August 15, 2020 marks 10 years since Toshiaki Kawada wrestled his last match. It was a rather mundane affair. He had not announced it would be his last match and that he would be essentially retiring. Kawada teamed with Genichiro Tenryu and Tiger Mask IV to defeat Riki Choshu, Super Strong Machine and AKIRA in a six-man tag on the final night of the 2010 G1 Climax. Kawada would later admit that the tragic death of his classmate/rival/friend Mitsuharu Misawa in 2009 had sapped his desire to continue as a pro wrestler.
Kawada’s incredible talent as well as his trials and tribulations in All Japan during the 1990s are the stuff of legend now. His name regularly appears on most lists as one of the greatest wrestlers ever. What is less well known is his matches and title runs after the All Japan Pro Wrestling/NOAH split of 2000. And let’s be honest about Kawada not jumping to NOAH. In hindsight, it is far more clear that it was his issues with Misawa than his publicly professed loyalty to Giant Baba. While making headlines in some of his early matches after the NOAH split like his match against Kensuke Sasaki at the Tokyo Dome in October 2000, a lot of his work in the 2000s fell under the radar as NOAH gained momentum and All Japan made some questionable decisions under Keiji Muto’s leadership. However, during this time, Kawada finally got his run as the ace as he had a 529-day Triple Crown run from September 2003 to February 2005 where he set a record of ten successful defenses, a record that stands to this day.
The following articles will be taking a look at Kawada’s best matches in the 2000s after the NOAH split. These matches still hold up today and I would even make the argument that of all of the four pillars of All Japan, Kawada’s in-ring work declined the least of any of them from the mid-2000s onward. Kawada was able to keep up physically in the later 2000s as his style became ever more dependent on stiff kicks and his always excellent selling.
One note as we move forward: I personally think a lot of HUSTLE is crap, though I have a couple of matches upcoming on this list that should be seen for the spectacle of them as opposed to their quality. Though I’m glad that Kawada got some great paydays from them for several years.
I’m happy now to take you through some often overlooked matches from who is without a doubt my favorite wrestler ever.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. MASNOBU FUCHI
This was the main event of the first All Japan show after the NOAH split. Kawada and Fuchi were the only native Japanese wrestlers to stay with the company. This match is arguably more about Fuchi than Kawada. While Fuchi had been a respected worker from the 1980s to the early 1990s, he had been downcycled, especially after 1996 to working comedy matches. Fuchi, who is still an active wrestler today, was 46 here and Kawada didn’t hold back at all. Fuchi’s chest was a red mess after this match. But the big story of this match was that Fuchi was still a great worker. This is worth the watch just to see Fuchi try to survive the onslaught of Kawada’s stiff strikes. A solid **** match.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. KENSUKE SASAKI
This is probably my favorite match ever.
And if you are going to watch it, you should try to find the version floating around on tube sites and not on NJPW World, at least for the entrances. Not only do Kawada and Sasaki look so damn cool in their entrances, as the outsider, Kawada got pelted with garbage during his entrance by the New Japan fans in the Tokyo Dome. That’s something you don’t see often in puroresu. But at this point there was still a mystique to these interpromotional dream matches that would wane as we got more of them as the 2000s went on. The match itself was pretty simple. It was based around both guys hitting each other really hard and the explosive crowd heat. Both guys just kept hitting each other and getting up but eventually Kawada managed to hit that final Gamengiri that Sasaki couldn’t get up from. I’m going the full ***** here baby.
TRIPLE CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP TOURNAMENT FINALS
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. GENICHIRO TENRYU
This might be the most criminally overlooked match on this list.
Coming only 19 days after Kawada vs. Sasaki at the Tokyo Dome, this was the finals of the tournament to determine the first Triple Crown Champion of the post-NOAH split era of All Japan (spoiler alert: the rest of the tournament wasn’t very good). Gene Kiniski is here to present the belts and add some gravitas to this affair as well. This match, like Kawada vs. Sasaki, was built around strikes. But it also had a lot of elements of a traditional King’s Road match, making this an awesome hybrid of the style. Kawada and Tenryu of course kick the shit out of each other through the entire match. Kawada’s selling in this is glorious, especially the way he sells Tenryu’s closed-fist punches to the face. My only critique of this match is that the finish saw Kawada unload a flurry of kicks on Tenryu, but Tenryu then just punches him once in the face and hits the Northern Lights Bomb for the win. It comes across as making Kawada look like a bit of a chump. That being said, this was still a ****3/4 match. I wish this striking plus King’s Road hybrid style was further developed in All Japan, as that would have really set them apart from New Japan and NOAH in this period.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA & MASANOBU FUCHI VS. YUJI NAGATA & TAKASHI IIZUKA
While the Holy Demon Army was no longer a team, Kawada proved he was still one of the best tag team wrestlers out there. This was for many the best match of 2000. This was an incredibly heated match from the beginning with Kawada and Fuchi playing the invaders. Iizuka of all people also played the face-in-peril here which is a role you don’t generally associate him with. Fuchi, who himself is usually the whipping boy, tortures Iizuka here too. Though this was a draw, I didn’t feel cheated by the lack of a winner. Nagata and Iizuka stood their ground and took a hell of a beating from the outsiders. I’d go ****3/4 but many people have given this the full *****.
IWGP HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPIONSHIP TOURNAMENT FINALS
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. KENSUKE SASAKI
This match isn’t quite as good as their previous match, though, at a little over half the time of their previous meeting, this was wrestled more in a sprint style but retaining the stiff strikes. This was the finals of a one-night tournament to crown the IWGP Heavyweight Champion as Sasaki had vacated the title after losing to Kawada the previous October. There’s not really much more to say about this as you know what kind of hard-hitting match these guys are capable of and I’d go ****1/4 on this. While not as good as their October 2000 match, it is still worth a watch to cap off their story arc that began in October. As this was Kawada’s second loss in a tournament finals in a couple of months, Kawada didn’t exactly seem like he was going to finally get his run as an ace that many thought he would. His fans would have to be more patient on that one.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. MITSUYA NAGAI
I hadn’t seen this before, but I watched it for the first time in my research for this article. I now regret taking so long to do so. This was fucking awesome. Just an incredibly stiff match where both men throw a ton of strikes at each other. There was only one pinfall attempt in this match from Kawada early on. This match eventually became a match of both guys kicking each other in the leg which rocked. Kawada finally won with a Half-Crab after another insane flurry of kicks to the leg of both guys. This match went only 11:25 and it was, save for a couple of submission attempts, just them hitting each other, there were no suplexes or any other kind of wrestling moves. If you’ve only seen Nagai in his later years as a dollar store Takashi Iizuka, you’re missing out from the days he was a great shoot-style wrestler. I’d go ****1/4 on this easy. More proof that All Japan should have turned itself into some sort of striking plus King’s Road Hybrid style in the early 2000s. Researching this match, I also came across the story from 2001 where apparently Lance Storm said Kawada was not a good worker if he had to work as stiff as he did in this match, and said that Jeff Jarrett was a better worker than Kawada because Double J was safe. Lance, I love you, but you’re wrong.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. KEIJI MUTO
This match happened at the height of Mutomania in 2001.
Muto’s 2001 was so incredible to me as I followed it in real time and for all of his ridiculousness and bad booking, I still love Muto to this day. While this match isn’t as good as their match from February 2002, it is still pretty good, but what really makes this match is Kawada’s selling of the Shining Wizard. The move was still pretty new at this point and Kawada’s selling of it like he had just been concussed helped to get the Shining Wizard over and make it the hottest move in wrestling for a couple of years. This one is in the **** range. I remember Kawada suffering yet another loss at this point infuriated a lot of Western fans who thought Kawada was getting a raw deal at this point for sticking around in All Japan.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. SATOSHI KOJIMA
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. HIROYOSHI TENZAN
I’m going to group these two matches together as they took place two days apart and were part of both promotion’s shows that each featured several All Japan vs. New Japan matches. Both of these matches are in the **** range and Kawada won both, beginning his quest back to the top. But what struck me when I originally saw these matches back in 2001, was that I was finally confident that both Kojima and Tenzan had what it took to become main eventers. Their charisma was a much bigger factor in these matches than anything Kawada brought. That’s why I believe these are worth a (re-)watch for you while viewing them through the perspective that these two could be main eventers. The Kawada vs. Kojima match is a harder find, it’s not even on NJPW World.
TRIPLE CROWN CHAMPIONSHIP
TOSHIAKI KAWADA VS. KEIJI MUTO ©
I love this match.
I’d go ****1/2 on this. It was a kind of fusion of the New Japan and All Japan styles (or at least Muto’s traditional New Japan style plus King’s Road). Muto did the holds and worked over the body parts and it built to the big bombs of King’s Road in the final minutes including the second appearance of the Ganso Bomb. Sure there are a few things you could nitpick on this, especially since the leg selling by both men goes out the window for the closing stretch, and given Kawada’s incredible selling ability you can hold that against him. But that didn’t bother me that much as this was finally Kawada’s big moment that we had all been waiting for. He not only won the Triple Crown but beat arguably the hottest wrestler in the world at the time to do it. Those of us who lived through this were ready for the big Kawada title run. Tragically, Kawada would vacate the Triple Crown due to injury for the second time as he blew out his knee the following month during the Champion Carnival and would be out for a year.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA & MASANOBU FUCHI VS. KEIJI MUTO & SATOSHI KOJIMA
Some wrestlers who are injured for an extended period need some time to shake off the ring rust. Kawada didn’t need to do that. He jumped right back into the swing of things in an incredible match. This was the All Japan old guard vs. Muto’s ProWres Love era, though the match was very much structured like a classic All Japan tag team match. Fuchi who had slid back down the card once Muto & Co. joined the company got to shine for the first time in a while here. Muto was merciless in this match targeting Kawada’s surgically repaired knee. Sure, Muto goes after the knees a lot but the way the crowd reacted to Muto attacking Kawada’s knees took it to a different level than your standard Muto match. Kawada and Kojima were also great going at each other in this match foreshadowing future events. Kojima would eventually put Fuchi away with a Lariat at just over 27 minutes. This was one of those matches that didn’t feel as long as it went. While this may be the hardest match to find online because it was recently taken off of YouTube, it is one of my highest recommendations on this list because I don’t think many have seen it. ****1/2
TOSHIAKI KAWADA & SATOSHI KOJIMA VS. KENSUKE SASAKI & HIROSHI HASE
This was a 60-minute draw by four of the greatest wrestlers to ever do it. They don’t give away the Broadway finish as these guys lay into each other very early on with some big moves. There were few pointless rest holds and instead Kawada’s leg got targeted for an extended period which always got heat at this point. There was a great spot where Kawada and Kojima each ran down the entrance ramp to lariat and high kick their opponents while the other held them up by the ropes. This was an easy ****1/2 for me. They just kept going. If there was more of an overarching story in this match I would rate it higher but otherwise it is four incredible wrestlers just dishing it out for an hour. This match isn’t the easiest to find in full but there is a clipped version that is still great.