What do you get when you combined four highly-talented wrestlers, a raucous crowd, fantastic ring psychology, and nuanced storytelling? This match.
This is a match featuring the AJPW version of the Four Horsemen of WCW/NWA, or the Four Horsewomen of NXT. They were officially called ‘Shitennou’ in Japanese, which, when translated into English, has awesome results. That term has been interpreted as, ‘Four Heavenly Kings’, ‘Four Pillars of Heaven’, ‘Four Divine Emperors’, you get the picture. This match is one of the best examples of why they got that moniker.
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.
There were two main stories going on here. First, this was a tag team title match, with the Holy Demon Army (Kawada and Taue) challenging champions Misawa and Kobashi. But more importantly, Misawa was also Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion at the time, and he had a scheduled title defense against Kawada two weeks from this match. You know, the one that broke the scale twenty-six years ago.
So Kawada hoped to accomplish two things here: win tag team gold and send a message to Misawa. The question was, would be he be successful?
This is for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Kawada and Kobashi start things off. Both men block each other’s trademark strikes then Kobashi lands a shoulder tackle. He tags Misawa and Kawada tags in Taue. Taue applies a wristlock and Misawa does his ‘flip escape’/elbow smash combo that always looks sweet. A Misawa dropkick drops Taue and Misawa tries to work his arm, but Taue reverses and attacks Misawa’s arm instead. Misawa crushes Taue with a standing senton for a one-count and tags in Kobashi. Kobashi slams Taue and lands a Hogan leg drop for a two-count and applies a rear chinlock. Taue reaches the foot with his ropes, breaking the hold. Kobashi chops Taue, so Taue drops him with an enzuigiri and tags Kawada. He attacks Kobashi mercilessly and drops him with a big spinkick. He goes for a pin but the ref doesn’t count because he checks to see if Kobashi’s even conscious. Yes, Kawada’s kicks were that powerful.
Out of desperation, Kobashi rolls to Misawa, but Kawada kicks him off the apron, preventing the tag. Fantastic ring awareness by Kawada. Kobashi’s completely helpless as his partner gets knocked loopy. Kawada applies a brutal torture crab but backs off at the sight of Misawa and tags in Taue, who lands a leg drop of his own on Kobashi for a two-count at the five-minute mark.
Taue drops some elbows for another two-count, as does a short-range clothesline. He tags in Kawada, who tenderizes Kobashi’s chest with chops. Kawada Irish whips Kobashi, who reverses the whip, but Kawada takes advantage and boots Misawa on the apron. Then he boots Kobashi in the face as well. Kawada applies an abdominal stretch on Kobashi, but here some a very pissed off Misawa, who elbows the crap out of Kawada, breaking the hold.
Misawa tags in officially and dropkicks Kawada, but Kawada absorbs it like a boss. He yakuza kicks Misawa, who does the same then drops him with a spinkick of his own. Misawa lands more elbows and applies a rear chinlock. Kawada tosses him off and charges with a yakuza kick, but Misawa block it and drops him with another elbow and tags Kobashi. Kobashi shoulder tackles Kawada and the two of them have a stiff chop exchange that Kobashi wins. Kawada’s selling is just awesome. He has this great way of ragdolling himself and does this ‘delayed selling’ that makes him look like he’s trying so hard to keep going, only to succumb to pain moments later.
A flurry of neck chops get Kobashi a two-count, so he tags in Misawa, who lands a springboard body splash for another two-count. Misawa whips Kawada into a corner, Kawada reverses, and Misawa tries his diving back elbow attack. But Kawada kicks Misawa in midair. What a hard kick to the back. Taue enters and immediately stomps on the exact spot Kawada just kicked. He choke tosses Misawa into the corner at the ten-minute mark.
Taue drops Misawa with a release vertical suplex for a two-count and follows with an abdominal stretch. Excellent psychology as Taue attacks Misawa’s weakened back. He tags in Kawada who continues the abdominal stretch in Taue’s place. Kobashi comes in and punches Kawada in the head, but he doesn’t move. So Kobashi charges and in a split second Kawada releases Misawa and drops Kobashi with a huge lariat. Awesome sequence.
Kawada crushes Misawa with a senton of his own for a two-count. This is how you make a wrestling match feel personal through showing instead of telling: have guys steal each other’s moves throughout the match to underscore how much they hate one another.
Taue tags in and choke tosses Misawa into the corner, then does that again but Kawada puts his foot in the corner for extra damage. That gets a huge reaction as Misawa crumples to the mat. Taue tries a vertical suplex but Misawa reverses and kicks Taue down and tags Kobashi. Kobashi tries to mount a comeback with chops but Taue cuts him off and tosses him to the mat. Kawada tags in and teases a vertical suplex but Kobashi reverses it into his own for a two-count. Kobashi tries to maintain control but Kawada breaks free and starts kicking Kobashi’s legs. That also gets a huge reaction because Kobashi has a history of knee issues.
Taue tosses Kobashi out of the ring then throws him knee-first into the announcer’s table. Brutal landing. Taue’s not done because he wraps Kobashi’s knee into the steel ring barricade and smashes the barricade door into Kobashi’s leg. The fans have turned on Taue hard as they start to boo him. They return to the ring and Taue smashes Kobashi’s other knee to make sure he can’t rest on either one. Now this is smart wrestling.
Kawada tags in at the fifteen-minute mark and likewise smashes Kobashi’s knee. Kawada tries to cinch in a half-crab but Kobashi resists, so Kawada kicks him in the face. Even Misawa gets mad as he calls Kawada out, and Misawa never shows emotion. Kawada has Kobashi bent in a painful-looking way. He keeps attacking Kobashi’s left knee until Kobashi’s knee brace comes off, and Kawada starts kicking the exposed leg. Kawada tags in Taue as the fans erupt in ‘Kobashi’ chants. Taue hangs Kobashi in the tree of woe and kicks the exposed knee. Then he applies a sharpshooter but Kobashi reaches the ropes quickly.
Kawada tags back in and applies another vicious submission hold that targets Kobashi’s leg. Misawa can take no more and jumps in to save his partner. Taue’s back in and he lands a knee crusher to Kobashi, making some fans scream. Taue applies a half-crab and Misawa saved Kobashi again. Taue goes for another knee crushes but Kobashi chops his way to safety. He lands a desperation lariat and tries to crawl to Misawa. But no, Taue grabs his foot. Kobashi can’t reach his partner. He’s inches away. Then Kawada charges in and knocks Misawa of the apron. Double-team suplex by the Holy Demon Army. Two-count for Taue.
Kawada tags back in and starts mocking Kobashi. He just taps him in the head with his feet as if to say, ‘what’re you gonna do?’ He’s being an awesome villain in this match. But Kobashi starts hulking up All Japan-style. He no-sells those kicks like a boss. He tries to hold on and fight through the pain. But he can’t, because Kawada drops him with an enzuigiri.
Kawada teases the Dangerous Backdrop but Kobashi escapes. Kawada maintains control, but Kobashi breaks free and dropkicks Kawada in the knee. Not only does that allow Kobashi to get revenge, but it also weakens Kawada’s kicks and takes advantage of Kawada’s own history of leg issues. The storytelling and psychology in this match are amazing so far. Hot tag to Misawa. In comes the Emerald Emperor at the twenty minute mark.
Misawa kicks and elbows the shit out of Kawada and teases the Tiger Driver. Kawada blocks it but Misawa lands on his feet and drops both Kawada and Taue with elbow smashes. A baseball slide dropkick by Misawa sends Kawada out of the ring. Elbow suicida on Taue! Kobashi drops Kawada with a knee crusher just like how Taue did earlier. Kobashi tosses Kawada into the ring…Tiger Driver by Misawa! Kawada kicks out at 2.5. The fans are going nuts.
Kawada escapes a German suplex with kicks to the face. Gamengiri! Another massive kick to Misawa’s face. Taue tags in and drops Misawa throat-first on the ropes. He goes for a pin but Misawa kicks out at two. Taue lands Undertaker-style snake eyes, but Misawa gets a second wind and elbows Taue. He goes for a running elbow but Taue dodges and slams Misawa face-first into the mat then drops him with a DDT for another two-count.
Taue goes for a chokeslam but Kobashi saves him, only for Taue to kick Kobashi in the leg like a jerk. Taue whips Misawa, who ducks a clothesline but can’t avoid a high kick from Taue. He lands a bulldog and tags in Kawada, who chops Misawa in the neck multiple times. Kawada lands this chop flurry four times in total, and the ref checks on Misawa to see if he can continue wrestling. Kawada teases the powerbomb but Misawa reaches the ropes. Kawada starts kicking and kneeing Misawa in the corner then applies the stretch plum submission hold (think a crossface/abdominal stretch/dragon sleeper combo move).
Misawa escapes but Kawada lands a yakuza kick…which Misawa no-sells. Kawada goes for a gamengiri, but Misawa blocks it and drops Kawada with an elbow. Kawada’s pissed now as he lands hard elbows of his own and step kicks to Misawa’s face. But Misawa doesn’t move. Damn, the guy is a beast. The two men stand in the middle of the ring, neither one budging. This is the big tease for their upcoming world title match. They trade elbows back and forth until Misawa drops Kawada and tags Kobashi at the twenty-five-minute mark.
Kobashi and Kawada have another vicious chop exchange. Kawada tries to fight dirty by kicking Kobashi’s leg but Kobashi doesn’t move. Then Kobashi kicks Kawada’s leg and Kawada does go down. Kobashi does the same neck chop flurry Kawada did moments ago and Kawada goes down. I guess he’s getting a taste of his own medicine. They do the suplex tease again and the crowd’s cheering wildly. Kobashi Irish whips Kawada, but he reverses that into a massive hook kick to Kobashi’s face. Fantastic counter.
Taue tags in and he lands a huge running kick to Kobashi’s face for a 2.75-count. Taue tries to whip Kobashi but he holds onto the ropes for dear life. So Taue chops him hard and whips him, but Kobashi reverses it, only to run into a boot from Taue. Kobashi charges again, catches Taue’s boot this time and hits a big lariat. Kobashi drills Taue with hard chops, but this time Taue no-sells those. Kobashi lands his machine gun chops to the chest, but Taue drops Kobashi with a chokeslam. But Kobashi gets right back up over and over, until Taue tackles him down. Taue teases another chokeslsam, Kobashi reverses it, and tackles Taue then drops him with a DDT…twice. But he can’t capitalize on that because his knee’s giving him too much trouble.
Kobashi lands a standing leg drop and then scoop slams Taue. He’s going for the moonsault. Despite all the pain, he’s going for the moonsault. The guy must have balls of steel. He ascends the turnbuckle…diving moonsault press! He lands the move perfectly. But again, he can’t pin Taue because his knees are too badly damaged. He wants to win so badly, even at the expense of his own body. What a hero. He’s writhing in pain as he tags in Misawa. Diving elbow by Misawa followed by a diving spinning lariat. He goes for a pin but Taue kicks out at two. So he goes for a Tiger Driver but Taue pushes him to the corner. He whips Taue but Taue reverses, only to eat a diving back elbow from Misawa.
We’re at the thirty-minute mark as Misawa applies a facelock. That might not sound like much but this was a big move of his earlier in his career. Kawada approaches to break the hold but Kobashi cuts him off and locks him in a sleeper hold. Fans are jumping out of their seats. Kawada tosses Kobashi off and breaks the hold. Misawa applies the facelock again and this time Kobashi applies a sleeper with bodyscissors to keep Kawada down. Fantastic storytelling here. Kobashi and Kawada roll out of the ring. Misawa and Taue are all alone. The fans are erupting in cheers. Will Taue give up? A handful of fans cheer Taue’s name.
Ringside, Kobashi whips Kawada into the barricade, but Kawada fires back with an explosive lariat. Taue reaches the ropes, so Misawa bodyslams him and climbs the top rope. But here comes Kawada sprinting to cut him off to save his partner. Kawada keeps Misawa in place as Taue recovers. Now they double team Misawa. Taue lands a superplex but Misawa kicks out at 2.5. He tags Kawada and whips Misawa into Kawada as he charges with a lariat. Kawada whips Misawa into Taue for a chokeslam, but Misawa reverses that chokeslam only to eat another massive lariat from Kawada. But ‘Dangerous K’ isn’t done. BACKDROP DRIVER! He dropped Misawa hard. Kawada pins, but Kobashi makes the save. Awesome near-fall.
Taue comes in and chokeslams Kobashi. Kawada lifts Misawa up, and drops him with his folding powerbomb. The referee counts one…two…thr—No, Misawa kicks out. He kicked out at 2.9. The fans are going absolutely nuts. They’re chanting Misawa’s name like crazy. Kawada lands the powertbomb again but Kobashi breaks it up once more. Kobashi and Taue fight ringside and Kobashi suplexes Taue on the ringside mats. Kawada tries the powerbomb again but Kobashi lariats him to save Misawa. Kawada goes for the Dangerous Backdrop, but Misawa reverses it into a pin in midair. Amazing counter. Kawada kicks out at two at the thirty-five-minute mark.
Misawa lands two hard elbows on Kawada and they both go down. Kobashi tags in but he gets dropped by another Kawada dropkick to his knee. But that only manages to piss Kobashi off more. He picks Kawada up, kicks him in his knee, and drops him with a Dangerous Backdrop of his own. Poetic justice. Kobashi pins, but Kawada kicks out at 2.9. Kobashi goes for the rolling cradle but Kawada blocks it and takes him down with a leg sweep. Kawada tags in Taue who dropkicks Kobashi and lands a perfect powerslam for a two-count. Taue goes for a Samoan drop but Misawa dropkicks him and knocks Kawada of the apron. Bridging German suplex by Kobashi. The ref counts one…two…thr—No, Taue kicks out at 2.8.
Misawa tags in and it’s double team time. Kobashi whips Taue into a back elbow. Rolling elbow by Misawa. Lariat by Kobashi. Tiger Driver by Misawa. He goes for a pin but Kawada breaks it up. Kobashi tags in and bodyslams Taue. Moonsault once again. He pins, but Taue kicks out yet again. With Taue still in the same spot, Kobashi climbs and dives for the moonsault a third time, but Taue rolls out of the way.
Kawada comes in to take advantage and nails Kobashi with a Dangerous Backdrop out of nowhere. Misawa comes in to attack Kawada but Kawada just throws him out of the ring. Kobashi’s all alone in the ring. HOLY DEMON SPECIAL! Backdrop Driver/Chokeslam combination! Kobashi’s done. Taue pins…but Kobashi kicks out at 2.99. Holy shit. I thought that was it. Kobashi actually kicks out of that crazy move.
Taue teases another chokeslam but Misawa breaks it up. He German suplexes Kawada but Taue lands the chokeslam. He pins but Misawa breaks it up. Taue kicks Misawa down but Kobashi fires back with a Giant Baba-style running neckbreaker. He pins but Kawada breaks it up. Misawa Germans Kawada again and Kobashi lands a jackknife powerbomb on Taue. He pins but Taue kicks out at the forty-minute mark.
Kobashi bodyslams Taue and climbs the ropes once more. Misawa holds Kawada down as he thrashes about like a caged animal trying to escape. Kobashi soars through the air with another moonsault press. The referee counts one…two…THREE! That’s it. There’s the match.
Winners and STILL AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 40:30: Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi
WOW! That was fantastic. It was one of the most fun tag matches I’ve ever seen. These four wrestlers have phenomenal chemistry together. The match went just over forty but wasn’t boring or slow at all. They told an amazing story here while also adding more to the ever-growing larger narrative that was being told over the span of the entire decade.
There’s a reason why I describe these old AJPW match with such detail, calling almost every move. All those minor actions and nuances tell a story. You never know what’s going to be reversed or delivered in a particular sequence. Literally anything could happen when these four wrestlers are involved in big matches, which is what makes them so much fun to watch and so well-executed.
And on top of that, these small sequences are also part of multiple overlapping stories that interplay with one another to tell an even bigger story. One of the AJPW referees once compared these matches to conducting a symphony. That is a fantastic comparison because it applies so well here. The strike sequences, reversals, changes in control and general twists and turns in the match narrative are just like a conductor commanding multiple instruments and groups of instruments in careful, layered sequences to create a masterpiece.
Each one of them played an important role. Misawa was the stoic ace the biggest threat in the match. Kawada was the vicious challenger that not only wanted to win this match, but also hoped to send a message to Misawa for their singles bout two weeks later. To keep teasing that eventual encounter, Kawada kept avoiding Misawa early on in the match until absolutely necessary. And when they finally went toe-to-toe, the fans lost their minds. They gave us only a glimpse of the madness that would unfold in that big Triple Crown title match.
Taue was the wily veteran that used underhanded tactics. For all the flak Taue gets for being an inferior worker, he proved he belonged in the conversation of best wrestlers in AJPW here. His sense of timing and psychology were amazing. The way he targeted Kobashi’s legs to get the audience to hate him was nothing short perfect.
And speaking of Kobashi, he was the textbook definition of a hero in peril in this match. His leg was targeted ruthlessly by Kawada and Taue throughout the match, and it made for one hell of a storytelling device. Each time he did anything, questions loomed overhead: would Kobashi give up from the pain? Would he be able to land his moves? And could he capitalize on his own offence, or would the pain be too much for him?
All of those questions gave this match an incredible amount of unpredictability and anticipation. You had no idea what was going to happen next, when someone would kick out, and when something would be reversed.
And that’s what makes this match so epic: the story is so deep and unpredictable while also being logical and straightforward. There are very few overly-dangerous head drops and vicious moves here. Most of the excitement came from the logic and the story.
I love the subtleties and small nuances in these four wrestlers’ match structure. They use simple logic, targeting each body parts they know to be weak. When Kawada kicked Kobashi in the leg and he didn’t go down, Kobashi showed incredible guts and resolve to win. Then when he returned the favor to Kawada, it was great storytelling because Kobashi was both getting revenge on Kawada and he was also weakening power of Kawada’ signature kicks. This is smart wrestling, which is extremely hard to come by these days.
Final Rating: *****
This was a typical King’s Road AJPW wrestling match, which is long form for saying ‘it was fantastic’. It featured all the elements that made this style of pro wrestling so unique and exciting: a strong sense of ring psychology, solid back-and-forth action, constant twists and turns in the form of unpredictable near-falls, and a highly dramatic finishing sequence that left you wondering how much more could they do to one another.
But central to this match – and indeed – to most of the famous matches between and involving these four men – is how their story transcends language barriers. These four men are so talented and skilled at telling their story that you can follow along and understand everything. It doesn’t take an expert in Japanese or someone like me summarizing things for you to understand who is who in this match and what they’re fighting for.
AJPW tag matches have a different structure from WWE and WCW matches, especially modern ones. In WWE, there’s an unofficial rule whereby a tag partner can only ‘save’ their opponent once in a match. In AJPW, no such rule exists. This means partners can interfere and save each other many times, making pinning sequences unpredictable and exciting.
On top of that, most AJPW stars had more than one move with which they could end the match. When you add these elements together, they translate into some of the most exciting wrestling matches ever. This match was a perfect example. Throughout the final stretch, Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada and Taue all kept going for pins, only for those to be broken in a myriad of different ways. In some cases, it would be broken by the partner making the eleventh hour save, while in others, the pinning wrestler had to dig down deep to muster what little strength they had left to kick out. When the legal partner went for a pin, the other would attack their partner to keep them away from the pin. Oftentimes, that partner would break away and break up the pin anyway, making the kickout more exciting.
This isn’t the greatest tag team match ever, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s easily one of the best wrestling matches I have ever seen. There’s this meme-like saying going around that Dave Meltzer automatically rates anything in Japan five stars, and you add X stars more if it were in the Tokyo Dome. While that may be true to an extent, there are some matches that really do deserve that top billing, and this is one of them, without a doubt.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.