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Every Match Dave Meltzer Gave 5+ Stars To (1997-1999) Review

March 14, 2019 | Posted by Jake St-Pierre
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Every Match Dave Meltzer Gave 5+ Stars To (1997-1999) Review  

Putting this here as an author’s note more than anything, but I highly advise anyone reading to check out Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi from January 20, 1997. It’s one of the top 3 best matches I’ve ever seen and an easy five stars, but doesn’t show up on this list because Dave Meltzer only saw a clipped version of it, which is sacrilege. The only match on this list so far that compares to it for me is Taue & Kawada vs. Misawa & Kobashi from June 1995, so it’s in very high standing. Sorry about the false start, and onto the actual review…

Submission Match: Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin
WWF Wrestlemania 13.

This is one of the best matches in the history of professional wrestling and I’m disgusted with myself that I let myself forget that. I obviously knew that it was one of the best ever – I’m not that forgetful yet – but the idea that I didn’t acknowledge this as the in-ring peak of WWF/E until right now is a horrifying thought that I must apologize to you readers for indulging in.

This was a perfect pro wrestling match. There was not a single flaw in the entire duration. No botches. No lapses in psychology. This was the best of the art-form that I often question myself for giving so much time to, but then I watch legendary bouts like this and am quickly reminded why I love wrestling so goddamn much. Everything these men did was flawless, perfect, and it’s a credit to the professional wrestling industry that two such talented human beings were in it.

Every single action they performed had a meaning. Steve Austin didn’t bleed because they needed to desperately save the match from the doldrums at Wrestlemania like Reigns and Lesnar. They didn’t use weapons because it was time to use them like a WWE TLC show. These two men hated the other to such a horrible degree that they made each other bleed, hit each other with chairs, and strangled one another because they resented God for creating their opponent. They worked a believable, tense, violent affair that makes every brawl WWE’s done over the past 20 years look like a Cindy Dandois fight.

I don’t have to sit here and tell you the merits of this match, but I’m going to, because I’m literally in awe of it every single time I watch it… and I’m probably more enamored with it now than the previous 20 times I’ve seen it. If you’re any kind of pro wrestling fan, this match is essential viewing, provided you hadn’t somehow seen it before. And if you have seen it, watch it again. Regardless of continent, style, or participants, the medium has never been better than this. I truly believe that. *****

Koji Kanemoto vs. El Samurai
NJPW June 5, 1997.

Out of all of the (admittedly, few) NJPW Junior matches I’ve watched for this series, this match is by far the most gratifying. It wasn’t incredibly deep or intricate like an AJPW main event, but the simplicity with which they worked was just as effective in the end. The story itself doesn’t matter; its execution does. Unless the story is “hey this is fake” because your company has been creatively bankrupt for 20 years.

After a bit of feeling out, Kanemoto found his avenue for success, taking advantage of a missed knee drop from Samurai. Kanemoto is a great pro wrestler, so he started working the leg immediately after seeing Samurai favoring it. With that, it became a battle of Samurai’s will and quickness against Kanemoto’s relentless assault on the limb. Kanemoto was fantastic as the stiff, slightly sadistic grappler, rounding out the aforementioned assault with kicks and general destruction as he saw fit. The pace with which he did that provided Samurai the chance to be a great foil, firing up and keeping the faith with an increasingly excited Budokan audience. It’s not rocket appliances, but it works, which is all that really matters to me.

Like I said, it’s not exactly a year’s worth of matches built into this one moment, but that’s the beauty of wrestling; it doesn’t have to be. The medium allows for so many different stories – simple or intricate – and they can all work with the same amount of gravitas with the right distributors. The match needed a little more dedication to that bad wheel of Samurai to really round itself out, but we still got an outstanding match in the end, so there’s no real need to nitpick beyond that. I find it hard to complain about great psychology. ****1/4

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada
AJPW June 7, 1997.

I remember years back, hearing Dave Meltzer talk about this match on a podcast. I hadn’t seen the match yet, but he remarked how marveling it was to watch this it, because every move had a purpose. It was the old wrestling cliche of “no wasted motion” that you often see bandied about. It’s a nice phrase to get over a no-nonsense ass-kicker when you’re a TV commentator, but you don’t see it legitimately used to describe the actual work of a match. While I can’t bring myself to tack on the full five stars here, that analysis was absolutely spot on.

It’s rarer than you think to come across a match that justifies its existence so promptly. Everything these men did to each other furthered their cause. Kawada spammed Backdrop Drivers for sure, but they were all planned out meticulously and made a part of their narrative rather than a cool head-drop spot to bring the crowd up. Those Backdrop Drivers were used to inflict punishment, the catalyst of which was the arm attacks to neutralize Misawa’s elbows. Kawada didn’t come in with that gameplan, but happened to luck into it when Misawa blocked a kick. Probably tired of the nonstop onslaught Misawa was giving to him in the opening minutes, Kawada adjusted and went to work. Once you take those out of play, everything else becomes a lot easier to pull off because that threat was drastically decreased. Kawada didn’t stray too far from the hits of Backdrop Drivers and Enzuigiris, which worked for a while as Misawa continued to wilt, but soon Misawa figured out the gameplan and recovered, using his more varied attack that he established early to overcome the punishment and put Kawada away.

They told an easy story, but it was full of the usual All Japan peaks, valleys, and twists that kept you guessing, making the story more varied and rewarding as you spent 31 minutes of your life dedicated to it. I don’t see this bandied about as one of the better Four Pillars matches out there but I struggle to see why, because I find this match to be easily on par with their famous June 1994 match, and in some respects, even better. ****3/4

Hell in a Cell: Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker
WWF In Your House: Badd Blood.

I remember when I was reviewing the 1994 matches for this series, when I didn’t give the Wrestlemania X a perfect rating, and my justification for it. The ladder match had evolved so far beyond that level that I could not justify giving it a more favorable rating than those that came after it. I still stand behind that to be sure, but the inaugural Hell in a Cell match does not fall under that spell in any way, shape, or form. While the risk-taking factor of the Cell gimmick will never equal the Taker/Mankind match, as matches, every addition to its lore will always live under the shadow of the magnum opus in Shawn vs. Taker.

There has never been a more perfect duo to put in a Cell, and never a better storyline to create it for. Shawn Michaels is a perpetually flaky, cowardly cheapshot artist. He never stands up to fight and makes sure he takes his opportunity at the most convenient time. Undertaker is… well, The Undertaker. He’s a wrecking ball of a man who can clearly massacre Shawn Michaels in a fair environment. So when Undertaker was given that opportunity, he took it with style. The first 10-15 minutes of this match feature a slow, brutal, and methodical beatdown of Shawn Michaels, establishing the fact that Undertaker is in fact, a better fighter than HBK. When Shawn has nowhere to go, his prospects become a whole lot less positive. Even his one saving grace – leaving the cage – just ended up expediting the process of his demise and leaving him a bloody shell of a man. Shawn was so clearly overmatched in this environment that the only thing that could possibly happen to put him in the win column was a freak act of God… and that came in the form of Kane.

Suddenly, Shawn Michaels is far down on the list of problems for Undertaker. I won’t go into the silliness of the storyline that built to the moment, but let’s just say when you think your brother is gone, seeing him show up at your place of work is probably going to throw you out of focus with the task at hand. Shawn barely found the luckiest, most fortunate backdoor of his career – especially seeing where Sunny has ended up – and left an unlikely winner. This match is violent perfection, and if you somehow have yet to see it, it’s truly essential viewing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan, wrestler, or outsider; it’s the perfect story template followed to an outstanding tee and earns its place among the best matches of all time because of it. *****

Akira Taue & Toshiaki Kawada vs. Jun Akiyama & Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW December 5, 1997.

As much as it pains me to have to say it, this is the first time in this series where I’ve watched a 1990s All Japan match and felt like I’d seen it before. Of course, all the matches are similar in one way or another given they share so many common participants, but I didn’t come out of this match feeling like I just watched a new chapter in a rivalry. To be quite honest with you, this match felt like these four men were just playing the hits.

I know that sounds a bit reductive to say due to the inherent danger and intensity that accompanies your prototypical AJPW main event style match. I don’t degrade the match because I was dissatisfied with the risks taken or necks unsnapped. This bout just doesn’t have the psychological depth, intensity, or scope to live up to their incredible 1996 outings. In their defense however, that’s about as tall a task possible to ask of wrestlers who at this point, had some incredible mileage on them.

And none of this is to say I disliked what I saw. I’m not an idiot. Well, that’s debatable, but let’s just go with it for the sake of argument. The benchmark, greatest hits collection this match felt like to me was still an excellent piece of tag team wrestling. Jun Akiyama was great in his consistent spot as whipping boy, and his babyface fire and tenacity continues to highlight these matches in a manner different to a Kenta Kobashi. He and Misawa actually make up a more cohesive team too, with more pure double teams and a feeling of togetherness I never quite got out of Kobashi and Misawa’s alliance. These ideas all blend together and foil the brutish energy brought by a guy like Kawada, and the slightly snake-ish nature of Akira Taue… so the peaks and valleys we get out of the pairing is still quite palpable.

You’re not going to come out of this match feeling like you wasted your time; if you have an idea about pro wrestling, odds are you’re going to find a lot here to appreciate. The high octane heavyweight fighting that occurs in these matches is a hard itch to scratch once you’ve seen the best of the style, so please seek this out. It’s a fantastic match. Just don’t go into it expecting their 1996 matches, or the June 1995 match with Kobashi in place of Akiyama. There are levels to this, after all. ****

Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka
RINGS June 27, 1998.

Far and away the most unique match of any I’ve reviewed so far for this series, and for a diehard MMA fan like myself, an incredibly compelling historical ride to the wild west that was 1990s Japanese MMA/Shoot Wrestling. But let us not kid ourselves here; this was absolutely, clearly a worked match and even your casual MMA fan on the street could tell you that by watching a minute of their ground work. I have to make this distinction not out of being pretentious, but because both men’s professional MMA records include this bout as a draw, which is… shady and not exactly ethical, but that’s Japanese MMA in a nutshell. I think Akira Maeda has several “pro” MMA bouts in the same vein, which is ironic because he wasn’t very keen on fighting someone with the means to defend themselves. RINGS actually differentiated their shoot and worked matches with their format, shoots being two 5-minute rounds and the worked matches falling under 30 minute limits and given this bout ended in a 30 minute draw, that tells you what you need to know.

The match itself is an interesting case study. It differentiated from 1984’s incredible Takada vs. Yamazaki bout from the first UWF by featuring no pro wrestling moves at all. No suplexes, piledrivers, or anything; this was strictly worked under the guise of being an MMA match. And within those limitations, this match was actually outstanding. It did a fabulous job using MMA moves within a pro wrestling style build, using a feeling-out process to let both men get adjusted to one another’s repertoire, and gradually build to riskier moves and attempts as they found openings. However, RINGS rules differentiate from traditional MMA in a number of ways. Rope breaks cost a point, and knockdowns cost 2 – provided the man knocked down beats the count. So in a way, this was worked like an Iron Man match with both men at various points having to work through a point deficit to maintain a chance to win. But it didn’t fall into the same traps Iron Man matches often do, where nothing matters until the end. The bout has a chance to end at any moment, and the men are kept on their toes because of it. Because of that, this match has a unique – if niche – advantage over traditional pro wrestling matches. It blends the impending doom and danger of Mixed Martial Arts with the usual pro wrestling build and suspense and that uniqueness carries this match to stellar heights.

As for the meat of the bout itself, there’s a lot to love. The counters they weaved in and out of were breathtaking at points, especially during the sprint for the finish as both men were neck and neck on the scorecards. Tamura’s quickness was so impressive, and Kohsaka matched him in how he could roll into a submission at the drop of a hat. It felt like Tamura was probably better when the fight actually hit the ground, but Kohsaka was good at worming his way into a precarious situation when he was hurt on the feet, or needed to explode into a sweep. It wasn’t as psychologically deep as the aforementioned UWF match, but the match’s obsession with realism didn’t quite let it rise to those heights. It is still a pro wrestling match after all, and I think it needed a little more blending to make for the most exciting product possible. For that reason, this will not appeal to nearly as many people as say, the Hell in a Cell match does, but for those interested in worked MMA that extends far beyond a Kyle O’Reilly match, this is the match to see. ****

Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW October 31, 1998.

I reviewed this match for my ill-fated Downloadapalooza series way back in 2013, and I gave it the five-star treatment. In that review, not only did I spell wherewithal “wear-with-all”, but I also went into the match without the context of their January 20, 1997 bout which might be the best match I’ve ever seen. And as much as it hurts to say, this match isn’t in the same stratosphere as that one for several reasons, even if it ended up being phenomenal anyway.

The lulls in the action were a bit too frequent, and the intensity was broken up at different points with out-of-place flipping sentons and labored set-ups to spots that didn’t justify their work. It just felt like they tried to make mountains out of molehills, which is an odd criticism to give these usually epic All Japan matches. The fact that the match succeeded in such spectacular fashion despite those flaws is actually incredible in a way, because this 1998 addition to their legendary rivalry was still one of the most intense wars of attrition you’re ever going to see.

While they forwent an overarching story for a fight to the death, they substituted that traditional psychology for some absolutely tremendous pacing, despite some of those aforementioned lulls. This match was more gradual than a lot of the All Japan wars which seemed a little puzzling during the extended heat segments, but the beatings were complemented by realistic selling and logical turns of the tide. While I preferred that January match’s more outwardly crazy finishing stretch, the advantage this match had was its uncanny feeling of being a fight. The moves felt more significant and while they weren’t backed with January’s psychology or excitement, it felt decidedly different… which is an immensely admirable quality when you were married to each other through a decade like these two were. At that point, it really boils down to your stylistic preference, and while this isn’t totally mine, it still made for an absolute epic that you should seek out by all means. ****1/2

Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa
AJPW June 11, 1999

The previous Misawa vs. Kobashi outing didn’t appeal to me as heavily due to its lack of suitably exciting content or overarching story, but made up for it in its incredible intensity and fight atmosphere. This match did something completely different from that much by… only taking a little bit from it. The 8/31/1998 bout didn’t rely as heavily on previous outings to call back upon, while this one here did a fabulous job of cherrypicking some of the most exciting spots from previous outings and mixing them in here to tell a completely new story. Hell, they even called back to a match that Misawa didn’t even wrestle; Misawa gave Kobashi a lariat from the top rope to the mat, which was the finish of the legendary Stan Hansen vs. Kenta Kobashi match from July 1993. That’s one of the most specific callbacks you’ll ever see, and I’d recommend this match to you on general principle just because of that.

However, as noble a cause as that is, I don’t think this came together quite perfectly either. Which is a stupid reason to degrade the match as it was still incredible, but given this entire series is built upon supposed five star matches, it’s sort of my duty to explain why the matches in question aren’t given the same rating on my end. What the annoying part is is that I can’t quite point out a spot that took me a minute to get into, or an immersion-breaking moment. There was just something missing that their 1997 bout, for instance, seemed to have. That’s probably a cop-out answer so shame me if you must, but sometimes you can’t quite figure out why something isn’t perfect.

I really did love the callbacks to their previous outings though, especially stuff like the Tiger Driver ’91 being a nearfall, the Frankensteiner from the apron, the big one-two combo of elbows, and even small stuff like Kobashi hitting Misawa with a Snake Eyes to get control. All of that stuff is the benefit of this King’s Road style because it rewards you for investing in their rivalry. That rewarding of the audience is a super important quality to me when it comes to the enjoyment of wrestling, be it matches or angles… and this is the best kind of reward because it’s so grand in scale and overarching that it’s also impressive that these men have this kind of foresight. It adds to the legitimacy of the matches, as they worked like MMA fighters would during a multiple fight rivalry.

Think of a fight series like Johny Hendricks vs. Robbie Lawler, Nate Diaz vs. Conor McGregor, or Josh Thomson vs. Gilbert Melendez. Those men fought once and in the second or third outings, the winner made the adjustments that prevented them from taking their initial loss and came out on top. That’s real, and while wrestling resembles nothing like a fight, it adds to the suspense of disbelief. That’s where this match’s strengths lie and while it also had the incredible false finishes and nutty finishing stretch you’d expect, it differentiates itself from their previous outings by building upon them to create something new. It’s like sampling I guess, and this match is The Avalanches’ “Since I Left You” of AJPW. ****3/4

Jun Akiyama & Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa & Yoshinari Ogawa
AJPW October 23, 1999.

While I still felt a lurking sensation of deja vu and sameness watching this match, I still came away incredibly satisfied by its overall psychology. Aside from the tremendous callbacks we usually get out of these bouts – especially the Suplex into Suplex combo that Ogawa and Misawa ripped from the original Akiyama and Misawa tandem – we got to see one of the most unique stories I’ve ever seen out of an All Japan tag match in Yoshinari Ogawa’s general uselessness.

Rarely have I ever seen a match take such a chance in telling a story, only to come out clean on the other side with a stellar result to show for it. It absolutely ran the risk of making one of its participants look like a fourth banana, but they’re all so intelligent and mindful of their craft that Ogawa’s consistent failure instead turned out to be a fantastic driving force. Misawa was clearly his superior, but it was portrayed in a really different, non-AJPW way. It wasn’t the AJPW/NOAH story of the Heavyweight and Junior tandem fighting their battles with a similar team. Ogawa was the whipping boy of all whipping boys, largely being the source of Akiyama and Kobashi’s successes and a perfect vulnerability for the Burning duo to exploit.

Because of this, Misawa was on his game more than usual, and had to be even more so when the match wore on, because if he wasn’t, Ogawa would have lost them the match much earlier. He was constantly bailing Ogawa out of precarious situations, and also had to combat the cohesive unit Akiyama and Kobashi clearly were. Misawa had a lot on his plate, but came out like a house of fire until Kobashi put him away with the one of the most legendary, lethal moves in Japanese wrestling history.

That’s the cherry on top for me; Misawa was such a monster in there that despite Ogawa’s haplessness and the onslaught from his opponents, he still needed a massive exclamation point to put him down. Like I somewhat mentioned before, I think the last couple years of All Japan lent an air of sameness that was largely brought on in-house by stale booking and later the death of their head honcho, but these men were so unbelievably talented that they could still wade through that monotony and dish out something next-level. You can’t ask for much more than that. ****1/2

9.5
The final score: review Amazing
The 411
While I can't sit here and say this was as extensively amazing as the 1995-1996 matches were, this edition felt like the North American continent finally woke up and reintroduced itself. The Hell in a Cell and Bret vs. Austin matches are stone cold classics by every metric and outshine their Japanese counterparts here with more forward thinking psychology and new ideas. That's not to say your AJPW matches weren't wonderful, and the random RINGS match was immensely interesting, but the reasons to delve into this list for once don't start in Japan, which I can't say for the last several reviews I've written. Get all of this though, if you can.
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