What makes a great match? Is it a bunch of crazy high-spots and daredevil acrobatics that make you question whether gravity still exists? Is it the roar of a crowd going nuts over the simplest of things? Or is it perfect chemistry between two opposing sides, leading to the line between scripted and real being blurred?
Today we’re looking back at an example of that third point. It’s one of the first big six-man matches between two sides that would come to define the landscape in All Japan Pro-Wrestling, the company that hosted quite possibly the best pure in-ring wrestling ever. The six wrestlers in this match had several contests together, but this was the first one that really stood out and set the standard to which these men would come to be defined over the next decade and beyond.
This is the first six-man tag team match between Tsuruta’s Army (Jumbo Tsuruta, Masanobu Fuchi, and Akira Taue) and Misawa’s Army (Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, and Kenta Kobashi), from October 19th, 1990.
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 June 8th, 1990, Misawa did the unthinkable and pinned Tsuruta in singles competition. That victory solidified him as AJPW’s future ace, because he had not reached that position yet. To get there, he had to prove that victory wasn’t a fluke. He had to not only beat Tsuruta at least one more time, but he had to convince the fans that he could carry All Japan no matter what.
But Tsuruta wasn’t going to go down without a fight. And since Misawa had his then-best friend Kawada at his side, Tsuruta decided to enlist some friends as well. He brought in Akira Taue, whose intense and bitter feud with Kawada had begun around the same time as his feud with Misawa had begun. Then, to make things more interesting, Misawa also added Kenta Kobashi to the mix, hoping to add a rookie to his side to match Taue (since both Kobashi and Taue had debuted within a month of each other). And since that gave Misawa a one-man advantage, Tsuruta balanced the sides by bringing Fuchi, a wily veteran that had was one of Giant Baba’s first students.
And so began the war. Tsuruta was going to big his heels into the sand and hold his position as much as he could alongside his teammates. Meanwhile, Misawa and his army hoped to capitalize on Misawa’s earlier singles success and prove that he was indeed as good as Baba thought he was. But who would win this key battle? The side composed entirely of rising stars with youth and determination on their side? Or would it be the veteran and his allies that were willing to do whatever it took to get under their opponents’ skin? There was only one way to find out.
Taue and Kobashi start things off. Taue stiff Kobashi with a forearm and Kobashi fires back with the same in a corner. Kobashi headlocks Taue but Taue knocks him down on a shoulder tackle twice and then cheap-shots Kawada on the apron. Taue charges back to Kobashi but Kobashi counters into an armlock and then drags Taue to his corner. Kawada tags in as the crowd cheers wildly in anticipation of the two rivals going at it. After some build-up, they tease locking up but Kawada decides to hit stiff kicks to Taue’s knee instead. Taue goes down on a follow-up shoulder tackle and dodges a big kick. He goes for an armlock but Kawada escapes by kicking him in the head and then tags Misawa. Misawa lands a bunch of kicks until Tsuruta tags in. And the crowd gets even louder. Tsuruta and Misawa trade elbows until Tsuruta powers him into a corner. He whips Misawa into a corner, Misawa blocks with his foot, and lands a counter elbow that knocks Tsuruta down. Misawa charges again. Tsuruta counters with a kneelift and then shoves Misawa hard into the ropes. He hits Misawa with brutal body blows and then tags Fuchi.
Fuchi follows up on the damage his partner did by slamming Misawa and stomping on his gut. Hot tag to Taue who likewise lands a kneelift of his own. Taue locks in an abdominal stretch but Kawada breaks iot up, allowing Misawa to tag Kobashi. Kobashi lands a dropkick and some corner chops, but is soon countered by Taue and eats a corner back elbow. Tsuruta tags in again and kneelifts Kobashi and locks in a nigh-angle Boston crab. Fuchi tags in and dropkicks Kobashi’s face in. he whips Kobashi into a corner but Kobashi counters with a sick springboard crossbody and pins for two. Fuchi quickly regains control with an eye rake and tags Taue who does the same. He goes for an Irish whip but Kobashi counters and lands a running lariat. In comes Kawada. He spinkicks Taue so hard Taue falls to the floor. Kawada whips him into the steel barricade and then drags him out into the crowd. He goes to slam Taue on the exposed floor. Wait, no, Taue counters and slams Kawada instead. Hard landing for Kawada.
Kawada makes it back to the ring and Taue rushes him the moment he steps through the ropes. Tsuruta tags in and lands forearms to Kawada’s back. He slams Kawada hard and Kawada tries fighting back but Tsuruta’s just too strong for him. Fuchi tags in and stiffs Kawada’s back as well, then lands a Backdrop suplex for two. He locks in a single leg crab and tags Taue, who elbow drops Kawada’s back while Fuchi maintains his hold. Taue goes for a back body drop but Kawada blocks with a kick and tags Misawa. Misawa hits some elbows and lands his diving spinning lariat for a two-count. A spinkick sends Taue to the apron, which allows Kawada to stomp away on Taue’s head. Now fully pissed off, Kawada drags Taue out to the stands and suplexes Taue onto the exposed floor. Then he punts Taue’s spine. Revenge for earlier, I guess.
Taue gets dragged back to the ring, where Misawa catches him and lands a gutwrench suplex for two and tags Kobashi. Kobashi slams Taue and applies a single leg crab but in comes Fuchi to break it up. He punches Kobashi several times but Kobashi doesn’t release his hold. That’s a great way of making a wrestler look tough and determined. As the ref is distracted with Fuchi, Tsuruta winds up for a running knee, but Kobashi sees him coming, releases Taue, and lariats Tsuruta. Common sense in a wrestling match, ya love to see it.
Kawada tags in, punts Taue’s back some more, and lands a senton for another two-count. Misawa tags back in and targets Taue’s back as well with different strikes and a back body drop, then tags Kobashi, who lands a powerslam for a two-count. He goes for his own back body drop but Taue counters with a DDT. Tsuruta tags in and drills Kobashi with a massive lariat and pins. One, two, no, Kobashi kicks out. Tsuruta follows up with a nasty punch and knee to Kobashi’s nose, and then lands a swinging neckbreaker for a one-count. He tosses Kobashi out of the ring and tags Fuchi, who slams Kobashi’s face into the steel barricade and grabs a chair. There are no disqualifications in All Japan so this is all legal. Fuchi smashes the end of that chair into Kobashi’s face and stomps away on it back in the ring. Kobashi’s nose is now bleeding as Fuchi lands more punches to it.
Taue tags in and rubs his boot on Kobashi’s bloody nose, then lands an atomic drop/back suplex combo for two. He tags Fuchi again and Fuchi lands a jumping kick to Kobashi’s face for yet another two-count. Kobashi tries crawling over to his teammates but Fuchi holds his leg. He tries breaking free but Tsuruta tags in first and lands another brutal lariat. One, two, Kobashi kicks out again. Tsuruta lands more punches but this time Kobashi fires back with chops and a wheel kick that stun Tsuruta. He’s inches away from tagging Kawada when Tsuruta pulls him away and tags Taue. Taue lands a bulldog and pins for two, and then lands a Samoan drop that also gets two. He goes for a vertical suplex. Kobashi lands behind him and lands a Backdrop. That stuns Taue long enough for Kobashi to tag Kawada.
Kawada explodes in a flurry of kicks and elbows. Taue no-sells and sumo rushes Kawada into a corner. Kawada keeps firing back and Taue takes him down. This is turning into an ugly fight. Kawada fires back with his patented step-kicks and even shoves the referee back as he tries to calm Kawada down. That momentary distraction allows Taue to hit a lariat and tag Tsuruta. Kawada rushes the company ace but Tsuruta answers with stiff knees. He sends Kawada into the ropes and goes for the same lariat that demolished Kobashi. But Kawada ducks it and hits a wheel kick. Hot tag to Misawa. The arena comes unglued as he hits elbow smash after elbow smash. That’s followed by a diving elbow from the top rope that gets a two-count. They brawl some more and Tsuruta gets the upper hand with a jumping knee. He goes for a Backdrop suplex. Kobashi makes the save. Taue tags in but Misawa’s still focused on Tsuruta. He elbows Tsuruta to the floor and they brawl some more. That allows Taue to land a suicide plancha through the ropes.
Back in the ring, Misawa and Taue brawl until Misawa drops him with a running elbow. Kobashi tags in but is instantly knocked down with a lariat that gets two. Kobashi counters an Irish whip with a shoulder blocks and also pins for two. He charges but runs into a powerslam from Taue but manages to kick out. Fuchi tags in and dropkicks Kobashi. He goes for a German suplex. Kobashi blocks and lands a rolling cradle. One, two, Fuchi kicks out. Scoop slam/leg drop combo. Kobashi goes to the top rope. Diving moonsault connects. One, two, Taue breaks up the pin. Taue, Kawada, Misawa and Tsuruta all brawl to the floor as Kobashi and Fuchi continue wrestling in the ring.
Kobashi lands a bridging German suplex. Fuchi kicks out. He grabs Fuchi’s leg but Fuchi counters with an enzuigiri and tags Tsuruta. He destroys Kobashi with a third lariat and goes for a powerbomb. Misawa goes to save Kobashi with a running elbow. Tsuruta sees him coming and elbows him first. His powerbomb connects on Kobashi. One, two, no, Kobashi survives. Tsuruta teases a Backdrop suplex. Kobashi punches out and does the Misawa counter into a pin in midair. One, two, Tsuruta kicks out. Kobashi follows up with guillotine leg drops and tries another moonsault. Fuchi cuts him off until Misawa drops Fuchi. That distraction allows Tsuruta to land a massive second-rope Backdrop suplex. Everyone rushes in for the pin. One, two, thr – no, Kobashi kicks out again. Tsuruta lands one more Backdrop suplex for good measure. One, two, and three! There’s the match. Tsuruta’s Army is victorious.
Winners after 25:25: Tsuruta’s Army (Jumbo Tsuruta, Masanobu Fuchi and Akira Taue)
Another mesmerizing classic from 1990s All Japan. That was an extremely exciting match. It wasn’t particularly deep in terms of scientific wrestling, pure psychology, or high-risk craziness; it didn’t need to be. Instead, it was a match built purely on story and rivalry, both of which carried the action forward and concluded in a fantastic contest worth going out of your way to watch.
The match was simple in terms of action, but straightforward in terms of story. Misawa’s crew had their beef with Tsuruta’s crew and they wanted to show that, even though they were as-of-yet-unproven stars, they were determined to show they were worthy. Misawa spent most of his time keeping things simple with kicks and elbows, save for when he was in the ring with Tsuruta. At those points, Misawa cranked his intensity up to eleven and tore into him as much as possible. And even though Tsuruta kept shutting him down, Misawa never quit and kept fighting, hoping to continue his momentum off his June 8th singles victory. Tsuruta was like a general here, commanding his allies and directing traffic to cause mayhem against a team of people he was clearly sick and tired of dealing with. He destroyed Misawa’s back and gut whenever he could and used multiple double and triple-team opportunities to weaken Misawa’s resolve. He also did the same when Kobashi and Kawada were in peril, using multiple quick tags to keep the pressure on them while also keeping his team strong and intact. That’s how tag team wrestling should be done: using the tag stipulation to one’s advantage to create a number’s game that weakens the opposing side as quickly and decisively as possible.
Meanwhile, Kobashi was the face in peril that took a beating from everyone at first and throughout the middle of the match and ended up shining at the end as the underdog that was desperate to prove he belonged. He got his legs destroyed early on and took chairshots to the head but still persevered until the end. Even though he was only two years into his career, Kobashi took an unbelievable shitkicking here (including a bloody and possibly broken nose), to the point that it took three lariats and two massive Backdrop suplexes from Tsuruta to keep him down. I also appreciated how he took several punches to the head while completely exposed because he had Taue in a submission hold yet he didn’t let go instantly. He tanked it as best he could and it made him look much tougher. Small details like that go a very long way in making a wrestler look so much better.
Then there was the war between Kawada and Taue. I swear, these two were just amazing at conveying the idea that they had legit hatred for each other. They cheap-shotted each other over and over. Both guys hit each other incredibly hard. Both guys used facial expressions and body language that strongly suggested that they were trying very hard to keep the professionalism at the bare minimum and that they really wanted to hurt each other. And when Kawada got the hot tag towards the end, it charged at Taue and their wrestling interactions turned into a very convincing-looking fight. It was impossible to tell what was ‘worked’ and what was real, full-contact striking borne of intense anger for one another. But that mystery turned into moments of unbridled rage and explosiveness that buoyed the otherwise strict and purely wrestling-centric moments when any other combination of wrestlers were legal.
Whatever Kawada and Taue did – big or small, subtle or overt – their interactions together were so awesome and left you wanting to see more each time. This is something that I think is sorely lacking in today’s wrestling world. It’s extremely rare for any feud to have the sort of tense, line-blurring action that Kawada and Taue put on here. There’s so much overt cooperation that the idea of there being genuine competition or possible bitterness goes out the window. That in turn makes modern wrestling matches come across as less personal and less relatable (with a few exceptions here and there). In fact, the only times these days we as fans can truly believe that two wrestlers have genuine hate for each other is through online rumors and discussion. The wrestling action itself seen these days is- for the most part – so sanitized and so clear-cut that few rivalries or stories come across as convincing enough for viewers to really sink their teeth into and believe that the animosity is real or anything close to it.
That’s why Kawada and Taue were so great here. They were such tremendous professionals that they put on a spectacular performance that one could easily believe they were trying their hardest to contain themselves and not turn this match into a real fight. That tension and animosity was by far one of the best hallmarks of 1990s All Japan and it came through in this match as it did in many others.
The only thing that kept this match from maintaining its perfect 5-star rating after so much time was that it simply didn’t compare to later matches involving the same men. This match was the starting point for what these men could do and they did a phenomenal job of wrestling a match that told all the necessary stories. And yet, the match still lacked in some aspects that were addressed in their later matches. The April 1991 match went much farther with the psychology and tension and their May 1992 match delivered more in terms of pure fanservice and giving the audience what they wanted.
It was as if all the pieces were there in this match and they were putting the puzzle together. The match just lacked some flow and believability on the part of Misawa’s team. Once Kobashi started eating lariats and finishers from Tsuruta, it became less a question of which team would win and more of a question of how long would Kobashi survive. With the way the match was laid out, it lacked the much-stronger nail-biting tension that lasted until the bitter end that was seen in their other two big six-man matches.
Final Rating: ****3/4
It’s extremely rare for a match to so be so satisfying while delivering so little. Compared to modern ‘epics’ this match had very basic wrestling and the actual moves were some of the most straightforward and uncomplicated you’ll ever see. And yet, this was twenty-five minutes of pure excitement borne out of the desire to see these wrestlers fight one another. All six of them did such an amazing job teasing and build up certain interactions. And once those interactions came about, they more than delivered. It was like seeing months of teasing and promos between two sides with such bitter animosity that you couldn’t help but chant ‘let them fight’ when they came to blows. In that sense, this was basically almost half-an-hour of those sides getting it off their chests and releasing all their pent-up aggression in the ring in a highly cathartic way.
But the best part is that this was only the start of things between these two sides. The feud between Misawa’s army and Tsuruta’s Army would continue well into 1992, and the two sides went on to have many great matches together. And yet, through it all there were three six-man matches between them that, to this day, stand head and shoulders above the rest: this one, the one from April 20th, 1991, and the one from May 22nd, 1992. These early 90s tag matches might’ve lacked in the jaw-dropping craziness All Japan would later become famous for, but it more than made up for it in raw tension and excitement through pure storytelling.