It has been called by some people the greatest singles match of all time. It’s considered the best singles wrestling bout of the entire 1990s. This match was so critically-acclaimed that it took 23 years for any match to get the same rating. It’s the first match to get an official rating of six stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer. This is the mythical encounter between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada from June 3rd, 1994.
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.
Misawa vs. Kawada is one of the best, deepest, most personal rivalries in wrestling history. It has that special blend of on-screen and off-screen that translates into the greatest possible chemistry between them inside the ring. They are so close to each other, yet so far apart. Former high school mates, former tag team partner and tag team champions, archrivals, and vicious competitors. Kawada was said to be jealous of Misawa’s success, and wanted his coveted top spot.
And back in the early 1990s, a lot of people believed Kawada deserved it. Although Misawa has long been lauded as a wrestler with god-like levels of skill (with very good reason), he wasn’t perfect by any means. His stoicism was said to take the emotion out of his matches, and he wasn’t as dynamic a performer in the ring as Kawada or even Kobashi. Yet Misawa was the unquestioned ace, a title he earned by putting on legendary matches that have, more often than not, withstood the test of time.
In this match, Kawada wanted to prove that he was not only on Misawa’s level, but worthy of carrying AJPW as a company.
This is for the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. They do ring introductions as the crowd is loud. And by loud, I mean EXTREMELY loud. They explode the moment the bell rings. They’re split down the middle, chanting both Misawa and Kawada’s names equally.
There’s a long stare-down as they lock up, and Kawada gets a clean break on the ropes. A second lock up leads to a chop-elbow exchange. Misawa whips Kawada, who holds onto the rope before Misawa could elbow him. Kawada goes for a yakuza kick but Misawa dodges it. The crowd cheers this because they know how much those moves mean to each wrestler. A third lock-up ensues, and Kawada chops Misawa on the rope. Misawa reverse an Irish whip, Kawada ducks a spin kick and hits a yakuza kick right to Misawa’s chin. Misawa no-sells, runs the ropes, tries his own running attack, but Kawada smashes him in the face with a huge spinning kick as the crowd applauds. Kawada goes for a vertical suplex but Misawa lands behind him. Kawada tries to lock in a sleeper hold but Misawa reverses this into a huge Backdrop suplex.
Kawada slowly gets back up as we have another standoff. Rear waistlock by Misawa transitions into an armlock by Kawada. Kawada keeps working the right arm, but Misawa does his classic standing somersault reversal and elbows the s**t out of Kawada, sending him down to the canvas. Misawa whips Kawada and hits a dropkick, sending Kawada out of the ring. Misawa runs the ropes for his elbow suicida, but Kawada dodges, so Misawa skins the cat. Kawada tries a clothesline but Misawa rolls back into the ring and hits a rope-assisted double kick, sending Kawada onto the barricade. Misawa attempts an apron attack, but Kawada elbows him as he flies, sending Misawa down to the floor.
Outside the ring, Kawada tries to whip Misawa, but Misawa reverses that, sending Kawada into the barricade. But as soon as Kawada hits it, he charges back and hits a strong clothesline on Misawa. Kawada gets back into the ring as we pass the five-minute mark. Damn, this has been brutal thus far.
Kawada elbows and axe kicks Misawa in the back of the head and then applies a facelock. Kawada sits on Misawa’s back and continues his onslaught with strikes, including another yakuza kick to the face. Kawada continues with vicious chops that echo through the arena, before locking in a liontamer and some more strikes. Misawa lifts himself up but eats more hard strikes to the head and chest. Misawa tries to power out but Kawada maintains control with stiff kicks, including one to the nose. Kawada goes for the first pin of the match but only gets two. Misawa rolls out to try and recover but eats more kicks to the face as he tries to enter the ring. Kawada locks in a sleeper hold with bodyscissors and Misawa gets the rope as we reach the 10-minute mark.
Kawada continues to kick Misawa in the chest, but by now Misawa has had enough of Kawada’s s**t and kicks Kawada hard in his main kicking leg, sending Kawada down. Misawa’s showing excellent psychology once again because Kawada does have a history of leg issues, which is why Kawada’s writhing in pain. Misawa kicks Kawada’s leg some more and applies a single leg crab, but Kawada kicks Misawa hard in the face with his free leg, breaking the hold. Misawa reapplies another leg lock and Kawada keeps trying to kick his way out, but Misawa blocks the kicks and stretches the leg some more. That is one of those classic examples of AJPW wrestlers’ exemplary toughness: when a wrestler has a submission hold on and they get hit, they don’t release the hold right away; it takes multiple strikes to force a wrestler to release a hold. If this were WWE, they’d let go right away.
Kawada escapes the leglock by applying a facelock on Misawa. Kawada gets up slowly and Misawa kicks the leg again. Kawada tries to kick back, but the leg damage is too much for him to handle and he falls to the mat. Kawada tries to power through the pain as Misawa kicks and knees his leg. After all that striking fails, Kawada drags himself to the rope, breaking the hold as the crowd applauds. Kawada limps around the ring as Misawa kicks him some more. The crowd is now firmly in Kawada’s corner as Misawa waits for him to get back to his feet. Kawada tries to hook the leg but Kawada elbows him as we reach the 15-minute mark.
More elbows from Kawada grounds Misawa. Kawada goes for a vertical suplex but Misawa blocks it. Kawada attempts an armbar but it too is blocked as Misawa whips Kawada and hits another hard spin kick. Misawa attempts the tiger driver but Kawada pushes him into the corner. Another stiff strike exchange ends in Kawada’s favor. He whips Misawa into another corner and hits a jumping kick to the face. Kawada tries that same move in the opposite corner but Misawa reverses that into a big elbow that sends Kawada down. Misawa hits a dropkick but Kawada powers through that and yakuza kicks Misawa in the face as he tries to get up. Misawa hits an elbow smash but Kawada answers with a HUGE gamengiri kick to the face. That made the crowd even louder than before.
Kawada goes for a pin but Misawa kicks out at 2. He goes for the folding powerbomb but Misawa powers out, so Kawada answers with a huge dropkick to the back of Misawa’s head, and follows that with a diving knee to the same spot. Kawada chops Misawa on the side of the neck, wearing down Misawa’s weak spot. Another pin attempt gets a two and the crowd is making tons of noise. You can barely hear the announcer as their chants get even louder. Kawada attempts the powerbomb again but changes his mind and step kicks Misawa in the face. Misawa shows his toughness and determination and tries to gain some momentum with strikes of his own. He attempts a spin kick but Kawada grabs his leg, so Misawa kicks him with his free leg, sending him down at the twenty-minute mark.
Misawa’s up first and has blood coming from his ear. He attempts the tiger driver again but Kawada blocks that. So Misawa then tries the tiger suplex, but Kawada escapes that too. Kawada kicks Misawa’s leg, to which Misawa responds with an elbow to the face. Misawa runs the ropes and blocks a second gamengiri attempt by Kawada and kicks Kawada in the face again. Misawa connects with the tiger driver but it gets 2.5. I’m pretty sure the crowd is stomping their legs instead of clapping, because their reaction is that thunderous. It’s hard not to agree with them. The chemistry and back-and-forth action between these two is unbelievable.
Misawa hits the tiger body press (frog splash) for another 2.5 count. Misawa applies another facelock to wear Kawada down but Kawada reaches the ropes with his foot. Both of them get out of the ring and Misawa throws him back in. Misawa ascends the top turnbuckle and attempts a diving elbow drop, but Kawada counters with another massive gamengiri that blasts Misawa in the face. Simply amazing. Kawada tries the powerbomb again but Misawa still has the power to block it, so Kawada hits him hard in the face once more. Kawada tries the same move again, but this time Misawa blocks the strike and hits another savage elbow. Kawada is up seconds later and starts trading elbows with Misawa. Misawa wins that exchange and tries a running elbow, but Kawada answers with another yakuza kick followed by a huge lariat. Kawada then picks Misawa up and hits a massive dangerous backdrop. Misawa lands hard on his neck and shoulders on that one. Kawada then picks him up again and hits the folding powerbomb but Misawa kicks out at 2.8 at the twenty-five minute mark.
They’re both back up and Kawada hits a massive enzuigiri and then another gamengiri to the face. Kawada isn’t done tenderizing Misawa’s head and hits a massive German suplex that sends Misawa out of the ring. Kawada tosses Misawa back into the ring and hits the folding powerbomb again but once more Misawa kicks out at 2.8. Kawada tries that move once more but Misawa breaks it up on the ropes, so Kawada drags Misawa back into the ring and locks in the stretch plum submission hold, but again Misawa reaches the ropes. Frustrated, Kawada pulls him to the center of the ring and locks in the stretch plum again and wrenches it as hard as he can. The fans erupt in ‘mi-sa-wa’ chants. Kawada goes for a pin but Misawa kicks out at two. Misawa gets a sudden surge in strength and hits a strong elbow as both wrestlers are supine. Kawada gets up first and hits a yakuza kick, but Misawa elbows him as he gets up around the thirty-minute mark.
Misawa hits a running spinning lariat and starts to gain momentum. He hits hard strikes to the back of Kawada’s head followed by a release German suplex. Kawada looks completely spent as Misawa drags him to the middle of the ring and hits a bridging tiger suplex, but Kawada kicks out at 2.5. The commentator sounds like he’s completely out of breath calling this match. I would be too if I was calling this action.
Misawa prepares for another German suplex but Kawada reaches the ropes in desperation. Misawa’s still in control in the middle of the ring now, but Kawada elbows out and hits an abisengiri (rolling kick) to break away from Misawa. The crowd explodes in ‘ka-wa-da’ chants as he hits a second abisengiri that sends Misawa back out of the ring. The two stare daggers into each other as Misawa gets back into the ring. As soon as Misawa’s back in, Kawada hits hard elbows but Misawa no-sells them. Misawa tries the rolling elbow but Kawada blocks it and hits several hard head-butts and chops sending Misawa into the corner. Kawada starts kicking Misawa with both legs as Misawa sits in that same corner. Misawa gets another sudden burst of energy and hits a hard elbow that sends Kawada flying backwards. Kawada gets up seconds later but eats a huge rolling elbow. Misawa hits a flurry of stiff elbows and Kawada is staggering. Another rolling elbow sends Kawada back to the mat at the 35-minute mark.
Misawa tries the tiger driver once more but again Kawada powers him into the corner. Misawa kicks Kawada again but Kawada gets a second wind and starts kicking Misawa’s legs again. Another stiff strike exchange starts, and this time Misawa blocks the abisengiri and hits another running elbow. Kawada can barely stand as Misawa picks him up. Misawa hooks the arms and hits an ABSOLUTELY MURDEROUS Tiger Driver ’91. OH MY GOD! Kawada just got spiked!! How could he have survived that?!
The referee counts one…two…THREE. COUNT TO THREE!!! The roof explodes off Budokan Hall as the fans lose their minds and the commentator loses his voice.
Winner and still Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 35:30: Mitsuharu Misawa
OH, HELL YEAH! What a fantastic match! That was so much fun to watch! It was filled with drama, stiff and brutal action, and a white-hot crowd. I’ve watched countless Japanese wrestling matches and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a crowd that excited. They really helped sell the significance of this match and everything that took place inside that ring.
From an in-ring action perspective, this was not a mat wrestling clinic by any means. Instead, it was a straight-up NWA-style brawl and a fantastic one at that. Misawa and Kawada destroyed each other with elbows, kicks, forearms, and everything in between. The action never slowed and there wasn’t a single dull moment at all. There was even a moment where the ref warned Kawada because he thought Kawada had close-fisted punched Misawa, and those are banned in AJPW. That alone underscored how much these two wrestlers hated each other. Although some might say this match could’ve used more chain grappling and reversals, the truth is that such wasn’t needed. They told an amazing story through strikes and submission holds alone. It was all about the desperate lengths to which both Misawa and Kawada had go to win.
But that lack of grappling didn’t take away from the fantastic chemistry these two wrestlers have with each other. Misawa vs. Kawada is one of the legendary feuds of pro wrestling. It’s on the same level of intensity as many of the great ones: Flair/Steamboat, Tanahashi/Okada, Austin/Rock, Angle/Lesnar, Bret/HBK, among others. These are two wrestlers that know each other perfectly and it showed in this match. They both knew and anticipated each other’s signature moves, they both knew where the other had weaknesses or injuries, and they both knew what it took to keep the other down. They kept the drama palpable by keeping it simple and telling the match through straightforward strikes as opposed to over-convoluted sequences.
That is why this is such an awesome match: its simplicity tells such a deep, emotional story. You can tell from how they strike and how they sell that they hate each other. You can see the desperation in Kawada’s movements and the reluctance in Misawa as he had to abandon his trademark stoicism in favor of additional brutality. If there was ever a perfect example of the ‘less-is-more’ philosophy in wrestling, it’s this match.
Final Rating: *****
Needless to say, this match deserves all the praise it got back in 1994 and still gets now. It’s one of the most brutal slug-fests in wrestling history witnessed by one of the hottest crowds ever. It proved that you can do so much with so little and still tell a masterful story. Of course, it also ends with one of the most brutal finishers ever seen, showing once again what kind of supermen worked for All Japan in the 1990s.
As for its classification as the match of the decade (1990s), that’s where I’d have to disagree. Don’t get me wrong; this match is definitely on the short-list for that distinction but it doesn’t deserve the top spot. The final stretch lacked the same level of drama as the famous ‘6-9-95’ tag match between Misawa, Kobashi, Kawada and Taue. After Kawada’s Folding Powerbomb failed him, he had little left that he could bust out. Sure, he had his array of kicks (which are legendary in pro wrestling), but those were worn down thanks to Misawa’s earlier leg work. Kawada also used a brainbuster as a rare finisher, but he barely so much as teased that as an option in this match. Had he done so, I think this match’s closing minutes would’ve had a much higher level of anticipation.
While it isn’t the greatest singles match of all time in my opinion, I recommend watching it all the same.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.