Building stars is a challenging task for any wrestling promotion. Everyone’s an armchair booker these days with their own suggestions on what different wrestling companies should do to build for the future. Different companies have had varying degrees of success in creating new stars, but one company had a modicum of success for a short period.
Pro Wrestling NOAH was built on the reputations of aging stars from All Japan’s 1990s golden age, but the people in charge there knew that those stars couldn’t carry the company forever. But instead of hot-shotting younger guys right away and strapping rockets to their asses Brock Lesnar-style, NOAH went with a more staggered approach and built up their new stars bit by bit. That brings us to this match.
This match saw two future NOAH aces Marufuji and KENTA take on the company founder and his trusty sidekick for NOAH’s heavyweight tag titles. It was hard to believe that two small juniors could topple the champions but the challengers were determined to convince viewers otherwise. So how well did they do? Read on to find out.
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.
For anyone unfamiliar with these four wrestlers, let me summarize each one of them:
Misawa was NOAH’s founder and former world champion. He was a godlike pro wrestler who spent the entire previous decade putting on the best matches to ever take place. But with NOAH he wanted to step out of the spotlight and focus on building newer stars for the future. And so he found himself winning the GHC Tag Team Titles and took on all comers, including both wrestlers outside his company and those outside his heavyweight division.
Ogawa had been Misawa’s trusty sidekick since about 1998. All three of Misawa’s prior right-hand men – Kawada, Kobashi, and Akiyama – all broke away from him to focus on their own careers. Misawa didn’t have to worry about Ogawa doing the same because, well, look at the guy. Ogawa’s the scrawniest and most unintimidating Japanese wrestler I’ve ever seen. He might be clever and solid on the mat, but no-one could believe him as a major threat.
KENTA, along with his partner here, were the GHC Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. KENTA was Kobashi’s protégé but wrestled less like his mentor and more like AJPW legend Kawada. He kicked people hard and didn’t care if they complained. Imagine him like one of those small purse dogs: self-conscious about its size and so it overcompensates with extra aggression and territoriality. That’s KENTA, except he also enjoys hitting people.
Marufuji was Misawa’s protégé and the yin to KENTA’s yang. He was more artistic and creative with his offense and sprinted around the ring like he had rocket boots on. He also liked to kick very hard (but not as hard as KENTA) and excelled at doing last-second counters and really showing off his perfect timing.
In other words, this was a match between the heavyweight tag champions and the junior heavyweight tag champs, with the heavyweights’ titles on the line. Marufuji and KENTA had proven themselves an excellent tag team in their own division, but this was a different challenge altogether. Misawa and Ogawa were known as the Untouchables, a name they earned by being an elite tag team. Misawa had spent the entire prior decade teaming with the best wrestlers in the world and many of the greatestmatches of all time involved Misawa in a tag setting. And to prove that Misawa excelled as a tag wrestler with any opponent, he had twoamazing tag matches in 1999, both of which were alongside Ogawa.
So with all of that, could MaruKEN overcome the legendary Untouchables? Or would the defending heavyweight tag champions live up to their name?
This match originally took place on April 25th, 2004, right before this amazing world title match between Kenta Kobashi and Yoshihiro Takayama. This match was originally rated ***1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It’s a pretty low rating, but many other fans have praised this as one of the best tag matches in NOAH history. Let’s see how well it holds up.
This is for Misawa & Ogawa’s GHC Tag Team Championships. Marufuji and KENTA rush Misawa and Ogawa before the bell rings. Misawa tries keeping them at bay with elbows but they overtake him with dropkicks. They double dropkick on both sides of his head but Misawa fights back with elbow strikes. Marufuji and KENTA hit back with stereo thrust kicks. Ogawa gets knocked to the floor as Marufuji goes for a Shiranui. Misawa blocks it but Marufuji jumps onto the top turnbuckle and lands a boot. Misawa hits back with an elbow that sends Marufuji to the floor. Misawa turns around, blocks a kick from KENTA, and hits more stiff elbows. Very hot start to the match.
Ogawa tags in and stomps on KENTA’s stomach. He lands some soft-looking punches and throws KENTA to ringside and then into the barricade. Back in the ring, KENTA tries hitting both Ogawa and Misawa but Misawa stops him with another elbow from the apron and then tags in. Misawa hits some jump kicks followed by a scoop slam and a backbreaker into a back stretch for a two-count. He follows with an elbow to the small of KENTA’s back and tags Ogawa. KENTA counters an Irish whip into a sunset flip but Ogawa counters that into a Boston crab until Marufuji pokes Ogawa’s eye.
Misawa tags in and hits double back elbows plus an elbow drop/foot stomp combo alongside Ogawa for a two-count. KENTA tries hitting Misawa with elbows but they’re pitiful compared to Misawa’s and one from Misawa almost knocks KENTA out cold. KENTA hits back but again Misawa drops him with an elbow and lands another senton for a two-count. Ogawa tags in and locks in a sleeper and KENTA starts fading but still kicks out after his arm sinks twice. He fires up out of nowhere and starts gaining momentum with elbows until Ogawa counters a big wind-up elbow with a drop toehold. Ogawa knocks Marufuji off the apron and head-butts KENTA into his corner. KENTA hits Misawa but then Misawa tags in and elbows the hell out of him.
Misawa locks in a camel clutch and then arches backwards and KENTA’s lucky to be close enough to the ropes to grab them. Misawa & Ogawa double-team KENTA in their corner as he tries fending them off. Ogawa tags in and suplexes KENTA on the ringside mats. He goes to whip KENTA into the steel barricade but KENTA reverses it and Ogawa hits instead. Then Misawa goes after KENTA and the same thing happens; except Misawa bounces out and boots KENTA. Marufuji tries attacking his mentor to save his partner but Misawa drops him with elbows. Ogawa tosses KENTA into the ring and KENTA blocks a back body drop with a kick. He turns to tag his partner, not realizing that Marufuji’s not there. By the time Marufuji makes it to the apron, Ogawa pulls KENTA back and hits a Backdrop suplex for a two-count.
Misawa tags in and locks in a front chancery that yields him a two-count. KENTA ends up in Misawa’s corner and each time Misawa clubs him with a forearm KENTA turns around and hits Ogawa. Ogawa tags in and lands more forearms to the back of KENTA’s neck. Then he pokes KENTA’s eye and teases cheap-shotting Marufuji but Marufuji’s expecting it so he jokes around. After a suplex from Ogawa, Misawa tags in and goes for a back suplex but KENTA lands on his feet. Misawa charges into a corner but KENTA boots him. Then KENTA lands a diving headscissor followed by a technical exchange and a dropkick. Then KENTA finally tags Marufuji.
Marufuji rushes in and dropkicks both Misawa and Ogawa. Misawa ducks a rope charge and Marufuji lands on the apron. Misawa elbows him to ringside and charges for a dive. Then Misawa skins the cat instead, but Marufuji jumps up and dropkicks Misawa’s knee. Suicide dive by Marufuji. Then he goes to attack Ogawa and teases a Shiranui using the barricade. But Ogawa blocks it and drives Marufuji crotch-first into the ringpost.
Back in the ring, Misawa covers for a two-count and then tags Ogawa. Ogawa drags Marufuji onto the elevated entrance ramp and suplexes him onto it. He tosses Marufuji back into the ring and hits more elbows to Marufuji’s head. Suddenly Marufuji reverses an Irish whip. There’s a sudden lightning-fast reversal exchange that ends with Ogawa poking Marufuji’s eye and landing another Backdrop suplex. One, two, Marufuji kicks out. Ogawa knocks both challengers down and tags Misawa once again. Misawa sends Marufuji flying with a monkey flip and covers for a two-count. Then Marufuji, like KENTA, tries attacking both Ogawa and Misawa two-on-one but gets overpowered quickly. An exceptionally stiff elbow to the chest drops Marufuji and Ogawa tags back in. Ogawa lands a rope guillotine followed by a hotshot. He punches Marufuji a few more times until Marufuji blocks one. Then Marufuji lands a springboard sunset flip but only gets a two-count.
Ogawa hits another elbow to daze Marufuji and then tags Misawa. Misawa lands a back body drop and another elbow to the top of Marufuji’s head to add to the damage Ogawa has done. Marufuji hits some desperation chops but Misawa drops him with another elbow. Ogawa tags in and gets into a slugfest with Marufuji. Marufuji lands some head-butts but Ogawa stops him with another eye poke. Ogawa staggers into enemy territory as KENTA catches and elbow him from the apron. Ogawa fights him off as Misawa keeps Marufuji grounded.
Misawa tags in and knocks KENTA off the apron. Ogawa whips Marufuji into a corner and then whips Misawa into Marufuji. Misawa sends Marufuji into a drop toehold from Ogawa and Misawa lands a running elbow drop. Ogawa whips Marufuji into Misawa’s waiting boots, Misawa hits a running elbow, and Ogawa lands a Backdrop suplex. Fun little sequence. Misawa covers but KENTA makes the save.
Misawa and Ogawa drop KENTA with a jawbreaker/running elbow smash combo and then Ogawa drapes Marufuji on the top rope. Misawa lands a kneelift that sends Marufuji onto the entrance ramp. Then Misawa whips Marufuji into the ropes from the outside. He goes for a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker but Marufuji escapes. Marufuji superkicks both Misawa and Ogawa. Then he lands a Shiranui on Misawa on the ramp by using Ogawa as a stepping stone. KENTA rushes in and knees Ogawa as hard as he can. All four guys collapse.
Misawa makes it into the ring at the ref’s count of sixteen but walks into another superkick. He blocks a Shiranui and goes for his Emerald Flowsion (which turns out to be a mistranslation) but Marufuji escapes and tags KENTA. KENTA boots Misawa and knocks Ogawa off the apron. He follows with a big corner yakuza kick but Misawa but Misawa blocks a tornado DDT. Misawa charges but KENTA hits first with a kick combination. KENTA follows with a springboard dropkick for a two-count. Then KENTA channels Kawada with stepkicks but Misawa no-sells them. The two get into an elbow strike exchange. KENTA hits a running boot but Misawa doesn’t flinch. KENTA charges again and this time hits elbow but KENTA doesn’t sell it. Then KENTA charges a third time, ducks an elbow, and drops Misawa with his boot. Marufuji rushes in to attack Ogawa but Ogawa avoids him. Still, Marufuji stays by the corner to keep Ogawa from entering as KENTA locks in a stretch plum. KENTA wrenches the hold as much as he can but Misawa gets a ropebreak.
KENTA goes for a Tiger suplex but Misawa escapes. Misawa misses an elbow which allows KENTA to land a high kick to Misawa’s head. Then KENTA connects with the Tiger suplex. One, two, and Misawa kicks out. KENTA hits his martial arts rush and charges for his Busaiku knee. Misawa hits first with an elbow and both of them go down. Ogawa knocks Marufuji off the apron and the champs hit a Tiger Driver/Backdrop combo. Misawa charges for an elbow but KENTA hits first with a single-leg dropkick. Hot tags to Ogawa and Marufuji.
Marufuji and Ogawa both attack the other non-legal wrestler and then Ogawa lands a sick counter DDT. He catapults Marufuji into a Misawa elbow and lands yet another Backdrop for a two-count. Then he lands a jawbreaker but Marufuji hits back with a dropkick to his knee and a basement dropkick to his head. Ogawa cuts Marufuji off as he climbs a turnbuckle but KENTA catches Ogawa and lifts him onto his shoulders. Ogawa escapes the Doomsday position and shoves KENTA into the ropes, causing Marufuji to fall. Ogawa takes advantage with a superplex but KENTA breaks it up. Misawa dumps KENTA to ringside as Ogawa misses a corner shoulder thrust and hits the ringpost instead. Marufuji places Ogawa in the tree of woe and hits a coast-to-coast dropkick to Ogawa’s face. Marufuji follows with a superkick and goes for another Shiranui. Ogawa blocks it and tries to send Marufuji onto Misawa’s shoulder but they both fall in a heap.
Misawa recovers quickly and drops Marufuji with the Frozen Emerald (that’s the correct name, as it turns out). Ogawa covers since he’s the legal man. One…two…thr – no, Marufuji kicks out. Ogawa covers again. KENTA dropkicks him from the ropes. Ogawa hits KENTA with an enzuigiri but KENTA hits back with even harder kicks. Misawa tags in and lands a Tiger Driver on Marufuji. But Marufuji doesn’t just kick out; he kicks out and kicks Misawa’s face. Marufuji follows with a superkick and a running elbow. Misawa gets back up and lands his own running elbow. Misawa goes to the top rope but KENTA cuts him off. Ogawa goes after KENTA and those two continue fighting at ringside. Marufuji takes advantage with a top-rope Spanish Fly. One, two, Ogawa makes the save. There’s people in the crowd literally screaming and jumping for joy over this match. KENTA hits Misawa with his martial arts rush. Marufuji hits another superkick. Ogawa catches KENTA on a charge. Misawa drops Marufuji with a vicious elbow combination. One, two, and thr – no, Marufuji survives. Brainbuster Frozen Emerald! One, two, and three! The (heavyweight) tag champs retain!
Winners and STILL GHC Tag Team Champions after 28:39: The Untouchables (Mitsuharu Misawa & Yoshinari Ogawa)
This was a fun match but a bit disappointing as well. If you love fast-paced action without rest-holds or changes in match pacing, you’ll enjoy this match. It had plenty of fun moments, but unfortunately it was hamstrung by its own story. I think they went in the wrong direction with what kind of story they wanted to tell here and that made it a bit harder to get through.
The match was a great example of unpredictability done right. There were several moments that teased a comeback that never came. It was filled with many quick sequences that saw counters come out of nowhere that changed the direction of the match. The wrestlers didn’t go overboard with near-falls and kept them believable. Instead of following the tired move-pin-move-pin formula, both sides stacked multiple moves on top of each other before attempting a pin to give those potential falls more believability and therefore more tension. So action-wise the match was great, especially since Marufuji and KENTA did most of the heavy-lifting while Ogawa was able to excel as the sneaky underhanded foil and Misawa was able to get away with playing the hits without hurting himself too much.
But where it struggled was creating a convincing possibility that Marufuji & KENTA could win. Misawa and Ogawa knew what they were dealing with: two fast-paced junior heavyweights smaller than themselves (or at least smaller than Misawa). As soon as the title declaration was read, it became obvious that the heavyweight champs would retain. There was just no way two smaller rookies could do enough damage to beat MITSUHARU FREAKING MISAWA! if they isolated Ogawa and destroyed him, maybe. But Misawa? He had endured much worse from much stronger wrestler and harder-hitting ones as well. Even with his age and mountain of injuries, no-one believed that Misawa would lose to his protégé and another junior, especially at this point in their careers. And even if they did pull it off, NOAH’s fans wouldn’t buy it. NOAH was heavy on realism at the time; match results and larger booking directions were based on common sense so that the fans’ intelligence wouldn’t be insulted. So it stood to reason that Misawa and Ogawa, one surefire heavyweight and one that bordered between heavy and junior, would beat two smaller opponents. Because of that predictability, this match was robbed of some of its tension. It became a less a question of whether MaruKEN would lose but a matter of when and how.
But more importantly, the match didn’t really benefit Marufuji and KENTA until the final five minutes. The match started off strong but then it shifted to a LONG heat segment that saw both Marufuji and KENTA get dismantled. The two junior heavyweights got very little offense in until the final sprint, which started way later than it should have. Instead of having a 25-50-25 split between opening, middle, and final acts, this match was split 20-70-10. The heat segment just dragged way too long and saw the established heavyweight champs overpower the challengers without much effort.
It was as if the formula was completely inverted here. The champs were trying to make the junior challengers look tough by throwing everything act them but didn’t take that much damage in return. For most of the match, Marufuji and KENTA only managed short bursts of control and their collective momentum was stopped fairly easily. The match should’ve had Marufuji & KENTA on offense for most of it instead of the other way around. If the idea was to tell the story of “almost, but not good enough” for the challengers, then it would’ve made more sense for Misawa and Ogawa to take punishment and then fight back by throwing everything they had to keep the challengers down. Misawa and Ogawa had half of the story idea down: they did have to use everything they had to win the match. But the other and more important part – about taking punishment as champions to get the challengers over even if the challengers fail – wasn’t done well enough.
Final Rating: ****1/4
Despite a critical flaw in its narrative, this match was still pretty damn great. After all, it’s Misawa, Marufuji, KENTA, and Ogawa going at it for almost half an hour. The wrestling action itself, if looked at without context or background, was fantastic. It was exactly what one would expect of these four during NOAH’s early years of success.
But the match also serves as a case study of what not to do. If you’re booking the stars of tomorrow and you want them to look good while still losing, the best course of action is to have them come as close to beating the established champs as possible and making them withstand as much damage from the champs as possible. This match only accomplished the second half of that formula. And while it was fun while it lasted, it could’ve been so much better had Misawa and Ogawa taken more of a beating to sell the idea that Marufuji and KENTA were, in fact, real threats.