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Jake St. Pierre Reviews Every Match Dave Meltzer Gave 5+ Stars To (1995-1996)

March 9, 2019 | Posted by Jake St-Pierre
Mitsuharu Misawa Kenta Kobashi vs. Akira Taue Toshiaki Kawada
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Jake St. Pierre Reviews Every Match Dave Meltzer Gave 5+ Stars To (1995-1996)  

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This is probably the longest column I’ve ever written, so I’m going to bite the bullet and test out a new style to sort of shorten things up. The major change is forgoing the monotonous play-by-play passages as they don’t really seem like a useful piece to the puzzle, and I know the goofy capital letters thing I do probably turns some people off. So that’s all out the window for the time being, and hopefully a dissolution of my “wall of text” analysis style will help readability too. If this format (or something similar) appeals to you all more, then let me know via comment or Twitter (@JakeStPierre411) and this will be a permanent change. I also recognize it’s a little derivative of some review styles on this site and I hope to fine-tune my new format(s) more as I continue to write, so if you have critiques or ideas on how I can strike your fancy a little more, don’t hesitate to throw it out there. Let’s get to it.

Toshiaki Kawada vs. Kenta Kobashi
AJPW January 19, 1995.

It amazes me how many times these All Japan wrestlers can work with each other, but still come up with something different each time. Of course, they often times rotate alignment or matchups and that keeps it relatively new, but we’ve seen Kobashi and Kawada wrestle each other before in various situations, yet they never threatened to wrestle a match like this.

Being a 60 minute match brings an inherently different sort of psychology to a match, but that’s what makes this one different. This was probably the most outwardly technical outing I’ve ever seen wrestled in a 1990s All Japan ring. The hard hitting striking was put to the wayside – although still present at points – in favor of both men slowly trying to wear the other down with holds and various tactics. It wasn’t an overly intense match at all until the final sprint. They started slowly to feel each other out, and never let their emotions get the best of them like has happened in several of their tag matches; although Misawa was involved in those, and Kobashi was mostly guilty by association there. The meat and potatoes of this match wasn’t the fighting spirit or insanity they built to, but the strategies they used to wear one another down and how they changed once their fatigue and injuries built up.

For example, Kobashi had a braced knee that was largely just a big bullseye for Kawada to take advantage of, which worked until he ended up hurting his leg as well. All of a sudden it became a battle of which man’s limb could absorb the most damage rather than Kobashi or Kawada fighting from behind. I even loved Kobashi’s begrudging use of leg drops early, as they were the most successful maneuvers he laid into Kawada despite them giving him trouble with the aforementioned knee injury. It was a small detail but really put over the tactician in Kobashi, as well as the fighting champion he tried to be, knowing he was aggravating an exploited injury. But once they began to run out of gas, the match became a war of attrition.

They limped around doing the most they possibly could. Kawada threw suplex after suplex, but couldn’t bridge and finish the pin combinations. Eventually those suplexes began working for Kawada and nearly gave him the avenue to finish the match with a Powerbomb, but Kobashi went into survival mode and hung on just long enough to leave the building without a loss to his name. The injuries they exploited on each other perhaps led to this draw rather than winning them the match, which is an incredibly nuanced way to incorporate your generic limbwork psychology. Rather than expedite the process of victory, it only served to drag things out. Over and over I harp on this company and its wrestlers’ consistent ability to surprise and captivate me, and this is just another notch in their ledger of incredible work. Sometimes a sixty minute match can be a hindrance to the proceedings – see the HBK vs. Hart match for instance – but it made all the sense in the world here, and was one of the most psychologically deep matches you’re going to come across because of it. All hail. ****3/4

Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada vs. Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW January 24, 1995.

Attempting to take the All Japan tag formula or style, and expand it to this sort of scope is one of the tallest orders you could ask for out of wrestling. The King’s Road style is already such a dense, physically demanding style that stretching it over the span of an hour can seem impossible in many ways, but these four men did it exquisitely and nearly without flaw.

The manner in which these four men were effortlessly able to weave in story threads is impressive enough, but the way they elongated them without sacrificing entertainment or psychological value is next level amazing. The match became more methodical, but it wasn’t in a way that tried to make a mountain out of a mole-hill. It was done organically and with respect to the styles of all four men, and the same respect to their previous bouts. Heck, it was a marked difference from their May 1994 match where tempers were higher than ever before.

It was a decidedly technical affair here, centered on strategy rather than brutality. The overarching story of isolation furthered this match beautifully. The most successful moments of the match for Kawada and Taue ended up being when Misawa was incapacitated on the floor. I mean, it’s obvious if you can do basic math, but the number’s game was their best bet. They compartmentalized their skills and used them to rid the match of Misawa before honing on Kobashi, only for the ever-gutsy Kobashi to continue to put a wrench into their plans. Kobashi tried a mix of firing up and simple escape to get out of the way of the onslaught, and was able to extend the match until Misawa recovered from the Powerbomb on the floor. From there, the intensity had escalated into a fatigued-but-quick consolation prize of Misawa attempting to clean house. He tried to up the pace and turn the match into a wild affair, a stark difference from the methodical beating Taue and Kawada had been dishing out to Kobashi. That was enough to keep he and Kobashi from losing the match, but they didn’t have enough wind in their sails to seal the deal.

The only thing keeping this match from 100% perfection is the lack of selling Kobashi gave out for his knee, which was completely dismantled during a heat segment, and was not given any attention whatsoever once the match progressed. Given the men involved I’m used to work like that being followed up on, but they struck out on that front here. It normally would be enough for me to look past, but it consumed so much of the match in the middle portion that I just can’t pretend it didn’t happen. Sometimes you lose the plot in the midst of your ambition I guess, and this was its lone casualty… because everything else here was wrestling on a level that’s hard to come to grips to. And this isn’t even their best match. ****3/4

Johnny Ace & Steve Williams vs. Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW March 4, 1995.

Save for one of the more meandering heat segments you’re likely to see in an All Japan main event, you’re looking at nothing but mayhem here, and it was all the better for it. And as ever with this sort of match, that mayhem was built to from the first segment of the match, so the opening minutes served a purpose to create that foundation. Dr. Death’s constant need for destruction fueled the aforementioned opening minutes, begging Johnny for a tag whenever he could so he could just dish out punishment at will. They kind of betrayed that mindset with the middle segment, which seemed to exist solely so they could say they went 36 minutes, but once the match kicked into gear, it escalated to an incredibly exciting point.

In one of the most unlikely scenarios in All Japan history, Johnny Ace was left to carry the last half of the match for his team, and it worked out any better than it had a right to. Granted, it was sort of the backdrop for Misawa and Kobashi keeping Dr. Death at bay with the attacks to the knee, but Ace looked quite fantastic fighting it out with Kobashi as the action wound down. He fought as long as he could on his own and had success at points, but against All Japan’s top guys in Misawa and Kobashi, he was on borrowed time, especially if Dr. Death couldn’t gain a foothold and help him.

This story was actually an incredibly interesting flip on some of the tag matches Misawa and Kobashi have had before where their opponents made advances in the numbers game. Think about one of the many Holy Demon Army matches they’ve had and how many times Taue and Kawada took one man out to isolate another. Here, Kobashi and Misawa used that strategy on the brutish Americans and combated their brawn with tactics, and it worked like a charm in the end. It’s getting difficult to continue to find adjectives to describe just how great these matches are, but it doesn’t mean it gets old. In fact, it blows me away that I continue to find something new to love out of these endless arrays of All Japan tags, and that’s a credit to both the workers involved and the King’s Road style. It just never jumps the shark. ****1/2

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Akira Taue
AJPW April 15, 1995.

This was different in a lot of ways from your prototypical All Japan main event, but that worked beautifully in the match’s favor. Akira Taue worked about as overtly heel as you’ll ever see in AJPW, and while he can’t do all the things that a Kawada or Kobashi could, he made up for it by being a completely new sort of foil for Misawa.

The way they worked Misawa’s eye here was nothing short of perfect. Not only did it give Taue his big advantages and opportunities during the match, but Misawa sold it the entire time with the animated blinking, half-shut eyelid, and general look of pain. It’s proof that you don’t have to actively work an arm or leg to get something out of working a body part. Akira Taue knew he couldn’t match the intensity and athleticism of Misawa, so he just raked and chopped his eye so he could find a way into the maneuvers he knew how to do. That’s the mark of a great worker. He didn’t try to match Misawa blow-for-blow; he used what he knew to add to the match, and it was a credit to both he and Misawa that they worked around it so expertly. It didn’t have the finishing stretch of a Misawa vs. Kobashi or anything, but it didn’t need to. The beauty of the match was its build and psychology, both of which passed the test with flying colors and created one of the most uniquely satisfying AJPW matches of the compilation so far. ****3/4

Kyoko Inoue vs. Manami Toyota
AJW May 7, 1995.

The word “epic” is used to describe great matches sometimes and while those occasions may well be warranted, I’m not sure the word is needed as much as it is here. This was an epic of a match by every sense of the word. It was epic in scope, epic in length, and epic in practice. I’ve watched a ton of wrestling in my day – especially lately – and I’ve never watched such a feat of athleticism. It took the All Japan Women formula of moving a mile a minute, and flipped it on its head.

They wrestled it the exact same they would one of their shorter matches, but neither woman would stay down. That’s an obvious take. But the interesting part was the answer to the question of when they’re out in the deep waters, what happens? That was a fantastic story to tell because we’ve seen so many matches, mostly featuring Manami Toyota, where the women go hell for leather for a comparatively smaller period of time. They were used to that. We even had the crazy fast start from Toyota, but without the ability to seal the deal, the match just kept gradually slowing down. It wasn’t like some broadways where they just wrestle slowly for 40 minutes and kick it up later. These women wrestled like they normally would, and when the match didn’t end, it took a toll on their stamina and bodies as the minutes ticked down. That’s what makes this match so impressive to me, beyond the athleticism and false finishes.

They worked with a sense of logic you just can’t find everywhere, and it makes you feel like they HAD to go this long because it simply wouldn’t end. It wasn’t a broadway for broadway’s sake. They were so good and evenly matched that even an entire hour could not determine a winner on this night. They built up their fatigue rather than building up to an insane spot, which is a really interesting swerve that I don’t see many matches do no matter the length, especially in Joshi when insane spots are often the name of the game.

However, I can’t call it perfect, no matter how much I want to. They went way overboard on the nearfalls to the point where the crowd clearly wasn’t biting, they were a little too sloppy and nearly killed each other a couple times, and it was a little too much “my turn, your turn” goofiness that plagued the Chigusa Nagayo vs. Lioness Asuka match from 1987 that I disliked so much. And that sucks because this match has the recipe for being one of the best ever with the way it organically built to its draw conclusion, but the mechanical side of it left a little to be desired to bring it home perfectly. With that being said, there are infinitely worse ways to spend 60 minutes of your life and despite the nitpicks, it’s one of the most memorable matches I’ve reviewed in this series so far. A true epic. ****3/4

Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs. Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada
AJPW June 9, 1995.

If there were ever such thing as a “perfect match”, this bout deserves to be the dictionary definition. Point blank, this is the best tag match I’ve ever seen in my entire life. This match captured everything great about the chemistry between these four men, and multiplied it. The buildup exceeded their 1993 battle. The intensity was just as palpable as their 1994 bout. The scale of their 60 minute draw was whittled down to a precise science. Simply put, this is the All Japan’s tag team magnum opus and one of the best matches in the history of professional wrestling. It had everything.

Kobashi’s performance here is one of the strongest, most incredible babyface performances I’ve ever seen. He took an inhuman beating to his already shot leg and despite taking more and more of that beating, he wouldn’t stay down. No matter what it took, Kobashi made it his mission to save the day, even if he had to limp to the other side of the world to do it. He jumped in front of stomps and boots to keep Misawa from harm, knowing it would only harm Kobashi further. He muscled his way through the pain to make sure his team had as much of an equal footing as possible, despite his busted wheel. And the best part about it? Kobashi wasn’t even pinned.

He was so hellbent on powering through that he was the one who had to sit by and watch his partner go down. He couldn’t be defeated on this night, but that fairy-tale wasn’t true for his ally. Now, it makes sense given Kobashi was sidelined for a lot of the match with his injury, leaving Misawa to take the brunt of some of the punishment himself… but Kobashi still was able to avoid direct defeat and had he not had to deal with Akira Taue simply grabbing his bad leg, he’d have broken up that fatal pinfall. It’s one of my favorite finishes ever for that reason.

Kobashi spent all match desperately trying to save his partner but couldn’t seal the deal when he was inches away. It’s that sort of drama and psychology that elevates this match from being just a long tag match to a classic. It’s a clean finish, but leaves you with doubt and mystery. What if Kobashi’s leg was healthy? What if he got away from Taue? It doesn’t make him look weak; he went out fighting harder than his body wanted him to and while Misawa was nearly able to fight the power himself, Kobashi’s injury made the numbers game too significant to handle. It was beautiful. This match has its reputation for a very justifiable reason and getting to watch it after the years of battles these four men have waged has just made it all more rewarding. *****

WWWA World Title: Manami Toyota vs. Aja Kong
AJW June 27, 1995.

Quite a bit longer than their incredible 1994 match, but lacking the primal sort of intensity and danger that match cut its teeth on. That’s hardly an issue though because Kong and Toyota are such natural opponents that you can watch any of their matches and get something memorable out of it.

This match’s best qualities largely reside in Kong’s fantastic reactions to Toyota’s persistence. Toyota was as defiant as ever against Kong’s larger stature and power, which is the usual formula for their interactions, but Kong was remarkably sadistic in how she reacted to these flare-ups. Toyota would try to fire up and get the crowd on her side, and Kong would just drop her on her head. Toyota would fire up with slaps or something similar, so Kong would slap her until she stood down and shut up for a minute. Toyota kept kicking out of stuff, so Aja Kong backfisted her into the living death and stopped this speed and cunning from giving her any more trouble. It’s that sort of cause and effect that carries the already intangible chemistry these women have, and while it’s not their best match in my eyes, it’s a more than worthy chapter in their rivalry. ****1/4

Manami Toyota vs. Mima Shimoda
AJW July 23, 1995.

This match started with a ton of promise and managed to retrieve some of it back by the finishing stretch, but it was let down by a meandering middle segment that didn’t really seem to accomplish much. A lot of it fell into that joshi formula of doing moves without any rhyme or reason to them, and despite an outstanding and intense start with both women just throwing hateful slaps and moves, devolving into a formula that should be behind them is a bit of a shame.

Shimoda seemed a bit limited compared to the usual quality of Toyota’s opponents, as evidenced by the sloppiness of the match in general compared to Toyota’s bouts against Aja Kong. I expect some amount of disjointedness with joshi, but it was a little too much here to look past, even if they did the professional thing by moving past them logically. We’ve all seen wrestlers mess up and immediately redo the spot rather than attempt to make it part of the match, so good on them for punching their “worker cards” and keeping the suspense of disbelief.

Even with all that though, the pace here was as frenetic as ever and built to the fever pitch it needed. Shimoda was a little more sadistic than a lot of Toyota’s opponents in that she just continuously dropped her on her head and managed to up the stakes that way, and it paid off in the end with both women going hell for leather until the bell sounded for the draw. This had the pieces to be a surefire classic but the length, structure, and execution left a lot to be desired for the plan to come together in its ideal form. ***1/2

Manami Toyota vs. Akira Hokuto
AJW September 2, 1995. This was another one of those matches I didn’t do my research on, as the October 23, 1995 Observer labels this as a ****3/4 match, but I watched it before doing said research, so you’re getting it anyway.

This match is markedly different from basically any of the other Joshi bouts on this list so far, and it’s all the better for it. Instead of being a light-speed technical affair with both women performing incredible feats of athleticism, this was a dirty, hard-nosed fight after Hokuto kicked out of Toyota’s finisher. And that’s why the match was so great; there was a REASON for the plunder and madness. Toyota didn’t win with the hold she was sure she’d win with, so she had to resort to doing some less-than-honorable things, especially stealing Hokuto’s finisher, to keep her head above water.

I’m all for a match with crazy bumps and spots, but not if it’s done to be done. That’s not what happened here and the way that organic excitement created a narrative alongside itself was absolutely tremendous. The match was dangerous and terrifying, but it was supposed to be that way, and these two women made something memorable out of that story. ****1/2

Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada vs. Jun Akiyama & Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW May 23, 1996.

For what this match lacks in pure excitement compared to some predecessors, it makes up for in some of the most airtight tag team psychology you’ll ever see. The way in which these four men worked the numbers game was expertly crafted, but still managed to highlight all four individually… especially Jun Akiyama, who looked like a million bucks in this match from both an execution and booking standpoint.

I loved how the match got off to its fast start, clearly a different idea from some of the Misawa/Kobashi tags against the HDA, and it made complete sense. Akiyama and Misawa have not been teaming for nearly as long as Misawa and Kobashi had, so it only seems right that they would employ different strategies. They wanted to get one up on Taue and Kawada, and they largely had their number through the entire match by doing that. There were breaks for slowed down heat segments, but the real story was that when the action broke down, Akiyama and Misawa were largely on offense because they’d gotten ahead of their opponents in the opening stanza.

The best part about this match was how it was booked to make Jun Akiyama look like an absolute force. And it wasn’t easy going getting there. It was clear in some moments that the crowd did not see him pinning Kawada as a realistic idea, and the crowd reactions reflected it. But once they saw his tenacity and attitude mesh with the intensity the match grew to have, it started to dawn on them. That’s a huge mark of a great match, and the great workers within it; the audience doesn’t initially see a scenario happening, but the psychology of the match makes the scenario much more palpable… and when the men delivered on that, it worked to utter perfection. I don’t think this had the excitement needed to be on equal footing to AJPW tags of years past, but it has an entirely different vibe and structure to it that makes that largely a non-entity. Just a stellar piece of storytelling and booking, all in all. ****3/4

Johnny Ace & Steve Williams vs. Jun Akiyama & Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW June 7, 1996.

While this doesn’t quite hold a candle to say, the June ’95 tag we visited earlier – and was actually quite a bit different than the 1995 tag featuring Ace and Williams – this turned into quite the spectacular match by the end. Akiyama brings a really interesting energy to these tag matches, one that Kobashi can’t quite duplicate. It’s not really a comparison of talent, moreso how both men’s in-ring characters play into their matches. Kobashi is a guy who can go hell for leather with anyone and trade offense until near death, while the smaller Akiyama has to take more of a beating and fight from underneath frequently. It brings a sort of Western quality to his matches when it comes to getting heat, especially against two American foes here in Williams and Ace.

In some ways, this is about as formulaic a match as you’ll see in All Japan, but that doesn’t make it inferior. It’s actually refreshing in a bizarro world sort of way, because after reviewing so many of these AJPW bouts, I’m used to sprawling epics with story threads in every single move of the match. Here, it was an easy tale. Two big bastards from the US beat the tar out of fiery Japanese babyface. Easy. They worked that for 20 minutes and worked to an awesome fever pitch, with Americanized nearfalls carrying the action more than the dramatic selling or death blows.

This was something different and it worked even better than I was anticipating in this setting, using that “something different” label to create one of the more outwardly exciting All Japan matches I’ve watched in a while. Awesome stuff, as you’d expect. ****1/2

Dick Togo, Mens Teioh, Shiryu, Taka Michinoku, & Sho Funaki vs. Gran Hamada, Super Delfin, Tiger Mask IV, Gran Naniwa, & Masato Yakushiji
Michinoku Pro October 10, 1996.

Dragon Gate clearly owes its existence to Michinoku Pro when you watch matches like this. The inhumanly crisp execution of so many massively intricate spots, the timing of nearfalls, the gradual build to the finish… it’s all just fabulous, and it’s the first time I can watch a match featuring smaller wrestlers so far and say it truly holds up through the years.

They did lucha better than 85% of the lucha guys you’ll see (especially out of the lucha matches I’ve reviewed so far), and did it for 30 minutes straight without anything resembling a rest spot. They started a mile a minute and amped it up from there, and while it will be hard to get into for some who like their selling and psychology, it’s an undeniably fantastic spotfest that requires some intangible talent to execute to this high a level.

It doesn’t quite hit the plateau of the famous Dragon Gate trios matches or anything like that, just because it’s about 10 minutes too long and gets mighty repetitive because of that, but it’s kind of incredible to think this was being done at such a high level in 1996. There’s a lot to like about a spotfest in general, but it’s a whole new world when you see it performed so cleanly and flawlessly. Hell, you could probably just watch Dick Togo’s senton at the end and that will give you the idea. Nonstop action, but action that built and made sense, meaning you were rewarded for investing, which is a top notch quality in my eyes. ****1/4

Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada vs. Jun Akiyama & Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW December 6, 1996.

Completely different from their match in May, but did such an incredible job calling back to it while simultaneously forging its own path into something spectacular. It was new, but made use of their previous experience together and built upon that foundation. It reminded me a lot of the Misawa/Kobashi vs. Taue/Kawada match from 1994 actually, as that match largely forwent overly intricate story threads for mutually assured destruction, and that’s genreally how this match went too. So in that sense, maybe it wasn’t anything completely new, but it was at this juncture of the rivalry between the two tandems.

Essentially, Akiyama and Misawa tried to use their strategy from the May match to get the jump on their opponents. If it’s broke, don’t fix it, right? Only they opened a can of worms that they really weren’t fit to close this time around. That strategy was telegraphed and as such, quickly got out of hand for them, as Taue and Kawada made the requisite adjustments to combat them and ended up just dragging them into a dogfight, bringing Misawa and Akiyama directly into their wheelhouse. They used that chaos to transition into their usual numbers game tactic, and after a huge Chokeslam off of the apron to Akiyama, it worked wonders as they were able to soften Misawa up with suplex after suplex, Powerbomb after Powerbomb, and double team after double team. They knew Akiyama was the one who had their number in the match previous, and they got rid of him as much as possible so they could capitalize on their isolation of Misawa.

This was the King’s Road style used to utter perfection, realistically taking into consideration what worked in the previous battles to improve and scout for the next one. It’s this incredible attention to detail that earns these endless All Japan matches so much acclaim. Nothing is exactly the same and while every match can certainly be enjoyed in a vacuum, it’s so much more gratifying to see the context behind it. It makes a great match legendary, and this one is a perfect example. *****

The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
This series of reviews has exposed me to some outstanding work, but none of it came close to the consistent quality I came across watching 1995 and 1996. It's primarily dominated by All Japan and that probably won't make a lot of fans of Western wrestling happy, it's all there for a very good reason. It's all just incredible stuff. I'd actually urge you to watch the All Japan matches in order because that's when their style and psychology shines brightest, but the Joshi matches deserve a mention too since this is the last edition of the reviews to feature women's wrestling to date. But the reason to delve into this stuff is undoubtedly the endless AJPW tag matches, because they're likely some of the best tags in the history of wrestling and deserve more eyes whenever they can get them. Get all of this.

article topics :

AJPW, AJW, Jake St-Pierre