Every time I review some historically-great match that is beloved by fans, I like to go back to the wrestling of 1990s All Japan to make a side-by-side comparison.
As I’ve said many times before, 1990s All Japan had a higher number of amazing, must-see matches than any company since then, and the majority of those matches still hold up well today. But where and when did all of this begin? What was the first recognizable starting point for that decade-long run of truly spectacular, high-quality pro-wrestling matches?
The match we’re looking at today is widely considered to be the starting point of All Japan’s 1990s golden age. What happened in this match laid the foundation for what has come to be called the King’s Road style of wrestling and booking. It was also the 5-star singles match in 1989 that didn’t involve Ric Flair. But was it really that good? Does this match really stand on the same level of iconic, legendary quality as Flair’s mythical bouts with Steamboat and Funk? Read on to find out.
Today we revisit the Triple Crown title match between Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu from June 5th, 1989.
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.
Tenryu and Tsuruta were two of All Japan’s biggest stars of the 1980s. both of them had spent years wrestling for Giant Baba both in Japan and abroad and held many titles, both All Japan’s and other companies’ including NWA titles. Then, on April 5th, Tsuruta combined the company’s three top titles – the PWF World Heavyweight Championship, the NWA United National Championship, and the NWA International Heavyweight Championship – to create the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. One title represented by three belts. And two days after Tsuruta became the inaugural Triple Crown champion, Tenryu became the #1 contender.
Thus the stage was set for a dream match of epic proportions. Tsuruta and Tenryu were former tag partners that eventually went their separate ways and became professional rivals.
Stan Hansen, the former PWF Heavyweight and NWA United National Champion, watches from ringside as the crowd cheers wildly. Tsuruta and Tenryu trade stiff strikes until Tenryu dodges a jumping knee. Bridging German suplex by Tenryu. Tsuruta narrowly kicks out at 2.9. Great start to the match.
Tsuruta applies a deep headlock as the crowd chants his name. Tenryu tries fighting out but Tsuruta keeps it on and lands a bulldog for a two-count. Tsuruta switches to a cobra clutch and Tenryu start sinking to the mat; but once the crowd starts chanting he begins fighting back. Tenryu makes it to his feet and gets a ropebreak. He ducks two big lariats, blocks a jumping knee and goes for a counterattack but Tsuruta lands a second kneelift. Tenryu tries fighting back with chops but Tsuruta boots him down. He drops an elbow and pins but only gets two.
Tsuruta reapplies the camel clutch as the crowd rallies behind Tenryu. They start booing Tsuruta as he hits STIFF double ax handles to Tenryu’s back and neck. Tsuruta throws Tenryu into the barricade and then back into the ring, but that fires Tenryu up and he tackles Tsuruta back out to the floor. Tenryu flips onto the apron and lands a tackle to the floor. Back in the ring, Tenryu takes control with chops and a kneebar. The fans now chant for Tsuruta as Tenryu rolls him over into a pin that gets two. Tsuruta tries escaping by punching Tenryu’s kidneys, but Tenryu answers by digging his knuckles into Tsuruta’s worked over knee. Tenryu lets go and lands a fist drop and some chops, but Tsuruta counters with an overhead belly-to-belly suplex and pins for two-count.
Tsuruta reapplies his grounded cobra clutch and keeps it in for a long time, to the point that Tenryu starts fading. He gets a ropebreak with his foot, so Tsuruta lands a running jumping knee and pins for another two-count. Tsuruta hits more stiff forearms and elbows and then teases a powerbomb. Tenryu powers out but then gets shut down with ax handles. The crowd boos as Tsuruta locks in an abdominal stretch but Tenryu soon powers out into a pinning predicament that gets a one-count. Tenryu tries an armbar but Tsuruta’s too close to the ropes so he follows up with chops and head-butts. Tsuruta falls to the floor, giving Tenryu time to recover.
Tenryu rushes Tsuruta as he re-enters the ring, sends him into the ropes, and lands a big lariat for a two-count. he starts hitting stiff chops but Tsuruta shuts him down with a stiff elbow to the ear that leads to another two-count. Tsuruta goes for a Backdrop suplex. Tenryu gets to the corner for safety, leading to some shoulder checks from Tsuruta. Big running jumping knee into the corner. Backdrop suplex connects. Running lariat. Tsuruta pins but Tenryu has his foot on the ropes. Another big running lariat. Tenryu kicks out at two. Running bulldog. Tenryu kicks out again. Diving kneedrop to Tenryu’s face. Tsuruta pins again but Tenryu gets yet another ropebreak. Tsuruta lands two more diving kneedrops and goes for a pin. Tenryu gets another ropebreak. Tsuruta follows with a Thesz press and pins once more. Tenryu still escapes and starts fighting back, but can’t overcome Tsuruta’s power as he lands a Backdrop suplex. Tsuruta crawls over for a pin. One, two, Tenryu kicks out. Tsuruta goes for another Thesz press, but this time Tenryu slingshots him into the ropes. Then Tenryu pins but only gets a two-count.
Tsuruta’s still relatively healthier and so he sends Tenryu into the ropes and lands a dropkick that gets two. Tsuruta follows with a trop-rope jumping knee that sends Tenryu across the ring into a corner. Then Tsuruta pulls down his kneepad and teases another big jumping knee. He charges, Tenryu sidesteps and lands an enzuigiri. He cradles Tsuruta and pins but only manages a two-count. Tenryu pills his kneepad down and tries a powerbomb. Tsuruta powers out and into a jackknife pin that Tsuruta barely escapes. Tsuruta goes back to the top rope and jumps of but Tenryu dodges, only to walk into a full-power lariat. But Tenryu doesn’t even leave his feet. Tsuruta lands a belly-to-belly but Tenryu gets up first and goes to the top rope. Diving back elbow…misses. Tsuruta gets another two-count and goes for another lariat. Tenryu dodges and Tsuruta hits the ropes instead. Tenryu hits his own lariat, followed by an enzuigiri. Folding Powerbomb by Tenryu. One, two, no, Tsuruta kicks out. Tenryu lands one more powerbomb. One, two, three! There’s the match! A new champion has been crowned!
Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 24:05: Genichiro Tenryu
Post-match, Hansen helps Tenryu to his feet and Tsuruta approaches to shake Tenryu’s hand, but Tenryu declines.
This match hasn’t aged too well. Despite having a great crowd and being a historically-important contest – it was basically the match that started King’s Road and laid the foundation for All Japan’s glory years in the 1990s – it simply doesn’t hold up. There were so many matches that came afterwards that took this match’s formula and improved upon it significantly. Not only that, but this contest was and is completely overshadowed by the matches involving 1989 Ric Flair, who has having some of the best matches of all time that year. How could this match hope to compete with those timeless classics?
The match started off hot with a signature move exchange and a close German suplex and then the heat died with some bland albeit well-executed headlocks. Tsuruta did a great job establishing himself as a major challenge for Tenryu, who was the clear fan favorite here. Each time Tenryu got the slightest bit of momentum, Tsuruta knew how to shut him down effectively. It was like the pro-wrestling version of The Tortoise and the Hare. Tsuruta was explosive from the opening bell and hammered Tenryu for at least twenty of the match’s twenty-four minutes. He was in control and he knew it, but Tenryu – like the tortoise – was slower yet more determined. He endured Tsuruta’s unrelenting punishment but kept scoring small hits here and there. And even though Tsuruta was in control, Tenryu’s careful offense gradually wore him down. Once the match reached its conclusion, Tsuruta – like the hare – was pretty much out of gas and completely vulnerable. Tenryu managed to endure everything Tsuruta had thrown his way and had just enough energy to survive a bit longer. This pattern went on for most of the match until Tsuruta started slowing down a bit, which allowed Tenryu to land more and more critical hits until he hit his finisher. It was simplistic and that made the match easy to get into and therefore fun to watch.
And yet, there was something…off…about the match as well. Even though the match had a solid story and action, it just cannot be compared to what took place afterwards. Even with so many great moving parts, this match comes across as overly simplistic and underwhelming. If you’re into more classic-style pro-wrestling and want to see two dudes competing for a coveted prize, then this is a great match to watch.
Even though Tenryu and Tsuruta were terrific in their day, their match here lacks so many elements of what made later matches so much better. Tsuruta no-sold Tenryu’s extended legwork almost completely. There was tons of repetition in what was done in the ring. At one point, the fans started booing Tsuruta; not because they were into his heel work here, but because they were getting restless over his intentional slowing down of the match with increasingly-redundant matwork. And even though Tenryu, the fan favorite, won in the end, his finishing stretch was abrupt and lacking in tension. His entire time in control towards the end lasted a minute, maybe two. The rest of the match was almost all Tsuruta, which made Tenryu’s victory come across more as lucky than decisive, which in turn weakened the impact of his win in general.
Final Rating: ****1/4
Though this match is important for historic reasons, as a match on its own it’s solid but nothing exceptional. The rabid crowd certainly helped a lot, but compared to how much pro-wrestling has changed in over thirty years, their excitement wasn’t enough to help this match. I’m not usually one to say that everything gets better over time in pro-wrestling; if you’ve read some of my other match reviews you might’ve noticed that there are a lot of flaws with modern matches that actually make them worse than their predecessors. This match is a case of the opposite; what came after it, especially during the 1990s, outclassed it in basically every conceivable way.
Tsuruta and Tenryu deserve all the credit in the world for coming up with the winning formula that laid the foundation for 1990s Kings’s Road All Japan. But while their formula was sound in theory it needed major improvement in practice. Luckily, those improvements were about a year away and from there began perhaps the best stretch of great matches in pro-wrestling history.
Thanks for reading.