What do you get when you mix two wrestlers that have a deep professional rivalry, a broken arm, an unbelievably-taxing and brutal wrestling style, a highly-prestigious title, and a rivalry that has spanned well over a decade? You get this match.
I’ve covered matches between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada many times before. Most of their singles and tag matches were, and still are, so amazing that they warrant re-watching many times over. In fact, Eddie Kingston recently said that he watched their 6-3-94 match ‘a thousand times’ (he has good taste). But we’ve already looked at that mythic contest, so today we’re looking at one of their later matches to see if it lives up to the standards these two legendary wrestlers set for themselves and for the industry.
Today we look back at the singles match between Misawa and Kawada from January 22nd, 1999.
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 rivalry between Misawa and Kawada is long and bitter. Kawada had spent many years jealous of Misawa’s success and being in his shadow. Although he was widely seen as the superior wrestler, Misawa got way more of the glory. Although Kawada split from Misawa’s team back in 1993, things got very bad between them as professionals as time wore on. By 1999, they had been in several backstage fights and couldn’t even share the same locker room. Misawa later admitted that he used that jealousy against Kawada, so that it would bring more out of him and make their matches together better. It worked, to be sure (to this day, the Misawa/Kawada singles and tag matches are among the best ever), but it came at a steep price.
The two of them managed to work together, but the feud was still fairly one-sided as far as wins and losses were concerned. Going into this match, Misawa had eleven wins, Kawada had two wins, and their remaining four singles matches ended in 30-minute draws. Of Kawada’s wins, one was in the Champion Carnival, which didn’t carry that much weight because the round-robin nature of the tournament made such unexpected wins more likely. His second was in May 1998, when Kawada beat Misawa in the Tokyo Dome to become Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. Sadly for Kawada, his victory over Misawa was short-lived. Instead of getting a long reign to further establish himself as being on Misawa’s level, Kawada’s reign barely lasted a month as he lost the title to Kenta Kobashi in June (though to be fair, that match was epic). And Kobashi himself didn’t have a long reign either as he lost the title back to Misawa in October (in yet another instant classic).
And so things came full circle once again. Just like many times before, Misawa was the champion defending against Kawada. Misawa hoped to maintain the status quo, but Kawada was just as hungry as ever to beat his bitter archrival. And although Misawa had more success over time, Kawada had the advantage of recent history behind him. Misawa had beaten him many times before, true, but the last time he was able do to that one-on-one was back in June 1997.
It was anyone’s guess who’d win here, so needless to say the fans were in for yet another epic encounter between All Japan’s most bitter archrivals.
This is the eighteenth singles match between Misawa and Kawada. It originally took place on January 22nd, 1999 and was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up.
This is for Misawa’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Misawa gets a clean break on the ropes and then escapes a rear waistlock with an armlock. They trade armlocks until Kawada counters with a sudden hook kick. They lock-up again and Kawada goes for Misawa’s leg but Misawa gets to the ropes. Kawada starts kicking his knee and on their next lock-up lands a stiff chop. Misawa hits right back with an elbow and the two start brawling. Both men start landing stiff running attacks to each other. Misawa drops Kawada with a running elbow. Kawada bounces right back up and lands a yakuza kick. Misawa gets to Kawada first and hits some kicks. Kawada catches his leg but Misawa kicks with his free leg. Another elbow sends Kawada out to the floor. Running elbow suicida!
Misawa tosses Kawada into the ring and lands more elbows, followed by a spinning back suplex. He goes for a top-rope elbow but Kawada gets up suddenly and kicks him in midair. Misawa rolls to the floor, giving Kawada time to recover from Misawa’s onslaught and the damage he did to himself from that kick. Misawa gets to the apron but Kawada boots him back down. At ringside, Kawada sends Misawa into the barricade and boots him over it. Misawa makes it to the ring but Kawada takes him down with stiff chops, stepkicks, and a high kick to the face.
Kawada lands a kneedrop and kicks Misawa’s head mockingly as the crowd starts rallying behind Misawa. He goes for a powerbomb but Misawa counters with a Frankensteiner, so Kawada lands another boot to the face. He goes for a German suplex. Misawa elbows out. Kawada answers with spinning backfist so stiff he breaks his own ulna. Undeterred, Kawada lands a German, spiking Misawa on his head. But Misawa pops back up and lands a running elbow smash and blocks a gamengiri kick. Rolling elbow by Misawa. Kawada kicks out at two and kicks Misawa’s calf. Misawa fires back with elbows and forearms to the back. A Tiger Driver gets Misawa another two-count. Kawada blocks a second Tiger Driver so Misawa lands a senton kick. Misawa’s follow-up Tiger Driver connects but Kawada’s calf kicks have taken their toll. Misawa doesn’t pin because his leg gives him issues. Kawada rolls to the floor but Misawa drags him to the apron for another Tiger Driver. Kawada resists so Misawa hits a normal elbow instead, followed by a diving one. He rolls Kawada into the ring and pins but only gets two.
Misawa lands more elbows followed by a Tiger suplex. Kawada tries to fight to his feet but sinks right back down. Misawa takes advantage with more elbow smashes and goes for another rolling elbow. But Kawada ducks it. Dangerous Backdrop! Misawa tries to copy Kawada and fight to his feet. Kawada shuts him down with a kick to the knee and a gamengiri to the face. Kawada pins but gets two again. He goes for some leg lock but Misawa kicks him away, so Kawada kicks his knee. Kawada goes for a single leg crab but Misawa gets to the ropes. He lands a knee crusher but Misawa drops him with an elbow. Misawa goes for a Tiger suplex but Kawada gets to the ropes this time. Misawa tries again but Kawada throws him off and kicks his knee again. Stretch Plum submission hold. Misawa blocks it from being locked in fully and gets a ropebreak. Kawada answers with a German suplex and then locks in the Stretch Plum fully. Misawa sinks down so Kawada pins, but he gets two once again.
Misawa resists a powerbomb so Kawada stepkicks his face in and lands a corner yakuza kick. He starts kicking and kneeing Misawa in the corner when suddenly Misawa starts hulking up All Japan-style. He gets right in Kawada’s face and the two start trading elbows again. Misawa wins the elbow exchange (because, Misawa) and he follows with a diving dropkick. Kawada gets up first (because Misawa still has knee trouble) and sweeps him to the mat. Figure-4 leglock by Kawada. Misawa can’t fight out of it so he rolls to the ropes for safety.
Kawada continues kicking Misawa’s calf until he can take no more and returns the favor to Kawada. This causes him problems because Kawada has a long history of having his left knee destroyed in matches and he drops to the mat. Misawa keeps Kawada grounded with a rolling elbow and uses all the time he can to recover. He goes for a running elbow. Kawada hits first with a high kick and a gamengiri. Followed by another one. And then he lands a big spinkick and pins. One, two, kickout. Kawada goes for a Brainbuster. Misawa counters with a snap suplex. Kawada goes for a boot but Misawa blocks and hits an elbow. Kawada grabs Misawa’s bad leg but Misawa fires back with more elbows. Then he ducks a punch and hits a bridging German suplex for two. Kawada powers out of a Tiger Driver and nails a rolling abisengiri kick. Brainbuster connects! One, two, thr – no, Misawa kicks out.
And now, the moment everyone’s been waiting for: the move that made this match (in)famous!
Kawada goes for a powerbomb but Misawa resists. With all his might – and only one fully-functioning arm – Kawada lifts Misawa up for it. But his strength gives out mid-lift. Misawa is left dangling in midair and goes vertical. Kawada has no other option but to do down. He drops to his knees and spikes Misawa! GANSO BOMB! Jesus Christ! Misawa lands on his head worse than ever before! That has to be the most dangerous move in wrestling history!
Kawada crawls over for the pin. One, two, thre – wait, no, Misawa kicks out! Misawa survives getting his spine compressed by the Ganso Bomb AND kicks out at two! That man is insane!
Misawa lands a desperation elbow but Kawada boots him down again. He goes for one more rolling elbow but Kawada’s faster and hits yet another gamengiri. Kawada follows with a Sheerdrop Brainbuster. One, two, three! Kawada wins! Kawada’s the new champion!
Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 24:15: Toshiaki Kawada
As soon as the bell rang and the camera zoomed in on Kawada, there was no joy or catharsis on his face. He won the match but it came at a steep cost. He broke his own ulna on that spinning backfist and the damage was so bad he had to vacate the title he won here seven days later. On one hand, it was a bittersweet moment for Kawada considering he spent the prior decade trying to beat Misawa and be seen as a star of equal value to All Japan. On the other hand, that brutality – and by extension all the intensity displayed in this match – spoke volumes to both Kawada’s toughness and the raw intensity these two brought to the table.
As for the match itself, well, it was alright. If most other pairs of wrestlers were to have this match, they could call it a career best performance and few people would argue that. But this is Misawa and Kawada we’re talking about. Their matches together are on a completely different level altogether. They’re held to such a ludicrously high standard that it’s almost impossible for them to reach their own heights.
Let’s start with the positives. First there was the in-ring action. It was a more straightforward brawl-style match with a greater emphasis on big strikes and finishers, at least when Misawa was on offense. Even though he was slowing down compared to earlier in the decade, he still managed to pull off his big moves with picture-perfect timing and precision. He did almost everything he could to slow down and stop Kawada, but on this night Kawada’s relentless march forward couldn’t be stopped.
At first Kawada tried to fight fire with fire and take Misawa on at his own game: strike exchanges. There were a few moments when it looked like Kawada got the upper hand and could maintain it. But as history has shown, only an idiot would try to match Misawa in a strike exchange hoping to win. Misawa’s elbows are just that damn good. Once he realized this, Kawada took a different direction: he attacked Misawa’s legs with kicks and submission holds. That wasn’t his main strategy, though; it was merely a second prong used to create two weaknesses. Misawa couldn’t handle dealing with sustained attacks to both his leg and his head and neck. So once Kawada began pushing that two-pronged assault in earnest, there was little Misawa could do to fully protect himself. He gradually got worn down until he was completely vulnerable to Kawada’s high kicks, suplexes, and powerbombs. It was a smart strategy, and it’s always great to see wrestlers apply common sense and strategy to wrestling, even if it’s a pre-determined medium.
But despite having some great elements – solid wrestling, decent psychology, a hot crowd (at least during the second half), back-and-forth tension, believable near-falls, and solid flow – there were some flaws to the match as well. The first half was a bit slow with some moments of dead air during which nothing happened. Previous Misawa/Kawada matches were praised for having ‘no wasted motion’, while this match was the opposite. Very little happened until Kawada started going after Misawa’s leg, and what stuff they did do was either repetitive or had more of an impact in their previous matches. That in turn led to a pretty quiet crowd that barely made any noise for the first half, which sucked the tension out of the match.
But those things pale in comparison to the elephant in the room (arena?): The Ganso Bomb/Kawada Driver.
Like Okada/Shibata in 2017, this match was on its way to being great until it reached a moment of excess. I’ve seen a lot of crazy head spikes reviewing these matches, but by God, that has to be the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen. It’s worse than all the piledrivers, Dangerous Backdrops, and all the other brutal head-spiking moves that’ve been used over the years. Hell, even Kobashi’s Burning Hammer looks safer than this move. It was at this point that the King’s Road style really went off the rails. Baba did want his wrestlers to do everything they could over time, to build up on history and to layer things one on top of each other to tell this grand tapestry of a story over a long period of time. But somewhere that message must’ve got lost in translation. As Kawada himself once said, the King’s Road style was about “breaking the limits you set in the last”.
But this took things too far, especially considering how Misawa died. Maybe it was a 100% botched move, or maybe there was an element of intention with that move. Whatever the case, that Ganso Bomb was horrific, psychotic, terrifying, you name it. Misawa was in free-fall and couldn’t protect himself at all. He got dropped on his head and neck without being able to use his hands to protect himself. It was as if he was being folded like an accordion with all his weight coming down on top of him. This was simply excessive and unnecessary. It was one of those moments whereby one second you think ‘oh my God, what a crazy move’, and a second later you’re thinking, ‘oh my God, that guy might actually be dead.’ It also should have been the ending of the match. Nothing, nothing could’ve topped something so sickening, regardless of whether the move was botched or not. But Misawa kicked out of that move (proving to the world how inhumanly tough he was), only for Kawada to hit one or two more moves and end the match in a bit of a deflating way.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match is mainly remembered for two reasons. First, Kawada was so tough and determined to win that he no-sold and wrestled with a broken arm for over ten minutes. That alone speaks volumes to the intensity he brought to the ring and how much he cared about his job. And second, there was the most brutal and terrifying move ever created, accident or not. That was the real point of no return for All Japan. They had spent years building things up, one on top of another, and this was the peak. There was no way this could be topped in terms of build and devastation. It’s no wonder that things sort of went downhill for All Japan after this (it also didn’t help them that this was the last match Giant Baba ever saw before dying of cancer).
Some fans think that King’s Road is just a wrestling style, but it’s more than that; it’s also a booking philosophy. And as much as I’ve praised those sorts of matches before (for very good reason more often than not), the concept was flawed because no one really knew how it would end or what the ending would look like. Well, this was the unexpected ending they got, and it was both crazy and horrifying at the same time.
Meltzer isn’t always right about wrestling but there’s one thing he is right about: this wrestling style is best left in the past. It’s senseless to try and re-create it or rip it off. The matches from the early 1990s are by and large, better than those of the late 1990s, simply because the earlier ones had more of an emphasis on telling a deep story, whereas the later ones focused a bit too much on explosive head spikes. And by going in that latter direction, All Japan and its wrestlers not only set themselves up for future failure; they also guaranteed that no one would ever top the stuff that they did in their prime.