All Japan Pro-Wrestling had one of the best top-level runs in pro wrestling history. Their 1990s Golden Era is widely regarded as the home of the best in-ring pro wrestling of all time. Even now, after all that has happened in the wrestling industry, 1990’s AJPW is still highly regarded by many, many wrestling fans.
Today we revisit an example of that greatness. It’s a tag team title match that isn’t that well known compared to other AJPW classics. And yet, it’s still a perfect example of amazing tag team wrestling without the need of a complex angle or story to build it up.
Let’s look back at the tag match between Burning (Kenta Kobashi & Jun Akiyama) and The Untouchables (Mitsuharu Misawa & Yoshinari Ogawa) from March 6th, 1999.
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.
In 1996, Kenta Kobashi broke away from being Mitsuharu Misawa’s main tag team partner, which had been his role for over three years. Kobashi did this to strike out on his own and become a singles star, just as Toshiaki Kawada had done before him. To fill the void made by Kobashi’s departure, Misawa elevated Akiyama to the position of his main partner. Kobashi, meanwhile, formed an unlikely alliance with Johnny Ace (yes, that Johnny Ace), which lasted until 1998. In the summer of 1998, Akiyama challenged Kobashi for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship and lost (my review for that awesome match can be found here). Less than a month later, Akiyama joined forces with Kobashi, creating the stable ‘Burning’. Akiyama saw what escaping from Misawa’s shadow could lead to, so he joined Kobashi and the two of them would end up having great success as a tag team in AJPW during 1998 and 1999.
Misawa, meanwhile, needed a new regular partner, and at first struggled to find someone. Then-promoter Giant Baba suggested Maunakea Mossman, but Misawa declined and proposed to team with Masahito Kakihara, which Baba declined. Ultimately, they compromised and Yoshinari Ogawa was made into Misawa’s regular partner. Ogawa was an…interesting…choice, to say the least. Up to that point, Ogawa had spent much of his AJPW career in AJPW’s junior heavyweight scene, which was WAY less impressive than rival New Japan’s. And when not in that division, Ogawa was a fall guy in big tag matches, and as a wrestler he was mostly known for being an underhanded cheater that liked to bait his opponents into quick pin, which earned him the nickname ‘Rat Boy’.
With this new partner, Misawa hoped to achieve the same success as he had in the past. Eventually, Misawa and Ogawa – who now went under the name ‘The Untouchables’ – earned a shot at the World Tag Team Titles, held by two of Misawa’s former partners. So the pressure was on for all four men. Not only did were the titles at stake, but there was something personal for each man. Misawa wanted revenge on two men that had walked out on him. Kobashi, who was embroiled in a lengthy singles championship feud with Misawa, wanted to pin the company ace. Akiyama wanted the same, to elevate himself to main-event-level status. And Ogawa wanted to prove that he was more than just a ‘Rat Boy’.
This match originally took place on March 6th, 1999 and was rated ****3/4 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Now, over twenty years later, let’s see how this match holds up.
This is for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Akiyama and Ogawa start things off as the fans chant for Ogawa, for some reason. After a standoff, Akiyama slams Ogawa but Ogawa trips Akiyama into the ropes. They show some tremendous chain grappling and Ogawa pushes Akiyama into Kobashi, knocking Kobashi off the apron. Ogawa gets a ton of cheers and applause as he puts Akiyama in a front neck chancery. Akiyama escapes by landing some hard body shots and tags Kobashi and then Ogawa tags Misawa. The two bigger stars face off as the crowd gets even louder. Kobashi gets two clean breaks and then the chop/elbow war begins. Misawa lands a flurry of elbows but Kobashi tanks them like a boss. Kobashi sends Misawa into the ropes and neither man budges on a shoulder tackle. Misawa charges gain but gets kicked in the stomach and Kobashi tackles him down. Kobashi charges again but Misawa ducks and elbows him hard enough to send him out of the ring. Misawa elbows Kobashi off the apron. Elbow suicida! Misawa dives through the ropes and sends Kobashi careening into the barricade.
All four men start fighting ringside. Misawa Irish whips Akiyama, Akiyama counters and Misawa goes running. But Ogawa sees this and slingshots Misawa back into Akiyama and Misawa drops Akiyama with an elbow. Great sequence. Back in the ring, Misawa and Ogawa lands a flurry of double team moves on Kobashi for a two-count. Misawa goes for a top-rope dive but Kobashi dodges. Kobashi lands machine gun chops to Misawa’s neck and drops him with a DDT then tags Akiyama, who drops Misawa with a Triple H-style jumping knee for two. Akiyama applies a facelock and then whips Misawa into a corner, but Misawa blocks his corner kneelift and drops him with an elbow smash. Ogawa tags in and lands some head-butts and punches, then dodges Akiyama’s attempt at a missile dropkick out of a corner. Akiyama elbows his way out of a chinlock and charges but Ogawa dodges and jumps onto his back with a sleeper. Misawa tags in and chinlocks Akiyama and lands some stiff elbows to Akiyama’s weakening neck before tagging Ogawa in again. Akiyama tries to fight back by hitting both opponents but Ogawa shuts him down. Ogawa lands more soft-looking punches until Akiyama lands a Manhattan drop and tags Kobashi.
Kobashi does what Kobashi does best and starts chopping the shit out of Ogawa. But Ogawa catches on quickly and uses speed by ducking Kobashi’s strikes and lands enough punches to drop Kobashi. Misawa tags in and lands a flurry of kicks for a two-count and applies another chinlock. Then he transitions to the double-arm hold and we get the classic test of strength spot with Kobashi trying to escape and Misawa trying to hold on. Eventually, Kobashi manages to reverse the hold on Misawa but Misawa backs into his corner and Ogawa tags in. both of them beat on him in the corner and Ogawa goes to whip Kobashi. But Kobashi counters and sends Ogawa into the ropes, only for Ogawa to counter a back body drop with a swinging neckbreaker. But Ogawa gets too close to enemy territory and Akiyama blindsides him, allowing Ko0bashi to kick him hard and for Akiyama to drape his neck of the top rope. Kobashi gets a two-count off a delayed vertical suplex and tags Akiyama.
Akiyama lands a corner forearm and a snapmare/dropkick combo for two. Ogawa counters an Irish whip and goes to leapfrog but Akiyama catches him and slingshots him into a big chop from Kobashi for another two-count. Kobashi tags in and applies a Boston Crab but Ogawa gets to the ropes quickly. A double knee-lift/Russian leg sweep combo gets Kobashi another two-count and Akiyama tags in once more. Akiyama whips Ogawa but he counters into a sunset flip pin for a one-count. He applies an abdominal stretch and somehow Ogawa has enough strength to toss Akiyama off. Kobashi tags back in and applies his own – and much stronger – abdominal stretch while also cranking Ogawa’s neck. Ogawa reaches the ropes so Akiyama pulls him out of the ring and whips him into the barricade. Akiyama DDTs Ogawa on the ringside mats and back in the ring Kobashi pins Ogawa for two. Ogawa tries to fight back with punches but Kobashi drops him with one single chop. Kobashi lands some corner chops then whips Ogawa into another corner but Ogawa counters with kicks and tags Misawa.
Misawa lands his diving spinning lariat but Kobashi dodges his follow-up standing senton. Kobashi also dodges a double foot stomp but can’t dodge a second senton. After getting a two-count, Misawa counters Kobashi again with a headscissor takedown and then counters a lariat with a crucifix pin for two. Damn, this guy always has something else up his sleeve.
Misawa dropkicks Kobashi into a corner and whips him, but Kobashi reverses it. Misawa gets his foot up, charges for an elbow smash, but Kobashi counters that into a sleeper suplex. Akiyama tags in and lands a corner kneelift. Misawa fires back with elbow strikes. He goes for the Tiger Driver, Akiyama counters and goes for the Exploder suplex. Misawa elbows out. He charges for a running elbow smash, Akiyama counters into an Exploder suplex. There’s another awesome sequence.
Misawa tries to get up right away but Akiyama dropkicks him then lands a bridging German suplex for two. Ogawa breaks it up so Kobashi tosses him out of the ring and lands a turnbuckle powerbomb on Misawa. Akiyama follows up with a running corner dropkick and a double-arm DDT. Ogawa breaks up another pin attempt and eats a double-team shoulder tackle for doing so. Double-team strike combo by Kobashi and Akiyama. Back suplex/powerbomb combo. Wait, no, Misawa counters both of them. Awesome reversal. Stiff elbow smashes for each one.
Misawa tags Ogawa and lands an eye poke and jawbreaker on Akiyama, followed by an enzuigiri on Kobashi. It’s astonishing how much this crowd is into Ogawa. Akiyama reverses an Ogawa Irish whip but Ogawa counters Akiyama’s clothesline into a DDT. Back suplex on Akiyama. Jawbreaker on Kobashi. Ogawa lands a Tiger Driver on Akiyama. Akiyama kicks out. Ogawa goes for a suplex, Akiyama resists and goes for an armbar, Ogawa counters into a Triple H-style facebuster. Sharpshooter by Ogawa. Kobashi waltzes in to break it up but Ogawa won’t let go. Kobashi kicks him hard but Ogawa remains committed to the submission hold. It takes Kobashi a ton of effort to break up the sharpshooter to free his partner. All four men trade stiff shots on each other until the legal men (Akiyama and Ogawa) both go down. The crowd is roaring wildly for both teams.
Misawa and Kobashi both tag in and trade strikes. Half-Nelson suplex by Kobashi. Followed by a jackknife powerbomb for two. Kobashi slams Misawa for the moonsault but Misawa gets back up and cuts him off in the corner. Kobashi fights back and dives but Misawa elbows him in midair. Kobashi gets a sudden surge of energy and lands some chops, but Misawa ducks a big rolling chop. Rolling elbow smash. Misawa’s not done. He goes for a Tiger Driver but Kobashi resists. He tries the Tiger suplex but Kobashi still resists, so Misawa lands another hard elbow. Tiger Driver connects. Kobashi kicks out at 2.8.
Ogawa tags in and double foot stomps Kobashi’s gut allowing Misawa to land a frog splash. Ogawa lands a sloppy-looking bridging back suplex but Akiyama makes the save. Misawa knocks Akiyama down and he and Ogawa double-team Kobashi. Back suplex/diving elbow combination. Ogawa pins but Kobashi kicks out at 2.9. Misawa whips Kobashi into a corner and lands an elbow smash on him, as does Ogawa. Ogawa winds up to whip Misawa into Kobashi in the corner again, but Akiyama makes the eleventh hour save. Misawa runs into a waiting Akiyama who lands an Exploder suplex. Fantastic counter by Akiyama. Kobashi uses the distraction to land a running neckbreaker on Ogawa. Akiyama tags in as the new legal man. Back suplex/powerbomb combo on Ogawa for another two-count. Diving knee attack. Blue Thunder Bomb. Ogawa still kicks out. Exploder su—no, Ogawa counters into a cradle for two. Eye poke/jawbreaker combo by Ogawa, followed by a running elbow smash by Misawa. Ogawa cradles Akiyama but he manages to kick out. The crowd explodes in cheers (pun definitely intended).
Misawa and Kobashi fight ringside as Ogawa charges but walks into a gutbuster and another Exploder suplex from Akiyama. He pins but Ogawa still kicks out. Misawa makes it back to the ring and elbows both Akiyama and Kobashi but Kobashi takes him down with brutal discus chops. Aided diving powerbomb on Ogawa. Misawa makes the save. Misawa lands more elbows on Kobashi and charges…right into a LARIATO. Meanwhile, Akiyama charges towards Ogawa for a corner knee lift, but Ogawa dodges. Roll-up of death. Akiyama escapes. LARIATO. Exploder Suplex. One, two, three! That’s it! The champions retain!
Winners and STILL AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 30:49: Burning (Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama)
That was an awesome match. Just fantastic. It was thirty minutes of pure athletic wrestling. One can watch this match without any understanding of language, context or background and still find lots to enjoy here. It was a largely forgettable match in the larger 1990s AJPW universe, but from a quality standpoint it still holds up tremendously well over twenty years later.
First and foremost, the actual wrestling was off the charts great here. All four wrestlers fought hard and created a tense, big fight atmosphere that never wavered. For over half an hour the crowd was fully engaged in the match and made tons of noise, even for a guy as lanky and non-threatening like Ogawa. Because the audience appreciated the athleticism shown in the match. And by ‘athleticism’ I don’t mean death-defying acrobatics or a thousand flips, but a psychology that focuses on counters and layering sequences on top of each other to create genuinely unpredictable outcomes. That’s something that I think is missing from today’s tag team environment. Everyone wants to show what kind of crazy things they can do in each and every match, which leads to repetition and excitement dying early. Here, the four wrestlers kept things simple without needing to get EVERYTHING into one match, leaving room for more storytelling in the future.
Secondly, this match was a prime example of how to create unpredictable sequences in a match that still make sense. Both teams demonstrated awesome tag team combinations that made the match more exciting. Each time there were more than two wrestlers in the ring, it was impossible to predict what would happen. Would they land their moves, or would there be a counter at the last possible second? And if the first counter succeeded, would that turn the tide of the match or would one side’s attempt at a comeback be shut down? A great example of this was when Akiyama countered an Irish whip from Misawa, only for Ogawa to counter that and whip Misawa back into Akiyama. And later on, Ogawa and Misawa tried the same strategy on Kobashi, only for Akiyama – who remembered what happened to him earlier – made a critical save that turned the tide for his team. That sort of unpredictability is what makes these ‘wrestling-heavy, story-light’ matches so awesome in retrospect.
The story of the match was pretty straightforward: it was all about Misawa showcasing his new partner Ogawa against two of his former friends and partners. On one hand, Ogawa really proved to be an interesting wrestler in this match. He did some tremendous technical wrestling, used his agility to his advantage to find openings in his opponents’ defenses, and did an awesome job of being the underhanded little troll that you want to see get destroyed by the babyfaces. And the funny thing was, Ogawa was so good at what he did that the crowd eventually started cheering for him. Especially after he refused to release the Sharpshooter after multiple hard strikes from Kobashi, which made him look even tougher and more determined to win. So in that sense Misawa succeeded in getting people to care about Ogawa.
At the same time, there were some things in this match I didn’t like. One of those was that Ogawa was showcased far more than necessary. I get that Misawa needed to convince everyone this guy was worthy of being his new right hand man, just like how both Kobashi and Akiyama had been before. Except there’s just something about Ogawa that made him far less credible by comparison. Consider this: from 1990 to 2000, Misawa had four main tag team partners: Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, Jun Akiyama, and Yoshinari Ogawa. One of these things just doesn’t belong here. Whereas Kawada, Kobashi and Akiyama proved they could stand on their own and eventually made it as singles stars, Ogawa was not meant for such a role. He was scrawny and physically unimposing, so automatically he wasn’t likely to be taken seriously. But that problem could’ve been alleviated if Ogawa actually wrestled like someone credible, like in a Bryan Danielson or Zack Sabre Jr. sort of way. But he didn’t. His entire shtick was to do cheap stuff, kind of like Ric Flair when he isn’t in the mood for a long match. Ogawa was meant to be a foil, a lackey to hind behind Misawa. And that foil spent way too much time on offense. He never looked convincing as a threat, yet spent more time attacking both Kobashi and Akiyama and fending them off than was necessary. It was just hard to believe that both Kobashi and Akiyama could be kept at bay by someone like Ogawa, which made the match a bit harder to get into.
As an equivalent, imagine if you had a tag team match between Seth Rollins & Roman Reigns vs. John Cena & The Miz. Now imagine The Miz spending more time in the match than Cena and also holding his own against two wrestlers that are both stronger and far more technically skilled than him. Miz knows this and so he spends the match poking eyes, getting cheap pins, and all in all being less of a credible threat and more of a nuisance. And yet both Rollins and Reigns sell Miz’s nonsense as legit. Considering how much better both of them are compared to him, and considering how much they had endured in earlier matches with Cena, you find it hard to believe anything Miz does.
Also, more than any other match, this one exposed AJPW’s problem with tag team interference. Kobashi had this long sequence of interfering in the match and the referee just did nothing. He just waved his hands and Kobashi just ignored him. This is perhaps the only time I will praise WWE for introducing a time limit for interference. True, WWE goes a bit too far to the opposite extreme with their tag team rules. But this match showcased what happens when rules aren’t clearly defined. If the referee had no power to get Kobashi out, why would Kobashi even both leaving the ring at all? Sure, they can argue the tired cliché of Kobashi and other AJPW wrestlers being honorable. But that would be an extremely hard sell.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This match would be much better with some minor changes to it. I think Misawa should’ve been on offense more and done a bit more of the heavy lifting to weaken Kobashi and Akiyama. It was hard to believe that Ogawa could hold his own against both the strongest wrestler in AJPW (Kobashi) and one of the most technically-gifted amateur wrestlers in that company’s history (Akiyama). But Ogawa still tried, and even with the less-than-ideal story and structure, this match remains a must-see. If you like lots of wrestling and counter-wrestling, you’ll find something to like here. If you enjoy matches in which you watch on the edge of your seat with each big move, you’ll be more than happy with this one. And if you like your matches to have a wild crowd that go nuts at the slightest move, you’ll find plenty of that here too. All in all, this is a surprising gem that really showcases how great tag team wrestling can be.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.