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5-Star Match Reviews: Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi vs. ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams and Johnny Ace – March 4th, 1995, by Alex Podgorski

It’s amazing how pro wrestlers’ careers can transform so greatly whenever they change companies. Sometimes they’re great positive changes. Steve Austin, Triple H and pre-WWE Undertaker all languished unused in WCW before making it big in WWE. Gail Kim was misused horrendously in WWE and became quite possibly the top women’s wrestler in North America after heading to TNA. And a young kid from Japan was saddled with a corny sidekick gimmick in TNA then went home and became the godlike Rainmaker.

Today we look at a slightly different sort of change. This is a match that features two men that were great before they came to WWE and upon arriving…changed for the worse. One of them saw his reputation destroyed because someone thought it was smart to make him fight for real in a pro wrestling company. The other, meanwhile, was a good in-ring wrestler but in WWE has become known for being a backstage stooge and being called ‘Mr. Excitement’ ironically.

Today we look at another classic AJPW battle between the team of ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams & Johnny Ace and Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi.

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.

The story

Misawa and Kobashi were the defending champions going into this match. They had won them back in December 1994 in the final match of the World’s Strongest Tag Determination League, AJPW’s annual tag team tournament. And the two men they bested to win those belts were, you guessed it, Doc and Ace.

Now, two-on-two tag matches weren’t that common during this period in AJPW. The company’s rigorous touring schedule required that most matches feature their biggest stars in six-or-eight-man tag matches to keep them fresh for bigger shows. So Doc and Ace had to wait a while until they got a shot at those prestigious titles.

The match

This match originally took place on March 4th, 1995, and is for the AJPW World Tag Team Titles. Kobashi and Ace start things off with some amateur grappling. Ace counters an armlock into an Irish whip and they tackle each other but neither man goes down. Another quick exchange ends in a standoff. Kobashi tags Misawa and Doc shouts at Ace to tag him, but Ace says he’s got this. Lol, sure. Ace tries elbowing Misawa but eats a dropkick for his efforts. All you can hear is Doc screaming “COME ON GODDAMMIT, GIVE ME A TAG.” Since Ace doesn’t want to poke the bear any further (which is wise) he relents and tags in Doc, who walks into battle against Misawa with a huge grin on his face.

After a lockup and some elbows from Misawa, Doc bitchslaps Misawa, which is never a smart thing to do. Misawa fires back with slaps and elbows, then Ace comes in to try and fight dirty, only to eat elbows from Misawa and get shoved aside by Doc. Doc knocks Misawa down with elbows and Kobashi comes in for the save. Misawa gets a few more elbows in, and we get a great visual of Kobashi holding back Misawa and Ace holding back Doc. Those two men CLEARLY want to tear into each other.

As the ref orders them to their respective corners, Doc escapes from Ace’s grasp and cheapshots Misawa from behind. Then he makes the gesture for the belt, taunting Kobashi as he tags in. Both gaijins try and double team Kobashi with strikes but that approach fails because, duh, it’s Kobashi. He nearly cleaves Ace’s neck with a rolling back chop and has a standoff with Doc. And boy do THESE two men have an interesting history together.

Surprisingly, Doc tags Ace in despite clearly wanting to tear Kobashi apart himself. Ace slaps Kobashi and they have another little standoff after a chop exchange. Misawa and Doc come in and both teams have another staredown, and Doc cheapshot Misawa again. The crowd’s going absolutely nuts here, cheering for all four men to destroy each other. Ace eats a chop from Kobashi then dropkicks him leading to another standoff. Doc attacks Kobashi from the apron. So Kobashi chops him so hard he falls off. This distraction allows Ace to DDT Kobashi and he tags in a now-enraged Doc.

Doc knocks Misawa off the apron and just drills Kobashi with a brainbuster. Ace smashes Kobashi into the barricade then tosses him to the wolves (meaning Doc). Doc applies a camel clutch but Kobashi reaches the ropes. Yet Doc keeps Kobashi immobile, allowing Ace to drop a leg on Kobashi Undertaker-style. Doc gets the first two-count of the match and tags in Ace, who lands a pair of corner clotheslines for another two-count. Ace applies a chinlock but Kobashi crawls to the rope.

Doc tags and chops Kobashi in his now-weakened neck for a two-count. He teases the Dangerous Backdrop Driver and Kobashi makes a beeline for the ropes. Smart move, because everyone knows how that move got its name and Kobashi’s right to fear it. Doc goes for it again but Kobashi fights desperately to escape it. He elbows, chops and punches Doc, causing Ace to come in and help his partner, which in turn causes Misawa to come in. after that little brawl clears up, Kobashi tags in Misawa and the crowd cheers loudly.

Misawa elbows Doc a bit and Doc responds by lifting Misawa onto his shoulders and dropping him hard on his back. After a tense staredown, Misawa goes for a takedown but Doc answers with simultaneous knees and elbows. Misawa lays in some pretty stiff elbow smashes and Doc answers with jabs. They duck each other’s clotheslines and Doc counters a Misawa running elbow into a cross armbreaker. Misawa nearly reaches the ropes but Doc rolls him back into the middle of the ring. Misawa reaches the ropes so Doc stomps on that arm and tags Ace, who does the same. Ace lands a big kick and a DDT for a two-count, then applies some sort of facelock.

The fifteen-minute mark passes as Doc tags in. After failing to rip Misawa’s arm off at the shoulder, he goes back to the cross armbreaker. He’s showing great psychology by doing whatever he can to destroy Misawa’s biggest weapon, his right (elbowing) arm. Misawa reaches the ropes so Doc drops a knee on his arm and tags Ace in again, who also drops a knee on that same arm. Ace applies a standing armlock, which lasts quite a while. He whips Misawa into a corner and charges, but Misawa ducks and pins for a one-count.

He tags Kobashi after kicking Ace down and Kobashi drops ace with a shoulder tackle then knocks Doc down. A vertical suplex gets Kobashi a one-count and he applies a Boston Crab, even as Ace tries to punch him in the head. Doc charges in and breaks up the Crab with a wind-up lariat. Misawa tags in and drops Ace with the diving spinning lariat for a one-count. Misawa kicks Ace down and tags Kobashi, who follows ace to the outside and tosses him into the barricade. Back in the ring, Kobashi and Misawa land an amazing powerbomb/crossbody combo move and Misawa knocks Doc off the apron again.

Kobashi goes for the Moonsault but Ace fights out twice in a row. On the second attempt, Doc charges back in and stops Kobashi, only to be taken out by Misawa. Ace ducks a Kobashi clothesline and drops him with a Backdrop suplex. Not the most vicious landing but still a huge move for Ace. Ringside, Doc reverses a Misawa whip and sends Misawa into the ring barricade. Misawa appears to have hurt his ankle, so he’ll probably be out there for a while.

Back in the ring, Ace and Doc land a running forearm/German suplex combo move, planting Kobashi for another two-count. Ace mocks Kobashi’s taunt and goes for his own Moonsault, just like in the prior December. Kobashi stops ace but Doc stops Kobashi. Misawa tries to stop Doc, but Doc overpowers him as well. Doc slams Kobashi. Ace with the Moonsault press. ON KOBASHI! He pins but Kobashi kicks out. As the fans chant for Kobashi, Ace tags in Doc who runs in like a bat out of hell. He lariats Kobashi, lands a stinger splash, and follows with an overhead belly-to-belly for two. He goes for the DBD, sees Misawa coming in and drops him, turns to see Kobashi charging, and drops him with a spinebuster for another two-count.

Doc goes for a dive, but Misawa cuts him off. Ace knocks Misawa off the apron but Misawa reverses Ace’s Irish whip, sending Ace into the barricade. Meanwhile, Kobashi tries an avalanche belly-to-belly, but both men suffer a rough landing. It’s hard to tell who lands worse. Doc pins but Misawa breaks it up. Misawa drops Ace out of the ring with elbows then drops Doc with a Tiger Driver.

We’re at the twenty-five-minute mark as Ace tags in and knocks Misawa off the apron. A full nelson slam gets Ace a two-count so he lands a clothesline followed by an Ace Crusher out of nowhere. But he doesn’t pin right away and instead goes for a Gutwrench powerbomb but Kobashi counters. Kobashi crawls to his corner and Ace tries to stop him from tagging, but Kobashi just chops him way and tags in Misawa. Misawa whips Ace, Ace counters it, Misawa does his former boot whip block and turns but walks into a boot from Ace. Ace charges but Misawa blocks and lands a diving back elbow.

Misawa whips Ace into a sleeperhold as the crowd starts cheering for, of all people, Johnny Ace. Misawa transitions into the facelock. Doc breaks it up. Kobashi drags Doc out of the ring. Misawa applies the facelock again. Ace is fighting with all his might to hold on as Doc and Kobashi brawl ringside. Misawa goes for a monkey flip, but Doc comes out of nowhere. DANGEROUS BACKDROP DRIVER! AND A VICIOUS ONE AT THAT! Damn, Misawa got PLANTED!

Kobashi tries to keep Doc out of the ring but Doc counters his whip and takes him down. Back in the ring, Misawa’s completely helpless. Doomsday Device. Misawa goes down hard. Ace crawls to pin, but Kobashi breaks it up.

Thirty minutes have passed as Doc dropkicks Kobashi and goes for another DBD, only for Kobashi to make a desperation save with a dropkick to Doc’s knee. Ace, the legal man, dives off the top rope but eats an elbow smash from Misawa. More elbow smashes from Misawa, including a big rolling one. All of that gets Misawa another two-count. Assisted Tiger Driver by Misawa and Kobashi. Misawa pins but Doc breaks it up. Doc goes for the Oklahoma Stamped’ed but Kobashi kicks his knee again. Kobashi tags in. Diving Moonsault press. One, two, no, Ace kicks out.

After some guillotine leg drops, Kobashi goes for another Moonsault but Ace fights back. Ace tries to fight back with a kick but Kobashi drops him with a LARIATO! But Ace still kicks out. Ace somehow manages to duck a rolling back chop and chops Kobashi in the neck. He goes for an Ace Crusher but Kobashi counters into a bridging Tiger Suplex. He pins, but Doc breaks it up.

Kobashi tries to pull Ace away from the ropes but he holds on for dear life. Then Doc charges in, knocking Kobashi away. An almost-one-legged Doc tries to pull Ace to his corner to tag, but Misawa stops him. So Doc charges at Misawa, Misawa ducks and kicks him in the weakened leg. Misawa holds Doc under the ropes from outside. Doc keeps kicking Misawa into the steel barricade but Misawa doesn’t relent. After a leg drop to the neck, Ace starts emulating Kobashi and ragdolls around the ring on auto-pilot. Kobashi catches him. Rolling back chop to the neck. Jackknife powerbomb. One, two, NO, Ace kicks out at 2.9.

We’re now thirty-five minutes in. Kobashi climbs the top rope but Doc cuts him off. Then Doc knocks Misawa out of the ring and, out of nowhere, lands a plancha over the ropes and onto Misawa. Damn, what athleticism. But he forgot about Kobashi. Kobashi still launches himself from the top rope and lands a diving guillotine leg drop. One, two, three! That’s it. The match is over.

Winners and STILL AJPW World Tag Team Champions after 36:07: The Super Generation Army (Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi)

Review

This match had one of the most unique stories I’ve ever seen out of a 1990s AJPW match. Usually, the story is centered on the action itself (which was fantastic as usual), with the moves and callback to previous encounters acting as the meat of the story. But this was different. There was an overt story of Doc being an unchained bear wanting to destroy anything in his path, even going so far as to knock away his own partner because he got in Doc’s way.

Furthermore, the match was interesting because it took the typical AJPW formula and flipped it on its head. Most of these men’s matches together featured Kobashi getting mauled by the gaijins until Misawa would tag in and make the save. Here, it was the opposite. Misawa and Kobashi isolated Ace as much as possible by keeping Doc out of the match whenever they could. And they had good reason to do that: whenever Doc was in the ring he’d unleash utter mayhem. He destroyed both Misawa and Kobashi whenever he could, and was on such a warpath that it cost him the match.

In the closing minutes, Kobashi was gaining steam on Ace and Doc could’ve done something to slow Kobashi down, like pushing him off the top turnbuckle he was perched on or landing another big double team move with Ace. Instead, he was too wrapped up in trying to destroy Misawa and landed a plancha out of the ring (which was utterly insane for a near-300-pound man like Steve Williams). That left Ace alone in the ring with a stronger and healthier Kobashi. And since Kobashi had spent the bulk of his time in the match targeting Ace’s neck, it made sense to end the match that way: by landing a diving guillotine leg drop. It was a surprising way for Kobashi to score a win, yet it made perfect sense here.

With the match over, all four men left the match with something positive. Misawa survived an onslaught of brutal moves and had his arm weakened significantly by his opponents, which opened the door for Kobashi to do the remaining legwork needed to win for his team. Kobashi scored the fall with an unexpected yet smart move, demonstrating his ability to follow through with earlier work and create a dramatic ending while maintaining logic in what he did.

Doc left the match looking like an utter monster, but even more so than normal. His obsession with destroying his opponents at the expense of saving his partner underscored how much of a threat he could be. Misawa and Kobashi were wise to isolate him when they could to the point that he’d charge in and make rash decisions. At the same time, this ‘monster’ also showed some great instincts by attacking Misawa’s main striking arm to keep Misawa from winning with his signature elbow strikes.

As for Johnny Ace, he took a much bigger shit-kicking than he usually does. With Doc out of the way, Ace had to fight Kobashi and Misawa more or less alone, and he actually did a great job of trying his best to survive. It wasn’t likely that Ace could topple Kobashi all by himself, much less Misawa. But he went down fighting and actually looked a lot better than he had in the past. Before this match, it was pretty obvious that he would be the one taking the fall for his team. And yet, he looked much stronger here as a survivor. He no longer looked like Doc’s fall guy.

And while there was no way he could be seen as Doc’s equal (unless he magically transformed into Vader), he proved he could stand on his own two feet and fight through the pain. And that’s what was at the core of the King’s Road Style: taking an ungodly amount of punishment coming at you from all angles yet still mustering your inner fire to survive.

Final Rating: *****

While a lot of people consider this one of the worst AJPW tag matches, I enjoyed it a lot. It was amazing how these four wrestlers managed to tell such a fresh new story by simply flipping two roles, with the native duo isolating one of the gaijins instead of the usual opposite. And that formula worked wonders here. This felt like a classic war with a deep inner story without sacrificing the typical AJPW peaks and valleys. There was still a lengthy segment devoted to weakening a limb, but that was completely justified because Misawa couldn’t really win with his typical elbow smashes because of it.

That’s the beauty of these grand old King’s Road matches. The wrestlers know the match-up isn’t new so they take you on a slightly different journey than what you’ve seen before. And just when you think you’ve seen it all they surprise you without ever going overboard on anything.

Every time I review one 5-star match from another company, I switch back to one of these AJPW classics right after. And I do that because I genuinely think 1990s AJPW featured the best in-ring pro wrestling ever. And the rivalries and repeated match-ups they showcased demonstrate this. The wrestlers fighting in this style put so much attention to tiny details and build their matches so carefully that each and every big match is completely different from the last. Sure, some elements to carry over, but those are few and far between.

Each big AJPW match – this one included – has amazing qualities that make it stand on its own as a wrestling classic. And they don’t require one to understand the context of the match or know each wrestler’s history; all that stuff is merely icing on the cake.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.