After Mitsuharu Misawa abandoned ship with most of the roster to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, Toshiaki Kawada and Masa Fuchi began rebuilding a company left in shambles.
July 1, 2000
All Japan Pro Wrestling
Summer Action Series
On June 9, 2000, Mitsuharu Misawa had his last match in an All Japan Pro Wrestling ring. Sure, he returned for a one-off match four years later, but that was for an AJPW so different that it might as well not even count. After years of problems with the widowed Motoko Baba, Misawa had plans to form his own company, Pro Wrestling NOAH, which would launch in August. Much like Mrs. Baba’s deceased husband, Misawa inspired massive loyalty in other wrestlers, so when Misawa left, the entire native roster left with him. The entire native roster left, that is, with two notable exceptions: Toshiaki Kawada and Masanobu Fuchi.
Despite longtime personal animosity, Misawa expected Kawada, arguably his greatest rival, to come with him and ended up angered by Kawada’s decision to stay. In Misawa’s mind, he was the modern-day Biblical Noah and he was building an arc for everyone to escape AJPW, hence his new promotion’s name and navigation-based symbolism. Kawada made the calculation that AJPW would be his for the taking with Misawa and other top stars out of the way, which proved itself true in the short-term. Rumors were flying of everyone from Genichiro Tenryu to Atsushi Onita returning to the company, but they would need to be cast aside on this night, when Kawada and Fuchi needed to prove a basic credo -- that the company could still deliver great main events.
Fuchi was never anything less than a stellar pro wrestler, but he was also past his peak. It had been four years since he passed the junior heavyweight torch to the now NOAH-bound Tsuyoshi Kikuchi and it had been even longer since he was phased out of his reliable antagonist role in six-man tags at the top of the card. Fuchi never completely disappeared, but he rarely appeared alongside the top stars anymore. The mass exodus of talent and the pressure on his shoulders inspired a brief, but exceptional comeback that started with this match.
All Japan’s calling card was always the match quality of its main events, especially in the preceding decade. Misawa and Kawada, along with Kenta Kobashi, Akira Taue, Jun Akiyama, Steve Williams, Stan Hansen, and a select few others, set high standards -- some would say impossibly high standards -- for action-packed main events with excellent psychology. Kawada and Fuchi had a challenging path ahead of them, but they also had newfound freedom. Kawada’s longtime suggestion of interpromotional matches, which ostracized him politically when he suggested it to Mr. Baba years earlier, was suddenly a very real possibility.
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Despite high standards, the in-ring style had escalated in an unhealthy way in recent years, with ever-lengthening nearfall stretches and more dangerous moves happening in each marquee match. The company had also grown stale, as great as the top talent was, because of the lack of new stars. Kawada and Fuchi not only needed to demonstrate their ability to have a great match, but they’d need to have a different type of great match.
Their unfavorable position seemed to earn the sympathy of fans. Fuchi received the most heartfelt welcome he had gotten in years, (or possibly ever, considering his usual surly heel personality) making clear that All Japan fans would do their part in helping the match succeed. Rather than attempt to parallel the action quotient of the Misawa-Kobashi series, Kawada and Fuchi worked smaller and smarter with heavier focus on details, the type of match where Fuchi has always looked his best. Fuchi was totally in his element with tactics like the cold staredown off of a clean break or stepping directly on Kawada’s face. The lasting visual of the match is, of course, Fuchi’s raw and bloody chest, the result of Kawada’s brutal chops. Kawada finishing off Fuchi with one powerbomb when it had taken multiple powerbombs to bring home the win in some of his past big matches, felt right. They proved that they could dabble in greatness without dabbling in excess.
To ask if All Japan ended up okay in the long run is to ask a loaded question. The glory days of the Baba era were long gone, but the company itself remained a staple under new ownership with different stars. They never reached the same heights of match quality or popularity after the formation of NOAH, and it’s probable that they never will. However, that’s only a loaded question with the benefit of hindsight. On July 1, 2000, after the show was over and fans had left the building, the answer of the moment was clearly that yes, All Japan would be just fine, even if they had become the Little Promotion That Could overnight.