Few wrestlers have had such an intense, storied, and taxing feud as All Japan’s Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. Theirs is a perfect example of a feud that was best told through actions and not words. They were pure athletes and fighters; they had no need for gimmicks, over-the-top characters, or crazy bait-and-switch swerves. They left the storytelling to the matches themselves, and those matches have by and large withstood the test of time.
Today we look back at another one of their biggest matches. It continued the trend of ‘two biggest stars facing off in a big summer match’ that had started back in 1993. It was part of the same long and winding story that goes back years and years, but it also took their match style in a different direction. But was that shift in match style a good thing or a bad thing? There’s only one way to find out.
Let’s look back at Misawa and Kawada’s fifteenth singles match together, from July 23rd, 1999.
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.
Seven months earlier, Kawada beat Misawa cleanly and decisively to become Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. That match was supposed to mark the beginning of a long and successful championship run for Kawada. But that didn’t happen because of something that took place during the match. Minutes into it, Kawada fractured his ulna hitting Misawa in the back of the head. So Kawada wrestled almost the entirety of that match with a broken arm and still finished it as planned. He also gave Misawa a very special gift in the form of the most dangerous wrestling move ever created: The Ganso Bomb/Kawada Driver.
Kawada won the title but vacated it soon afterwards because he needed surgery. He missed the 1999 Champion Carnival tournament but vowed to reclaim a title that he won and technically never lost. But as one can expect, Misawa wasn’t going to go down without an intense fight. He beat Vader to win the title for a fifth time and one month prior to this match, had retained it against Kenta Kobashi in one of the best pro-wrestling matches of all time.
So going into this match, both sides had plenty of supporters. Many people thought Kawada would win because had shown he could, in fact, defeat Misawa. But Misawa was still an unquestioned wrestling machine that could still go at an insane level despite more than a decade of major wear-and-tear on his body. Kawada had tried to supplant Misawa before and had succeeded twice before. With this title shot, could he make it three for three?
This match originally took place on July 23rd, 1999 in Tokyo’s Budokan Hall. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. More than twenty years have passed since it first happened, so let’s see if this match has withstood the test of time.
This is for Misawa’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. They lock-up and Misawa gets a surprising clean break on the ropes. They lock-up again and go straight to brawling. Kawada hits a barrage of elbows. Misawa fires back with elbows of his own. Kawada goes to the ropes and lands a yakuza kick. Misawa does the same and lands a running elbow. Yakuza kick. Elbow smash. Kawada hits Misawa so hard you can hear them on through the hard camera. Misawa does the same and hits back with equal force. Kawada staggers and drops Misawa with another high kick and then collapses. Intense start to the match.
Kawada wrestles Misawa to the mat and hits an elbow to the back of his head. This really angers Misawa because he springs right up and elbows the hell out of Kawada into a corner. Kawada takes some time to recover ringside and returns with some patented step kicks to Misawa’s face. But Misawa tanks them like a boss, which forces Kawada to try with another volley of kicks. Misawa no-sells again. Kawada lands a brutal chop. Misawa absorbs that too and hits a brutal elbow. Kawada answers with a high kick. Misawa goes down.
Misawa tries to fight out of a single leg crab but Kawada overpowers him and locks it in. Misawa eventually reaches the ropes so Kawada chops him into a corner. He whips Misawa into the opposite corner, Misawa gets his boot up and goes for an elbow counter, but Kawada has him scouted and hits two more brutal high kicks. Kawada continues his onslaught with kicks, elbows and chops. He lands another corner boot, but this time Misawa fires back with a sudden elbow smash. He follows that with a Tiger Driver for two. Kawada fights out of a German suplex so Misawa lands his diving spinning lariat. He dropkicks Kawada out of the ring and lands his elbow suicida through the ropes. Misawa isn’t done punishing Kawada as he teases a Tiger Driver from the apron. Kawada escapes and throws Misawa from the apron to the floor. Brutal landing for Misawa.
Kawada boots Misawa off the apron and then over the steel barricade. Back in the ring, Kawada punts Misawa’s spine and lands more step kicks to Misawa’s face. Misawa resists getting suplexed so Kawada drops him with a rolling kick. Kawada then lands some close-fisted punches, which gets a huge reaction because those are usually forbidden in All Japan. He lands more stiff strikes but Misawa still manages to kick out at two, so he drops a knee across Misawa’s orbital bone. Misawa sells like he’s in tremendous pain, which is probably the case given that he had his orbital bone broken four years earlier and that injury has been targeted constantly ever since.
Kawada tries to suplex Misawa over the rope but Misawa lands on his feet. Kawada goes for a gamengiri kick but Misawa blocks it, but can’t block a second one and gets kicked right in the face. Misawa kicks out of a pin and then powers out of a powerbomb. Kawada fires back with a stiff elbow and attempts a Dangerous Backdrop. Misawa hits some elbows but Kawada’s drive is too much. Dangerous Backdrop connects. Misawa somehow gets to his feet and lands a running elbow smash. Both men collapse.
Kawada gets up first and lands another flurry of brutal kicks to Misawa’s head in the corner. If this were WWE, the broadcasters probably wouldn’t allow this fight to be shown, it looks so brutal. Kawada teases a powerbomb. Misawa resists so Kawada lands knee lifts and tries again. Misawa still resists so Kawada continues his onslaught. Misawa fires up and hits elbow strikes. He lands a big one-two combo and a running elbow smash and Kawada goes down.
Misawa goes for the Emerald Flowsion but Kawada escapes and tries to stay on the ropes. Misawa Irish whips him, Kawada reverses and goes for a spinkick/leg lariat, but Misawa catches his leg and throws him down. Rolling elbow smash misses. Misawa elbows out of a German suplex. Rolling elbow smash connects and Kawada goes down in a heap. One, two, Kawada kicks out. Misawa lands a German suplex and charges. Kawada answers with a gamengiri kick. Both men collapse once again. It’s anyone’s match at this point.
Kawada gets up first and lands a running lariat. He follows with a Sheerdrop Brainbuster. One, two, thr—no, Misawa barely kicks out. Folding Powerbomb connects. Misawa still kicks out. Kawada tries the powerbomb again. Misawa finds himself vertical in the Ganso bomb position. But this time he powers through and lands a Frankensteiner for a one-count. Kawada knocks him away and lands a high kick. He tries another Powerbomb. Misawa lands on his feet and hits more elbow strikes. Kawada lands a desperation kick but Misawa out-strikes him. Kawada resists a Tiger suplex so Misawa lands a rolling elbow to the back of his head. Tiger suplex connects. One, two, no, Kawada stays alive.
Misawa lands more elbow smashes and Kawada fires back with more punches. Misawa keeps up his attacks and Kawada slumps down, and then lands a sudden Gamengiri out of nowhere. Misawa answers with a running elbow smash. Followed by another one. One, two, no, Kawada still kicks out. As a last-ditch effort, Kawada starts kicking Misawa’s calf. Misawa angrily hits more elbows followed by a bridging German suplex for two. Misawa goes for a running elbow smash but Kawada collapses. He can’t even keep himself up at this point. Kawada lands more forearms in vain as Misawa elbows him into position for his super-finisher. Tiger Driver ’91! Misawa spikes Kawada! But Misawa doesn’t pin. He wants to end this with decisive finality. Misawa goes to the corner for one more running elbow smash. The referee tells him not to and to pin. He sees that Kawada is done. Misawa goes to pin. One, two, three! There’s the match. Misawa wins again.
Winner and STILL AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 21:58: Mitsuharu Misawa
That was a fun, intense brawl. It had very little in common with their earlier matches. While their previous matches had elements of pure grappling and psychology, this one was a straight-up fight. It was basically an inferior version of their June 3rd, 1994 battle, in that it was shorter, faster, and with a quieter crowd.
It was basically a Brock Lesnar match but with an All Japan twist. Both wrestlers forewent applying any strategies or following the King’s Road structure to a T. Instead, they brawled wildly and turned this into an endurance contest. It soon became apparent that they were more interesting in having an ugly yet realistic fight while only landing their signature moves instead of going down similar paths that they followed before.
The main story here was that Kawada had something of a psychological edge over Misawa since he had won in their previous two title matches. Kawada hoped to continue that trend, but Misawa was Misawa and shattered Kawada’s dreams yet again. On one hand, it made sense for Misawa to win here because he beat Kenta Kobashi (who was commentating here) a month earlier in a monumental epic. It wouldn’t make sense for Kawada to beat Misawa so easily when Kobashi – a guy they were building up as a future star – couldn’t do the same.
Maybe Kawada knew this, which is why his offensive approach here was to be as brutal and violent as possible. Kawada just wrecked Misawa for most of the match with some of the most brutal kicks I’ve ever seen. He has always been famous for being brutally stiff, but he seemed to take it to another level here. It was hard to tell watching the match, but I’m not sure if all those kicks were ‘worked’. I’m pretty sure he stiffed Misawa several times for real because that was a key element of their rivalry. They hadn’t been friends for years and Misawa had once admitted that he and Kawada channeled their real-life animosity into their matches to make them better.
That philosophy worked, albeit at a great cost. Kawada fought incredibly hard, but Misawa was just too tough for him. Misawa absorbed finisher after finisher after finisher. And when he wasn’t absorbing them like the ultimate damage sponge, he was dishing out punishment in equal measure. One of the best things about seeing Misawa wrestle is that he was a master at making elbow smashes look lethal. He had perfect timing and execution here, with so many of his strikes looking as close to real as it can get in pro-wrestling. Misawa destroyed Kawada throughout the closing ten minutes after all of Kawada’s biggest moves failed to keep him down. And that led to an interesting finish. Misawa wanted to end the match with a running elbow smash, a move that had dropped many opponents before. But the referee stopped him from doing so and ordered him to pin. He knew Kawada was out cold and hitting an elbow wasn’t necessary. There was no way Kawada was getting up after eating so many elbow smashes, high-angle German and Tiger suplexes, and a wince-inducing, head-spiking Tiger Driver ’91.
But despite all the good things it had going for it, the match very much exists in the shadow of better Misawa/Kawada matches. While its shorter length makes it easier to digest, it also takes away from the general ‘epic’ atmosphere that these two wrestlers tended to thrive in. They gave this match a rougher, more brutal aesthetic, but it came at the expense of tension. One of the reasons I’ve raved about and praised their other matches is the unpredictability they execute in their counter sequences. Just like how modern New Japan does it, the old All Japan matches were so wild and exciting because they were peppered with these long block/strike/reverse/duck/escape/avoid segments that build up on each other and ended in a multitude of different ways. That wasn’t present here. It was just ‘back-and-forth hitting’ with a tiny amount of blocking. On one hand, both Misawa and Kawada sacrificed technique and psychology to make the match come across as more violent. On the other hand, by keeping it simple and focusing solely on their biggest moves, they made each other look nearly indestructible. It was a fair trade-off, but in my opinion it also makes the match feel less special.
Final Rating: ****1/2
If you like insanely stiff brawling and unrelenting violence, this is the match for you. it came across as the pinnacle of a decades-long feud and as a straight-up fight. That made it unique in a sense because it was unlike most of what All Japan was putting on at the time. But it made sense given the long and complex feud between Misawa and Kawada that had been the centerpiece of AJPW’s booking since at least 1993.
Sadly, it just doesn’t measure up to their other matches. Misawa and Kawada set the bar for themselves so unbelievably high and this match didn’t reach that level back in 1999, nor does it now. In terms of story, their rivalry really ended here because it became clear to Kawada that he was never going to be better than Misawa, especially with up-and-coming challengers like Kobashi and Akiyama waiting in the wings. And in terms of pure match quality, their best singles matches were their title matches in 1994, 1995, and 1997. They had many more outstanding tag team matches, but that’s a story for another day.