This match is a how-to guide on how to have a tag team match with 3 and a half wrestlers instead of the usual four.
Mitsuharu Misawa is the ace of AJPW. He has been a star in both singles and tag team competition, and many of his best matches (and indeed, the best matches in wrestling history) involved his tag team partners turning on him to prove they could challenge him in singles competition. You see, AJPW’s roster was always very small, so many singles stars teamed with the same people for a long time. Except for Misawa, who cycled through tag partners because he was the ace and Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. Each time he had a successful tag team run with someone, his partner would eventually turn on him and challenge him for his championship and his coveted top spot in the company.
First it was Kawada, who turned on him in the early 1990s and became his biggest archrival. Then it was Kobashi, with whom Misawa teamed until about 1996, when Kobashi really started to succeed as a singles star. And after him it was Akiyama, who became a tag team specialist while teaming with Misawa. But then Akiyama turned on him as well towards the end of the decade, forming the Burning stable with Kobashi.
So Misawa searched high and low until he found the perfect tag partner, one that would never betray him: Yoshinari Ogawa.
Ogawa is easily the least-threatening Japanese pro wrestler I have ever seen. A scrawny junior heavyweight that looks like he barely weighs more than 100 pounds, Ogawa isn’t like most tag team wrestlers. He isn’t meant to stand out on his own and shine as an equal half of a two-man team. Ogawa is the perfect sidekick, the lesser counterpart to super-wrestler Misawa. Ogawa’s sole purpose in matches is to be the underhanded foil; the little sidekick that uses cheap tactics and clever mat wrestling to win while breaking up pins whenever he can. Think of him as a Japanese version of an early 2010s heel Daniel Bryan, only without the epic beard and mountain of charisma.
In this match, Misawa and sidekick Ogawa defended their titles against two of Misawa’s former partners, Kobashi and Akiyana. Both of them have an ax to grind: Akiyama was Misawa’s partner for 3 years and wants to prove he can hang with the main-eventers. Kobashi, meanwhile, lost to Misawa a few months earlier in a true 5-star classic, and wants another shot at the big one. I have been reviewing some of the best matches in wrestling history that were rated five stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. They are part of the 5 Star Match Reviews series right here with the previous two entries looking at Misawa vs. Kobashi matches. Now we see what kind of greatness they can do in a tag team setting.
This is for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Ogawa and Akiyama start things off. They exchange arm locks before scrawny Ogawa shoulder tackles Akiyama to the floor. Akiyama tries the usual drop-down to the mat that you see every wrestler do in an Irish whip, but Ogawa stomps him in the head instead. Ogawa shows why he’s in his role by locking in a hammer arm, tossing Akiyama into Misawa (who elbows him in the face) and rolls Akiyama up for a quick one-count.
Ogawa with some excellent counter-wrestling to escape an armlock from Akiyama. Akiyama powers out and tags in Kobashi, who says he wants Misawa, and Ogawa is more than happy to oblige (I’d leave the ring right away too if an angry Kobashi was staring me down). Misawa and Kobashi lock up and Misawa eats two brutal chops to the chest without even flinching. He’s such a beast. Misawa wins a chop-elbow exchange and dropkicks Kobashi out of the ring. As Misawa charges he skins the cat like he always does, but this time Akiyama charges and knees Misawa from behind to a huge pop. Kobashi takes advantage by whipping Misawa into the steel ring barricade twice, and then into Akiyama, who jumps out of the ring and forearms Misawa as revenge from earlier.
We get some great tag team wrestling as Akiyama charges into Misawa in the corner, and he and Kobashi prepare some big double-team move. But Misawa wants none of that and manages to toss both Akiyama and Kobashi away at the same time. Great counter. Misawa elbows his way out of that predicament and hits a huge rolling elbow to Kobashi as Ogawa suplexes Akiyama away. Misawa basement dropkicks Kobashi and follows with the elbow suicida. He then gets revenge by whipping Kobashi into the steel barricade so hard the entire barricade almost falls over. Misawa tries to whip Kobashi again but Kobashi reverses it and tries to whip Misawa into the barricade, only for Ogawa to appear out of nowhere and reverses the whip, sending Misawa charging back into Kobashi with a huge running elbow!
Misawa tosses Kobashi back into the ring at the five-minute mark and gets a two-count before tagging in Ogawa. Ogawa double stomps Kobashi’s gut three times and start hammering away with worked punches. Kobashi tries to chop him down, but Ogawa keeps ducking. A thumb to the eye and a jawbreaker send Kobashi staggering. Ogawa tags Misawa, who hits stiff kicks to Kobashi’s already-mangled gut. Misawa hits a big senton on Kobashi for another two-count before locking in a grounded facelock. He tags in Ogawa and they prepare some big double-team move of their own, only for Kobashi to try and kick his way out of the corner. But then, Misawa lifts Ogawa like he’s going put him on Kobashi’s shoulders Shield Triple Powerbomb-style and Ogawa kicks Kobashi in the eye as hard as possible after thumbing it earlier. Great psychology.
Ogawa whips Kobashi and jumps onto his back with a sleeper hold, which he keeps cinched in for a long time until he manages to escape and tag in Akiyama. Jumping knee by Akiyama onto Ogawa followed by a forearm to Misawa on the ropes. He hits a snapmare onto Ogawa and dropkicks him hard in the back for a two-count. Akiyama then locks in a sleeper/neck lock that he locks in for quite some time until Ogawa reaches the ropes. Ogawa with some more cheap shots, and he tags Misawa, who comes in hitting brutal forearms to Akiyama’s back.
Akiyama starts firing back against Misawa at the ten-minute mark but Misawa wins the exchange. An ax kick to the head gets Misawa a two-count, so he applies a modified facelock until Kobashi breaks it up. Misawa tags Ogawa, who hits more of his silly-looking strikes followed by a facelock of his own, but Akiyama escapes with a huge kick to the head. Ogawa tosses Akiyama out of the ring and tries to whip him into the barricade, but Akiyama reverses it and sends Ogawa back-first into it instead…twice.
Big DDT on the ringside mats by Akiyama but Ogawa kicks out at one. Akiyama tags Kobashi in and whips Ogawa, who dodges one chop by Kobashi but can’t avoid an atomic drop by Akiyama and then a second huge chop by Kobashi. Two-count by Kobashi followed by a delayed vertical suplex for another two-count. Kobashi locks in a Boston crab and Akiyama drops a knee to the back of Ogawa’s head before Misawa breaks the hold. Akiyama’s back in and he forearms the ever-loving hell out of Ogawa’s back.
At the fifteen-minute-mark, Ogawa reverses an Irish whip into a sunset flip, but Akiyama kicks out at one. Ogawa tries a leapfrog but Akiyama catches him and catapults him into a big chop from Kobashi. Great tag team work here. Akiyama hits his patented blue thunder bomb, but Misawa breaks the pin at two and then Ogawa escapes the ring. Kobashi comes back in and hits the knee-strike/Russian leg sweep combo move for another tow-count. He follows this with the Kentucky Bomb (his finisher from earlier in the decade), but Misawa breaks that hold as well. Kobashi kicks Misawa away and attempts a powerbomb, but Ogawa escape with the eye poke/jawbreaker combo once again, followed by an elbow smash from Misawa.
Misawa gets tagged in again and elbows both Kobashi and Akiyama. He goes for the tiger driver but Akiyama charges in (only to eat an elbow from Misawa). Kobashi tries to capitalize on this distraction, but Misawa blocks his rolling chop and hits a picture-perfect tiger driver but Akiyama breaks up that pin. Tiger body press by Misawa gets another two-count. Kobashi reverses a reversing elbow smash by Misawa into a sleeper hold, and then spikes Misawa with a huge sleeper suplex and tags Akiyama in. he hits two jumping knee strikes followed by a double-arm DDT and a diving forearm smash, but all of that only gets a two-count. Exploder attempt by Akiyama…no, Misawa blocks it. Akiyama staggers and Ogawa kicks him in the back…hard elbow by Misawa!
Ogawa gets tagged in at the twenty-minute-mark and hits a spinning neckbreaker on him and an enzuigiri on Kobashi. He ducks two clotheslines and nails a lightning-quick DDT on Akiyama. Backdrop suplex by Ogawa, but Kobashi breaks it up at the count of one. Excellent double-team sequence by Misawa and Ogawa onto Akiyama. German suplex by Misawa followed immediately by a bridging back suplex by Ogawa, and the ref starts his count…but here comes Kobashi to break it up. Ogawa then hooks the arms…and hits a Tiger Driver of his own! Never thought I’d ever see that. The ref counts one…two…thr—No, Akiyama kicks out!
Ogawa hits his cheap combo again followed by a cross-legged jackknife hold…but Akiyama kicks out again. Exploder out of nowhere by Akiyama! They’re both down in the middle of the ring. Hot tags to Kobashi and Misawa. Kobashi avoids one Misawa spin kick, but can’t dodge the second. Tiger Driver by Misawa! The ref counts, but Kobashi kicks out at 2.8. diving neckbreaker by Misawa! Akiyama breaks it up. Rolling elbow by Misawa! Bridging Tiger Suplex sends Kobashi landing on his neck. The ref counts one…two…NO, Kobashi kicks out at 2.9! Misawa teases the Emerald Flowsion, but Kobashi escapes. He chops Misawa hard. GERMAN SUPLEX! Oh God, that landing looked awful. But somehow, Misawa’s back up right away. What a machine. Misawa charges with an elbow…but Kobashi ducks and hits a brutal Half-Nelson. They’re both down at the 25-minute mark.
Kobashi and Akiyama hit a Dudley Boys-style avalanche powerbomb, but Ogawa comes out of nowhere and backdrops Kobashi. Akiyama tosses Ogawa out of the ring, leaving Misawa and Kobashi alone. ROLLING BACK CHOP! ELBOW SMASH! Kobashi ducks the rolling elbow! German suplex attempted, but Misawa escapes, so Kobashi answers with a brutal LARIATOOO! The ref counts one…two…thre—NO, Misawa kicks out. I thought that was the end. He picks Misawa up, cocks the arm…BURNING LARIAT! Again Kobashi goes for the pin, but this time Ogawa breaks up the pin at 2.75. If he hadn’t that would’ve ended the match for sure!
Double shoulder tackle sends Ogawa out of the ring and Burning whip Misawa into the corner. Jumping knee strike to Misawa’s neck by Akiyama. Running enzui lariat by Kobashi. and now it’s time to end the match. Kobashi hoists Misawa onto the top turnbuckle as Akiyama keeps Ogawa outside the ring. Kobashi hoists Misawa onto his shoulders in the Torture Rack. Misawa has nowhere to go but straight down. Here it comes…BURNING HAMMER!
The referee counts one…two…three! There’s the match! New champions!
Winners and new AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 27:25: Burning (Kenta Kobashi & Jun Akiyama)
This was one of the best tag team matches I have ever seen, and while I hate to admit it, a lot of that owes to Ogawa being so different as a wrestler. In the grand narrative that AJPW told over the course of the decade, every single wrestler involved in big singles and tag looked and wrestled like some kind of god-like warrior: Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi, Akiyama, Dr. Death, Stan Hansen, and even Taue. Each one of them wrestled in such a way that they looked like they could hold their own against even the toughest of opponents. Ogawa was not one of those wrestlers; he was very much the least-credible of the four people in this match. He had to rely on cheap tactics and general underhandedness to gain any advantage. Ogawa wasn’t an all-rounder that could stand on his own two feet; his entire existence in this match was to support Misawa, to act as an extension of that legendary wrestler…and that strategy worked.
I didn’t think they’d succeed, but these four wrestlers actually crafted a near-perfect tag team match centered on one of them being far beneath the remaining three. Ogawa’s offense was pitifully limited to only a handful of weak strikes and ‘clever’ moves that few people bought as credible enough to keep either Kobashi or Akiyama down long enough to score a victory. So to make up for having a ‘weaker’ partner, Misawa had to work harder than usual since the risks were higher if he got in trouble. He did his usual excellent job of being the near-indestructible ace and had some credible near-falls and dramatic sequences, especially when he shared the ring with Kobashi.
Of course, it also helped that Misawa was made to look like an absolute world-beater that wouldn’t go down easy. So to keep him down for the three-count, Kobashi and Akiyama had to pull out all the stops, including the second-ever appearance by the famous Burning Hammer. Anytime you need to bust out a move that could legit kill someone if done slightly incorrectly, that speaks volumes of how serious of a threat that wrestler is.
Final Rating: *****
This match made me feel something I hadn’t felt before watching these AJPW classics: it made me want to see Ogawa get his ass kicked as much as possible. He did such a phenomenal job of being underhanded and leaving the heavy lifting to Misawa that anytime either Akiyama or Kobashi hit a big move, I got excited hoping it would lead to new champions (which happened eventually). Usually, these big AJPW matches are ones in which you cheer for both guys equally and simply enjoy the wrestling (kind of like some big NXT matches during which the fans chant ‘both these guys’ or ‘fight forever’).
This wasn’t one of those; it was more like that match between Kurt Angle & Ronda Rousey vs. Triple H & Stephanie McMahon from WrestleMania 34 (albeit with healthier performers). That match had a clear underhanded villain that you felt didn’t belong in the ring with the other three (Stephanie) who got the audience to despise her so much that when the heroes (Angle and Rousey) had the villains beat the audience was exploding with joy.
This match took a specific storytelling formula and executed it perfectly. They managed to craft an excellent story of a well-oiled machine having to overcome not just the company’s biggest star, but also a crafty, devious rulebreaker that hides behind that big star. This match is ideal instructional material on how to put together a perfect match to tell that tale.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.