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.
19. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Vader – May 2, 1999
After his WWE run flopped, Vader returned to Japan. But instead of returning to New Japan, he went to All Japan instead and ran roughshod over that company’s main event scene. Vader destroyed challenger after challenger until he encountered Misawa in this Tokyo Dome show that was filled with an estimated 65,000 people.
This match might not be at the same standard as others on this list, mainly because Vader – as good as he was – wasn’t at the same level as AJPW mainstays like Kawada, Kobashi, or Steve Williams during their primes. But Vader was still excellent here, wrestling in the same brutal style that had made him an internationally-recognized star in the first place.
What makes this match so must-see is that it shows what Vader could’ve been as a main event wrestler. He’s in the ring with Mitsuharu Misawa, one of the greatest wrestlers of all time, and is more than holding his own. Vader isn’t slow, plodding or boring in any way; his offense is believable and his pacing is perfect.
If WWE were to have led this Vader wrestle, things might’ve been altogether different in WWE while he was there.
Also, this match needs to be seen for the ‘Misawa German Suplexes Vader/Vader Suplexes himself’ spot, which causes an eruption in the Tokyo Dome and really brings the crowd to life.
18. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada – May 1, 1998
Misawa and Kawada had been at war with each other for six years by the time this match happened, yet this battle was as fresh and exciting as their first singles bout together.
This match has several moments that epitomizes why King’s Road-style wrestling was so great back in the day. One of those peak moments comes at the 16-minute mark. Misawa and Kawada keep exchanging and reversing holds until Kawada gets hit with a brutal German Suplex, only to be up seconds later and hit Misawa with his own German.
But Misawa gets up instantly, only to be hit with Kawada’s signature Gamengiri kick. Small moments like these exemplify the fighting spirit, technical expertise and incredible toughness of both wrestlers, which is why the Misawa/Kawada feud is remembered so fondly among wrestling enthusiasts.
In the end, Kawada actually looks better than Misawa in a match for the first time in years, and he finally manages to score a decisive win over Misawa in a singles match. Although the crowd is much quieter (they’re in the Tokyo Dome for this match instead of Budokan Hall), they still come alive duiring the last five minutes.
17. Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada & Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbso Tsuruta, Akira Taue & Masanobu Fuchi – October 19, 1990; April 20, 1991; & May 22, 1992
Okay, so this one is cheating a bit, but there’s a reason to include three matches under this entry instead of one.
Between 1990 and 1992, the biggest rivalry in AJPW was between Misawa and Jumbo Tsuruta. Misawa and his group represented the younger generation of stars, while Tsuruta and company represented the established old guard.
These factions clashed several times throughout the early 1990s, including in three identical six-man tag team matches. These matches were not only enormous draws for AJPW, but they each told their own individual stories and made stars out of the wrestlers involved.
If you were to look at which wrestling matches keep getting the most praise these days, the majority of those matches tend to be singles matches. There are a few tag team matches that have been praised as some of the greatest ever, but most of those were 2-on-2 tag team matches.
In fact, there have only been five 6-man tag team matches in history to have ever been awarded a 5-star rating, and these are three of them.
16. Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs. Steve Williams & Johnny Ace – March 4, 1995
Watching this match, it’s astonishing to see that Johnny Ace was actually very good in the ring. He held his own with both Kobashi and Misawa, arguably two of the greatest in-ring workers in wrestling history.
Then there’s ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams, who was a phenomenal worker in his own right but also a heat magnet, taunting his opponents and hitting so hard that you couldn’t help but cheer his opponents.
Even without understanding any Japanese, you could tell that Williams was desperate to fight Misawa, and went to great lengths to show he could work a main-event and keep the audience engaged.
The match flowed so well that you could barely tell it’s more than 30 minutes long. There weren’t that that many wacky technical exchanges or super-dangerous head-spikes. Instead, this match felt like a classic tag team match with several momentum shifts and dramatic near-fall sequences.
And that’s what makes it so great. It’s a perfect example of AJPW having arguably the best tag team matches in all of wrestling history.
15. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Jumbo Tsuruta – June 8, 1990
This is the match that began it all. It was this match that catapulted Misawa to the main event and began a main-event run that would last a decade. And it all came down to a last-minute decision by Giant Baba to change the finish.
Before the entrances even began, the crowd was firmly in Misawa’s corner. Baba, sensing the potential for a new star to be born, changed the match’s finish just moments beforehand. Originally, this match was supposed to end with then ace Tsuruta winning, but Baba changed it to Misawa winning instead.
This match is typical of AJPW at the time: it starts off slow, has an extended submission sequence in the middle, and the second half brings in all the drama that makes the normally-silent crowd erupt. Misawa really shined in this match, having shown some picture-perfect out-of-ring moves and technical precision that became central to his future matches.
For a 1990 match, it’s a fantastic contest that helped set the bar for future great matches and proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Misawa was simply the man.
14. Mitsuharu Misawa & Jun Akiyama vs. Steve Williams & Johnny Ace - June 7, 1996
Yes, this is an All Japan match involving Johnny Ace, better known as John Laurinaitis. And no, it doesn’t suck. In fact, it was voted the Match of the Year for 1996 by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
Williams and Ace played the role of ‘evil foreigners’ perfectly, getting the audience to cheer their opponents with little effort. Steve Williams, in particular, did an excellent job of being the bully in the match, brutalizing Misawa and constantly fighting dirty against Akiyama.
This match had a much faster pace than most AJPW matches, with transitions, brawls and reversal sequences happening so quickly that it felt like both teams jammed 30 minutes’ worth of moves into just over twenty.
Although all four wrestlers did incredibly well in this match, special credit goes to Jun Akiyama, who had only been wrestling for four years when this match happened and yet did incredibly well in the match. He looked like a natural and knew how to keep the crowd in the palm of his hand when he was in the ring.
13. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Akira Taue – April 15, 1995
Taue brought his A-game in this match, showcasing his craftiness and ring psychology throughout the contest. He also got the crowd to both chant his name and actually boo him within five minutes, which is a hard thing to do in pro wrestling. Of the famous ‘Four Pillars of Heaven’, Akira Taue is often considered the weakest of the three (something like the Becky Lynch of the Four Horsewomen). However, Taue proved his doubters wrong in this 5-star classic singles match against AJPW ace Misawa.
Taue managed to do something very important in this match: prove that he could excel in a singles match. Previously, he had spent most of his career teaming with other stars and was always seen as secondary to his various partners, especially Kawada.
But in this match, Taue looked like a true main event star, managing to show off some truly impressive offense for that era (including a Chokeslam off the apron to the floor that brought the audience to its feet).
Unfortunately for Taue, he couldn’t keep Misawa down, no matter how hard he tried (and he even attacked Misawa’s eye out of desperation), and failed to capture the Triple Crown Heavyweight title. All in all, a true gem of a match that showcased some of the best of AJPW.
12. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada – July 24, 1995
This 4.75-star match served as the perfect microcosm for the entire AJPW run during the 1990s. It showcased the strengths of both wrestlers involved perfectly. Kawada’s strikes looked so real and painful that you were convinced that he was genuinely trying to hurt his erstwhile archrival. Misawa was just as awesome, moving around the ring and creating sequences so crisp and perfect you’d think he was a literal wrestling machine. One month before this match happened, Kawada had pinned Misawa clean for the first time. That was in a tag team match, but it was a big enough of a win to warrant this Triple Crown Heavyweight Title match.
The match also had a fantastic sense of ‘legitimacy’ and realism that’s so rare these days. After all, how often does a wrestler being Irish-whipped fall to the mat while running to sell pain and exhaustion?
Also, this is the match that proved just how good Kawada was as a performer. He was not only capable of absorbing as much punishment as he dished out, but he also knew how to make every move feel important. He managed to get the crowd to cheer for a drop-toehold, for crying out loud.
Finally, this match marked something of a change in AJPW, in that the matches started to become more and more about ‘head-drops’ and less about traditional wrestling as before. Although head-drops had been widespread in AJPW up to this point, this was the match that started the trend of making those moves more commonplace in each match, which would eventually peak in early 1999.
11. Mitsuharu Misawa & Yoshinari Ogawa vs. Kenta Kobashi & Jun Akiyama – October 23, 1999
Now, THIS is how you make tag team titles feel important: take some of your best singles stars, put them together, and have them wrestle as if they were fighting for the world title itself.
Interestingly, both Kobashi and Akiyama were former tag team partners of Misawa in this match, and now both of them were challenging the AJPW ace. Yet while the two of them show some outstanding tag team psychology, they were still no match for Misawa and his bottomless bag of tricks and technical reversals.
This match is must faster-paced and shorter than most on this list (going barely over twenty minutes), and included some awesome double-team moves that for some reason don’t get used much anywhere else.
Finally, the last three minutes are especially fun to watch, as it’s filled with some awesome near-falls, which causes Kobashi to bring out his ultimate finisher, the Burning Hammer, for only the second time ever.
Truly a 5-star tag team match if there ever was one.
10. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada, January 22, 1999
Though not as technically-spectacular or dramatic as other matches on this list, this match is famous for one reason: The Ganso Bomb. In what is now considered to be the apex of King’s Road wrestling, Kawada created arguably the most dangerous wrestling move of all time and could’ve killed Misawa in the process. There have been many instances in wrestling history where it was said of the participants that ‘they nearly killed each other’. However, no wrestling match has ever defined that statement more than this one.
Wrestling with a bad arm, Kawada tried to hit his signature Folding Powerbomb, but something went wrong in the reversal sequence. Kawada knelt forward, with Misawa in freefall unable to do anything to protect his head and neck. So Misawa was dropped onto his head in what amounts to an unprotected piledriver spike, causing the crowd and the commentator to all recoil in shock (and possibly horror).
Amazingly, this terrifying move led to a 2-count. It didn’t even end the match. If that isn’t a testament to Misawa’s natural toughness, I don’t know what is.
9. Kenta Kobashi vs. Toshiaki Kawada – January 19, 1995
This is the longest match on this list, lasting 60 minutes in length. It was also called the greatest 60-minute match of all time by the Wrestling Observer when it came out, which was an honor that took 22 years to beat.
This match combined classic Ric Flair-style old school wrestling and conditioning with stiff Japanese strikes and dangerous suplexes. Although Kawada was something of a heel in this match – he kept pushing and taunting Kobashi – you cannot help but cheer for him throughout the match.
He showed pure babyface fire by taking a painful chop to the chest and reacting by flexing no-selling it, and he showed excellent ring psychology by having the perfect counters to Kobashi’s signature moves. Later, as he was being worn down, Kawada began selling like he was being rag-dolled, making Kobashi look far more dangerous in the process.
It’s definitely a slower-paced match than most, but both Kawada and Misawa still manage to keep the audience excited and engaged as the match develops. Whether you like traditional grappling, tests of strength, smart storytelling, stiff strikes or crazy suplexes Brock Lesnar-style, this match has all of that and then some.
8. Kenta Kobashi vs. Steve Williams – August 31, 1993
Although the bulk of the match is your typical Japanese contest with stiff strikes and painful-looking submissions, it’s the last five minutes that really make it special. That’s because this is the match in which Kobashi took three of the most vicious Backdrop Drivers ever seen in a wrestling ring. Steve Williams called this his favorite match of his entire career and it’s one of many that helped elevate ‘Dr. Death’ to a near-mythical level as a gaijin wrestler in Japan. He shows incredible toughness and pain tolerance, which was amazing given Kobashi’s legendary chops (at times they sounded like gunshots going off).
Kobashi took three super-high-angle Backdrop Drivers right onto the top of his head, and on the second one, you can clearly hear the ‘thud’ of his head landing a split second before the rest of his body. Yet astonishingly, he was actually moving immediately afterward. How he managed to do is anyone’s guess.
All in all, a true classic that earned its 5-star rating.
7. Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs. Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue – December 3, 1993
For this match, AJPW’s World Tag Team Titles were vacated, with the winner of the Real World Tag League (a sort of tag team King of the Ring tournament) becoming the new champions. Although the video opens with highlights of the earlier matches in the tournament, it’s this final match that deserves the most attention and praise.
Although the match starts 15 minutes into the video linked here, it’s still a phenomenal match involving a group of wrestlers collectively known as the ‘Four Pillars of Heaven’.
This match is an absolute treasure trove of telling stories without words. Since the language barrier is enough to turn some people away from the AJPW product, the wrestlers respond by having their actions speak for them. In this match, you can tell that Kobashi has a score to settle with Kawada, and Kawada has a burning desire to finally score a win over Misawa. These stories bleed into one another, leading to a dramatic wrestling match that could end at any moment.
Finally, this is a perfect example of classic ‘targeting a limb psychology’ being used to its full effect. Kobashi tried to destroy Kawada’s knee early into the match, and the damage comes into effect several times later in the match.
This is easily one of the best tag team matches you will ever see.
6. Kenta Kobashi vs. Stan Hansen – July 29, 1993
Have you ever wondered how Stan ‘the Lariat’ Hansen became such a legendary wrestler in Japan? By having matches like this.
This match is the classic ‘gutsy babyface vs. grizzled heel veteran’ with an AJPW twist. Kobashi was only five years into his career and he faced the legendary Stan Hansen, the only foreigner to hold pinfall victories over both AJPW owner Giant Baba AND NJPW owner Antonio Inoki. Kobashi knows this and spends most of the match hitting Hansen as hard as possible.
Yet even as a token ‘evil foreign heel’, Stan Hansen was ridiculously popular with the audience, but he had his work cut out for him in the form of Kenta Kobashi, who never gave up no matter how vicious a beating he took. Yet Hansen did indeed go all out, brutalizing Kobashi with painful strikes and offense that included a monster Powerbomb onto the floor.
Ultimately, this doesn’t feel like a grappling-centric wrestling match. Instead, it feels like a true brawl, with Kobashi channeling his ‘burning spirit’ to try and overcome Hansen’s unrelenting offense. Yet no matter how much he tried, he couldn’t survive Hansen’s stiffness, and he was felled by arguably the single-most vicious lariat of all time.
Ultimately, this is a must-see match for those that like their wrestling brutal, realistic and dramatic.
5. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi – June 11, 1999
There are only two match-ups to have won the Wrestling Observer’s Match of the Year award in consecutive years: Shawn Michaels vs. The Undertaker at WrestleMania in 2009 and 2010 and Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi in 1998 and 1999.
In this match, the roles are reversed from their famous 1998 encounter, with Misawa now being the defending champion against challenger Kobashi. As is the case with any Misawa/Kobashi match, the psychology and storytelling are both deep and logical.
In this case, Kobashi went for an armbar seconds into the match to weaken Misawa’s deadly elbows. Misawa, meanwhile, seemed to have an answer for everything, as he managed to reverse his way out of any hold and stop Kobashi’s momentum in its tracks.
Kobashi tried to fix this by spending a lot of time working Misawa’s arms, which leads to a lot of highly dramatic submission sequences. Bear in mind that AJPW wasn’t known for emphasizing submission holds during this era, so it took a lot of work to make any of them feel believable. But again, that goes to show how good Misawa and Kobashi were when in the ring together.
By the 20-mintue mark in a 45-minute match, much of the psychology had shifted to the ‘head-drop-mania’ approach that both men have become famous for.
The match is filled with amazing wrestling spots, including several devastating Half-Nelson Suplexes from Kobashi, a Frankensteiner by Misawa that tosses Kobashi into the steel guardrail, a picture-perfect Moonsault from Kobashi, a Sleeper Suplex that legit looked like it caused Misawa to land on the top of his head and one of the most beautiful Emerald Flowsions ever seen.
Although this match requires considerable patience, it is one of the best matches in wrestling history and comes with the highest recommendation possible.
4. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi – October 31, 1998
This match won the Match of the Year award for 1998 and was one of the most dramatic wrestling matches ever put together. For over 40 minutes, these two goliaths wrestled in a stiff match filled with painful-looking strikes and incredible psychology that made both men look as smart as they were tough, and boy were both known for being inhumanly tough.
Not only were the reversals believable and dramatic, but each submission hold and near-fall felt like it genuinely could end the match. There was such tension in the match that you could feel the energy elicited by the crowd, who roared and applauded for even the simplest of moves.
Props to both Kobashi and Misawa for taking an absurd number of bumps on their respective necks and heads, including one sequence where Misawa took a BuckleBomb, Half-Nelson Suplex and Dragon Suplex in quick succession (keep in mind that each of these moves does horrible damage to the neck).
But Misawa wasn’t the only one to absorb an inhuman amount of punishment. Kobashi was dropped with multiple STIFF elbows and kicks and became the first and only person to ever kick out of Misawa’s original super-finisher, the Tiger Driver ’91. When Kobashi kicked out, the audience started chanting Kobashi’s name with incredible fervor, and the match reached another level of intensity.
Although the actual ending was somewhat underwhelming (probably because Kobashi took two of the sickest and stiffest elbow smashes ever and was probably legit knocked out), it is still a clinic in wrestling psychology and immersive storytelling.
3. Kenta Kobashi & Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Doug Furnas & Phil Lafon/Dan Kroffat – May 25, 1992
Nippon Budokan is considered one of the best wrestling venues in the world, partly due to the building’s acoustics. Because of how it’s designed, crowds can sound much louder as a match progresses, leading to a far more excited crowd than you’d find in a cavernous stadium.
Such was the case in this tag team title match between two foreigners on one side and two four-year AJPW veterans on the other. The crowd in this match was astonishingly loud, going wild for even the smallest and most insignificant of moves. In fact, Kikuchi got a standing ovation from the crowd literally 30 seconds into the match. That’s how much emotion the crowd had invested into these wrestlers.
What’s more, both teams show off some fantastic tag team psychology, with the illegal opponent from one team grabbing the other opponent to prevent them from breaking up a pin attempt several times throughout the match. It’s basic stuff like this that makes tag team wrestling so exciting and enjoyable.
It might seem basic in terms of move variety by today’s standards – these aren't the sort of crazy chain reversals you’d find in a more modern match in WWE or elsewhere. But this match isn’t awesome because of the moves; it’s because of the crowd. They’re so into the match that at one point they go nuts over a dropkick, one of the most basic of wrestling moves.
This is one of the loudest wrestling crowds I have ever seen, and they become especially unglued during the last ten minutes of the match. Then there’s the match’s conclusion, which leads to an eruption so loud you’d think it was CM Punk returning to WWE in Chicago. Even ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin recommended this match on his podcast once.
2. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada – June 3, 1994
This now-legendary match was the first match in wrestling history to get an official 6-star rating from the Wrestling Observer. That is indeed saying something, considering this was during one of the peak years of AJPW’s run as Japan’s top wrestling promotion.
This match had everything. It featured two bitter rivals in Misawa and Kawada, whose rivalry had been going on for at least two years by the time this match took place. You had one of the loudest crowds in Japanese wrestling history cheering for every single move and reversal (even by today’s standards, the crowd in attendance is LOUD).
Both Misawa and Kawada hit each other with strikes so stiff they make JBL’s Clothesline from Hell look like a walk in the park. Finally, the match epitomized the dangerous and toughness-centric King’s Road wrestling style, with both Misawa and Kawada being hit with incredible head-spike neck bumps, culminating in one of the most vicious Tiger Driver ’91 head drops ever seen.
Although the standard for a 5 or 6-star match has definitely changed since 1994, this match still deserves that rating after all these years. It is a must-watch for any wrestling fan, as it set the bar so high that it wouldn’t be matched for twenty-three years.
1. Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs. Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue – June 9, 1995
This is the greatest tag team match I have ever seen, and it is quite possibly the single-greatest tag team match ever. To be honest I’m surprised Dave Meltzer didn’t rate this match 6-stars since it was just as deserving as the one AJPW match he did rate 6 stars out of five.
This match is different from the others on this list in that it had multiple stories being told at the same time. Misawa and Kobashi were the babyfaces champions defending against Kawada and Taue, who resorted to dirty and underhanded tactics several times throughout the match. In other words, you had actual heels and faces in an AJPW match, which was unheard of at the time.
Secondly, you had Kobashi wrestling with an obviously hurt leg, which was targeted and destroyed throughout the match. But the gutsy Kobashi refused to give up, even as Taue chokeslammed Misawa onto Kobashi’s injured leg. Even when Kobashi knew he was all but useless to his partner, he still tried to save the match by holding Misawa’s leg to prevent him from being Powerbombed, and then later covering Misawa with his own body to protect him from a 2-on-1 attack. There has yet to be a better example of a pure babyface tag team partner than Kobashi.
Thirdly, you had the next chapter in the years-long rivalry between Misawa and Kawada, and in this legendary match, Kawada did the seemingly impossible by pinning Misawa clean for the first time ever. It was a critical point in the rivalry between these two men that signaled that Kawada was Misawa’s equal and no longer beneath him.
Even if you had no idea who was who when watching this match, you didn’t have to understand a single thing to understand the story being told in the ring. This makes this arguably the perfect wrestling match, and is one that any aspiring wrestler should study.