Section 1- Results
Dragon Gate: Two relevant results from Sunday. Doi defended his title against Dragon Kid, and Tenryu beat Magnum Tokyo in the first of a series between them. Tokyo lasted quite a while against the heavyweight legend.
New Japan: A huge event took place on 9/11. Most of Zero-One’s roster invaded after the main event, led by their current top junior Yoshito Sasaki. At the moment they’re hyping the juniors aspect, with Kanemoto as the featured New Japan defender.
NOAH: Yone and Suzuki/Marufuji defended their titles on 9/11.
Section 2- News
All Japan: Team 3D (the Dudleys) are likely to be in this year’s Real World Tag League.
Dragon Gate: CIMA vs TAKA is in the works for 10/5 in Korakuen.
New Japan: I don’t have to tell you about the ‘Lesnar to New Japan’ story. My take on it is that it could end ugly, and there has to be a ton of stuff going on behind the scenes. All signs point to Lesnar at the Tokyo Dome on 10/8. Also scheduled are Charlie Haas, Matt Morgan and Mark Jindrak. Lesnar, if signed to a long-term deal, would be the biggest American star to hit Japan in *years*. Fujita has been insistent that he’ll be on the Tokyo Dome show. Meanwhile there is a lot of trash talk going on between Tiger Mask and TAKA, Japan’s top juniors.
NOAH: Marufuji has a leg injury and is off the Budokan card (this Sunday!). There was two singles matches planned to build to an eventual Suzuki/Marufuji vs Morishima/Yone tag title match, but now the bouts are Suzuki vs Yone and the rather uninteresting Morishima vs Kanemaru. Tickets for the show aren’t going like crazy, a sign that the Tokyo Dome attendance was primarily for the dream matches and hasn’t carried over much.
Section 3- Best of All Japan vol. 1… part 1
Today I’m going to point all several hundred of you to Michael Fitzgerald’s review of an All Japan compilation tape: http://wrestling.insidepulse.com/articles/42563
In many circles, the six matches on that tape would comprise a top six for the decade. Not just All Japan, mind you, but anywhere. Here is my take on three of those matches, along with a little more background. I’ll cover the other three next time.
-Jumbo Tsuruta vs Mitsuharu Misawa, 9/1/90. Tragically I first saw this match within the past year, rather than at the start of my puro fandom four years ago. This match was the main event of a Nippon Budokan show, ahead of even a Stan Hansen vs Steve Williams match for the Triple Crown. Jumbo vs Misawa began in the aftermath of Tenryu’s departure from the company in April, which left Jumbo as the undisputed top native by a fair amount in addition to the Triple Crown champion. In May, Misawa dropped the Tiger Mask II gimmick and began going after Jumbo and his stable with the help of Kawada, Kobashi and Kikuchi. On June 5th, Jumbo lost the Triple Crown in a very solid match with Terry Gordy that revolved around their parity and similarity.
Three days later Jumbo was ready to crush upstart Misawa and get back his momentum, but Misawa managed to eke out a pinfall win. Gordy then vacated the Triple Crown, and when a decision match for the title came it was Misawa squaring off with Hansen rather than Jumbo. Misawa lost but acquitted himself well in his first title shot. That didn’t sit well with Jumbo, especially after the loss. Between the June and September singles matches they met in numerous tags, often leading to intense brawls between the two. Late in August Jumbo beat Kobashi in a good match which saw Jumbo take Kobashi’s best shots and keep coming. On the same show Misawa won a 6-man tag by knocking out Jumbo’s lieutenant, Masanobu Fuchi, with a flying elbow off the top. These two men were clearly the top natives in the company.
Jumbo had reason to be leery, but at the same time Misawa had yet to get a decisive fall of any form on him, so both had something to prove. The stage was set for an epic. For those of you already familiar with the late ’90s (and beyond) installations of the Misawa/Kobashi/Kawada singles matches, the word ‘epic’ takes on a connotation of dozens of nearfalls and escalating head spikes. Here ‘epic’ has to do with the size and scope of the storytelling within the squared circle, and Jumbo came out with a performance for the ages. Through his selling he made it clear that the smaller Misawa was doing serious damage with the deadly elbow smashes, and that brought so much depth to the strike exchanges. If Misawa won, he was looking physically stronger. If Jumbo won, it was a hard-fought battle in the middle of a war.
Michael pointed out one part late in the match where Jumbo ‘no-sold’, but that isn’t entirely correct. Rather, Jumbo weathered an onslaught of elbows and got fired up in order to dish out enough punishment to beat Misawa back. The difference is everything. Egregious no-selling involves one wrestler being on the wrong end of a finisher, then quickly (or instantly) springing to life and going on offense. The standard in puro involves one guy popping up to do a lariat, or in some headache-inducing instances a complex impact move. Either way it’s a matter of the wrestler coming back by pretending the other guy’s move doesn’t hurt that much. In this match Jumbo constantly sells the damage he’s taking, and he has to muster up all his strength just to survive being peppered by Misawa’s most basic strike.
The ability to logically and effectively show vulnerability, confidence and anger at appropriate times in the match adds so much, but unlike many charismatic North American wrestlers it wasn’t just about the acting. The fundamentals of the match were rock-solid as well, from the execution of the moves to the flow to the dramatic finish. It isn’t perfect. If they wanted to they could have made a more intense finishing sequence, or simply done more of what was already working. Misawa was fine but clearly was being led, and times where he had to take control weren’t as stellar. At the same time this match from start to finish embodies things that are good and admirable about professional wrestling, and it’s a shame Misawa seems to have mostly forgotten that a great story will always trump a big pile of finishing moves.
Though Jumbo vs Misawa never produced an all-time great singles match after this, the overall feud generated dozens of classics that can appeal to any wrestling fan.
-Mitsuharu Misawa vs Toshiaki Kawada, 6/3/94. Jumbo’s move from serious to semi-comedy in 1993 meant the ushering of a new era. Misawa won the Triple Crown from Stan Hansen in 1992 and held it during Jumbo’s final months as a top name, meaning that in Jumbo’s wake it was Misawa who reigned among the natives. Misawa’s good friend Kawada got a title shot on 10/21/92 and showed quite a lot of fire, to the point where one might wonder if it wasn’t the heat of battle but rather a deep-seated issue. When the Miracle Violence Connection took the tag titles from Misawa & Kawada on 1/30/93 (Dr. Death pinning Misawa), the alliance fractured. Kawada left to join up with Akira Taue, while Kobashi moved up to the position of Misawa’s number two.
Kawada & Taue were the ones to take the tag straps from the MVC, and Kawada took Misawa to a thirty minute draw in the 1993 Champions Carnival. On 6/1/93, Kawada & Taue vs Misawa & Kobashi in a tag title match headlined the Nippon Budokan. Kawada pinned Kobashi in the first installment of a fantastic series. Several excellent six-man tags involving their extended stables took place around this timeframe, leading to the first Misawa vs Kawada Triple Crown match with them as full enemies. Kawada did his best on 7/29/93, but it wasn’t good enough. Kawada’s woes continued when Hansen & Ted DiBiase took the tag titles, followed by Misawa & Kobashi beating Kawada & Taue on the final night of the Real World Tag League in what was essentially the finals.
Kawada came back by taking Misawa the distance once more in the 1994 Champions Carnival, then going on to beat Steve Williams in the final. Though Misawa & Kobashi defended the tag titles against Kawada & Taue on 5/21/94, it was Taue who took the fall. By 6/3/94 Misawa’s Triple Crown reign had nearly lasted two years. This was Kawada’s third shot against Misawa and fifth overall, the most of anyone since the title was assembled in 1989. What took place on that date exceeded any singles match that style of wrestling had seen to date.
It was long, lasting just under 36 minutes when no Triple Crown match had yet gone 30. It was intense, with hardway bleeding and both of them unleashing their absolute biggest guns as the match progressed. It was tight, never losing the momentum where several of Misawa’s title defenses had rough patches down the stretch. It was heated. It redefined what an epic was and what fans would expect from a high-end wrestling match. What stands out most to me is how well they traded moves in the closing minutes and stretched out Misawa’s comeback, making it gripping rather than formulaic. Misawa showed more than a little desperation as he finally put Kawada away, and the next month those fault lines resulted in Steve Williams ending his title reign.
In their first two title matches Misawa looked like he still had a bit more left in the tank; here Kawada took him to his absolute physical limit. Like the lead-ins to the Jumbo/Misawa encounter above, the prelude to 6/3/94 is vital to understanding the importance of what unfolds in the ring. Both matches are great when viewed on their own, but placed in context of what came before they truly shine.
-Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue, 6/9/95. It was to me and to many others the greatest match ever. Much of the quality is straightforward: Kobashi’s leg is taped up, it gets attacked, Kobashi is hobbled for the rest of the match and Misawa is left fighting a losing battle. Ah, but add the backstory and much more becomes illuminated. Four relevant precursors took place with this pairing, all with the tag titles at stake. 6/1/93 saw Kawada down Kobashi. The Tag League ’93 battle featured Kawada’s leg being focused on, culminating in Kawada being pinned by lower-ranked Kobashi. 5/21/94 was the first forty-minute long Double Tag Title match, and was much more ‘epic’ than anything which came before (much like the Triple Crown match two weeks later). 1/24/95 was a 60 minute draw.
Kawada had another milestone in the span between 6/94 and 6/95. On 10/22/94 he wrested the Triple Crown from Steve Williams, and he defended against Kobashi in a 60 minute draw on 1/19/95. Stan Hansen took it away on 3/4/95 (cheaply in my opinion), just before a very memorable Champions Carnival tournament. The tournament was notable for several things, all involving the four men in question. Misawa vs Kawada was yet another 30 minute draw, only this time with a twist because Kawada legit broke Misawa’s left orbital bone (the cheek) with a face kick two minutes in. Misawa finished the match and even took more kicks to the face. That’s a man right there. Kawada failed to make the finals, but did get a revenge pin on Hansen.
Most importantly, Taue had a breakthrough in performance quality and results, reaching the finals where he lost to Misawa in what many consider Akira’s best singles match. In both the round-robin and finals, Taue worked over Misawa’s facial region. Though the injury wasn’t readily visible, it was real and known by the fans. Thus when Misawa’s face comes into play on 6/5/95 it isn’t just the usual connotation of face work (ie. intensity or being a prick), and both Kawada and Taue played a role in how the injury had progressed. All four men had grown in the preceeding twelve months. With the groundwork for having an excellent long match laid out by the 5/21/94 match, there was every reason for Baba to put this on top of a Budokan card.
For 42 minutes, those four men had a match that was without major flaw and which excelled at everything it attempted. You want intensity? There’s plenty of stiffness and big moves. You want psychology? Kobashi’s leg is worked over in such a way that at first it’s almost a taunt, but by the end is debilitating, and he sells it masterfully. You want inventiveness? Between multi-part sequences, double-team moves, thoughtful transitions and even an instance of using one partner’s body as a weapon against the other, this was some cutting-edge stuff. Not what one would expect when one sees the gangly Akira Taue.
42 minutes is a lot of time, but it isn’t wasted. The build is steady, logical, and a picture-perfect representation of the Kings Road style. The details reveal a peerless level of craftsmanship, as they play off of the past and pay off things within the match. And ‘paying off’ is exactly what this match does. It pays off much of Kawada’s struggle to finally get a pin on Misawa, let alone in a title match. It pays off of all the chinks in the armor Kawada and Taue had managed to deliver in the predeeding months. It pays off the evolution of the style that was birthed during the Jumbo/Misawa feud. And it also pays it forward, because a month later Misawa vs Kawada for the Triple Crown was yet another four-star-plus masterpiece.
Next column: Misawa vs Kobashi! Misawa & Akiyama vs Kawada & Taue!