This is one of the most historically-important matches in wrestling history. It was a classic story of an established top star being challenged by a younger rising star. But established star Tsuruta wasn’t facing off against just any rising star. His opponent on June 8th, 1990 was none other than Mitsuharu Misawa, who would soon become one of the best pro wrestlers to ever live.
But before Misawa could reach that pinnacle, he had to go through a monstrous opponent in Jumbso Tsuruta first.
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.
We’re going straight to the match first this time. You’ll see why later.
Tsuruta extends his hand for a handshake but Misawa ignores it. After a few standoffs, Tsuruta takes Misawa down with a shoulder tackle. Tsuruta slams Misawa hard and taunts the crowd. Misawa ducks a Tsuruta high nee and lands a running dropkick. He charges again but walks into a big boot from Tsuruta. A big lariat from Tsuruta gets him a two-count. Tsuruta hits some hard strikes and goes for a backdrop suplex, but Misawa reverses it into a pin in midair for a two-count. He dropkicks Tsuruta out of the ring and skins the cat, then lends a big dropkick to Tsuruta below.
Misawa elbows Tsuruta hard, sending him over the steel barricade. As Tsuruta tries to return, Misawa elbows him hard sending him back down. Misawa runs and lands a picture-perfect flying plancha. Gorgeous move.
Back in the ring, Misawa headlocks Tsuruta and hits some hard elbows before applying a front facelock. Tsuruta reveres into the double-arm test-of-strength lock at the five-minute-mark, but Misawa reverses it and keeps it in even as Tsuruta almost reverses it on him. Misawa klicks out of the hold, leading to a standoff and more applause from the crowd.
Misawa applies a standing hammerlock, and when Tsuruta reaches the ropes Misawa slaps him in the face. He slaps Tsuruta again after another clean break. Then Tsuruta lands a jumping knee to the crowd’s excitement. Abdominal stretch by Tsuruta, which gets reversed into an abdominal stretch from Misawa. The much bigger Tsuruta reaches the ropes and tosses Misawa out of the ring. Misawa gets whipped into the barricade then tossed back into the ring. A big double-arm suplex gets Tsuruta a two-count, so he applies a sleeperhold at the ten-minute mark.
Tsuruta flapjacks Misawa. He tries a second time but Misawa reverses into a dropkick. Misawa dives off the top rope with a diving dropkick for a two-count. He lands a back elbow and a gutwrench suplex. After a kick and a slam, Misawa lands a frog splash for a two-count. He goes for a crossbody, but Tsuruta counters by dropping Misawa throat-first onto the top rope. Great counter. He pins but Misawa kicks out at two.
Tsuruta lands a piledriver for another two-count followed by a Lou Thesz press for another two-count. Tsuruta lands hard knee drops to Misawa’s neck followed by a big dropkick for two. A big boot by Tsuruta also gets two. Tsuruta climbs the top rope and removes a knee pad in preparation for a diving move. Misawa gets up but Tsuruta knees him in the face. Tsuruta teases a double-arm suplex but Misawa fights out of it at the fifteen-minute mark.
Tsuruta slams Misawa and goes for a dive but Misawa cuts him off. Misawa goes for a superplex but Tsuruta fights out and lands a diving kneedrop for a two-count. Now the crowd really starts chanting for Misawa.
Tsuruta lands a powerbomb for another two-count. After some forearms, Tsuruta tries for a double-arm suplex but Misawa counters into a backslide for two. Misawa lands a big elbow smash and both men go down. Tsuruta rolls out of the ring, allowing Misawa to land a sliding dropkick to him once he gets up. Misawa climbs the top rope. Diving crossbody onto Tsuruta. Wow. What a crazy dive.
Back in the ring, Misawa lands some kicks and teases a German suplex. Tsuruta fights out and charges, but Misawa ducks his attack and lands a European clutch for another close two-count. Misawa lands another big kick and goes for the frog splash but Tsuruta gets his knees up. He pins, no, Misawa kicks out. Budokan Hall is going nuts with Misawa chants.
Tsuruta slams Misawa and locks in a Boston Crab but Misawa reaches the ropes at the twenty-minute mark. Tsuruta lands a big lariat, but Misawa kicks out again. A second big lariat. Another pin, and yet another kickout for Misawa. a third lariat into the corner followed by a backdrop suplex. Both men are down. The crowd’s going nuts.
Bridging German suplex by Misawa. Tsuruta kicks out. Misawa teases a Tiger Driver. Tsuruta powers out into a bridging pin, but Misawa escapes. Running jumping knee by Tsuruta. The end is near. Tsuruta whips Misawa into a corner, Misawa reverse inti a flying crossbody, But Tsuruta counters that with an elbow smash. Amazing reversal.
Both men go down and Tsuruta’s selling the elbow as if that counter caused him great pain. Tsuruta charges with a jumping knee but Misawa dodges, causing Tsuruta to hit the ropes very hard. Misawa attempts a vertical suplex but Tsuruta holds on. Tsuruta counters into a vertical suplex of his own, but Misawa counters in midair. Misawa goes for a back suplex, no, Tsuruta counters midair into a crossbody pin. One, two, NO, Misawa reverses! He pins Tsuruta! One, two, three! Count to three! Misawa wins. Misawa beats Tsuruta! Everyone is going absolutely crazy with joy.
Winner after 24:06: Mitsuharu Misawa
The story behind this match is extremely important, which is why I kept it until after the main play-by-play review.
Misawa had portrayed Tiger Mask II for almost five full years before this match happened. He had unmasked only a few weeks prior and wanted to challenge Jumbo Tsuruta to a one-on-one match. Tsuruta was the company ace at the time, and Misawa wanted to prove he belonged in the main event conversation.
Going into this match, there were two critical factors. First, Tsuruta had recently lost the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship to Terry Gordy in an upset. This match took place only a few days later, so most people didn’t think that Tsuruta would suffer two huge upset losses so close to one another.
Secondly and more importantly, the fans adored Misawa at this point. He had only just unmasked recently and fans already loved him as a singles star. So up until the very day this match was to take place, company owner and booker Giant Baba hadn’t fully decided on a finish.
The default plan was for Tsuruta to win. But in the days leading up to this match, Baba would sit near the merchandise stands and watch, awestruck, as fans rushed the concessions and bought all the Misawa merch. They loved him that much. Also, the fans were chanting Misawa’s name extremely loudly, and Baba hadn’t ever seen anything like it.
So on the eve of the match, Baba made an uncharacteristic decision: he made a last-minute change to have Misawa beat Tsuruta instead. Tsuruta initially wanted the decision to go to a draw or a double count-out, but Baba held firm and wanted Misawa to win.
As you can see, Tsuruta had no problem with this and put Misawa over clean as a sheet. In doing so, the rising star Misawa defeated the nigh-untouchable ace Tsuruta in a shocking yet decisive victory. In doing so, it proved to the whole world that Misawa was the future star of AJPW. This victory, in turn, started the golden age of AJPW. That makes this one of the most important wrestling matches in Japanese history.
Yet while the significance of this match cannot be overstated, the match itself just wasn’t worthy of the five-star treatment. Don’t get me wrong, they put on a very simple match with crisply-executed moves and solid back-and-forth action. And yet, the match felt like it was beneath Misawa’s later five-star epics. Both Misawa and Tsuruta played their respective roles perfectly. Misawa was the determined, hungry rookie that had to do whatever it took to win, even going so far as to slap Tsuruta in disrespect to get him riled up. And Tsuruta played the role of controlling veteran, dominating Misawa early and forcing him to really fight from underneath.
And yet, there was still something lacking in this match to make it a historically-epic match. There just wasn’t that much raw tension that can be found in later Misawa matches. The only moment that showed any genuine unpredictability was the final sequence of reversals. That last-second switch leading to Misawa’s winning pin is as iconic a finish as any, and would be brought up in many of his later big matches. But on the whole, the body of the match felt rather bland and lacking in ornate flashiness.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes keeping things simple in a match is what makes them stand out. But that’s just not the case here. Tsuruta’s barrage of two-counts made sense in the match but didn’t really feel like they could end the match. And there just wasn’t that much in the way of pure intensity that would come in later Misawa matches. There was a clear inner story of Tsuruta growing increasingly frustrated, which actually led him into the missed jumping knee and that closing suplex sequence that cost him the match altogether. And yet, I think they didn’t go deep enough in telling that story. It was like they were only testing the waters with what they could do instead of going all in.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match, like Hogan/Sheik or Michaels/Austin, is more remembered for its historical significance than its overall quality. Misawa’s victory over Tsuruta here was critical in launching Misawa’s main-event career, which in turn would lead to some of the greatest wrestling matches ever. But the match itself left a bit to be desired. It was great but not amazing. It’s definitely worth watching if you want to understand AJPW’s history in chronological order, and if you want to see a great example of the normally-quiet Japanese crowd losing their collective shit in joy over a wrestler winning.
And if only they had done a bit more in the actual body of the match to make it more tense and exciting, then it would be truly deserving of the 5-star perfect match reputation.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.