Being furloughed from work for the majority of 2020 gave me more spare time than ever before, and very little to fill that spare time with. NJPW were on hiatus for a number of months due to the pandemic, I couldn’t leave the house, so my aimlessly wandering mind started trawling the NJPW World archives. I began by watching matches from names I knew of, but had rarely actually seen wrestle. Names like Antonio Inoki (why does he hit the ropes so strangely?!), Stan Hansen, Riki Choshu and Shinya Hashimoto. Those legendary names you hear mentioned with such reverence, that despite seeing very little of you still understand that they are giants within wrestling. Then, I found 1990s All Japan Pro Wrestling, and it changed my love of wrestling forever.
The difference between 1980s/1990s Japanese wrestling to the wrestling of today is immeasurable. It feels lawless – abrupt anarchy. Even with the “inside” knowledge we have today, I still found myself questioning everything from the entrances to the post-match, it all feels so real. I quickly tapped into the feeling that anything can happen when watching these older matches. Every match is a time capsule to an era when kayfabe was in full power, evident through the deafening crowds and the intricacies of a wrestler’s performance. The belief the fans had in the wrestlers and action is intoxicating, creating an atmosphere unlike anything else, the united gasps of the crowd whenever Vader would attempt to suplex Mitsuharu Misawa. With minimal understanding of who wrestlers were or what their moves were, I was reliant on the crowd reactions and it drew me instantly in.
It’s remarkable what the wrestlers could do and the chaos they could unleash. When Stan Hansen hit the ring it was everyone for themselves, the mad man barrelled to the ring swinging his bullrope with reckless abandon, uncaring if he hit a cameraman, a fellow wrestler or even the audience! If you were not wise enough to literally run away from the barriers when Hansen was making his entrance, then prepare for the consequences. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.
One moment that sticks out is Bruiser Brody charging through the box seats in Ryogoku Sumo Hall after a match with Antonio Inoki. The entire crowd scatters, running for safety whilst a few brave souls throw their seat cushions at him. Who were these brave fans with balls the size of melons?! Where are they today?! No doubt they are generals wherever they may be, there bravery unmatched. One unfortunate fan falls victim to a clubbing back blow. Legend says he still has the bruise to prove it.
The NJPW World archives led me to Kensuke Sasaki vs Toshiaki Kawada, and I was welcomed into a whole new world I was aware existed, but foolishly never took the time to look into – 1990s All Japan Pro Wrestling. The legacy surrounding AJPW in the 1990s is otherworldly. Fans will vehemently declare it to be the best time in wrestling history, and having engrossed myself over the past year, I find myself agreeing with that notion more than not.
In that decade alone, Dave Meltzer awarded 29 AJPW matches the coveted 5 star rating, the legendary 1994 bout between Kawada and Mitsuharu Misawa being the second match in history to earn 6 stars – a feat that wouldn’t be repeated until Kazuchika Okada met Kenny Omega for the first time 23 years later. In that same decade, NJPW had a trivial 6 matches rated 5 stars.
The Four Pillars of Heaven were paramount to the success of 90s AJPW; Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi and Akira Taue. From 1995 to 1999 the top title in AJPW would change hands eight times exclusively between these four men. Kobashi and Kawada stick out as my personal favourites.
Kobashi looks like he’s an anime character come to life, his preposterous body proportions a marvel to behold. His machine gun corner chops (think Kojima today, but far more piercing) that he can inexplicably do non-stop for minutes, despite being exhausted, are wicked. He has one of the most magnificent moonsaults of all time, simply breath-taking to see this behemoth of a man fly so gracefully through the air. Then, there’s the immortal Burning Hammer, a move so dangerous that Kobashi only unleashed it seven times in his 25 year career, the most definitive move in all of pro-wrestling, it always guaranteed victory.
Kawada, a permanent scowl across his face and the best backdrop of all time. It’s a move we today see Kawada’s student Taichi execute, dubbed the “Dangerous Backdrop”. Don’t let the backdrop name fool you though, as Kawada will dump a mo’fo entirely on their neck and head. Kota Ibushi and Tetsuya Naito would have been lining up to get the final remnants of their necks destroyed. For the incredible badass that Kawada was, there’s a specialness in how he succumbs to his opponents offense that draws you in like very few wrestlers can, taking a big move and getting back up only to stumble to the mat. Katsuyori Shibata and Tomohiro Ishii are known for doing something similar, but there’s a uniqueness to how Kawada does it. On rare occasion the vicious maverick would throw a right hand punch, dropping his opponent instantly, his dominant attitude prominent.
The AJPW matches involving the Four Pillars are truly some of the best wrestling you will ever see. A calibre of wrestling that cannot be imitated. There’s a raw feel to it that cannot be copied, a product of its time. The grainy videos, the onslaught of colourful streamers, the Power Rangers-esque Pillars having their own distinct colour scheme, the super slow-motion replays after the match is finished. Vintage perfection.
There are few things in wrestling that I love more than a meaty lariat, the recipient taking the full destructive power and being shot straight to the mat against their will. Stan Hansen’s Western Lariat is praised as the best lariat of all time, but Kobashi’s Burning Lariat is something to behold. Having grown up watching WWE and being accustomed to clotheslines being rather unassuming, seeing matches won with lariats that knock heads clean off is something I will never tire from.
The top title itself, the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, is glorious. The three belts that make the Triple Crown are entrenched in the deepest wrestling history, dating back to Lou Thesz and Rikidōzan in 1957. And if three belts wasn’t enough to flaunt, the winner of a title match would also be given a gigantic trophy to hoist! Ballin’
The catalogue of old wrestling matches is never ending and it has vastly enriched my knowledge and love for Japanese wrestling. NJPW have always made their history an important part of their present, from the video package showing all the previous IWGP Heavyweight Champions (RIP), to the commentators acknowledging other promotions and pulling interesting trivia from the past.
As much as this has been an excuse for me to gush about Kenta Kobashi’s popping pecs, I wanted to shed a light on the treasure trove that is the archives of wrestling. NJPW is more popular among English speaking fans than it has ever been, but there are rich libraries of classic matches waiting for you to discover that transcend what we can possibly see today. Whether you visit the backlogs of NJPW, branch out to AJPW or head back for a slice of old-school WWE, it’s impossible to not find something that will grip you. I’d argue that there isn’t much better than watching 2000s KENTA tackle men twice his size in NOAH. I’m currently dipping my toes into the spectacular All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, my mind again being blown by the sheer talent these legendary women had.
The next time the present of wrestling has you feeling down, take a trip to the preserved past. Seek out a Mitsuharu Misawa match and learn why he has more 5 star matches than anybody else in history. See fans meet their untimely doom when Hansen or Brody march to the ring. Watch a Kobashi match and be both amazed and perplexed at how such a man can exist. Seriously, Kobashi, what is your secret?!