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5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta, Masanobu Fuchi and Akira Taue – 4/20/91

There’s this belief in pro wrestling that the more people you add to a match, the more convoluted it gets, and therefore the worse the match gets. There’s a satisfying straightforwardness in a one-on-one fight that makes it easier to have a great match than, say, a triple-threat or a fatal-4-way. Tag matches are the same. Two-on-two combinations are usually the simplest, and therefore the easiest to follow. It’s extremely rare for a match to feature six or more wrestlers and be put together as well as a standard two-on-two tag match.

Unless it happens in All Japan Pro-Wrestling.

The match we’re revisiting today is one of the best matches of the early 1990s, if not the best. It’s an outstanding six-man tag team match that nearly lasted an hour yet never got boring. How could that be? Read on to find out.

Today we revisit the classic 1991 war between Tsuruta’s army (Jumbo Tsuruta, Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi) and Misawa’s Army (Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi).

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.

The story

The big story in AJPW during the early 1990s was the war between Tsuruta-gun (Tsuruta’s Army) and Misawa’s Super Generation Army. Misawa beat Tsuruta in a legendary singles match almost a year earlier, which started this extensive rivalry. Misawa needed to prove that win wasn’t a fluke and that he could replace Tsuruta as AJPW ace.

But aside from that stable-vs-stable conflict, there were some individual feuds going on as well. As mentioned, Misawa had pinned Tsuruta before and wanted to take his top spot as AJPW’s ace. Kobashi was the least-experienced man in this match and wanted to prove himself, especially against a wily veteran like Fuchi.

And Kawada & Taue were involved in a blood feud.

I’m not sure exactly when their feud really kicked off and when it got so intense. But what matters is that Kawada and Taue were bitter enemies at this point. The hostility they had for each other seemed to transcend professionalism and respect, as both of them (but mostly Taue) took whatever chances they could to cheapshot each other.

Each wrestler had a clearly-established role in their team’s hierarchy. Misawa and Tsuruta were the leaders of their respective stables, Kawada and Taue were their respective right-hand men, and Kobashi and Fuchi were at the bottom. This meant that, of the six of them, Kobashi and Fuchi were the most likely to be pinned. Because of that, both of them had to be particularly wary of quick pins, especially later into the match. But that’s not to say that this was inevitable. Thanks to Giant Baba’s genius booking, the match could conceivably end with any combination of wrestlers and it would tell an interesting story and make sense.

The match

The bell rings and Taue cheapshots Kawada, knocking him off the apron. Kobashi, the legal man, holds him back then lays some chops into Taue but Taue reverses his whip and lariats Kobashi. Then he lariats Kawada off the apron. Man, the hatred between them was so intense.

Fuchi tags in and dropkicks Kobashi. They have a quick technical exchange and in tags Tsuruta. All the while Kawada has been ringside, seemingly knocked out by Taue. Tsuruta asks for Misawa and Kobashi tags him in. The crowd goes NUTS chanting for Misawa. Misawa lands some elbows but Tsuruta’s unphased. He lands a big knee to Misawa’s gut and tags Fuchi. Fuchi slams Misawa and whips him but Misawa counters into an abdominal stretch. Suddenly Taue breaks this up and just as Kawada gets back to the apron, Taue knocks him down a third time. Tsuruta tags in and dominates Misawa with big knees in the corner. He whips Misawa into a corner but Misawa counters into a great crossbody. In tags Kobashi who dropkicks Tsuruta then lands a slam and a rope-assisted leg drop for the first two-count.

Tsuruta takes control with a knee and a big slam then tags in Fuchi. Fuchi lands a diving chop then some standing armbreakers to weaken Kobashi’s arm. Then he follows with an armbar takedown, further weakening Kobashi’s arm. Fuchi ties Kobashi up like a pretzel and gets a one-count. Taue tags in and copies Fuchi with a diving armbreaker followed by a Fujiwara armbar. Kobashi tries to roll through but Taue counters into a cross armbreaker. It doesn’t last long because Kawada comes in and punts Taue in the back. This infuriates Taue because he cheapshots Kawada from behind and they brawl. Correction, they FIGHT. Kawada takes Taue down and head-butts him. All six men enter the ring. Fuchi lays some cheap kicks to Kawada but Kobashi pushes him back. We get a huge pull-apart between both teams but Kawada won’t stop beating on Taue. The crowd chants Kawada’s name.

Taue and Misawa are now the legal men and Misawa nails Taue with elbow smashes. He tags Kobashi who applies an abdominal stretch, gets a one-count, and tags Misawa back in. Misawa dropkicks Taue and then applies a prison lock (deathlock/double-underhook lock combination), trapping Taue in the middle of the ring. Taue briefly gets some cheers as he tries to fight out of the hold but Misawa keeps knocking him down with elbows. He drags Taue to his corner and tags in Kawada, who explodes in a fury of chops and elbows. But Taue fights back with sumo presses. He Irish whips Kawada, Kawada reverses the whip, but Taue counters into a DDT on Kawada. In comes Fuchi who lands an enzuigiri, then tosses Kawada out of the ring. Once there, Tsuruta whips Kawada into the steel barricade and lands a piledriver on the ringside mats. But the crowd is still firmly in Kawada’s corner. Fuchi guillotine drops Kawada throat-first into the top rope which gets lots of boos. He stomps on Kawada a lot and tags in Tsuruta, who boots Kawada in the face a few times then rubs his boot in his face.

Taue tags in and lands a facecrusher for two. Kawada tries to fight back with prone kicks to the head but Taue keeps stomping on his face. The crowd continues to cheer for Kawada as Taue applies a figure-4 neck lock. Kawada rolls to the ropes so Taue throws him out of the ring and tags Fuchi. The two of them land an aided spike piledriver onto Kawada ringside. Taue tosses him back in the ring, but not before hitting another cheapshot to the face. Fuchi applies a neck-and-arm lock but Kobashi makes the save. Tsuruta tags in and applies a sleeper hold. Kawada starts fading. But here comes Misawa to make the save.

Taue tags in and applies a sleeper of his own, then Irish whips Kawada. Kawada’s so weakened that he gets knocked down and out of the ring by the lightest clothesline I’ve ever seen. Still not done, Taue whips him into the steel barricade and clotheslines him over it, into the crowd. He drags Kawada’s near-lifeless body back to the ring and lands a Samoan drop for two. He Irish whips Kawada again, wait, no, this time Kawada counters into a spinkick. Amazing counter, Kawada makes it to his corner and tags Kobashi as Taue tags Fuchi.

Kobashi charges in and drops all three of his opponents with dropkicks. A shoulder tackle on Fuchi gets him a two-count. Fuchi sneaks in a quick enzuigiri and whips Kobashi, but Kobashi reverses into a powerslam for another two-count. Rolling cradle for yet another two-count. Misawa tags in. Diving elbow smash to Fuchi. Tsuruta breaks up the pin. Kobashi knocks both him and Taue off the apron. Bridging German suplex by Misawa. Fuchi kicks out.

We’re twenty minutes in as Misawa goes for a Tiger Driver, but Taue knocks him down with a clothesline. Jackknife pin by Fuchi but Misawa kicks out. Tsuruta tags in and hammers away on Misawa, he whips Misawa into the ropes, Misawa avoids a knee lift by holding onto them, and lands a running elbow and crossbody press for two. He dropkicks Tsuruta out of the ring. He goes for elbow suicida but Tsuruta moves, so Misawa skins the cat and elbows Fuchi instead as he tried for another cheapshot. Meanwhile, Kobashi lands a springboard plancha onto Tsuruta. Amazing athleticism by both guys.

Kobashi tosses Tsuruta into the ring and tags Kawada, who fires away with step kicks. Tsuruta tries to tank them but fails. No one survives Kawada’s kicks for long. Kawada whips him and goes for the spinkick but Tsuruta blocks and slams Kawada down to the mat. He goes for a vertical suplex but Kawada counters into an armbar. Misawa and Kobashi charge in to stop Tsuruta’s partners from helping him. The crowd’s on their feet cheering for Kawada. Eventually, Tsuruta reaches the bottom rope, breaking the hold.

Kawada lands more stiff kicks but Tsuruta fires back with slaps. Tsuruta teases a lariat, but Kawada ducks and goes back the armbar. Kobashi and Fuchi rush the ring. We have a tense standoff. Tsuruta gets to the ropes. Kawada lands more step kicks but Tsuruta catches his leg again and throws him away. In comes Taue who lands a back suplex for two. He lands an atomic drop and goes for another but Kawada lands on his feet behind him. Sleeper with bodyscissors. Fuchi breaks it up with stomps, leading to a torrent of boos. Kawada follows with a facelock but Taue crawls to the ropes.

Kobashi tags in and shoulder tackles Taue down and lands a Boston crab. Tsuruta comes in and charges for a lariat, but Kobashi drops Taue and lariats Tsuruta! Then a lariat on Fuchi for good measure! The crowd’s going crazy.

Kobashi tags in Misawa and scoop slams Taue, allowing Misawa to land a frog splash for a two-count. A running senton gets Misawa another two-count, so he tags Kobashi back in. Kobashi lands a fireman’s carry slam for two and then applies a Texas cloverleaf. But this time he doesn’t see Tsuruta coming and gets booted in the face. Misawa tags in and drops Taue with a kick and a diving spinning lariat. Taue kicks out of a pin so Misawa applies a sitting abdominal stretch. Then he tosses Taue out of the ring and has a standoff with Fuchi, while Kawada gets some revenge for earlier. Then he drags Taue out into the crowd. Scoop slam onto the bare floor. Plus some kicks to the back for good measure. Man, one should never piss off Toshiaki Kawada.

Back in the ring, Misawa lands a running elbow smash but Taue kicks out at 2.5. Kobashi tags in, Taue counters his Irish whip, but Kobashi kicks him and applies a standing abdominal stretch. It doesn’t last long as Tsuruta breaks it up, so Kobashi tags in Kawada. Lariat by Kawada. Taue kicks out. Both men escape the ring as we pass the thirty-minute mark.

Kawada teases a powerbomb on the ringside mats but Fuchi cuts him off. He tries again but this time it’s Tsuruta that blocks him. Kawada recovers in the ring then kicks Taue in the corner as soon as he gets back in. he lands more stiff kicks to the head then tags Kobashi, who lands some kicks to the chest. Taue slumps over and looks to be in legitimate pain. Well, he’s in there with Kobashi so I don’t blame him. But Kawada’s having none of this and punts Taue in the back. Kobashi follows with a piledriver for a two-count and tags Misawa, who lands a sidewalk slam for another two-count. He applies a camel clutch on Taue, which actually makes the crowd cheer for Taue. Of course, he’s taking the biggest shitkicking in the match so far so I’m not surprised they’re behind him.

After a long stretch, Kawada tags in and applies a single-leg crab. Taue reaches the ropes, but Kawada just drags him back to the middle of the ring. Kawada’s too consumed with beating Taue to care at this point. Fuchi tries to interfere, but Kawada let’s go and flips Fuchi off as he goes to tag Misawa. Lol. Just lol.

Misawa kicks away on Taue and Taue starts fighting back with chops. But Misawa just drops him with an elbow and tags Kobashi. Kobashi lands a big lariat in the corner and an elevated DDT, but doesn’t pin because he sees Fuchi from the corner of his eye. Misawa dropkicks Taue out of the ring and helps Kobashi onto the top turnbuckle. Aided diving plancha by Kobashi. Amazing move.

Back in the ring, Kobashi goes for a vertical suplex but Fuchi dropkicks his leg. Then he flips Kawada off, which gets a big pop from the crowd. The camera zooms in on Kawada and he looks like he just wants to murder Fuchi. And here I thought he only hated Taue.

Fuchi tags in and kicks away at Kobashi’s knee. The crowd chants Kobashi’s name as Fuchi continues this onslaught, then tags Tsuruta and throws Kobashi out of the ring. Tsuruta catches Kobashi ringside and drops him knee-first onto the barricade. Wow, that looks painful.

Tsuruta elbows Kobashi but he answers with an elbow of his own. But he falls to one knee right away, which allows Tsuruta to stomp away on it, causing the crowd to boo Tsuruta. Lariat by Tsuruta. Kobashi kicks out at 2.75. Tsuruta tosses Kobashi back out of the ring and tags Fuchi, who grabs a chair. Wow, I’ve never seen any foreign objects (besides the barricade) used in All Japan. This is something special. Fuchi lifts Kobashi up and lands a knee crusher onto the steel chair onto the ring apron. Damn, Kobashi lands knee-first on the hardest surface possible. Some fans are literally screaming at this. But Fuchi’s not done. He smashes the chair into that same knee.

Back in the ring, Kobashi desperately tries to fight back with slaps but can’t stand up for more than a few seconds. Fuchi dropkicks his knee to stop him from reaching his partners and applies an STF as the crowd chanters Kobashi’s name. And just before Kobashi reaches the ropes, Fuchi traps his arm. Amazing ring awareness. Kobashi eventually reaches the ropes, breaking the hold.

Fuchi applies another leg submission hold but Kobashi quickly grabs the ropes this time. Taue tags in and applies his own leg lock. Kobashi manages to kick Taue in the head and crawls to his corner, but Taue pulls him away by the foot. Kobashi’s fingertips away but Taue stops him. In comes Tsuruta, who scoop slams Kobashi down hard. He follows this with a brutal-looking single leg crab, putting immense pressure on that nearly-destroyed leg of Kobashi’s.

The crowd’s screaming for Kobashi now. He reaches the ropes. Tsuruta’s forces to let go. Tsuruta Irish whips Kobashi, but he counters into a sunset flip. Tsuruta kicks out (literally) and Kobashi tries another desperation crawl to his corner. But Tsuruta catches him and lands some knee smashes. The referee asks Kobashi if he gives up and he shakes his head defiantly. Tsuruta holds Kobashi up by one leg and tags Fuchi, who kicks at the same leg and wraps it up in the ropes. Then he tosses Kobashi out of the ring again and Taue drops him knee first onto the wooden announce table. And this isn’t a gimmicked table designed to break, but a hard Japanese table. How Kobashi’s able to walk after all this I have no idea.

Taue follows Fuchi’s example and smashes a chair into Kobashi’s knee. In the ring, Fuchi goes for a backdrop suplex but Kobashi reverses into a quick pin for two. He kicks Fuchi away and tries to go to his teammates but Tsuruta tags in and cuts him off once more. He lands another knee smasher then follows with a Goldberg-style leg lock. Kobashi tries to kick Tsuruta in the face with the free leg but it does nothing. Taue tags in and lands a diving elbow drop onto Kobashi’s leg and applies another leglock. He goes for a figure-4 leglock but uses his hand to block Taue from locking one leg and applying maximum pressure. I wish more people in the US did that. It would add much more drama to a submission sequence and would get the move even more over as something to avoid as much as possible.

We’re now forty-five minutes in as Kobashi escapes the leglock and Taue tags in Fuchi. He goes for a suplex but somehow, despite all that damage, Kobashi musters what little strength he has left to counter into a suplex of his own. Both men are down. Again, Kobashi tries to reach his corner but again Fuchi cuts him off. Tsuruta tags in again and boots Kobashi down. Tsuruta goes for a powerbomb but Kobashi resists, giving Kawada enough time to kick Tsuruta in the face. Kobashi follows with an enzuigiri, but Tsuruta knocks him down again. Each time Kobashi gets even the slightest second wind, someone has to knock him down.

Tsuruta tags Taue, who lands another knee crusher into a single leg crab. He drags Kobashi towards his corner to keep him from his partners. Kobashi reaches the ropes and Fuchi tags in again. He kicks at the knee and goes for a knee crusher, but this time Kobashi fights out. He tags Kawada. The crowd goes nuts. Stiff elbows for Fuchi. Hard slaps for Kawada. Fuchi whips Kawada, but Kawada counters into a lariat. Chop takedowns. Fuchi kicks out of a pin. Misawa tags in. another brutal strike exchange. Misawa counters aw whip into the corner. Fuchi lands stiff slaps on both Misawa and Kobashi. The crowd’s behind Fuchi now. He tags in Tsuruta, who lands a jumping knee on Misawa for two. Powerbomb by Tsuruta. Everyone rushes into the ring. Misawa kicks out at 2.8.

Tsuruta maintains control and tags in Taue. Back suplex/diving chokeslam combo by Tsuruta and Taue. Misawa gets his foot on the ropes at 2.8. Taue has him in the Canadian backbreaker (Dominator) position. Fuchi charges and knocks Kobashi out of the ring. But Kobashi reverses his Irish whip into the barricade. Tsuruta and Kawada have a tense staredown, each daring the other to make the first move. Kobashi comes in and makes the save. Misawa counters into a pin for two. Big spinkick to Taue’s chest by Misawa. Taue kicks back. Misawa counters a sumo charge. Tiger Driver! Taue barely kicks out. Kobashi tags in. Scoop slam. He climbs the top rope. Gravity-defying Moonsault! He pins. Fuchi breaks it up. Misawa tags in and goes for a German suplex, but Tsuruta stops him. Taue with a DDT and a chokeslam. Kawada breaks up the pin. Kobashi takes out Fuchi. Tsuruta takes out Kawada. Misawa and Taue are alone in the ring. Bridging Tiger Suplex by Misawa. Kawada and Kobashi hold their respective opponents at bay. The referee counts one, two, three! That’s it! There’s the match! The fans are screaming on the top of their lungs.

Winners after 51:32: The Super Generation Army (Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada & Kenta Kobashi)

Review

That was the best six-man tag team match I have ever seen, full stop. It was insane, it was spectacular, and it was mesmerizing. They managed to keep the audience completely engaged for over fifty full minutes. The match never slowed, the story made sense, and they kept weaving so many new twists and turns into the story they were telling. And the best part? All the in-ring action was so simplistic. Everything was grounded in a very basic wrestling style. No crazy flips (beyond a Moonsault or two), no unnecessary brutality, and no flashiness at the expense of story. Anytime a big move was executed, it was done to move the stories forward. And they told multiple stories simultaneously, making this for a fun and engaging match.

Everyone looked like a million dollars in this match. Fuchi came across as a cold-blooded killer that wanted to rip Kobashi to pieces. Kobashi got the crap beat out of him but never gave up. Misawa came across as the determined future ace that fought tooth-and-nail with the established ace Tsuruta and wouldn’t back down. Tsuruta also fought like hell and made sure to make life difficult for Misawa. He was great here, and despite wrestling like a villain, the fans still respected Tsuruta enough to cheer loudly for him whenever he did his biggest moves.

And of course, there was the war between Kawada and Taue. It seems almost weird describing how they looked like they were fighting each other legit in this match, considering they’d become partners in two years’ time. Yet here, it was blatantly obvious there was bitterness between them. They took whatever liberties they could and looked for any opening possible to try and kill each other. And their own feud didn’t exist in a vacuum, either. Instead, it was woven into the larger story of this tag team match, making it so much better. This is something I think is sorely lacking in most modern wrestling matches: nothing feels genuine. Modern pull-apart brawls and supposed hatred between two or more wrestlers doesn’t come close to looking as realistic as this. Kawada and Taue showed exactly how to make their feud seem real: they didn’t make it look like they were wrestling each other or working a fight; they put on a convincing display that they were actually fighting. Hell, for all we know, they were actually fighting for real in some kind of who-is-tougher head game. They threw each other around and brawled in a way that you’d expect to find in a real fight. It wasn’t clean, laser-precise or choreographed; it looked wild, stiff and sloppy (but in a good way). The closest thing I can compare this do is the famous Undertaker-Brock Lesnar pull-apart brawl prior to SummerSlam 2015. But even that segment had certain traits and hallmarks that made it obvious that it was ‘scripted’. Here, the illusion was MUCH stronger. And it elevated this match and then some.

If there’s one thing these wrestlers were masters at here, it was building tension. Their sense of timing was perfect. All the big spots, reversals, counters, and changes in control were timed absolutely perfectly. That allowed the match to progress smoothly, even during a slightly-deflating middle portion in which little happened. But what little did happen created so much tension that you couldn’t tell that the pacing had really slowed. One of my favorite minor details in this match is a concept common to old AJPW matches that isn’t seen much these days. When one wrestler from one side has their legal opponent in a submission hold, his partners will rush to the other side to hold off the opponent’s partners should they try and make the save. Doing so forces the viewer to ask more questions as the tension builds up. Will one of the victim’s teammates break through the wall of humanity to save their partner in peril? Will they get pushed back and then fight harder to make the save? Will the person in the hold reach the ropes, counter the hold, or submit? And if they do escape the hold, how will that impact the rest of the match? These little guessing games make the match so much better; and in this match they weren’t overdone in any way, either.

There was also some great selling in this match that really made it seem like a brutal endurance contest. Halfway through the match, Kobashi kicked Taue in the stomach. It wasn’t anything exceptional, just a regular kick. But Taue sold it like he had taken a bullet to the stomach. He slumped over by the ropes and stayed there, preventing Kobashi from doing his next move right away. While it might look like overselling, it wasn’t. The AJPW style was notoriously stiff, so it made sense for Taue to add some additional realism to something that would otherwise be forgotten. And considering that he’d take more brutal moves shortly thereafter, Taue came across as a tough bastard for taking such an extended and brutal beating.

And Kobashi was the same once Fuchi started attacking his knees. This has become basically a centerpiece to these old Kobashi matches, but it never really gets old. Kobashi was a power wrestler that relied on his knees for everything. So when he screamed out in pain, got his knee picked apart, and kept going despite the pain, he looked like a genuine hero. The crowd, while loud for the entire match, screamed loudest when Kobashi was in peril. Some people screamed as loud as they could, they were so invested in and excited by Kobashi’s fight.

Final Rating: *****

This match was truly special. It was almost an hour long yet it never got boring. It featured amazing wrestling, multiple interwoven and interesting stories, a white-hot crowd, and exceptional drama. And it never got complicated. You can watch this match without having any context or without knowing any Japanese and you’ll catch on very quickly. It’s a perfect example of showing over telling. No dialogue or promos are needed to understand the story here. The action, crowd and commentators do that together instead.

If there was ever a match that should be used as a standard-bearer for six-man matches, it’s this one. All six wrestlers fought admirably here and put on one hell of a match. You’ll definitely have to invest some time in it, but it’s worth every minute of it.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.

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