(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada – AJPW March 31, 2000
Misawa facing Kawada is the most intense, brutal and legendary rivalry in All Japan history. What was meant to be a purely professional rivalry later became more intense thanks to both wrestlers making it personal in order to bring out the best in each other.
In doing so, Misawa and Kawada had many of the greatest matches ever in both singles and tag matches.
I’ve covered matches involving Misawa and Kawada either as opponents or partners many times already. Their many matches together have lots of common elements: incredible wrestling, brutal striking, insane head spikes, unbelievable tension, wild crowds, and nonstop twists and turns. But aside from all that, there’s another common theme in Misawa & Kawada matches: they’re LONG! Up to this point, I have never seen a Misawa/Kawada match go less than 20 minutes. So when I found this match, I couldn’t help but wonder; could these two wrestlers live up to their own hype and exceptionally-high standards and deliver in a significantly shorter timeframe? I’ve seen Kawada do that more than once, but not Misawa. But since Misawa was competing against Kawada here, would their incredible chemistry appear once again and transform this into yet another incredible contest? Read on to find out.
Today we look back at the 20th singles match between 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.
Misawa and Kawada faced off one-on-one nineteen times before this match. Of those nineteen matches, Kawada only won three and there were four thirty-minute draws, all of those being in Champion Carnival settings. Misawa won all the rest, including their mythical matches in June 1994, July 1995, and June 1997 (and that’s only their singles matches; their tag matches are something else entirely). But despite those lopsided stats, the matches between these two wrestlers were still must-see regardless of outcome. The in-ring standard these two set was so high that few wrestlers have managed to match them.
This match took place during All Japan’s annual Champion Carnival tournament, their version of New Japan’s G1 Climax. But in 2000, things were special, albeit for the wrong reasons. All Japan was heading into a maelstrom of problems due to major backstage turmoil. Mitsuharu Misawa, Giant Baba’s handpicked successor, was making preparations to leave All Japan with 90% of the roster to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. Details weren’t public at the time, but Misawa had made all the necessary arrangements long before the first public press conference on NOAH at the end of May 2000. So when this match took place, Misawa already had one foot out the door to leave All Japan and leave it with a skeleton crew.
He had approached Kawada and offered him a spot on his roster, but Kawada declined. Kawada’s lopsided win/loss record mentioned above meant a lot to Kawada, to the point that he needed to reconsider his future, even if that meant being apart from one of his best friends. If he followed Misawa to NOAH, he was likely to play second, third, or fourth fiddle to younger guys being groomed for the future like Kobashi, Akiyama, or someone else. But if he stayed in All Japan, he’d suddenly become a top draw in big crosspromotional matches against New Japan’s top guys. So Kawada chose to stay loyal to All Japan. But all of that was behind the scenes. And yet, maybe all of that pressure and stress caused Misawa to decide ‘screw it; let’s give them the bare bones’. But were the bare bones of the Misawa vs. Kawada rivalry enough to satisfy the All Japan faithful?
This match originally took place on March 31st, 2000. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Kawada starts with an arm wringer and some chops but Misawa hits back with elbows. Kawada switches to elbows to match Misawa’s and then lands a running big boot. Misawa tanks it like a boss and charges for a running elbow. But Kawada ducks. DANGEROUS BACKDROP DRIVER! Kawada spikes Misawa less than a minute into the match.
Misawa rolls to the floor but finds no safety there as Kawada sends him into the barricade. Misawa charges back but Kawada boots him and then boots him a second time to send him into the stands. Kawada recovers in the ring and then rushes Misawa when he returns. Kawada kicks Misawa’s chest and leg but then Misawa gets angry and hits more elbows. That forces Kawada to switch to elbows of his own again and then tries the calf kicks again. he drops Misawa but Misawa fires back with more elbows when Kawada picks him up. One particularly stiff elbow causes Kawada to stagger a bit, but he soon regains his composure and lands an awesome arm twist hook kick. Both wrestlers take time recovering and then Kawada hits a corner yakuza kick. But Misawa absorbs it and hits more elbows. Misawa starts gaining momentum but Kawada shuts him down with a gamengiri jumping kick to the face. The ref checks on Misawa to make sure he’s still conscious and then counts as Kawada covers. One, two, Misawa kicks out at 2.8.
Kawada lands a flurry of stepkicks followed by chest kicks. He goes for a running lariat but Misawa counters. Tiger Driver out of nowhere. Kawada kicks out at two. Both wrestlers charge. Kawada tries using his long legs for a big boot but Misawa blocks and clubs Kawada’s neck. Bridging German suplex. Kawada kicks out again. Misawa slams Kawada and goes to the top rope. Frog splash misses. Kawada rushes over to capitalize with a Folding powerbomb. One, two, Misawa kicks out. Kawada tries another powerbomb. Misawa powers out so Kawada boots him. Kawada follows with the seated chop/kick combo later popularized stateside by Samoa Joe. Stretch plum submission hold by Kawada followed by a kneedrop. Kawada locks in the Stretch Plum again and the crowd rallied behind Misawa. Misawa sinks down but then kicks out of another pin.
Kawada goes back to kicking Misawa’s calf but Misawa still retaliates with elbows. Kawada switches to running/walking high kicks but Misawa just keeps hitting his legendary elbow strikes. Rolling elbow smash! Kawada staggers over and sells like a champ. Misawa covers but only gets a two-count. Kawada rolls to ringside but Misawa recovers and rolls him back in. Misawa goes for a diving elbow strike but Kawada gamengiri kicks his face in midair. Awesome counter.
We’re only ten minutes in as Kawada lands another corner yakuza kick. He lands more wrist control chest chops but Misawa ducks the third one and goes for another German. But Kawada blocks that and lands a sick enzuigiri. Misawa retaliates with a running elbow. Kawada tanks it and hits a gamengiri, followed by a lariat to the back of Misawa’s head. And then another gamengiri to Misawa’s face. That’s how Kawada beat Dr. Death to win the Triple Crown title in October 1994. Kawada covers. One…two…thr – no, Misawa survives. Dangerous Backdrop Driver #2. One, two, and Misawa kicks out yet again. Sheerdrop Brainbuster. Yet another last-millisecond kick-out. Kawada lifts Misawa up for the powerbomb…and lets him sag down. Dear God, he’s going for the Ganso Bomb! Wait, no, Misawa counters with a Frankensteiner. One, two, Kawada kicks out and then kicks Misawa. LARIATO! Misawa survives that as well. Folding powerbomb #2. Misawa, you guessed it, kicks out.
The crowd chants both guys’ names equally as Kawada pulls Misawa to his feet. Misawa fires up with some elbows and sells the second like he’s been knocked loopy. Misawa covers but only gets a two-count. Running elbow smash followed by another Tiger Driver. Two-count. Stiff elbow exchange. Kawada hits a high kick. The two trade stiff running strikes to the head. Misawa hits the same one-two elbow combo that knocked Kobashi out in October 1998. Somehow, Kawada makes it to his feet, only for Misawa to hit another running elbow smash. One, two, Kawada survives. Emerald Flowsion! one, two…and three! Misawa beats Kawada!
Winner after 15:35: Mitsuharu Misawa
You just can’t go wrong with 1990s and 2000-era All Japan. This was an excellent Misawa/Kawada match distilled into its key components. The comparison of older Misawa/Kawada matches and this one would be like comparing 2002-2004 Brock Lesnar matches and 2012-present day Brock Lesnar matches. Lesnar’s older matches were longer, deeper, and more unpredictable while his more recent matches have been formulaic and simplified so that Lesnar only does his biggest moves and those which get the biggest reactions. This was that latter sort of match.
There was no scientific chain grappling, no drawn-out limb working segments, and no sense of classical King’s Road structuring. It did have some layering to it, which came in the form of the nonstop bombs Misawa and Kawada threw at each other. Both of them just decided to go for the jugular with head spikes, stiff strikes, dangerous suplexes, and finisher spam. But even though the match was threadbare relative to their earlier epics, it was still tremendous. Every move had a purpose. There was no wasted motion. They just smashed each other as hard as possible and piled on the damage quickly and ruthlessly. And even though it was so short, it had this great sense of believability. The near-falls taking place by the ten-minute mark were just as believable as the same sequences they had done twenty or thirty minutes into their longer earlier matches. These two had such a winning formula and they knew exactly how to give the fans more or less the same sort of thrilling contest without all the usual fluff.
But could it have been better? Yes. There was something about the last five minutes that just seemed a bit excessive and irksome. Misawa took an ungodly beating from Kawada and then he made a sudden comeback to win the match. Though Misawa was always a great wrestler, Kawada should’ve won here. Kawada had the better strategy and was in control right out of the gate. He hit harder basically had Misawa’s number. Misawa got lucky with a sudden reversal and then turned the match around to secure the victory. And even though the match’s logic and psychology were both sound, the way Misawa lost hurt Kawada in a way. He threw every big move he had at Misawa, including two Folding powerbombs, two Dangerous Backdrops, a Brainbuster, and countless kicks, elbows, and lariats to the head and neck. Misawa surviving so many moves hit in quick succession was excessive and unbelievable, even for the high-risk head-spike-centric King’s Road style. Compared to that, Misawa hit relatively little to turn the match around and to beat Kawada. Yes, his Emerald Flowsion was his new super move and hadn’t been kicked out of before. But for everything that Kawada did, Misawa seemed to brush it all off a bit too easily for my liking.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Aside from a slightly disappointing finish, this match still kicked ass. Anytime you get Misawa and Kawada in a ring together, you’re in for a treat. These are two wrestlers that are more than capable of putting on a thrilling match that’s both exciting and realistic. Even when they strip their wrestling style down to its most basic elements, these two can put on a banger. Their worst matches together are better than many wrestlers’ best matches.
The rivalry between Misawa and Kawada is long, complicated, and immersive. For some people, especially those lacking patience, doing a deep dive into their rivalry and their extensive catalogue of awesome matches might be a bit daunting. So if you want a sampler platter that summarizes what their rivalry and matches were all about, look no further than this.
Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.