We all enjoy being fans of professional wrestling, correct? Of course you do, you’re on this site, reading this. Unless you hate cool and good things, which is weird. You don’t want to be weird, do ya?
For many average fans of Western wrestling, indoctrinated by the big promotions of wrestling and sports entertainment, there are the sections not well-known unless you’re curious and die-hard. History lies in textbooks of the territory days, the independents are muffled and hidden away from its deserved spotlight, and adventure awaits to the bold for lands far away.
With many fans, there lies the ones with a critical eye, who view wrestling with measurements and rankings. Yet, for someone like me, the ranking system is simple. If ya like what you see, ya like what you see. Bombastic personalities and characters that speak to our human soul. Stories that feel universally relatable, or maybe we like seeing titans collide with the force of an atomic bomb that just induces serotonin in our brains. It may not be the best, but it is enough.
For some, workrate is king. In searching the depths of the critical eye, there will always be that unmistakable twinkle. The sparkle, like stars that signify the ratings from those that pick apart and study it like a reader would dissect poetry.
Some of these stories told in the squared circle through nothing but competition and violence have been covered to death, with many a unique take on it, spoken through the voice of those that eat them up like pieces of delicious cake. Flair and Steamboat. Hart and Michaels. Austin and Rock. Omega and Okada. Where would your voice compare to all of wrestling’s variants of Roger & Ebert?
Covering why something is so great can be difficult. It’s all been said before. You have to find something new to say, something that others haven’t. Even though we all have our individual voices, there are those that grow exhausted of what appears to be the same take, over and over.
Such is the reason I came up with Noob Japan, because you get to see someone as they grow, to see why someone likes that which they are unfamiliar with. The other speakers that regale these moments captured in time may have said it better, but it’s no competition. This is spoken from the heart of someone curious, ready to learn, long after it is said and done. What better place than a country full of wrestling history to uncover? Damned be this cat, for what death lies in this curiosity?
I love Japan – the architecture, the culture, the nature, and how different it seems to me. Wrestling in Japan also fascinates me. It’s an entirely different beast to what I am used to in the West. Seeing my fellow Inn-mates record their podcasts enforces that this is what can draw people in. Learning is fun!
This time, I am learning about the chase for the Triple Crown Championship in All Japan Pro-Wrestling. I am learning about the King’s Road style. I am learning about the Four Pillars of Heaven. I am learning about one of the many famous matches from that period, between champion Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada.
I am learning why there is a twinkle in the eye of the critical wrestling fan as they abscond all pretense, as anyone who ventures into a previous unknown knows this shit slaps.
Here is a Noob’s take as he traverses on the king’s road!
What I Know
To the uninitiated, All Japan may not be as well-known in the West, unlike NJPW which is the most widely known Japanese promotion. But, once upon a time, AJPW was the talk of the town.
All Japan Pro-Wrestling’s roots can be traced to the same root that New Japan Pro-Wrestling stems from. That genesis stands in the form of Rikidozan, a former Korean who had made his name as a wrestler in Japan and popularized pro-wrestling in the country. Whilst leading the charge for pro-wrestling he also taught hopeful trainee wrestlers, until his death at the hands of a Yakuza member in 1963. His legacy would live on, for two of his students would pave the way for Japan’s wrestling scene to flourish for decades to come.
One of these students, Antonio Inoki, created NJPW in 1972, with an emphasis on character and angles to expand storylines with backstage promos and over the top characters, including the likes of Tiger Mask and Jushin Thunder Liger. It focused on martial arts and mixed martial arts, the eventual “King of Sports”.
Another student, Giant Baba, went a different route in his founding of AJPW. The style designated for this promotion is known as “King’s Road”, focusing on in-ring storytelling, following the path laid out in the southern wrestling territories in the United States. Minimal angles and characters. Just men beating the ever-loving piss out of each other; it was nasty and gnarly. It took a toll on the bodies of its talent. But, the hard-hitting nature proved tantalizing for generations to come, particularly in the 1990s, as the company noticed its stars of the past were aging fast and were keen to develop new stars for the future.
These new stars would be pillars, The Four Pillars of Heave: Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, and Akira Taue.
What resulted was a long-term narrative that spanned over a decade, many fighting for their glory and adulation: the hunt for the elusive Triple Crown Championship. A story that involved East vs West. Wise, greedy veterans vs calculating and hungry rookies. Bitter rivalries from former tag team members.
When heard described by others, it sounds like literature with complex world building, as though a war has broken out and left its marks and scars. It becomes this behemoth that encompasses so much as plot threads intertwine in beautiful harmony. For more information on this overarching story that changed the industry, I suggest a look at Joseph Montecillo’s YouTube playlist.
In this section of the story we stop on the King’s Road, parked at Budokan Hall, on the date of June 3, 1994.
I’ve watched this match three times. The first time, I let myself get lost in it. Whereas I may have been a couple of years old at this point on the other side of the world, I am now transported to a country alien to me, I am plucked out of my world and into this one.
I had no knowledge of the backstory and why things are the way they are, why these men are fighting, aside from the chase for the gold. I know nothing, just that this is critically acclaimed and I could be taken on the ride of my life.
The crowd chants “KA-WA-DA!” immediately, but my instant focus is locked onto Mitsuharu Misawa. He had the haircut of a nerd, with green and white pants that make me feel like I’m watching a Power Ranger. Therefore, he must win, he must reign supreme and remain champion forever. Something about him felt like he was something to aspire to, a strong fighter that could get the work done.
Toshiaki Kawada, on the other hand, I felt an odd disdain for, initially. Maybe it was his bumblebee pants. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t a Power Ranger.
The match feels like a game of chess. Testing each other out. Even here, I get the sense that Kawada is frustrated with his stock in life. That he’s been living in the shadows for too long. Akin to a lifelong friend who falls short compared to his companion, he yearns for the spotlight that eludes him. It’s all in the way the two fight in this match, that reads to me that Kawada is desperate to seize this chance. It’s in the way he fights, like a hungry animal.
Kawada focuses on realistic fighting, as though he was stealing from NJPW’s playbook. That is on full display here, grappling like an Olympian, kicking like a kangaroo. Every hit matters, yet nobody breaks out their finishers until well into the match, where it matters even more. Misawa is no pushover, he’s the final boss, the unshakable pillar. In his arms are torpedoes for elbows.
This match is filled with many memorable moments. The brawl outside of the ring, Misawa’s bleeding ear, that rope spot. Each vicious kick by Kawada was as deadly as the last. And those damn elbows that Misawa employs. If Dusty Rhodes had a bionic elbow, Mitsuharu Misawa’s was that of a Kryptonian sent to Earth. Misawa wins over his former friend, a hollow win, as he tries to shake Kawada’s hand, but it is all tainted – it’s easy for the champ to be sportsmanlike.
Upon my second watch, I took notes amidst the excitement, in want of remembering this match clearly, which helped me a third time. When the barrier of language is right there, I felt the need to make my own calls, such as Misawa flexing his pecs, which Kawada would later slap for daring to be pecs, or Misawa targeting Kawada’s leg, as though punishment for existing in his presence. Some silly stuff, but overall enhancing how I view the match, making every bit stand out a bit more.
Third watch, things go as I remember. I feel every sensation of being a time traveller as I mentioned prior. It’s still just as fun, just as wild, just as intense. As the song reaches its crescendo before spiralling into the ending destiny provided, the roar of the crowd is thunderous, so much so that it feels it shakes the arena, shakes the camera.
This was it. This was the peak, the summit, the zenith of pro wrestling in many eyes. And just how do I feel about it exactly?
Thoughts and Feelings
I loved the match. It reeked of desperation and showcased a fighter’s intellect in the midst of battle. This is fighting spirit, to keep going after all the wear and tear of a match and soldier on. Each finisher felt earned when put in use. Without the context, without the English, the story still was compelling from start to finish.
The gladiatorial standoff, the favoring of the strongest limbs, the holds, it all made it feel like it would be anyone’s game. I even switched sides a few times.
I’m going to be real with everyone here. I didn’t remember any of the names of the signature or finishing moves between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. As stated previously in this writing, I don’t even have a ranking for wrestling matches, so I don’t know how to compare it to others. My own personal ranking system is me just saying I like a match or don’t like it.
But for a match of its time to influence the industry the way it did, it speaks volumes. The King’s Road may have stopped being paved, but it still stretches on.
The way I started out this writing speaks enough to the regards this match is held to in reverence. In the fan community, if you simply say “6/3/94” others will know immediately what you’re talking about. A match that’s so famous it’s known by its date.
The King’s Road style may have slowed down in the 2000s, but the traces remain, especially in NJPW, where it mixes with its modern strong style.
In the wrestling industry, this was truly a special time, an era preserved forever in the hearts of hardcore wrestling fans. It would not last forever, as AJPW saw a mass exodus. Fitting with the theme of religion, three of the Four Pillars of Heaven would embark to a new vessel to tell their stories in Pro Wrestling NOAH, where a new generation of wrestlers would hone their skills. KENTA, Go Shiozaki, Naomichi Marufuji, Katsuhiko Nakajima, to name a few. An exchange of talent would also see TNA and Ring of Honor stars such as Bryan Danielson, Samoa Joe, The Briscoes and others step into the emerald ring NOAH is known for. To this date, NOAH remains the closest competitor to NJPW in Japan’s wrestling scene.
Regardless of all this praise, however, the King’s Road style took its toll on some of its former talent, as wrestling does for most that step in the squared circle. While most have walked away in fair condition, the same could not be said for Mitsuharu Misawa, who would pass away during a tag team match in 2009, following a suplex that affected his already suffering cervical vertebrae. Part of the reason the wrestling industry is becoming safer is because of the period within the late 2000s, following the deaths of other wrestlers tormented by the toils of in-ring competition and the ways they coped with it. A legend’s story ended long before it should have. Yet he will forever live on, immortalized in the work he put in.
End of This Road
This match is a heavy recommendation. In fact, I encourage you in your free time to watch as much 90’s AJPW as you can. The story of the Four Pillars was designed from the beginning to not just be booked days, weeks, and months in advance, but years. This was meant to be a long-spanning story. This is long-term booking.
It is a shame that with the ever-changing nature of the industry and its promotions, there aren’t likely to be any stories built for almost a decade, if not more, within a singular promotion. Maybe it doesn’t need to be that way. Maybe moments like this come by once in a lifetime, where the bells of time ring for longer. Maybe we’re destined for short-term stories.
But all-in-all, life and time are fleeting commodities, and for that, we should be grateful for the time we have, because one day it’ll collide with us in the end, like a rolling elbow to the face or a burning hammer to the ground.