterfly suplex and some sprinting attacks. He did those things solely to get under Misawa’s skin and shatter his confidence. That approach nearly worked, but Misawa was Misawa, stoic and resolute as ever. Once he got past Takayama’s guard with one stiff elbow combination, it became a matter of not if but when he’d win. Takayama might’ve been inhumanly tough, but Misawa was tougher. He had better conditioning and was able to go the distance in long wars of attrition better than Takayama. Ultimately, despite Takayama’s best efforts (including a lot of extremely close calls brought on by his constant targeting of Misawa’s head and neck), Misawa was able to overcome a seemingly unclimbable mountain and become champion once again.

I should also point out that this match was unbelievably stiff, even by Japanese standards. Yes, the AJPW and NOAH style was notorious for full contact strikes and high-impact suplex. But even with that in mind, these two wrestlers went to a new level altogether. To make the match as convincing as possible, Takayama actually asked Misawa to hit him for real. Misawa was more than happy to oblige and he, for the lack of a better term, beat the shit out of Takayama at Takayama’s request. The result was that not only did Takayama lose his title, but he also left the match riddled with injuries: a broken nose, dislocated AC joint, torn ligaments in his shoulder, broken right eye socket, and more. Call it bravery; call it stupidity, whatever you want. Takayama was as willing to sacrifice his body for his craft as someone like Mick Foley, which is why he has been compared to the Hardcore Legend so many times.

Final Rating: ****1/4

This was Takayama’s attempt at re-creating his fight with Done Frye in a pro-wrestling ring and it went as well as one could expect. Misawa played the role of ‘guy that hits extremely hard’ perfectly because he had been doing that for over a decade. Takayama brought his A-game here and sought to match Misawa but couldn’t. But boy did he ever go down swinging, and while the match was by no means perfect, it came across as raw and real.

Sometimes wrestling fans need something realistic and brutal to satiate that need for violence that, for the most part, can only be found in MMA fights these days. Luckily, a few wrestlers were daring enough to try and create the pro-wrestling version of an MMA fight, including these two. The result was something much better than expected, especially since the wrestling/MMA crossover that dominated Japan during that period killed more careers than it created.

Thanks for reading.