I am one of the many pundits who feels that the peak of wrestling as an artform occurred in the 90s on All Japan’s blue canvas. While there are numerous companies and eras which I hold great love in my heart for, none light a fire within quite like the practitioners of the King’s Road. There is a purity to it unrivaled. No outlandish gimmicks were required. No wild stipulations or elaborate storylines. No interference, melodrama or match stipulations. It was merely wrestling unparalleled; men going out there and giving every last ounce of their bodies and hearts to best their opponents. That was all it was, and it was everything.
I am firmly of the belief that the King’s Road style is not only the greatest style in the sport’s history, but also the most influential. Merely glance across at the most recent golden era of Japanese wrestling, New Japan in the 2010s, and you’ll see a main event style built far more on the King’s Road principles of escalation, fighting spirit and extended finishing stretches as opposed to the traditional tenets of Strong Style (focused heavily on striking, submissions and a feel that a match could end out of nowhere). Once you become familiar with the era, you won’t be able to stop yourself from seeing the influence it birthed in almost every corner of wrestling, and almost always for the better.
The style didn’t spontaneously come into being, however. The creation of the pillars was only possible through the sweat of their predecessors, hammering away tirelessly at the anvil of pro wrestling. Grinding, refining, innovating: the Road of Kings was laid in the 80s and to this day, we owe great credit to the trailblazers who first walked it. – Robin Reid
Stan Hansen & Terry Gordy vs. Genichiro Tenryu & Toshiaki Kawada
AJPW Real World Tag League 1988
To numerous wrestling fans, mid-90s All Japan Pro Wrestling represents the pinnacle of wrestling endeavor. Not only did it represent a boon period for titles such as the Triple Crown and tournaments such as the Champion Carnival, but it also served as a time where the quality of the multi-man action was in step with that of the big singles matches. All Japan had a roster of workers who were able to offer great wrestling no matter the scenario; as at home in a tag team clash as in a Triple Crown title challenge.
In the late 80s, as the promotion was beginning to transition its singles style to what would eventually become known as King’s Road and offering some of its best singles matches of the decade, the tag team offerings were also laudable in their quality. The World’s Strongest Tag Determination League, or Real World’s Tag League to western fans, had historically pitted a range of stars from across the world in a tag team tournament to close out the year. Though moments such as Terry Funk’s first retirement in 1983 were notable, it was towards the tail end of the decade that the quality of the in-ring action began to challenge and sometimes supersede the singles action.
If Cagematch.net ratings are to be believed, workers who were particularly notable for this uptick in quality included Genichiro Tenryu, Stan Hansen, and Toshiaki Kawada. Throw in one of the greatest tag wrestlers of all time in Terry Gordy, and it is no surprise as to why the 1988 final is considered not only one of the best AJPW matches of the decade, but one of the best matches of the decade period.
Booked to be the final match of the round robin (at this time the tournament was a pure league with no separate final), both teams still had the opportunity to win the tournament. Not only would that put their name in the record books, but as an added bonus the AJPW World Tag Team Titles were up for grabs. The reigning champions, Jumbo Tsuruta and Yoshiaki Yatsu, had forfeited the titles in order for them to be contested in the tournament, and had finished their defense with 16 points. However, a win for either of the teams in the final match was going to be enough to see new champions crowned.
What followed was all about the grit and determination of Kawada and Tenryu as they tried their best to stay in the contest against a continual onslaught from the two gaijin monsters. In the early going, Hansen showed ring intelligence to save Gordy from a Kawada spinkick, before a Kawada German suplex later on left him open and vulnerable to multiple Hansen kicks to the knee, ending that mode of offense and putting the natives on the back foot. It was calculating and violent, but effective.
From there, it felt as if it was only a matter of time until Gordy and Hansen picked up the win, yet Tenryu and Kawada went down swinging. Divide and conquer tactics saw more offense targeting Kawada’s knee, before an attempt to keep him at ringside was escalated by dumping him over the barricade. Without his partner by his side, Tenryu managed to at least hit a top rope back elbowdrop, but with no-one to help protect the pinfall it was always unlikely to lead to victory.
The numbers advantage played into the finish as well. Tenryu, still just hanging in the fight, managed to powerbomb Hansen – a move that would normally end a contest in Tenryu’s favour. However, with Kawada still incapacitated, Gordy casually walked over and broke up the pinfall in order to then nail a powerbomb of his own. One brutal lariat later and Hansen and Gordy were the 1988 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League winners as well as the new All Japan World Tag Team Champions. The foursome were also awarded a five star rating by Dave Meltzer – only the fourth given to an All Japan match up to that point.
Though Tenryu would eventually walk away from the company to chance his arm with a number of other projects, Hansen, Gordy and Kawada would all play significant roles as All Japan turned into the big match machine of the early and mid-90s. For fans of that era of wrestling, it is definitely worth checking out what came before, whilst anyone who likes big heavyweights throwing bombs will also love every minute of this.
- Ashura Hara & Genichiro Tenryu vs. Jumbo Tsuruta & Yoshiaki Yatsu – A titanic tag clash from a few months earlier
- Stan Hansen vs. Toshiaki Kawada – Several years later, Kawada and Hansen would go one on one and Kawada would get to show the unsinkable battleship that the fight in him had only grown.
- JONAH vs. Kazuchika Okada – The tradition of the enormous gaijin taking on the native superstars lives on.
Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu
AJPW Super Power Series 1989
The word ‘revolutionary’ is overused in describing professional wrestling matches, but in June of 1989 Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu competed in a match for the Triple Crown championships which coalesced the Royal Road style. It was the true birth of the King’s Road. Revolutionary doesn’t do it justice.
Prior to the mid-80s, the work of AJPW was predominantly a lengthy technical act worked at a methodical pace, and almost all with screwy finishes. That is not to dismiss it, but simply to say there was a gulf from what was to come.
Things changed with Riki Choshu’s arrival. He injected a pace, an intensity and quite frankly a freneticism to the top of the card. To the modern eye, the matches of that transition era might appear sloppy and structureless, but it must be understood that heavyweights working at this pace was simply unheard of and the innovation was the attraction.
Then this match came around and created the Road of Kings. Jumbo and Tenryu, the two preeminent heavyweights of the time, worked for 24 minutes at the pace Choshu brought to prominence but rarely took past the 15-minute mark. Still, here was the intensity and excitement of the acceleration, but gone was the looseness. It was not a scatter-gun approach that had occurred prior; there was a far clearer structure present. This match invented the long escalation that became synonymous with All Japan, and culminated in a crescendo that had never before been heard.
It set the standard for what an epic pro wrestling match is. These two superstars went all out for an extended period, with mastery of the art of escalation heretofore unseen, and gave the crowd a satisfying and definitive finish to boot. This match being so successful and not negatively affecting the aura of Tenryu was the final nail in the coffin of removing the norm of non-finishes from Japan, a practice that had been well established for decades prior. To this day, that norm has never been returned to in Japan; how many other matches can be viewed as such a stark line in the sand for something so significant for an entire region’s wrestling?
The Triple Crown, an amalgamation of three separate heavyweight championships, had a lineage that could be traced back as far as 1957 but had only been combined a few months earlier. Coming into this match Jumbo was the only man to have held the triumvirate, and having a match this legendary so early in its existence was a substantial contributor towards the Triple Crown becoming viewed as the definitive prize of wrestling by many luminaries.
Without this match the legendary era of the Four Pillars never occurs, at least not in the glorious form in which we were lucky enough to experience it. Jumbo and Tenryu might not quite reach the pinnacles reached later within the company, but it is the cardinal example of the craft to all apostles of the Royal Road.
- Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Billy Robinson – An example of what main events looked like when Jumbo first ascended the card.
- Genichiro Tenryu vs. Riki Choshu – An example of what the norm became once Choshu arrived and injected pace to heavyweight battles.
- Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Akira Taue – An example of what main events became in the decade following because of this match.
Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Jumbo Tsuruta
AJPW Super Power Series 1990
Mi-sa-wa, Mi-sa-wa, Mi-sa-wa
That chant changed the fortunes of All Japan Pro Wrestling, and the ripple effects are still being felt in today’s wrestling landscape. It is also the soundtrack to the greatest example of pro wrestling as a unique artistic medium we have yet seen.
In 1990, All Japan’s ace, Jumbo Tsuruta, defeated a departing Genichiro Tenryu in their final battle. This left Tsuruta as the lone Japanese star of main event-caliber status on the roster, but AJPW head Shohei Baba had the next ace up his sleeve – or, rather, under a mask. Mitsuharu Misawa, freshly revealed during a heated tag team match as the man under the Tiger Mask II hood, was a crowd favorite primed to take the next step. A bitter rivalry was sparked immediately. Their first one-on-one battle would take place on June 8, 1990.
Pro wrestling is a unique art form, combining the athletics and presentation of sport with the cooperation and drama of the theatre. The audience are compelled to suspend their disbelief through the athletic and theatrical performances of the wrestlers. The goal of the performers is to use that suspension of disbelief to maximize the reaction to the story they’re telling. One of the unique elements of wrestling is the connection between the performers and the crowd. The wrestlers get real-time feedback from the audience about their performance. Great pro wrestlers are able to read the audience and make adjustments to their performance to keep them engaged, even if a particular outcome seems certain. This brings us back to Misawa and Tsuruta, as booker Shohei Baba had been listening to that audience feedback, and made the decision that would spark one of the hottest runs of any promotion in wrestling’s history.
On June 8, 1990, Mitsuharu Misawa walked to the ring in Budokan Hall as the full crowd bellowed “Mi-sa-wa, Mi-sa-wa, Mi-sa-wa” at the top of their lungs, drowning out his iconic entrance theme, “Spartan X.” Accompanied by his Super Generation Army allies, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada, Misawa’s entrance set the crowd on fire and also provided a snapshot of the decade to come. Baba had seen the reactions Misawa was garnering from the audience – the cheers, the chanting, the merchandise and ticket sales – and adjusted. He changed the planned result of the match, and in their first encounter, Mitsuharu Misawa beat Jumbo Tsuruta. The new ace, made by the old one.
All Japan’s direction for the ’90s was set, but the impact of Misawa’s victory over Tsuruta continues to influence wrestling today. The decades since have seen audiences, particularly American ones, vocally declare their support for wrestlers only for promotions to resist elevating them into the main spotlight. On a stylistic level, the King’s Road style pioneered by the main events between Super Generation Army members has permeated wrestling. Ironically, All Japan’s rival, New Japan Pro Wrestling, has seen recent worldwide success sparked by a young star’s elevation and dramatic, King’s Road-style main events. Even American TV wrestling is obviously influenced by Misawa’s All Japan. Their four young pillars directly reference All Japan’s Four Pillars of Heaven, their main event style blends the athletic intensity of the King’s Road with American theatrics, and Eddie Kingston openly pays tribute to the Four Pillars as his entire inspiration. In 2022, Konosuke Takeshita has even brought Jumbo Tsuruta’s jumping knee to AEW, having had it passed down to him from the Pillar that never was, Jun Akiyama.
So next time you watch a hard-hitting, head-dropping, high-intensity grudge match, spare a thought for the rabid fans in the Budokan in 1990 whose emotional investment was rewarded by Shohei Baba with a decision that still impacts professional wrestling nearly a quarter-century later.
- Tiger Mask II vs. Jumbo Tsuruta – Two years prior, Jumbo Tsuruta ace of the company, takes on a mere junior under a mask.
- Tiger Mask II & Toshiaki Kawada vs. Samson Fuyuki & Yoshiaki Yatsu – I sure wonder who that guy under the mask is.
- Royal Rumble 2014 – A match where the crowd reaction bent so strongly against the story that was trying to be told that even the WWE felt need to give in.
Super Generation Army (Kawada, Misawa & Kobashi) vs. Tsuruta-gun (Taue, Jumbo & Fuchi)
AJPW October Giant Series 1990
This match represents the first all-star six-man All Japan had put on since Genichiro Tenryu split earlier in the year. Prior incarnations saw an aging Great Kabuki line up alongside Jumbo and his Army or perennial underdog Tsuyoshi Kikuchi tagging with his contemporaries in Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa, but this match had no clear underdog.
On the surface, I love this match so much because it represents such a specific time in All Japan history. Later incarnations of this match would show a more experienced babyface team or would take place in a building larger than the holy confines of Korakuen Hall.
The dynamics here are the perfect introduction to the King’s Road style. Jumbo Tsuruta is still the top dog, and he’s more annoyed than anything at the new crop of post-Tenryu opponents that are coming his way. Taue, still coated in baby fat, turned his back on his contemporaries and found protection alongside Tsuruta and his longtime companion, the grumpiest man in wrestling: Masanobu Fuchi.
While he would go on to become the greatest wrestler ever, Kenta Kobashi is clearly sixth on the pecking order in this encounter. He merely tries to survive alongside the already-hardened Toshiaki Kawada and the beloved Mitsuharu Misawa. What struck me watching this match this time around was how hot the crowd would get when Misawa would tag in. Fuchi is over, Kawada is over, Tsuruta is over, but no one is over in the way that Misawa is.
The beauty of this match is in the simplicity. As we move further away from October 19, 1990, wrestling continues to feel busier and busier. There’s a lot of fluff, a lot of alleged storytelling, and a lot of unnecessary clutter that ultimately detracts from the product. There’s no great story at play here, nor is there any ‘lore’ to connect the wrestlers to the audience members. It’s a match where the only stakes are not suffering defeat, and All Japan’s youngsters do everything in their power not to deal with that inevitable fate.
The bonds of All Japan’s brotherhood are so strong. That is one of the prime factors that makes this style stand out compared to New Japan of this era, or even a promotion like Michinoku Pro which was based around multi-man matches. The dry comradery that these sets of trios bring to the table are linked by tortuous dojo training sessions, miserable nights in cold villages, and a desire to ultimately be the best wrestler in the world.
There are a few in-ring moments that I must highlight. This match took place a few years before Kobashi would start flirting with the “best in the world” label, but the Kyoto-native was brilliant in this match. He’s the primary whipping boy for Tsuruta’s Army, but he had a few choice moments of offense. My favorite was not his picture-perfect moonsault, but rather when he locked Taue in a half crab. Fuchi hit the ring and attempted to break it up, but Kobashi held on tight. This paved the way for Tsuruta to enter the fold, and as he hit the ropes and geared up for a vicious lariat on Kobashi, Kobashi dropped the half crab and blasted Tsuruta with a lariat of his own. This was such a great, early example of the fire that Kobashi would bring to the table throughout his career.
As it pertains to Toshiaki Kawada, he shined brightest after a hot tag from the aforementioned Kobashi. He rushed the ring to get his hands on his rival in Taue. Kawada’s kicks were met with Taue’s sumo slaps, which were turned into forearms from Kawada that were then quickly countered with a simple judo throw from Taue. Not done yet, Kawada unleashed a series of patented Kawada Kicks on the big man, and when the referee tried to break it up, Kawada shoved the referee away. This momentary distraction would give Taue the window to flatten his foe with a lariat. This led to a Tsuruta-led onslaught that only ended once Kawada nearly decapitated the big man with a wheel kick.
Misawa was merely perfect as the clear leader of his group. He never lost his cool, no matter how many times Tsuruta and his cronies attempted to push him over the edge. He went move-for-move with Tsuruta and was clearly a step ahead of both Fuchi and Taue.
The final few moments reflect the heart and soul of the All Japan style. There’s teamwork, as Misawa attempts to cut off a powerbomb attempt from Tsuruta to Kobashi. He’s met with a lariat, however, and Tsuruta soon after drives Kobashi into the canvas with a powerbomb. The youngster kicked out, however, signalling a thunderous applause from the Korakuen faithful. Kobashi attempted to steal a win, just as Misawa did four months earlier, by turning a Backdrop Driver into a pinning predicament, but Tsuruta learned from his mistake and then dropped Kobashi with not one, but two Backdrop Drivers and pinned him in the middle of the ring.
Rarely will you see a match with this much heart, and rarely will you see a match with such clear stakes. Winning feels like a life and death issue. For Misawa’s team, a win would’ve propelled them all up the card and would’ve helped quiet the idea that his win in June was a fluke. For Tsuruta’s team, their win reminded the All Japan Army where their place in the pecking order was. They still had a long way to go before reaching the top.
- Holy Demon Army (Kawada, Taue & Honda) vs. Super Generation (Kobashi, Misawa & Asako) – The team dynamics may have changed, but magic was still being produced in six mans later in the decade.
- Super Generation (Misawa & Kawada) vs. Tsuruta-gun (Taue & Jumbo) – A straight up tag incarnation from the month before.
- CHAOS (Okada, Nakamura & Ishii) vs. New Japan Army (Goto, Tanahashi & Naito) – I think it’s a shame New Japan don’t really put focus on all-star six mans like this, because on the rare occasions they occur they invariably deliver.
Can-Am Express vs. Kenta Kobashi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi
AJPW Super Power Series 1992
There is nothing quite like a hometown crowd in pro wrestling. They bring a special kind of energy that can take a standard wrestling match on paper and make it feel like the most heated, important match in the world. For a hometown crowd, it isn’t just a case of “Wrestler A vs. Wrestler B,” it’s a case of “Our Wrestler vs. The Enemy,” and we want—no, need—Our Wrestler to win because they are One Of Us. When they win, we win. Even if we like The Enemy too, they are not One Of Us and therefore must be defeated. It’s the same as in any other sport, except this sport has Canadian Destroyers and thumbtack spots.
The cool thing about the hometown crowd scenario is that it’s not beholden to just one time period, promotion, geographical region, or any other type of delineation. It can happen anywhere, including 1992 All Japan, the beginning stages of the Four Pillars Era that dominated the greater part of the decade and shaped the tastes of wrestling fans for years to come.
It is here, on May 25, 1992, in the Prefectural Sports Center in Sendai, Japan, that we get what is arguably the greatest hometown wrestling crowd of all time.
To the thousands in attendance that night, the team of Kenta Kobashi and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi are firmly Their Wrestlers. Kikuchi, a junior heavyweight who patterned his style after Dynamite Kid (including adopting Dynamite’s signature diving headbutt), is from Sendai, which becomes quite obvious the second he and Kobashi make their entrance. They have to rush past swarms of fans to get to the ring, and when the ring announcer calls Kikuchi’s name during the introductions, the fans scream and cheer as loud as they would if all four Beatles suddenly appeared before them. Kobashi—the Pillar, the Iron Man, the future champion of champions—is not from Sendai, but rather Fukuchiyama, a city in the Kyoto Prefecture hundreds of miles away. And yet, as he has been like Kikuchi’s big brother for years, the Sendai crowd still treat Kobashi as one of their own.
The hometown favorites are going up against Doug Furnas & Dan Kroffat, a.k.a. the Can-Am Express, who are the reigning and defending All Asia Tag Team Champions. In their fourth reign, they have held the titles for 304 days with three successful defenses. Ask a wrestling fan knowledgeable of this era for their opinion of the Can-Am Express, and odds are they will give the team glowing praise for their athleticism, technical skills, and body of work. Charisma machines, they are not, but as in-ring wrestlers they can hang with the best of them. The Sendai crowd do not care about any of that. It does not matter how good Furnas and Kroffat are in the ring; on this night, they are nothing more than The Enemy. To bastardize a line from The Godfather, it’s not business, it’s strictly personal.
For 22 minutes and 11 seconds, the Sendai fans only care about one thing: Kobashi and Kikuchi winning the tag titles. Every beat of the match that leads to that outcome is met with rapturous cheering, yelling, fist pumping, and applause. Every single one. When Kikuchi hammers down a series of forearms on Furnas in the opening minute, the crowd goes wild. When Kikuchi hits a jumping kick or when Kobashi throws a lariat, the fans explode in approval. No matter what Kobashi and Kikuchi do, no matter how simple the act, the fans treat it like the very fate of the universe hangs in the balance.
That emotion is omnipresent even when Kroffat and Furnas get on offense. Sure, the fans boo the Can-Ams when they bully around Kikuchi or get snippy with the referee. But the boos are overpowered by the roaring cheers when Kikuchi does a big kickout at two, or when Kobashi breaks up a submission attempt with a leg drop. Again, even the simplest of moments can garner the greatest reactions.
Not every hometown crowd reacts with such sheer fervor, which is why this particular hometown crowd holds such a legendary status among the rest. Sure, 90s All Japan crowds in general were not known for their placidity, but the pure devotion towards Kobashi and Kikuchi on this night reaches another level entirely. David Bowie once sang about “the gift of sound and vision.” He was referring to the inspiration to write music, but the gift of sound and vision is also the perfect description of that Sendai audience. The sight of entire rows of fans standing up out of their seats and pumping their fists, throwing streamers, huge smiles on their faces. The wave of noise that crashes through the speakers at each and every turn, barely relenting until it reaches the climax at the finish. That is what love looks and sounds like. That is what puts this match on the Wrestling 101. That is what pro wrestling is all about.
- Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs. Doug Furnas & Dan Kroffat – Kobashi clashes with the Can-Ams once again, this time with another Pillar by his side.
- Kenta Kobashi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Masanobu Fuchi & Yoshinari Ogawa – Kobashi and Kikuchi defend the All Asia Tag Titles in an acclaimed Korakuen Hall match.
- Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog – The British Bulldog in Wembley Stadium. A legendary home-crowd match.
The Wrestling 101
- An Introduction to the Project & Match #1
- Unique Spectacles: Matches #2-6
- Multi-Man Magic: Matches #7-11
- What Could Have Been?: Matches #12-16
- Clashes of the 80s: Matches #17-21
- Paving the Road of Kings: Matches #22-26
The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.