Match Reviews: Current and Former WWE Stars in Japan (Balor vs. Okada, Flair, Nakamura, more)

njpw wrestling balor devitt okada

Wrestling matches in Japan are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get. I know that’s a tired cliché but it holds true to this very day. Sometimes when you see two names on paper it sounds great and ends up disappointing. Other times something looks poor on paper but manages to exceed all expectations.

And then there are those matches that look great and then deliver the goods. But which of those sorts of matches do we have here? Read on to find out.

Once again I’ve found five matches involving current and former WWE wrestlers in Japan. Some of these wrestlers competed before coming to WWE while others went there after their WWE tenures. Either way, with these five matches we’re in for some rare and special contests.


5. Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger vs. Dave ‘Fit’ Finlay – NJPW New Years golden Series, February 5th, 1991

Background: Most people remember Dave Finlay from his time in WCW and his days in WWE as a trainer, backstage personality, and an active wrestler. He’s one the most experienced and respected veterans around, and was instrumental in helping the women of 2000s WWE improve their craft and compete as best they could within the parameters of the Divas Division. Also, he is one guy you absolutely do NOT want to say “wrestling’s fake” in front of.

Anyways, Finlay toured the world throughout the 1990s and as part of his international excursions he ended up in New Japan. Here, he took on the iconic Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger in a random singles match. What was most interesting was that Finlay was already a veteran, having debuted back in 1974.

The match: Liger goes for an armlock but Finlay pulls his hair and throws him to the mat. Liger escapes another armlock via Dynamite Kid-style flips and lands an arm wringer flip. Finlay hits back with some nasty uppercuts and a dropkick and gets a one-count off an elbow drop. Finlay stiff Liger some more, throws him out of the ring, and then whips him into the barricade. Then he lifts Liger onto his shoulders and drops Liger sternum-first onto the top of the barricade. He throws Liger back into the ring and continues his assault with a back body drop and another elbow drop. He elbows Liger in the nose and lands a knee to the back of Liger’s neck for a one-count. Finlay stomps on Liger and hits some kicks, but then Liger reverses an Irish whip and hits a spinning wheel kick. Liger follows with a baseball slide dropkick and tries another one but Finlay sidesteps and drives Liger’s shoulder into the ringpost. Finlay follows with a springboard kneedrop to Liger’s neck followed by a corner spear. He follows with a high-angle superplex but only manages a two-count. Liger tries fighting back but Finlay stiffs him and lands a corner Vaderbomb press for another two-count. Finlay applies an armlock into a bow-and-arrow stretch of sorts, and then switches into a single leg crab followed by a knee stomp/knee smasher combo. He applies a headlock but Liger counters with a back suplex. Liger hits a standing dropkick followed by a corner one. He goes for an Irish whip but Finlay reverses it. Liger jumps from the second rope with a crossbody but Finlay ducks and ascends the corner. Liger cuts him off and hits a superplex of his own for a two-count. Liger goes back to the top rope and hits a flying crossbody. But Finlay rolls through and pins using Liger’s own momentum. One, two, Liger kicks out. Finlay gets a two-count off a clothesline and lands a Tombstone Piledriver. One, two, Liger kicks out again. A top-rope diving splash misses for Finlay and Liger goes for a German suplex. Finlay blocks with a rear low blow that somehow doesn’t disqualify him. Liger tries again and this time blocks the low blow and hits a rolling koppu kick. Liger connects with a bridging German suplex and get the three-count to win the match.

Winner after 9:27: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger

Review: Solid under-ten-minute match between two guys that knew how to wrestle and make things feel tense and unpredictable. Everything was basic here with all the flashy stuff kept to a minimum. Finlay’s British smashmouth style was great in keeping Liger grounded, which forced Liger to fight from beneath. Finlay was in control for most of the match and used both his style and Liger’s own momentum against him. But in the end Liger managed to make use of one sudden mistake to hit enough moves in quick succession to get the three-count. It wasn’t the most exciting finish but it did its job. All in all a passable match but nothing truly special.

Final Rating: **3/4


4. Keiji Mutoh vs. Ric Flair – NJPW G1 Climax 1995, August 13th, 1995

Background: In 1995, the G1 Climax was an 8-man round-robin tournament held over the course of four days. In the middle of the tournament, Flair and Mutoh squared off. This was a huge match-up considering that they were and still are considered two of the best wrestlers of the past forty years. These two wrestlers met before in 1989 when Flair feuded with Mutoh’s iconic alter-ego The Great Muta.

The match: They shake hands and the match begins. They trade clean breaks and then do the Greco-Roman knuckle lock. Mutoh overpowers Flair but Flair gets to the ropes for safety. After a brief pause, Flair takes Mutoh to the mat and starts working his arm. Flair’s armwork goes on for a while until Mutoh gets a ropebreak of his own. Mutoh goes to ringside to recover, but when he returns Flair goes right back to that now-weakened left arm. Mutoh counters into a headlock takeover but Flair does his classic roll-into-a-pin counter, only for Mutoh to hit the ropes. They lock-up again and Mutoh tackles Flair to the mat. He follows with two dropkicks, the second sending Flair to the floor. Mutoh goes to the top rope for a dive but Flair rolls to the ringside photographers to create more distance which prevents Mutoh from diving.

Back in the ring, Mutoh lands another big shoulder tackle and another headlock takeover. Flair tries to counter with a knee breaker but Mutoh cautiously hops to the ropes to prevent it. Flair breaks but he also kicks Mutoh’s left leg as it sits against the second rope. Flair sees the bandage on Mutoh’s forehead and starts punching it. He follows with a snapmare and gets a one-count, and then applies a figure-4 neck lock. Mutoh rolls to the ropes but this time Flair takes his time letting go. They have a short slugfest that ends in another standoff.

They lock-up gain and Mutoh reverses a corner whip and then lands a back body drop. Mutoh follows with some hard strikes and then whips Flair into the opposite corner so hard Flair falls to the floor. He isn’t done as he suplexes Flair over the rope and into the ring. Mutoh lands a standing dropkick and goes for a diving one but Flair dodges and Mutoh hits the mat hard. Flair takes advantage with the Figure-4 leglock! Mutoh screams in agony but he eventually makes it to the ropes.

Flair continues attacking Mutoh’s left knee with stomps, stretches, and a kneedrop of his own. Flair goes to the top rope but Mutoh cuts him off with a superplex. Mutoh begins his comeback with a corner handspring elbow/bulldog combo as blood trickles down his face. Mutoh follows with his rib breaker and goes for a moonsault but Flair rolls to safety. Mutoh hurts his own knee more on that landing. Flair punches Mutoh’s open cut some more and blood now pours out like a faucet (0.7 Muta). Flair covers but only manages a two-count. Flair follows with a running kneedrop to Mutoh’s head and then goes back to the left knee. Flair tries a knee crusher but switches in midair into a back suplex. Then Flair locks in another Figure-4! Mutoh writhes in pain. But he’s not giving up. Mutoh pivots slightly and reverses the hold. Flair gets to the ropes and breaks the hold.

Flair lands a knee breaker and tries yet another Figure-4 but Mutoh counters with a small package. One, two, Flair kicks out. Flair shoots Mutoh into the ropes for a hiptoss but Mutoh counters with a backslide for another two-count. Flair tries a back body drop but Mutoh cradles him again for another two-count. Flair lands a big chop but it only manages to fire Flair up. Flair begs off as the fans rally behind Mutoh. Mutoh lands a back body drop and a back suplex, and then goes to the top rope again. Diving moonsault press connects. One, two, three! Mutoh pins Flair!

Winner after 23:33: Keiji Mutoh

Review: This was a good match though it was a bit odd given its surroundings. On paper, Flair wrestling Mutoh in Japan should’ve been a technical marvel. And yet, the crowd didn’t really get into it until the last five minutes. Flair wrestled a more American match with his usual theatrics and over-the-top persona, and I guess those things just didn’t fly in Japan. There was some great technical wrestling throughout the match (which was expected of Flair and Mutoh), but the selling was way inconsistent. Mutoh was on defense for the most part and spent the match undecided on how to sell. One minute he screamed in agony and clasped his own knee because it was so damage and the next he’d hit dropkicks and power moves as if he wasn’t damaged at all. I get that they were trying to make him out to look like a superhero against Flair but it wasn’t convincing. He just shifted back and forth between two gears, creating a coarse final stretch that lacked much excitement. Lastly, Mutoh’s win came across as undeserved here especially since it came out of nowhere. Mutoh looked completely beat up and was a bloody mess, yet three moves was all it took to put Flair away. It wasn’t believable and it lacked the tension and excitement needed to really make this into an impressive match.

Final Rating: ***3/4


3. IWGP Intercontinental Championship match: Shinsuke Nakamura [c] vs. Davey Boy Smith Jr. – NJPW Invasion Attack 2013

Background: After his WWE career floundered, DH Smith went to Japan to find work. He succeeded as he became a great tag team wrestler alongside fellow WWE alumnus Lance/Vance Archer. Together they became the Killer Elite Squad and became one of the top heavyweight tag teams in both New Japan and NOAH. But when he wasn’t teaming with Archer, Smith also earned some big titles opportunities as well. Here, Smith sought to dethrone Nakamura and take his IC title for himself. But that was a major challenge because Nakamura was busting his ass to make this title into something valuable. Needless to say, as strong as Smith was, he’d have to move mountains to throw Nakamura off his perch. He already had some momentum going into this match since he pinned Nakamura during the New Japan Cup tournament and had pinned Nakamura’s partner Tomohiro Ishii when they had challenged KES for the tag titles.

The match: This is for Nakamura’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship. The match starts with some stiff kicks being exchanged and some very tense standoffs. Nakamura grabs Smith’s arm while Smith waistlocks Nakamura. Smith tries lifting Nakamura but Nakamura elbows out and stretches Smith’s arm. But Smith does manage to overpower Nakamura this next time as he lifts Nakamura onto his back and lands an over-the-shoulder armbreaker. Nakamura uses the rope to flip out of an armlock and has a quick chain grappling sequence with Smith that ends in a stalemate.

Smith flips off the crowd to get them to boo him and then he wrestles Nakamura to the mat. Some more mat wrestling ensues leading to another stalemate and then Nakamura gets Smith against the ropes for his ‘head-in-gut-mockery’ spot. Smith pie-faces Nakamura as expected but that only angers Nakamura enough to hit some STIFF knees to Smith’s stomach. Nakamura charges for a knee but Smith belly-to-bellys him to the floor. Smith distracts the ref and gets booed by the fans as his partner Archer stomps on Nakamura. But here comes Nakamura’s ally Ishii to even the odds. The ref deals with all the seconds at ringside as Smith drives Nakamura back-first into the steel barricade. Nakamura slowly returns to the ring and is met with stomps when he does. Smith stomps right on Nakamura’s crotch but it isn’t a DQ for some reason. Nakamura kicks out at two so Smith applies a chinlock and then argues with the referee. Smith whips Nakamura into a corner and lands a bridging northern lights suplex for a two-count. He follows with a camel clutch and grinds Nakamura’s face in the process. Smith toys with Nakamura as he shows off his power game with some big slams. He goes to the top rope for a diving leg drop but Nakamura rolls out of the way. Both wrestlers struggle to their feet but Smith gets up first and charges. Nakamura gets his boots up, ducks a clothesline, and hits a single-leg dropkick. Nakamura begins his comeback with kneelifts and stomps in the corner, followed by his ‘vibrations’ corner stomp. Smith reverses a corner whip but runs into another kneelift. Nakamura places him on the top turnbuckle and hits a big running knee to the gut. One, two, Smith kicks out.

The crowd chants “Shinsuke” as Nakamura hits nasty knees to Smith’s gut some more. Smith kicks out of a pin at two so Nakamura switches to middle kicks. Smith catches his leg on the third one so Nakamura uses his free leg to hit an enzuigiri. Nakamura charges but Smith counters with a powerslam out of nowhere. The two trade forearms until Smith gains the upper hand with uppercuts. Nakamura charges again but this time he runs into a jumping knee. Smith pins for a two-count and teases the running powerslam. Nakamura escapes but Smith catches him with a Backdrop suplex for another two-count. Smith goes for a vertical suplex but Nakamura knees him in the head to block it. Nakamura lands another high kick followed by a Backstabber and then locks in a sleeper hold. Nakamura tries to switch into the inverted Exploder but Smith elbows out and charges. But he runs into yet another kneelift and a counter wheel kick. Inverted Exploder connects. Nakamura teases the Boma Ye. Nakamura charges. Smith dodges and goes for a Tiger suplex. Nakamura head-butts out and go for a second-rope knee strike. Smith catches him on his shoulders and hits a fireman’s carry Jackhammer. Sick move. One, two, Nakamura kicks out. Smith locks in a sharpshooter. Nakamura almost touches the ropes but Smith pulls him away. Nakamura fights and fights and eventually makes it to the ropes.

The crowd boos as Smith teases his finisher yet again. He goes for a powerbomb but Nakamura resists and hits an abisengiri rolling koppu kick. Nakamura follows with an ushigorishi fireman’s carry knee neckbreaker and then both men collapse. They fight to their feet and start trading stiff strikes. Nakamura blocks a kick but Smith swings into a huge discus lariat. One, two, Nakamura barely kicks out. Folding powerbomb by Smith. Nakamura kicks out again. Bridging Tiger Suplex. Nakamura kicks out once more. Smith tries another powerbomb. Nakamura fights out and knees him in the face. Nakamura balances himself on the top rope and jumps. Boma Ye! But he’s not done. He wants to land more. A second Boma Ye connects. One, two, and three! Nakamura retains!

Winner and STILL IWGP Intercontinental Champion after 18:04: Shinsuke Nakamura

Review: The match started off a bit slow and silly but my God did it get better towards the end. Smith was a bit over-the-top here as he made wacky facial expressions and flipped off the crowd like he was being paid per gesture, but that wackiness did pay off in the end. The crowd hated him by the end and loved Nakamura’s comeback. Smith was great at manhandling Nakamura and making full use of his power advantage. And once he started trading bombs with Nakamura things got really exciting. It actually looked like Smith was getting closer and closer to beating Nakamura with each passing near-fall. Smith was a bit more impressive when it came to showing off his skills in the ring but Nakamura was a better showman and did a better job of captivating the crowd. He played the hits here and didn’t really leave his comfort zone because what he did was effective enough. I wasn’t a big fan of all the random charges and overuse of the ropes, but those minor issues were compensated with an exciting final five minutes. This is quite possibly the best singles match of Smith’s career and another great outing from Nakamura back when he was still giving 100% to his craft.

Final Rating: ****1/4


2. IWGP Heavyweight Championship match: Kazuchika Okada [c] vs. Prince Devitt (Finn Balor) – NJPW Kizuna Road 2013

Background: This was a rare champion vs. champion match that saw the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion (Devitt) take on the Heavyweight Champion (Okada) for Okada’s title. Though he was still “only” a junior, Devitt was rising through the ranks of New Japan very quickly. That was because he started a very important stable two months earlier. That stable was the Bullet Club, which remains one of the biggest and most influential stables in Japan to this very day. Devitt thought he had all the answers to Okada’s offense and vowed to become a double champion. But that was a huge challenge since Okada was, well, Okada. And while some might argue that Okada has since become mechanical and a tad overrated, he was nothing short of amazing in 2013.

njpw okada prince devitt balor

The match: This is for Okada’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship. The two trade armlocks and engage in a chain grappling sequence that ends in a standoff. The crowd is firmly behind Okada as Devitt waistlocks him and takes him to the mat. Okada counters a front facelock with a hammerlock but Devitt counters that into a grounded side headlock. Okada rolls him over for a quick one-count and then locks in a headscissor but Devitt escapes. Okada applies a headlock and grinds it deeply on Devitt. Devitt shoots him into the ropes but Okada shoulder tackles him to the mat. They crisscross and Okada goes for a Rainmaker but Devitt escapes. Okada avoids a huge spinkick, leading to another stalemate.

They lock-up again and Okada gets a clean break on the ropes. He pats Devitt mockingly and then blocks a kick. Okada snapmares Devitt and goes for his running basement dropkick but Devitt dodges, causing Okada’s feet to end up in Bad Luck Fale’s hands. Fale holds Okada in place so that Devitt can land a springboard double stomp to Okada’s stomach. The ref never saw it as he was distracted by Karl Anderson. Devitt’s taking full advantage of having his Bullet Club buddies back him up here. As the ref deals with the BC, Devitt sets Okada into a chair and hits a massive running shotgun dropkick. Apparently in this match the title can change via count-out so Devitt’s trying to win by any means necessary. He rips off a turnbuckle pad as the ref begins his count. Okada gets into the ring at the count of twelve so Devitt attacks his back and kidneys. Devitt whips Okada into the exposed corner and Okada hits it very hard. Devitt follows with abdominal stretch to target that same now-weakened body part and has his ally Anderson pull on his arm to apply more pressure on Okada’s midsection. The ref misses this and Devitt rolls Okada up for a two-count. Devitt switches to a neck crank but Okada fights out. Okada charges but runs into a dropkick. It feels strange typing that out considering that’s usually Okada’s calling card. Devitt goes after Okada’s manager Gedo as Anderson powerbombs Okada onto the edge of the ring apron. He throws Okada into the ring and Devitt pins but Okada kicks out at 2.5.

Devitt drops an elbow on Okada’s lower back and covers for another two-count. he follows with a camel clutch with a knee in Okada’s back and Okada tries to crawl to the ropes but Devitt spins him around to prevent that. Okada eventually makes it to the ropes and hits some forearms out of nowhere to start a comeback. Okada goes for a corner whip into the exposed turnbuckle. No, Devitt counters. NO, Okada counters that and shoots Devitt into his own weapon. Devitt hits hard and then eats a swinging neckbreaker. Okada follows with corner uppercuts followed by a DDT and a basement dropkick. Devitt kicks out at two. Okada blocks a kick and lands another neckbreaker for a two-count. Okada slams Devitt and hits a diving elbow drop and then does his Rainmaker pose. Okada’s Rainmaker gets countered into a sunset flip but Okada kicks out. Devitt hits some nasty chops and goes for a corner whip but Okada reverses. Okada charges, Devitt sidesteps and lands a springboard double stomp to Okada’s back. Okada rolls to the floor but finds no safety as Devitt lands a suicide dive to the floor. He throws Okada into the ring and lands a running shotgun dropkick to Okada’s back in the corner. A diving double stomp connects. One, two, Okada kicks out.

Devitt signals the end as he lands reverse Bloody Sunday for another close two-count. Devitt goes for another diving stomp but Okada rolls out of the way. Devitt charges but runs into a reverse neckbreaker. Both wrestlers collapse and then smash each other with forearms once they get to their feet. Okada fires up, hits an uppercut, and goes for an Irish whip but Devitt reverses it. Okada blocks a charge, places Devitt on the top turnbuckle, and dropkcisk him to the floor. But Okada’s not done. He does something rare and hits a suicide dive of his own to the floor onto Devitt and his Bullet Club buddies.

Okada follows with a Heavy Rain AA neckbreaker slam for a two-count. Then he gets revenge for earlier and hits his own standing dropkick and then locks in his Red Ink STF/chinlock combo but Devitt gets a ropebreak. Okada goes for a Tombstone but Devitt elbwos out and avoids another dropkick. Devitt goes for Bloody Sunday but Okada pushes him into a corner. Okada charges at him but Devitt shoves the referee into the way. Devitt gets a chair and hits Okada’s midsection with it. He swings it at Okada’s head. Okada ducks and boots it into Devitt’s face. Meanwhile, Anderson and Tama Tonga double-team Okada. but Okada throws Tonga to the floor and flapjacks Anderson. But here comes Fale who teases a thumb to the throat. Wait, no, Gedo dives off the top rope to save his charge. Okada dropkicks Fale to save Gedo. Okada goes for a Tombstone on Devitt. Devitt counters into a Tombstone of his own. Devitt smashes the chair onto Okada’s ribs and goes to the top rope. Diving double foot stomp onto the chair onto Okada. Anderson throws the ref into the ring for the count. One…two…and th – no, Okada kicks out. Devitt lands a big spinkick and goes for Bloody Sunday again. Okada blocks and tries a Rainmaker. Devitt avoids that and tries Bloody Sunday once more. Devitt blocks yet another Rainmaker but eats a dropkick to the back of the head. Okada connects with a Tombstone Piledriver. That’s followed by a successful Rainmaker lariat. One, two, and three! Okada retains his title!

Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 19:14: Kazuchika Okada

Review: Another great match as expected from Okada and another worthy challenger. Okada was mechanical and formulaic as always but it made sense in this case. Devitt was far more brutal and aggressive than what he’s been known for in WWE and he showed that here. He knew he had a size disadvantage so he made up for that by being as overly villainous as possible. He used weapons. He had his friends help him out behind the referee’s back. He knocked the ref out to hit as many weapon shots as he could in a short amount of time. And he remained completely focused on decimating Okada’s midsection and back. But no matter what different avenues Devitt took to win, Okada was just too much for him. Okada had his own strategy that saw him attack Devitt’s neck and soften it with one big move after another. By the end, Okada’s strategy ended up being the superior one as Okada decimated Devitt with everything he had leading up to a massive Rainmaker lariat that nearly took Devitt’s head off. The match did have some low points to it though; Okada’s selling was inconsistent and much of the armwork early on was irrelevant to the match beyond ‘establishing control’ without leading to anything notable. And while some people might groan at the BC’s constant interference, I think it helped this match because it amplified the notion that Devitt would do anything to win. In a way, Okada was booked like a WWE-style superhero like John Cena or Roman Reigns here. He overcame incredible odds and still survived with his title and reputation intact. It was a smartly-wrestled match and had its fair share of Americanized over-the-top theatrics. By no means is it in the same atmosphere as many world-beating Okada epics, but it still has its own merits to warrant a re-watch, especially if one happens to be a big Devitt or Bullet Club fan.

Final Rating: ****1/4


1. AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship match: Mitsuharu Misawa [c] vs. ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams – September 3rd 1993

Background: Four nights earlier, Doc beat Kenta Kobashi in a #1 contender’s match. And by ‘beat’, I mean beat him within an inch of his life and dropped him on his neck three times. After that legendary fight, Doc earned the right to challenge for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. This was a HUGE deal because, a) this was Doc’s first world title shot and the world title was defended very rarely in All Japan; and b) the champion was Misawa, who was in the midst of his historic first reign and making waves as arguably the best wrestler alive at that point.

The match: This is for Misawa’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. After lots of early teasing, they lock-up and trade elbow strikes. Doc powers Misawa into a corner and slaps him in the face. Misawa walks right up to him and they start trading slaps until Misawa hits an especially stiff elbow. Doc drop toeholds Misawa down into a headlock and lands some more takedowns to keep Misawa in place. He wrenches Misawa’s head for more pressure and when Misawa fights to his feet Doc shoulder tackles him back down. Doc stomps on Misawa in a corner and hits an elbow drop for a one-count. He applies a front chancery and wrenches it as much as possible to soften Misawa’s neck. Misawa crawls backwards to the ropes for a break, showing great ring awareness in the process.

Doc hits some stiff forearms but Misawa blocks one and fires back with elbows and kicks. Doc answers with a football tackle and clubs the back of Misawa’s neck. Doc smashes Misawa’s face into one turnbuckle but Misawa blocks a second attempt and smashes Doc’s face instead. Misawa hits more STIFF elbows but Doc fires back with a chop flurry that downs Misawa. Doc applies a neck crank but Misawa gets a ropebreak so Doc continues with ax handles to the neck. Doc goes for a suplex but Misawa lands behind him and kicks him to the floor. Misawa follows with a plancha dive to the floor! Awesome.

Back in the ring, Misawa lands his diving spinning lariat and pins for a one-count. He applies a chinlock but Doc gets a ropebreak so Misawa locks in a front chancery of his own. But Doc’s too strong as he lifts and carries Misawa to a corner. Doc lands more nasty chops and then hits a stinger splash in the opposite corner, followed by a DDT for a two-count. Doc follows with a suplex and covers but Misawa gets hit foot on the ropes. Doc mocks and taunts Misawa with stiff slaps until Misawa hits back and lands another nasty elbow smash. Misawa tries maintaining control with kicks and ax handles of his own but each time he tries a sustained flurry he has to stop due to the pain in his neck and upper shoulders. Great selling from the champ. Misawa tries chops of his own but Doc fires up and hits an explosive forearm that downs Misawa at the ten-minute mark.

Doc stomps on Misawa’s chest as the crowd chants Misawa’s name. Misawa kicks Doc away and lands an elbow to stop Doc’s subsequent charge. He gets a one-count off a gutwrench suplex and then reapplies the chinlock and then switches to his facelock signature move. Doc throws him off but Misawa reapplies it right away, only for Doc to get a ropebreak. Misawa lands a dropkick off an Irish whip, but on the next Irish whip Doc reverses it and military presses Misawa over his head. Doc drops Misawa face-first onto a turnbuckle pad and goes for his Oklahoma Stampede finisher. He smashes Misawa into one corner but Misawa escapes before the second one so Doc tackles him again. Doc dropkicks Misawa and tries the Stampede again. He almost completes it but this time Misawa counters into a press pin in midair and gets a two-count. Misawa charges for an elbow. Doc counters into a powerslam for a two-count. Doc tries the Dangerous Backdrop Driver! Misawa fights for his life to get to the ropes and does so. Doc pummels him with jabs and hits a dropkick that sends Misawa to the floor. Then the near-300-pound Doc dives through the ropes onto Misawa. Another awesome move.

Doc throws Misawa into the ring and hits a top-rope diving tackle for a two-count. Then he lands his Gutwrench powerbomb finisher! The referee counts one…two…thr – no, Misawa kicks out. The crowd’s going nuts. Dangerous Back – no, Misawa resists. Doc lariats the back of Misawa’s head to break his resistance. Dangerous Backdr – no, Misawa counters into another midair press pin. Shades of his 1990 match with Tsuruta. Misawa pins but only gets a two-count. Misawa hits an enzuigiri but Doc barely flinches. A second one lands and Doc starts hulking up Oklahoma-style. Misawa lands more kicks but Doc catches on, blocks one, and throws Misawa down. Running elbow smash! Doc remains standing. More elbows. Doc fights back with elbows of his own. Misawa out-elbows him and goes to the top rope. Tiger body splash. Doc kicks out and hits some desperation clotheslines for another two-count. Dangerous Backdrop Driver connects! Misawa gets spiked on his softened neck. One, two, and thr – NO, Misawa survives! Doc can’t believe it and pins again. Misawa kicks out once more.

Twenty minutes have passed as Doc winds up for another big clothesline. Doc charges. Misawa ducks and hits a Tiger Driver. One, two, Doc kicks out. Misawa tries another Tiger Driver but Doc powers out. Misawa bounces back up and elbows the back of Doc’s neck. Then Misawa charges for a running elbow. Doc picks him up and powerslams him. Misawa kicks out of another pin. Rolling elbow smash! Doc remains standing! Doc blocks a second rolling elbow but can’t block a standard elbow. Misawa drills him with another successful rolling elbow. The ref checks on Doc to see if he’s still conscious and the crowd – who were 100% behind Misawa – start a brief ‘Steve’ chant. They love the action so much they don’t want him to give up. Misawa gives Doc time to recover. Doc gets to his feet…and eats another running elbow smash. But Misawa’s not done. A second Tiger Driver connects! One, two, and three! Misawa retains his title!

Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 23:06: Mitsuharu Misawa

Review: Awesome match, as expected of two 1990s wrestling icons. I doubted Doc would beat Misawa here but I don’t think that was the point. The goal of this match was to establish Doc as a potential threat for a future world title match and reign. This match succeeded in that goal because it further elevated Doc as a threat beyond what he already achieved in his match with Kobashi four days earlier.

Doc had a singular strategy here that he worked more or less to perfection: soften Misawa’s neck for the DBD. Whenever he could he used his power advantage to attack Misawa’s neck with almost surgical precision. Doc’s unrelenting focus and commitment to this strategy put Misawa on the defensive for the bulk of the first half of the match. Whenever Misawa landed any combo of moves he had to pause to sell/rub his neck and shoulder. Doc was doing so much damage to him that he couldn’t maintain his usual smashmouth King’s Road style. Eventually, Doc’s strategy (almost) paid off. He broke Misawa’s tenacity and resistance and connected with the terrifying Dangerous Backdrop Driver. But what Doc failed to recognize here was that Misawa was historically and naturally tough. Even after getting spiked so brutally, Misawa’s tenacity shone through. He survived that brutal move and from there Doc was out of options. He went into full desperation mode and swung for the fences. But that desperation was all Misawa needed to make a sudden yet believable comeback. He smashed Doc into oblivion with some of the best elbows he has ever landed (which is saying a lot considering it’s Misawa we’re talking about) and then put him to rest with a Tiger Driver.

Though it wasn’t as good as Doc’s other big AJPW matches (his matches with Kobashi are legendary, as are his title win over Misawa in 1994 and his title loss to Kawada later that year), this is still a great match. It showed how to elevate someone into a believable title threat without pulling the trigger on them prematurely. Because of how this match was wrestled, there was enough reason and anticipation to build to a future rematch. Doc would get even better a year later and would become arguably the top American wrestler in All Japan until he departed for WWE in 1998. Great stuff here, especially for such a compact, under-25-minute match.

Final Rating: ****1/2


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