Contrary to popular belief, December is NOT a bad month for wrestling. While most of us in North America spend that month focusing on Christmas and being with family, wrestling companies around the world put on shows like it’s business as usual. Most North American promotions recognize that the bulk of their fans aren’t watching so they don’t really showcase anything groundbreaking during the month of December.
But not Japan. Wrestling companies over there actually have good reasons to put on important shows throughout the month and into New Year’s. And one of the best reasons to tune into Japanese wrestling in December is All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s annual tag team tournament: The World’s Strongest Tag Determination League.
Unlike in WWE, tournaments in Japan are taken very seriously and have lots of prestige around them. The WSTDL is one such a tournament that seeks to crown the best team in AJPW. Not only do the winners get a kickass trophy and the prestige of winning. But between 1988 and 1994, AJPW’s World Tag Team Championships were vacated by their then-holders and the tournament’s winners would get those titles as well. So the pressure was on for all participating teams to bring their A-game, given that it really was a winner-take-all environment.
As a reminder, I am reviewing 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.
Earlier in 1993, Toshiaki Kawada turned on Mitusharu Misawa. The two of them had been partners since 1990 and Kawada was Misawa’s right-hand man in Misawa’s war with Jumbo Tsuruta and his army. But in late 1992, Jumbo Tsuruta’s main-event career ended after he was diagnosed with Hepatitis. With Tsuruta’s departure, Akira Taue – a wrestler with whom Misawa had been warring since 1990 – no longer had a regular partner.
Thus, the company booker Giant Baba decided to take advantage of growing real-life tension between Misawa and Kawada by splitting them up. In doing so, Kawada and Taue became the Holy Demon Army, which would become the most successful tag team in AJPW history. Meanwhile, Kenta Kobashi, who had been the third man in Misawa’s Super Generation Army, was elevated to being Misawa’s #1 tag team partner.
With these new allegiances drawn, the AJPW landscape was transformed. The Four Pillars of Heaven (Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi and Taue) would spend the better part of the next seven years wrestling each other in critically-acclaimed matches. The majority of these contests were six- and eight-man matches, and those contests tended to include additional, lower card wrestlers like Jun Akiyama, Masanobu Fuchi, Satoru Asako, Tamon Honda, Yoshinari Ogawa, and Giant Baba himself. As a result, 2-on-2 tag matches between these four wrestlers were rare, so they made the most out of these few encounters.
This is the final match of the 1993 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League, and it’s also for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. It’s also considered the first definitive King’s Road/Four Pillars-style match ever.
Misawa and Taue start things off. Misawa knocks Taue down with a shoulder tackle and they have a standoff. Taue reverses a vertical suplex into one of his own but Misawa reverses it in midair and charges but runs into a boot from Taue. Taue lands an atomic drop but Misawa turns around and lands a huge elbow smash. Kobashi tags in and they double dropkick Taue out of the ring. Kobashi lands a baseball slide dropkick and Misawa skins the cat and lands a diving elbow smash. Back in the ring, Kobashi lands a vertical suplex for a two-count. He whips Taue, Taue reverses and lands a clothesline. Taue lands some running knees to the head and tags in Kawada and the crowd erupts in cheers.
Kawada wins a brutal strike exchange with Kobashi and lands a vicious spinkick for a two-count. Taue tags in and dropkicks Kobashi for another two-count. Kobashi escapes Taue with a kick to the gut and tags in Misawa. A diving spinning lariat from Misawa gets him a two-count of his own. Misawa applies a facelock and tags in Kobashi again, who starts a chop war with Taue. Taue wins that exchange and lands a Kevin Nash-style drop suplex.
In comes Kawada who starts kicking Kobashi’s chest. But Kawada’s left leg isn’t at 100% because with each kick he hobbles on his other good leg. A running lariat from Kawada gets him a two-count. Kawada applies a Misawa-style facelock to stick it to his archrival, but Kobashi reaches the ropes. Taue tags back in and lands three short-range clotheslines before tossing Kobashi out of the ring. Outside, Kawada whips Kobashi into the steel barricade then slams him onto the exposed floor. Damn, that’s gotta hurt.
Kobashi gets tossed into the ring and slammed by Taue before Kawada tags in again. Kawada behaves like a d**k and kicks Kobashi in the face mockingly. But Kobashi starts getting up. And he looks PISSED. He starts hulking up AJPW-style while staring daggers at Kawada. Kobashi absorbs Kawada’s chops but Kawada slams him and punts him in the back, ending his comeback. Then Kawada goes for the leg with a brutal torture crab and even steps on Kobashi’s head to apply extra pressure. Kobashi manages to reach the ropes, breaking the hold.
Taue tags in and lands a release back suplex for a two-count. He lands a DDT and goes for the chokeslam but Misawa breaks it up. Kobashi charges for a counterattack but Taue boots him. He charges again but Taue grabs his throat. Big chokeslam by Taue. He goes for the pin but Kobashi kicks out at 2.5. Taue lands a guillotine drop as the fans boo him. Then Taue lands a second one, this time dropping Kobashi’s face into Kawada’s knee. Kawada comes back in and goes right back to mocking Kobashi. He lifts Kobashi up and chops the hell out of his neck to drop him again. Kobashi can barely stand as he tries desperately to fight back against Kawada.
Then Kawada kicks Kobashi’s leg.
Kobashi fights back with kicks of his own and Kawada staggers. Both of them can barely stand. Kawada becomes furious and lands his patent step kicks and brutalizes Kobashi with more hard strikes. Kawada tries to lift Kobashi up, but he can barely hold himself up. He’s a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.
Kobashi takes advantage of this and takes Kawada down. He fires away on Kawada’s knee with punches. Kawada tries desperately to kick Kobashi away but he won’t let up. He’s getting his revenge from earlier by focusing entirely on Kawada’s left knee. Kawada tries another kick but staggers. He lands a gamengiri to drop Kobashi, but lands on his bad knee in the process. As both of them lie on the mat, Taue charges in and knocks Misawa off the apron. Amazing ring awareness.
Now Kobashi can’t tag out. He’s screwed.
Or so the villains think.
Misawa comes charging back in and knocks Taue down. Misawa tags in and the crowd goes nuts. He and Kawada start fighting. Kawada tries hitting knees with his good leg but Misawa isn’t fazed at all. Kawada lands a hard slap and Misawa answers with an even harder elbow. Down goes Kawada. Tiger Driver by Misawa. The referee counts one, two, thr—no Kawada kicks out. Misawa teases a Tiger Suplex, but Taue breaks it up. That allows Kawada to slip out and kick Misawa in the face. Big lariat by Kawada.
He tags in Taue, who lands two Snake Eyes and fireman’s carry drop onto the top rope. And a guillotine drop for Kobashi for good measure. Kawada and Taue tease a big double team move. Taue holds Misawa in place for the chokeslam as Kawada lands a boot to the face. Taue lifts Misawa up for the chokeslam but Misawa reverses out of it, only to eat a boot from Taue for his efforts. Chokeslam/Backdrop combination! Taue pins, but Kobashi makes the save.
Kawada tosses Kobashi out as Taue lands a powerbomb. He pins, but Misawa kicks out at two. Taue whips him into a charging Kawada, who drops him with a lariat. Kawada whips Misawa into Taue, but Misawa drops each of them with an elbow. In comes Kobashi with machine gun chops to Taue and a neckbreaker drop. Then he drops Taue with both a DDT and a guillotine drop as revenge for before. Scoop slam and a Hogan-style leg drop by Kobashi. KOBASHI SOARS THROUGH THE AIR WITH THE MOONSAULT. But Taue kicks out at 2.9. Great near-fall. Kobashi tries another scoop slam but Taue holds on desperately. Even the fans are behind Taue as they chant his name. Running neckbreaker by Taue.
Kawada tags in and lands a nasty Dangerous Backdrop Driver. But he can’t capitalize on it because his knee has been damaged. Kobashi crawls to the safety of the ropes as Kawada struggles to stand on his own two feet. Kawada lands another (but much weaker) backdrop driver but again he can’t capitalize. Misawa tags in and kicks Kawada into the ropes. He whips Kawada, but Kawada reverses it into a huge spinkick.
Again both men go down because Kawada’s leg is causing him so much trouble. Bridging German suplex by Kawada. The ref counts the pin but Kawada releases it because he can’t hold the bridge due to his leg. Amazing selling here. This match is fantastic thus far.
Kawada fires back with the Stretch Plum submission hold. Kobashi tries to break it up but Kawada won’t let go. Taue comes in to deal with Kobashi and locks him in a sleeper as Kawada continues with his own hold. Kawada pins a weakened Misawa but he kicks out, so he locks it in again. Kobashi escapes Taue and saves Misawa. Another great near-fall.
Kawada responds by teasing a powerbomb but again can’t because of his leg. He tries to lift Misawa but lets go because he hasn’t the strength to hold him up. Misawa escapes Kawada and tags in Kobashi. He lands one dropkick to Kawada’s weakened knee and ‘Dangerous K’ writhes about the ring in extreme pain. Then Kobashi gets more revenge for earlier by applying a torture crab on Kawada. But he’s not done. he wants to punish Kawada for what he did he takes it further with a Texas cloverleaf! Wow, Kawada’s knee must be getting close to being ripped apart.
Taue tries to break it up but Misawa cuts him off and applies a facelock. Kawada reaches the ropes, forcing Kobashi to break the hold. Kobashi lands a powerbomb and pins but Kawada kicks out. Kobashi goes for another moonsault but Kawada rolls out of the way. They both get up slowly and exchange hard strikes. Kawada head-butts Kobashi away and reaches to tag Taue, but Kobashi grabs his leg and takes him down before he can do so. Great save.
Misawa tags in and lands a big senton on Kawada. A frog splash by Misawa also gets two. Kawada somehow manages to escape a Tiger Driver but walks right into a bridging Tiger Suplex from Misawa. The ref counts one, two, NO, Kawada kicks out. Kobashi tags back in and drops both Kawada and Taue. He goes for a John Cena-style flying shoulder tackle…but Kawada catches him with a jumping gamengiri. What a great counter.
Another gamengiri to the head and Kobashi sways back and forth. Clearly there isn’t as much power behind that kick as before. Lariat by Kobashi. Taue tries to attack Kobashi but Misawa cuts him off. German suplexes in stereo by Misawa and Kobashi. Kobashi bridges but Kawada still kicks out. Kawada escapes a powerbomb from Kobashi. Kobashi crawls to Misawa for a tag but Taue cuts him off with a backdrop suplex.
He attacks Misawa, but Misawa knocks him out of the ring with a huge rolling elbow. Rolling elbow smash to Kawada as well! Followed by a huge German suplex from Misawa to Kawada. Misawa then lands a huge elbow suicida to Taue, keeping him out of the ring. Backdrop Driver by Kobashi onto Kawada. The referee counts one, two, three! That’s it. There’s the match!
Winners of the 1993 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League after 23:24: Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi
Although this was much shorter than most Four Pillars matches, it was spectacular all the same. They packed a lot of intensity, drama and psychology into under twenty-five minutes. In that short period, they were able to tell multiple stories, but the focus was on a growing rivalry between Kawada and Kobashi. Kobashi is always great as the underdog hero in peril, and Kawada is amazing as the ‘I-think-I’m-better-than-you’ jackass. Their chemistry together is just as great as that between Kobashi and Misawa or Misawa and Kawada.
The best part of the match was when Kobashi and Kawada attacked each other’s knees, and Kawada took a worse beating. Kawada had just a notable history of knee issues as Kobashi, but getting his knee attacked was worse for Kawada because his signature attacks involve kicking. So Kobashi didn’t just weaken Kawada to gain an offensive advantage; he almost neutralized Kawada’s own offensive capabilities completely.
And as the match progressed, it was harder for Kawada to capitalize on big moves. Even bridging became a challenge because he couldn’t put as much weight on his left knee, weakening his pins. That is but one example of why King’s Road All Japan was so great. Even a tiny detail like a bridge is rendered less effective because of earlier limb work. That’s why the all-encompassing, logical structure of these matches will always stand head and shoulders above pretty much everything else in pro wrestling.
Lastly, Kawada was the star of this match. He tried to be his usual smug self, especially when facing Kobashi. But he took such a monumental thrashing in this match that he actually almost turned into the heroic underdog. He had to overcome incredible pain in his leg, and that problem became an albatross that he struggled to escape. The way he sold damage to that knee and how it prevented him from maintaining momentum was a piece of storytelling mastery. He managed to work it into the larger wrestling story so well and made an already dramatic wrestling contest even more unpredictable and exciting.
Final Rating: *****
Despite its short length by AJPW standards, this was a perfect wrestling match. This is the kind of match every aspiring wrestler should watch because of how compelling it is. These four men have this amazing, unmatched ability to layer multiple stories simultaneously in each of their matches. No two of their matches are the same, and they manage to build up big moves in such a way that the match can end with many different moves.
That’s one of the big problems with wrestling nowadays: many wrestlers only have one or two (and rarely more than that) credible match-ending moves. So when you see your favorite wrestlers of today land a big move that they rarely bust out, landing that move doesn’t mean anything beyond looking cool since they’ve never won with that move before.
This match demonstrates the opposite: Kobashi won with a Dangerous Backdrop Driver, which is one of Kawada’s biggest moves. He has used it before, but never to win a match. Winning in this way was yet another example of the unpredictability (and superiority) of King’s Road All Japan wrestling matches.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.