As I write this in the summer of 2022, there have now been over 200 matches to have been rated 5-Stars or higher by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer since 1983.
I have reviewed 121 of them. Some of them are incredibly famous and are remembered the world over while others, including this one, are obscure and wouldn’t have been known about had it not been for dedicated fans recording Meltzer’s (in)famous star ratings.
This match took place over thirty years ago and is one of the most forgotten of the (supposed) 5-Star classics. It took place during the golden decade of the 1990s, long before 5-Star ratings were (perceived to be) given out like candy. And once again, we go back to All Japan, home of many of the best matches to ever take place.
But does this match hold up as well as those other greats? Read on to find out.
Today we revisit the tag match between Misawa & Kawada and Tsuruta & Taue from an All Japan show in September 1990.
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.
On June 8th, 1990, Misawa beat Tsuruta in one of the most historically significant matches in decades. That win helped Misawa catapult himself into AJPW’s main event scene, but not to the very top. He was merely added to the main-event mix. He still had to prove he belonged there…which he failed to do right away. A month after beating Tsuruta, Misawa failed to beat Stan Hansen to capture the Triple Crown Heavyweight title. And then a month after that, Misawa lost to Tsuruta in a #1 contender’s match.
Those two big losses didn’t affect Misawa’s standing with the fans, but it did affect his standing with his peers in the AJPW locker room. In particular, they affected Akira Taue, who no longer believed in the Misawa miracle. To Taue, those two big losses were all the proof he needed to believe that Misawa’s win over Tsuruta was nothing more than a fluke. He no longer believed in Misawa as a future ace or as a stable leader. Taue realized his future was at risk by being a faceless figure in Misawa’s stable and that his own career aspirations were better served teaming with a bigger star. To that end, Taue left Misawa and his Super Generation Army and joined Tsuruta and his Army.
In doing so, Misawa and his teammates felt the bitter sting of betrayal. They were no longer a unified front, an AJPW version of the Four Horsemen. Misawa was furious but he couldn’t let his emotions get the better of him. He was always the stoic, the stone-faced warrior 100% in control of his emotions. And that wasn’t just a gimmick; he needed a cool head if he was ever going to beat Tsuruta again. Thus, he left the anger and the fiery passion to his right hand man, Kawada. Whereas Misawa’s feud with Tsuruta was straight-laced and largely devoid of personal barbs, Kawada’s feud with Taue was the opposite. The two seconds soon began waging a war that would last almost three full years. Kawada channeled all of his stable’s fury into his actions and his stiff offense while Taue, eager to prove Tsuruta right for accepting him, wanted to show what he was made of. Thus, the two sides vowed to engage in bloody and brutal matches that would become the main storyline in All Japan all the way until early 1993.
This match originally took place on September 30th, 1990.
Tsuruta shoves Taue aside because he wants to start the match with Misawa. Misawa obliges and hits Tsuruta with a stiff slap to start the match. He hits two more following a tense stare-down and then the two wrestlers finally lock-up. Tsuruta and Misawa go back-and-forth trading slaps and chops until they start trading elbows. Misawa gets the upper hand, dodges a jumping knee, and hits a flying elbow smash to drop Tsuruta. He tags Kawada and the two hit tandem back elbows and jumping elbow drops. Kawada pins but only gets a one-count.
Kawada applies a deep headlock and keeps it in despite Tsuruta’s attempts at a pin and shooting him into the ropes. Tsuruta tries different ways of escaping until he runs out of options and hits a Backdrop suplex and then tags Taue. Taue hits a running lariat for a one-count and then gets another one-count off a swinging neckbreaker. He applies a Figure-4 neck lock but Kawada escapes and locks in a heel hook. Taue gets an instant ropebreak so Kawada punts his spine so hard he falls out of the ring. Misawa takes advantage and whips Taue into a barricade. He and Taue start brawling ringside until Misawa smashes Taue’s head into the ringpost and throws him into the ring, where Kawada hits some of his famously-stiff kicks.
Taue starts bleeding either from the nose or the forehead from Kawada’s kicks as Misawa tags in and lands more elbows. Taue gets pissed and hits elbows of his own and then tags Tsuruta, who hits a jumping knee for a two-count. He follows with a sleeper hold and when Misawa resists Tsuruta switches to body blows. He sends Misawa into a corner but Misawa answers with a second-rope back crossbody that misses Tsuruta completely but it still allows Misawa to tag Kawada. Kawada whips Tsuruta into the ropes and hits his patented spinkick/leg lariat, followed by some stiff corner kicks. Tsuruta fights through them and throws Kawada down by his leg and tags Taue, who whips Kawada into the ropes and locks in an abdominal stretch. Taue follows with a rib breaker for a two-count and then locks in a Boston crab. Misawa comes into save Kawada but he gets booed for doing so. Tsuruta tags in and applies a leglock but Kawada escapes by kicking with his free leg. Tsuruta responds with some stiff strikes but Kawada answers in kind. Kawada hits a barrage of elbows but Tsuruta hits only one to stop him and then throws him to ringside.
Kawada returns to the ring but is met with stiff kneelifts to the gut that send him back out. Kawada returns to the ring eventually and is once again met with stomps and kneelifts to the gut that send Kawada to the floor yet again. Kawada returns once more and this time a simple scoop slam hurts him so badly he sells like he’s on the verge of collapsing. Misawa saves Kawada from another Boston crab and the fans boo again. Taue tags in and follows Tsuruta’s example by targeting Kawada’s gut with kneelifts. He pins but only gets a two-count, so he lands a scoop slam/elbow drop combo and pins but this time only gets a one-count. Taue carries Kawada to his corner while locking a bearhug and tags Tsuruta. Tsuruta slams Kawada and locks in a Figure-4 leglock but gets stopped when Misawa lands a leg drop on him. Tsuruta keeps it locked in so Misawa continues kicking him until Taue goes after Misawa. The two illegal men start fighting while Kawada reverses an Irish whip from Tsuruta and hits a rebound lariat. Then he tags Misawa, who lands a dropkick. Standing senton combo for a one-count. Misawa stomps on Tsuruta until he escapes to ringside but Misawa gives chase and smashes him into the ringpost.
Misawa continues his stomping in the ring which leads to “Tsuruta” chants. Tsuruta hits a desperation elbow to stop Misawa from stomping on the side of his head but Misawa hits back with elbows of his own and then tags Kawada. Kawada hits some more stiff kicks which send Tsuruta into his corner and allow Taue to tag in. Taue rushes Kawada and hits a standing dropkick and then knocks Misawa off the apron. Taue hits corner chops but Kawada fires back with a corner jump kick and then some of his famous stepkicks. Kawada switches to a flurry of knees to the side of Taue’s head but those only manage to get the crowd to rally behind Taue. Taue fires up and rushes Kawada again, preventing him from tagging Misawa. He hits Kawada with some sumo arm thrusts and a back elbow for a one-count. Misawa tags in and stomps on the open wound on Taue’s forehead. Misawa kicks Taue’s head some more which only rallies the crowd behind Taue even more. Taue kicks out of a senton at two so Misawa tags Kawada and throws Taue to the floor.
Kawada whips Taue into the barricade and then drags him out into the stands. Then he throws him to the floor by the entrance curtain. Taue returns to the ring but is met with more Kawada stepkicks to his head. Kawada follows with another spinkick for a two-count and tags Misawa again. They double suplex/elbow drop Taue and dropkick Tsuruta to the floor and then baseball slide dropkick Taue to the floor on the opposite side of the ring. Misawa sees Tsuruta coming back so he elbows him so hard he flies over the barricade and half into the stands. The camera misses Kawada diving onto Taue but the crowd still applauds Taue’s grueling effort to re-enter the ring. Taue tries brawling with Misawa but Misawa shuts him down with, you guessed it, more elbows. Misawa tags Kawada and the two of them go for a double spinkick combo. Misawa hits while Kawada misses completely and Taue rightfully kicks out. The crowd boos as Kawada throws Taue back to the floor. Misawa whips Taue into the barricade again but this time Taue bounces back and clotheslines Misawa.
Misawa returns to the ring first and drags Taue to his corner and tags Kawada. Taue tries fighting him off with head-butts but Kawada shuts him down with step-knees and a brutal chest kick that yield another two-count. Kawada tags Misawa and suplexes Taue, which allows Misawa to land a frog splash for a two-count as Tsuruta breaks up the pin. Kawada tags in again and goes for a powerbomb but Taue powers out and staggers over to his corner and tags Tsuruta. Tsuruta runs wild with a jumping knee on Kawada and a running dropkick on Misawa. He pins the now-legal Misawa for a two-count and then lands a Backdrop suplex. He pins but Misawa gets his foot on the ropes. He sends Misawa into a corner and this time has Misawa scouted when Misawa goes for the counter crossbody. Tsuruta turns it into a facecrusher and pins for another two-count.
Kawada tags in and unloads with kicks but Tsuruta hits back with a head-butt and a huge dropkick. Tsuruta follows with a powerbomb. Misawa breaks up the pin. Taue tags in and lands a slam/three elbow drop combo for another two-count. He follows with another slam and a top-rope elbow for yet another two-count. He tries a sleeper but Kawada counters it with a Backdrop and tags Misawa, who lands a Backdrop of his own for a two-count. Swinging neckbreaker by Misawa. Two-count. He lands an ax kick and tags Kawada, who lands a snap Brainbuster. Taue kicks out at two again. Misawa tags in and hits a spinkick as the crowd chants for Taue. Misawa goes for another but Taue blocks this one and throws Misawa down. Tsuruta tags in and hits a lariat. Misawa kicks out, even though the referee’s hand hit the mat three times. I guess one was premature since that was announced as a two-count. Kawada tags in but he too eats a lariat from Tsuruta for a two-count. Tsuruta follows with a big boot. Kawada kicks out again. Tsuruta tries both a full Boston and then a single leg crab but Kawada gets a ropebreak. Tsuruta follows with a sleeper hold. Kawada holds on and then hits a kick to block a back body drop. Misawa tags in and hits some kicks and a slam, followed by a diving elbow smash. He tags Kawada and holds Tsuruta in place as Kawada ascends the top rope. Kawada lands a moonsault body block and pins but only gets two. Tsuruta knocks him down with a knee to the head and fires up enough to tag Taue. Taue gets a two-count off a Russian leg sweep and then hits a Misawa-style running elbow for another two-count. Taue follows with a piledriver and pins but Kawada gets his foot on the rope. Taue throws Kawada to the floor and then hits a suicide dive through the ropes. Back in the ring. Taue misses a corner charge and Kawada tags Misawa.
Five minutes left.
Taue tries reversing a suplex but Misawa lands behind him and goes for a German suplex. Taue elbows out and hits a DDT for a two-count. Taue follows with a Samoan Drop but only manages two again. He follows with an atomic drop and holds Misawa in place doe Tsuruta to hit a big boot for another two-count. Another atomic drop. Taue goes for a back suplex but Misawa lands behind him. Bridging German suplex. Tsuruta breaks up the pin. Kawada holds Tsuruta in place for Misawa to hits another diving elbow smash. Kawada and Misawa hit a diving Hart Attack-style elbow combo. Taue rolls through to pin Kawada but Kawada kicks out. Kawada hits a kick off the ropes but Taue counters with a small package. One, two, Taue kicks out.
Three minutes left.
Kawada reverses the pressure and pins. One, two, Taue kicks out. Kawada lands a spinkick and tags Misawa. Misawa goes for arunning elbowe but Taue boots him first. Taue charges for a lariat. Misawa counters into a Tiger Driver but Tsuruta stops the pin. Taue tries pinning but Misawa kicks out and tags Kawada while Taue tags Tsuruta. Kawada lands a spinkick and an abisengiri rolling kick but only manages a two-count.
Two minutes left.
Tsuruta reverses an Irish whip, grazes Kawada with a jumping knee, and hits a butterfly suplex for a two-count. Swinging neckbreaker. Kawada kicks out. Kawada counters a back body drop with a sunset flip. Tsuruta kicks out and tags Taue. Boston/single leg crab. Misawa kicks Taue to break it up.
One minute left.
Taue hits a Giant Baba-style neckbreaker. Kawada kicks out. Both Kawada and Taue trade sumo arm thrusts.
Thirty seconds left.
Misawa tags in. bridging Tiger suplex. One, two, Taue gets a ropebreak.
Ten seconds left.
Misawa hits a spinkick and tags Kawada. Scoop slam/diving kneedrop combo. But the bell rings before Kawada can pin! Time has run out!
Match result: 45-minute DRAW
This match has not aged well. Even though it contained three of the fabled Four Pillars of Heaven plus Tsuruta, it didn’t live up to the standard these wrestlers would set a few years afterwards. It went too long, it was too repetitive, and it was structured in a way that told the opposite story of what it was meant to.
Even though Misawa and Kawada were the babyfaces in this feud, they certainly didn’t wrestle that way. They were clearly the heels in this match, or as close to overt heels as it got in Baba’s All Japan. They isolated Taue for a very long time and actually elicited heat for doing so. Misawa – All Japan’s supposed new and future babyface star – was booed by the fans as he saved Kawada a few times. Kawada, who was supposed to be out there trying to prove something, got a middling reaction at best. In the end it was Taue – the betrayer who abandoned the Super Generation Army – that got the biggest and most sustained reaction in the match. He came across like the sort of FIP Kobashi usually portrayed: the unyielding underdog that took a monumental beating but kept fighting in spite of it all. By the end of the match, Taue emerged as the hero, which seemed to throw the larger narrative out of whack. If the entire background for this match was built on the SGA’s fury over Taue’s betrayal, then this match’s narrative didn’t tell any of that. Taue came across as a hero and a victim of Misawa and Kawada’s onslaughts. And even though the fan reaction seemed to be shifting towards Misawa and Kawada by the end, the abrupt ending left things ambiguous.
The match was also crippled by the decision to go a full 45 minutes, which led to lots of filler and bloat. Spots were repeated, the tension waxed and waned too many times, and there was lots of stalling with the constant exiting and re-entering the ring. It seemed obvious that these wrestlers didn’t have a solid game plan and just did random stuff without much in the way of forethought. While that did help the match by making it come across as wilder and more of a brawl/fight, it also made the match drag and sucked a bit of the tension out of it. Not even the typical All Japan stiffness and realism could help elevate this match into something special.
That said, there were some interesting stories here. As mentioned above, Taue came across as a hero far more than a traitor. He got bloodied (most likely the hardway) early and endured lots of punishing offense. Kawada took a similar thrashing from Tsuruta with his ribs and torso targeted throughout the match. And Tsuruta and Misawa continued their blood feud with lots of stiff strikes that left both men hurt and neither man in a clear position of superiority over the other. And while 80% of the match was slow and a bit dull, the last ten minutes made up for it. The match’s tension built up gradually and reached a dramatic crescendo as the time-limit drew closer. The sense of desperation that was present but not so obvious early on in the match became unmistakable towards the end. Both sides tried anything and everything they could to possibly score a victory. From signature moves and finishers to simple counters and roll-ups, both teams tried to win but kept failing. Misawa and Kawada seemed to have more ideas up their sleeves but time ran out for them just as they were getting closer. Not only did the match end in a draw but the match left viewers with a very clear sense of evenness between both teams. Neither side was truly within reach of victory. This stalemate forced both sides to expand their forces, which would lead to Kobashi joining the SGA and Fuchi joining Tsuruta’s Army. From then on, both sides engaged in many awesome six-man matches that would go on to define AJPW’s main card for two more years.
Final Rating: ***1/2
This is one of those matches that keeps building to some big climax that never truly comes. There’s so much action but nothing is layered like in a typical King’s Road classic. Instead, it’s painfully obvious that both sides stall here to reach that 45-minute mark just so that they can say they went so long. But going long just for the sake of it is meaningless if the journey there is plodding and repetitive.
This match might’ve been great in its day but man does it fall flat in retrospect. All four of these men had much better matches, especially together. As a standalone match, this contest was fine and had its fair share of decent moments but doesn’t really stand out in any way. In the larger AJPW narrative, though, it’s an important stepping stone before the real meat of the Misawa/Tsuruta war. Luckily, the next big chapter in that feud was only a few weeks away.