Section 1- Results
Dragon Gate: Shingo Takagi won the contenders match on Saturday, but failed to beat Mochizuki for the title on Sunday. Still it’s a big step forward as he becomes the first wrestler from the debuted-after-2001 group to get a push.
NOAH: Sunday’s Budokan show was a claimed sellout, and if it wasn’t one it was close. Openweight champ Yone fell to Minoru Suzuki in a non-title match, while Kentaro Shiga lost his return match to Tamon Honda. KENTA got an elusive pin on SUWA in retaining the juniors title. Post-match KENTA called out Shibata, and the two seem poised to form an alliance. Taue earned a GHC title shot on 11/5 by pinning Akiyama in the semi-main tag match. And in the main event, Takeshi Rikio defeated Misawa in his third title defense.
Section 2- News
All Japan: Tomorrow, Sasaki & Nakajima will defend the All Asia tag belts against (Bull) Buchanan & D-Lo Brown. The Dudleys debut on the 30th.
New Japan: The lead story is obviously Lesnar’s spot in the Tokyo Dome main event. He’ll be in a ‘dogfight’ with Chono and Fujita for the title, meaning that there will be one-on-one matches until one wrestler has a fall on the other two. Lesnar being put on the card without an immediate lawsuit by WWE signals that an agreement has been reached in regards to Lesnar wrestling in Japan. Also added to the card is Nagata vs Matt Morgan, and Nakanishi & Kashin vs Haas & Jindrak. Last but not least, Nakamura & Tanahashi will defend the tag titles (eventually) against top Mexican team Los Guerreros Del Infierno.
WRESTLE-ONE: Five big matches are announced for their 10/2 show at Sumo Hall. Akebono & Scorpio (of ECW/WCW/WWF fame) will team up against Misawa & Ogawa in the non-tournament bout. The second round of the tournament features Suwama vs Minoru Suzuki, Jamal vs Don Frye, Great Muta vs Sasaki, and Bob Sapp vs Jun Akiyama. That last one comes as a surprise, because I wouldn’t expect NOAH to feed Akiyama to Sapp in exchange for so little (Akiyama’s win over Shibata).
Section 3- Best of All Japan contd
-Mitsuharu Misawa & Jun Akiyama vs Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue, RWTL ’96 Final, 12/6/96. For those who are All Japan lovers, this typically rounds out the top trio of matches along with Misawa vs Kawada 6/94 and Misawa/Kobashi vs Kawada/Taue 6/95. Many consider this the best match ever. I’m not one of them, but I do easily give it the ‘five star’ designation and I have yet to find someone who hasn’t gone that far. While Dave Meltzer’s star ratings are often tied to the relative quality of the year, as seen in the snowflakes he gave TNA’s Styles vs Daniels vs Joe match, this is one that stands the test of time and can be ranked alongside the best that have ever happened.
Of course there’s history. Following the Kawada/Taue win over Misawa/Kobashi in the ’95 epic, those teams had a 60 minute draw on 10/15/95. A better hour-long match hasn’t happened since, in large part because of the painstaking build to each big move towards the end rather than going through the usual litany of finishers. Kawada & Taue decided not to put the tag titles on the line in that year’s tag league, which was a good idea because they lost to Misawa & Kobashi in the final. This marked the third straight tag league win for them, a record. They decided to go their separate ways, and Misawa promoted Jun Akiyama to his right-hand man.
On 5/23/96 they defeated Kawada & Taue for the titles, with Akiyama getting a huge pin on Kawada. A rematch on 7/9 ended with Misawa pinning Taue. Misawa & Akiyama then lost the straps to Steve Williams & Johnny Ace on 9/5. Taue managed to have his best year ever in singles competition, beating Steve Williams in the Champions Carnival final and promptly taking the Triple Crown from Misawa. Though Taue lost it to Kobashi a few months later, he had broken through the proverbial glass ceiling. By the time the tag league rolled around, none of these four had any major gold. The tag league had an odd format that year, with seven teams facing off twice in the round-robin. They traded wins, Misawa pinning Kawada with the tiger driver and Kawada pinning Akiyama with a jumping high kick. At the end of the round-robin these teams advanced to the finals.
This match doesn’t have the usual structure of an All Japan epic, instead going for a high-energy format. For over half an hour. The big moves start early, and even though early pins aren’t especially dramatic nearfalls they do establish that it’s an all-out war. Given that it’s four heavyweights trading things like kicks directly to the face, folding-impact suplexes, powerbombs and other big moves, this is an absolute sprint. The contrast with recent NOAH epics like Misawa vs Kobashi and Kobashi vs Akiyama is striking, because they pace themselves enough to avoid long lulls that kill the flow of the action. Not to mention that they do a vastly superior job of executing things, building to the dramatic finish, and structuring things down the stretch. The fundamentals of this match aren’t just excellent, they’re essentially without flaw.
What really cements the absolute greatness of the match is how well it fits in with a match eight years before it. The final match of the ’88 tag league was Kawada and his mentor Tenryu against Stan Hansen & Terry Gordy. It was thrilling and brutal like any notable Hansen match, and its centerpiece was the higher-ranked Tenryu taking a beating while Kawada fought like crazy just to be on the apron for a tag. Kawada was in Akiyama’s role, the young up-and-comer trying to live up to his partner. Taue was very good as the bomb-thrower, Misawa was ‘the man’ as usual, but it’s the way Akiyama battles after the apron-to-floor chokeslam and the way Kawada doggedly kicks ass at the end that add emotion to the good mechanics and hard bumps. Meaning, depth, technique, passion… I cannot give enough praise to this piece of professional wrestling.
–Kenta Kobashi vs Mitsuharu Misawa, 1/20/97. Kobashi beat Taue, who in turn had beaten Misawa. Kobashi took down Hansen with a lariat in his first title defense, then took Kawada to a 60 minute draw in the second. Now he had to take on someone whom he had never pinned, someone who had beaten him decisively in all their previous bouts, and a man who had lost just five singles matches in the past four and a half years. So what does Kobashi do? Why, he comes up with one of the smartest ‘epic match’ strategies I’ve ever seen.
We’ve all seen dozens if not hundreds of matches where a body part is targeted. But two? Using one to build off the other? That’s incredibly rare. Kobashi utilized legitimate shoot-ending armbars to weaken the elbow, and maintained his advantage from a general damage standpoint with big suplexes to go after the neck and set up his finishers. In a perfect world Misawa would manage a comeback, get in some good licks, but fall prey to his injuries and lose to the smarter (on that night) wrestler. Instead Misawa comes back with one move and spends the finish of the match selling no more than Kobashi, who had dominated the first half.
An important thing about this match is the use of the tiger driver ’91 as the finisher but not the finalie. The biggest move of a match can still be kicked out of, but it needs to be sold like death afterwards. The TD ’91 put the match out of Kobashi’s reach, as Kobashi was never a serious threat following it. By acknowledging the move’s deadliness and not making one last comeback it retains its importance and still puts Kobashi over for having kicked out. No wrestler has taken Misawa’s tiger driver ’91 and gone on to win the match; more moves should be treated that way.
The actual finish of Misawa’s running elbow taking place after Misawa’s two biggest neck-snapping finishers creates headaches for many reviewers. Why such a ‘small’ move after two bigger ones? Well, there is some logic to it. Because the opponent is weakened, one concentrated blow can end the match more efficiently than yet another impact finisher. Misawa’s unheralded and absolutely fantastic match with Terry Gordy from 6/91 was an example of the ‘big elbow’ being a satisfying end to a war. The reason why it wasn’t satisfying against Kobashi was that this was a rare example where the elbow smash should have been ruled out. With so many big weapons in his arsenal, and only the elbow having been a focus of the match, it hurts to have that be the final nail in Kobashi’s coffin. All that said, this is still deep into the four-star territory.
–Mitsuharu Misawa vs Kenta Kobashi, 10/21/97. Nine months later it was Kobashi’s turn to challenge for the title. Three men pinned Misawa during the Champions Carnival, and Kobashi was the last of them to get a shot. Sadly Kobashi’s win, with a lariat, wasn’t aired on TV. Following that match they had a 30 minute draw that ended with Kobashi readying the lariat once more. Add in that Kobashi had led Johnny Ace to two tag title wins and it was clear that Kobashi posed more threat as challenger than he did as champion. At nine minutes shorter than the above contest, this is a bit tighter. Rather than working the arm and the neck, Kobashi just focuses on the neck.
The neck work is better than in the previous match though it does entail the use of sleepers. Misawa’s selling isn’t as much of an issue because he avoids bridging suplexes and thus has nothing that a bad neck would prevent, unlike the other match where the arm should have hampered Misawa more. At the same time Misawa should have sold the neck more, rather than coming back and once again acting no more beat down than Kobashi. The finishing stretch also has a rather thrown-together lariat nearfall that Misawa comes back from much too easily. This was still a stand-out match, and is so much more sound than the ‘match of the year’ they had in 2003, but it doesn’t pan out when placed next to Jumbo vs Misawa 9/90 and Misawa vs Kawada 6/94.