Once upon a time, All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) was THE best wrestling promotion in the world. From the late 1980s until mid-2000, AJPW had some of the greatest wrestlers in history on its roster, and these athletes put on some of the best matches of all time.
The company sold out the Nippon Budokan Hall (Japan’s equivalent to Madison Square Garden) dozens of times and was so popular and profitable that the wrestlers didn’t even need to run bigger events like the Tokyo Dome that often.
Unfortunately, AJPW’s run at the top came to a sudden and shocking end. After AJPW founder and owner Giant Baba died, there was an internal war of succession between his widow Motoko and company president and wrestling ace, Mitsuharu Misawa. These disagreements led to Misawa taking 95% of the AJPW roster with him as he formed his own company in Pro Wrestling NOAH. Then, a decade later, another internal scandal caused then-president Keiji Mutoh to lead another exodus to form his own company, Wrestle-1.
This is a major reason why you barely hear from/about AJPW these days: the company had suffered from such extensive internal damage and loss of talent that they can’t even hope to match the success that NJPW has had right now.
As such, most fans look to AJPW’s glory days of yesteryear when discussing the promotion’s success. AJPW’s roster once featured some of the toughest, strongest and most innovative wrestlers on the planet. Most of these wrestlers have been immortalized in the now-legendary matches they’ve had, and esteemed wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer awarded more five-star ratings to AJPW than any other promotion in history.
This list of AJPW’s twenty greatest matches will answer any doubts as to why Meltzer was so praiseworthy of AJPW’s wrestling product. If you consider yourself a wrestling fan, you absolutely must watch these 20 AJPW matches before you die.
20. Toshiaki Kawada & Genichiro Tenryu vs. Stan Hansen & Terry Gordy – December 16, 1988
(skip to the 15-minute mark)
This is the oldest match on this list, but it plays an important role in the larger story being told in all of these wrestling contests. In this match, Toshiaki Kawada was still a rising star, and he was teaming with one of AJPW’s stars against a very powerful and dangerous team of foreigners.
Kawada played the role of gutsy underdog perfectly and even demonstrated some impressive high-flying skills as well, which is a far cry from the kick-centric style he adopted in later years. Hansen & Gordy, meanwhile, acted like perfect heels, punishing Kawada at every opportunity.
Ultimately, Kawada and Tenryu couldn’t defeat the duo of Hansen & Gordy, as Tenryu was defeated by one of Hansen’s vicious Western Lariats. While it might not be at the same level of in-ring quality as other matches on this list, it’s a fun little match that shows just how popular some foreigners were in Japan, even if most of them were shoe-horned into playing the token ‘evil invader’ whenever they wrestled.