The Four Pillars of Heaven are considered the greatest quartet in Japanese wrestling history. Their matches together were legendary contests that, to this day, withstood the test of time. No two of their matches are the same. Each one is an unpredictable story with twists and turns and constant changes. That’s why fans watch(ed) their matches with constant scrutiny. You never knew what they were going to do or what was going to happen.
Today we look at one of their most grandiose endeavor as the biggest stars in AJPW: Their 60-minute tag team match from January 24th, 1995.
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.
This is the fifth-ever two-on-two encounter between Misawa & Kobashi and Kawada & Taue. Their first encounter was on June 1st 1993, but that was before the famous ‘Four Pillars style’ really took off. Their second encounter was on December 6th, 1993 and was an instant classic. Then they faced off on May 21st, 1994 in one of the greatest tag team matches of all time. And their last encounter prior to this one was a 30-minute draw during the 1994 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League Tournament.
Going into this match, the Holy Demon Army (Kawada & Taue) had only managed one win over the Super Generation Army (Misawa & Kobashi) and had suffered two losses and one time-limit draw. Thus, they were hoping of evening the score while also trying to claim the AJPW World Tag Team Titles.
Furthermore, there was an additional story going into this match as well. Aside from the HDA being unable to beat the SGA in tag team competition, Kobashi and Kawada also had their own long-standing singles feud. Kobashi was younger than Kawada yet wanted to beat him, but never could. And five days prior to this match, Kawada and Kobashi wrestled for Kawada’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. That match also went a full 60 minutes and ended in a draw. The 1990s AJPW style was that intense, yet these wrestlers made it work.
This match originally took place on January 24th, 1995 and is for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Kawada and Kobashi start things off. After some clean breaks, Kobashi knocks Kawada down with a shoulder tackle. He charges for a second one but Kawada dodges and sends Kobashi careening out of the ring. That frustrates Kobashi, and when he gets in the ring Kawada jumps him and lands some step kicks. Kobashi reveres a whip and lands a jumping shoulder tackle, which Kawada answers with a running kick. Kobashi ducks another kick and teases a German suplex but Kawada kicks out of it…literally.
Taue and Misawa tag in and Misawa lands a standing flipping armbar takedown. They trade armlocks and Misawa does an amazing reversal into an arm drag. Taue whips Misawa out of a headlock and Misawa goes for a shoulder tackle but neither man goes down. Misawa reverses a hip toss into an arm drag and kicks Taue out of the ring. He goes for a plancha but Taue dodges and kicks him square in the face as he lands. Back in the ring Taue goes for another big boot but Misawa flies over Taue’s extended leg with an elbow smash. Great counter.
Kobashi tags in at the five-minute mark and he and Taue have a lengthy chop exchange. Taue knocks Kobashi down and tags in Kawada. They have a strength battle that ends with Kobashi in control of Kawada’s arm. And when Kobashi tries to maintain control on a second, Kawada counters into a big hook kick to the face. Kobashi and Kawada trade chops some more, but Kawada takes control with head-butts and tags in Taue.
Taue follows Kawada’s example with head-butts of his own, but Kobashi fires back with kicks and tags Misawa. Misawa lands a ton of elbows and a flying crossbody for a one-count before applying a grounded sleeperhold. Kobashi tags in and lands a big shoulder tackle and Taue reaches the ropes. Kobashi applies a facelock but Taue counters into a backdrop suplex and tags in Kawada at the ten-minute mark.
Kawada kicks Kobashi in the face like a d**k and drops him with a massive spinkick. Kobashi rolls out of the ring, which allows Taue to take advantage by rubbing his boot in Kobashi’s face. Kawada pins Kobashi in the ring and Kobashi kicks out at 2.5. Yes, one Kawada spinkick did that much damage. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Kawada is the most dangerous kicker in pro wrestling history.
In the corner, Kawada chops Kobashi in the neck and goes for a jumping kick, but Kobashi blocks it and chops Kawada back down. Misawa tags in and drops Kawada with his own spinkick in a nice display of poetic justice. A diving spinning lariat and a shotgun dropkick send Kawada out of the ring. Elbow suicida!
Then Kobashi charges with a running dropkick. Kobashi gets some revenge as well. In the ring, Taue tries to cheapshot Misawa but gets double-teamed for his efforts. He goes rolling out of the ring. Misawa follows with a corkscrew plancha onto Taue. And Kobashi with a diving shoulder tackle onto Kawada. This is absolutely crazy.
Kawada gets rolled back into the ring but kicks out of a pin attempt at two. Kobashi tags in and chops the hell out of Kawada’s chest. Kawada tries to fight back with a kick but that only makes Kobashi angrier. He lands more brutal chops to Kawada’s neck, then stomp on him Steve Austin-style, and even puts his boot in Kawada’s face. He lands a vertical suplex and gets a two-count, then applies a single leg crab. Kobashi demonstrates some great psychology as once again he’s looking to weaken Kawada’s main weapons while also slowing him down. Kawada tries to kick with his free leg but Kobashi just tanks the hit, until Taue interferes. Now the crowd really starts booing Taue.
Misawa tags in and lands an ax kick for two, then applies his own single leg crab. Kawada reaches the ropes, so Misawa drags him away from the ropes and kicks at the knee. A scoop slam/senton combo gets Misawa another two-count and Misawa tags in Kobashi. But as soon as Kobashi reaches Kawada, Kawada kicks Kobashi in the back of his knee. Big mistake once again. Kobashi answers with stomps and chops to Kawada’s knee followed by a spinning toe hold. Kawada kicks Kobashi in the head again and once more Kobashi stomps on the injured knee before tagging Misawa back in.
Misawa tries to pull Kawada away from the ropes by the injured leg but Kawada holds on for dear life. He eventually succeeds and applies another single leg crab but Kawada gets to the ropes again. Misawa continues with stomps to the knee. Misawa tries to Irish whip him but he still holds onto the ropes with all his might. Misawa succeeds in whipping him into the corner after some more elbows and goes for a monkey flip, but Taue catches him in mid-move and chokeslams him off of Kawada. But that just angers Misawa as he delivers elbow smashes to both of them. Misawa whips Kawada, Kawada reverses it, and Misawa counters into the diving back elbow. But he fails. Kawada kicks him in the back of the head. Both men go down. Kawada tags in Taue.
Taue DDTs Misawa then tosses him out of the ring. Once there, he guillotine drops Misawa neck-first onto the top of the steel ring barricade. Ouch. Kobashi tries to help his partner, but Taue reverses his Irish whip and Kobashi into the barricade as well at the twenty-minute mark. Taue pins in the ring but only gets a two-count, so he applies a chinlock. Misawa reaches the ropes, so Taue responds with another guillotine drop on the top rope for another two-count. The crowd really doesn’t like that move for some reason. Then Taue guillotine drops Misawa onto Kawada’s knee (on the healthy leg) for yet another two-count.
Kawada tags in and lands a kneedrop followed by multiple hard strikes to Misawa’s neck. He continues his onslaught with the chop/kick combo that, years later, would become a key part of Samoa Joe’s arsenal. That gets him another two-count and he tags in Taue. Taue lands a big boot for yet another two-count and he applies a dragon sleeper, which Kobashi breaks up with a chop. He follows this with a sleeperhold with bodyscissors then whips him into his corner to and tags Kawada. Kawada lands multiple hard kicks for a two-count, his eyes always on Kobashi as Kobashi is desperate to get back into the match.
Taue tags back in at the twenty-five-minute mark and chokes Misawa in one of the neutral corners. He whips Misawa, Misawa blocks by putting his foot on the turnbuckle (which, oddly, no one else ever seems to do, despite it being a smart way to block a whip), Taue ducks a Misawa elbow and choke-tosses Misawa into the corner hard. Taue goes for a Chokeslam, Misawa counters into a Tiger Driver, Taue re-counters back into a Chokeslam, Misawa blocks and lands a double-arm suplex. Another great sequence.
Misawa reaches Kobashi at last. Diving shoulder tackle for Taue. Kawada gets knocked off the apron. Vertical suplex on Taue for another two-count. Taue gets tossed out of the ring and whipped into the barricade…twice. Taue kicks out at two, so Kobashi applies an abdominal stretch to target those freshly-injured ribs. After a while, Taue tosses Kobashi off to escape the hold, but walks into a missile dropkick from Misawa for another close two-count. Camel clutch by Kobashi, but Kawada breaks it up with step kicks. A standing leg drop gets Kobashi another two-count as Misawa tags back in.
Kobashi slams Taue and Misawa lands a springboard splash for two. He kicks Taue some more and lands a running elbow smash for yet another two-count. Kobashi tags in again and chops away on Taue. He whips Taue into a corner and charges but Taue blocks him and tosses him down to the mat. Kobashi fires back with chops but Taue answers with a Chokeslam. But Kobashi’s Burning Spirit won’t be denied as he comes right back up and fires back with more chops. He whips Taue, Taue counters it, hoists Kobashi onto his shoulders, then guillotine drops him on the top rope like he did Misawa earlier.
Kawada tags in at the thirty-minute mark and fires away with step kicks. But Kobashi tanks then and fires back with knee lifts of his own. Step kicks from Kawada followed by a big chop to the chest. Then a big chop to the throat sends Kobashi down. They do the suplex reversal spot until Kawada lands a big one on Kobashi. They get up slowly and Kobashi kicks Kawada’s bad leg. Kawada answers with a hard kick of his own to Kobashi’s leg and smartly dodges a dropkick to his left knee. Then Kawada kicks Kobashi’s right knee (the injured one with extra padding on it) and Kobashi goes down. Now the freight train that is Kenta Kobashi won’t be able to fight back so strongly.
Taue tags in and stomps on that injured right knee of Kobashi’s. Kobashi goes out of the ring and Taue launches him into the steel barricade. Then he smashes the barricade door into Kobashi’s knee and then places him in the tree of woe. Kobashi’s knees are completely exposed as Taue starts kicking them as the crowd boos him loudly. Misawa approaches the corner and Taue backs off, allowing Misawa to free Kobashi from that trap. Taue drags Kobashi by the leg and tags in Kawada, who lands a big stomp/knee smash combo move. Twice. Kawada attacks that right knee with everything he’s got, from submission holds to hard chops. And each time Kobashi tries to fight out of it, Kawada strikes him hard.
Taue tags in again and applies a painful-looking leglock in the middle of the ring at the thirty-five-minute mark. Misawa breaks it up but Taue keeps Kobashi grounded and therefore unable to tag in his fresher partner. Taue dropkicks Kobashi’s knee and Kobashi looks to be in complete agony. He tries to crawl to Misawa and extends his arm as much as he can, but Taue keeps pulling him back. This is fantastic so far. Kobashi’s such a great hero in peril. He tries to chop his way out of a Boston Crab attempt but Taue just chops him right back. Kawada tags in and goes for a Figure-4, but Kobashi uses one free hand to stop him from applying the move fully. More great psychology there as it makes the fully-applied hold seem like a death sentence for the badly-hurt Kobashi.
Taue comes in to end Kobashi’s resistance, and then Misawa comes in to stop Kawada’s execution of the hold. Taue tags back in and lands his own stomp/knee crusher combos move, and you can hear Kobashi wailing in agony. He follows this with a Texas Cloverleaf-type hold, but Kobashi reaches the ropes. Another quick tag to Kawada, who applies a Boston Crab. Kobashi tries to show his monster strength by lifting himself up, but Kawada keeps shutting him down by sitting farther backward. The fans are going nuts chanting for Kobashi, willing him on to overcome this incredible pain. With all his might, Kobashi reaches the ropes and the hold is broken.
Taue tags in and applies a single-leg crab, but Kobashi reaches the ropes again. Then Kawada tags back in and applies another modified leglock of sorts. Kobashi reaches the ropes, so Kawada jumps knee-first onto Kobashi’s leg. Taue tags in again and goes for a knee breaker but Kobashi fights out with elbows and a massive rolling back chop. He tries to crawl to tag Misawa but Kawada runs in to pull him back away. Kawada sees Misawa coming in and boots him hard. Misawa tries to stay on his feet but Kawada gamengiris him right in the face. That kick was so hard it send Misawa rolling out of the ring. So now that Kobashi’s finally close enough to reach his corner, his partner isn’t even there. Fantastic tag team wrestling and logical structuring here.
Kawada and Taue double-team Kobashi with a big boot and a running lariat as we pass the forty-minute mark. Taue lands a Giant Baba running neckbreaker (a move Kobashi usually uses) for a very close two-count. Taue teases a powerbomb but Kobashi powers out somehow. Misawa starts climbing back onto the apron but Kawada sees this and lands a massive running lariat to keep him away. Kobashi powers out of a second powerbomb attempt but Taue takes him down again then tags Kawada again.
Kawada lands a big running yakuza kick and goes for his own powerbomb. But Misawa makes the save with elbows. Kawada answers with step kicks. Misawa absorbs them like a boss and lands more elbows. Kawada likewise absorbs them and lands more step kicks, followed by a big close-fisted punch that knocks Misawa down hard. Powerbomb by Kawada. But he doesn’t go for the pin. He has an angry look on his face. He chases Misawa out of the ring. Powerbomb on Misawa on the ringside mats. Damn, what an impact. Taue drops an elbow on Kobashi to keep him grounded. Kawada goes for the pin. One, two, thr—no, Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. The crowd’s making tons of noise now.
Taue tags in and lands three short-range clotheslines for another two-count. He goes for a Chokeslam, Kobashi resists, Taue hands a bunch of head-butts then connects with a huge Chokeslam. Kobashi crawls by the ropes on auto-pilot as Taue lands another clothesline to the back of his head. Taue launches Kobashi into the corner at the fort-five-minute mark and lands a diving Chokeslam. Kobashi rolls out of the ring but Taue’s quick to roll him back in. Taue pins but gets another two-count.
Kawada tags in and as soon as he reaches Kobashi, Kobashi starts trying to make a comeback. Kawada tries a sleeperhold and Kobashi throws him off. An angry Kawada responds with a kick and another sleeper with bodyscissors. Somehow, Kobashi manages to reach the ropes. But as the referee turns his back, Taue leg drop Kobashi in the neck, much to the audience’s displeasure. Kawada uses this dirty move from Taue to solidify his advantage. Dangerous Backdrop! Brutal suplex. Folding Powerbomb. There’s nowhere for Kobashi to go. Kawada pins. The referee starts counting. One…two…thr—no, Misawa makes the save. Eleventh hour save.
Stretch Plum by Kawada. Taue kicks Misawa away. Misawa fires back with elbow smashes then enzuigiris Taue. Misawa makes it to Kawada and elbows him. But Kawada refuses to release Kobashi. It takes a big running elbow smash for Kawada to let go. Elbow flurry by Misawa. Kawada ducks a big one and punches Misawa, just like earlier. But Misawa doesn’t go down this time. Big elbow smash. Kawada goes down. After a long wait, a barely-conscious Kobashi finally tags in Misawa. The crowd explodes in cheers.
Misawa takes it to both Kawada and Taue with a flurry of elbow smashes. They try to double-team him but he keeps them both at bay with his legendary elbow smashes. But Kawada manages to land a perfectly-timed kick to send Misawa down and tags in Taue at the fifty-minute mark.
Taue lands a clothesline on the ropes and tries to whip Misawa but Misawa holds on like Kawada did earlier. Misawa gets whipped, ducks one Taue kick, blocks a second and lands a big rolling elbow smash. Kawada tries to attack him from behind, but Misawa answers his kick with a second rolling elbow. Misawa pins Taue, but Taue kicks out at 2.75. Facelock by Misawa. Kobashi comes in to keep a ringside Kawada at bay. He dives for a plancha but Kawada dodges at the last second. But in doing so he walks into a dropkick and a plancha from Misawa.
It’s back to the facelock for Misawa. Taue struggles but reaches the ropes. Misawa locks the hold in again, this time in the middle of the ring, as Kawada tries to come in. but Kobashi grabs his leg from the outside. Kawada’s stuck at the ropes. He’s too far away to reach his partner. Sensing Taue might give up at any moment, Misawa goes for a pin, but Taue manages to kick out twice in quick succession.
Misawa tags in Kobashi who lands machine gun chops on Taue to keep him from resisting an Irish whip. He whips Taue into an elbow smash from Misawa, follows with a kick of his own to Taue, knocks Kawada off the apron and lands a running guillotine leg drop to Taue. Misawa lands a standing senton and Kobashi pins, but Taue still kicks out. Kobashi slams Taue for the Moonsault but Kawada cuts him off on the corner. Misawa attacks Kawada, allowing Kobashi to soar through the air with his Moonsault. But Taue rolls out of the way. Kobashi eats canvas.
Both men get up slowly and Kobashi lariats Taue in the corner. Kawada comes in and attacks Kobashi from behind but gets chopped then eats a Tiger Driver from Misawa for his efforts. We’re now fifty-five minutes in as Kobashi drops a leg and goes for his diving move again. Diving Moonsault press! He lands it perfectly. But Taue still kicks out. Kobashi chops Taue hard in the neck and then lands a Taue-style Chokeslam on Taue. Kobashi runs the topes for a lariat but Kawada kicks him on the ropes. Gamengiri on Kobashi. Kobashi looks like he’s out cold.
Kawada tags in and lands an ax kick to Kobashi’s neck. Kobashi resists another Stretch Plum attempt as Misawa makes the save. This allows Kobashi to counter into the rolling cradle, which gets another close two-count.
Two minutes left.
Misawa tags in and dives, but Kawada kicks him in midair. They get up slowly. Misawa elbows, Kawada goes for a punch but Misawa ducks it. Bridging German suplex. Kawada kicks out.
Ninety seconds left
Misawa dives off the top rope with a corkscrew diving elbow smash. He pins, but Taue breaks it up. Misawa applies the facelock on Kawada. Kobashi applies a sleeper on Taue. Taue pushes Kobashi into the corner to release the hold but Kobashi grabs his leg to keep him as far away from Misawa as possible. Taue kicks Kobashi as hard as he can and frees himself, allowing him to break up Misawa’s hold.
One minute left
Misawa climbs the top rope and lands a frog splash, turning in midair RVD-style. He pins, but Kawada kicks out again.
Thirty seconds left.
Misawa teases a Tiger Driver, but Kawada resists with all his might. Taue charges in to break it up.
The bell rings. Time has run out. The match is a DRAW.
STILL AJPW World Tag Team Champions due to a 60-minute draw: The Super Generation Army (Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi)
Oh, wow. That was an AMAZING tag team wrestling match. One of the best I’ve ever seen. These wrestlers definitely earned their collective nickname of ‘the Four Pillars of Heaven’. They put on yet another fantastic struggle that made all of them look like true wrestling masters once it was over. The grappling, strategy, intensity and inner story were all spectacular here. No combination of teams in wrestling history is or has been better together than these two.
The entire concept of this match was centered on the challengers (Kawada and Taue) taking turns isolating either Kobashi or Misawa. This caused those two heroes to fight more as fragmented individuals as opposed to a combined team, which made their struggle more realistic. And once Misawa was taken out ringside and Kobashi got his leg attacked for the first time, the match changed from a game of one-upmanship to a fight for survival. This became especially true for Kobashi, as both Kawada and Taue attacked his leg relentlessly, rendering him almost useless as the match progressed. That led to some fantastic pin attempts and believable submission holds, any of which could’ve ended the match.
A lot of people criticize the King’s Road style for its dangerous head-spikes, which can be fair critique. But there was almost none of that here. There was only one ‘big’ head-drop move in the entire match. The rest of it was simple wrestling: heat segments, psychology-driven submission holds and limb-targeting, traditional two-on-one dramatic sequences, and tense near-falls. There was no need for crazy, inhuman high spots or extremely dangerous super-finishers when the logic and story of the match itself were so airtight and well-crafted.
But as much as I want to scream from the rooftops that this is a perfect match, there were a couple of flaws in its layout that prevent me from doing so. And as much as I hate to say it, these usually-fantastic wrestlers forgot to incorporate something important into the match’s story.
The biggest issue came from Kobashi. He’s usually fantastic at selling limb damage and incorporating it into later work and even into his own big moves to make his struggle deeper and more believable. Yet he was off his game on his selling here. He spent a long time getting his leg worked over, yet once he tagged in for this final comeback, it was as if none of that mattered. He charged with incredible speed, landed his power moves like usual, and even hit his Moonsault finisher. All without selling the leg damage like he normally does (limping around, clasping his injured leg, being slower to capitalize on big moves, struggling to land power moves that require leg strength, etc.) His offensive comeback put incredible stress on his legs knees, which Kawada and Taue had almost decimated. Yet Kobashi didn’t sell that damage or add more drama to his comeback by fighting through the pain as he normally did.
But Kobashi wasn’t the only one to do this. Kawada stopped selling the leg damage after he tagged in at the thirty-minute mark, despite that work taking up the bulk of his first long segment in the match. He didn’t add that damage into his own big moves, which made this match’s later dramatic sequences less realistic. This was especially disappointing considering how well Kawada did this in their December 1993 encounter.
And as much as the crowd loved both Misawa and Kobashi, this was a bit of a chore to sit through. While the action was simply phenomenal in short bursts, that was juxtaposed by long submission holds and a Kobashi-in-peril segment that seemed to go on forever. I understand that the pacing had to be slowed down since they were going the full hour. But I’ve seen a lot of great 60-minute-time-limit matches in which the final ten minutes becomes a tense, nail-biting race to the finish line. And while we saw some of that in this match, these great wrestlers just didn’t reach that next level.
There were also way too many useless pins that just padded the match’s length. There were so many moments where a weak move was followed up with a quick pin but those pin-falls weren’t really believable until after Kobashi’s extended leg weakening segment, which didn’t end until three-quarters of the way through the match. Add to the fact that these pin attempts were supposed to exhaust the person being pinned, yet all four had their moments of explosive energy. That further rendered those pins useless and more obvious as tools to extend the match to the full sixty minutes.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was a fantastic tag team match that demonstrated both great storytelling and incredible human endurance. These four wrestlers had phenomenal chemistry and put on a near-perfect clinic on how to tell a deep, dramatic and believable story through their actions in (and around) the ring. But I have to call it near-perfect instead of completely perfect because the lapses in consistency here were too glaring to ignore.
This may come across as nitpicking, but one thing I think is important in wrestling is consistency. If something is established earlier on in the story, that thing should be followed up on and applied consistently throughout the match. And even though I think Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada are two of the greatest pro wrestlers ever, even performers of their caliber make mistakes. This was one of them.
These AJPW legends had an ambitious goal of doing a 60-minute tag team match. Naturally, with an endeavor that grandiose, something might get lost in the larger scheme of things. But Kobashi’s and Kawada’s leg were such critical parts of the match’s story and psychological progression that they lasted between one quarter and one-third of the entire match. So for both Kawada and Kobashi to abandon selling that damage and fail to incorporate it into their movements and most dramatic sequences is disappointing.
All that being said, this is still a fantastic tag team wrestling match. It doesn’t stack up compared to other Four Pillars tag matches due to a singular issue, but it’s still a historically-great tag match. If the current wrestling landscape changes whereby tag teams become a big deal again, then the matches between these four wrestlers – including this one – should be studied carefully.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.