(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Toshiaki Kawada vs. Kensuke Sasaki (AJPW vs. NJPW) – NJPW Do Judge!! (2000)

kawada sasake njpw 2000

Today we revisit the singles match between AJPW’s Toshiaki Kawada and NJPW’s Kensuke Sasaki from New Japan’s Do Judge Tokyo Dome show in 2000.

The year 2000 was a year of major change all around the world. Many argue that it was WWE’s best year ever, both due to the success of their own roster and the utter failures of their biggest competitors. But while WWE was riding high that year, things were not so great elsewhere.

In Japan, which had been home to some of the best wrestling of all time, there was turmoil and chaos everywhere. And so today I want to revisit a Japanese classic from that era to see if there was any greatness to be found that year.

But why am I reviewing this match now? Well, for several reasons. First, I heard and read that it was a great match. Second, it was praised by fans and critics alike, and won Tokyo Sports’ Match of the Year award. Third, one of the wrestlers involved, Toshiaki Kawada, is one of the best wrestlers of all time and I think he might be better than Misawa, whom many regard as the GOAT wrestler of the 1990s.

Fourth, this match took place at a time of great change not unlike what’s going on now. As I write this in August 2022, WWE is undergoing major change following Vince McMahon’s retirement. Though the changes thus far have been mostly small, there’s no telling what other, bigger changes could come down the road. Is there a chance of WWE partnering up with other wrestling promotions that it considers “competition”? Most people would say no, but then again, most people thought Vince McMahon would die before relinquishing control over WWE. So if there was the possibility of someone big from outside WWE coming in to challenge on of WWE’s biggest stars, this is what that match might look like.

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.

The story

The closest 2022 equivalent of this match would be if Kenny Omega faced Roman Reigns at Clash at the Castle. In this match, Kawada was the biggest star still left in All Japan following Misawa’s NOAH exodus. He became All Japan’s ace by default, and as soon as the exodus was complete, All Japan’s owners were scrambling to bring in big stars to keep the company afloat. By the fall of 2000, AJPW and NJPW were using terminology not unlike Tanahashi’s ‘forbidden door’ comment to describe what was coming. All Japan and New Japan vowed to break the walls down in order to promote some genuine inter-company dream matches. Kawada was a huge star following over a decade of outstanding matches in All Japan and New Japan needed someone big for him to face. And the man they chose was none other than Kensuke Sasaki.

The best way to describe Sasaki in the late 90s and early 2000s would be “John Cena with a goatee and a mullet”. Sasaki was jacked like Cena and was solid enough in the ring. However, like Cena, who was being compared poorly to previous champions like Triple H, Kurt Angle, and Shawn Michaels during his initial main event run, Sasaki was considered inferior to New Japan’s other top guys like Chono, Muto, and Hashimoto. He lacked Muto’s agility and technique, Chono’s look and incredible charisma, and Hashimoto’s legitimacy and credibility as a fighter. And many people rejected Sasaki outright because he looked like a clone of Riki Choshu, a veteran that was past his prime yet still appeared in main event matches from time to time.

But New Japan was desperate to make Sasaki into a big star and another golden opportunity was dropped on their laps. Kawada came over representing All Japan looking for a fight and New Japan gave him what he wanted. Kawada would take on Sasaki in the Tokyo Dome in one of the biggest dream matches imaginable. It was such a big deal that the show drew an alleged 64,000 fans.

Kawada vs. Sasaki. King’s Road vs. Strong Style. Punishing strikes and dangerous suplexes vs. raw power and submission skills. It was anyone’s guess who’d win, which made this one of the most highly-anticipated matches in years.

The match

This match originally took place on October 9th, 2000. It was rated ****1/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

This is NOT for Sasaki’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Kawada starts the match by doing some stretches, unintimidated by what stands before him. Sasaki avoids being taken to the mat and then the two wrestlers finally lock-up and have a great test of strength. Both break off and lock-up again, But this time Kawada dodges a chop and counters into a side headlock. He wrenches his arm against Sasaki’s head but Sasaki fights out. Kawada sends him into the ropes but Sasaki knocks Kawada down. Sasaki hits some forearm clubs but Kawada hits back with kicks. Kawada goes for a gamengiri jumping kick but Sasaki blocks it and punches Kawada right in the back of the head (which Kawada later stated knocked him out briefly and he was unable to remember most of the match afterwards). Kawada sinks down and sells, but this time it’s pretty much real. The guy’s trying to maintain control of his body as he fades out of consciousness. The only reason I know this is because I read about it in Chris Charlton’s book Eggshells and he did extensive research on stuff like this. Still, though, Kawada sold like this all the time, which made him one of the most compelling wrestlers to watch.

Kawada regains his bearings as Sasaki rains strikes down on him. Kawada tries some amateur takedowns but Sasaki overpowers him and teases another punch after being admonished by the ref for the first one. Sasaki shoves the ref aside and appears to land another punch but Kawada has a guard up so it might not have landed fully. Kawada escapes (he was an amateur wrestling champion after all) and then lands mounted punches of his own on Sasaki. Kawada locks in a chinlock but Sasaki judo throws him off and hits a massive lariat. Sasaki tries a sleeper with bodyscissors but Kawada gets a ropebreak. Sasaki tries different strikes such as back clubs, chops, and kicks to the calf. That last one appears to strike a nerve because Kawada just stares daggers at Sasaki, probably thinking “did this little shit really just do that?”

Both of them trade calf kicks and then chops to the chest. It’s not Sasaki vs. Kobashi at Destiny 2005 but it’s still fun. Kawada dares Sasaki to keep chopping him and Sasaki does the same. Kawada decides enough’s enough and hits a high kick. Sasaki answers with a stiff slap to the jaw. Stiff slaps are traded back-and-forth until Kawada drops Sasaki with a punch. Now it’s Kawada’s turn to get admonished by the ref but he just doesn’t give a f**K and hits a gamengiri kick. Then he hits a yakuza kick to send Sasaki into a corner and lands a running follow-up one. He feels some pain in his leg so he resorts to kicks and knees in the corner using both legs. One particularly nasty kick to the side of Sasaki’s head gets a big reaction from the crowd and forces the ref to check to see if Sasaki’s still conscious. As soon as he sees Sasaki moving, Kawada goes after him with chops. Sasaki hits back with overhand chops of his own but Kawada simply hits harder. Kawada drops Sasaki with an arm-twist hook kick and then does his seated chop/kick combo. Kawada follows with a stepkick and a Dangerous Backdrop Driver! The crowd goes absolutely nuts over that move.

Kawada lifts Sasaki up again and smashes his face in with another gamengiri. One, two, Sasaki kicks out. Stretch Plum submission hold. Sasaki powers his way to the ropes to force a break. Kawada pulls him back and reapplies that same hold. Kawada tightens the hold as much as possible eyeing a submission victory that he wouldn’t’ve been afforded in All Japan since Giant Baba loathed submission holds unless they were used to work a limb. Sasaki starts fading so Kawada covers him. But Sasaki kicks out at one. He tries firing up but can’t even make it to his feet. Kawada scoop slams Sasaki and soccer kicks his spine. He goes for a powerbomb but Sasaki resists so he stepkicks Sasaki once again. he tries the powerbomb once more but Sasaki powers out. Kawada bounces up and hits a high kick that sends Sasaki into the ropes. Sasaki rebounds and drills Kawada with a LARIATO! Sasaki gets a measure of revenge and kicks Kawada’s chest and then hits a huge judo throw followed by a one-shoulder Tornadobomb. Sasaki charges and smashes Kawada with a second lariat! Kawada kicks out at one! Sharpshooter. Kawada pulls himself to the ropes. Sasaki pulls him back and reapplies the hold. Kawada resists as much as possible and then Sasaki lets go out of sheer exhaustion. Sasaki charges and hits a third lariat. but this time Kawada tanks it and doesn’t even flinch. Kawada hits his own rebound lariat but Sasaki likewise doesn’t budge. The two trade lariats until both start staggering. Sasaki hits one so powerful it sends sweat flying off Kawada’s body. He goes down, but then bounces up and lands a yakuza kick. Both wrestlers collapse.

The crowd’s going nuts as both wrestlers struggle to their feet. They both get up and lariat each other at the same time. Both go down again and when they get up again Sasaki hits first with yet another lariat. Sasaki teases the Northern Lights Bomb. Kawada blocks it and knocks Sasaki aside. Kawada gets up first and lands another gamengiri. But he appears to cause some further damage to his leg and Sasaki’s earlier sharpshooter appears to be causing him more trouble. Undeterred, Kawada hits some enzuigiris to the back of Sasaki’s head. He hits three in a row but Sasaki blocks the fourth one by clotheslining Kawada’s leg. Sasaki charges for another lariat. Kawada hits first with a successful fourth enzuigiri. He crawls over and covers Sasaki. One, two, three! There’s the match! Kawada beats Sasaki. King’s Road > Strong Style!

Winner after 19:38: Toshiaki Kawada

Post-match, Sasaki is presented with his world title belt but he refuses to accept it. He declares ‘a loss is a loss’ and refuses to be recognized as champion. Soon afterwards, New Japan officially stripped Sasaki of the title. But it wasn’t New Japan punishing Sasaki; Sasaki decided that the title should be vacated. He reasoned that if he couldn’t win a non-title match against an outsider, then he wasn’t fit to be New Japan’s world champion. It wouldn’t be until January 4th, 2001 that Sasaki would reclaim the world title after beating Kawada in a tournament final.


This match was insane. It more than lived up to the hype. It was one hell of a great interpromotional war. It was one of the best matches of Sasaki’s career while being just another day at the office for Kawada. It was a manly fight disguised as a wrestling match. It was filled with brutally stiff striking, great submission holds, and high-impact bombs. If you want to see two badasses demolish each other without concern for their own safety, this is the match for you.

The match was pure machismo from the very beginning and the whole story was centered on both wrestlers trying to out-macho each other. Kawada thought he’d play games with Sasaki by taunting him but Sasaki punched him so hard it knocked him out (even if that hit didn’t knock him out, Kawada would’ve likely sold like that because that’s how committed to realism he was). Sasaki thought that would give him the advantage but Kawada fires back and chopped Sasaki so hard his chest turned red. Both guys willingly took brutal chops just to show how tough they were. And after an interesting submission sequence, these two guys just smashed each other with full-power lariats over and over. Sure it was a bit silly and excessive, but it fit the match perfectly. Neither of these two wrestlers cared for technique or limb targeting here (even though Kawada should have); this was all about one-upmanship and not letting your opponent see your weakness.

The match reached a fever pitch after Kawada’s Dangerous Backdrop and when he locked in the Stretch Plum. As I mentioned earlier, Kawada had the chance to score a submission victory here and by that point in the match such a thing was very likely. Kawada had targeted Sasaki’s head and neck all match and the Stretch Plum but immense pressure on his neck. Not only would’ve been a big won for Kawada, but it would’ve been extra embarrassing for Sasaki to lose via submission to an outsider that, allegedly, wasn’t as adept in submission holds as Sasaki and his fellow NJPW wrestlers were.

There were some great story elements sprinkled throughout the match. Kawada won with the enzuigiri, which was New Japan founder Inoki’s finisher. Sasaki realized that first punch did so much damage and got such a big reaction that he teased another one. And that simple tease got such an equally-big reaction and upped the tension in an already-tense match. Both wrestlers went tit-for-tat throughout the match with Kawada applying the Stretch Plum twice and Sasaki doing the same with his sharpshooter. So even though the match was largely a one-note bomb-fest, it was nice seeing some minor details in the match that added something more to its story.

There was also the great post-match segment which couldn’t be separated from the match because the match tied into the ending. Sasaki being so ashamed of his loss that he relinquished the title is storytelling perfection. He was so humbled by losing to Kawada that to him it didn’t feel right for him to be recognized as the top wrestler in the company. After all, if he couldn’t even beat a guy that wasn’t signed to New Japan, how would he fare against the other top guys in his home promotion?

The match did get a bit silly with the repeated lariats though. This match was begging for Kawada to take Sasaki to the mat and try and rip his arm off with a cross armbreaker or for Sasaki do to the same to Kawada. And it’s not like that would be out of character for Kawada. Not only had he done so against Kobashi and Misawa many times before, but it would’ve made more sense to do that here in New Japan than in All Japan. Even though Kawada was in enemy territory, he would’ve been comfortable changing his style to fit the submission-heavy Strong Style New Japan was famous for. Many NJPW wrestlers used the cross armbreaker for a finish; it was as popular in New Japan as the lariat was in All Japan and in Japanese wrestling in general. As such, it didn’t make sense for Kawada to ignore that direction so completely here.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Aside from a single silly moment with a few too many lariats and a missed opportunity to add some much-needed common sense limbwork at a critical moment, this match kicked ass. It lived up to its billing as a dream match. Even if you have no clue who either of these wrestlers are, I’m certain you’ll enjoy this match.

Even though it didn’t have the deep story or airtight psychology of Kawada’s best matches, it didn’t really need those things to be a strong match on its own. This was a mean guy match between two guys that wanted to destroy each other for the sake of company pride. And in a shocking twist, the outsider won. Such a thing would be considered impossible in almost every American promotion. But with changes still coming, who’s to say that a match like this won’t happen in WWE or AEW…or even between the two of them.

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.