Saikyo Tag Yushoketteisen:
The reason this match is so great is not simply the work, which is both flawless and superb, it's the incredibly deep story the match tells. The more All Japan you have seen, the better this match comes off because there are so many aspects that are both important and ironic if you understand the history behind them.
The main story the match tells is one that has been going on since Jumbo Tsuruta was taken out of the picture with hepatitis B. Mitsuharu Misawa & Toshiaki Kawada finally ascended to the top of the AJ tag scene by winning the 1992 Sekai Saikyo tag league, but without Jumbo, their longtime partnership was split up soon thereafter. Misawa, who had held the Triple Crown since defeating Stan Hansen on 8/22/92, was clearly the top star, while Kawada was the #2 native. Kawada wasn't really a close #2, he was the second fiddle and the perennial bridesmaid. He captured the double tag titles on 5/20/93, but from Terry Gordy & Steve Williams. He captured the Triple Crown on 10/22/94, but from Williams. Kawada hadn't beaten Misawa for a title, nor had he ever pinned Misawa. On 6/9/95, Kawada finally had his day in the sun when he pinned Misawa to win the double tag titles in the best men's tag match ever up to that point in time. The one win was great for Kawada, but there were still many more mountains he had to climb.
Things changed in 1996, with Kobashi being elevated out of the role of Misawa's #2 and Jun Akiyama, a 26-year-old (and we know that Baba likes the inexperienced about as much as Pat Riley does) who was an alternate to Manabu Nakanishi at 220 pounds on Japan's 1992 Olympic freestyle wrestling team before becoming a pro, taking over as Misawa's partner. It would seem that, at least in tag, this would have helped Kawada in his quest to overtake Misawa, but he quickly suffered major setbacks to the new Misawa led team. In one hell of a match on 5/23/96, Kawada not only failed to defeat Misawa's team, but, as in a 6-man earlier in that year, he suffered the embarrassment of being pinned by the youngster Akiyama. The defeat was even worse this time because it cost him the tag straps. On 7/9, Kawada failed to get his revenge, with Misawa & Akiyama successfully defending the titles when Misawa pinned Taue. Misawa & Akiyama dropped the tag titles on 9/5, but to Williams & Ace when Ace pinned Akiyama. Misawa and Kawada's paths crossed twice in league portion of the '96 tag league. On 11/21, they teased a draw, but Kawada managed to pin Akiyama at 29:46. Kawada had a chance to capitalize on this success on 11/29, as a win could have brought Misawa & Akiyama to the brink of elimination. However, Taue couldn't hold up his end, being taken out of the picture on more than one occasion, which forced Kawada to work the finals segment alone. Kawada still had fate in his own hands, but he couldn't surmount the odds, and was pinned by Misawa's Tigerdriver. Due to this win, Misawa & Akiyama were able to win a spot in the tag finals on the final day.
12/6 was yet another of Kawada's chances to rise to the top of the tag world by overtaking Misawa. After winning the 1992 final with Kawada, Misawa had won 3 finals in a row with Kobashi, defeating Kawada & Taue in both the 1993 and 1995 finals. Misawa having a new partner was fairly irrelevant to Kawada's quest, as he had to beat the man to be the man. However, this was another big test of legitimization for Akiyama, who would have to live up to the standards Kobashi set as Misawa's partner, as well as continue to prove to the Baba's that he was ready for the top tier. For Taue, it was something of working in reverse. He had already won the Champion Carnival and, unlike his partner, had taken the Triple Crown from Misawa, but the tag league was the one major accomplishment that remained elusive. Misawa was in the position of Michael Jordan (he didn't have David Stern ordering the refs to give him the benefit of anything that bared the slightest resemblance to foul, but his wins were also no more legitimate), everyone believed he was the best, but as his team got weaker they wondered just how long his superior skills could keep his team on top.
There was one thing all four men had in common, the goal to make the 20th Sekai Saikyo Tag Team League Final a memorable one, and they sure as hell met that goal. Kawada & Taue were incredibly calm as they walked to the ring, completely focused on the task at hand. As they did their pre-match stretches like two runners preparing for a race, in this case a marathon, it was as if they didn't realize there were 16,300 fans watching them. Misawa & Akiyama were much looser coming out to the legendary "MI-SA-WA! MISAWA!" chant. Akiyama, who was anxious to compete in the biggest match of his life, ran ahead of his veteran partner like a child rushing to get to the store early to see Santa, even though Santa wasn't going to be there any earlier just because the kid was. Misawa was the same as always, intense and focused, yet calm and collected, knowing the task at hand and completely ready to get the job done once again.
There was a buzz from the crowd as the bell rang, with the fans anticipating the combatants making #20 a classic. As Akiyama & Kawada engaged in a staredown, the buzz changed to a Kawada chant. Kawada & Akiyama started off with a stiff sequence where Kawada put Jun down with his high kick, but Jun recovered, shrugged off a second high kick, and put Kawada down with his jumping knee attack. Kawada & Taue were dropkicked to the floor, and Misawa hit a nice elbow suicida that sent Kawada crashing back into the security railing. It was only 2 minutes into the match, yet Kawada's selling of this spot was phenomenal. He pretended he was a limp carcass and made Misawa drag him up and roll him back into the ring.
Misawa blasted away with elbows, which led to the first tease of the match, with Kawada ducking a rolling (discus) elbow and trying his lethal Dangerous backdrop. However, Misawa elbowed his way out and delivered his Tigerdriver for a near fall. It was only 2:35 into the match, but the finisher was not out of place. More importantly, it clearly worked because the crowd popped big for it even though there was no way in hell that Dangerous K was laying down already. Misawa tried another Tiger driver, but Taue broke it up, giving Kawada the opening to tag. Misawa smoothly slipped out of Taue's suplex, but Dynamic T reacted quickly, retaining control by planting Misawa with a DDT. Though Misawa arm dragged his way out of Taue's nodowa otoshi (chokeslam), and Akiyama came in and lent a hand, Taue remained in control, getting a near fall with his Dynamic bomb (Ligerbomb).
The tide turned when Taue tried to nodowa otoshi Misawa off the middle rope, but Akiyama interjected, backdropping Taue, which allowed Misawa to tag. Akiyama was all fired up, but Taue treated him like a redheaded stepchild, complete with a giant slap across the face. Akiyama came back with a Dragon screw, but Kawada interfered, allowing Taue to deliver his nodowa otoshi and tag out. Akiyama was able to avoid Kawada's Dangerous backdrop. However, he ate a bunch of strikes, selling them for all they were worth. The sequence culminated with Kawada delivering a killer brainbuster DDT, which Akiyama sold like Misawa (roll to the floor and pretend you are dead), except he was lying on his stomach.
Akiyama was dominated until he backdropped his way out of Kawada's sleeper and made the tag at the 11-minute-mark Misawa & Kawada exchanged vicious blows in a classic heated showdown. Misawa gave Kawada a rolling elbow that was incredibly lethal, but Kawada somehow managed to fire back with his jumping high kick, and both sold. Kawada made it up first, tagging in Dynamic T, who set up his nodowa otoshi off the apron, but was once again unsuccessful. Since Taue had teased this in their May & June matches as well, the question was not if Taue would eventually take someone out with it, but when.
Akiyama took apart Taue in a methodical method, almost mocking Taue by basically imitating his style. The most notable part of this sequence was probably announcer Akira Fukuzawa, the best announcer in Japan (at least to a non-native speaker), having an uncharacteristic lapse, calling Akiyama's Northern Lights suplex a "fishamensuuuupreksu." Misawa & Akiyama worked Taue over, culminating in Akiyama hitting his exploder. Kawada, not willing to risk the chance that Taue couldn't kick out of Jun's finisher, immediately came in, but Jun took both opponents out with a rolling lariat and covered Taue for a near fall. After getting a near fall with his Tiger splash (frog splash), Misawa tried his Tigerdriver, but Kawada quickly interjected, saving Taue by blowing Misawa away with his shotgun lariat (basically a stiff lariat, with shotgun referring to the loud noise you hear from the impact of the blow). This gave Taue enough time to regain his senses, hitting a Dangerous (released) German suplex then tagging in Kawada.
Kawada worked for his powerbomb, but Misawa avoided it twice. Misawa went back on offense, hitting a Dangerous (released) German suplex which Kawada sold magnificently. He rolled over slowly and let the momentum take him up to a sitting position, then, since he was "out," he let the same momentum make him slowly fall to his back. Misawa tried to drag him up, but Kawada was still limp, so Misawa covered for a near fall. Misawa hit his Tigerdriver and it looked like it could be deja vu for Kawada, but, unlike 11/29, Taue was there to save the day. Misawa took Taue out with an elbow with the crowd going crazy, as this now looked like 11/29 again, sensing that another trophy was ready to be added to Misawa's mantle. Misawa and Akiyama gave Dangerous K their consecutive German suplex spot, with Kawada getting up glassy-eyed, but still having the presence to save himself the only way he could, by falling through the ropes to the floor. Akiyama, who had been very aggressive in the big matches against Kawada & Taue and Williams & Ace, was fairly timid here, and it showed when he had Misawa come to the floor to assist him in rolling a limp Kawada back into the ring. Misawa eventually dragged Kawada up and Tigerdrivered him. Though Akiyama went to the middle of the ring, poised to cut Taue off, it was clear that there was no way that Taue could make it back into the ring in time to save his partner from Misawa's finisher. Kawada was going to have to kick out this time, and, though not very convincingly, he managed to do it.
Misawa stood over his helpless rival, as he contemplated the manner he was going close another chapter in his legend, and condemn Kawada to another year of agony. Misawa controlled Kawada's carcass enough to drag him up and attempt his rarely used #2 finisher, the Tiger suplex '85 (half-nelson German suplex). However, Taue lurched forward with a shoulder in an awkward way that only Taue can, crashing into Misawa, with the momentum sending Kawada tumbling to the floor. Misawa, none too happy that his little plan backfired, charged at Taue. However, Taue caught him with a Baba neckbreaker drop, which Fukuzawa called so emphatically that he seemed to lose his voice during the "doroppu." Akiyama came in aggressively, but Taue took control and, in what appeared to be the only blown spot of the match, tried to crotch him, but Akiyama's knee wound up landing on the top rope.
Months of seed planting and teasing culminated in the most important spot of the match, and maybe the AJ year, as Taue took Akiyama out with his nodowa off the apron. This set up the possibility that Kawada could come out on the winning end of a classic AJ storyline. In the great 1988 final, he was the youngster, teaming with the legendary Genichiru Tenryu, who was taken out, leaving his senior partner to fight alone. Tenryu couldn't withstand those odds, could Misawa?
Misawa was down in the ring during this spot so, as he got up and immediately ate Taue's jumping high kick, he had no idea that his partner may as well have been a vampire with a stake in his heart. The camera man stood over Akiyama, zooming in to get a closeup of Akiyama wincing in pain. Taue brought Kawada back into the ring and tagged him, so he could legally put Misawa away. Taue lifted Misawa up for his Dynamic bomb, but the resourcefulness of Misawa showed as he shockingly turned it into a huracanrana for a near fall. Misawa then exploded off the ropes with a big elbow and wobbled to his corner to make the hot tag. Taue and Kawada were both down in the ring, with Kawada lying flat on his stomach and Taue lying on his back struggling to get to his feet. This was Akiyama's big chance, and a befuddled Misawa was looking all over for him, but Misawa finally realized Akiyama was "KO'd." A dazed and confused Misawa was forced to try to mount an offensive, but he was simply too worn down to put much on his elbows.
Taue, in an ode to Baba, quickly took control with two Northern chops followed by two coconut crushes. Misawa tried to counter Taue's high kick the Akiyama way, but Taue was familiar with what Misawa was doing and spiked him when he tried the jumping forearm. Misawa avoided Taue's nodowa, so Taue used a tope suicida to set up the more dangerous nodowa off the apron. There was an incredible mid shot of Taue, with his hand on Misawa's throat trying to lift Misawa, who was not really able to resist, but for some reason Misawa wasn't going up in the air. We see Taue look down and the camera tilts down, revealing a desperate and damaged Akiyama stopping the move by holding on to Taue's leg. Suddenly, we see Kawada dart across the bottom corner of the frame and high kick Akiyama off Taue. Taue high kicked Misawa and, with Akiyama now out of the picture, began to move forward for the nodowa otoshi off the apron. However, Misawa came to life, knocking Taue off the apron with a big elbow. Misawa & Taue both rolled across the ring, still selling, trying to make the tag first. Misawa, who had the head start, made it to his corner first. After all the times Misawa saved Akiyama in the big tag matches earlier in the year, when Misawa finally needed Akiyama in a match against Kawada & Taue, Akiyama wasn't there twice in a row. Misawa's head sunk, as he once again realized he had to continue to do it on his own. Meanwhile, Kawada stalked over to Misawa with a look that says, "I'm not going to show you any mercy". In the 1993 finals, Kawada came in with a bad knee and he was worked over by both Misawa & Kobashi for an extended final stretch. He was never able to tag and he was eventually pinned. Would Misawa end up in this role this year because he either can't make it over to tag or can't find anyone to tag?
Kawada exploded with a series of kicks, knocking Misawa down in the corner. Kawada then acted as if he'd "lost it", repeatedly stomping and punting Misawa's face as if to say, "This is for all the times you beat me in Triple Crown matches, and this is for the times you beat me in World's Strongest Tag League finals, and this..." Misawa tried to fight off both opponents with elbows, but this time when Kawada ducked his rolling elbow, he planted him with a Dangerous backdrop, and Misawa sold it like he was dead. Kawada screamed as he picked Misawa up for his powerbomb, then dropped Misawa down hard, causing his head to bounce off the mat. Kawada leaned in deep for the cover, but at 2 1/2, Misawa kicked out, shooting Kawada forward onto the ref's leg. The camera got a closeup of Kawada, who had a look of disbelief and dismay on his face, as if he was wondering if there were forces above that give Misawa the power to kick out of all the sure finishes. Kawada had no answer to that question, nor for the question of how to pin Misawa, so he tagged Taue.
Taue hit his nodowa otoshi then delivered his Dynamic bomb, another sure finish, but at the last second Jun dove and took out Taue. Kawada stalked over to Akiyama as if he had a point to make. Kawada and Taue then made their point, delivering a killer Dangerous backdrop/nodowa otoshi combination, which made Akiyama unstable when he tried to move. Taue tried a Dangerous (released) German suplex, but Misawa rolled through and fired back with an elbow, then both collapsed after Misawa's rolling elbow. The crowd was rocking since it was apparent the end of the match was near, but the fans didn't know if Misawa could once again make the miraculous comeback after the elbows, or if he would finally succumb to Kawada.
Kawada hot tagged, delving into his arsenal of kicks. However, as he held Misawa up and was set to deliver a big one, Akiyama came diving onto the screen to tackle Kawada, and it appeared he headbutted him in the groin. Since Kawada wasn't holding Misawa up anymore, Misawa collapsed. Kawada took Akiyama out with a Dangerous backdrop, and Akiyama grasped his chest like an old man who was going to die if he didn't get his heart medication immediately. Kawada set up Misawa for his powerbomb, summoning all the strength remaining in his body to lift Misawa, but Misawa back body dropped his way out. Taue took charge, coming in and hitting his nodowa otoshi then waving his hand at Kawada to put Misawa away. With Akiyama still lying flat on his stomach "out of it", Kawada hit his jumping high kick and covered, but still couldn't beat Misawa. Kawada had a look on his face similar to the one he had before, as the same demon was still haunting him. Kawada set Misawa up for his powerbomb again and emitted a very loud "eeeeeeyaaaa" then an "aaaaaaaaaaa," as he tried to lift Misawa up for the finishing blow. On the third try, he powerbombed Misawa, and Taue stomped on Akiyama's head at the same time. Kawada actually sat on Misawa's thighs and leaned forward so far that Misawa was folded in half, as Akiyama, who was about 4 feet away, reached out in desperation only to have Taue punch him. In a near fall that was reminiscent of the legendary one at the 25-minute-mark of the 6/3/94 Misawa/Kawada match, Misawa shot Kawada off at 2 3/4. Taue held the helpless Akiyama, who was nothing more than an unconscious carcass, and Kawada took him out again, this time with a jumping high kick. It was almost like a ceremonial sacrifice, but it was a sign that they remembered that fateful day on the 23rd of May when they lost the tag titles, and they were not going to take any chances today. Kawada set Misawa up for the powerbomb again, lifting him up on the first try, and leaning forward so far that his legs were in the air and Misawa's toes were as down as his shoulders. 1....2........3 and the crowd erupts as Fukuzawa wails, "COUNT-O-THREEEEEEEEEEEE! COUNT-O-THREEEEEE!"
Kawada & Taue had finally won the Real World Tag Team League and Kawada was able to do it by pinning the man. Taue, with a rare smile on his face, congratulated his partner by repeatedly patting him on the back, as Kawada looked so exhausted that he could barely stand much less enjoy his glorious moment. Kawada found a little strength after the ref raised their hands, and the two friends shook hands then went to opposite corners to celebrate with the fans. The camera captured the moment, getting a shot of Kawada from the waist up, standing on the turnbuckle with his hands raised in joy and victory. It's a moment Kawada had waited nearly four years for. A few seconds later, there was a closeup of Misawa, still"unconscious" with a wrestler pressing an ice pack against his face. It's a shame these two shots didn't come back to back, but still, it's hard to find two shots that are so far away from the norm coming in such close proximity to one another.
This is the best match of 1996, the best match of 1997 if you use those bizarre voting periods. A year's worth of ring wars could not end on a better note for a league. No match in 1996 or 1997 comes close to it for storyline, and the build and psychology are also the best in that period. The work was basically flawless, with great spots, perfect timing, and incredible selling, particularly by Akiyama whose selling rose to the incredibly high level, or at worst a notch below, of Misawa & Kawada in this match. It was a tremendous effort by all four men, incredibly riveting, and great right down to the most meticulous detail. , Looking at the bigger picture, I believe this slightly edges out the 6/9/95 match for the best men's tag match of all-time.
For all its virtues, the match was really only about the rivalry between two men. As we saw some closure in that rivalry we were reminded by their fantastic work together, why their rivalry will go down as the best of the 1990's, and all-time for that matter. At the same time we see this closure, the really amazing thing about this All Japan booking comes to light. As the tag final finished one story whose routes date back to 1988, it left us salivating for the next chapter. The next chapter could have been long or short, but we all knew it would end with Kawada's first singles win over Misawa. We didn't know when it would happen, but we were hooked, and were going to be watching when it did. Unfortunately, Baba didn't make that April 19, 1997 day a memorable one as far as the Kawada/Misawa match was concerned (you could certainly argue that Kawada's first singles win over Misawa should have been for the Triple Crown, but it's inarguable that the night had to end on that note). However, it did logically lead to the next, yet unfinished chapter, where Kawada finally wins the Triple Crown from Misawa, and that's what AJ booking is all about.
Special thanks to: John D. Williams & Glenn Tsunekawa
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