(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs. ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams & Johnny Ace – AJPW, December 10th, 1994
If you were to ask me what the ideal wrestling villain would look like, I’d show you a picture of ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams.
At his peak, ‘Dr. Death’ was an absolute monster of a man that oozed badassery and danger. He was big, tough as nails, had many powerful moves in his repertoire, and could absorb as much punishment as he could dish out. But he wasn’t just great at being a villain; he was so good in that role that he sometimes got cheered for being a villain. In essence, Williams was the cool bad guy that people cheered before that concept became a tired and overdone cliché in pro wrestling.
And he showed how good he was in this match.
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.
Every year, All Japan Pro-Wrestling hosts its tag team tournament, The World’s Strongest Tag Determination League. This is special since AJPW’s regular touring structure usually features 95% six-and-eight-man matches along with a few singles matches sprinkles in here and there. Thus, the best two-man teams would come together from mid-November to early December to see which team was best.
On one side, you had the duo of Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi. They were two of the most beloved native talent, and Misawa was the unquestioned ace of All Japan. On the other side, there was ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams and Johnny Ace (yes, THAT Johnny Ace). Doc was the top foreign wrestler in AJPW at the time, and had needed a new partner after Terry Gordy had left the company the year prior. Ace stepped up to the plate, and acted as the lower-key foil to lure wrestlers into the danger zone that Doc represented.
Aside from wanting to win the tournament, there are some additional rivalries in this match as well. Ace was still considered at a level beneath Doc, so he hoped to prove himself. Doc and Misawa had a notable rivalry going into this match, since it was Doc that ended Misawa’s 705-day reign as champion. Lastly, Kobashi and Doc also had history together, especially since Kobashi just couldn’t pin him in a big match setting. So both Japanese wrestlers had something to worry about going into this match.
This is for the finals of the 1994 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League, and is also for the vacated AJPW World Tag Team Championships. The match took place on December 10th, 1994 and was originally rated 4.75-stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
In an unusual turn of events, the two bigger singles stars, Misawa and Williams, start things off. The crowd senses this twist and ‘oohhs’ in response. The fans cheer the Japanese duo which angers Williams. He doesn’t lock up with Misawa right away; instead he goes nose-to-nose with his foe unafraid. Williams wins a slap fight and drops Misawa with a jab, but Misawa knocks him down with an elbow. They have a nice technical exchange, Misawa ducks a clothesline, Williams ducks a kick, and they both pull each other’s hair. It’s a standoff as the crowd cheers wildly. Neither man wants to let go. Even the referee gets stuck between them and tries in vain to separate them. Damn, it’s clear they want to destroy each other. The crowd gives them a standing ovation.
A confident Williams dares Misawa to lock-up with him. Misawa applies a front chancery as Williams hooks the leg. Misawa maintains control as Kobashi tags in. Kobashi chops Williams so hard you can see a wad of spit go flying out of the ring. Then he tries starting a slap fight with Williams, but gets overpowered quickly. Kobashi reverses an Irish whip and drops Williams with a flying shoulder tackle. He tries to maintain control. But Williams carries him to his corner like he’s weightless and tags in Ace.
Ace loses a strike exchange with Kobashi, but ducks a chop and lands a huge uppercut. Another four-man standoff as the crowd roars. Kobashi and Ace do the Greco-Roman test of strength, and this goes on for quite a bit. Kobashi lands a double-wrist suplex just after the five-minute mark for another standoff.
Misawa tags in and Ace tries to apply an armlock but Misawa elbows out of it. Misawa charges at Ace in a corner but eats a boot for his efforts. Ace lands a 1990s version of an Okada Rainmaker and tags in Williams. He drills Misawa with hard strikes and head-butts, but Misawa somehow stays on his feet. Williams hammers away and lands a big lariat for a two-count then tags in Ace. Ace whips Misawa into a corner and charges but Misawa dodges at the last second, sending Ace flying out of the ring. Misawa gives chase and tries to whip Ace, but Ace reverses sending Misawa into the steel ring barricade.
Back in the ring, Ace tags Williams who knocks Misawa down with a jab. Williams lands a brutal pinning spinebuster for another two-count. Another quick tag to Ace, who applies a sharpshooter to Misawa. Kobashi tries to stop Ace with a chop, but as the referee focuses on getting Kobashi to his corner, Williams takes advantage to stomp on Misawa’s head as he remains locked in the hold. The hold finally gets broken at the ten-minute mark.
Ace hits two short-range clotheslines for a two-count. Williams tags in again and spits at Kobashi. Man, he’s really pissed off. He hoists Misawa over his head in a Canadian backbreaker to weaken Misawa’s back some more, but Kobashi makes the save with a kick. The gaijins double team Misawa outside the ring with Ace whipping Misawa into Williams who charges with a clothesline. Back in the ring, Williams scoop slams Misawa over the rope and flips the fans off as they chant his name. Misawa tries to escape Williams, but ‘Dr. Death’ is too strong and applies the Walls of Jericho. He’s just destroying Misawa’s back here. Kobashi saves Misawa again with a chop to Williams’ chest.
Ace tags in and goes for a vertical suplex but Misawa reverses into one of his own. Ace gets up first and knocks Kobashi down so he can’t tag in. He ties Misawa into the tree of woe, goes out of the ring and applies a sort of camel clutch. Well there’s a creative move. As the ref focuses on him, Williams comes up from behind him and stomps Misawa’s exposed chest. Excellent tag team work here. Kobashi saves Misawa again by whipping Ace into the steel barricade.
In the ring, ace stomps Misawa then applies an abdominal stretch to further weaken Misawa’s back. Misawa throws him off to escape and crawls to his corner and Kobashi. But Ace is quicker and tags Williams and grabs Misawa’s leg as he’s fingertips away from his partner and salvation. Ace holds him in place as Williams lands a to-rope shoulder tackle and knocks Kobashi away. He pins Misawa but only gets two.
Williams tags in Ace at the fifteen-minute-mark and they isolate Misawa in a corner. Misawa tries to fight back with elbow strikes but they just keep overpowering him. Williams whips Ace into Misawa, but Misawa ducks Ace’s clothesline and starts elbowing both of them. He reverses Ace’s attack and drops him with a Tiger Driver out of nowhere. He pins but Williams breaks it up at two. Kobashi comes in to try and even the odds, but Williams overpowers him and lands a massive German suplex.
Misawa gets up and knocks Ace down with elbows and tries the same with Williams, but Williams eats two elbows but ducks the third. He teases the Dangerous Backdrop Driver, but Misawa tries desperately to escape. Because he knows how terrifying that move is. But Ace kicks him hard in the face to block his escape. Dangerous Backdrop Driver! Williams plants Misawa. The crowd goes nuts. Everyone’s down. Ace, the legal man crawls for a pin, still delirious from eating so many Misawa elbows. He pins, but Misawa kicks out at 2.75. Fantastic sequence.
Williams goes for the Oklahoma Stampede. He smashes Misawa into one corner and goes for the second. But Kobashi makes the save, grabbing Misawa’s foot to stop Williams’s charge. But here comes Ace to pull Kobashi away and drops him with a ringside DDT. Williams lands the Oklahoma Stampede and pins, but Misawa kicks out at 2.5. Williams teases another DBD, but Misawa blocks it. He tries yet again, but Misawa reaches the ropes. Kobashi and Ace both enter to try and help their respective partners, but Kobashi catches Ace first with a massive rolling back chop. He collapses from exhaustion before he can fully reach Williams, but still manages to grab Williams’s foot. So when Williams attempts the DBD, he doesn’t have enough force in it. This allows Misawa to reverse it into a crossbody in mid-air. Fantastic counter.
The gaijins tackle Kobashi out of the ring and return their focus onto Misawa with a double-team suplex and an onslaught of elbow drops. I guess this is what inspired Dolph Ziggler. Williams pins but Misawa kicks out once again. The double team continues with an avalanche Oklahoma slam from the top rope. Ace keeps Kobashi on the ropes as the ref counts one, two, thr—no, Misawa kicks out again.
We’re at the twenty-minute-mark as Kobashi tries to hit back with a flurry of chops on both opponents to give Misawa more time to recover. Kobashi succeeds in dropping Williams with machine gun chops as Misawa DDTs Ace. Kobashi whips Williams and he gets dropped with a flying elbow from Misawa. The Japanese duo is in control now. Kobashi powerbombs Ace while Misawa lands a Tiger Driver on Williams. Misawa pins but Williams kicks out at 2.5.
Finally, after a decimating run, Misawa tags in the much fresher Kobashi. LARIATO on Williams. Wow, he damn near cleaved Doc’s head off. Kobashi pins but Williams kicks out at two again. Kobashi bodyslams Williams and goes for the moonsault. But Williams gets up too soon, so Kobashi lands a shoulder tackle instead. He goes for another lariat, but Williams has him scouted, ducks, and charges him into the corner with considerable force. He pins but Kobashi kicks out at two, then tags in Ace, who lands an aided diving clothesline. Ace crusher. Misawa tries to make the save but Williams cuts him off. But Ace isn’t done. He wants to add insult to injury. He bodyslams Kobashi and does Kobashi’s signature taunt. He ascends the turnbuckle as the crowed goes nuts. Moonsault press by ace ONTO KOBASHI! Unbelievable! The referee counts one, two, thr—no, Kobashi kicks out. Ace can’t believe it. He’s completely flabbergasted as the crowd roars in excitement.
Williams keeps Misawa ringside as Ace teases a Doctor Bomb on Kobashi. Kobashi resists, so Ace adapts mid-move with an Ace Crusher II (Rocker Dropper). Then he succeeds in landing the Doctor Bomb. He has the match won! No, Misawa makes the closest save I’ve ever seen. Good God, he had picture-perfect timing, saving Kobashi at the last possible millisecond.
Williams comes charging in, but Misawa drops him with a massive rolling elbow. Then he turns his attention to Ace and drops him with a kick to the face. Kobashi recovers and bodyslams Ace. It’s revenge time. Moonsault press from Kobashi. No one does it better. Misawa blocks Williams from entering the ring as the ref counts one, two, thr-NO, Ace kicks out this time.
Kobashi tags in Misawa who’s had enough time to recover. He lands a running elbow and teases the Tiger Driver, but Ace somehow escapes. So Misawa transitions mid-air into a Tiger Suplex, but Williams blocks it. Ace goes for an Ace Crusher, but Kobashi blocks that. Then Williams teases his own Tiger Suplex, but Kobashi chops his head in half and drops him with a Tiger Suplex. Meanwhile, Misawa ducks a clothesline from Ace and lands a Bridging German suplex. He pins, but only gets a 2.9-count. Kobashi lands a snap suplex on Ace and Misawa follows with a frog splash. He pins Ace, but Ace kicks out at 2.5. Tiger Driver by Misawa. Kobashi holds Williams on the ropes. The referee counts one, two, three! There’s the match.
Winners of the 1994 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League and the AJPW World Tag Team Championships after 25:05: The Super Generation Army (Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi)
That was an outstanding tag team classic. It was a tremendous, back-and-forth war between two teams of incredibly-talented wrestlers. For all the crap Johnny Ace has gotten over the years, he was actually very good here. True, he wasn’t on the same level as Misawa, Kobashi or Williams. But he fit his role as Williams’ right-hand man perfectly.
What this match lacked in traditional psychology, it made up with pure drama and excitement. The overlapping stories here were great. Williams’ Dangerous Backdrop Driver was once again sold as the most terrifying move in the world, so the point that key points in the match were structured around it. After all, Williams ended Misawa’s historic reign with that move, which led to people realizing “huh, Misawa does have a weakness.” The gaijins made targeting Misawa’s back their focus, and they did this well, to the point that Misawa wouldn’t’ve been able to mount any sort of comeback had Kobashi not tagged in at the perfect moment. And Kobashi spent less time in the ring than usual, but still played a central role in saving Misawa from being overpowered.
I also loved how Steve Williams acted in this match. He was the personification of the word ‘badass’. He took a beating from two of the hardest strikers in wrestling history, and on many occasions, he didn’t even flinch. He dished out an insane amount of punishment, including an absolutely vicious Dangerous Backdrop Suplex on Misawa.
But what makes this a must-watch match is how well the wrestlers tell their story and convince you there’s real animosity between them. When Misawa and Williams fought, they did so in such a way that makes you think they have real heat between them. They make you think that one or the other’s gonna get dropped hard or taken out in some way. In short, they made their rivalry seem less like a simple wrestling angle and more like a blood feud. That’s something that’s sorely missed in today’s world. No matter how hard today’s promoters and promo-writers try, they just cannot script this sort of realistic action.
Final Rating: *****
This match was all kinds of awesome. Everything done here was both simple yet incredibly effective. Though both teams did an excellent job in this match, I think the team of Williams and Ace did more important work here. They showed just how to be a perfect villainous team. They isolated and dominated Misawa for the bulk of the match, which got the fans to get behind Misawa and Kobashi more than usual. They nearly had the match won had Kobashi not made a perfect save on the second DBD attempt. Even Johnny Ace got to shine by nearly pinning Kobashi with a gorgeous Moonsault that nearly scored him the pinfall.
All in all, this is a match that should be watched and studied carefully. Pro wrestling is about selling the idea of a fight to people and making them want to see the action go down. And these four wrestlers did that effortlessly. With modern pro wrestling focusing more on pure athleticism while tossing nuance and emotion aside, matches like this one do a much better job of withstanding the test of time and demonstrating what pro wrestling should look like.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.