Every wrestling fan has a company that can satisfy their needs. If you’re looking for crazy storylines and larger-than-life characters, you watch WWE. If you’re into wild acrobatics and tongue-in-cheek humor, you have AEW. If you want extreme violence and bloodbaths, then CZW and to some extent GCW will satisfy your needs.
If you want to see crazy fast-paced action and superhuman conditioning, then NJPW has your fix. If you want to see the best of women’s wrestling, then you’ll have to turn the clock back to early-to-mid-1990s All Japan Women.
And if you want the best overall in-ring professional wrestling, then you turn to early-2000s Pro Wrestling NOAH, or better yet, its spiritual predecessor, 1990s AJPW.
1990s AJPW was the absolute pinnacle of in-ring pro-wrestling. The style put on by the stars of that era was something truly special and unique. Many have tried to copy that style and its success but to no avail. Over the course of a decade, AJPW showcased some of the greatest matches to ever take place. Even some of their most random throwaway matches still hold up better today than most modern matches. So once again, we look back at another AJPW classic that helped make that company and style so famous.
Today we revisit the world title match between Mitsuharu Misawa and Jun Akiyama from January 26th, 1998.
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.
Once upon a time, there was a young wrestler named Jun Akiyama. He was a very skilled amateur wrestler in high school and university, and was scouted by All Japan Pro-Wrestling and debuted for them in the fall of 1992. But even though he spent most of his early years losing (as most rookies tended to back then), he improved by leaps and bounds. It cannot be overstated how quickly Akiyama improved as a wrestler. To say he took to pro-wrestling like a fish to water would be an understatement. It was like he was born to do this. Within less than a year, he was teaming with AJPW’s top wrestlers in big six-and-eight-man tag matches. He just kept getting better and better.
In 1996, Akiyama’s position in AJPW improved considerably. Kenta Kobashi left the role of Misawa’s main tag partner to strike out on his own, just as Toshiaki Kawada had done three years earlier. To solve this problem, Misawa elevated Akiyama to Kobashi’s former position and Akiyama became Misawa’s regular tag partner. This ended up being Akiyama’s forte, as he had some of the greatesttag matches of all time alongside Misawa.
But that position wasn’t meant to be permanent, and soon it came time to test Akiyama’s abilities as a singles wrestler. Akiyama earned a shot at the Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, which happened to be Misawa. This was a huge test for him as it was only his second-ever shot at the title. He lost to Misawa four months earlier, but had still continued improving as a wrestler since then. Here, he hoped to avenge that loss, but had to overcome a huge challenge to do so. And yet, enough people believed that Akiyama could do it, so he hoped to channel that fan support into a successful title challenge and defeat the legendary Misawa in singles competition.
This match originally took place on January 26h, 1998. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Looking back now, let’s see how well the match holds up to time.
This is for Misawa’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. The fans are very loud as the wrestlers lock up. Misawa knocks Akiyama down with a shoulder tackle but then runs into an arm drag. That’s followed by some quick chain grappling and Akiyama lands a big kick. He sends Misawa into the ropes and connects with a huge jumping knee. He goes for an Exploder suplex. Misawa elbows out and goes for a Tiger Driver. Akiyama blocks and rushes him into a corner. Misawa hits back with elbows and goes onto the top turnbuckle. Akiyama hits first with a dropkick. Misawa falls to the floor. Great start to the match.
Akiyama whips Misawa into the steel barricade and he hits hard, but Misawa charges anyway. He connects with a running elbow but Akiyama answers with a clothesline. Back in the ring, Akiyama goes to the top rope but Misawa cuts him off with elbows. He tries a superplex but Akiyama blocks it. Akiyama goes for a diving elbow smash. Misawa answers with his own elbow that hits first. Akiyama goes down hard and then eats a spinning back suplex. He fights out of a Tiger Driver and Misawa lands behind him and connects with an elbow. Misawa charges…but runs into an Exploder suplex. Misawa rolls to the floor thinking he’s safe, but Akiyama gives chase. He scoops Misawa up…and drops him with a ringside Tombstone Piledriver. Misawa gets dropped on his head.
Akiyama tosses Misawa back into the ring and pins but only gets two. Misawa’s clutching his neck as he tries to escape Akiyama but can’t. Akiyama pulls him to his feet and lands a running forearm for two and then locks in a Figure-4 neck lock. There’s some more great psychology from Akiyama as he continues the pressure on Misawa’s weakened neck. Misawa reaches the ropes after about a minute in the hold, so Akiyama answers with not one but two swinging neckbreakers that get another two-count. Akiyama locks in a front chancery but Misawa reaches the ropes once more and lands a sudden back elbow smash. Undeterred, Akiyama unloads with forearm smashes and a corner jumping knee. He sends Misawa into the corner again. But this time Misawa blocks with his foot and attempts a rebound elbow smash. But Akiyama has him scouted and blocks. Tiger Driver by Akiyama onto Misawa! Misawa kicks out at one. Akiyama answers with an elbow smash…to the king of elbow smashes. Naturally, Misawa absorbs it and no-sells. And the crowd goes nuts. Akiyama tries again. Misawa eats it like it’s nothing and fires back. He destroys Akiyama with his own elbows and lands a running spinning lariat for a two-count.
Misawa applies a facelock that works Akiyama’s neck to balance things out. Akiyama reaches the ropes so Misawa lands some very stiff kicks and elbows and then applies his own front chancery. He lands some corner elbow smashes and whips Akiyama into the opposite corner. Misawa charges but Akiyama gets his boot up and charges in turn. Misawa hits first with an elbow and goes to the ropes. Akiyama catches him and suplexes him overhead. Misawa gets sent into a corner this time and eats a forearm and a discus lariat. Akiyama follows with a bridging northern lights suplex for two and then lands a Pedigree. Then Akiyama goes to the top rope. Diving forearm smash to the back of Misawa’s neck. The crowd’s going crazy.
Akiyama goes for a German suplex but Misawa elbows out, so Akiyama dropkicks his neck. He follows with not one but two German suplexes and switches the third one into a Blue Thunder Bomb. One, two, kickout. Akiyama lifts Misawa up but Misawa fights back with elbows. Akiyama charges back with a forearm and goes for an Exploder but Misawa reaches the ropes to avoid it. Akiyama tries again and this time Misawa blocks the suplex completely. Akiyama connects with a dropkick and charges again, but Misawa ducks and sends him out to ringside. Elbow suicida by Misawa connects. Misawa dives through the ropes! But he’s not done inflicting punishment. Misawa slams Akiyama onto the ringside mats and connects with a standing senton. But wait, there’s more. Misawa lands a plancha from the ring to the floor! Insane move.
Misawa tosses Akiyama into the ring and lands a missile dropkick. He sees Akiyama stirring and rushes to land a belly-to-belly suplex and pins but only gets a one-count. Bridging German suplex. Akiyama kicks out. Misawa attempts a Tiger Driver. Akiyama blocks, so he goes for a spinkick. But Akiyama catches his leg and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Akiyama rushes Misawa but Misawa hits an elbow. He goes for a corner crossbody but Akiyama catches both his legs and drops him from the electric chair position. Then Akiyama pulls his kneepad down and drops his knee on the back of Misawa’s neck. It’s great how he keeps going back to that body part. Akiyama follows with a reverse powerbomb facebuster into the corner, dropping Misawa face-first onto the turnbuckle. He follows with a German suplex and a jumping knee. The crowd’s going absolutely nuts as Akiyama signals the end. Exploder suplex. One, two, thr – no, Misawa survives. Another Exploder connects. Misawa kicks out again. The crowd is going nuts cheering for Misawa.
Akiyama goes for a superplex but Misawa elbows out. Undeterred, Akiyama jumps back up and lands an overhead belly-to-belly from the top rope and tries to end the match again. Brainbuster connects. One, two, no, Misawa kicks out at 2.8. Akiyama pins again. Misawa kicks out once more. Akiyama tries another Exploder. Misawa rolls through. Rolling elbow smash. Akiyama goes down but then fights through the pain and charges. Misawa hits an elbow followed by a high-angle sidewalk slam for another two-count. Tiger Driver connects on Akiyama, but Akiyama still kicks out. Misawa tries again. Akiyama counters with another northern lights suplex. Both men get up. Akiyama hits first with an elbow and a discus lariat. Misawa answers with two massive elbow smashes and pins. Akiyama kicks out once again. Misawa scoops Akiyama up onto one shoulder in the powerslam position…and then drops him straight down. Misawa hits his first-ever Emerald Flowsion. One, two, three! There’s the match. Misawa overcomes Akiyama!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 23:09: Mitsuharu Misawa
That was an incredibly fun match. God, these old AJPW classics are just that, classics, for good reason. They stand the test of time so well for so many reasons. It started off hot, slowed down during the middle, and then ended with a crazy sprint to the finish line. Like others of its day, this match was competitive, realistic, intense, and unpredictable. And it took place in front of a great crowd that started off watching studiously but then came alive during the second half. It was a terrific match that just flew by.
The story here was that Akiyama was a rising star looking for a big win over a big star. And in 1998, All Japan didn’t have a bigger star than Misawa. He was world champion here and Akiyama tried to make a name for himself by pinning him. To do that, Akiyama wrestled smartly by landing a big move early on with the ringside Tombstone. That move caused massive damage to Misawa’s neck and Akiyama followed through with a logical strategy of working that body part. Misawa sold like he was in genuine pain (which was probably real considering how many sickening head spikes he had taken by that point). At one point you could see him stomping his foot as Akiyama tried to lift him up, as if to tell the audience ‘f**k my neck hurts, but you won’t hear me scream’. Akiyama ravaged Misawa’s neck for the most of the rest of the match, and smartly went for pin after pin to wear Misawa down. This was one of those rare occasions whereby spamming quick pins made sense, considering Misawa fought from beneath for most of the match and looked like he was hanging by a thread.
But in the end, Akiyama got a bit too rash with the charges and the strike exchanges. Misawa was too dangerous and too experienced to be felled to easily, and so he waited for the right moment to counter. And as smart as Akiyama was to attack Misawa’s neck, he neglected to target Misawa’s arms. Because of that flaw, Misawa was able to consistently hit his trademark elbow smashes at full power at any time. And the right moment came when Akiyama started spamming Exploders and Misawa escaped out of nowhere. Once he hit that rolling elbow smash, it became a waiting game for Misawa. He hit Akiyama so hard that there was no way for him to recover from there. Though he hadn’t hit Akiyama as hard as Akiyama had hit him, that elbow smash was all Misawa needed to open up Akiyama’s previously impenetrable defenses. All it took was a few more neck-targeting moves and elbows, and then it was lights out for Akiyama.
As an added bonus, Misawa also sent Akiyama a big middle finger in the form of his first-ever Emerald Flowsion. At the time, that move was still a bit unpolished and looked like a sideways Tombstone Piledriver. It made sense for Misawa to land that move, considering it was a Tombstone from Akiyama that set the tone for the match and began Akiyama’s long control segment.
The only real downside to this match was the slightly rushed finish. This is one of those rare instances where a match should’ve gone a bit longer towards the end. Akiyama’s time in the driver’s seat was so long, whereas Misawa managed to land a big counter elbow, spike Akiyama a few times, and hit his finisher to end the match, all in a much shorter time span. And while that build-up of moves towards the debut of Misawa’s new super-finisher made sense, it still had this unshakeable sense of abruptness that made it come across as deflating. Even the live audience saw this. The finish came out of nowhere instead of following the organic build-up of the moves that preceded it.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This match is as good as the amazing rematch between Misawa and Akiyama from February 2000 and in some ways better. These two had fantastic chemistry together on levels similar to Misawa & Kawada and Misawa & Kobashi. This was a tremendous wrestling match on its own thanks to some great in-ring action and a great crowd that gave it a nice big fight atmosphere.
I’ve heard it said that some wrestlers and companies have tried to replicate the action and success of 1990s All Japan. If you ask me, many have tried (and will probably continue to try) but to no avail. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: when it comes to pure in-ring pro-wrestling action, no company has, had, or will have a better and more consistent top-level run than 1990s AJPW. This match is but one of many reasons why that is.