(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Misawa and Kawada vs. Steve Williams and Terry Gordy – AJPW, Dec. 6, 1991

wrestling misawa kawada williams gordy 1991

Sometimes the simpler stories are the best ones. It has been said that many problems with today’s wrestling stories is that people overthink them and make unnecessary changes. To see what pro-wrestling kept simple and straightforward looks like, we need to turn the clock back and visit a familiar time and place: All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s 1990s golden decade.

That was an era when pro-wrestling really was simple yet that simplicity led to some historically-great matches. Gimmicks and characters were either kept to a minimum or scrapped altogether. Angles didn’t really exist. Silly personalities and unrealistic reasons for matches were replaced with a very simple philosophy: ask the question ‘who are these guys and why are they fighting?’ That question was given simple yet believable answers: “I want your title”, “I want to prove I’m better than you”, “I want the winner’s purse in this tournament”, and so on. See? Simple. Fans can relate to any of those reasons, which is why we’re looking back at such a match here.

Today we look back at the tag match between Mitsuharu Misawa & Toshiaki Kawada and ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams & Terry Gordy from All Japan’s 1991 tag team tournament.

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

This match took place under purely sports-like circumstances. It was the finals of a round-robin tournament between 13 teams vying for the winner’s purse. And boy was it ever a hefty purse: two big trophies, the AJPW World Tag Team Championships (which were vacated at the start of the tournament each year back then), and a big huge sum of money (AJPW wrestlers were paid very well before guaranteed contracts became widespread).

After fighting through the other teams, two were left standing: The Super Generation Army (Mitsuharu Misawa & Toshiaki Kawada) and The Miracle Violence Connection (‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams & Terry ‘Bam Bam’ Gordy). Both teams were composed of some of the best wrestlers in the company. Gordy was a former Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion and Doc was perhaps the only wrestler that was stronger than him. On the other side, Misawa was still gaining upward momentum in his quest to become the new ace and Kawada was right there beside him to help that dream come true.

Two beloved native wrestlers against two bigger and stronger monstrous foreigners. It was anyone’s guess who’d win, but one thing was certain: with such high stakes, both teams were sure to give it their all in this match.

The match

This match originally took place on December 6th, 1991 in the finals of AJPW’s 1991 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League. It was originally rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up after more than thirty years.

Doc and Kawada start off with some early rushes and fake-outs. Doc overpowers Kawada on the Greco-Roman knuckle lock but Kawada breaks free and lands a kick to Doc’s knee (but also hurts himself a bit in the process). Doc elbows Kawada into a corner and then lands a big corner lariat. Kawada goes down but rolls out of the way to dodge a jumping elbow drop and then tags Misawa. They land double back elbows and Misawa goes to down on Doc with stiff strikes. Doc hits back with a kneelift and tags Gordy.

Gordy lands a kick but Misawa backs off. After a tense stare-down they engage in some technical mat wrestling. Gordy corners Misawa but Misawa elbows out, leading to another standoff. Then they start trading stiff elbows back-and-forth. The crowd goes nuts as neither man backs down. Misawa gains the upper hand (because it’s Misawa in an elbow exchange) and tags Kawada. Kawada unloads with kicks to Gordy’s chest and drops him with a running lariat. He pins but only gets two.

Kawada tries to keep Gordy grounded with a front chancery but Gordy gets to a corner. He hits some corker kicks and goes for an Irish whip but Gordy counters and lariats Kawada into the opposite corner. Gordy smashes Kawada’s face into Doc’s knee, tags, and Doc lands a diving kneedrop facecrusher to Kawada. Kawada kicks out at two so Doc applies a grounded sleeper. Kawada gets a ropebreak so Doc goes for a vertical suplex. But Kawada lands behind him and locks in his own sleeper but with bodyscissors. Misawa and Gordy lock eyes from across the ring to keep the other from interfering as Doc flails around trying to find an escape. He does, but Misawa soon tags in and hits a dropkick, followed by a slam/senton combo that gets a two-count. Misawa applies a chinlock that soon becomes a front chancery that allows Kawada to tag in safely. Kawada sends Doc into the ropes and applies a cobra twist (abdominal stretch) but Gordy breaks that up with an elbow, which leads to loud boos.

Doc lands more nasty kneelifts and hits Kawada with a running lariat of his own. Kawada rolls out of the ring and sells like he’s in serious pain. He makes retching sounds and struggles to catch his breath, such was the power of Doc’s lariat. Kawada makes it to the apron but Doc cuts him off and hits a proto-Jackhammer for a two-count and tags Gordy. Gordy applies an STF but Kawada crawls to the ropes. he hits both Kawada and Misawa and tags Doc back in. Doc locks in a deathlock to weaken Kawada’s legs so Kawada tries to fight out with open-handed slaps but Doc absorbs them like they’re nothing. Kawada fights through both the leg damage and some slaps from Doc and manages to pull both himself and Doc to the ropes to break up the hold.

Doc tags Gordy and they both attack Kawada’s weakened left knee. Gordy locks in a heel hook but Kawada uses his free leg to kick Gordy’s face. He gets free but Gordy pummels his head with forearms and tags Doc in again. Doc hits more kicks to Kawada’s bad knee and Kawada answers in kind. But Doc is in better condition and overcomes that damage and then locks in a single leg crab while staring down Misawa. Kawada gets another ropebreak so Doc hits him with a knee crusher, followed by his own heel hook. Kawada gets a ropebreak, but Doc’s close enough to his corner for Gordy to tag in and kick the crap out of Kawada while Doc maintains his leglock. Gordy attacks that same leg again as Kawada tries to counter with a chinlock but fails. Gordy lands some knee presses onto Kawada’s weakened leg and tags Doc in once again. They’re doing a great job of isolating Kawada from Misawa.

Doc hits more calf kicks to Kawada’s bad leg but those only anger him more. The crowd rallies behind Kawada as he makes it to his feet. He can take no more of Doc’s kicks and hits some knees and an enzuigiri. Hot tag to Misawa who lands a diving spinning lariat for two. His comeback is short-lived due to some back pain. Misawa’s unusual slowness allows Doc to take advantage with a tag to Gordy. Gordy goes for a suplex but Misawa lands behind him and lands a spinkick. Misawa follows with a running elbow smash and a dropkick that sends Gordy to the floor. Elbow suicida! Misawa appears to hurt his arm as he rolls into the ring while Doc and the referee check on Gordy. Doc throws Gordy into the ring and then kicks Misawa’s injured back as Gordy kicks out of a pin.

Doc tags in and makes a beeline for Misawa. He sends Misawa into the ropes and goes for a football tackle but Misawa hits first with a kick and tags Kawada. Kawada sends Doc into the ropes and lands his signature spinkick to the head. Kawada kicks at Doc’s knee this time but Doc fires back with stiff back elbows. Doc slams Kawada and tries the football tackle again but this time Kawada counters with a gamengiri kick. One, two, Doc kicks out. Kawada lands some chop takedowns and pins again but Doc kicks out once more. He tags Misawa and holds Doc in place, allowing Misawa to land a diving shotgun dropkick that also gets two. Frog splash. Doc kicks out again. Kawada tags in, lands some stepkicks, and powerslams Doc for another two-count. Misawa tags back in and he and Kawada hit some combo moves but only get two yet again. Diving elbow smash. Two-count. Misawa applies a facelock. Gordy breaks it up. Kawada tags in and Irish whips Doc but Doc reverses and lands a powerslam for two. Overhead suplex. Misawa saves Kawada and then goes after Gordy. Gordy overpowers Misawa with Doc’s help and Misawa gets dumped to the floor. Kawada ax handles Gordy but Doc slams him hard onto the ringside mats. Then the two Americans target Misawa. Aided powerbomb onto the mats. Misawa looks like he’s out of it. This has now become a handicap match for the time being.

Doc rolls Kawada into the ring and pins but only gets two. He goes for the Oklahoma Stampede running powerslam. Kawada escapes and cradles Doc for a two-count. Doc lariats Kawada and tags Gordy, who lands double corner lariats of his own. One, two, Kawada stays alive. Kawada ducks a clothesline and hits a running wheel kick. He attempts his own powerbomb but Gordy escapes. Kawada blocks a Gordy charge and hits an enzui lariat to the back of Gordy’s head. Then he applies a facelock of his own. Doc comes in to break it up but Kawada doesn’t let go right away (automatic plus for toughness there). Kawada lets go of his own accord and lariats Doc for his interference and goes back to Gordy. The crowd goes nuts as Kawada gets closer and closer to making Gordy submit. Gordy struggles and reaches the ropes, forcing a break. Folding Powerbomb. Gordy kicks out. Kawada slams Gordy and goes to the top rope. Diving back elbow. Gordy kicks out again. Kawada tries another powerbomb. Doc comes in and helps Gordy counter it into a pin. One, two, Kawada kicks out. Doc powerslams Kawada and flips off the crowd as they shower him with boos. Gordy and Doc land a combo aided powerbomb to Kawada. One, two, no, Misawa gets past Doc and breaks up the pin. Amazing save by Misawa.

Misawa keeps Doc in a corner with elbow smashes as Kawada escapes another pin from Gordy. Misawa hits Gordy with elbows, allowing Kawada to land a bridging German suplex. One, two, kickout. Doc and Misawa brawl back out to the floor, leaving Kawada to take on Gordy. Kawada goes for a spinkick but Gordy blocks and slams Kawada down to the mat head-first. One, two, another kickout. Gordy drops Kawada with his own Folding powerbomb. One, two, and three! There’s the match!

Winners of the 1991 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League and NEW AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 25:24: The Miracle Violence Connection (‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams & Terry Gordy)

Post-match, all the wrestlers that participated in the tournament join Doc and Gordy in the ring. They watch as the winners are awarded the AJPW World Tag Team title belts, a couple of gorgeous trophies, and a cheque for ¥10,000,000 (which in today’s money would be just over $US 86,000.00).


That was awesome. It felt like a truly classic match. All four wrestlers did a phenomenal job telling a simple yet exciting story. There was no need for theatrics, brutality, head-spikes, or random shenanigans. This was and still is tremendous because of its simplicity. We’ve reached an age where fans sometimes expect over-the-top nonsense and crazy high-spots, even though more often than not the more realistic and logical matches hold up much better. This was a perfect case of something old living up to expectations and then some.

This was a masterclass in understanding basic tag team psychology. Both teams used multiple quick tags to isolate each other to weaken their opponents and keep the fresher partner at bay. Misawa and Kawada did a great job of this by keeping Doc in the ring while Gordy nursed his wounds following an elbow suicida. But despite their best efforts and great chemistry, Misawa and Kawada lacked the experience that Doc & Gordy had. The Americans were better suited to working the tag gimmick successfully and they showed that here.

Doc, the stronger man on his team, took a long and brutal beating from both Misawa and Kawada while Gordy was recovering. But while he was in the ring, he was able to do lots of damage to Kawada, who ended up fighting more than Misawa did. With Gordy’s help, Doc was able to wear down Kawada’s leg to the point that he couldn’t use it reliably. His normally-dangerous kicks hit with maybe 30% effectiveness. That allowed Doc to brush off Kawada’s regular offense and backed Kawada into a corner to the point that it took him basically all his strength to land a key gamengiri kick that allowed him to tag Misawa.

But even with Misawa firing on all cylinders, he and Kawada were no match for the stronger American duo. Doc and Gordy were awesome as the monstrous heels. Not only did they tell the right story – with them using their superior strength and experience to overcome Misawa and Kawada – but they also did a lot of little things that made them more convincing and made the fans cheer Misawa and Kawada more. Doc saw Misawa clasp his back due and kicked that spot to both weaken Misawa and gain more heat. Gordy broke up Kawada’s abdominal stretch right away to keep Kawada from gaining momentum. They destroyed Kawada’s leg for logical reasons and in doing so also got more sympathy for Kawada, especially when he was left to fight alone.

Then came the ringside powerbomb and things reached a fever pitch. Kawada was basically hopeless but he still fought on with whatever he could. Doc & Gordy manhandled him to the point that any big move of theirs could’ve ended the match. But Kawada kept fighting and fighting (especially when he no-sold Doc’s stomps as he locked in a submission hold. That sort of toughness is always appreciated, especially since it’s almost never seen today). And just when all hope seemed lost, Misawa started stirring, snuck past Doc as he gloated, thinking the match was won, and broke up Gordy’s pin. It was so simple yet so exciting. That moment was believable as the finish given that the same aided powerbomb put Misawa out for a long time. Yet Misawa was able to delay the inevitable for his team and give the fans a small glimmer of hope for a few more minutes.

In the end, everyone looked good in one way or another. Doc had more of a chance to showcase his skills and he looked a bit better than Gordy. He embraced his role of the evil heel with gusto and had some great interactions with both Misawa and Kawada. Gordy showed his experience by saving his partner at the right moments and brawled with his opponents to showcase his toughness. Misawa was his usual great self; he showed perfect timing for all his moves, sold like a boss for his opponents’ offense, and got so much out of what he did in the ring.

As for Kawada, he was both the match’s biggest star and also its weak point. Even though he got to shine more than Misawa, there were some things he did that didn’t make that much sense. Although Doc no-selling Kawada’s kicks made sense given Doc’s toughness and Kawada’s weakness in the match, Kawada no-selling the legwork came across as a bit illogical in an otherwise-airtight match. He relied on and attacked with his legs a bit too much, to the point that all the legwork from Doc and Gordy was basically rendered useless. It would’ve been better if he showed more lingering effects of that legwork, instead of ignoring it altogether. That said, his time alone in the ring was great as he really sold the idea that he was desperate and in a precarious position.

As a final aside, he was also the master of selling impact like it was real. I don’t know how many other wrestlers take a lariat and crawl to the floor and start making retching noises. Was that real? Or was it an example of going the extra mile to sell? Whatever the case, it made up for Kawada’s otherwise inconsistent leg selling that put a minor damper on his closing fight with Gordy.

Final Rating: ****3/4

There’s something about these older tag matches that remind viewers of what tag team wrestling really is. Too often these days there’ll be a tag match and it’ll be structured less like a proper tag team match and more like two singles matches taking place side-by-side. These older matches are so refreshing because they make working together in concert the focus of the match.

The wrestlers of 1990s All Japan understood that pro-wrestling is best when it’s not overthought. These four wrestlers took a simple gimmick – the winning team takes home the big prize – and worked it to perfection. It was pro-wrestling done through a competitive lens, and that simplicity made it better than so many gimmick matches that’ve come afterwards and have failed to withstand the test of time.

Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.