The year 1996 was a pretty interesting year in pro wrestling. In WWE, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin had begun his rise to the top with his King of the Ring speech and had a fantastic match with Bret Hart at Survivor Series. WCW had shocked the entire world with the New World Order, creating the most talked-about stable in the entire world at the time. ECW was making waves as a wrestling ‘alternative’ thanks to their grunge-inspired look, anti-establishment mantra, and the fact that they had Rey Mysterio wrestling for them. And New Japan Pro-Wrestling was making money hand over fist with ‘outside invader’ storylines which, incidentally, are what inspired the nWo in the first place.
And of course, AJPW still reigned supreme in the match quality department. They were still selling out Budokan Hall (Tokyo’s version of Madison Square Garden) on a very frequent basis. And central to that was their roster of incredibly-talented wrestlers, both local and foreign. And those wrestlers put on another fantastic match on June 7th, 1996. It was so good, in fact, that the Wrestling Observer readers voted it Match of the Year.
So the question to ask now is, did those readers make the right choice? Let’s find out.
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.
All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW) had a very vigorous touring schedule throughout the year. That schedule, coupled with its taxing in-ring style, took a major toll on the wrestlers. To keep them healthy and the fans interested, most AJPW shows were structured in a specific way. There would be lots of multi-man tag matches involving the biggest stars, with special singles or two-on-two tag matches saved for either the biggest shows on the tour or at the end. That way, wrestlers would save their biggest efforts for the more critical shows and the fans would get little ‘teasers’ of action before buying tickets for the major shows.
In 1996, Mitsuharu Misawa’s regular partner Kenta Kobashi decided to break out as a singles star. He wanted to show he could hang as a solo performer and felt too big to stay in Misawa’s shadow. But this wasn’t an acrimonious split like Misawa’s falling out with Kawada, but more a professional one. Kobashi had become too big a star to stay in tag team competition and was being groomed for heavyweight championship contention. Thus Misawa needed a new partner and chose Jun Akiyama. This was a logical repetition of something that had happened before. Back when Misawa and Kawada were partners, Kobashi was their lower-card guy that took most of the falls. And when Kawada left, Kobashi was promoted to #2 and Akiyama took Kobashi’s old spot. And now that Kobashi had come and gone, Akiyama was Misawa’s new right-hand man.
Akiyama was the perfect fit as Misawa’s partner. He was an excellent amateur grappler with a creative offensive style. He is credited with creating both the Exploder Suplex and the Blue Thunder Bomb, both of which have since become popular moves in pro wrestling.
But their opponents aren’t to be underestimated either. First, there’s ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams, the most badass gaijin wrestler in Japan. He’s looking to re-establish himself as a threat and credible champion after being suspended from AJPW for one year due to being caught with prescription drugs in a Japanese airport. Second, there’s Johnny Ace, Mr. Excitement himself. Long considered a lower-tier guy, Ace wanted to prove that he was worthy of challenging for the heavyweight title. Thus, he and Doc challenged Misawa and Akiyama for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships.
This match took place on June 7th, 1996, and is for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Akiyama and Williams start things off with some amateur grappling. Akiyama goes for a leglock but Williams reaches the ropes. They exchange holds some more, then the two of them start taunting each other. They go nose-to-nose, pushing each other in a realistic ‘you wanna go?’ sort of way. Williams tries to push forward by puffing up his chest, but Akiyama isn’t backing down.
Williams starts scoop slamming Akiyama while trash-talking Misawa in the corner. He lands a bridging suplex for a one-count and tags in Ace. They land a double-team shoulder tackle and tag team elbow drops. Misawa elbows both of them and they overtake him. They try to whip Misawa, but he knocks them both away and Akiyama attacks Ace. Akiyama lands a diving knee onto ace for a one-count. Misawa tags in and lands his diving spinning lariat for a one-count. Ace escapes a Tiger Driver and Williams comes in to stop a Tiger Suplex from Misawa and then drops Misawa with a Tiger Suplex of his own. Damn. That was a BRUTAL landing for Misawa.
The video’s clipped, so the next thing we see is Ace scoop slamming Misawa and going for a diving move. Misawa rolls away and ace gives chase and stomp on him. Misawa reverses an Irish whip with a back elbow and tags in Akiyama. Akiyama lands a forearm smash and a jumping knee on Ace, but Williams breaks up his pin. Akiyama then lands a Hogan leg drop and teases his patented exploder suplex, but again Williams interferes. Ace tries to whip Akiyama but Akiyama ducks two clotheslines, but gets too overconfident and falls on his face after Ace dodges his charge.
Williams tags in and starts jabbing away at Akiyama. Akiyama tries to fight back but Williams tosses him around like a ragdoll. Williams wins another strike exchange then shows off his immense strength by pressing Akiyama over his head and dropping him neck-first on the top rope. Akiyama kicks out of a pin so he gets tossed out of the ring. Misawa can’t help him as he’s still recovering on the other side of the ring from that earlier Tiger Suplex.
The gaijins double team Akiyama ringside with stomps and clotheslines, but still kicks out of a pin in the ring. The clip monster strikes again, so we transition to Williams tagging back in. I guess Ace did something to Akiyama, but since it was cut out it probably wasn’t important. Williams slams Akiyama face-first into the mat while shouting ‘COME ON TOUGH GUY’. He’s just so good at being a bully that actually can back up his words.
Akiyama answers with a few hard slaps, but Williams is just too strong and takes him back down with a pinning spinebuster that gets a two-count. The announcer points out that fifteen minutes have passed, even though we’re barely eight minutes into the clip. So clearly A LOT was taken out. Too bad this is the only copy of the match that’s still available.
Williams applies a grounded headlock and drops his own body to put more pressure on Akiyama’s neck. Akiyama reaches the ropes with his foot, so Williams tosses him into his corner. Then Akiyama tries to fight back by attacking both opponents, but once again Williams overpowers him and lands a powerslam for a two-count. Ace tags in and he and Williams hit some amazing tag team combo moves that lead to a 2.5-count. Ace knocks Misawa off the apron and lands the Ace Crusher II (Rocker Dropper) for another close two-count. Then Ace goes for a powerbomb as Williams knocks Misawa back off the apron. But Akiyama powers out…and eats a clothesline from Williams for his efforts.
But Misawa has had enough. He charges in and drops Williams with a German suplex and Ace with a massive elbow. Akiyama rolls over to his corner and tags in Misawa. the crowd goes nuts. A flurry of elbow smashes for Ace. A flurry of elbow smashes for Williams. Both men get knocked out of the ring. Misawa flies through the air with a corkscrew plancha. Elbow suicida on Williams. Misawa’s on fire. Tiger Driver on Ace, he pins, but Ace kicks out at 2.6. Standing senton followed by a frog splash. Ace kicks out again. Bridging German suplex. Williams makes the save. Akiyama tries attacking Williams but gets thrown out of the ring. Misawa goes for the rolling elbow, but Williams ducks it. Massive Doctor Bomb by Williams. Misawa’s advantage is gone.
Both legal men are down. Ace crawls to pin Misawa, but Akiyama makes the save. Ace pins again after Akiyama gets knocked away, but Misawa kicks out at 2.5. Williams tags in and he looked pissed. He hits three short-range clotheslines in a row for a two-count. Akiyama breaks up a Doctor Bomb attempt, so Williams goes for the Dangerous Backdrop Driver. Everyone starts screaming, and then you can hear sighs of relief as Misawa reaches the ropes.
Williams tries to suplex Misawa again, but Akiyama dropkicks him in the head. Misawa tags in Akiyama, who starts nailing Williams with hard strikes. Williams dodges a corner charge, but then so does Akiyama. First Williams gets dropped by Akiyama, then does Ace. Akiyama’s all fired up. He teases the Exploder Suplex, but Williams escapes. Dangerous Backdrop Driver! Akiyama just got planted!
Ace tags in and lands an elbow drop, bit Misawa breaks up his pin. He knocks both opponents down with elbows and then pushes Akiyama out of the ring. That’s some smart storytelling right there. The heels can’t win unless it’s in the ring, and Misawa had the wherewithal to force his opponent to the safety of the ringside area to give him time to recover. But in doing so, Misawa has left himself in the danger zone. He’s not the legal man, so that gives his opponents free reign to do whatever they want to him. They double team him and land a brutal Doomsday Device. Misawa basically flips off of Williams’ shoulders.
With Misawa basically incapacitated, Williams carries a nearly-comatose Akiyama back to the ring. Ace, the legal man, pins him, but Akiyama kicks out at 2.9. Unbelievable. Even with all that recovery time, Akiyama almost got pinned after taking Williams’ Dangerous Backdrop. Ace Crusher on Akiyama. Ace is on fire and dares Akiyama to get back up. But why isn’t he pinning? I don’t know.
Ace lands a powerbomb but Misawa breaks it up. Williams comes in and lands a huge German suplex on Misawa. Williams tries to powerbomb Akiyama but Akiyama reverses out. Ace capitalizes on this with a cobra clutch slam but Akiyama kicks out. They tease the Holy Demon Special ’95 on Akiyama, but Misawa saves Akiyama with a German suplex on Williams. Bridging German suplex by Akiyama. Ace kicks out at 2.6. Exploder by Akiyama. Akiyama pins but Williams breaks up the hold. Misawa goes for the rolling elbow on Williams again, and once again Williams ducks and tries the Dangerous Backdrop. But Misawa holds on long enough for Akiyama to make the save. German suplex on Williams. Akiyama tries to whip Ace but Ace crumples to the mat. Then Akiyama knees Ace so hard he goes careening into the corner. Bridging northern lights suplex. Another kicks out by Ace, so Akiyama lands another Exploder. But Williams grabs Akiyama’s leg from outside so he can’t reach Ace to pin him. Misawa sees this and goes after Williams, dropping him with a Tiger Driver on the ringside mats.
Back in the ring, both legal men get back up. Akiyama lands a jumping knee on Ace, and Misawa follows with a Tiger Suplex on him as well. Akiyama pins but Ace kicks out at 2.9. Akiyama goes for the Exploder yet again but somehow Ace has enough fight left to escape it. So Akiyama answers with a dropkick and another Exploder. All of that and Ace STILL kicks out. Another, fourth Exploder from Akiyama onto Ace. The referee counts one, two, three! The match is over!
Winners and STILL AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 30:09 (officially): Mitsuharu Misawa & Jun Akiyama
This was by far the simplest AJPW tag match I have ever seen in terms of story and structure. But that isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s actually refreshing to see a more Americanized style of wrestling-as-storytelling being applied to the usually complex and intricate tapestries that make up the King’s Road wrestling style.
Williams and Ace basically spent the bulk of the first half of the match weakening Akiyama as best they could. This turned into a more classic underdog story with Akiyama trying his best to fight back and escape to tag in the stronger and more experienced Misawa. But the gaijins knew the threat that Misawa posed, which is why they tried to take him out as early as possible to isolate Akiyama. That approach worked in the end because it made Akiyama look like a big star for taking all that punishment and also being the one to score the fall.
That’s not to say the villains weren’t great, either. Williams was his usual monster self, being the utter badass that backed up his trash talk with raw power. And once again, he was the difference maker here as he was the one that landed the big moves on Misawa to keep him at a disadvantage throughout the fight. And Ace carried more of the load here, spending more time as the legal man and spent a long time fighting it out with Akiyama. Yet watching Ace felt weird towards the last ten minutes of the match. On one hand, he took a ton of punishment from both Misawa and Akiyama, to the point that it took countless suplexes to keep him down long enough for the three-count. Judging from that, it looked like they were really trying to elevate Ace’s credibility as a solo performer.
On the other hand, there was one specific, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it spot that didn’t make sense. Ace didn’t go for a pin right away after landing his big finisher, and instead chose to ‘fire up’ and try a powerbomb. Yet Akiyama looked completely spent by that point. That small moment of gloating actually cost Ace the advantage (and eventually, the match) as it gave Misawa enough time to save his partner. Had Ace gone for the pin right away instead of taunting Akiyama, it’s likely that Misawa wouldn’t’ve been able to make the save as he was still recovering outside the ring. Stuff like that might seem small, but it changes the entire story of the match and makes one of the wrestlers look incompetent.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Even with the clipping leaving out around seven to eight minutes of action, this was still a great match. It’s a great example of showing over telling in which the wrestlers use their actions (and a very small amount of words) to tell a classic heroes-vs.-villains-style story. Any traditional psychology is replaced in favor of pure intensity and drama, making this more of an endurance contest and fight for survival than a scientific grappling bout. This simpler, more Americanized brawl style of match makes for easier watching, as there really isn’t any need to delve deeper into things to pick up minor details in a complex story.
Unfortunately, I felt this contest wasn’t on the same level as other epics. Williams and Ace did a great job isolating the weaker Akiyama, forcing him to fight from underneath. That translated into an exciting finishing sequence, but the ending felt like it came out of nowhere. Akiyama just spammed Exploder suplexes WWE style, landing one after another hoping it was enough. Doing so made the match end rather abruptly, making this less of an exciting match as it could’ve been since things weren’t layered on top of each other to tell a deeper story. And Ace’s strange follow-up to his finisher seemed out of place in a wrestling style that has defined itself as having everything built up so logically and laid out so carefully as to render the match’s flow down to an exact science.
So while it may not hold up in relation to other epics of its day, this match still makes for a fun twenty-three minutes.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.