Once upon a time, tag team wrestling was taken seriously and treated with respect. Some of the most successful wrestlers of all time were just as successful in tag team competition as they were in singles. In North America, that hasn’t been the case in a very long time. Despite efforts by companies like AEW, TNA and some of the independent promotions, tag team wrestling is still largely seen as a step below the world title or even secondary singles titles.
As such, I figured it makes sense to go back in time to a period when tag team wrestling was at its best. For this review, we’re going back to All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s golden age of the 1990s. We’re revisiting a largely forgotten match that few people have seen. It’s a match that involved four of the greatest pro-wrestlers to ever live continuing a bitter and white-hot feud that had started two years earlier.
Today we revisit the lost classic tag match between Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue from October 15th, 1995.
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 is the seventh two-in-two tag match involving the quartet known as The Four Pillars of Heaven. Going into this match, the series between them was all tied up 2-2-2. The last time they faced off two-on-two, it was the Holy Demon Army (Kawada and Taue) that won.
Needless to say, both teams were itching to score a big win over the other, especially given the stakes. For Misawa & Kobashi, they wanted to avenge their loss from June and regain the titles they had held together for over a year. For Kawada & Taue, they wanted to maintain their momentum and send another message. Misawa was also Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion and had already successfully defended the title against Kawada in a big match a few months earlier. It was also Kawada who pinned Misawa in their epic June tag match to win the very titles being defended in this match. The stakes were very high here and all four wrestlers were in their primes as fighters, so the fans were in for a tremendous match no matter the outcome.
This match originally took place on October 15th, 1995. It was actually never given a formal rating by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer so that factor doesn’t hang over this match as it does for other match reviews in this series.
This is for Kawada & Taue’s World Tag Team titles. In a surprising twist, Misawa and Kawada, the two bigger stars, start the match. The crowd appears to be 60-40 for Misawa as they lock-up. Kawada gets Misawa to the topes and goes for a big chop but Misawa blocks. Kawada locks in a standing armbar and again Misawa gets to the ropes quickly. Kawada backs off carefully to avoid a sudden elbow. Kawada lands some calf kicks and applies a headlock and tackles Misawa down off an Irish whip. Kawada charges for a yakuza kick, Misawa blocks and hits an elbow that Kawada tanks, Misawa ducks a spinkick and goes for a German suplex, Kawada resists, so Misawa lands a Tiger suplex instead. Amazing sequence of moves.
Kawada sells the suplex like he has been knocked out and Taue checks on him. The fans cheer for Kawada as he gets into the ring and immediately staggers over to tag Taue. They lock up and Misawa lands some quick elbows and goes for another Tiger suplex but Taue reaches the ropes. Taue reverses an Irish whip, Misawa ducks one boot and avoids some others and then tags Kobashi. They lock-up and Kobashi goes for a chop but Taue blocks it and rakes Kobashi’s eyes. Taue gets his own headlock and gets sent off the ropes, but Kobashi fails to knock him down on a shoulder tackle. Neither man budges again, so Taue summons his inner sumo wrestler (he did sumo before pro-wrestling) and they rush each other. Kobashi fights hard but Taue succeeds in knocking him down. An incensed Kobashi charges back into a headlock and knocks Taue down and then charges, only for Taue to duck and send him out of the ring. a suicide dive through the ropes by Taue sends Kobashi into the steel ring barricade.
Kobashi gets whipped into the barricade again as Taue taunts Misawa. Misawa kicks him and skins the cat, only for Kawada to kick him once he lands on the apron. Taue goes for an apron chokeslam but Misawa resists. Kawada kicks Kobashi as he tries to re-enter the ring and then boots Misawa hard. That allows Taue to connect with the chokeslam. Misawa gets launched from the apron to the floor.
Taue goads Kobashi into entering the ring and they start fighting. Taue goes for a kick but Kobashi catches his leg and lands some neck chops and a clothesline. Kawada comes in but Kobashi chops him too. Kobashi goes for an Irish whip, Kawada counters into a spinkick, but Kobashi blocks it and drops Kawada. a big vertical suplex gets Kobashi a two-count. He applies a chinlock but Taue crawls to the ropes. Kobashi lands a flurry of stiff chops and kicks to Taue in the corner and then starts working his arm. All this time Misawa hasn’t moved at all off Taue’s apron chokeslam.
After a ropebreak, Kobashi and Taue do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Kobashi out-powers Taue, but Taue cleverly escapes and tags Kawada. sensing imminent danger, Kobashi rushes Kawada and starts hitting kneelifts, but Kawada’s having none of that and drop toeholds him. Kawada starts working both arms and switches to the double-arm surfboard hold and starts another power struggle with Kobashi. With all his might, Kobashi manages to reverse the hold on Kawada and keeps it in despite Kawada’s valiant escape attempts. Eventually, Kawada counters the hold back onto Kobashi, lariats him in the back of the head, and tags Taue.
The double-teams begin as Taue whips Kobashi into Kawada who lariats him down hard. Kawada whips Kobashi into Taue and Taue attempts a chokeslam but Kobashi escapes. But he can’t escape a boot from Kawada and ends up in danger from a top-rope chokeslam. Kobashi fights out from that and dives off the second rope, but ends up getting chokeslammed by Taue anyway. Taue sees Misawa stirring and boots him back down. He rips off the ringside mats and DDTs him onto the exposed floor as Kawada drops Kobashi on the other side of the ring. Taue gets a two-count once Kobashi gets tossed back into the ring.
Taue drops Kobashi throat-first on the top-rope as Misawa starts getting back up. Kobashi manages one chop to Taue’s chest before collapsing to the mat. Taue gets a two-count off a tossing back suplex and tags Kawada. Kawada lands some stiff chops and drops Kobashi with a brutal spinkick and kicks Misawa off the apron. Kobashi kicks out of a pin and then starts no-selling Kawada’s chops. They go back-and-forth until Kawada drops Kobashi with a flurry of chops to the neck and chest before tagging Taue back in.
Taue leg drops Kobashi for a two-count and applies his partner Kawada’s signature stretch plum submission hold. Kobashi reaches the ropes and tries to hulk up but Taue shuts him down and tags Kawada again. Kawaka applies an abdominal stretch but Misawa saves Kobashi. This enrages Kawada so much that he kicks Misawa back out of the ring. Kawada tries to whip Misawa into the barricade but Misawa counters. But Kawada absorbs the impact and hits a big rebound clothesline. The exact same thing happens with Taue and Kobashi on the other side of the ring, but Kawada comes in and boots Kobashi down.
Twenty minutes have passed as Kawada gets another two-count on Kobashi in the ring. Both Kobashi and Kawada go for suplexes but neither man succeeds. Taue tags in and he mauls Kobashi in a corner. A big clothesline gets Taue a two-count, as does a powerbomb. Kawada tags in and pins right away as he sees that Kobashi’s barely moving. Kobashi tries in vain to reach Misawa (who finally makes it back onto the apron) as Kawada lands a Backdrop for a 2.5-count. Kawada goes for a chop but again Kobashi collapses before he can even hit the move. Man, no one does a babyface in peril better than Kobashi. Taue tags in for a pin but only gets two.
Taue goes for a chokeslam but Kobashi reaches the ropes. Kobashi finds himself trapped between Taue and Kawada and tries to fight both men but gets kicked hard for his efforts. Taue goes for his three lariat combo but Kobashi ducks the third one. He goes for a backdrop, Taue elbows out and Kobashi lands a Baba-style neckbreaker. Kobashi tries to crawl over to Misawa but Kawada cuts him off. He goes for a Backdrop but Kobashi counters in midair and tags Misawa. In comes the green machine!
Misawa drops both Taue and Kawada with a flurry of elbows and kicks. He goes to German suplex Kawada but he escapes and lands a big enzuigiri…which Misawa no-sells and Misawa drops him with a running elbow smash. Misawa drops Taue with a Tiger Driver and gets a two-count and then lands a second one but Kawada makes the save. Kawada starts kicking Misawa but Misawa catches his legs and elbows it extremely hard. Kawada crumples to the mat in pain as Misawa goes for a third Tiger Driver. But when Taue collapses, Misawa quickly pins but only gets 2.5.
Misawa applies a facelock as Kobashi puts Kawada in a sleeper. Taue reaches the ropes so Misawa snapmares him and reapplies it as Kawada looks to be completely out from Kobashi’s sleeper. Misawa gets another two-count and tags Kobashi. Kobashi and Misawa prepare some double team move, but Taue collapses again before Misawa can even whip him into Kobashi. Kobashi smartly goes for a pin but only gets two and locks in a sleeper. Taue tries to escape to ringside, but Kobashi chases him, smashes him into the barricade, and lands an elevated DDT onto the exposed floor.
Back in the ring, Taue fights out of a powerbomb but gets elbowed by Misawa as we pass the thirty-minute mark. Kobashi lands a jackknife powerbomb but only gets two. He goes for the moonsault but Taue rolls out of range and then tries to fight, only for Kobashi to wreck him with a kick and a guillotine leg drop for another two-count. Kobashi tags Misawa and they land a suplex/frog splash combo for two. Taue escapes a Tiger suplex by reaching the ropes so Misawa hits a brutal rolling elbow smash instead. Suddenly Kawada comes charging out of nowhere and decimates Kobashi and puts him in a cross armbreaker. They roll out of the ring with the armbar still locked in as Misawa finds himself unable to do anything since Taue’s holding onto the bottom rope. Taue crawls over to his corner and tags a now-rejuvenated Kawada.
Kawada charges at Misawa and lands stepkicks but Misawa no-sells and hits a big elbow smash. More stepkicks from Kawada. Misawa no-sells. Kawada boots him into a corner. Misawa fires up and blocks a gamengiri kick. Elbow smash. Gamengiri connects this time. Terrific sequence. Powerbomb by Kawada. Misawa kicks out. Kawada tries another powerbomb. Kobashi makes the save. Misawa tags Kobashi and he initiates a chop battle with Kawada. Kawada lands a big kick and goes for a powerbomb but Kobashi fights out. Kawada springs back up, lands a yakuza kick and goes for a powerbomb again but Kobashi resists. But this time, Kawada counters into another armbar until Misawa makes the save. Kawada goes for another suplex and goes back into an armbar as Kobashi keeps fighting. Taue tags in and applies his own armbar to further destroy Kobashi’s arms. Kobashi escapes by rolling into a pin but only gets one.
Taue stomps on Kobashi’s arm and wraps it up in the ropes. Kawada tags in and lands stiff kicks and a knee drop to that same bad arm and Kobashi sells it like his bones have been broken. Kobashi escapes to ringside but finds himself at Taue’s mercy as Taue whips him shoulder-first into the barricade. Back in the ring, Kobashi tries to escape but eats some standing armbreakers for his efforts. Taue tags back in and lands a running high kick for two. Taue applies his own cross armbreaker but Misawa saves Kobashi so he tags Kawada.
Kawada lands multiple knee drops – including a diving one – onto Kobashi’s arm as the forty-minute mark passes. Taue smashes Kobashi arm-first into the ringpost and Kawada pins for a one-0count. Taue tags again and goes for an armlock but Kobashi chops out and hits a desperation lariat with his healthy arm and tags Misawa.
Misawa elbows both Taue and Kawada and lands a diving spinning lariat. He tries to whip Taue out of a corner but Taue resists and rakes his eyes. Taue whips Misawa into a corner, but instead of Misawa bouncing out with a counter, Kawada catches him at the last second, which allows Taue to trap him and lands a Doomsday Chokeslam with Kawada. Amazing double team action here. Taue pins but only gets two. Misawa tries to escape to ringside but Taue keeps cutting him off. Taue goes for another apron chokeslam but Misawa keeps resisting. Taue eventually gets the upper hand and lifts Misawa up for it but Misawa makes a last-second counter that sends Taue to the floor. That allows Misawa to land a dropkick but Kawada lariats him from behind. Taue gets back into the ring and lands a brutal German suplex that spikes Misawa on his head. Misawa gets up and charges for an elbow but eats a big chokeslam for his efforts/ Taue pins but Misawa kicks out at 2.9.
Kawada tags in and applies a stretch plum as Taue knocks Kobashi off the apron and kicks Misawa to do extra damage. The crowd chants for Misawa as Taue comes back in to stop Kobashi from breaking up the hold. The two illegal men brawl and Kobashi wins with a stiff rolling chop and then saves Misawa. Kobashi charges at Kawada but Kawada kicks his arm and Kobashi goes down quickly. Kawada goes for a powerbomb but Misawa counters with a picture-perfect Frankensteiner that spikes Kawada.
Kobashi tags in and Kawada immediately starts kicking his arm. Kobashi catches Kawada’s leg and starts elbowing the s**t out of it and lands a dragon screw. Kobashi kicks Kawada’s injured leg. Kawada kicks Kobashi’s injured arm. Kobashi gains the upper hand with a flurry of kicks. Taue comes in but he eats chops from Kobashi’s only good arm. Kobashi keeps both Kawada and Taue at bay. Misawa lands an elbow suicida on Taue. Kobashi goes for a dragon suplex but Kawada reaches the ropes and escapes a German suplex with a big kick. Kawada lands a big German suplex of his own but further hurts his own leg in the process.
Kobashi tanks some strikes and goes for a German but Taue stops him. Misawa comes in and hits rolling elbow smashes to both Taue and Kawada and Kobashi scoop slams Kawada. Diving moonsault press connects. One, two, no, Kawada kicks out just barely. Misawa tags in and Kawada holds onto the ropes for dear life. He fails as Misawa drops him with a big German suplex followed by another. Kobashi walks up to Taue to keep him away as Misawa pins but only gets two.
Misawa tries and fails to stop Kawada from tagging Taue as the fifty-minute mark passes. He and Taue trade strikes and Misawa elbows out of one chokeslam but can’t avoid a second one. Misawa kicks out so Taue goes for his own powerbomb but Misawa Frankensteiners out of that one too. Running elbow smash. Taue kicks out. Tiger Driver. Kawada makes the save. Kobashi holds Kawada in place as Misawa lands a bridging Tiger Suplex. Kawada is fingertips away. One, two, thr—NO, Taue kicks out at 2.99!
Kobashi tags in and goes for a moonsault but Taue rolls away so Kobashi lands a rope-assisted leg drop. Kobashi lands a powerbomb followed by a German suplex for two. Misawa tags back in and he and Kobashi land a double-team Tiger Driver for yet another two-count. Misawa charges for a running elbow, but Taue ducks and drops him neck-first on the ropes. Kawada tags in and drops Misawa with a big running lariat.
Five minutes left.
They trade waistlocks until Kawada drops Misawa with a German. Gamengiri/powerbomb combo by Kawada. Kobashi saves Misawa on a pin. Misawa tags Kobashi and Kawada rushes him with chops and kicks. Kawada pins off a rolling kick to the face. Kobashi grabs the ropes. Kawada tries another cross armbreaker. Kobashi rolls into the ropes for safety. Taue takes advantages and chokeslams Kobashi ringside.
Three minutes left.
Taue tries to chokeslam Kobashi onto the floor but Kobashi counters and chokeslams Taue onto the ringside mats. Kobashi returns to the ring as Misawa smashes Kawada with elbows. Kobashi lands a bridging dragon suplex. Taue makes the save. Kobashi whips Kawada into Misawa who elbows him and then lands a Backdrop suplex for two.
Two minutes left.
Kobashi and Kawada kick each other until Kobashi tags Misawa. Kawada loses a strike exchange and tags Taue who eats stiff shots from Misawa. Misawa unloads a barrage of stiff elbow smash and goes for a pin. One, two, no, Taue kicks out.
One minute left.
Bridging Tiger suplex ’86. Taue kicks out. Both men collapse. Kobashi leg drops Taue.
Thirty seconds left.
Misawa attempts a Tiger Driver but Taue goes to the ropes. Misawa lands more stiff elbows and pins. Taue kicks out yet again. Then the bell rings. The match is over.
Match result: STILL AJPW World Tag Team Champions due to a 60-minute DRAW: The Holy Demon Army (Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue)
That was an absolutely terrific wrestling match. It was classic, tag team perfection. All four wrestlers looked like gods here. And frankly, I’m astonished that Meltzer never even looked at this match.
The match had two distinct phases. The first one saw Misawa completely neutralized following a brutal apron Chokeslam which turned this into a two-on-one handicap match. And because of that, Kobashi got to shine like never before. He was an amazing Face-in-Peril (FIP) as he spent most of the match on the defensive against two very dangerous opponents. Kobashi was forced to be extremely careful and had to basically act as a damage sponge until Misawa had recovered from Taue’s chokeslam. And once Misawa entered the match, it turned into a typical top-level All Japan tag with amazing counters, unpredictable twists and turns, great psychology, and insane head spikes.
But even though Misawa was the company’s ace here, the star of the match was without a doubt Kobashi. Over the course of the match, Kawada and Taue systematically destroyed him yet he refused to give up. They shut him down whenever he tried to get any momentum going. They decimated his arm so that he couldn’t reliably chop his way to victory as he usually did. They could’ve won via submission (which was extremely rare in All Japan) from all those armbars and arm-targeting moves that rendered Kobashi’s left arm completely useless.
And yet, Kobashi kept going and going and going, refusing to die. Even with only one good arm he still fought like hell and managed to survive the well-oiled machine that was the Holy Demon Army. Kobashi had proven he could be a great underdog babyface in peril many times before. But he took so much punishment in this match and survived that it elevated him to an even higher level. He became much more than just ‘Misawa’s tag partner’. He came across as someone worthy of being on Kawada or Misawa’s level, as a nigh-indestructible unstoppable force.
Speaking of Misawa, he was central to the match’s story without being that active in the match. Kawada and Taue kept isolating him and keeping him out of the match, which forced Kobashi into a major disadvantage. Then, in a delightful example of poetic justice, that same thing happened to Kawada later on. Once his leg started getting targeted, he ended up taken out for much of the second half which forced Taue to do the work for two men until Kawada had rested up.
But as good as this match was, it did have one major flaw: its length. Point blank, this contest didn’t need to go the full sixty minutes. I get it, they wanted to sell these four wrestlers’ toughness and conditioning above all else. But while that was a great idea on paper, it wasn’t perfect in execution. This match lacked the incredible fan noise and atmosphere of their January 1995 sixty-minute draw as well as the more coherent match flow. Even though this match featured a great story and great tension, it also had some dead moments and repetition that made it drag. This was especially true during the last third of the match. While it made sense for the wrestlers to spend so much time on the mat recovering due to sheer exhaustion and build-up of stronger and stronger big moves, it was also clear that both sides were stalling for time and stretching sequences out. I think they could’ve shaved off fifteen minutes and gone with a different finish and this match would’ve been better.
Final Rating: ****3/4
Despite being one of the slowest big AJPW matches, this contest was still crazy. All four of these wrestlers were in their prime and delivered in terms of action, drama, storytelling and unpredictability. It speaks volumes to their incredible amount of talent that they were able to have so many matches together and tell a different story each time. Here, the match was very much carried by sheer story and traditional drama instead of pure athletic insanity. But that creative choice actually helped the match here; if it was yet another bomb-fest peppered with head spikes and nothing more, then it would’ve been largely forgettable. Instead, they spent sixty minutes creating a compelling story with believable twists and turned woven throughout it.
I’ve said this before about old AJPW matches and I’ll say it again: these matches stand the best of time because they transcend language barriers. There is no need to understand Japanese or context because every move and piece of the story is told through in-ring action. Everything done in the ring is crisp and logical. The tension comes out naturally through the build-up and progression of the match. Ultimately, what you get is a match that has a bunch of amazing moving parts that came together well in a nearly-perfect match.
The only drawback is that this is a match that definitely should be watched sped up. But even this match, with its relatively slow and drawn-out pace, is significantly better than most of what’s showcased in wrestling in 2021.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.