Pro-wrestling is filled with amazing rivalries that span multiple matches. Some of them are famous and have stood the test of time: Flair/Steamboat, Undertaker/Michaels, Austin/Rock, Tanahashi/Okada, Misawa/Kobashi and Okada/Omega are but a few of these great rivalries.
Though the wrestling styles varied among these wrestlers, they all have one thing in common: their matches together were simply outstanding.
But the mark of a truly great pro-wrestler is if they can have a great match with anyone. In North America, the go-to phrase about top in-ring wrestlers has been ‘Ric Flair/Shawn Michaels can wrestle a broom and steal the show’. In Japan, where the wrestling is usually much tougher and the expectations are much higher, the names Flair or Michaels are replaced with Mitsuharu Misawa. He already proved he could wrestle a great match with anyone once before when he faced Akira Taue in April 1995. And today, we’ll look back and see if he can pull off the same feat twice.
It’s time to revisit the Misawa vs. Taue world title match from September 10th, 1995.
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.
On April 15th, 1995, Misawa beat Akira Taue in a historically-great match to win the 1995 Champion Carnival tournament (basically AJPW’s version of the G1 Climax). A month later, Misawa beat Stan Hansen to win AJPW’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship for a second time. Two weeks after that, on June 9th, Misawa – the world champion – was pinned by Taue’s tag partner Toshiaki Kawada in the single greatest tag match of all time. By pinning Misawa, Kawada earned a shot at Misawa’s Triple Crown, which took place on July 24th. Kawada came up short, and soon after his partner Taue earned a shot at the champion.
This was the biggest chance of Taue’s career to prove his naysayers wrong. Few people really bought Taue as a viable opponent for Misawa. Compared to the other three of the Four Pillars – Misawa, Kawada, and Kobashi – Taue was seen as a notch beneath them. He lacked Misawa’s trademark stoicism, toughness, and perfect sense of timing. He wasn’t anywhere near as vicious as Kawada and didn’t hit as hard. He also lacked Kobashi’s physique, conditioning and athleticism. As a wrestler, Taue was seen as lanky and uninspiring in the ring, especially compared to those other three and even other wrestlers like Tsuruta, Akiyama, Dr. Death, and others.
But there was one thing Taue excelled at: being crafty. He knew how to find weaknesses and exploit them. While it made him come across as underhanded, it was also a successful strategy. When he attacked Misawa’s eye in their Champion Carnival match, he came closer to victory than ever before. And when he did that same thing in that big June tag match, it was enough to stop Misawa dead in his tracks and helped Kawada score the deciding fall.
But Kawada was nowhere to be found here. It was simply Misawa and Taue in a rematch from April but with much higher stakes. And so Taue hoped to accomplish what his partner couldn’t: beat Misawa for the Triple Crown. But could he do the seemingly impossible? Could Akira Taue pin Mitsuharu Misawa in singles competition and claim the most prestigious prize in all of wrestling?
This match originally took place on September 10th, 1995. It was originally rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see if it holds up well now.
This is for Misawa’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. The bell rings and the crowd is surprisingly cheering more for Taue. They lock-up and Taue knocks Misawa down with a shoulder. He goes for a big boot but Misawa ducks and lands a diving spinning lariat. Misawa elbows Taue so hard he falls out of the ring. Misawa charges…and lands his elbow suicida through the ropes. Great start to the match.
Misawa tosses Taue into the ring and lands a standing senton for a one-count. Taue powers out of a Tiger Driver and a Tiger suplex. He tries another big boot. Misawa blocks and lands a stiff elbow. He follows with a running elbow smash. Tiger Driver connects. One, two, Taue barely kicks out. Misawa applies a facelock. Taue gets a ropebreak and escapes to ringside. Misawa dropkicks him and elbows him as he gets back onto the apron. Misawa dives over the ropes to the floor and lands on his feet. Taue sidesteps and dropkicks Misawa’s knee. Clever move. Suddenly Misawa’s in trouble.
Taue tosses Misawa back into the ring and kicks his now-injured knee. Misawa fires back with elbow smashes and goes for a rolling elbow smash. But Taue ducks and hits a chokeslam. Big move for Taue. He pins but Misawa kicks out. Taue tries another chokeslam but Misawa resists, so Taue choke-tosses him into the corner. Misawa powers out and charges with a running elbow. Taue tanks it and lands a high kick. That’s followed by a running jumping big boot. Taue lands a second one. One, two, Misawa kicks out.
Taue lifts Misawa up for a bearhug and then drops him head-first into the top turnbuckle twice in a row. Great job by Taue targeting Misawa’s broken orbital bone. He follows that by dropping Misawa throat-first across the top rope and then lands a DDT. He tries another chokeslam but Misawa resists, first by sinking down and then by judo throwing Taue off. But Taue fires back with a dropkick that sends Misawa to the floor. Taue charges to the ropes…and lands a tope suicida through the ropes. Taue pulls a page out of Misawa’s playbook. Taue drags Misawa to the apron. He goes for an apron chokeslam and chops Misawa to weaken his resolve. But Misawa holds on for dear life. Taue responds by kicking his injured knee. Misawa STILL holds on. Taue throws him into the barricade and then back into the ring. powerbomb by Taue. Misawa kicks out. Taue tries another powerbomb. Misawa powers out so Taue boots him in the back of the head. Misawa gets a sudden burst of energy and hits two elbow smashes followed by a rolling elbow to drop Taue at the ten-minute mark.
Misawa’s now in control as he lands a bridging German suplex for a two-count. He breaks his own pin because his knee is weakened from Taue’s earlier attacks. Tremendous selling by Misawa. Taue notices Misawa struggling to his feet and kicks the back of his bad knee. Misawa rolls out of the ring but finds no safety as Taue whips him into the steel barricade. Taue rips off the ringside mats and drags Misawa to the apron. He’s going for the chokeslam to the floor again. He goozles Misawa as the fans and commentators scream in fear. Misawa holds onto the ropes for dear life. Taue boots him in the face and tries the chokeslam again. Taue kicks Misawa’s bad knee and Misawa collapses to the floor. Taue tries a third time. Misawa hits a sudden stiff elbow smash that stuns Taue. Misawa rolls into the ring for safety and kicks out of a pin at two.
Taue targets Misawa’s knee with a sharpshooter but Misawa’s quick to reach the ropes. Taue doesn’t relent as he lands a big German suplex of his own. Taue signals the end. Dynamic/Batista Bomb! The referee counts one, two, thr – no, Misawa survives. Taue goes for another chokeslam. Misawa grabs the ropes so Taue elbows his neck. Misawa fires back with stiff elbows of his own. Rolling elbow smash misses. Misawa blocks a chokeslam but eats another high kick. Taue goes for a short-range clothesline. Misawa ducks and lands his own German suplex. Running elbow smash by Misawa. Taue kicks out. Misawa attempts a Tiger suplex. Taue gets to the ropes for safety. Misawa goes for another German. Taue elbows out and lands an enzuigiri. He attempts his own German. Misawa uses the ropes to soften the landing. Rolling elbow smash connects! Taue staggers, powers through, and hits another Chokeslam. Both men collapse. Taue rolls over for a pin. One, two, Misawa kicks out. Taue gets up first and lands another enzuigiri. Misawa tanks it and hits an elbow. Taue goes low and kicks Misawa’s bad knee. He attempts another powerbomb. He lands i – wait, no, Misawa counters with a Frankensteiner. Misawa struggles but gets to his feet. He unloads with a flurry of stiff elbow strikes. A third rolling elbow smash lands. Taue staggers into the ropes. Misawa follows with another German and then lands some elbows in the corner. Taue fires back with desperation head-butts and a huge high-angle German of his own. Misawa fights through it and lands a rolling elbow. Both men collapse again.
Both wrestlers struggle to their feet. Misawa hits first with a back elbow. Taue staggers again but Misawa holds him up. Misawa winds up and lands one more massive rolling elbow smash. Misawa drops Taue with the elbow to end all elbows. One, two, three! There’s the match! Misawa wins!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight champion after 20:50: Mitsuharu Misawa
This was lots of fun. It was refreshing to see an AJPW main event go only twenty minutes instead of much longer as those tended to back then. Because of its shorter length, Misawa and Taue had a simpler and more condensed match that was exciting and airtight. It’s the mark of a truly great wrestler when they can tell as awesome a story in twenty minutes as they do in forty, which is exactly what happened here.
Misawa didn’t do much here; he controlled both the beginning and the end of the match, while the rest was all Taue. Taue used his trademark craftiness to bully Misawa and keep him on the defensive for most of the match. After kicking out of several high-impact signature moves of Misawa’s, Taue controlled the match by going after both Misawa’s eye and knee. By targeting two injured body parts, Taue was able to keep Misawa guessing and find opening after opening to land big moves. That did wonders to make his pinfall attempts actually believable. Normally Taue wasn’t seen as much of a credible threat on his own. But here, Taue did such a terrific job of capitalizing on Misawa’s immobility and weakness that he made the fans both cheer his name and scream in horror at what he did. And he did this by doing something that’s largely forgotten these days: teasing moves without actually hitting them.
For some reason, most modern wrestlers have this mentality whereby they MUST hit each and every move in their arsenal in each and every match. There’s no such thing as saving something for later or teasing something that never gets hit. It’s all or nothing, and if you ask me that’s a formula for failure. If you do everything in each match, from the inconsequential ones to the big title matches, then nothing feels special or important, and all that wrestler’s matches develop the same pattern and lose their individuality and uniqueness. Taue showed us exactly why doing the opposite matters. Here, he teased the apron Nodowa Otoshi/Chokeslam, which was an absolute killer of a move. He used that move in matches before and it was enough to slow Misawa down significantly. In fact, in their amazing epic in June 1995, Taue landed that very move on Misawa and it was the turning point of the match. Misawa never recovered after taking that move and it led to Taue (and Kawada) winning. Taue had firsthand experience that his apron Chokeslam could do a number on Misawa and needed to land it to get a third major advantage over Misawa.
But Misawa was just as perceptive as Taue was and knew the move was coming. That’s why fought to avoid it as much as he could. He held onto the ropes like his life depended on it and milked the crowd like crazy. Everyone screamed each time Taue goozled Misawa and tried to throw him to the floor. But despite Taue’s best efforts, he wasn’t able to land that one big move he needed so desperately. Misawa will to avoid it overcame Taue’s will to land it, so Taue gave up. And that inability to land that move became Taue’s undoing. Taue tried everything else he could to keep Misawa down: powerbombs, regular chokeslams, stiff big boots, clotheslines, head-spiking suplexes, re-targeting Misawa’s eye and knee, and so on.
But none of that worked. Misawa was simply too tough and too smart for Taue. Whatever moves Misawa didn’t tank outright he simply countered or escaped by getting ropebreaks. And once Taue ran out of options, Misawa started raining elbows on him. it was a simple comeback, but it was one that made perfect sense. Taue focused so much on exploiting Misawa’s obvious weaknesses yet he neglected to deal with Misawa’s most dangerous weapon: his elbow. With Taue’s guard exposed, Misawa rained elbow after elbow, showing the entire world how dangerous he was in the process. Misawa didn’t need to rely on his vicious Tiger Driver ’91 or other complex moves: he just kept hitting Taue until Taue stopped moving. In the end, Misawa dropped Taue with was quite possibly the single-most vicious elbow strike he has ever landed. But that was enough for Misawa to overcome Taue’s unorthodox attack and retain his title.
But despite all of that, this match does still fall short in some respects. It’s very much to their 4/15 match what the 7/24/95 Misawa-Kawada match was to their 6/3/94 match. While this match was very good, it’s inferior to an earlier match in almost every respect. Taue was in control for most of the match here, yet Misawa still managed to win. And while I did say that Misawa’s elbow-centric comeback did make sense from a logical perspective, it was also a bit dissatisfying. Misawa didn’t really go that far in trying to down Taue. There was a marketed lack of desperation and urgency in Misawa’s control segments that made it seem like Taue wasn’t that much of a threat. Misawa didn’t even tease his more dangerous moves, which he had done on other opponents like Kawada, Kobashi and Dr. Death. By taking a more simplistic approach to downing Taue, it shortened the match and stripped it bare while at the same time making Taue look like an easier opponent to pick off.
It was as if Misawa was saying ‘you’re not good enough for me to use my big guns, this smaller weapon is all I need’. That message made it clear that Misawa wasn’t even that worried about Taue once he was back in control and the apron chokeslam was no longer a threat. If Taue was supposed to come across as being on Misawa’s level and not beneath him, Misawa should’ve at least teased a few bigger moves to show that he was serious about ending Taue. But that never really came and Taue didn’t get as much of a rub here, especially when compared to how Misawa’s following title defense against Kobashi ended with Kobashi getting elevated significantly despite losing.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Despite some nitpicking at the end there, I think this match is extremely fun and worth watching. It’s a match that just flies by and nothing ever overstays its welcome. Misawa and Taue had a neat little 20-minute title match that forewent the sprawling grandiosity that era was famous for and went straight to the point.
And while I can sit here all day talking about how great the wrestling was, I want to once again emphasize that this match provides something that I think is missing from today’s wrestling landscape. This match, like many others of its day, stressed the importance of teasing something without actually doing it. Taue’s apron chokeslam was such a focal point of the match but he never landed it. But what if he did? Could he have ended Misawa then and there and become champion? Those questions left viewers wanting more and created anticipation for their next singles match-up, which was bound to happen sooner or later given AJPW’s small roster and tendency for rematches.
But those weren’t the same rematches as today whereby each match is a carbon copy of the one before it. Multiple matches in a single rivalry had unique elements that made each match worth watching on its own. That’s why even though I covered an earlier Misawa/Taue singles match I wanted to see this one. And lo and behold, the rematch was different enough to warrant its own mention. This is definitely one of the best twenty-minute matches you will ever see. Save the link if you can.
Thanks for reading.