This match was recommended to me as a forgotten classic between two of the best Japanese wrestlers of all time. It has been called a genuine dream match, and was even called such by the announcers as it unfolded. At the time, the fans thought it was a rare treat. Little did they – and also the rest of us – know that this ‘friendly’ contest was the start of the longest, deepest, most bitter rivalry in AJPW history.
Today we revisit another classic singles match between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada, this time from October 21st, 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 took place three months after Misawa defeated Stan Hansen to capture his first Triple Crown title and become AJPW’s new, unquestioned ace. Title defenses were incredibly rare in AJPW at the time, and weren’t defended on a set schedule as they are in WWE, for example. And in this first defense, Misawa was defending against Kawada, which was something of a dream match in All Japan (literally, the commentator screams out the word yume [meaning ‘dream’] as soon as the bell rings). At this time, Misawa and Kawada were still partners and allies, and had been for over two years by that point. It was also special to many fans because these two hadn’t had a singles match in nine years.
There was tons of interest going into this because Misawa and Kawada were seen as the first stars of a new generation. Before this, Hansen had beaten Tsuruta, the former ace, to become champion and Misawa beat Hansen, the monster of the old guard, to become new ace. As a comparison with the North American wrestling scene, imagine if Bret Hart beat ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage (who had previously dethroned Hulk Hogan) to become WWE’s new ace and his first title challenger was a then-respectful Shawn Michaels. That’s what we have here.
This is for the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. The match was originally rated ****1/2 by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see if that rating was deserved or if the match’s quality has improved or worsened with time.
This is the fifth-ever singles match between Misawa and Kawada, the first one in nine years, and the first since Misawa became AJPW ace.
The bell rings and the Budokan Hall crowd is unbelievably loud. They lock up and BACKDROP DRIVER! Kawada immediately plants Misawa on his head. Holy shit, what a crazy start. Kawada rushes with a kick, Misawa blocks it and goes for an elbow smash but Kawada backs off. They lock up again and Kawada takes an arm and follows with a chop and an armbar takedown of sorts. Kawada maintains control of the arm with another takedown and knees to the arm. He keeps Misawa grounded with a hammerlock, Misawa manages to counter, but Kawada quickly regains control with a drop toehold. Then he kicks Misawa in the back, which angers him and he jumps up. They lock up a third time and again Kawada takes control with some standing and cross armbreakers. Misawa reaches the ropes with his foot but Kawada quickly reapplies the submission hold. On his second ropebreak, Kawada knees Misawa in the nose, which gets a noticeable response from the crowd.
We’re at the five-minute mark as Misawa gets up and he is PISSED OFF. He lands a flurry of elbow smashes on Kawada, along with some stomps, kicks and forearms. And all of them are stiff as hell. This is Japan, after all. Misawa snapmares Kawada and applies the double-arm strength spot. Kawada nearly reverses the hold on Misawa but Misawa maintains control. Eventually, Kawada escapes by back kicking Misawa in the gut and we have another standoff.
A Greco-Roman knuckle lock ensues and Kawada quickly out-wrestles Misawa into a mounted facelock. Misawa rolls to the ropes and both men then start trading kicks. Misawa wins the exchange and follows with elbows to Kawada’s back and a monkey flip. He maintains control with a Boston crab and some kicks, all to further damage Kawada’s lower back. A rib breaker gets Misawa a one-count, so he applies a camel clutch. He releases the hold once he realizes Kawada won’t give up, so he hits more elbow strikes on Kawada’s back. But by this point Kawada has had enough of this and fires back with a big elbow smash of his own. Except no one can out-elbow smash Mitsuharu Misawa, who lands another powerful elbow smash, knocking Kawada loopy. He applies a sort of single leg crab, putting all the pressure on Kawada’s lower back again.
Kawada crawls to the ropes, and Misawa lands a scoop slam and a vertical suplex for a two-count. It’s back to the double-arm submission hold, but Kawada manages to reach the ropes. Misawa goes to Irish whip Kawada, but Kawada reverses it on him. Huge Spinkick by Kawada. Both men go down. Kawada crawls over and gets a two-count. Sharpshooter by Kawada. Then he transitions into a bow-and-arrow hold. But Misawa rolls over into a quick pin for a two-count. Misawa rolls out of the ring and Kawada gives him time to breathe. They’re still friends at this point, so Kawada doesn’t want to straight up murder him like he would in the coming years.
Eventually, Misawa gets in the ring and Kawada goes on the attack with forearms. Then he lands a scoop slam/senton combo, which is one of Misawa’s signature moves. He pins but Misawa kicks out at two, so he applies another mounted facelock as we reach the fifteen-minute mark.
Kawada stomps away but Misawa starts hulking up AJPW-style. Misawa no-sells those kicks and stomps and fires back with elbows. Irish whip followed by a nice dropkick by Misawa. Another Irish whip, no, Kawada counters it into another spinkick. Kawada goes for a suplex, Misawa blocks it, so Kawada counters into a Fujiwara armbar. On the same arm he worked over earlier. Misawa inches his way over and eventually reaches the bottom rope with his foot, breaking the hold. Kawada lands some stiff chops to Misawa’s chest but Misawa fires back with elbows, dropping Kawada. But this is where Kawada excels: he’s at his best in intense strike-exchanges with his opponents.
Kawada jumps right back up and fires back with elbows of his own. And Misawa answers with a spinkick of his own. Running elbow smash by Misawa. Followed by a diving elbow smash. Tiger Driver, no, Kawada counters by charging into the corner. Misawa lands some forearms, but Kawada answers with kicks. He goes for a rope-assisted kick to the face but Misawa ducks it. More jumping kicks by Misawa. He approaches a prone Kawada but Kawada kicks him away. Running lariat to the back of the head. Kawada pins, but Misawa kicks out at two. Powerbomb, no, Misawa reaches the ropes. So Kawada answers with step kicks. Another powerbomb attempt. Misawa still resists, so Kawada kicks him in the face yet again. Folding Powerbomb connects. Kawada pins. One, two, no, Misawa kicks out at 2.75.
Kawada goes for another powerbomb, but Misawa powers out of this one. Kawada yakuza kicks him in the head. Scoop slam/diving knee drop to the head. Misawa kicks out at two again. Stretch Plum! Misawa reaches the ropes. Kawada tries again but Misawa throws him off. Kawada tries a third time and the hold is locked in. the crowd’s going nuts. Misawa could give up or pass out at any moment. Kawada wrenches the hold as much as he can. But somehow, Misawa crawls to the ropes. Both wrestlers fall out of the ring as Misawa collapses.
We’re twenty minutes in as Kawada’s first to get up. Kawada tosses Misawa into the ring. Running LARIATO! Misawa kicks out at 2.9! Another close call for Kawada. Kawada lands a running yakuza kick to Misawa’s face, then goes for another. But Misawa catches his leg and counters with al elbow smash. To which Kawada answers with a third stiff yakuza kick. He pins, but Misawa gets his foot on the ropes. Kawada goes for a German suplex, Misawa counters into a German of his own, Kawada escapes with elbows and charges with a lariat, but Misawa ducks this one. Bridging German suplex by Misawa. Kawada kicks out. A very close call for Kawada. Tiger Driver by Misawa! One, two, thr—no, Kawada kicks out at 2.9. Facelock by Misawa. That simple hold git him many victories before. Kawada pulls his entire body over the ropes by his legs. But Misawa’s still in control. Another facelock. Misawa pins but Kawada kicks out again. Yet another facelock. Kawada reaches the ropes once again. Frog splash by Misawa. Kawada kicks out and rolls out of the ring, bad idea. As soon as he gets to his feet, Kawada eats an elbow suicida from Misawa.
Both men get up slowly as the crowd chants for both of them. They get in the ring and Misawa lands a running elbow smash for another two-count. Misawa charges again, but Kawada counters. Gamengiri kick to the face. Kawada just dropped Misawa with a massive kick. Kawada lands more kicks to the leg and goes for a dragon suplex. When Misawa resists, Kawada drops him with another lariat to the back of the head. Bridging German suplex by Kawada. Misawa barely kicks out. Bridging dragon suplex. Misawa kicks out yet again. Kawada applies a facelock and then transitions into a sleeper with bodyscissors. And yet somehow, Misawa has the wherewithal to roll over to the ropes, with Kawada’s body weight on top of him.
Kawada lands more kicks to the face, but Misawa gets angry and responds with more elbows. He goes for a spinkick but Kawada grabs his foot. But Misawa kicks him in the face with his free leg. What a great counter. Running elbow smash to the back of the head. Kawada looks like he’s out. Misawa pins, but Kawada somehow kicks out. Tiger Driver. The referee counts one, two, thr—NO, Kawada kicks out once more. Bridging Tiger Suplex. One, two, no, Kawada kicks out yet again. Misawa goes to pick Kawada up, but he fires back with more kicks to the head. This guy Kawada just refuses to stay down. Kawada struggles to get up so he kicks at Misawa from a grounded position. But Misawa powers through and lands another running elbow smash. Bridging Tiger Suplex. One, two, three! That’s it, there’s the match!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 29:52: Mitsuharu Misawa
This was a great match, but way below the standard most people, myself included, have come to expect from Misawa and Kawada. It started off with a huge Backdrop Driver from Kawada, which immediately put Misawa on the defensive. And from there it became a classic back-and-forth struggle in front of an insanely vocal live audience. It had the typical, tried-and-tested AJPW main-event formula: a tense opening section, slowed down middle, and a high-intensity final act. They did a great job feeding off the crowd and creating a genuine big fight atmosphere, especially with all the great near-falls and submission holds at the end. Creating that atmosphere was absolutely essential since this was Misawa’s first big match as THE guy, so he needed to set the bar high, and he (and Kawada) did so for sure
And yet, the match never really reached that next level. Yes, these two wrestled incredibly well and as a standalone fight without any wider context this was pretty damn good. But there’s something about Kawada acting as a babyface demonstrating sportsmanship and respect that seems so out of character for him. And this is in a promotion in which they didn’t even have “characters” to begin with.
There are some people that are simply born to play certain roles and generally suck in other ones. Randy Orton is amazing as a heel but awful as a babyface. Roman Reigns sucks as a smiling, happy-go-lucky John Cena clone but terrific as a silent badass. The Undertaker’s Deadman gimmick was/is amazing but his American Badass gimmick ranged from bland to boring. As for Kawada, he’s forgettable as the guy you’re supposed to cheer but is AWESOME at being a top-level villain. And in this match we got the former instead of the latter.
If you’ve read any of my other 5-Star Match Reviews, you might’ve noticed that Kawada’s name has come up a lot. Personally I think he’s one of the best pro wrestlers ever to never really have a real ‘gimmick’. But he does have a personality, and that personality is that he’s the bitter #2 guy that so desperately wants to be #1 and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. Whereas Misawa always excelled at being the stoic that remained in control, Kawada’s best matches were those in which he exuded this raw viciousness. Even in the scripted world of pro wrestling, Kawada had this knack for showing body language and wrestling in a way that suggested that he genuinely wanted to hurt his opponent, which made his matches so much better. That just wasn’t seen here. In this match it felt like both guys were very much just testing the water instead of really putting on a classic. And I think a big part of that was because they didn’t do a good job making their struggle feel as realistic as it has been in their subsequent singles matches together.
And a critical reason for that was the major lack of selling from both wrestlers, but especially Misawa. Kawada spent a long time working Misawa’s arm and it meant nothing in the larger scheme of the match. Kawada was the same with his legs and back as Misawa weakened those body parts but Kawada basically ignored the damage. And it wasn’t like they were struggling valiantly to overcome the pain to win; they just up and acted like those holds never even happened. That was disappointing because I’m used to seeing these two make everything in a match actually mean something. These two aren’t the types to lazily ignore stuff or blatantly no-sell. They’re two of the best non-verbal storytellers in pro wrestling history. Their matches are usually so focused and airtight that you can pick out even the smallest detail and realize it actually means something. That wasn’t the case here.
Final Rating: ****1/2
For a duo as iconic as Misawa and Kawada, this match just wasn’t that good. I think it was and still is solid overall, but not an historic or legendary match worth going out of your way to see. These two would go on to have MUCH better matches over the course of the next seven years. And many of those are among the greatest matches to ever take place. As for this, well, this match makes for an interesting introduction into the Misawa/Kawada rivalry. It’s pretty solid, but their run of historically-great matches wouldn’t really kick off for another eight months or so. All in all, this is a fun match, but deservedly forgettable in the grander scheme of AJPW’s history.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.