(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa and Jun Akiyama vs. Jinsei Shinzaki and Hayabusa – AJPW November 27th, 1997

The match we’re looking at today isn’t a historic classic or one of those memorable showdowns that drew countless fans into a packed arena. Instead, it’s one of those ‘holy-shit-that-actually-happened?!’ sort of matches. It was so unlikely to have ever taken place, but it did. And it was way better than it had any right to be, especially given the styles clash between the wrestlers involved.

Today we look back at the tag team match between All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s Mitsuharu Misawa & Jun Akiyama and FMW’s Jinsei Shinzaki & Hayabusa from November 27th, 1997.

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.

The story

Earlier in 1997, AJPW promoter Giant Baba finally relented and began a working relationship with another company. The one he chose was Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) because he was after one particular star: Hayabusa.

For those that might be unaware, Hayabusa is one of the most innovative and influential wrestlers of the past thirty years. Are you someone that enjoys seeing high-flyers like PAC/Neville, Seth Rollins, Kota Ibushi, Chris Jericho or Justin Gabriel doing 450 Splashes, Phoenix splashes or Lionsaults? You can thank Hayabusa for either creating or popularizing those moves. Aside from that, Hayabusa was one of the most badass high-flyers of the 1990s. He was one of the most ‘complete’ wrestlers of his time, capable of doing high flying, chain grappling, brawling, and crazy hardcore wrestling. It’s likely he would’ve been a much bigger star if his career didn’t end abruptly following a sudden and life-altering neck injury that left him paralyzed.

In this match, Hayabusa’s teaming with Jinsei Shinzaki. Some of you older fans out there might remember him by his WWF/E name ‘Hakushi’, and his awesome matches with Bret Hart back in the mid-1990s. After his WWE run, Shinzaki returned to Japan and started teaming with Hayabusa in FMW, and then joined Hayabusa when Baba invited Hayabusa to wrestle in the World’s Strongest Tag Determination League tournament.

This was going to be an interesting match, for sure. AJPW rarely invited wrestlers from other Japanese promotions to work their events so fans were in for a treat. Hayabusa was the star of FMW and Shinzaki was riding a wave of popularity following his WWE run. Meanwhile, Misawa was still AJPW’s unquestioned ace and Akiyama was growing more and more as a wrestler. So this was sure to be an explosive and unpredictable match, especially since one team wasn’t that familiar with AJPW’s unique King’s Road wrestling style.

The match

This match took place on November 27th, 1997, during AJPW’s annual World’s Strongest Tag Determination League tournament. It was originally rated ****3/4 (meaning almost perfect) by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up.

Akiyama and Hayabusa start things off with a clean break and a Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Hayabusa counters into an overhead suplex and kips up Shawn Michaels-style, which gets loud applause. He sends Akiyama into the ropes but Akiyama shoulder tackles him. But Hayabusa kips up again and dropkicks Akiyama, who escapes the ring. Hayabusa stops on the ropes to pose, and does some flips to the crowd’s delight.

Hayabusa tags Shinzaki who pushes Akiyama into a corner and lands a hard throat thrust. Akiyama retakes control with some knees, whips Shinzaki into the ropes, Shinzaki dodges a jumping knee and a clothesline and lands a big jumping shoulder tackle. They do some amateur grappling and in tags Misawa. They lock up and Shinzaki gets Misawa against the ropes, but Misawa lifts him over the rope and out of the ring. Misawa clubs Shinzaki’s neck but Shinzaki fires back with stiff shots of his own and tags Hayabusa, who lands a diving ax handle to Misawa’s arm at the five-minute mark.

Hayabusa applies a hammerlock and Misawa gets a rope break. Misawa knocks Hayabusa down off an Irish whip but Hayabusa kips up again and counters a charging Misawa with an arm drag. Hayabusa goes back to working Misawa’s arm and tries a variety of arm submission holds, only for Misawa to grapple out of each one. Shinzaki tags in and fires away with throat thrusts, but Misawa answers with elbows from his good arm and dropkicks Shinzaki out of the ring. Misawa charges for the elbow suicida, Shinzaki dodges, Misawa skins the cat twice, and Shinzaki jumps onto the apron and catches Misawa’s arm before he can hit him. Shinzaki jumps onto the top rope. And walks across the ropes in a longer version of Undertaker’s Old School. Why Akiyama doesn’t knock him off I have no idea.

Shinzaki jumps off the top rope but Misawa blocks and counters into an arm drag. Misawa charges, but walks right into a big martial arts thrust kick. Shinzaki lands a delayed corner body press for two as Misawa gets his foot on the rope. He brings Misawa to the middle of the ring and applies a neck nerve hold of sorts that keeps Misawa grounded for a while. Hayabusa tags in and lands a springboard leg drop for a one-count and Hayabusa goes back to the arm. This goes on for a bit until Misawa drops Hayabusa with elbows and tags Akiyama at the ten-minute mark.

Hayabusa counters a corner Irish whip and lands a jumping knee and a springboard facecrusher. He tries to maintain control but Akiyama drops him with an overhead suplex and lands a piledriver for two. Akiyama lands a jumping knee that sends Hayabusa ringside and he goes to whip Hayabusa into the steel barricade, but Hayabusa counters and Akiyama hits it instead. Hayabusa kicks him for good measure and gets a two-count back in the ring.

Shinzaki tags in and goes for the same body press he landed on Misawa but Akiyama gets his knees up. Misawa tags in and lands a standing senton for two. He follows with some stiff gut shots and quickly tags Akiyama once again, who lands a knee lift to Shinzaki’s gut for a one-count and then starts working over Shinzaki’s ribs and abdomen. He lands a gutbuster and tags Misawa, who lands stiff elbows to Shinzaki’s now-badly injured stomach. Another quick tag to Akiyama, who continues attacking that same weakened body part of Shinzaki’s. Akiyama whips Shinzaki, but Shinzaki counters into an enzuigiri, then gets a desperation tag to Hayabusa.

Hayabusa lands a springboard forearm to Akiyama and a spinning wheel kick for a two-count. He gets another two-count off a Fisherman Buster and whips Akiyama into a corner but Akiyama gets his foot up and lands a second-rope diving knee. Misawa tags in, lands a diving elbow smash, and knocks Shinzaki from the apron. Diving spinning lariat. Hayabusa kicks out. Misawa goes for the Tiger Driver. Hayabusa resists and Shinzaki makes the save. Hayabusa kicks Misawa hard in the side of the head and lands a bridging German suplex. Misawa escapes at one. Hayabusa whips Misawa into a corner, Misawa uses his foot to block going into it, but Hayabusa sees this coming and lands a gorgeous Frankensteiner. Shinzaki tags in. Top-rope shoulder tackle. Misawa kicks out. Shinzaki slams Misawa. Hayabusa lands a springboard senton. Shinzaki lands a springboard knee drop. Hayabusa lands a Lionsault. Shinzaki lands a diving head-butt. All on Misawa, who kicks out at two. The crowd goes nuts.

Shinzaki goes for a powerbomb but Misawa escapes with a Frankensteiner of his own. He tags Akiyama and they land tag team combos of their own. Misawa whips Shinzaki into a corner, then whips Akiyama into Shinzaki and Akiyama lands a corner forearm. Then Akiyama whips Shinzaki into a charging Misawa who lands an elbow and Akiyama lands a bridging Northern Lights suplex for two. Akiyama goes for a German but Hayabusa makes the save and Shinzaki lands a Pélé kick. Shinzaki crawls to a pin, but he sees Misawa coming to make the save and drills him with another thrust kick. Hayabusa tags in. Falcon Arrow. Misawa makes the save. Shinzaki springboard dropkicks Misawa out of the ring. Running top-rope quebrada by Hayabusa onto Misawa on the floor. Shinzaki follows with a handspring elbow flip over the rope. Shades of the Great Sasuke. This is absolutely crazy.

Back in the ring, Hayabusa slams Akiyama and climbs the top rope. Firebird/450 Splash. Akiyama kicks out at 2.9. Powerbomb by Shinzaki on Akiyama. Phoenix Splash by Hayabusa! Absolutely gorgeous move! Shinzaki sees Misawa sprinting to save Akiyama and tries to block him. But Misawa makes it past Shinzaki and saves his partner at the last possible nanosecond. Amazing near-fall sequence.

Misawa gets a second wind and hits stiff elbows on both Hayabusa and Shinzaki. Tiger Driver on Hayabusa. Elbow suicida through the ropes onto Shinzaki. Akiyama and Hayabusa brawl. Blue Thunder bomb by Akiyama. Shinzaki makes the save. Diving elbow to the back of Hayabusa’s head. Akiyama pins but Hayabusa still kicks out. Exploder Suplex. Hayabusa kicks out again. Akiyama charges for a jumping knee. Hayabusa counters into a Frankensteiner and pins. Akiyama barely kicks out and lands a quick elbow. Followed by another Exploder suplex. Shinzaki tries to reach through the ropes but Misawa holds him back. One, two, three! There’s the match!

Winners after 21:34: Mitsuharu Misawa & Jun Akiyama


That was an outstanding wrestling match. It didn’t have any larger story, so it was carried by the weight of the in-ring action, which was tremendous. All four wrestlers looked great, especially Hayabusa. He looked way more than just a typical hardcore wrestler. He held his own against both Akiyama and Misawa, two of the best in-ring wrestlers in the world at the time.

From a technical and psychological perspective, this was pro wrestling 101. The match started off slow with some basic grappling and technical chain-wrestling. Then it moved on to a more fast-paced jockey for control with both sides trying to take one person from each team out of the match. And when that failed, they moved towards the finishing sprint, and that’s when the crowd really came alive after being relatively quiet during the first 2/3 of the match.

It was incredibly basic in terms of psychology, but everything was done smoothly and logically. Hayabusa knew Misawa was a major threat, so he worked over Misawa’s arm and Shinzaki worked over Misawa’s neck. Misawa and Akiyama did the same, trying to weaken Shinzaki through a series of quick tags and constant attacks to his stomach and abs. Those approaches led to some fantastic and believable near-falls, especially once Hayabusa tagged in towards the end.

Hayabusa and Shinzaki meshed very well with the AJPW duo, which came as a nice surprise. Instead of creating a glaring styles clash, these two teams had great chemistry. It was expected that Shinzaki and Hayabusa would do some typical ‘flippy stuff’ in this match, which they did, especially towards the end. But it was done with a purpose rather than just for the sake of doing it. Both of them did some crazy moves onto Misawa ringside in the hopes of knocking him down long enough for one of them to pin Akiyama in the ring. And that strategy nearly worked. Misawa was lucky to get around Shinzaki to make the save for his team.

At the same time, I think this match did have some flaws. First, Hayabusa worked over the wrong arm when he was in the ring with Misawa, which was completely illogical. Misawa hit his trademark elbows with his right arm, the one that has the elbow pad on it. He rarely hit elbows with his left, unless it was to hit a stiff one-two combo (like he did a year later against Kobashi). As a result, all of Hayabusa’s attempts to weaken Misawa’s offensive arsenal were useless because he targeted the wrong arm.

There was also a weird moment that just didn’t make sense: Shinzaki’s rope walk. Sure, it was cool because it was a longer, more difficult version of the Undertaker’s Old School. But Shinzaki walked along the rope right in front of his opponent Akiyama. Now, I’ve seen a ton of these AJPW tag matches, and the majority of them are grounded in a straightforward logic that focuses on common sense. So with that in mind, why didn’t Akiyama knock Shinzaki off the ropes as Shinzaki literally walked right in front of him? Akiyama had a golden opportunity to knock his opponent down and regain control for his team, but ignored it because Shinzaki had to land his ‘cool move’ to get a big reaction from the audience. I expected that sort of illogical direction from WCW or WWE, but not from All Japan, in which psychology is more airtight and wrestlers take advantage of things much more often.

There also seemed to be this weird duality at play in this match. While Hayabusa and Shinzaki did a lot of work to nearly wipe out Akiyama, they themselves were felled rather easily. Shinzaki and Hayabusa dished out a lot of punishment but didn’t take anywhere near as much as Misawa or Akiyama. I was expecting Misawa and Akiyama to have to dig down deeper to try and beat these two wrestlers, but that didn’t happen. Instead, Akiyama managed to fell Hayabusa rather easily, which made him look like a glass cannon: strong on offense but weak on defense.

Final Rating: ****1/2

This was a cool match that was sold on the novelty of the wrestlers involved rather than on any deep storyline. The wrestling was fantastic, especially since both sides came from such different wrestling backgrounds and fought in very different styles. And yet, they worked very well together, despite a few gaps in logic and a relatively slow first half.

And while I think it was great and still holds up pretty well, I wish they went a bit further here. It would’ve been a better match if Misawa & Akiyama went to further lengths to beat Hayabusa & Shinzaki. That would’ve given the outsider duo more credibility for the rest of the tournament and, naturally, would’ve made the match more exciting.

So while I don’t think this is a masterpiece or historic epic by any means, the novelty of seeing Hayabusa out of his comfort zone in an All Japan ring makes it worth going out of your way to see this match.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.