CHAMPION CARNIVAL 1997
April 19, 1997
Mitsuharu Misawa . . . gives a brilliant performance that reminds everyone exactly why he’s The Man, even though he’s coming off a couple of big losses.
Toshiaki Kawada . . . finally achieves the goal that has eluded him for nearly five years!
Yoshinari Ogawa . . . puts on a shockingly great heel performance like he spent the last month watching all the Shinjiro Ohtani tapes that he could find.
The tape begins with the opening ceremony of the tournament with Akira Taue (the previous year’s winner) surrendering the trophy. Then we get a bunch of clips of various highlights from the tournament matches, the notable ones include Kawada defeating Gary Albright with a flying armbar, Steve Williams beating Misawa with an insane backdrop (which prevented Misawa from winning the tournament outright) and a time limit draw between Hansen and Akiyama (which kept Hansen from also reaching the finals). The final night has Misawa, Kawada, and Kobashi all tied on points, so a ‘triangle match’ will decide the tournament, where all three will wrestle each other in singles matches, and a drawing determines who wrestles in which order. Misawa draws “A” - which means he wrestles in the first and second matches. Kobashi draws “B” - meaning he wrestles in the first and third matches, which leaves Kawada wrestling in the second and third.
MITSUHARU MISAWA vs. KENTA KOBASHI
The big takeaway from this match is the attitude that each man conveys. Despite suffering his first defeat to Kobashi during the tournament, Misawa wrestles like someone who doesn’t have anything to prove. And he really doesn’t; he already has two champion carnival wins under his belt and he’s the current Triple Crown holder. Misawa tries to win the match, and nothing more. When Kobashi kicks out of a pin attempt, Misawa almost acts as though he expected it and moves on to the next spot. Kobashi, on the other hand, wrestles like his entire career is dependent on him winning this match. Every time that Misawa kicks out or gets to the ropes, the result is heartbreak for Kobashi. The contrast is perfectly illustrated in their early submissions. Misawa traps Kobashi in the facelock and Kobashi fights and crawls his way to the ropes to force the break, and Misawa releases the hold and casually takes Kobashi over in a snap mare and reapplies it. Kobashi gets a grounded sleeper on Misawa and every time Misawa shows signs of life, Kobashi tries cranking harder and harder on the hold. Even as Misawa is rolling into the ropes, Kobashi is still trying to get everything he can out of it, as though he can’t afford to give Misawa the chance to get out of the hold. The closest that Misawa comes to showing that kind of emotion comes just after a Tiger driver near fall, Kobashi gets the shoulder up and Misawa just collapses and lays back, but he gets up a few seconds later to continue the match, knowing that he doesn’t have time to waste.
Despite his stoic attitude, Misawa is great at putting over Kobashi. He sells big when he needs to, and he does about as much as possible at putting over the danger of Kobashi’s lariat (which was what had beaten Misawa in their league match). Any time that Kobashi seems poised to attempt it, Misawa does whatever is necessary to avoid it. The first time comes when he’s getting to his feet and he sees Kobashi gearing up for it, so Misawa stays on his knees. Kobashi gets an opening for the lariat when Misawa escapes a vertical suplex, Misawa ducks it and Kobashi connects a left-armed one to Misawa’s back. One of their better sequences was a throwback to Misawa’s match with Taue from the previous May. Misawa wanted the diving neckbreaker drop and Kobashi charges in to counter with a lariat, and both men are down for a bit and until Misawa recovers first and covers Kobashi, it’s not entirely clear who actually ‘wins’ the exchange. Kobashi’s persistence pays off when he finally connects with it late in the match, and, once again, Misawa puts it over perfectly. He’s not flattened and dead the way that he would be if it was from Hansen, but he’s clearly stunned and trying to roll away before Kobashi can cover. Kobashi sees this and tries to chase him down, but he’s too late and by the time he catches up with Misawa, he’s not able to make the cover. Both men, but Misawa much more than Kobashi, are also excellent about selling their arms. There’s no specific “arm work” as far as either man targeting the limb the way they did in their Triple Crown match from January, but with Misawa’s favorite strike being the elbow and Kobashi being hell-bent on hitting the lariat, their arms get worn down. Misawa will connect an elbow and wince and hold his arm in pain, but he knows that he’s probably not keeping Kobashi down without it, so he has to fight through it and just hope that it’s at least hurting Kobashi more than it’s hurting himself.
In some ways, Kobashi finally hitting the lariat is the high point of the match. He throws some more big moves at Misawa, but after Misawa survives the Orange Crush, it’s obvious that they’re going the distance. However, that’s not to say that the work itself is bad. Misawa doesn’t feel the need to make a sudden comeback, or pop back up to his feet. He takes everything that Kobashi throws at him and survives, because that’s what being The Man is all about. They work in one more good lariat sequence before the time runs out. Kobashi charges for it and Misawa gets his arms up to soften the blow, and the time expires as Kobashi is crawling over to try for the pin. This doesn’t hit the same level as their Triple Crown match from the previous January (which is the best match they’d ever have together) or even their 1995 Carnival match, but it’s still a relatively simple and well-worked match that easily tops their Triple Crown match from October ’95, their Carnival match from the year before and pretty much every other match that they’d have afterwards. ****1/4
MITSUHARU MISAWA vs. TOSHIAKI KAWADA
If nothing else, Misawa doesn’t go down without a fight. He’s firing off elbows right away, and Kawada sells them just enough to keep everyone from completely writing Misawa’s chances off. But after Kawada hits the running kick in the corner and then stays on his feet after Misawa’s rolling elbow and fires back with a ganmengiri, it’s obvious that Misawa is on borrowed time. Kawada wants the win with his powerbomb and whenever Misawa kicks out, Kawada fires away with soccer kicks or uses the Stretch Plum, and eventually Misawa has to stay down. The only oddball thing was Misawa’s decision to blow off a big release German, he was more than willing to sell one for Kobashi during their match, and after everything else that he’d gone through in the meantime, there was no reason for him to not sell this one while he was at it. Once again, the attitude that each man shows tells the story. Kawada finds a happy medium between Misawa’s all business stoicism and Kobashi’s raw emotion, which is fitting, since, to an extent, he really is somewhere in the middle. Kawada has had the accolades of the Triple Crown and both the Champion Carnival and Tag League winner before, but the real prize to him is that first singles win over Misawa. He finally gets it, but the weary look on his face clearly shows that he’s not satisfied with the circumstances that led to it.
TOSHIAKI KAWADA vs. KENTA KOBASHI
As outstanding of a match as this is, despite some goofiness from Kobashi that Kawada wholly refuses to go along with, the enjoyment from it winds up being tainted by the realization of exactly how much of a missed opportunity this really was. Kobashi’s arm is still hurt from the Misawa match, and Kawada uses submissions to work it over, breaking out both the juji-gatame and even a Fujiwara armbar. It’s basically a hybrid of All Japan heavyweight style and UWFI submissions. The two biggest criticisms of All Japan’s latter years before the split (which followed them into NOAH) were lack of elevation and the ‘top this’ style of head drops raising the bar too high. A shift in the style to something like this could have alleviated both of those issues. Guys like Akiyama, Omori, Honda, Hase and Takayama all could have benefitted from working something closer to this, and with Hansen winding things down considerably the following year, Gary Albright could have easily slid into his spot as the top foreigner. And such a drastic change could have done wonders to freshen up future matches between the big four.
Even though Kawada ultimately wins with his powerbomb rather than by submission, his plan still winds up succeeding. He couldn’t tap out Kobashi, but he essentially takes away his biggest weapon and even if Kobashi does hit the lariat (which he does) its effectiveness is greatly reduced. It also helps that Kawada is brilliant with everything he does, a good example is when he wants his powerbomb and Kobashi blocks it. Rather than try to outmuscle Kobashi and hit the big move, Kawada grabs an arm and steps out and tries to roll Kobashi into another armbar. Their best near fall, and a shining example of exactly how well Kawada shuts down Kobashi comes after some silliness from Kobashi. Kawada hits a lariat to the back and then follows up with a jumping enzuigiri, Kobashi stumbles around the ring, staying on his feet, and then charges for a lariat. Kawada tries to counter into an armbar takedown which Kobashi blocks and rolls out of, and as he’s getting to his feet *Kawada* hits *Kobashi* with a short arm lariat for a great near fall.
Unfortunately, this winds up being nothing more than a unique one-off sort of match for All Japan. Working more matches like this wouldn’t have prevented the NOAH split, but quite a few injuries could have been prevented. And while it’d have been unique within All Japan, it’s not like this would have been some revolutionary concept, both New Japan and WAR were only a year removed from doing interpromotional matches with UWFI. But such is life, what could have been the catalyst for something relatively unique and potentially great is ultimately discarded in favor of doing the same old stuff, and this match only serves as an example of what could have been. ****
YOSHINARI OGAWA/KENTARO SHIGA vs. HAYABUSA/YOSHINOBU KANEMARU
Ogawa and Shiga are total dick heels and shark on Kanemaru’s knee, and honestly, I don’t hate it. Hayabusa and Shiga get really chippy with each other, and I don’t hate that either. Kanemaru makes the hot tag after he gets whipped to the corner and jumps to the top rope and backflips off and lands on his feet, and that’s something I could have done without. The leg work carries the bulk of the match, and although it’s much more pro-style than what the main eventers were doing, it’s still a ton of fun to watch. Hayabusa makes a fun enough hot tag although he’s a little too flashy. He could have toned down the flash in favor of showing some real anger and intensity while he took it to Ogawa and Shiga. Although, the finish does see Hayabusa dump Shiga to the floor and dive outside onto him. That leaves the relative rookie and the junior champion, and Ogawa is even smart enough to take a shot at the knee before finishing him off with the backdrop. Outside of the Fuchi/Kikuchi feud, which was a backdrop to Jumbo/Misawa, All Japan’s junior division was largely treated as an afterthought, but at least there are matches like this that show how much fun the junior division could be. ***
Conclusion: This is quite the good pickup from All Japan, with two great matches in the triangle finals and something of a hidden gem in the junior tag match.