Superstar Spotlight: Toshiaki Kawada

Kawada in the late 1980s
Kawada in the late 1980s

Every wrestler exudes an ‘aura’ about them that draws fans to them for one reason or another. The Undertaker exuded this supernatural presence about him and brought fear to the hearts of many young viewers. John Cena exudes positivity like nobody else.

Daniel Bryan exuded confidence and an unyielding determination to overcome the odds. Roman Reigns, despite being miscast as a new John Cena, exudes a kind of self-confidence that borders on arrogance.

Toshiaki Kawada exuded danger.

Throughout the late 1980s and into the early 2000s, the man known as ‘Dangerous K’ lived up to that moniker on a nightly basis. Through careful booking and a mastery of ring psychology, Kawada became an expert on how to do more with less.

While he might not have been as versatile a wrestler as his peers Kenta Kobashi or Mitsuharu Misawa, Kawada still managed to have a stellar career that led to eighteen matches being rated 5-stars by the Wrestling Observer (and one rated 6-stars), and inspired an entire generation of wrestlers to emulate his style, including none other than Daniel Bryan himself.


Toshiaki Kawada began his career in 1982, after becoming a nationally-ranked amateur wrestling champion (the person he beat in the finals was none other than Keiichi Yamada, better known as Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger.) But from the beginning, Kawada’s career would be filled with adverse circumstances.

He was one of a small handful of Japanese wrestlers that got to train in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling, but in that promotion (and in other North American promotions), he wasn’t treated very well. Billed as ‘Kio Kawada from Seoul, South Korea’, Toshiaki was not happy at all about his experiences in North America.

It’s believed that these experiences had a lasting impression on Kawada, as he rarely, if ever, ventured back to North America since.

During the 1980s, Kawada’s stock with All Japan Pro Wrestling rose gradually, but it wasn’t until 1990 that things changed for Kawada. That summer, Genichiro Tenryu, AJPW’s top guy, left the promotion to start his own, leaving Giant Baba without enough top guys to carry the promotion.

Thus, a decision was made to elevate a small cadre of wrestlers and Kawada was among them. As part of this elevation to the top of the card, Kawada became the main tag partner to the new chosen top guy for All Japan, Mitsuharu Misawa.

After that, All Japan really took off.

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Rise to stardom

For the next several years, the main storyline in All Japan was the underlying rivalry between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada. The two of them teamed together on multiple occasions, winning the Tag Team tournament and championships on numerous occasions.

But despite that success, there was this underlying idea that, of the two of them, Misawa was the bigger star and the better wrestler. This irked Kawada to no end since he believed he was the more dynamic wrestler and the one getting the bigger reactions.

Eventually, this led to Kawada turning on Misawa, becoming his new archrival in the process. Kawada then started teaming with former rival Akira Taue, and the two of them became known as the Holy Demon Army.

When teaming together, Kawada and Taue ended up becoming the single most successful tag team in AJPW history, winning AJPW’s World Tag Team Championships a record six times, and also the World’s Strongest Tag Determination League (a sort of tag-team base King of the Ring tournament, except this one has prestige), twice.

Between 1993 and 1995, Toshiaki Kawada’s war with rival Mitsuharu Misawa reached new heights. The two of them wrestled in some legendary matches over this two-year period, many of which are still routinely praised today.

They took part in a truly phenomenal singles match on June 3rd, 1994, which ended up being the first match to ever be rated 6 Stars by the Wrestling Observer (at the time, this was an unofficial 6-star rating, but Meltzer still considers this match to have been that good. It was also called the “Singles Match of the Decade” for the entire 1990s).


Kawada wrestled Kenta Kobashi in another high-profile match on January 19th, 1995, in another 5-star showing, however, this one ended in a draw after an hour of wrestling. It has since been called the greatest one-hour match in pro wrestling history.


And, to prove that he could excel in tag team wrestling just as much as he could in singles competition, Kawada and Akira Taue wrestled Misawa and his partner Kenta Kobashi in a breathtaking match on June 9th, 1995 for the AJPW World Tag Team Titles.

This match was a major turning point for two reasons. Not only was it, from a technical standpoint, a marvel of wrestling as art and a match truly deserving of a perfect 5-Star rating, but this was also led to Kawada pinning Misawa for the first time ever.

Just like that, the bitter, multi-dimensional, years-long rivalry between Misawa and Kawada reached another level of awesomeness. Kawada’s victory here was so significant that, despite playing an actual heel in this match (attacking his opponents when they were down, using overly ‘dirty’ tactics, etc.), the audience roared in approval when Kawada and Taue won the championships.

Kawada had finally proven that he was, at the very least, equal to Misawa. It was a symbolic victory that marked a major change in Kawada’s career path.

Just another say at the office for Kawada
another say at the office for Kawada

Bad Decisions

Unfortunately, bad decisions outside of the ring caused Kawada problems. Early in 1996, Kawada criticised AJPW booker Giant Baba publicly for his isolationist policies towards. At the time, AJPW’s rival promotion New Japan was making record business doing cross-promotional feuds and exposing their wrestlers to a wider audience.

Meanwhile, Baba kept his wrestlers working only for himself, leading to an unusual dichotomy.

On one hand, the actual wrestling seen in Baba’s AJPW at the time was truly spectacular, and AJPW was, without a doubt, the hottest promotion on the entire planet when it came to seeing pure, high-quality wrestling. On the other hand, AJPW wasn’t making as much money as New Japan, even if, critically-speaking, NJPW’s wrestling wasn’t as great.

It was like the difference between modern movies: AJPW was the wrestling equivalent to the movies that win all the Oscars and are routinely praised for being well-made, even if they might not make that much money. Conversely, NJPW (and to a greater extent, WWE and WCW) were more like summer blockbusters and ‘big’ movies that make tonnes of money at the box office, but are critically-panned and mocked in hindsight.

By criticising Baba in this way, Kawada was punished by being relegated to lower card matches. After this ‘punishment’, Kawada did work some high-profile matches and did get some major wins, including another rare singles victory over Misawa.

Alas, this didn’t have anywhere near the impact it was expected to have, and served as an indication that the audience was starting to sour on Kawada as a wrestler. This demotion was proven further true when he defeated Misawa for AJPW’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship in May 1998, but lost it only a month later.

Instead of this being a crowning achievement that would set the world on fire, Kawada’s supposedly greatest accomplishment was met with barely a whimper.


Exodus and a waning star

As the 1990s progressed, Kawada’s position at the top of AJPW seemed further in doubt. The top spots and the world title scene were dominated by Misawa, Kobashi, relative newcomer Jun Akiyama, and the token foreign monster Big Van Vader.

These changes in the upper card, coupled with a series of badly-timed injuries, left Kawada out of the main spot in AJPW for a long time, turning him into more of a support character than a main guy.

The new millennium didn’t bring Kawada much fortune either. After Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba passed away, AJPW’s top power-brokers were in revolt. Baba’s widow Motoko was now at war with Shohei’s hand-picked successor Misawa over the company’s direction, vetoing any changes Misawa wanted to make (many of which included reversing old policies that prevented the company from making more money.

It was, effectively, a war between bringing positive change (Misawa’s position) and maintaining the status quo (Motoko’s position).

As a result of this petty squabbling, Misawa and 95% of AJPW’s roster and non-wrestling employees staged a mass exodus from the company. Misawa and his crew left AJPW in the summer of 2000 and formed Pro Wrestling NOAH, a promotion built around Misawa’s vision of what AJPW could’ve been had he gotten what he wanted.

When it was time for the AJPW roster to choose between staying with AJPW or following Misawa, all of the local Japanese wrestlers followed Misawa except for two: Masanobu Fuchi, an old-timer whose career was well into its twilight; and Toshiaki Kawada.

No one is quite certain why Kawada refused to follow Misawa. By most accounts, Misawa was well-liked and deeply respected by his AJPW peers, and many of the decisions over which he went to war with Baba’s widow were meant to bring the talent more money and to prevent the repetition of the punishment that happened to Kawada over his remarks.

Yet, Kawada, arguably the second-most popular AJPW wrestler of the early 1990s, stayed loyal to All Japan, instead of following the other three of the Four Pillars of Heaven to NOAH.

AJPW was in shambles at first, but during the first half of the 2000s, Kawada did enjoy some mild success. He finally got that big AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Title reign he had long yearned for, but it happened at a much later point in time.

AJPW simply wasn’t as hot as it had been during the 1990s, despite the fact that AJPW’s new president, Keiji Mutoh, worked tirelessly to advance inter-promotional cooperation in Japan and effectively saved AJPW from bankruptcy.

Following the end of his Triple Crown title reign after an impressive 529 days, Kawada became a freelance wrestler, working for one promotion after another. His last major appearance of any kind was at NOAH’s Destiny show on July 18th, 2005, on which he wrestled his old rival Misawa in one final dream match.


While it wasn’t at the same level of quality that had long been associated with these two legendary wrestlers, it was nonetheless an emotional dream match that filled the audience with nostalgic joy.

After that dream match, Kawada kept wrestling here and there for a few more years. He didn’t have much success after 2007 or so, and the toll of years of wrestling started to catch up with him. His passion for wrestling ended almost entirely following Misawa’s death in 2009.

It was at that point that Kawada really started questioning his involvement in the wrestling business. Even though he and Misawa hadn’t seen eye to eye in many years, they both had immense passion for the wrestling business. For his archrival to have died in such a manner seems to have been the catalyst for Kawada ending his own wrestling career.

While he hasn’t announced a formal retirement, Kawada has not actually wrestled a formal match since August of 2010. He has, however, made appearances for the retirement ceremonies for both Kenta Kobashi and Akira Taue, and has made appearances for Misawa’s tribute shows on a regular basis.


Impact on the Wrestling business

While Kawada might not be remembered for being the most dynamic of performers, he has managed to become an influence on wrestling nonetheless. Through careful booking and a mastery of wrestling psychology, Kawada knew how to make every move he made important.

Every strike served a purpose in a larger, over-arching story, and he knew exactly how to make his strikes look devastating. Part of this was through the selling and the psychology used by his opponents when they took his moves, but the bigger part was that Kawada was STIFF.

A truly dangerous man.
A truly dangerous man.

Kawada was arguably the hardest-hitting wrestler in all of All Japan, possibly even the entire world, during his peak. His kicks were downright vicious, and he tended to connect with as much force as possible.

There were many occasions where it looked like Kawada’s vicious kicks would break his opponent’s jaw, and on more than one occasion he kicked his opponent in the ear and ruptured their ear drum (which, according to some wrestlers’ autobiographies, is an excruciatingly painful experience).

Kawada’s ‘dangerous’ wrestling style influenced many wrestlers, especially those whose style focuses on kicks. Daniel Bryan is a notable example, as his kick-centric offense and hard-hitting approach was influenced heavily by the work of both Kawada and Misawa.

Low Ki and Samoa Joe are two other wrestlers that have adopted Kawada’s signature moves into their respective arsenals. Have you ever seen one of them (more likely Samoa Joe), grab his opponent’s head and perform multiple ‘step kicks’?

That’s a move taken straight out of Kawada’s book, as he had a tendency to kick his opponents in the head quite a lot.

But most importantly, Kawada will probably go down in history as the poster boy for the ‘head drop’ era of King’s Road. By the late 1990s, All Japan’s booking style centred more on dangerous ‘head spike’ moves than it did traditional psychology, so each of the top wrestlers there found it necessary to adopt a new move that would either impress or terrify the audience.

Misawa had the Tiger Driver ’91, Kobashi had the Burning Hammer, Steve Williams had his Dangerous Backdrop, and Jun Akiyama had the Wrist-Clutch Exploder Suplex. Kawada topped all of them with the single-most dangerous wrestling move ever created: The Ganso Bomb.

Allegedly created by accident, this move caused Misawa to be dropped on his head in freefall, with no way of protecting himself. He simply had to take the full force of the move on his head and neck. Many people believe that this move was the apex of AJPW’s popularity, and since nothing could top Kawada’s Ganso Bomb, AJPW couldn’t possibly reach any further heights.

That said, Kawada is still one of the most interesting and dangerous wrestlers of all time. His matches were amazing and his offence brutal and vicious. If you’re one of those fans that gets a kick out of seeing big moves and wondering to yourself, ‘how did he survive that?’, go watch Toshiaki Kawada wrestle. You won’t be disappointed.

Career Highlights:

  • 5-time AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion
  • 9-time AJPW World Tag Team Champion (6 with Akira Taue, the most of any one team)
  • 2-time Champion Carnival winner
  • 3-time World’s Strongest Tag Determination League winner
  • 18 matches rated 5-Stars by the Wrestling Observer
  • 1 match rated 6-Stars by the Wrestling Observer (vs. Misawa, June 3rd, 1994)
  • Created the Ganso Bomb
  • Served as an inspiration for some of the best wrestlers active in the last 15 years.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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