What we’ve got here is an excellent case study on how hard it is to actually book pro-wrestling properly.
I’m sure most if not all of you reading this have thought at one point in your lives, “I can book a wrestling show.” It turns out that this isn’t as easy as most of us think. Successful wrestling bookers need to know their audiences, understand their wrestlers’ strengths and weaknesses, and understand who beats whom, how, and when.
With so many factors going into a match decision, it’s no wonder that so few companies actually succeed long-term. It has been said that, as of September 2023, wrestling is in a boom period. That might be true, but the bigger question the most important decision-makers in wrestling should be asking is “where do we go from here?”
That is a question NOAH’s founder and booker Mitsuharu Misawa kept asking himself all through the 2000s and it led to, among other things, this match.
Misawa was said to be an outstanding in-ring performer, but how good was he as a promoter and match-maker? Let’s take a look at one of the last solid matches of his career and see if he delivered on that front as well.
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.
Despite some early success, NOAH’s time prior to Misawa’s death in 2009 could be summed up with two major issues: a struggle to choose a new top star and a fear of hotshotting someone or something at the wrong time. Misawa wanted to build a product around realism and logic, which is what led most of the AJPW audience to follow him instead of stay. To that end Misawa and his fellow bookers tried to do everything right by what the fans wanted…and got mixed results.
They tried building the show around Akiyama, especially after Kobashi was sidelined for over a year with knee injuries. This made sense: Akiyama had the credibility from wrestling the Four Pillars in AJPW during the 1990s and was both younger and fresher. But even though Misawa took his time and put Akiyama over as cleanly and clearly as possible, the crowd didn’t buy him. For whatever reason, he wasn’t drawing in big money for NOAH, which made Misawa and company panic since they were trying to grow as a company in a rapidly-shrinking market that was struggling to compete with the MMA boom sweeping Japan at the time.
The focal point in NOAH shifted from Akiyama to a returning Kobashi, who went on to have what should be considered the dictionary definition of a historic world title reign. Kobashi had one classic after another and defied all the odds by overcoming being sidelined for around 17 months and giving the audience everything he had, regardless of the toll it took on his body.
But again, with such a historic reign came the same question: “where do we go from here?” Misawa wasn’t going to beat him; he promised their March 2003 would be their last serious singles match and he kept his word. Akiyama was an option, but when he lost at Departure 2004 it was with such decisive finality that Akiyama would never be seen as equal to Kobashi again, much less above him. After looking up and down his roster, Misawa decided that the man to end Kobashi’s two-year world championship reign was…Takeshi Rikio.
To make a long story short, Rikio bombed as a draw and as an in-ring worker, failing to live up to the most middling of expectations. NOAH’s long-term plans were scuttled, and time was running out to build new stars. The title shifted onto Taue and then onto Akiyama, but both of those were basically appeasement reigns to keep the audience interested until a new top singles star could be made.
As NOAH entered 2006, Misawa realized that there were only three guys on the roster that had any shred of credibility that hadn’t yet held world title gold: two junior heavyweights in KENTA and Marufuji, and the burly hoss Takeshi Morishima.
Morishima certainly looked like an intimidating wrestling monster, so at least from that point of view it made sense to build him up. But what would be the best way of doing that? Going into this show, Misawa booked himself to wrestle Morishima one-on-one. And then came the dilemma: should Morishima win here or should Misawa? And depending on the answer to that question, how should the win come? Sure, Morishima was bigger and younger, but Misawa had almost twenty years’ worth of experience under his belt.
As an American equivalent, consider Brock Lesnar trying to shoot on Kurt Angle in 2002, but inside the ring instead of backstage. Yes, Lesnar was a freak athlete with insane genetic and athletic advantages, but Angle was an Olympic Gold Medalist. If WWE tried to book Lesnar versus Angle in a shoot grappling match as part of Lesnar’s main roster push during his rookie year and booked him to win right then and there, then it the result would be controversial to say the least. Lesnar might get a big reaction and people might believe that Lesnar really was the better amateur grappler. But in doing so WWE would also risk alienating fans for false adverstising or they wouldn’t believe the result no matter how much WWE tried to legitimize it. And of course, such a hotshot decision would devastate Kurt Angle’s credibility and he was still needed in WWE and couldn’t risk losing face in a time of critical rebuilding.
That’s basically what Misawa was pondering when trying to book this match. Does he beat Morishima to maintain his own credibility but make Morishima look good in the process to establish a long-term build so that Morishima can eventually have the credibility of a world title contender? Or does he lose to Morishima to give NOAH a shot in the arm right then and there but risk losing what few fans they still had, which was a major problem given the cooler wrestling landscape plaguing the country?
This match originally took place on March 5, 2006. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Misawa headlocks Morishima but he gets sent into the ropes and runs into a brick wall a few times. An elbow exchange ensues and ends with Misawa hitting a back elbow to no effect. Morishima hits back with a big boot and three running lariats to drop Misawa. Morishima hits a running corner lariat and then hits a flurry of standing forearm clubs to Misawa’s head. He dumps Misawa to the floor but Misawa reverses an Irish whip into the barricade. Morishima is unfazed and hits back and another strike exchange ensues. Misawa tries attacking Morishima’s right arm but Morishima hits first with yet another lariat.
Back in the ring, Morishima hits a Kawada-style corner yakuza kick and then lands another lariat on the elevated entrance ramp. Once back in the ring Morishima applies a chinlock but Misawa gets a ropebreak. Misawa gets a second wind and starts no-selling Morishima’s forearms and starts hitting elbows of his own. Morishima hits another kick to stop a running elbow but Misawa drills him with a standing elbow in response. Misawa follows with a running elbow to the apron and then an elbow suicida to the floor.
Misawa rolls Morishima into the ring but Morishima knocks him back to the floor. Morishima climbs the turnbuckle and hits a diving clothesline to the floor. A second running kick to the face gets Morishima a two-count, as does a kneeling powerbomb. Morishima teases a Backdrop but Misawa clings to the ropes for dear life so Morishima hammers him with forearms some more. Morishima attempts a powerbomb on the entrance ramp. Misawa blocks with a Frankensteiner and hits another elbow. He follows with more running elbows and then a diving one back into the ring. A frog splash gets Misawa a two-count so he teases a Tiger Driver. Morishima resists and no-sells some elbows. Misawa finally lands the Tiger Driver but only gets two. Another running elbow sends Morishima onto the apron and Misawa goes for an apron Tiger Driver to the floor. But Morishima blocks and hits a diving reverse chokeslam facebuster to the floor instead.
Morishima lands a diving clothesline into the ring and hits another clubbing barrage. Another running lariat gets him a two-count so he lands an enzui lariat followed by a Backdrop Driver! One, two, Misawa kicks out. It looks like Misawa’s knee hits Morishima’s face on that Backdrop because Morishima’s got a bloody nose as he hits more forearms. But Misawa hits back with a nasty one-two elbow combo and a somersault kick to the neck for a two-count.
Morishima powers out of another Tiger Driver and lands a chokeslam for a two-count. He teases another apron Backdrop but Misawa resists and connects with the diving apron Tiger Driver. After some time to breathe Misawa rolls Morishima back into the ring for another two-count. Running elbow smash. 2.5-count. Facelock. 2.6-count. Morishima blocks the Frozen Emerald and hits a Backdrop Driver! The referee counts one, two, and – Misawa survives. Vicious uranage. 2.8-count for Morishima. Lariato! Misawa kicks out at 2.9! another Backdrop Driver! Misawa survives yet again! Stiff lariat/elbow exchange. Misawa wins that and elbows the ever-loving hell out of Morishima, and even shoves the referee back when he tries to warn Misawa. Misawa hits even more elbows followed by another running one for a close two-count. Another standing strike exchange ends in a rolling and a running elbow. One, two, and thr – Morishima survives once more. Misawa hits a ground-and-pound elbow barrage until Morishima can take no more and sinks down. The referee counts one, two, and three! There’s the match!
Winner after 18:35: Mitsuharu Misawa
As expected, Misawa put on an exciting and hard-hitting match. They kept things simple and built around Morishima’s strengths while working within Misawa’s physical limitations. Misawa was extremely limited by 2006 but he was still able to play the hits and maintain his credibility by elbowing Morishima into oblivion. Morishima came incredibly close to winning more than once as he ragdolled Misawa time and again. He threw some of the sickest lariats and suplexed Misawa like “Dr. Death” Steve Williams. He lost but he got a pretty big rub by withstanding so much and still going. It was traditional booking that avoided the pitfalls of hotshotting a star when he wasn’t ready.
Except he was. Morishima looked amazing here and winning wouldn’t’ve been the big hotshot error NOAH was so deathly afraid of. Morishima wrestled like a cross between Dr. Death and Stan Hansen so hit offense needed to be simple but ugly and it was. He looked like a killer. His forearm clubs looked like they were causing Misawa genuine pain (probably because they were). At times he looked like he was being stiff and snug, at others it looked like he was hitting his boss as hard as he possibly could because Misawa was willing to put himself through such pain for the business. Morishima came off as a star here so a win would’ve done to him what Misawa’s June 1990s win over Jumbo Tsuruta did for him.
Misawa wouldn’t’ve lost anything major if Morishima beat him here. It was clear from how he looked and wrestled that Misawa was past his prime and was coasting on his reputation alone. He still lived up to expectations in terms of delivering solid in-ring performances, but any fan could see that Misawa was physically worn down and turning the block back to the 1990s was impossible, even for him. It’s almost ironic: with NOAH being built around such a realism-driven psychology, it made less sense for the old warhorse to beat the bigger and fresher newcomer.
Even with his lethal and legendary elbows, Misawa looked like he was barely holding on for most of the match and wrestled like he was trying to hit anything out of desperation. He had less confidence in his control and rightfully so since he was weaker and was hitting a much tougher opponent. With Misawa being so far removed from his in-ring prime, NOAH’s audience would’ve accepted the logic behind Morishima winning here since it could’ve been justified from a logical standpoint, even if it didn’t make the most sense from an emotional standpoint.
Final Rating: ****1/4
Meltzer’s rating was right on the money here since this was a short but quick and hard-hitting affair that got its point across clearly and effectively. Misawa still had something left in the tank and even though he wasn’t doing flips or bridging suplexes anymore he could still hit as hard as he did years ago. But for a match to be truly great then it needs for all the pieces to move together in unison and nothing can stand out in a negative way. And unfortunately this match’s ending didn’t make sense. Sure, it was something of a nostalgia hit for people who wanted to see Misawa win again, but that sort of booking isn’t sustainable. Having the same stars of the past repeat history ad nauseam and always win at the expense of rising stars is a recipe for disaster.
One need only look at NOAH’s fortunes as proof. For whatever reason, NOAH’s core audience dwindled if Misawa and Kobashi weren’t at shows wrestling. The company took a nosedive when Kobashi was sidelined with cancer and Misawa was forced to step into the heavyweight title scene long after he should’ve retired. He soldiered on despite severe injuries and the fact that neither Morishima nor anyone else in his class could match Misawa or Kobashi’s drawing power was a major factor in Misawa continuing to wrestle well past when he should’ve stopped.
Morishima did get big wins in NOAH and eventually beat Misawa to become GHC Heavyweight Champion; but that was too little, too late. Misawa was in even worse condition in 2008 than he was here so him beating Misawa had much less of an impact on Morishima’s career, and that was despite Morishima’s incredible success in ROH as well.
In the end, this match is as much a cautionary tale as it is a fun, hardnosed brawl. If you want to see a big hoss rookie beat up an aging veteran to force himself into the main-event scene, then this is the match for you. But there’s also a critical lesson to be learned: building stars is as much about the when as it is the who and the how.