(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Tsuruta and Taue vs. Misawa and Kobashi – AJPW, June 5th, 1992
There is more than one formula to create a great wrestling match. Some wrestlers emphasize high-speed action and nonstop craziness. Other wrestlers brutalize each other to the point that fans wonder if the wrestlers are even human. And others still rely on telling amazing stories that resonate with fans.
And then there’s 1990s All Japan Pro-Wrestling, which found the right combination of those three formulas and created their own unique style.
By and large, the old 1990s AJPW matches have still withstood the test of time better than almost any other wrestling style (just ask Eddie Kingston, who loves King’s Road even more than I do). And today we look back at another classic that, while not as widely known as other matches, it still one of the best matches of the past thirty years.
Today we look back at the tag match between Jumbo Tsuruta & Akira Taue and Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi from June 5th, 1992.
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.
This match can best be described as ‘Tsuruta’s last stand’. Ever since June 8th, 1990, he has been at war with Misawa and his friends. The tide shifted back and forth between Tsuruta’s Army and Misawa’s Army several times. Although Tsuruta was still the established company ace, his time at the top was soon coming to an end. Try as he might, he couldn’t maintain his position above Misawa for long. Realizing that Misawa’s popularity couldn’t be contained and that his status as ace was soon going to disappear completely, Tsuruta vowed to make one final gambit, hoping to stay at the top just a bit longer.
But this wasn’t singles competition; it was a tag match. And it just so happened that Tsuruta and Taue were tag team champions. This marked Tsuruta’s seventh tag title reign and his first with Taue. Taue had spent almost two full years as Tsuruta’s right hand man and direct protégé and he hoped to prove Tsuruta right for trusting him with such an important honor.
Meanwhile, Misawa had four goals in this match: to beat Jumbo again, to get more revenge on Taue for his betrayal, to win championship gold, and to make a new tag partner out of Kobashi. At the time, Misawa’s main partner was Toshiaki Kawada. But on this night, Kawada was unavailable because since he was challenging for Stan Hansen for AJPW’s coveted Triple Crown Heavyweight title. As such, Misawa hoped to give Kobashi even more exposure to see if he could handle the immense pressure of being Misawa’s new right hand man. On one hand, Kobashi was fresh off his godly All Asia tag title win from May 25th which proved he could wrestle incredibly well. On the other hand, that was a lower-card tag division; it lacked the presence of heavyweights and the company’s top wrestlers. Could Kobashi channel that same energy and wrestling skill into this match, in which he was not the ‘big brother’ to the smaller Kikuchi but the least-experienced out of everyone involved?
This match originally took place on June 5th, 1992. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up after almost thirty years to the day.
This is for Tsuruta & Taue’s AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Taue and Kobashi start things off. After breaking two lock-up attempts, Taue gets Kobashi in a headlock and then shoulder tackles him down. Kobashi ducks down but Taue lands a running crossbody for a one-count. They trade arm wringers until Taue lands some head-butts and tags Tsuruta. But Kobashi backs off and tags Misawa. The crowd cheers wildly. Each man hits a stiff elbow and a standoff ensues. ‘Jumbo’ Tsuruta lives up to his name and easily powers Misawa into a corner and lands another elbow flurry. He stiffs Misawa as hard as he can and goes for an Irish whip into the opposite corner. Misawa gets his foot up to block but Tsuruta boots Misawa. Misawa answers with a springboard back elbow and a spinkick. Now Misawa rains corner elbows on Tsuruta. Tsuruta hits back and lands a big kneelift to Misawa’s gut. Just like that Misawa’s down.
Tsuruta lands body blows to Misawa’s now-weakened ribs and then tags Taue. Tsuruta holds Misawa’s arms back as Taue hits more punches to Misawa’s torso as the crowd starts booing this blatant underhandedness. Misawa sinks into a corner as Taue lands more stiff shots and foot chokes him. Taue goes for a suplex but Misawa lands on his feet behind him and drops him with an elbow. Now Kobashi tags in and he lands a dropkick. He gets into a short chop exchange with Taue so Taue answers by raking his eyes. Tsuruta tags in and rubs his boot in Kobashi’s face, and then hits a big boot. He slams Kobashi and goes for a Boston crab, but when Kobashi reaches the ropes, Tsuruta responds by standing on his face. Tsuruta tosses Kobashi to the floor and Taue throws him into the barricade. Back in the ring, Taue tags in and starts landing stiff kicks to Kobashi’s face. Suddenly Kobashi starts powering up. Taue pushes him into the ropes and slaps him hard. Kobashi fires back. Taue throws him to the mat allowing Tsuruta to stomp on him. Misawa tries to come in to even the odds but the referee forces Misawa back as Tsuruta stomps on Kobashi’s face some more.
Tsuruta tags in again as the crowd chants for Kobashi and lands a knee crusher. He follows that by standing on the back of Kobashi’s knee and rubbing it into the mat before hitting another stomp/knee smasher combination. Tsuruta drags Kobashi to his corner, allowing Taue to smash Kobashi’s weakened leg into the steel ringpost. Tsuruta follows with an STF but Kobashi manages to get a ropebreak. Taue tags back in and kicks Kobashi’s bad leg. He throws Kobashi to the floor and lands a knee crusher onto the steel barricade. Back in the ring, Taue applies a kneebar/heel hook while forcing Kobashi’s legs as far apart as possible until Misawa breaks it up.
Kobashi tries to crawl to his corner but Tsuruta tags in and stiffs him first. Kobashi tries powering up by no-selling Tsuruta’s kicks but a big boot sends him back down. Tsuruta tags Taue and holds Kobashi in place while Taue lands a running dropkick to Kobashi’s knee. Kobashi sells like his knee is completely messed up and then Taue lands yet another knee crusher. Taue gets a two-count off a Samoan drop and then lands a Manhattan drop/back suplex combo. Taue goes to tag Tsuruta but Kobashi tries to stop him by holding him back. Taue hits an enzuigiri but Kobashi keeps him in place anyway. Taue resorts to punching Kobashi’s face until Misawa stomps on him to keep Tsuruta from tagging. Misawa pulls both Taue and Kobashi to his corner and gets the tag. In comes Misawa. He lands a spinkick/senton combo for a two-count and then hits a dropkick for another two-count. He locks in a single leg crab but Tsuruta stomps him with a thumb to the eye. He tags Kobashi who lands a scoop slam/leg drop combo. He tries a Boston crab but Taue starts crawling to the ropes. Misawa stops him from touching the tropes by hitting a springboard splash. Clever counter. And judging from the crowd’s loud applause, they think so too. Kobashi locks in the crab but Taue still manages a ropebeak (though not before Misawa kicks his head as he exits the ring). Kobashi gets some revenge for earlier with a stomp/knee smasher combo of his own. Misawa tags in and kicks at Taue’s weakened leg. He locks in different painful-looking leg stretches and then tags Kobashi, who lands yet another knee crusher followed by a Texas cloverleaf submission hold. Tsuruta comes in and lands a punch but Kobashi doesn’t let go right away. He’s so determined to keep the hold on Taue. So Tsuruta charges for a lariat. But Kobashi hits his own lariat first. Tsuruta falls out of the ring and now Misawa tags in again. Taue blocks a knee crusher so Misawa surprises him with a back suplex instead. Misawa locks in a Figure-4 leglock. Tsuruta breaks that up and Kobashi sees this so he attacks Taue at the same time. Misawa hits stiff elbows and charges. Taue boots him first and goes for a modified chokeslam. Misawa counters into a Tiger Driver. Tsuruta blocks it allowing Taue to connect with a lariat. In comes Tsuruta. He hits a jumping knee on Misawa and punches Kobashi. He scoop slams Misawa and ties him in the tree of woe for a foot choke. Tsuruta sends Misawa into the ropes and hits a lariat. One, two, Misawa kicks out.
Taue tags in and lands a DDT for a two-count. He stomps on Misawa’s head and tags Tsuruta back in, who locks in a sleeper hold. He locks it in as tightly as possible and Misawa sinks to the canvas. Kobashi has no choice but to come in and save his partner, even if that means getting some boos from the audience. I guess they really don’t like illegal interference, no matter who does it. Tsuruta sends Misawa into a corner and lands a running knee to the face and some more foot choking. The referee warns him after he lands some punches so he sends Misawa into the opposite corner. But Misawa counters with a springboard back elbow. Then he goes to the top rope and connects with a diving elbow smash. Misawa pins but Tsuruta kicks out. Misawa lands a diving spinning lariat and applies a facelock. Taue breaks it up so Misawa drops him with an elbow and then goes back to the facelock on Tsuruta. Kobashi rushes in to keep Taue at bay with a sleeper. But Tsuruta manages to get a ropebreak, which leads to thunderous applause from the fans.
Kobashi tags in and chops the hell out of Tsuruta’s chest. He sends him into another corner and hits a corner lariat/elevated DDT combo for another two-count. He lands a shoulder tackle and goes for a cobra twist/abdominal stretch but Tsuruta elbows out. Tsuruta hits a big boot and tags Taue but Kobashi hits first with high kicks and corner chops. Taue reverses a corner Irish whip but Kobashi ducks his lariat and lands a dropkick. Kobashi follows with an early version of Stratus-faction and pins for another two-count. Powerslam by Kobashi. Taue kicks out. Kobashi with a missile dropkick followed by a frog splash from Misawa. Misawa holds Tsuruta at bay as Kobashi pins. One, two, Taue survives. Scoop slam. Kobashi ascends to the top rope. Diving moonsault connects! One, two, and – no, Tsuruta breaks up the pin. Misawa locks Tsuruta in his facelock as Kobashi lands another leg drop. Kobashi goes back to the top rope. Diving moonsault misses. Misawa takes a moment to stop Taue from taking advantage by hitting an elbow suicida to the floor. Misawa tosses Taue into the ring and awaits Kobashi’s tag. Kobashi gets close but Tsuruta hits him from behind. He knocks Kobashi into Misawa, sending Misawa to the floor before the tag is complete. Tsuruta lands a Backdrop suplex on Kobashi. Taue crawls over to pin. One, two and th – no, Kobashi kicks out. Taue tries a chokeslam but Kobashi resists. Tsuruta punches Kobashi and assists Taue. Backdrop/chokeslam combination! Taue pins. Misawa elbows Tsuruta and breaks up the pin. Taue powerbombs Kobashi as Tsuruta locks Misawa in a sleeper. One, two, Kobashi kicks out again. Misawa escapes the sleeper and elbows both Tsuruta and Taue. That allows Kobashi to land a bridging German suplex. One, two, no, Taue kicks out. Kobashi goes for a double-arm DDT but Tsuruta hits him first. Misawa goes after Tsuruta as Taue lands a chokeslam. Taue pins but Kobashi still won’t give up. Tsuruta counters Misawa and locks in another deep sleeper. Taue hits another chokeslam. One, two, and three! There’s the match! The champions retain!
Winners and STILL AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 27:12: Jumbo Tsuruta & Akira Taue
I have yet to see a match involving Misawa and Kobashi (either as partners or as opponents) that I would describe as anything less than “great”. The two of them, along with Tsuruta and Taue, had yet another marvelous match that does indeed hold well after three decades. This was an outstanding tag match that had the right mix of drama, psychology, excitement, and intensity.
Misawa and Kobashi were clearly the heroic underdogs in this match. Tsuruta used his veteran experience and brutality to keep Misawa grounded during the early goings of the match until Kobashi tagged in. And once again, Kobashi proved to be perhaps the greatest wrestler to ever live in terms of non-verbal storytelling. In his match with Kikuchi, he played the big brother that came in to save his friend and clean house after Kikuchi had taken a beating. Here, Kobashi was the face-in-peril that took a relentless beating. He fought like a scrappy underdog facing down a smarter and more relentless combined force in Tsuruta and Taue. Tsuruta mostly played the hits here while Taue got a chance to shine and show how crafty and dangerous he could be. He didn’t need to out-power Kobashi or out-strike Misawa; he exploited weaknesses in each man to make it easier for Tsuruta to hit his biggest and most effective moves. And once that was over, Taue came back in to finish his opponents off and score a big win for his team.
But damn if both Kobashi and Misawa (but mostly Kobashi) didn’t make it hard for the champions. They landed last-second counter after last-second counter. They both fought through incredible pain and destroyed limbs. They fought valiantly until the very end and survived so many incredible near-falls. But in the end, Misawa was only able to achieve one of his goals, which was to elevate Kobashi.
Kobashi had taken savage beatings before but here he seemed to grow as a wrestler. He wasn’t just a fall guy; he stood on his own two feet (at least, until his knee got torn apart once again) and worked just as well with Misawa as Kawada did. Together they showed great tag team psychology as they tried to isolate Taue from Tsuruta. That strategy nearly worked but it just wasn’t enough. They weren’t as cohesive a unit as Tsuruta and Taue were. And while their strategy of isolating Taue worked to a degree, it wasn’t as effective as Tsuruta and Taue’s strategy of attacking both Misawa and Kobashi. The champions were far more comfortable taking cheap-shots and using the numbers game to pick their challengers apart. Misawa got weakened early which opened up Kobashi for a longer and more drawn-out heat segment. And while Kobashi and Misawa did manage to overcome that, Tsuruta was still able to use his veteran instincts and sense of ring awareness to keep Misawa away from Kobashi long enough for Taue to put Kobashi down for the three-count. The match was filled with last-second escapes and counters that kept fans guessing. It seemed like either team could win at any moment only for the other side to turn the tides. It really was a rollercoaster of a match that built up slowly at first but then turned into an exciting and tense finishing sprint that was typical of All Japan at the time.
But as awesome as the match was, there was one glaring problem: Kobashi’s inconsistent leg selling. I’ve mentioned this many times before, but it bears repeating once again. When a wrestler starts targeting a body part and the wrestler taking damage starts selling so much, it takes the viewer out of the match when that selling stops. That gets worse when there is such deep and exciting selling at one point, only for the wrestler to stop selling soon afterwards and act as though nothing really happened. In this case, Tsuruta and Taue had spent a long time dismantling Kobashi’s left leg. He got it smashed several times and they did everything they could to render him immobile. He sold like he was in real pain…that is, until he tagged Misawa. And then Misawa was in the ring less for less than a minute before Kobashi tagged back in. And Kobashi, who moments earlier struggled to even lift himself up, had somehow healed so quickly and so much that he could now hit leg drops and use both legs without any adverse effects. That inconsistency was silly and weakened the story of the match, especially given All Japan’s tendency to showcase deep matches with airtight psychology and consistent selling.
Final Rating: ****3/4
A wrestling match doesn’t need to go into overkill to be great. One doesn’t need to do everything possible in a match to kill off any need for a future rematch. Sometimes all one needs is the right story and the right mix of realism and believable false finishes. That’s what we got here: it was old school pro-wrestling shown as an athletic contest with a story instead of something wacky and over-the-top.
There’s a reason so many of these 1990s matches hold up better than many of their modern counterparts: even with so many similar moving parts the older matches still feel different from one another. These days everything’s so copy-and-paste whereas matches like this one had intricate details and minor changes in almost every action and movement. That’s one of the best parts of 1990s All Japan: the same wrestlers had many matches together and no two of them were the exact same.
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.