Monday, June 2, 2014

Misawa vs. Kawada (06/03/94): 20 Years Later

It's long been considered the greatest pro wrestling match ever. Two decades later, does the legendary clash of Puroresu titans still stand the test of time?

"When I first saw this match, I was blown away. This was like a Clint Eastwood Spaghetti Western in the cool detached way they locked up - focused on each other because there is no need to play to an educated crowd because this match has them at a fever pitch already...It's got all the elements of what makes great wrestling matches great, but it has something else that you can't explain - like Roy Orbison's voice or a Matisse painting. It's ethereal and great and it's art and you should fucking see this match."

-- Dean Rasmussen, 

In the sometimes stupid, frequently homoerotic and occasionally hilariously violent world of professional wrestling, the title of absolute best pro 'rasslin bout of all-time is often a point of contention among Internet nerds. While responses tend to fluctuate depending on the age range of viewers, the closest thing the wrestling world has to a consensus pick for best match ever has to be the epic June 03, 1994 All Japan showdown between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. Indeed, it's pretty much the "Citizen Kane" of people wearing spandex and pretending to clobber each other senseless -- which, as we can all agree upon, is much, much more entertaining than watching "Citizen Kane" to begin with.

Of course, we tend to be blinded by nostalgia a lot of times, though. I mean, shit, twenty years ago, we all thought "Donkey Kong Country" was a good as things got, and now, all we can see are the game's downsides. Yesterday's state of the art visuals, I am afraid, soon turn into today's formulaic gameplay and by-the-numbers level design; could that same principle -- that, as time drags on, the weaknesses of that which was formerly cherished outshine its strengths  -- hold true for our nearly-quarter century-old recollections of the famed Misawa/Kawada, bout, too?

Before we evaluate the match itself, I guess we need to take a look back at the dynamics behind the match. Picture it: Japan, 1987. All Japan Wrestling superstar Riki Chosu decides to jump ship to rival promotion New Japan Wrestling, leaving former tag-team champions Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenyru to feud for the company's top spot. In true pro wrestling fashion, Tsuruta and Genichiro started their own "Four Horsemen"-like stables; in Tenyru's camp, there was a young up and comer named Toshiaki Kawada, and in Tsuruta's camp, there was this guy named Tiger Mask -- a dude who wrestled while wearing a furry helmet, essentially. So, 1990 rolls along, and Tenyru decides to leave All Japan to start his own promotion, and he winds up taking Yoshiaki Yatsu, Tsuruta's star protege, with him. This leads to a program between Tsuruta and Tiger Mask, who drops the goofy ass prop and wrestles under his birth name -- Mitsuharu Misawa. And of course, Misawa has to start his own rival faction, which, as fate would have it, would include Kawada as Misawa's second-in-command. So, Misawa goes over Tsuruta, and he and Kawada then go on to win the Real World Tag League tournament in 1991. At this point, All Japan has basically been booked all around the Misawa vs. Tsuruta rivalry, but in 1993, Tsuruta suddenly retired. With no other booking options on the table, All Japan was forced to go in the direction that seven years of both planned and unplanned events had swept them: at long last, it was time for Misawa vs. Kawada, one on one, for the Triple Crown championship.

On June 03, 1994, the iconic grapplers finally locked horns, at the famed Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. Yes, the same arena where Cheap Trick recorded their iconic live record, which, itself is probably enough to get the building qualified as a World Heritage site.

And hey, what do you know, I've got an old VHS tape of the bout right here! How about we fire this sucker up and relive the iconic showdown, on this, the 20th anniversary of the '94 Triple Crown Finals?

The tape begins with a spoiler-tastic music video set to classical music. Uh, if you don't want to know how things turn out, I reckon it's probably in your best interests to fast forward to the three minute mark of the cassette.

We get a nice long pan of Budokan. As in an iconic Phil Collins song, you can just tell something is in the air tonight in Tokyo. Then, we cut to the locker room.

We see Mitsuharu Misawa in the back, rocking back and forth while wearing his iconic silver jacket and emerald long pants. At his flank is Kenta Kobashi, wearing what appears to be New England Patriots Zubaz.

We get a lingering shot on a pale yellow door, and than a close-up on the Japanese flag suspended above the ring. Kawada's music hits, and the fans start freaking the fuck out. The "Kawada!" chants are absolutely deafening. He stoically marches to the ring, wearing his Pittsburgh Steelers-colored hooded robe. His entourage consists of several wrestlers, wearing some supremely gay azure spandex unis.

Before his music even hits, the fans are chanting "Misawa!" at the top of their lungs. He grabs his trifecta of championship belts (hence, the Triple Crown namesake), and heads toward the ring. Kawada stretches in the corner. The fans are absolutely rabid, like its a Beatles show or something.

Yellow, red and white streamers are tossed when Kawada is introduced. Streamers, of virtually every shade of green you can think of, are thrown when Misawa's name is formally announced.

The bell sounds, and the place is nuclear. And uh...oh shit, since this is Japan, that probably wasn't the best analogy I could've used. But seriously, the dudes are just circling each other (and it's not even that fast!) and the fans are shouting like its 4th down with one second left on the clock at the Super Bowl.

Lock up to begin. Kawada pushes Misawa into the ropes, and the ref tells him to back off. A second tie-up, and Misawa elbows Kawada right in the face. Kawada responds with a karate chop to Misawa's sternum. The two keep trading blows, until Misawa tosses Kawada into the ropes. Smartly, Kawada just clings to them, then bounces back on an attempted kick that has the fans gasping like landlocked tunafish.

Kawada tosses Misawa into the ropes, and slaps his chest a few times. Misawa then tosses Kawada into the ropes; he throws a kick, but Kawada ducks underneath him. Kawada fires back with a boot the face, and then a nasty roundhouse kick.

Kawada seeks a suplex follow-up, but Misawa powers his way out and hits Kawada with a huge back body drop. They circle each other, and tie up once more. Kawada starts working on a standing arm wrench. Misawa rolls his way out of the hold, decks Kawada right in the kisser, and shoves him down against the ropes. Misawa connects with a dropkick, that sends Kawada reeling to the outside.

Misawa looks like he's about to dive over the ropes at Kawada, but pulls the move at the last second. Kawada takes a swipe at him from the outside, to which Misawa responds with double boot right into Kawada's nostrils. Misawa aims for a diving elbow, but Kawada blocks it; ultimately, Misawa winds up hurting himself more than he hurts his adversary. Misawa chunks Kawada against the guardrail, but Kawada comes roaring back with a mean clothesline. He rolls back into the ring, as Misawa licks his wounds on the arena floor.

Misawa re-enters the ring, and Kawada instantly begins peppering him with elbows and kicks. Cue a lengthy facelock sequence. Sensing Misawa won't submit this early, Kawada breaks the hold and starts stomping him some more. And then, he starts breaking out chops so nasty, even Golden Corral wouldn't serve them; he then puts Misawa in a single leg crab, for like, all of two seconds.

Now, Kawada is just kicking the shit out of him. Our first pin attempt of the evening, obviously, only results in a two-count. A light trickle of blood pours from underneath Misawa's ear. He rolls to the outside for a quick breather.

Kawada locks him in a sleeper as soon he re-enters the ring. The fight gets vertical once more, and Misawa starts kicking the hell out of Kawada's legs. After a few cracks at Kawada's ankles, the challenger collapses to the mat. And like that, the tide of the bout is reversed. Misawa locks in a single leg crab of his own now. With his free leg, Kawada kicks Misawa square in the eyes, causing the champion to relinquish his hold. Misawa continues to work Kawada's left leg, stretching it with a modified toehold. More leg kicks put Kawada on his back again, with Misawa stomping, and then kneeing, his opponent's bruised left tibia. Misawa locks in another toehold. Kawada escapes, but a series of savage leg kicks grounds him once more.

Kawada rebounds, however, with an elbow shot that puts Misawa down on his ass. Kawada quickly follows suit with several more elbow drops. After a long suplex-reversal spot, Misawa puts Kawada down with another spinning kick. Kawada storms back with several chops and kicks in the corner, but all it takes is one elbow from Misawa and Kawada is tasting the canvas once more.

Misawa with a dropkick, and Kawada with a retaliatory boot to the face that has Misawa flat on his back. Misawa fires back with a solid elbow, but a Kawada spin kick upside Misawa's head drops him again. Just a two on the follow-up pin attempt, though.

No dice on a suplex attempt, but Kawada scores points on an impromptu dropkick. Kawada follows it up with a knee drop off the top rope. Now, he's doing these really, really dainty-looking mini-chops to Misawa's neck. A subsequent pin attempt nets only a two-count. Unable to pick Misawa up for a powerbomb, Kawada reverts to kicking the ever-loving shit out of him instead.

Misawa goes on a mini-comeback, culminating with an enziguri of sorts that drops Kawada. Misawa looking for his patented Tiger Driver, but Kawada escapes. He throws a spinning kick, but this time, Misawa blocks it. A follow-up dropkick, and Misawa is FINALLY able to land that Tiger Driver he's been attempting throughout the match. Alas, Kawada kicks out at two. A frog splash after that similarly nets just a two. Misawa with a facelock, and on a double axehandle attempt off the top rope, Kawada catches him with a kick right in the gut. Kawada attempting a powerbomb again, but Misawa powers out and slugs him with an elbow. The two exchange elbow shots, and Kawada puts Misawa down with a quick leaping boot to the chin. He flat out KILLS Misawa with a back body drop, which FINALLY facilitates that powerbomb. But a good goddamn, MISAWA SOMEHOW KICKS OUT OF IT!

Kawada responds with two leaping kicks to Misawa's face. After a ghastly German Suplex, Misawa rolls to the outside. Kawada with another powerbomb, but wouldn't you know it, that only gets a two-count as well! Kawada then breaks out his Stretch Plumb submission, but Misawa is able to reach the ropes. Then he locks in a tight reverse dragon sleeper. Another pin attempt, and it's just another two-count for Mr. Kawada.

Misawa sends Kawada reeling with a stiff elbow shot, but Kawada follows suit by punting Misawa in the chest. Another forearm blast from Misawa, and then a spinning clothesline shoulder change-thingy. And then he royally fucks Kawada's shit up with a brutal German Suplex. A follow-up Tiger Suplex, however, only gets Misawa a two-count. Kawada fires back with a down right pimp looking spinning kick. Both men are flat on their backs now, obviously beyond the point of exhaustion.

Another spinning pimp kick from Kawada. Misawa rolls to the outside, while Kawada glares at him with the stare of a famished wolf. Misawa re-enters the ring, and Kawada immediately pounds him with elbows. A series of chops and kicks has Misawa on his knees in the corner. However, a hard elbow shot sends Kawada reeling, and a spinning discus elbow drops Kawada like a sack of potatoes. Misawa then hits Kawada roughly 45,000 times in the face with elbow shots, with another spinning elbow dropping him for good.

Misawa looking for another Tiger Driver, and Kawada starts kicking Misawa behind the knees. Misawa blocks the rolling pimp kick, flatlines Kawada with another elbow strike and then FUCKING KILLS HIM with a Tiger Driver for the 1,2,3.

The crowd goes crazy, chanting "MISAWA!" as he's handed the Triple Crown and a huge-ass, gaudy-looking gold trophy. Kawada pretends(?) to be half-dead for five minutes, as the fans slowly begin to chant his name, too. Eventually, the fallen challenger arises, and shakes the victor's hand, the bout concluding amid a cacophony of adoring cheers and a lot of uncomfortably tight blue spandex, all over the fucking place.

In terms of psychologically rich wrestling, it's pretty hard to top this one. Sans any goofy gimmicks or sports-entertainment-ish swerves, Misawa vs. Kawada is just sheer, old school puroresu awesomeness from start-to-finish, with very few moments that make you suspend your disbelief for too long.

Pro-wrestling logic-wise, this is a damn fine bout, through and through. It's established quite early on that Kawada is looking to end the match with his devastating powerbomb, as he tries to soften Misawa up with a ton of abdomen shots and submission locks. Conversely, we all know Misawa is gunning for the Tiger Driver from the get-go, as he works on Kawada's legs in order to set up the finisher. It's simple, no bullshit booking, and it works fantastically.

In hindsight, I suppose you can say there are a few momentary drops in the action, especially in the first ten or so minutes, with a long submission rest spot and a -- for the most part -- unnecessary Misawa bailout that really didn't add much to the match-up at all. But as the bout goes on, the in-ring psychology gets super tight, with both men doing an expert job of "feigning" exhaustion. For a good thirty minutes, absolutely nothing in this match seems superfluous or sans reasoning; the fact that it's able to feel so smooth and flowing, WITHOUT being a spot-fest, is utterly remarkable.

All Japan Heavyweight Puroresu was about as good as pro wrestling got in the 1990s, and this bout in particular holds up very well. It's long without being too laborious, and the pace is downright stellar. It may be something of a stretch referring to pro wrestling as "art" in any regard, but the tempo and fluidity of this bout is almost symphonic, with two stage performances that are better than most TV acting jobs. When it comes to pro 'rasslin storytelling, very, very few bouts are able to match the simplistic splendor of this legendary tussle.

Of course, it's hard to talk about the bout, on this, its 20th anniversary, without addressing the obvious: today, is it STILL as good as it was a fifth of a century ago? Overall, I would still categorize this one as one of the absolute best one-on-one, no gimmicks needed, old school matches of the decade, and as a singles heavyweight bout, it's very, very hard to think of a single match -- Japan, or stateside -- that really matches the sheer atmosphere of this one.

It's arguably the best match in the best rivalry of the 1990s, an ephemeral work that alike "Exile on Guyville" or "NHL '94," feels simultaneously of the times yet completely transcendent from it. It's one of the very few '90s bouts that I can revisit and still feel a sense of awe every time I watch it; and if for some stupid reason you haven't somehow caught this bout over the last two decades? There's no better time than right freakin' now to catch this one, which is about is easily accessible on the YouTube as a fat girl is for a free buffet dinner date.

Rasmussen's praise for the bout, I must say, was very well-worded: whether you're a Millennial neophyte or an old school smark, indeed, you need to fucking see this match.


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