One of the easiest and most lucrative gimmicks or angles in wrestling is the ‘outside invader’ storyline. This gimmick has been done time and time again all over the world for decades in wrestling and it has led to great success almost every time.
The Outsiders/NWO in WCW is perhaps the most well-known execution of the gimmick, but it’s far from the first. As has been proven many times, gimmicks that make their way stateside are usually taken from other places that tried it first. Such was the case with the outside invader concept, which was popularized in Japan.
Although New Japan is perhaps most famous for it and made the most money out of it, the company to actually create and execute the concept first was their rival All Japan. And while All Japan was very isolationist for most of the 1990s, not even they could resist the allure of a big match between two promotions. But what we’re looking at today isn’t just a match between wrestling promotions; it’s a match between wrestling disciplines. This is one of the earliest examples of ‘entertainment meets real fighting’, so let’s see how it holds up decades later after that concept was built upon and nearly destroyed wrestling altogether.
Today we look back at the singles match between AJPW’s Toshiaki Kawada and UWFi’s Gary Albright from October 25th, 1995.
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.
Most people reading this probably don’t know who Albright is so let me explain. The short description for him would be ‘Vader without the football and with long hair’. Albright was a massive 350-pound amateur wrestling great that set and broke multiple state records in Montana where he grew up. After cutting his teeth in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, Albright bounced around smaller promotions until he settled on the Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi). That was a promotion specializing in shootfighting, i.e. the precursor to modern MMA. Albright specialized in quick takedowns and being very hard to get off his feet. In addition, he gained a fearsome reputation as a dangerous suplex machine that threw faster and more technically-adept opponents around with ease. In other words, he was like a giant Taz. Albright achieved a degree of fame in UWFi, and when the company started a working relationship with All Japan, Albright was one of the first to get signed.
That brings us to this match, which happens to be Albright’s All Japan debut. He was facing Kawada, who was the #2 wrestler in the entire company. Albright’s appearance in AJPW was a big deal because owner Giant Baba was a notorious isolationist and loathed working with other companies in general. But even Baba saw dollar signs in bringing these so-called ‘shooters’ to try their luck at his Four Pillars, who were seen as the toughest and best conditioned athletes in the entire grappling industry.
So on this night, one of the biggest stars in UWFi (both literally and metaphorically), took on the second-biggest star in All Japan. And despite AJPW’s isolationism, its audience knew who Albright was and treated him like a big deal. His suplexes were terrifying and the devoted All Japan fans were fully behind Kawada here. That was something of a surprise considering Kawada was largely considered a heel at the time for turning his back on Misawa years earlier. But if there’s one thing that trumped internal feuds in wrestling, it was inter-company feuds, which is why Kawada went into this match as the local hero defending his turf against the outside invader.
This match originally took place on October 25th, 1995. It was the semi-main event of a big AJPW Budokan Hall show that was main-evented by this awesome Triple Crown title match between Misawa and Kobashi. This match was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up over twenty-five years later.
The bell rings and the crowd is loud as F**K for this match. The crowd chants Kawada’s name as he lands his first of many kicks. They do some amateur-style dodging until Albright catches Kawada in a rear waistlock. Already there’s this major sense of danger as Albright goes for a German suplex but Kawada escapes and misses an enzuigiri. Albright rushes back and tries another suplex. Kawada blocks and rolls into a kneebar but Albright gets a ropebreak. Kawada hits more calf kicks followed by a jumping gamengiri. He nearly breaks Albright’s nose off a flurry of corner kicks and then lands a huge running yakuza kick in the corner. Then Kawada gets a bit too cocky and goes for a vertical suplex. On a guy that outweighs him by at least 100 pounds. But Kawada’s nothing if not tenacious and manages to scoop suplex the massive gaijin. Kawada goes for a Dangerous Backdrop. Albright counters into a shoot leglock. Kawada tries crawling to the ropes. Albright pulls him backwards and sits into a heel hook in the middle of the ring. Kawada gets a huge round of applause as he rolls to the ropes to break the hold.
Kawada hits another kick flurry (which includes his patented stepkicks) and goes for another gamengiri but this time Albright blocks it. Albright connects with a huge overhead suplex and goes for a cross armbreaker. Albright breaks Kawada’s clasped hands and locks in the hold. Kawada pushes himself to the ropes as quickly as possible and gets a break.
Kawada rolls to ringside to recover but when he returns to the ring Albright goes after his now-injured left arm with another armbar. Albright transitions into a snap suplex and then applies another grounded armbar but Kawada counters by rolling into a headscissor. Albright escapes easily and another stalemate ensues. Kawada lands more quick calf kicks and goes for another heel hook. But it takes him a lot of effort to lock the hold in so he stomps on Albright’s head before locking this hold in. but Albright counters with mounted punches. Albright goes for a German suplex but Kawada counters with mounted punches and a cross armbreaker of his own. Albright gets a ropebreak and then tackles Kawada on the ringside mats as he tries to recover. Kawada kicks Albright’s bad arm and then in the ring he goes for a scoop slam but Albright resists. Kawada responds with elbow smashes and a successful scoop slam, followed by a soccerball kick to the back. Albright gets up almost immediately, pissed right the hell off. He no-sells Kawada’s elbows and hits head-butts and elbows of his own, followed by another overhead suplex. Albright gets a two-count off a powerslam and then lands a massive German suplex that sends the crowd and commentator into a frenzy. Then Kawada does a remarkable sell job by trying to stand up but then staggers over, unable to keep himself up. Toshiaki Kawada sells better than anyone, prove me wrong.
Albright tosses Kawada into the ring and covers for a 2.9-count. Even after so much time, Albright’s German almost cost Kawada the match. Albright rolls into a full nelson and tries a dragon suplex but Kawada starts fighting back. Albright switches to a grounded reverse crossface. Kawada counters into another cross armbreaker. Albright escapes via amateur wrestling holds. Kawada counters with a Dangerous Backdrop! Stretch Plum submission hold. Kawada wrenches the hold as much as possible. Albright fights out and throws Kawada off. Kawada bravely goes for a powerbomb but Albright powers out. Kawada hits a huge running lariat. Albright doesn’t even leave his feet. Kawada tries a second lariat. Albright hits a kneelift and goes for a double underhook suplex. Kawada resists so Albright locks in a sleeper. Kawada judo throws him off but Albright traps Kawada’s arm in a double wrist lock/hammerlock in the process. Kawada barely manages a ropebreak with the tip of his boot to break the hold. Albright judo throws Kawada and tries another dragon suplex. Kawada fights to his feet and gets to the ropes yet again. Albright stiffs him but Kawada hits back with chops, knees, and a rolling koppu kick. Kawada tries taking Albright down with an armbar. Albright counters with another judo throw into a cross armbreaker. Wait, no, Kawada counters into a cross armbreaker of his own. Albright gives up instantly. Kawada beats Albright at his own game! The crowd’s going absolutely nuts for Kawada!
Winner after 15:36: Toshiaki Kawada
This was awesome. The crowd was insanely loud and reacted to every single move like it was a big deal because it was. This was an interesting styles clash that benefitted from the outsider being built up as a big deal. There was something special about this match, even if the action was fairly simplistic. But the King’s Road style wasn’t just about the moves; it was also about great booking, which is what was displayed here.
This match showed a different philosophy of protecting a wrestler that’s often lost on modern wrestling bookers: protecting your wrestlers by showing that they can excel in another style or discipline. Kawada was a national amateur wrestling champion before turning pro but Albright was much better in that discipline. So Kawada was at a disadvantage in this match; and yet, Kawada didn’t stay in his comfort zone and wrestle his style of match. Instead, he tries his hand at Albright’s game and not only kept pace with Albright, but he beat him at his own game. That’s how you not only protect your own wrestlers, but you also sell the seriousness and credibility of the outside threat. And even though Albright lost, it took Kawada, a former world champion and arguably the best wrestler in the world at the time, a monumental effort to keep him down.
Kawada was in trouble from the opening bell as Albright tries to get him into suplex position whenever possible. The commentator for this match (I think it’s Ryu Nakata but I could be wrong) deserves special credit for basically being Japanese Jim Ross here. He sold the danger and seriousness of the match and how credible a threat Albright was though tone and inflection alone. As soon as Albright so much as had a rear waistlock in, he started screaming in a way that gave off this sense of impending doom if Albright’s suplexes landed.
There was a sense of urgency and tension from the very beginning. And since Albright was wrestling in the UWFi style, this wasn’t going to be a classical ‘worked’ wrestling match in which big moves were teased and built-up over time. Albright’s approach was to use real/realistic amateur wrestling holds and then use his massive power advantage to throw Kawada around like a ragdoll. And since Albright could hit those devastating suplexes at any point and out of nowhere and they could’ve conceivably won the match for him, Kawada had to be extremely careful. Kawada did hit some of his usual wrestling moves here and there, but for the most part he kept things ‘real’. Most of his offense consisted of STIFF kicks and his own array of submission holds and amateur take-downs. He wasn’t concerned with being flashy, playing to the crowd, getting his s**t in, or otherwise entertaining. No; Kawada was concerned with winning. He knew he was at a disadvantage and had to adapt or perish.
As an example, let’s compare this match with John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar at Extreme Rules 2012. That match saw Lesnar return to WWE after eight years and after his highly successful MMA career. He was seen as a big deal and a major ‘crossover’ star. When he returned, he lost to John Cena, which wasn’t completely unexpected. But what really hurt that match was that Cena stayed in his comfort zone. Save for a few weapons spots that came due to the stipulation, Cena beat Lesnar by wrestling Cena’s style of match. There was nothing new from Cena to show that he could bust out something special to sell how big of a threat Lesnar really was. Cena never tried any submission holds aside from the STF, and never did anything that was ‘of a different discipline’. I’m not saying that he should’ve gone full muay thay or started grappling like Kurt Angle. But doing something different to show that he was willing to go to greater lengths to win would’ve made the first Cena/Lesnar match even better than it already was.
That’s what Kawada and Albright succeeded in doing here. Kawada was already known as an impeccable wrestler and insanely dangerous striker. But with this match he had to go back to his amateur roots and focus on submissions a lot more, and Giant Baba was notorious for hating submission finishes. For him, it was the three-count or nothing. But this match was special. Albright was such a threat and such a monster that Kawada knew that pinning him was largely impossible. Albright was such a damage sponge that even Kawada’s trademark stiff kicks and Dangerous Backdrop only made dents and nothing more. The only way for Kawada to win was to find a weakness or to turn Albright’s moves against him. Kawada chose the latter and turned Albright’s cross armbreaker against him and made Albright tap out. Kawada wrestled smartly and showed a dynamism that made him even more fun to watch. He showed that he could end a match via another submission hold and it was credible because he beat a guy more experienced in submissions with it.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match rocks. Kawada and Albright had a very simplistic match here that was sold on their credentials and natural abilities. They told their story in a straightforward way that emphasized substance over style. And while All Japan was big on realism back in the day, that was emphasized even more here. The submission holds, martial arts throws, and Kawada’s godly selling all came together to create this short but highly entertaining match.
When people talk about All Japan’s 1990s heyday, I think many focus a bit too much on Misawa and Kobashi, neglecting how great Kawada really was. He might not’ve had Kobashi’s physique or move-set, or Misawa’s booking and sense of timing. But Kawada was the unquestioned master of selling big moves and creating a real sense of tension when hitting or taking a big move. Just look at this match. Albright could easily have been just another nobody heavyweight wrestler. But he had the best match of his entire career with Kawada here and it was their first time facing each other. If that doesn’t show how talented Kawada was in his prime, I don’t know what does.