“The best tag team match ever took place in All Japan Pro Wrestling on June 9th, 1995.”
This phrase has been repeated time and again for almost 25 years. In that time, there have been many tag matches that have taken place that have been called the same thing. And yet, this one is still considered better than all of them.
There were two main stories going into this match. First, Akira Taue was still angry that he had lost to Mitsuharu Misawa in AJPW’s Champion Carnival the month before. Second, and more importantly, Toshiaki Kawada had NEVER managed to pin Misawa. Never, not once. Kawada was considered the #2 man in the company and Misawa the #1, and this angered Kawada to no end. He had tried many times to win, but came up short each time.
In this match for the AJPW World Tag Team Titles, Kawada hoped his luck would finally turn around. Luckily for him, his opponents weren’t at their fullest. Kenta Kobashi had an injured knee that was taped up, and Misawa had a broken orbital bone that Kawada had left for him as a present from their last encounter.
On this night, wrestling fans got to see a rare occurrence: a tag match involving Japanese wrestlers in which one team wrestled like classic, NWA-style heels.
This is for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Kobashi and Taue start things off as the crowd cheers loudly. They lock up and it’s a clean break at the ropes. They go back-and-forth with a stiff strike exchange that ends in a stalemate. Kobashi with some excellent selling of Taue’s kick, moving his jaw to make sure it isn’t damaged. Taue gets out of a wrist-lock by kicking Kobashi’s injured and taped-up leg.
Kobashi has murder in his eyes as the crowd boos, and does a squat to show that Taue’s cheap kick didn’t hurt him. Taue hits a running Facecrusher and then tags in Kawada. Kawada eats several hard chops to the chest, and then wraps an arm in the rope to prevent himself from being Irish-whipped. Kawada reverses, chops Kobashi in the chest, and whips Kobashi, who reverses the whip on Kawada, but Kawada turns it around by Yakuza kicking Misawa (who is on the apron) in the face, sending Misawa to the floor. Great move! The crowd erupts and Kobashi has this look on his face that says, ‘you f***ing d**k’.
Kobashi tags in Misawa and the two archrivals lock up. The crowd cheers both of their names equally. They exchange stiff strikes before running at each other with their signature strikes. Running dropkick by Misawa onto Kawada, who no-sells it and hits a running Yakuza kick, which Misawa no-sells in turn. Kawada blocks an elbow, Misawa blocks a Gamengiri kick, Kawada then ducks a kick from Misawa, and then kicks Kobashi on the apron just like he did Misawa. The two teams have a stand-off in the middle of the ring, itching to tear into each other as the crowd erupts again. This match is great thus far.
Taue tags in, whips Misawa into a corner, but eats a strong elbow for his efforts. Misawa tags in Kobashi, who shoulder tackles Taue to the floor. A brief strike exchange occurs before Misawa comes back in and unleashes some stiff strikes of his own on Taue. Kobashi tags back in and hits a delayed vertical suplex on Taue before applying an abdominal stretch to further target Taue’s torso. Misawa tags back in, hits a few hard strikes and sends Taue to the floor. Misawa attempts an elbow suicida, but Taue moves out of the way, so Misawa skins the cat, and elbows Kawada on the opposite apron as Kobashi hits a diving shoulder tackle on Taue. Kobashi holds Taue in place for Misawa to hit his signature elbow suicida as the crowd goes wild!
Misawa tags Kobashi in and they hit a double-team vertical suplex that gets a two-count, the first pin attempt of the match. At the ten-minute mark, Kobashi attempts a shoulder tackle from the second rope, but Taue dodge and tags in a fresh (and very angry) Kawada, who immediately starts kicking Kobashi all over the place, especially on his injured leg. Kobashi tries to respond to Kawada’s kicks to his own, but falls to the mat due to the pain in his injured leg. Jumping kneedrop from Kawada onto the back of Kobashi’s leg, followed by a VICIOUS-looking single leg crab-like hold on that same leg.
Taue tags in and likewise targets the leg with a Sharpshooter. Kawada tags back in and stomps on Kobashi’s leg the second Kobashi starts gaining any positive momentum. Now Taue tags in yet again and goes for a knee breaker, but Kobashi reverses it and stumbles into his own corner to tag in Misawa. Misawa makes his comeback by elbowing the hell out of both Taue and Kawada, sending the latter to the floor. Boston Crab by Misawa is broken up by the most nonchalant kick to the face by Kawada I’ve ever seen. He just casually walks in, kicks Misawa in the face, and walks off as the (usually respectful) crowd boos him.
Kawada tags in and continues with his stiff kicks to the face, followed by a HARD Yakuza kick to the face and then a flurry of hard kicks and knees as Misawa sits in the corner. Kawada’s desperation to win causes him to shove the referee out of the way as he continues his onslaught. But Misawa channels his inner Hulk Hogan and gets up and starts elbowing the hell of Kawada now. Taue gets in but gets elbowed, and Kobashi and Kawada square off, until Taue kicks Kobashi’s injured leg from behind.
Kawada hits Misawa with his multiple step kicks, but Misawa no-sells it and hits several vicious elbows. Taue chokeslams Kobashi and then stomps on the back of his leg. Misawa confronts Taue with more elbows, but Taue powers through them and chokeslams Misawa onto Kobashi’s injured leg. My God. I have never seen that kind of move before. Amazing psychology and storytelling there. That leg must be completely destroyed by this point.
Kobashi writhes in pain on the mat, clasping his leg as if it had been smashed into a thousand pieces. But Kawada isn’t through yet, as he hits a diving knee drop onto that same injured leg. Kobashi rolls out of the ring in even further pain, effectively turning this tag team match into a handicap match.
Kawada takes control of Misawa in the ring with a stiff spin kick and a knee to Misawa’s face. Taue comes back and hits Snake Eyes on Misawa followed by a knee smash. Kawada tags in and hits a face lock, which further damages Misawa’s already-broken orbital bone. The twenty-minute mark passes as Kawada & Taue continue to isolate and weaken Misawa while Kobashi’s still ringside trying to get feeling back into his leg. Super atomic drop by Taue as Kawada tags in and kicks Kobashi back down to the ground as he tried to climb back into the ring. Strong lariat by Kawada onto Misawa gets a two-count.
Kawada goes for his Folding Powerbomb finisher, but Kobashi makes it into the ring and chops Kawada in the chest. Taue takes care of Kobashi and Kawada hits a release powerbomb for another two-count. At ringside, Taue hits a knee crusher that sends Kobashi’s damaged leg into the steel ring barricade. Kawada applies the Stretch Plum submission hold and Taue kicks a returning Kobashi before he can break it up. Kobashi eats three kicks from Taue before hitting Taue with a LARIATO out of nowhere and breaks up the Stretch Plum. Kobashi punches Kawada in the head (which is rare, since closed fist strikes are usually forbidden in AJPW) and the two slug it out before hitting double lariats.
Kawada and Misawa go back at it as the crowd chants Misawa’s name loudly. Another stiff exchange ends in Misawa’s favor as he tags in Kobashi, who slowly walks to Kawada. Kawada takes multiple stiff chops to the chest from Kobashi before powering up before kicking Kobashi and the two exchange kicks to each other’s legs. Kobahi gets the upper hand and knocks both Kawada and Taue down. Kobashi kicks Taue as he tags in and tenderizes Taue’s chest with chops.
Taue keeps knocking Kobashi down but Kobashi keeps getting up and hits Taue with even more chops. Taue powers out of the corner and kicks Kobashi hard in the face. Taue returns the favor in the opposite corner and chops Kobashi in the head, but Kobashi pulls a Taue and throws Taue with the exact same move. Giant Baba-style running neckbreaker from Kobashi gets only a two-count.
Kobashi and Misawa then double-team Taue with a two-man Tiger Driver, but it’s broken up by Kawada, who then eats double elbows from Misawa and Kobashi. Kobashi scoop slams Taue, which is his setup move for the Moonsault. Kobashi climbs the turnbuckle but eats a kick from Kawada on his way up. Misawa tags in and hits a corkscrew running clothesline on Taue. Misawa goes for the Tiger Driver, but Taue powers out. Taue (and then Kawada) both attempt running kicks, but each of them eats a rolling elbow for their efforts.
Misawa nails his Tiger Driver, but it gets a two-count. Face lock by Misawa is broken up by Kawada again, and Misawa hits a face lock submission again as Kobashi locks a sleeper on Kawada from the ring rope to prevent him from breaking Misawa’s hold. Kawada does power out and hits Misawa a few times, before dropping him with a Dangerous Backdrop! Good God, what a sick landing. Misawa landed all on his head and neck with that one.
We’re now 30 minutes into this epic match. Taue crawls to his corner, but Kobashi knocks Kawada down before Taue can tag him in. Misawa tags Kobashi in, who hits a German suplex onto Taue for another two-count. Kobashi goes for the moonsault again, but Kawada kicks him while he’s on the second rope, sending him back down. Taue tags Kawada in again and goes for a Backdrop Driver on Kobashi, and lifts him into it, but Kobashi reverses it into a pin as he lands, which also gets a two-count.
Another strike exchange ensues and Kobashi hits a back suplex of his own, but hurts his leg in the process. Taue distracts Kobashi as he climbs for another moonsault, but Misawa comes in and nails Kawada with a Tiger Body Press (Frog Splash). Scoop Slam and senton by Misawa followed a gorgeous moonsault by Kobashi for a 2.5-count.
Kobashi tags in Misawa, who attempts both a Tiger Driver and a Tiger Suplex, but Kawada blocks them both. Kick to the head by Misawa, who then hits a German Suplex on Kawada, followed by an elbow to Taue as he tried to get in. Kobashi holds onto Taue as Misawa hits a bridging Tiger Suplex for a 2.85-count. Awesome move.
They are 35 minutes into the match now and both teams are still going strong. Tiger Driver on Kawada gets a 2.5-count as well as Taue breaks that up. Misawa and Taue brawl and Taue hits the Chokeslam. Taue lifts Misawa onto the top turnbuckle for an avalanche chokeslam, but Kobashi breaks that up, only to be kicked by Kawada yet again. This allows Taue to hit the Chokeslam from the top rope, and both legal men (Misawa and Kawada) are down.
Kawada gets up first and hits an Abisengiri (rolling kick) to Misawa’s face, and Misawa rolls to the apron. Unfortunately, he rolls to the wrong side and ends up at Taue’s mercy. On the apron, Taue attempts a chokeslam, but Kobashi breaks that up and gets kicked once more. Misawa tries to fight out of the chokeslam, but Kawada lariats him from behind. This allows Taue to hit a Chokeslam from the apron to the ringside. DAMN. What a move. I don’t understand Japanese but the commentator is losing his mind with this action, and I agree with him 100%.
As the fans chant Misawa’s name, Taue tries to drag him back into the ring, but Kobashi crawls over and pulls off the ultimate babyface move: he covers Misawa with his own body and takes Taue’s strikes. Wow. Now that’s what I call a partner. Kobashi gets thrown aside and Misawa gets thrown into the ring. Kawada tries desperately to get that pinfall on Misawa, but Misawa smartly rolls out of the ring on the opposite side. Kawada does get Misawa back into the ring, but the pin leads to yet another two-count.
Kawada goes for his powerbomb again, but Kobashi crawls in and grabs Misawa’s leg to save his partner and friend. Taue comes in to stop this, and Kawada and Taue hit a simultaneous Powerbomb and Chokeslam on their respective victims. The ref counts one…two…thr- NO, Kawada only gets a 2.9-count, and boy does he look spent. He goes for the powerbomb again but Misawa powers out and the two of them are supine. A frustrated Kawada gets up first, and then proceeds to stomp on Misawa’s chest as we pass the 40-minute mark.
Then, with nothing else left to give in this match, Kobashi crawls over and covers Misawa with his own body again. Now, both Kawada and Taue attack Kobashi as he risks his own body to save Misawa. Unbelievable. Kawada & Taue try to yank Kobashi off of Misawa, but he keeps resisting, determined to save his friend and partner from further harm. They’re pulling on him, but he’s fighting back with what little strength he has left.
Determined to win, Kawada & Taue hit the Holy Demon Special ’95 (Backdrop Driver/Chokeslam combination) onto Kobashi, sending him down hard. Misawa powers up and hits a few elbows on Taue, but walks into a picture-perfect Gamengiri from Kawada, which also gets a two-count.
Misawa keeps fighting with what little strength he has, but Kawada hits another Backdrop Driver for 2.5. Wow. Another Gamengiri from Kawada, immediately followed by the third Folding Powerbomb by Kawada. Kobashi is finterips away as the referee counts one…two… COUNT TO THREE!! That’s it! The audience cheers for Kawada despite being him a heel for most of this match.
Winners and NEW AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 42:37: The Holy Demon Army (Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue)
OH. MY. GOD. WHAT A MATCH! That was crazy! I could go on for days using different words to describe this match: awesome, mesmerizing, spectacular, mind-blowing, jaw-dropping, phenomenal, the list goes on. That was 42 minutes of some of the best wrestling there has ever been. There was never a dull moment in that match. The action was spellbinding, the drama was palpable, and the crowd loved every minute of it. This surpassed every high expectation I had.
This is the perfect reason why All Japan Pro-Wrestling showcased the highest-quality wrestling ever during the 1990s. It’s also a perfect example why these four wrestlers became known as The Four Pillars of Heaven. Their chemistry with each other was otherworldly. Even though it went over 40 minutes, it never really slowed down. The match was structured in a way that kept the drama high. Each pin attempt and submission hold after the 20-minute mark could credibly win the match, making it so much more unpredictable. I cannot say enough positive things about this contest.
Everything in this match was simply perfect. The tension, the excitement, the near-falls, the build, the atmosphere, the storytelling, the timing, the counters, the psychology, all of it. This really was something else. It was both simple and complex. It was simple because it was a simple contest of champions versus challengers. It was complex because of the deep storytelling between both sides. From Kawada being desperate to finally get a pin over Misawa, to both him and Taue taking advantage of Misawa’s orbital bone injury, to Misawa and Kobashi firing back time after time, to Kobashi not giving up despite getting his leg utterly destroyed, everything was spot-on here.
I know this might sound clichéd, but this match was wrestling as art. You don’t have to understand a single word of Japanese to understand the story of this match and enjoy the action. All four wrestlers told a beautiful story through their actions and their facial expressions. Every move had some greater meaning and all the big spots built onto one another logically.
Each one of them played their role perfectly. Akira Taue was the perfect crafty veteran who used underhanded tactics and ring psychology to get ahead. Mitsuharu Misawa played the stoic hero who never gave up like he was born to do so. Toshiaki Kawada was the determined, almost villain-like warrior that was desperate to beat his archrival, no matter what it took. And lo and behold, he did it, he finally did it. After five long, grueling years of trying, Kawada finally beat Misawa. Cleanly, in the middle of the ring, without any possibility of argument or question. His strategy of being vicious and more aggressive than normal paid off for him.
And then there was Kobashi. My God, Kobashi. He was like the ultimate underdog in this match, fighting with basically one leg. As soon as he walked in with that tape all over his leg, he might as well have painted a giant bull’s eye on it. He fought through intense pain, got his leg demolished several times, and reached a point where he couldn’t do anything offensive. At that point, he knew the only thing he could do was become a human shield. And he did this beautifully, performing one of the best examples of heroic self-sacrifice I’ve ever seen in pro wrestling. It was amazing. Despite losing the match, Kobashi looked like a true hero once this contest was over.
Final Rating: *****
There was never any doubt. This was the perfect tag team match. Now, twenty-four years later, that statement still holds true. There weren’t that many crazy high-spots or cringe-inducing head spikes as we’d see in subsequent years. This was pure wrestling psychology and storytelling in its most basic form. Everything made sense and the story unfolded masterfully through the action seen in the ring.
This match is like an instructor’s manual on how to put together the perfect tag team match. I cannot recommend this enough.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.