(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada – AJPW, July 24th, 1995
All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW) had the best in-ring pro wrestling of all time. That isn’t just my opinion; it’s one shared by many wrestling fans around the world. If you go onto different forums and discussion boards, there will be tons of praise heaped towards the wrestlers that fought in AJPW during its golden age of the 1990s. More often than not, their matches have withstood the test of time and still hold up against the very best matches that have taken place over the past two decades-plus.
Today we look back at another classic, featuring two of the top wrestlers AJPW ever produced. It’s the 1995 championship match between bitter rivals Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada.
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 eleventh-ever singles match between Misawa and Kawada. And up to this point, Misawa had won each and every one of them. Every title match, every Champion Carnival encounter, all of them. And this bothered Kawada to no end. It’s what spurred him to break away from Misawa’s stable and join forces with Akira Taue, who once was Kawada’s arch-nemesis. Seriously, if you go back to the 1990-1993 period, Kawada and Taue wrestled like they wanted to straight up kill each other. Their matches were filled with cheap-shots, pull-apart brawls, and hardway bloodbaths. And yet, Kawada was so consumed with the idea of becoming a bigger star than Misawa that he made peace with Taue and joined forces with him.
And so, The Holy Demon Army was born.
Kawada tried and tried. He had nearly came close in several singles matches between 1992 and 1994 (including their legendary 6-3-94 match) but always came up short. Then, earlier in 1995, a few key things happened. Kawada lost the Triple Crown Heavyweight title to Stan Hansen in March, who lost it to Misawa in May. In April, Misawa faced Akira Taue in a Champion Carnival singles match, and Taue injured Misawa’s orbital bone. In that match, Taue attacked Misawa’s eye repeatedly, which became a weakness that would bother him in many matches to come. Then on June 9th, 1995, Kawada and Taue faced Misawa and Kenta Kobashi in a fantastic tag team match. Not only was that match awesome from a quality standpoint, but it marked a critical point for the Misawa-Kawada rivalry: Kawada pinned Misawa clean in the middle of the ring. For the first time ever, Kawada had his hand raised and stood over a defeated Misawa. Because of that rare loss, a world title match was announced.
This brings us to this match.
Kawada hoped to parlay his tag team victory into a singles win over the legendary Mitsuharu Misawa. But Misawa was known for being able to take an inhuman amount of punishment, even by AJPW standards. So the question on everyone’s mind was, could Kawada finally do it? Would the momentum from June follow him to Triple Crown victory over his bitter archrival?
This match originally took place on July 24th, 1995 in Tokyo’s Budokah Hall. It was rated 4.75-star by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see if that rating still holds true, or whether it should go up or down given how the match has aged over time.
The bell rings and the crowd is SUPER into Kawada. They lock up and Kawada gets a clean break. They lock up again and Misawa gets a headlock, but Kawada goes for a Backdrop Driver. Misawa quickly elbows out so Kawada sends him into the ropes. Kawada gores for a yakuza kick but Misawa ducks it. He tries for another but Misawa holds onto the ropes. Misawa charges for a dropkick but Kawada dodges and charges with a lariat but Misawa ducks that. Misawa goes for a German suplex. Kawada escapes with a kick to the back. Gamengiri by Kawada. Misawa blocks. A standoff. Great start to the match.
Kawada gets a headlock this time and Misawa sends him into the ropes. Misawa goes for a spinkick, but Kawada blocks by grabbing his leg. So Misawa goes for the free leg enzuigiri but Kawada has that scouted and drops Misawa onto the mat. Kawada charges for another yakuza kick, Misawa blocks and goes for an elbow smash. But Kawada blocks that and goes for a German suplex, but Misawa throws him off. Yakuza kick connects. Followed by a rolling abisengiri kick. Kawada waits in the ring as Misawa recovers ringside, having just eaten a massive kick to the face. I love how well these two wrestlers know each other and constantly have each other scouted. That’s why these matches are so different and exciting.
Misawa spends quite a bit of time getting back to the ring, stretching his neck and shoulder to make sure they’re still attached to the rest of his body. Kawada lands some kicks to the leg and they start trading stiff elbows. And for once, Kawada actually out-elbows Misawa by hitting him in the left eye, the same eye with the broken orbital bone caused by Kawada’s partner Taue in a match in April and cost Misawa in their big tag match in June. Misawa slumps into a corner and Kawada kicks at that same eye. He tries to get up but Kawada drops him back down with another running Yakuza kick. Multiple hard step kicks by Kawada right to the eye send Misawa rolling out of the ring. the ref tries to keep Kawada in the ring, but Kawada just doesn’t give a f**k. he chases Misawa and powerbombs him on the ringside mats. Brutal move.
The fans chant Misawa’s name as Kawada lands a diving knee drop from the apron. He tosses Misawa back into the ring and goes for another move, but Misawa fires back with an elbow smash. But his comeback is cut short by a huge Gamengiri kick to the face. Kawada applies a rear facelock but Misawa reaches the ropes. He goes for a Powerbomb but Misawa resists, so Kawada just kicks him in the eye again. Kawada gets Misawa in the corner and just destroys him with more stiff kicks. Misawa eats a few then starts hulking up All Japan-style. He fires back with a few more elbow smashes, but he tries one too many as Kawada ducks and goes for a German suplex. Misawa elbows out . Rolling elbow smash! Kawada falls like a tree and escapes the ring.
Kawada slowly returns to the ring and walks into a pissed off Misawa. he lands a flurry of stiff elbows and Irish whips Kawada into a corner, but Kawada only makes it a few feet before slumping down to the mat. He looks like he’s out cold from those elbows. He tries to get up but walks into a running elbow smash from Misawa. But Misawa’s not done. German suplex. Misawa pins but only gets two. Misawa goes for a Tiger Driver but Kawada reaches the ropes. Another German suplex from Misawa. Kawada lands hard. He tries to get to his feet but falls out of the ring, unable to hold himself up. Kawada’s delayed selling is just awesome.
Ten minutes have passed as Kawada recovers ringside. Misawa tosses Kawada into the ring and goes for a move off the top rope but Kawada wisely rolls to the other side of the ring. Misawa catches him and applies his facelock, which goes on for a bit until Kawada gets a ropebreak. Misawa goes for a German but Kawada holds onto the ropes for dear life. Even landing forearm clubs to the neck won’t make Kawada let go. But Misawa keeps trying, until Kawada chops him in the neck and lands a HUGE lariat to the back of the head. Kawada recovers and lands another yakuza kick, but Misawa stays on his feet. LARIATO. Kawada drops Misawa for a 2.5-count. Frustrated, Kawada applies a rear naked choke, and the ref makes him let go at the count of three. The crowd boos this villainous tactics, so he applies another modified sleeper with bodyscissors. The ref keeps checking to make sure Kawada doesn’t transition into an illegal choke, since Kawada’s very tempted to do so. After nearly going limp, Misawa somehow makes it to the ropes, breaking the hold.
Kawada goes for the Stretch Plum but Misawa escapes with an elbow smash. Kawada answers with chops and they go back and forth. Kawada nearly wins with a brutal flurry of chops that send Misawa to one knee. But Misawa fires up and lands more elbows. He goes to whip Kawada, Kawada reverses it, lands a drop toehold and kicks Misawa in the eye again. Great sequence. Even the fans appreciate Kawada’s focused assault here.
Kawada pulls Misawa up and lands a BACKDROP DRIVER! Brutal landing for Misawa. But Kawada doesn’t go for the pin. A second BACKDROP DRIVER! Misawa lands incredibly hard and high on his neck and shoulders. He goes for the pin. One, two, thr—no, Misawa kicks out at 2.9. Kawada goes for a powerbomb. Misawa fights out. Stretch Plum! Kawada puts all the pressure on Misawa’s face and neck. He wrenches the hold as much as possible. The fans rally behind Misawa. Misawa goes limp again. Kawada pins. Somehow, Misawa kicks out at 2.9 again.
Kawada goes for another powerbomb but Misawa teaches the ropes. A desperation elbow drops Kawada, giving both men critical time to breathe. Kawada gets up first and lands another Gamengiri to the face. German suplex by Kawada. Step kick to the face. Powerbomb connects. One, two, No, Misawa kicks out. The crowd is going crazy.
Kawada goes for another powerbomb but Misawa resists, so Kawada scoop slams him and punts him in the back. He tries the powerbomb again. But despite Misawa’s resistance, Kawada lands it. He goes for the pin again. But again, Misawa kicks out. Kawada tries to lift Misawa up for yet another powerbomb but Misawa slumps back down. He goes for another Backdrop Driver but Misawa quickly reaches the ropes, so Kawada gamengiris him in the back of the head. Misawa staggers away from the ropes. Kawada tries the Backdrop Driver again. He lands i—no, Misawa counters it in midair into a crossbody. Kawada charges Misawa and kicks him in the eye again. Another kick and another elbow drop Misawa each time.
Frustrated, Kawada lands more mounted forearm shots to Misawa’s face. But that only seems to anger Misawa as he stats getting up. They trade elbows again and Kawada kicks him in the eye. But this time Misawa absorbs it and kicks Kawada in the face. They trade stiff high kicks to the face. Neither man goes down. Rolling elbow from Misawa. Misawa pins but Kawada kicks out. Misawa picks Kawada up but Kawada kicks him in the knee. Backdrop Driver #3 from Kawada. Misawa gets planted once again!
Both men get up slowly and Kawada goes for a Gamengiri. But Misawa ducks it. Kawada charges with a kick but Misawa blocks that and elbows him down. German suplex from Misawa. Misawa pins but Kawada kicks out at two with authority. Misawa goers for another German, Kawada resists, so Misawa transitions into a Tiger suplex. Misawa bridges, but Kawada kicks out yet again. Kawada struggles to his feet and lands a defiant elbow smash to Misawa. Both men stagger and trade stiff blows. Rolling elbow smash by Misawa. Kawada tries to get up but slumps over once more. Release Tiger suplex from Misawa. Misawa struggles to flip a seemingly-dead Kawada onto his shoulders. Misawa pins. Kawada kicks out at the past possible millisecond. Another release Tiger suplex. Kawada gets launched across the ring to the other side. Rolling elbow smash. Kawada staggers into the ropes. Running elbow smash. Kawada goes down in a heap. One, two, three! There’s the match! Misawa wins!
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 24:16: Mitsuharu Misawa
This was another fantastic AJPW classic. It had the typical AJPW peaks and valleys, clever twists and turns, and lots of brutal high-impact moves. And all of those things helped really helped this match feel like a personal, brutal war.
This match was all Kawada. He was the star here. For most of the match, Kawada brutalized Misawa with a combination of brutally stiff strikes and laser focus. He constantly attacked Misawa’s eye with kicks, exploiting a huge weakness in the process. That weakness is what stopped Misawa’s comeback in their famous June 1995 tag match, so Kawada hoped to rely on that here. But Misawa caught on quickly and realized Kawada kept going to the same well. And once he found an opening, Misawa began his comeback from which Kawada could not recover. He tried and tried to stay on his feet, but the punishment from those Misawa elbows was just too much for Kawada.
And when he took damage, he showcased why his delayed selling was so awesome. He’d try to overcome the pain, to fight through it, only to slump back down. That fight is what made his matches so engaging and his story so great. Even when he wrestled like an outright villain, when he did that delayed selling he looked like the toughest man in the world, even if it was for a split second. And of course, it made the wrestling itself look almost real. Any pro wrestler can oversell something or sell a move in a way that makes it look overly scripted. But Kawada, with the way he delayed his selling and the way he ragdolled himself, made any move he took, from the simplest of elbows to the most vicious of suplexes, look like the most brutal and credible move in the world.
All that said, I don’t think this was a 100% perfect, 5-star match. Because Kawada spent so much time on offense, Misawa’s victory at the end came across as unearned. Yes, Kawada took a barrage of incredibly brutal and stiff moves from Misawa. But I don’t think that what he did justified the decision. It took Kawada two powerbombs, three Backdrop Drivers, a Stretch Plum, countless kicks to the face (and especially the eye) for Kawada to get Misawa to a 2.9-count. Misawa spent most of the match on defense and his comeback was rather quick. He also didn’t land some of his more notable finishers like the standard Tiger Driver and his ultimate nuclear bomb super-finisher the Tiger Driver ’91.
While this match does make Misawa’s elbow smashes into more credible weapons (especially considering Kawada never attacked Misawa’s arms to weaken them), it left me wanting more of an extended comeback from Misawa. Because of that, this match comes across as inferior to their mythical June 3rd, 1994 encounter. That match had all the elements of this match and more, as Misawa went to the depths of Hell to keep Kawada down long enough for the three-count. Here, not so much. And because AJPW matches have this tendency to callback to previous encounters to further the existing story, I was surprised that there were so few callbacks to that match.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This was another awesome match from two of the best wrestlers to ever live. It’s relatively short by AJPW standards, which makes for easier watching for less patient viewers. And from an in-ring wrestling perspective, it’s nothing short of fantastic. The constant back-and-forth exchanges and the unpredictable nature of not knowing whether a move will land or not (and if it does, is it enough for a win) gives this match that nail-biting tension that only a truly great match can produce.
And yet, the match’s structure is both its biggest strength and its greatest weakness. On one hand, Kawada got to shine as a dominant offensive force. He showed no mercy to Misawa, brutalizing him from the opening bell. He took whatever avenue he could to try and win, and based on how brutal he was, in my opinion, he should’ve won here.
On the other hand, the closing few minutes seemed a bit flat. Misawa absorbed this enormous amount of damage from Kawada yet managed to drop him after much less work (although to be fair, Misawa hit those elbow smashes so hard not even his elbow pad could stifle the sound). Because of all of that, Misawa’s victory came off as sudden and slightly disappointing. That makes this match very much like Misawa’s singles match with ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams from the prior summer, but with the opposite finish. In that match, Misawa took an unbelievable shitkicking and lost his title. In this match, Misawa took a similar unbelievable shitkicking and kept his title.
They could have and should have done more here. Had they done so, this match would be way better. Instead, it lingers in the shadow of a much better singles match between them. And yet, as a standalone contest, it’s something that, barring the sickening head spikes, would make for great studying material for inspiring pro wrestlers out there.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.