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My New Year's Revolution: The Rewatchening

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Dustin Rhodes/Ricky Steamboat vs. Enforcers (WCW, 11/19/91) 

Anderson and Zbyszko were originally set to defend the tag titles against Dustin and Barry Windham, but they put Windham out of action by breaking his hand at Halloween Havoc the previous month. But they have a mystery partner to take Windham’s place. It turns out to be Ricky Steamboat, last seen spitting hot fire (yes, literally) in the WWF. Surprise partners and opponents in wrestling almost always suck, but this one really delivered. Best of all was the Enforcers reacting like Dustin had brought out the Terminator as his partner. As for the actual match, I had thought it was close to tag team perfection in the past, but I found it surprisingly underwhelming this time around. I liked how Zbyszko set up a mini-FIP segment on Dustin by forcing his way to his corner to tag out while in an armbar. It was as if Dustin was so focused on working the arm that he neglected cutting the ring in half and Larry took advantage of his youth and inexperience. I don’t know if that was the intended idea, but it helps me enjoy the match more, so I’m going with it. The actual FIP segment on Steamboat is when they lost me a bit. They check all the boxes in the standard FIP formula, but it needed more violence and/or hope spots to stand out as a truly elite example. Tagless switches and partner-assisted abdominal stretches aren’t going to do much for me these days. Also, it was too brief to truly hit a fever pitch. Steamboat does his best to get the work over by selling like a soccer player trying to draw a red card, but it was so theatrical that it actually took me out of the match. I’d also like to talk about how much I despise the referee disallowing a blind tag because he didn’t see it spot.  When a tag team works an opponent over, they’re building tension, and that person executing a tag releases that tension. When the referee waves it off, they’re back at square one and have to build it up all over again. It’s especially egregious when the spot is preceded, as it almost always is, by the heels switching out without tagging behind the referee’s back with no repercussions. It’s one of those things that makes wrestling fans look like complete rubes because it blatantly insults the intelligence of the viewer. The finish was fantastically executed, although Steamboat was probably a bit too fresh after the beating he had absorbed. Not only did the Enforcers get caught off-guard by a blind tag after initially gaining the advantage with one, Zbyszko had his back turned just long enough to not see Steamboat about to hit the crossbody until it was too late. ****1/4  

Barry Windham/Dustin Rhodes vs. Steve Austin/Larry Zbyszko (WCW, 2/29/92) 

This is more restrained than Steiners/Nasties, but they do a similarly excellent job of working a crazy brawl within the strictures of a standard tag match. There are just enough sequences involving all four men going at it to add an element of chaos without a complete breakdown of structure. At its core, this is a double-FIP tag, and Windham’s is the better of the two. He takes some pretty nasty bumps throughout, including getting crotched on the guardrail. The eventual hot tag combines two of my favorite stock spots, the jawbreaker counter to a sleeper and Windham falling backwards to his corner to make the tag. The subsequent FIP segment on Dustin was a bit chinlock-heavy, but I loved the recurring element of Austin shutting him down with clotheslines. It’s just like any other sport. If there’s a play the other team can’t stop, you keep running it until they make you switch it up. Dustin finally countering by hitting Austin with his own stun gun was a superb payoff. This just needed some blood and international objects to really put it over the top. ****1/2

Stan Hansen vs. Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 4/6/92) 

So far in this project, there have been a few matches that haven’t done quite as much for me as they had in the past. This one had the opposite effect: it shot way up my list in a way I wasn’t expecting. It should come as no surprise that this is an absolute war from the get-go, as both men rush each other and show a willingness to absorb the other guy’s blows in order to get in a good shot of their own. It’s a style of claustrophobic brawling I find much more agreeable than two guys standing there and taking turns hitting each other with forearms. Kawada chopping Hansen down with off-balance leg kicks was especially great. A lot of opponents will target Hansen’s lariat arm, but going after his legs is a much smarter play because he’ll actually sell work on his leg. He’s so hobbled that it takes a powerbomb on the outside to give him a necessary breather. As the match progresses, there’s an increased emphasis on going for the knockout blow and countering the other man’s haymakers. Some excellent teases of the Western lariat near the end. I’m all but certain there’s never been a non-final Champion Carnival match anywhere near this good. ****3/4

Vader/Bam Bam Bigelow vs. Keiji Mutoh/Hiroshi Hase (NJPW, 5/1/92) 

Tag team wrestling was never a big deal in New Japan (at least, nowhere near as much as All Japan), so there are relatively few classic IWGP tag title matches. But this one is right near the top. The opening minutes are rather nondescript, although Mutoh and Hase suplexing the big men got a nice reaction. I also enjoyed the contrast between Vader’s style based around pure stiffness and Bigelow’s more American-style heel work with eye rakes and over-the-top bumping. Business picks up about ten minutes in after Bigelow rips the bandage off Hase’s head and he and Vader start teeing off on his forehead, leaving him a bloody mess in short order. This is notable for being one of the few competitive tag matches without a hot tag. After Hase manages to string together some offense against Vader and cuts off Bigelow’s attempted run-in, he and Mutoh double-team Bigelow and take him out by dropping him on the guardrail. From there, the match has a definite All Japan feel with Mutoh and Hase wearing Vader down with tandem offense while keeping Bigelow neutralized. There’s also an All Japan-esque shift in momentum initiated by Bigelow reversing an attempted double-team into a double DDT on the floor. From there, the tables are turned as Vader and Bigelow dispose of Mutoh (including gorilla pressing him onto a group of Young Lions) before finishing off Hase. ****1/2

Kenta Kobashi/Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Doug Furnas/Dan Kroffat (AJPW, 5/25/92) 

This match is famous for the torture session the Can-Ams administer on Kikuchi in front of a molten hometown crowd. I’ve seen this described as a Southern-style tag, but I think it has too many distinctly Japanese elements to truly qualify. For one thing, all the double-teams and interference take place in plain view of the referee without any need for distraction since Japanese referees are far more lenient about enforcement of tag rules. In addition, when Kikuchi gets worked over, the drama is from the punishment he’s receiving rather than trying to tag out and being thwarted (there are only a couple of hope spots). However, the Can-Ams do engage in more overt heeling, like taunting the audience and arguing with the referee over the count, than is typical in Japanese tags. Interestingly, the closing stretch is largely a mirror image of the one in Vader/Bigelow vs. Mutoh/Hase, only with the roles reversed. The Can-Ams try to neutralize Kobashi so they can finish off Kikuchi with double-teams, but Kobashi DDTs Furnas on the outside, allowing him and Kikuchi to land double-teams of their own to set up the finishing run. Other than Kikuchi snapping on Kroffat like Ralphie on Farkus in A Christmas Story, not much of note happens in the opening minutes, but once the match reaches its climax, it’s about an intense and dramatic as wrestling gets. ****3/4 

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Actually watched the Enforcers vs Dustin/Steamboat match Sunday night after the Royal Rumble and it's legit one of the best tag matches I've ever seen. The crowd is hot throughout the entire thing and I never had the chance to watch Steamboat's debut for his return in 91 so it was nice.

On a sidenote, it seems like anything Arn did with Dustin and or Barry Windham from 91 to 93 turned into pure magic.

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I would never presume to tell anyone how they should feel about a particular match. I can't even guarantee that my current takes will reflect my views down the road. This should be seen mainly as a snapshot of where I am right now as a fan.

Rick Rude vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW, 6/20/92) 

At his peak, Rude was pretty much the perfect heel. He possessed enough toughness and skill to be a threat to anybody while having no redeeming qualities that would make someone want to cheer for him. Taunting an opponent with his hip swivel and then wincing in pain because one of his body parts is injured is perhaps the quintessential Rude sequence. The best gimmick matches are ones where the gimmick accentuates the work in the ring without overwhelming it. Here, the Iron Man stipulation plays a major role in the psychology of the match, but it’s still a wrestling match at heart. Steamboat starts out as a house of fire and goes to town on Rude’s ribs. There aren’t that many wrestling moves that specifically target the ribs, so it’s to Steamboat’s credit that he’s able to mix things up and keep it interesting for as long as he did. However, it’s Rude who gets the first fall, albeit in a flukey manner after catching Steamboat with a knee. He’s then able to hit the Rude Awakening to go up 2-0. We see the debut of the intentional DQ as a means of inflicting further damage as Rude comes off the top with a knee (one of the few instances of the idiotic top rope DQ rule actually enhancing a match) and then pins Steamboat to go back up two falls. There are no rest periods after falls, so the earlier rib work plays a crucial role in keeping Steamboat in the match. Rude goes in for the kill after going up 3-1, but Steamboat fends him off by firing at the ribs, so Rude decides to essentially play prevent defense with his arsenal of wear-down holds. Steamboat is able to gradually work his way back in and eventually ties it up, leading to a frantic final few minutes. The rib work comes back into play in a classic finish. Steamboat is seemingly out after an extended Rude sleeper that they milk the hell out of, but he manages to pull off the Bret Hart counter, except he comes down on Rude’s injured ribs instead of flipping over, going ahead for good with half a minute remaining. The intensity dips a bit in the middle portion of the match, but as an overall package of action, psychology, and character work, this is hard to beat. The only thing missing is Rude selling an atomic drop. ****3/4

Vader vs. Sting (WCW, 7/12/92) 

Vader was the perfect monster heel-most of his offense looked like it would cripple a normal man, and he had an innate understanding of when to be a brick wall for an opponent and when to be a pinball. And Sting was his perfect opponent-he was big enough to believably execute power moves on Vader, athletic enough to catch him off guard with aerial offense, and selfless enough to absorb the full force of his blows. As I said at the outset, David vs. Goliath is one of my favorite match archetypes, and this series might be the pinnacle. I normally don’t like it when a larger heel challenges a smaller face to a test of strength because it puts the face in a no-win situation. Winning the test of strength isn’t a realistic scenario, so he’s an idiot if he accepts and a coward if he declines. But I did like Sting gaining the advantage with a Greco-Roman thumb to the eye followed by stomping on Vader’s foot. You ideally wouldn’t want your babyface champion to engage in such shady tactics without provocation, but that’s probably the best out they had. One aspect of Vader I think deserves more attention is his submission game. He wasn’t quite the man of a thousand holds, but he was like Andre the Giant in that his sheer size made even basic holds seem devastating. Fantastic finish with Sting seemingly having victory in hand before accidentally ramming his head into a turnbuckle while performing a Stinger splash. Vader casually sidestepping Sting’s punches before hitting a powerbomb was a beautiful twist of the knife. It’s a clean decisive win by Vader, but it’s not so dominant that it seems hopeless for Sting to prevail in a rematch. The only real off note was Vader going to the top rope to set up a Sting Samoan drop. Sting should’ve just let him come off the top and be disqualified. ****3/4

Vader vs. Ron Simmons (WCW, 8/2/92) 

Jim Ross had to have been in hog heaven calling a world title match between two college football All-Americans. Simmons was a great power wrestler, but he wasn’t much for leaving his feet, so this isn’t an ideal matchup. But Vader was in enough of a groove to get the best out of him. In this case, that means bumping big for Simmons’ power moves to make him look like a credible challenger before regrouping and beating him within an inch of his life, letting him win with a powerslam out of nowhere, and getting in and out as quickly as possible. At one point, he throws a straight right that looks like it should have shattered Simmons’ jaw. He even busts out a Stinger splash. One of my favorite things about Vader is that he was incredibly giving to his opponent when the situation called for it, but he made them earn it. Even if you managed to put him down, that was just the beginning because he’d recover before you and go back on the attack. You’d have to do it several times to really turn the tide. I also really like his tendency to pull back so far when hooking a leg on a pin that it allowed his opponent to slip out through the back door. It was as if he forgot his own strength in the heat of the moment. The post-match scene here, with the kid running up to the rail and jumping for joy along with all the other babyfaces coming out of the locker room to celebrate, never gets old. ****1/4

Rick Rude vs. Masahiro Chono (NJPW, 8/12/92) 

This is the G1 Climax final and is also for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, which had been vacant ever since Ric Flair jumped to the WWF. Someone as character-driven as Rude would seem to be a fish out of water in the King of Sports, but he does an amazing job of integrating his shtick into a serious title match. It should be noted that several of the spots are cribbed wholesale from the Steamboat Iron Man match, including the tombstone reversal spot (a Rude staple), the superplex spot, and the kick off the turnbuckle counter to the sleeper. Rude also doesn’t receive enough credit for his mat wrestling abilities. He wasn’t much for the hold-counterhold stuff, but he was pretty awesome at both working holds and fighting to get out of ones applied to him. For his part, Chono was outstanding at keeping things moving in a 70s-style chess match manner. Rude counters a sleeper with a jawbreaker, so the second time he tries it, Chono releases the hold and reapplies it on the ground. Rude has a headlock applied, so Chono counters with a shin breaker and starts targeting Rude’s leg. Rude leaves his arm exposed while trying to reverse an Indian deathlock, so Chono goes after the arm. Within that context, Rude’s selling was fine. There was no reason for him to be hobbling around if Chono wasn’t going to go back to the limb. This is almost certainly the greatest individual performance of Rude’s career, if not necessarily the best overall match. ****1/2

Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog (WWF, 8/29/92) 

This match is well-known for Bret having to carry everything due to Davey Boy being fooked. You can see it at the very beginning when a Bulldog shoulderblock causes Bret to fly all the way out of the ring. I imagine Dynamite Kid did that a thousand times working with stiffs in Stampede. There are even Flair standbys like being thrown off the top rope and begging off in the corner. It was amusing to see Bret applying a chinlock and whispering in Bulldog’s ear followed immediately by some complex sequence. Bret obviously deserves all the credit in the world for keeping things lively and interesting throughout while not overly taxing Davey Boy’s crack-addled brain. It helped that just about everything he did had more mustard on it than usual, like he was seriously pissed and taking it out on Bulldog. Not that I’d blame him. Also of note, this may be the greatest performance of Bobby Heenan’s career on commentary. He was seriously on fire with the one-liners. My favorite was when Vince McMahon said that the pound wasn’t the only British thing taking a beating (referencing the UK’s currency crisis), to which Heenan replied “You mean the pound where he lives?” I don’t think this is Bret’s best match, but it probably is his best individual performance as well as one of the great one-man shows in wrestling history. ****1/2 

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Genichiro Tenryu/Koki Kitahara vs. Shiro Koshinaka/Kengo Kimura (WAR, 10/23/92) 

When reviewing matches I’ve written about in the past, I’ve tried my best to update my thoughts and not simply repeat myself. But in this case, I don’t think I can improve upon what I wrote about this match last year. So I’ll just reproduce it: “As far as I'm concerned, this is the crown jewel of the NJPW/WAR feud. Both members of Team WAR bleed. Chairs and tables are used as weapons. Guys in martial arts uniforms brawl with the wrestlers and each other. The fans pelt the ring with garbage. Tenryu picks a fight with Masa Saito on commentary. At no point is there even a hint of sportsmanship or fair play. To top it all off, Tenryu beats Koshinaka with a powerbomb and keeps powerbombing him after the match until Saito runs in to break it up. This is everything an interpromotional match should be. Hell, this is everything pro wrestling should be. You need to go out of your way to watch this if you haven't already seen it.” ****3/4

Ricky Steamboat/Shane Douglas vs. Barry Windham/Brian Pillman (WCW, 12/28/92) 

I’d put this comfortably ahead of any Hollywood Blondes tag. This is a double-FIP tag with some great meat-and-potatoes heel work from Windham and Pillman. It’s nothing fancy, but I like seeing a team take every opportunity to get in cheap shots behind the referee’s back. The opening minutes are a bit weird in that the babyfaces have a sustained advantage but it’s neither conventional babyface shine nor heel in peril. Things pick up after Douglas takes a spill from the top turnbuckle to the floor and gets clotheslined by Windham on the outside. Pillman is no slouch in the bumping department either, as he goes from the apron to the floor and lands throat-first on the guardrail. The crowd is subdued early on, but they seemed to wake up after Steamboat whacked Windham with a chair. I always enjoy seeing heel subterfuge backfire. I also got a kick out of Steamboat wagging his finger at Windham while being worked over and Jesse Ventura commenting that he wasn’t in any position to be giving lectures. ****1/2

Vader vs. Sting (WCW, 12/28/92) 

You know Vader means business when he takes his mask off in the heat of battle. This is sometimes remembered as a WCW title match, but it’s actually for a far richer prize: the prestigious King of Cable trophy. Awesome first few minutes with Vader shrugging off Sting’s blows and throwing him around like a lawn dart, forcing Sting to really fling himself at the big man to get him off his feet. After a missed Stinger splash on the outside, Vader takes control and pummels Sting to the point where a referee stoppage would have been a believable finish. Vader’s butt splash sunset slip counter is one of my favorite signature spots because it was roughly 50-50 whether or not it would connect. If pro wrestling was a competitive sport, not everything would hit cleanly, and Vader’s penchant for adding realistic flourishes to his matches was one of his greatest strengths. There’s another great example near the end when he hits a splash but can’t cover because his momentum causes him to bounce away. The physics were a bit questionable, but it was a nice idea. Sting’s punch-drunk selling was world class, though it doesn’t take much to sell when Vader is involved. I especially loved how after he fought off a superplex attempt, he simply collapsed to the mat rather than coming off the top. Even the restholds enhanced the match. Note how Sting went into rope-a-dope mode after a chinlock, as if he recognized that was a sign that Vader was running out of gas. This ended up right on the borderline of five stars for me, so I had to watch it again to decide which way to go. Flair/Funk presented me with a similar dilemma, and in both cases, I felt comfortable awarding the full five after a subsequent viewing. I’ve thus resolved that going forward, if I’m not saying hell no to five stars, I’m saying yes. *****         

Bret Hart vs. Ric Flair (WWF, 1/9/93) 

The Rockers had some iron man matches with the Rougeaus on the house show circuit in 1989, but I’m pretty sure this is the first 60-minute singles iron man match in any promotion. How’s this for a hot take: this is not only Flair’s best WWF match, it’s also the best long Flair title match outside of Clash 6. Flair may have been past his prime here, but he was still more than capable of having a 60-minute match in his sleep. Accordingly, this is largely a Flair-style match, although Bret is far from a broomstick. In fact, his realistic selling is one of the key aspects of the match. It also helped that as the challenger, Flair didn’t have to worry about making his opponent look good and could just concentrate on having a great match. When you know going in that a match is going to go a certain length, one of the main challenges is keeping fans invested in the opening minutes. Flair's arm work didn’t really lead to anything, but it was interesting enough in its own right to serve as a fine time filler. Bret gets the first fall about 28 minutes in with a reverse roll-up, and the “real” match begins shortly afterward when Flair starts going after the leg. Flair winning two falls with the figure-four (albeit while grabbing the ropes for additional leverage) seems rather odd in an era when it was unheard of for top babyfaces to submit, let alone the world champion. But drama in Iron Man matches usually comes from the heel building up a lead and the face chasing him, and that’s probably the best way they could have built it up. This does meander at points, but it’s nothing too egregious. And neither wrestler ever seemed even remotely blown up, which is impressive. ****1/2 

Cactus Jack vs. Paul Orndorff (WCW, 2/21/93) 

Foley’s work in WCW is pretty historically significant because it serves as the bridge between 80s-style brawling and the ECW style of weapons and stunt bumps. In fact, this is one of the few matches that wouldn’t look out of place in either Memphis in the 80s or ECW in the 90s. It’s a falls count anywhere match, so to really put the gimmick over, they spend hardly any time in the ring. We get the requisite nutty Foley bumps along with Orndorff using anything he can get his hands on to tear Jack’s leg apart. He even rips off Jack’s knee brace and uses it as a weapon. The Observer reported at the time that they had to go home early because Orndorff forgot several planned spots, but I honestly don’t know what more they could have done to each other. ****1/2 

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Stan Hansen vs. Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 2/28/93) 

This is a total war from the get-go as Hansen charges Kawada before the bell and they end up brawling in the streamers. Both men sell impeccably throughout, but they’re hardly ever just lying there absorbing punishment. They’re always firing back from underneath or at least trying to establish separation. The ten minutes or so after the opening flurry are rather disjointed, but that aspect makes the action far more compelling than it would be otherwise. Things tighten up considerably after Hansen hits a tope (talk about a phrase you don’t see every day) and they struggle over a suplex on the floor. I’ve never seen anyone sell the stretch plum nearly as well as Hansen does here. He looked like he was suffering brain damage from oxygen deprivation. Some of the most intense moments in their matches with each other come from Kawada desperately trying to fend off the lariat, and this match is no exception. Hansen lariating Kawada so hard he knocks himself out of the ring is an all-time classic spot and a great way to extend the match. I give this the nod over their match from the 1992 Carnival, although the margin ended up being closer than I expected. ****3/4

Akira Hokuto vs. Shinobu Kandori (AJW, 4/2/93) 

This is a match of such grandeur that it practically defies description. It’s both an interpromotional bout and a clash of wrestling philosophies, and the work in the ring is like a supersized version of the Hart/Austin submission match. It manages to be both an epic brawl and an epic wrestling match, making it the greatest war of attrition in wrestling history. They begin with one of the all-time great openings, as Hokuto sucker punches Kandori and grabs a house mic to cut a taunting promo. Kandori responds to this provocation by trying to rip Hokuto’s arm out of its socket. Pretty soon, they’re fighting on the outside, and Hokuto does a horrifically gory bladejob (courtesy of outside referee Wally Yamaguchi-yes, that Wally Yamaguchi, the one tried to chop off Val Venis’ pee pee) after a tombstone onto a table. The shot of the resulting dent on the table is one of the match’s most enduring visuals. After some more brawling on the outside, Kandori is bleeding as well, and they’re both so worn down that even basic moves seem like potential killshots. As great as the opening is, the ending might be even better. Kandori kicks out of a Northern Lights Bomb and reverses a second attempt into one of her own, which Hokuto kicks out of. Having thus expended their respective arsenals, they resort to simply punching each other out. Hokuto manages to crawl over and drape an arm over Kandori to get the pin. Cumulative damage is such an intuitively universal concept in combat sports that it’s kind of baffling that you hardly ever see it in pro wrestling. This is one of the few matches that can genuinely be classified as art. *****

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Stan Hansen (AJPW, 5/21/93) 

Misawa and Hansen are two of the greatest wrestlers of all time (some would say THE two greatest), but they never really had chemistry with each other. This match is their best with each other by a significant margin due to having a much stronger psychological hook than their typical outings. Misawa’s elbow is by far the biggest threat to Hansen, so he makes a point of trying to neutralize it starting about nine minutes in when he catches Misawa in the ropes with an armbar. Hansen usually isn’t thought of as a master technician, but he employs an impressively varied arsenal of submissions. Of course, he also clubs Misawa’s arm with a TV monitor. This ends up as a clinic on how to sell an injured limb while still using it effectively. Misawa’s elbows have plenty of zip on them even with an injured arm, but he has to take time to recover every time they connect. One time, it takes him so long that Hansen is able to take him down with a Fujiwara armbar before he can go back on offense. As the match progresses, Misawa resorts to wearing Hansen down with facelocks to give his arm a break. Misawa is often described as stoic and expressionless, but I that that’s a bit of a bum rap. He was perfectly expressive when he needed to be, as this match shows. You can hear his vocalizations of pain when Hansen works him over and see the exertion on his face when he applies a surfboard or a facelock. This doesn’t have the kind of epic finishing run you usually associate with a classic Triple Crown match, but the ending is beautifully executed with Misawa catching a kick attempt, spinning Hansen’s leg away, and landing a rolling elbow in one fluid motion. ****1/2

Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect (WWF, 6/13/93) 

As far as I'm concerned, this blows their Summerslam 1991 match out of the water. They pack in seemingly 40 minutes’ worth of psychology while going less than 20. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single spot or sequence that doesn’t connect to the match as a whole and isn’t paid off in some way. The headlocks in the opening minutes establish Bret as the superior technician, forcing Perfect to take a shortcut by throwing a knee in the ropes that Bret sells masterfully. This might be the best performance of Hennig’s career, as he exhibits enough aggression and bending of the rules to show a desperate edge while stopping short of going full-blown heel. Blocking the sharpshooter by going after Bret’s injured hand is on the short list of greatest spots in company history. In addition to the aforementioned sell of the knee, Bret takes a massive bump from the apron to the guardrail and throws probably the greatest European uppercut of all time. I loved how Perfect reapplied a sleeper after Bret made the ropes, forcing Bret to counter for real by ramming Perfect into the turnbuckle. Perfect playing possum at the end to lure Bret in for a small package was a brilliant way to pay off the leg work without having it as a direct factor in the finish. ****3/4

Genichiro Tenryu/Takashi Ishikawa vs. Shinya Hashimoto/Michiyoshi Ohara (NJPW, 6/14/93) 

This is another fancam, which is kind of depressing because it makes you think about how many classic house show matches have been lost to history. Matches from the NJPW/WAR feud are a reliable source of hatred and violence, and when you add the element of a young boy trying to prove himself, you have something really special. Ohara is great at taking a beating and showing underdog fire, but he also gets a bit too big for his britches on a few occasions, and Team WAR relishes having the opportunity to put him in his place. Like when he comes in on a hot tag and gets immediately obliterated. And when he gets tagged in at the end only to be finished off by a chokeslam that looks like it should have sent him through the mat. The WAR wrestlers are both grumpy pricks who have no compunction in engaging in illegal double-teams and throwing in additional cheap shots afterward. Hashimoto is surprisingly not that much of a factor, although I really liked it when he knocked Tenryu off the apron at the beginning and tried to drag Ohara to his corner later on. Tenryu beating up Ohara after the match for no real reason was the perfect capstone. ****1/2 

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Barry Windham vs 2 Cold Scorpio (WCW, 6/16/93)

This is the last great match of Windham’s career, and it might actually be his best. There’s next to no mat wrestling, but it still has the psychology of a classic NWA title bout. The way Windham works this match is exactly what I want from a touring heel champion. When he asserts control, he recalls peak Jumbo as he dominates with an impressive array of punches, kicks, and suplexes. At the same time, his arrogance and sloppiness allow Scorpio to stay in the match. He clearly learned a lot from his erstwhile Horsemen colleagues, as his knee drop is reminiscent of Ric Flair and he takes control of the match by doing an Arn Anderson-style punch feint and then catching Scorpio when he ducks. Every time Scorpio gains a fleeting advantage, Windham immediately cuts him off, so it’s going to take something really big to turn the tide. That finally happens when Scorpio counters a superplex attempt. From there, he reels off an incredible stretch of nearfalls, including a slingshot 450 from the apron that would be a mind-blowing highspot even today. Even though Windham wins clean, Scorpio looks like a million bucks by pushing the champion to the limit and showcasing his high flying. ****1/2

Genichiro Tenryu vs. Shinya Hashimoto (WAR, 6/17/93) 

A slow-burning minimalist epic. I don’t think there’s a better way to set the tone for a high-stakes slugfest than to have both fighters hesitant to approach each other at the outset. You might expect them to be right at each other’s throats based on their interactions in the tag matches leading up to this, but that’s a lot easier to do when you have a partner backing you up. The tension builds and builds until it boils over with knees in the ropes and chops to the throat and clawing at eyes and headbutts. The intensity dipped quite a bit when Hashimoto started targeting Tenryu’s leg, but I appreciate him periodically breaking up the holds to work the leg with kicks. It was also nice to see Tenryu consistently sell the leg work throughout. Down the stretch, both men are aiming at each other’s heads and going for the knockout like two boxers who are both behind on points in the final round. You won’t see too many matches that manage to do more with less. ****1/2

Stan Hansen vs. Kenta Kobashi (AJPW, 7/29/93) 

This is a legendary match in the All Japan canon both because of the action in the ring and its place in Kobashi’s career arc. Earlier in 1993, Kobashi had recorded victories over Dan Spivey and Terry Gordy, his first ever wins against big-name foreign opponents. But Hansen is by far his biggest challenge yet. Kobashi throws everything he can think of at Hansen in the beginning, but he refuses to stay down and keeps firing away. So Kobashi decides to wear the big man down with facelocks, the same strategy Misawa employed in the May Triple Crown match. Just when it looks like Kobashi has everything going his way, Hansen catches him with perhaps the most brutal boot to the face in wrestling history. Kobashi’s cheek starts swelling up pretty much immediately, and there’s a photo of his face in the locker room afterward where he looks like he’s been in a car wreck. What makes it more shocking is how sudden it is. Most major transitions in matches are at least somewhat telegraphed, but the boot came out of nowhere. Hansen’s subsequent off-balance release powerbomb on the concrete was a great way for him to reassert control while still selling the punishment he had absorbed. Although the second half of the match is worked fairly evenly, they continue to employ underdog psychology, as Kobashi has to keep stringing offense together to keep Hansen down for any length of time. The iconic lariat at the end is of course an all-time classic finish, but the struggle on the turnbuckle immediately preceding it is almost as good. Top-notch action and top-notch storytelling on a level equalled by few matches in history. *****

Hiroshi Hase vs. Masahiro Chono (NJPW, 8/6/93) 

If you like cerebral detail-oriented wrestling, this is the match for you. Chono at this point has never lost in the G1, but he famously suffered a broken neck against Steve Austin the previous September, so he’s vulnerable here in a way he wasn’t before. Meanwhile, Hase has always been positioned at a level below the Three Musketeers, but he knocked off Shinya Hashimoto in the first round of the 1993 G1 and is looking to pull off another huge upset. But he’s not 100% either, as he’s sporting a huge bandage on his left leg. After some initial feeling out, Hase catches Chono with a stun gun and goes to work on the neck. This might be the first chronological appearance of an Austin-style stunner in a wrestling match. Later, Chono gained the advantage and went to work on Hase’s leg. The work from both men was rather dry, but the psychology was on point. Dueling body part work is one of my favorite things in wrestling when it’s sold well and paid off satisfactorily, and both men sell impeccably, particularly when Hase’s leg gives out while attempting a bridge on a Northern Lights suplex. Great nearfall late when Chono hits a diving shoulder block (the move he won the 1992 G1 finals with) followed by a powerbomb (the move he won the 1991 finals with), but Hase kicks out. Hase pays off the earlier neck work by winning with an STF variation, and Chono loses his first G1 match by falling victim to his own move. ****1/4

Vader vs. Davey Boy Smith (WCW, 8/18/93) 

I’d say this is easily Davey Boy’s best match not involving one of his brothers-in-law. He fit the mold of an ideal Vader opponent, as he had the strength to throw Vader around (how he managed to pull off multiple delayed vertical suplexes is beyond me) while still retaining some of the athleticism from his junior heavyweight days (as shown by his Okada dropkick with Vader on the turnbuckle). If he had better punches, this could have been a classic brawl instead of a more conventional big man vs. underdog match. But there are enough meaty bumps from both men (particularly Vader getting dropped on the guardrail) to make this more than simply Vader-by-numbers. And ten minutes or so of Vader punches to the jaw and clubbing forearms in the corner will never fail to entertain me. The powerslam off the top was a nice callback to the Sting match at Starrcade (and also the Simmons title change-I guess the powerslam was Vader’s Achilles’ heel) as well as a great way to set up the ref bump. ****1/4 

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Mitsuharu Misawa/Kenta Kobashi vs. Toshiaki Kawada/Akira Taue (AJPW, 12/3/93) 

This is a match where the stars align and everything seems to click. Every segment builds on everything that came before while also being interesting in its own right. This match is known for Kawada’s leg selling performance, possibly the greatest such performance in history. In fact, I would argue that it played a crucial role in the development of All Japan psychology. There were plenty of matches from the early 90s where a wrestler would have a limb worked over and blow it off down the stretch, but that was no longer tenable after Kawada permanently raised the bar for the company. It may be just a coincidence, but there’s some beautiful symmetry between this match and the 1988 RWTL final. In the former match, the damage to Kawada’s leg prevents him from assisting his partner. In this one, it prevents him from tagging out. On top of that, there’s all the King’s Road exchanges and multi-man sequences you expect from a high-end All Japan tag. I always enjoy Kobashi selling by closing one eye and gritting his teeth like he’s trying to do a Popeye impression. Without the Kawada leg selling, this is still a great match. With it, it’s an all-timer. ***** 

Aja Kong vs. Yumiko Hotta (AJW, 1/21/94) 

This is on the short list of the stiffest matches of all time. In fact, if you were to make a list of the stiffest men’s matches, this would make most of them look like pillow fights. And that’s not even counting the work on Hotta’s bloody hand. I can't tell where the gash came from, and someone’s hand isn’t exactly a common target in wrestling matches, so all the credit in the world to Aja for being able to integrate it into the story of the match. One of my least favorite aspects of joshi is the matwork. Far too often, someone will apply a hold, release it to whip the opponent into the ropes, apply a different hold, whip them into the ropes again, and then the opponent will reverse it and go on offense. I guess it keeps things moving, but it’s terrible psychology from the standpoint of making a match look like a competition. It’s the responsibility of the person in the hold to figure out how to escape or make the ropes. When you release a hold for no reason, you’re doing the work for them. One of the things that makes Aja my favorite women’s wrestler is the fact that she largely avoids falling into that trap. Even when she lets go of a hold, it’s to punt someone in the face rather than to set up a rope-running sequence. In all, this is one hell of a fight, albeit not for the faint of heart. ****1/2 

Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart (WWF, 3/20/94) 

This match seemingly has something for everybody. There’s no brawling to speak of, but it contains everything else you could possibly want in a wrestling match. You’ve got great technical wrestling, fast-paced action, and superb psychology and character work. One of the things I really like about Bret is his penchant for throwing in subtle callbacks to previous matches without beating you over the head with them. He won the King of the Ring tournament in 1993 by pinning Bam Bam Bigelow with a victory roll, but Owen had it scouted and got the pin by blocking it when Bret went for it again. The story goes that this was originally planned to be more of a pure workrate match, but they came up with a new layout a few days before Wrestlemania to get Owen over as a heel. They obviously did a bang-up job, because Owen looks like he was born to wear the black hat. The match is wrestled mostly on the level, but it’s immediately obvious even to a new viewer who the face and heel are supposed to be. It’s a Rick Rude-caliber performance, except he comes across as more of a spectacular athlete and less of a tough guy. Also, Jerry Lawler’s comment about Stu watching in his orthopedic tuxedo followed by Vince McMahon’s indignant reaction always cracks me up. ****3/4 

Stan Hansen vs. Akira Taue (AJPW, 4/11/94) 

A Taue victory over Hansen at this stage of their careers would be unthinkable under normal circumstances, but Hansen injured his ribs in a match against Kobashi the previous night, giving Taue the opening he needs. Hansen’s selling is just the right mix of realistic and theatrical, and he looks like he’s fighting for his life when he tries to deter Taue from going after the ribs in the beginning. As I revisit Hansen, I’m increasingly convinced that no other wrestler was on his level when it comes to the psychology of brawling. He gave a lot to his opponents when the situation called for it, but he didn’t let them walk all over him. He would always move to give himself breathing room and fire back whenever they left an opening. In turn, this forced them to tighten up their work, so when they had a sustained advantage, you know they really earned it. As for Taue, he targets the ribs right from the opening bell. There’s not much variety in his attack, but he makes up for it with his laser-like focus, even if it was largely by necessity because Hansen would have eaten him alive if he deviated from the gameplan. And it’s not there are that many moves that specifically target the rib area. Taue doesn’t get much air on his chokeslams, but that’s truer to the move’s origins as a sumo-style throat thrust. One of the grittiest and most claustrophobic matches you’ll ever see. ****1/4 

Dustin Rhodes vs. Bunkhouse Buck (WCW, 4/17/94) 

I’m pretty certain that this is the last classic 80-style brawl to take place in the US, at least on a major stage, before the ECW influence became all-pervasive. I loved Dustin beginning the match by running down the ramp and leaping over the ropes to attack Buck. If you’re in a match with no disqualifications against someone you hate, you should be chomping at the bit to get at him, not waiting for the bell and then locking up in the middle of the ring. I also liked how all the weapons used were items the wrestlers (or Buck’s manager in the case of the brass knuckles at the end) brought to the ring themselves. Kendo sticks and the like being conveniently located under the ring is one of the worst modern wrestling tropes. Dustin’s punches were fantastic, and Buck’s cowboy boot stomps to Dustin’s bloody forehead looked absolutely vicious. Also, Dustin swinging wildly and missing completely is one of my favorite stock hope spots. Bobby Heenan marking out on commentary really put this over the top for me. ****1/2 

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Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 6/3/94) 

At least until a couple of years ago, if you asked puro fans to name the greatest match of all time, this most likely would have been the consensus pick. Among a certain subset of fans, this match has been analyzed and dissected more than the Zapruder film. Even relatively mundane elements like Misawa working over Kawada’s leg have been the subject of extensive discussion and debate. There was also a time when some people would insist that you had to be familiar with literally years of backstory to truly appreciate the match’s greatness. That’s obviously way overblown, but I do think Misawa’s neck is an important part of the story that most viewers don’t seem to pick up on. He had to pull out of that year’s Champion Carnival with a (kayfabe) neck injury, and there are several points in the match where Kawada cuts Misawa off by targeting the neck. Misawa’s selling is so subtle that it’s easy to miss if you’re not specifically looking for it. And Kawada’s koppo kick near the end that Misawa blocks is a classic desperate attempt to prevent the match from slipping away. Other than that, what always made this match special to me is the seemingly dozens of sequences where they struggle for control that could go either way. It’s a total master class in the art of transitions. But on this most recent viewing, it was the violence of the strikes that stood out. The way Misawa stomped on Kawada’s face after reversing a powerbomb attempt was actually kind of shocking. Some of his elbows looked like he was trying to knock Kawada’s head into the third row. I can’t definitively say that this is the greatest singles match of all time, but it’s one of the handful of matches in the conversation. Even the fans are five stars. Check out the guy dancing in the stands after Misawa kicks out of the first powerbomb. *****

Vader vs. Kiyoshi Tamura (UWFi, 6/10/94) 

Some shoot-style purists don’t really care for Vader’s matches in UWFi because there’s hardly any of the matwork they see as one of the hallmarks of the style, but I dig them because they’re a lot closer to what I originally expected shoot style to look like. When I first heard about the style, I imagined it would resemble a worked version of UFC, so it was quite the shock when the first few matches I saw consisted mainly of catch wrestling with a few kicks thrown in. I thought it was like watching paint dry and had no idea how anyone could find it even remotely entertaining. I’ve since expanded my horizons enough to be able to get into the matwork, but I have to be in the right mood. When it comes to Vader clubbing dudes, on the other hand, any time is the right time. The beauty of it is that his work was already based around stiff credible offense, so he didn’t have to significantly alter his style to fit in. With this match in particular, the psychology is totally pro-style, but the emphasis on stiff strikes and legitimate submissions gives it the aura of a realistic fight. Tamura would seem to be hopelessly outmatched, but he still has a puncher’s chance, and he comes in with a brilliant strategy that he executes to perfection. He targets Vader’s legs with kicks and kneebars, forcing him to burn through his points on rope breaks and having him so concerned with protecting his leg that he opens himself up to knockout blows to the head. Five minutes in, Vader is on the ropes both literally and figuratively. But with his size and reach advantage, all he needs is one solid clean hit to turn things around. It’s kind of like an NFL game where an overwhelming favorite gets put in a hole by a team with a perfect gameplan but makes the necessary adjustments at halftime and ends up burying the underdogs. The powerbomb isn’t exactly a legitimate move, but the size difference meant that it didn’t require too much suspension of disbelief to buy it. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any better sub-10 minute singles matches. ****1/4

Bret Hart vs. 123 Kid (WWF, 7/11/94) 

Like Windham/Scorpio, this is an NWA-style title match where the champion faces a high-flying opponent and dominates much of the match and then allows a string of nearfalls before winning clean in the end. However, there’s a major difference in that both of the wrestlers here are babyfaces. A lot of times in matches like this, Bret will do things to heel himself like refuse to break on 5, but there’s none of that here. In fact, there were several spots specifically designed to keep him a babyface, like when he requested the match be restarted because Kid’s foot was on the ropes. As a result, this match isn’t as heated as it could be, but that doesn’t mean it lacks intensity. In fact, this is one of Bret’s best offensive performances. He had a Jumbo-like ability to make basic offense look brutal. He didn’t face too many guys significantly smaller than him during this period, and he seemed to relish having an opponent he could really maul. The way he rocked Kid in the corner with European uppercuts looked like something out of a Regal or Finlay match. I’m also a sucker for a good coconut crush. Kid bumped and sold impeccably, and he also threw some nasty kicks, including a rolling sobat that looked like it should have split Bret’s chin open. If not the greatest match in Raw history, certainly in the upper echelon. ****1/4

Vader vs. Nobuhiko Takada (UWFi, 8/18/94) 

This is probably Vader’s most famous match in UWFi and the most famous shoot-style match among American fans, which is somewhat ironic considering it’s an extreme outlier for the style. The pre-match atmosphere is something else, with Lou Thesz on hand to award his original world title belt to the winner and Yngwie Malmsteen of all people presenting Takada with flowers. The match itself consists mainly of stand-up exchanges and knockout attempts, making it a lot closer to Vader’s matches with the likes of Otto Wanz in Europe than pure shoot style. The usual points system (each fighter starts with 15 points and loses one point on a rope break and three points on a knockdown; losing all one’s points results in a TKO) is out the window, which is fortunate because the match would have been over in about two minutes otherwise. It also makes sense in kayfabe that the contest to determine the world’s greatest real fighter should be settled with a decisive finish rather than a technicality. Takada’s main goal throughout is to lock in the cross armbreaker, having made Vader submit to the move in their 1993 match, but Vader fights like death to prevent his arm from being hyperextended. Both men have a nice variety of strikes, but the repeated knockdowns do get repetitive, and the match likely would have benefited from a European-style rounds system to break things up periodically. They do spend a fair amount of time on the mat, and suffice it to say that their work there won't make anybody forget Volk Han. There is some jockeying for position and working for submissions, but there's also a lot of lay-and-pray. However, it is paid off excellently when Vader tags Takada with a jaw-dislocating palm strike that put an end to his cross armbreaker attempts. The deadlift powerbomb near the end looked devastating, although it really should have ended the match. But the actual finish came shortly afterward, so it's not that big a deal. Overall, this is a case of the sheer grandeur of the spectacle mostly overcoming whatever technical deficiencies may exist. ****1/4

Shawn Michaels/Diesel vs. Razor Ramon/123 Kid (WWF, 10/30/94) 

One of the great tag matches in company history, possibly the greatest. There’s only a couple of other matches I’d consider serious contenders for that accolade, and it’ll be a while before I get to them. It’s nearly all action while still maintaining classic tag structure. The meat of the match is a Ramon FIP section, and Shawn and Diesel work him over seemingly forever. The heels had some brutal-looking double-team offense, which along with Ramon's selling meant that the sense of peril never dissipated. I also really liked Nash simply yanking Ramon to the mat by his hair. Having Ramon serve as the FIP seems counterintuitive, but it made sense from a match quality standpoint because Kid would be far more energetic coming in off the hot tag. Plus, Ramon’s size meant that you could work him over far longer because he could absorb more punishment. I'll never enjoy the referee disallowing a tag because he was distracted, but if you have to have it in a match, this is the way you do it-immediately follow it with a heel miscommunication spot that leads to the actual tag. I'm generally of the opinion that what happens immediately after the hot tag is the least important part of a tag match, but the offense Kid strung together after coming in really was spectacular. Other than Ramon getting worked over, the HBK/Kid exchanges were easily the highlight of the match, with Shawn bumping around like a pinball and Kid flying all over the place. The only part of the match that really fell flat for me was the Razor's Edge in the beginning which Ramon hit with no real resistance and had no real impact on the match as a whole. ****1/2 

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Here are the updated rankings at the halfway point. I'd like to make clear that that the linear rankings are less important than the overall tiers. To drive the point home, the 5 star matches are in bold, the 4 3/4 matches are in italics, the 4 1/2 matches are underlined, and the 4 1/4 matches have no typographic emphasis.
 

Spoiler

1. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 6/3/94)

2. Akira Hokuto vs. Shinobu Kandori (AJW, 4/2/93) 

3. Stan Hansen vs. Kenta Kobashi (AJPW, 7/29/93) 

4. Mitsuharu Misawa/Kenta Kobashi vs. Toshiaki Kawada/Akira Taue (AJPW, 12/3/93) 

5. Mitsuharu Misawa/Toshiaki Kawada/Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/Akira Taue/Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW, 10/19/90) 

6. Jumbo Tsuruta/Genichiro Tenryu vs. Riki Choshu/Yoshiaki Yatsu (AJPW, 1/28/86) 

7. Ric Flair vs. Terry Funk (WCW, 7/23/89) 

8. Vader vs. Sting (WCW, 12/28/92) 

9. Vader vs. Sting (WCW, 7/12/92) 

10. Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW, 4/2/89) 

11. Jerry Lawler vs. Bill Dundee (Memphis, 6/6/83) 

12. MS-1 vs. Sangre Chicana (EMLL, 9/23/83) 

13. Midnight Rockers vs. Buddy Rose/Doug Somers (AWA, 8/30/86) 

14. Rick Rude vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW, 6/20/92) 

15. Kenta Kobashi/Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Doug Furnas/Dan Kroffat (AJPW, 5/25/92) 

16. El Hijo del Santo vs. Brazo de Oro (UWA, 1/13/91) 

17. Stan Hansen vs. Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 2/28/93) 

18. Stan Hansen vs. Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 4/6/92) 

19. Sgt. Slaughter vs. Iron Sheik (WWF, 6/16/84) 

20. Jushin Liger vs. Naoki Sano (NJPW, 8/10/89) 

21. Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW, 2/20/89) 

22. Mitsuharu Misawa/Toshiaki Kawada/Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/Akira Taue/Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW, 4/20/91) 

23. Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu (AJPW, 6/5/89) 

24. Stan Hansen/Terry Gordy vs. Genichiro Tenryu/Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 12/16/88) 

25. Stan Hansen/Genichiro Tenryu vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/Yoshiaki Yatsu (AJPW, 12/6/89) 

26. Jerry Lawler vs. Terry Funk (Memphis, 3/23/81) 

27. Riki Choshu vs. Yoshiaki Fujiwara (NJPW, 6/9/87) 

28. Genichiro Tenryu/Koki Kitahara vs. Shiro Koshinaka/Kengo Kimura (WAR, 10/23/92) 

29. Tatsumi Fujinami/Riki Choshu/Akira Maeda/Kengo Kimura/Super Strong Machine vs. Antonio Inoki/Yoshiaki Fujiwara/Seiji Sakaguchi/Kantaro Hoshino/Keiji Mutoh (NJPW, 8/19/87) 

30. Jerry Lawler vs. Bill Dundee (Memphis, 12/30/85) 

31. Bret Hart vs. Mr. Perfect (WWF, 6/13/93) 

32. Bret Hart vs. Owen Hart (WWF, 3/20/94) 

33. Keiji Mutoh vs. Masahiro Chono (NJPW, 8/11/91) 

34. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (AJPW, 6/8/90) 

35. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (AJPW, 9/1/90) 

36. Giant Baba vs. Billy Robinson (AJPW, 7/24/76) 

37. Mitsuharu Misawa/Akira Taue/Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/The Great Kabuki/Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW, 5/26/90) 

38. Terry Gordy vs. Killer Khan (WCCW, 11/22/84) 

39. Jim Duggan vs. Ted DiBiase (Mid-South, 3/22/85) 

40. Vader/Bam Bam Bigelow vs. Keiji Mutoh/Hiroshi Hase (NJPW, 5/1/92) 

41. Vader vs. Keiji Mutoh (NJPW, 8/10/91) 

42. Lex Luger vs. Ricky Steamboat (WCW, 7/23/89) 

43. Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat (WWF, 3/29/87) 

44. Mitsuharu Misawa/Toshiaki Kawada/Tsuyoshi Kikuchi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta/Akira Taue/Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW, 10/15/91) 

45. Genichiro Tenryu/Takashi Ishikawa vs. Shinya Hashimoto/Michiyoshi Ohara (NJPW, 6/14/93) 

46. Masa Saito/Riki Choshu/Super Strong Machine/Kuniaki Kobayashi/Hiro Saito vs. Tatsumi Fujinami/Yoshiaki Fujiwara/Kengo Kimura/Shiro Koshinaka/Keiichi Yamada (NJPW, 9/12/88) 

47. Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog (WWF, 8/29/92) 

48. Rick Rude vs. Masahiro Chono (NJPW, 8/12/92) 

49. Shawn Michaels/Diesel vs. Razor Ramon/123 Kid (WWF, 10/30/94) 

50. Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Stan Hansen (AJPW, 5/21/93) 

51. Ultimate Warrior vs. Rick Rude (WWF, 8/28/89) 

52. Aja Kong vs. Yumiko Hotta (AJW, 1/21/94) 

53. British Bulldogs vs. Hart Foundation (WWF, 9/23/85) 

54. Barry Windham vs 2 Cold Scorpio (WCW, 6/16/93) 

55. Dream Team vs. Ricky Steamboat/Tito Santana (WWF, 4/21/85) 

56. Bret Hart vs. Ric Flair (WWF, 1/9/93) 

57. Randy Savage vs. Ricky Steamboat (WWF, 2/15/87) 

58. El Dandy vs. Pirata Morgan (EMLL, 9/23/88) 

59. Rick Martel vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (AWA, 9/29/85) 

60. Ted DiBiase vs. Dick Murdoch (Mid-South, 12/31/85) 

61. Genichiro Tenryu vs. Shinya Hashimoto (WAR, 6/17/93) 

62. Bob Backlund vs. Ken Patera (WWF, 5/19/80) 

63. Dynamite Kid vs. Tatsumi Fujinami (NJPW, 2/5/80) 

64. Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Jack Brisco (AJPW, 8/28/76) 

65. Lex Luger/Barry Windham vs. Arn Anderson/Tully Blanchard (NWA, 3/27/88) 

66. Barry Windham/Dustin Rhodes vs. Steve Austin/Larry Zbyszko (WCW, 2/29/92) 

67. Dustin Rhodes vs. Bunkhouse Buck (WCW, 4/17/94) 

68. Cactus Jack vs. Paul Orndorff (WCW, 2/21/93) 

69. Sgt. Slaughter vs. Pat Patterson (WWF, 5/4/81) 

70. Randy Savage vs. Tito Santana (WWF, 4/22/86) 

71. Rock & Roll Express vs. Midnight Express (WCW, 2/25/90) 

72. Ricky Steamboat/Shane Douglas vs. Barry Windham/Brian Pillman (WCW, 12/28/92) 

73. Stan Hansen vs. Genichiro Tenryu (AJPW, 7/27/88) 

74. Steiners vs. Nasty Boys (WCW, 10/27/90) 

75. Stan Hansen vs. Akira Taue (AJPW, 4/11/94) 

76. Vader vs. Kiyoshi Tamura (UWFi, 6/10/94) 

77. Dustin Rhodes/Ricky Steamboat vs. Enforcers (WCW, 11/19/91) 

78. Bret Hart vs. 123 Kid (WWF, 7/11/94) 

79. Stan Hansen vs. Steve Williams (AJPW, 6/5/90) 

80. Dynamite Kid vs. Marty Jones (World of Sport, 2/5/83) 

81. Jumbo Tsuruta/The Great Kabuki/Takashi Ishikawa vs. Ashura Hara/Toshiaki Kawada/Samson Fuyuki (AJPW, 3/11/88) 

82. Vader vs. Stan Hansen (NJPW, 2/10/90) 

83. Rock & Roll Express vs. Andersons (NWA, 11/27/86) 

84. Vader vs. Ron Simmons (WCW, 8/2/92) 

85. Toshiaki Kawada vs. Akira Taue (AJPW, 1/15/91) 

86. Hart Foundation vs. Brain Busters (WWF, 8/28/89) 

87. Hiroshi Hase vs. Masahiro Chono (NJPW, 8/6/93) 

88. Vader vs. Riki Choshu (NJPW, 8/19/90) 

89. Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu (AJPW, 8/31/87) 

90. Bull Power vs. Otto Wanz (CWA, 12/22/89) 

91. Nick Bockwinkel vs. Curt Hennig (AWA, 11/21/86) 

92. Vader vs. Davey Boy Smith (WCW, 8/18/93) 

93. Riki Choshu vs. Killer Khan (AJPW, 7/31/86) 

94. Tony Salazar vs. Herodes (EMLL, 3/2/84) 

95. Vader vs. Nobuhiko Takada (UWFi, 8/18/94) 

96. Ric Flair vs. Brett Sawyer (Portland, 10/2/82) 

97. Antonio Inoki vs. Dick Murdoch (NJPW, 6/19/86) 

98. Jumping Bomb Angels vs. Glamour Girls (WWF, 11/24/87) 

99. Stan Hansen vs. Terry Funk (AJPW, 8/23/85) 

100. Antonio Inoki/Tatsumi Fujinami vs. Riki Choshu/Masa Saito (NJPW, 2/3/83)

 

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Vader vs. Dustin Rhodes (WCW, 11/16/94) 

One of the interesting things about Dustin is that he tended to wrestle smaller than he really was. That's normally not a good thing, but it worked for him because it enabled him to generate more underdog sympathy than would be possible otherwise. Case in point, he's actually taller than Vader, but he comes across like a child standing up to a schoolyard bully at the beginning of this match. When he responds to Vader spitting in his face by tackling him and pummeling him on the ground, it's like he's striking a blow for anyone who's ever been pushed around. Also, he bumps far bigger than is customary for a man his size, including a 360 spin sell of a clothesline and getting thrown over the top rope onto the floor while attempting a bulldog. What makes it even better is that he can turn it around and use his size to his advantage if need be, like when he catches and powerslams Vader on a Stinger splash attempt. Combine that with the usual Vader brutality and no downtime to speak of and you have quite the sprint. Vader recovered a bit too quickly from the bulldog at the end, but the face eraser is such an awesome finisher that I'm willing to overlook it. ****1/4 

Aja Kong vs. Manami Toyota (AJW, 11/20/94) 

Toyota can be a polarizing figure. Quite a few fans consider her to be the greatest women’s wrestler of all time, if not the greatest period, while a smaller group finds her virtually unwatchable. I’m kind of in the middle. You couldn’t pay me to watch most of her workrate epics, but she can be pretty spectacular in David vs. Goliath matchups. The story here, at least as I understand it, is that she’s basically the Energizer Bunny. She just keeps coming at you because you can’t keep her down for long. At the same time, she doesn’t have the firepower to go blow-for-blow with the heavy hitters, so she relies on big counters to create openings. For the first ten minutes or so of this match, Aja delivers a hellacious beating as only she can. Toyota keeps plugging away and has a few brief flurries, but she keeps getting cut off before she can get anything going. My favorite moment may have been when Toyota delivered a kick to Aja’s head that did little but piss her off even more. What finally allows Toyota to begin her comeback in earnest is when she boots Aja from the top rope to the floor. She eventually goes for the Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex, but Aja blocks it by deadweighting herself. Toyota then goes for the moves that worked for her earlier in the match, but Aja sees them coming and is able to counter, stuffing Toyota’s momentum for good before hitting the uraken and putting her away with a Steiner screwdriver. I wish Toyota had sold more during her comeback, but that was never her thing, and it’s mitigated somewhat by the fact that she lost and had to be carried out afterward. In the spirit of full disclosure, this match holds a special place in my heart because it was the first joshi match I ever saw, but its greatness extends well beyond mere nostalgic appeal. Just be warned that Toyota spends much of the match screaming bloody murder like she’s auditioning for a role in a Friday the 13th film. ****3/4 

Bret Hart/British Bulldog vs. Owen Hart/Bob Backlund (WWF, 2/26/95) 

How amazing is it that a short-lived B-show like Action Zone featured two of the greatest tags in the history of the company? The Kliq tag from the previous year was spectacular, and this is almost as good. Owen and Backlund are a well-oiled machine as they make constant switches and tear Bret’s leg apart Anderson-style. In fact, they probably spent too much time on the leg. I normally appreciate laser-like focus on a body part, but Bret couldn’t do much more but lie there and sell while his leg was being worked on. The match would have benefited from a couple of Kawada-style hope spots where Bret couldn’t reach his corner due to leg damage. Backlund may have actually been the star of the show, as his constant well-timed interference in blatant disregard of the stupid one save rule kept things moving and infuriated the crowd. Him running in to turn Bret back over after he had managed to reverse an Owen figure-four was the match’s clear highlight. Bret hobbling over to put Backlund in the sharpshooter on the outside to prevent him from interfering at the end was an excellent payoff. ****1/2 

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Akira Taue (AJPW, 4/15/95) 

Misawa is seeking to win his first Champion Carnival, the one major accolade that has eluded him since becoming the ace of All Japan. Standing in his way is Taue, who is on the Cinderella run of a lifetime. In other words, a classic sports story. And Misawa is sporting a broken orbital bone, making him more vulnerable than usual. This is more or less universally regarded as Taue's best singles match, and it may have the most airtight psychology of any match in history. We begin with some great King's Road exchanges, which Taue always did best with Misawa. Their respective movesets just seemed to lend themselves to sequences that could be complex without feeling choreographed. Just when it seems that Misawa has things in hand, Taue turns the tables by going after the orbital bone, including grinding his boot into Misawa's face. Landing a straitjacket snake eyes after Misawa had blocked a regular one earlier in the match was also awesome. The key to this match is Taue's chokeslam off the apron, which had put away Kawada and Kobashi and which he had failed to land on Misawa in their draw in the tournament. When Taue first goes for it, Misawa fights for his life to block it and returns to the ring. When he eventually hits it, he's too worn down to capitalize. In fact, he barely gets Misawa into the ring, allowing him to put his foot on the ropes when Taue goes for the pin. And Misawa's epic extended comeback is one for the ages. The thing about the rolling elbow is that it's devastating when it connects but also lends itself to the opponent cutting off Misawa's comeback by ducking and countering, making it the perfect move for these situations. Misawa swatting away Taue's final desperate lunge at the orbital bone might be my favorite ending to an All Japan match, which is saying something. ***** 

Mitsuharu Misawa/Kenta Kobashi vs. Toshiaki Kawada/Akira Taue (AJPW, 6/9/95) 

The first time I saw this, I thought it might be the greatest match I'd ever seen. The second time, I was so certain that it was that it seemed impossible to imagine another match coming close. What sealed the deal for me was the sequence with all four in the ring culminating in Taue chokeslamming Misawa onto Kobashi's injured leg. My tastes have shifted significantly over the years, but that’s been one of the few constants. To take just one example of this match’s transcendent greatness, Kawada booting Misawa and then Kobashi off the apron in the beginning is awesome not only in its own right but in the payoff and then the payoff to the payoff. After Misawa comes in off a hot tag, he catches Kawada napping on the apron and delivers a receipt. As soon as Kawada recovers, he casually strolls into the ring, kicks Misawa in his broken orbital bone, and then calmly walks back to his corner like nothing happened. On this most recent viewing, I noticed something that caused me to appreciate the match on a whole other level. It’s Kobashi’s determination to prove his toughness that ends up being his team’s undoing. It begins when he becomes hell-bent on hitting the moonsault despite the damage to his leg, and sure enough, it ends up aggravating the damage. A few minutes later, after Taue chokeslams Misawa off the apron, Kobashi shields Misawa with his body to protect him from further damage, causing Taue to throw him aside. Misawa starts rolling to his corner after Taue rolls him back in the ring, but he can’t tag out because Kobashi’s attempt to be the hero put him out of position. Kobashi tries shielding Misawa again a couple of minutes later, leading to Kawada and Taue dispatching him with a backdrop/chokeslam combo. Kawada then goes in for the kill, but Misawa fends him off with an elbow and heads to his corner. But once again, Kobashi isn’t there. The look of defeated resignation on Misawa’s face as his hand drops says it all. If Kobashi had known his role and stayed in his lane, his team might have pulled it out. Instead, like Icarus, he tried to fly too close to the sun and ended up crashing down to Earth. ***** 

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Shinya Hashimoto/Junji Hirata vs. Masahiro Chono/Hiroyoshi Tenzan (NJPW, 6/12/95) 

In the early-mid 90s, the All Japan tag belts were dominated by Misawa/Kobashi and Kawada/Taue while the New Japan belts were dominated by the Hell Raisers (Road Warrior Hawk/Kensuke Sasaki) and the Jurassic Powers (Scott Norton/Hercules Hernandez). Needless to say, a major gap in quality. In 1995, the focus of the division shifted from juiced-up Americans to native teams, and this is my favorite match from that period. It’s a significant step down from the All Japan classic three days beforehand, but it’s great in ways a high-end All Japan match never could be with Americanized elements like blatant cheating and outside interference. There’s not a whole lot of direction in the opening minutes, but we see some nifty double-teaming from Chono and Tenzan along with Hashimoto and Hirata throwing their weight around. Hirata responding to Tenzan blocking a vertical suplex attempt by turning it into a DDT was an awesome early moment. The storyline hook comes when Hirata injures his leg after a superplex, effectively taking him out of commission for the remainder of the match. As a result, Hashimoto ends up being the one placed in peril due to it becoming a de facto handicap match. Even more surprisingly, he never overcomes the odds or even tags out. Instead, he’s overwhelmed by the numbers game and pinned. Hashimoto is among the all-time greats at making fiery comebacks, making it all the more gut-wrenching when Cho-Ten pulls the rug out from under him. After Hashimoto lands a brainbuster on Tenzan, Chono breaks up the pin and then nails Hashimoto with a low blow while the referee is checking on Tenzan. A couple of minutes later, Hashimoto is inches away from making the tag, but Hiro Saito pulls Hirata off the apron. Chono directing Tenzan to run interference on Hirata while he had Hashimoto in the STF was some nice subtle teamwork. A sterling example of how to get American-style heeling over in a strong style setting. ****1/4 

Ric Flair vs. Randy Savage (WCW, 6/18/95) 

One of the easiest ways to get a match over as a real hate-filled grudge match is to minimize the number of pin attempts. After all, pinning someone’s shoulders to the mat takes time that could be spent socking them in the jaw or ramming them into things. Off the top of my head, there were only three pins before the finish. Two of them were incidental rather than intentional, and Savage pulled up on the third to inflict more damage to Flair. Savage delivers a clinic on how to mount an effective offense while still selling a leg injury. He continues throwing punches and kicks while on his back, and he really flings himself at Flair while hobbling around. Unfortunately, Flair’s insistence on shoehorning in his signature spots made the match feel a lot less chaotic than it should have. Even so, he looked far more vicious than usual. Not only did he really lay in his punches, he dropped Savage shin-first on the guardrail All Japan-style. He looked like he was trying to take Savage’s head off with the cane shot at the end. Fifteen minutes of aggressive brawling with no real downtime is almost always a surefire winner. ****1/4 

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Toshiaki Kawada (AJPW, 7/24/95) 

This is coming on the heels of 6/3/94 and 6/9/95, so to say that it could have collapsed under the weight of sky-high expectations is an understatement. Perhaps they figured they couldn’t reach the heights of those two matches, so they worked more of a sprint, sacrificing epicness for efficiency. The opening exchanges are perhaps the best the two ever did with each other, which covers a lot of ground. In addition to targeting Misawa’s orbital bone, Kawada displays some world-class borderline-comical rudo selling. Popping up and rolling out of the ring after a German suplex is a particular highlight. The struggle over Kawada’s powerbomb shows how to do big move nearfalls right. Misawa fights for his life to block it throughout the match, so Kawada actually hitting it and Misawa kicking out both feel like titanic moments. There’s a brilliant sequence late when Misawa responds to a kick to the face by kicking Kawada in his face, luring him into a kick battle that allows Misawa to land a rolling elbow. That’s next level psychology. Being the second-best Misawa/Kawada Triple Crown match is nothing to sneeze at. ****3/4 

Aja Kong vs. Dynamite Kansai (AJW, 8/30/95) 

King Kong vs. Godzilla in joshi form. This is my favorite of their matches together because they mostly dispense with the time-killing matwork and concentrate on potatoing each other. Some of the blows are so stiff that they’re difficult to watch. In particular, Kansai delivers a couple of kicks to Aja’s head where I have no idea how she didn’t get knocked out legit. I really liked the use of ten-counts, which allowed them to trade bombs while still selling. It also allowed for believable transitions. The best example came a little more than twelve minutes in when Aja barely beat the count. Kansai rushes in to finish the job only to run right into an uraken. There is sloppiness at points, but it’s the good kind that conveys struggle and fatigue rather than the bad kind that exposes the business. ****1/2 

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Akira Taue (AJPW, 9/10/95) 

This is a bit of an oddity, as it’s a Triple Crown match that wouldn’t look out of place on a WWE PPV card. It goes just short of 21 minutes and is worked at the pace of a sprint, and the super high-impact moves are mostly teased rather than delivered. Misawa decides that playtime is over and throws everything he can think of at Taue to put him away early, but he leaves his leg exposed in the process, and Taue capitalizes. As in most Misawa matches, the body part work is intended to open him up for big moves that will turn the lights out rather than a direct means to victory. At one point, Taue pulls back the floor mat and threatens to chokeslam Misawa from the apron to the exposed concrete. He goes after Misawa’s leg to prevent him from blocking the move, but he ends up being too aggressive and Misawa collapses from the apron to the floor. Taue gets him back up, but Misawa throws a vicious elbow and returns to the ring. It’s amazing how even less ambitious Triple Crown matches have such brilliant nuanced psychology. It seemed like Misawa wanted the leg work to play a bigger role down the stretch (when Taue did briefly target it, Misawa went down like he’d been shot), but Taue didn’t take the bait and mostly stuck to throwing bombs. It’s a clear example of Taue not being on the level of the other three Pillars from a storytelling standpoint. Even so, there’s some fantastic struggle from both men over the big suplexes, so it’s more than just a mindless bombfest. This isn’t as epic as the Champion Carnival final, but it’s a worthy sequel. ****1/2 

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Bret Hart vs. Diesel (WWF, 11/19/95) 

With the use of chairs and cords as weapons and the first instance of someone going through the Spanish announce table, this definitely ranks as one of the wilder pre-Attitude Era WWF matches. Although it’s rather tame by modern standards, it still holds up as a classic due to the top-notch psychology. The pacing is methodical throughout, but it’s never dull because something’s always happening. Even Diesel stalking Bret like a monster in a slasher film in the opening minutes never dragged because Bret kept things moving by trying to establish distance. Bret working over Diesel’s leg was a recurring theme in their previous matches, so I liked Diesel having it scouted and cutting Bret off with clubbing blows when he went after the leg at the outset. There were some nice Krav Maga no-DQ techniques as Bret blocked a jackknife by biting Diesel’s arm and Diesel blocked a sharpshooter by going after Bret’s eyes. The table spot is probably the most famous spot in the match, but Diesel sidestepping Bret’s plancha was more shocking to me because I had forgotten about it and it came out of nowhere. Actually, that’s the beauty of Bret’s matches in general. Even when spots are clearly laid out beforehand, they take you by surprise because they’re set up organically and not overtly telegraphed. Diesel’s exasperated “Why won’t he stay down?” expression after Bret came up from the table was a great character moment late. Overall, they hit all the major notes of both big vs. little and a no-DQ brawl. The only thing really missing was blood. ****1/2 

Manami Toyota vs. Dynamite Kansai (AJW, 12/4/95) 

Aja Kong came into 1995 having held the WWWA title for over two years, and Bull Nakano had held it for nearly three years before her. And yet the year ended with this, the fourth title change in a little over eight months. I’m sure there’s an interesting story behind why the red belt became such a hot potato after being the picture of stability for years, but I haven’t heard it. As for the match itself, other than the obligatory joshi mat section, it mainly consists of Kansai treating Toyota like a heavy bag. I found it tremendously satisfying whenever Toyota would attempt some complicated suplex and Kansai would counter by simply kicking her in the head. Toyota has received plenty of justified criticism for her disregard of long-term selling, but that has to be tempered by the fact that her short-term selling was most always impeccable. When she did go on a run of offense after being beaten down, it was initiated by a counter rather than a fighting spirit spot like popping up from a suplex. I personally think being able to come back at the drop of a dime and be none the worse for wear undercuts the drama quite a bit, but there’s a clear logic behind it. It wasn’t a matter of her not knowing what she was doing or just wanting to get her shit in. Still, I find matches much more compelling when at least one of the wrestlers is making an effort to sell the accumulated effects of the work that’s been done on them. Ironically, it was the superheavyweights in joshi like Kong and Kansai who tended to be mindful of that sort of thing, which is one of the many reasons why I like Toyota best as a smaller underdog. Toyota’s hurricanrana counter of the Die Hard Kansai wasn’t nearly as smooth as the Eddie/Rey version, but it was probably the most believable way for her to pull out the victory since it was both a flash pin and a high-impact maneuver. In addition to being a great match, this also serves as a symbolic end of an era. Watching AJW from the late 90s on as the promotion limped to its death is an incredibly depressing experience, so much like Bret Hart’s run in WCW, I’ve retconned that period from existence in my mind. If you were to script a series finale for a promotion, you could hardly do better than the top star reclaiming the top title from an invading Goliath. ****1/2

Bret Hart vs. British Bulldog (WWF, 12/17/95) 

I give this the nod over the Summerslam match, although by a smaller margin than I expected going in, due to a clear face-heel alignment and Davey Boy actually showing up in condition to work. Interestingly, the opening minutes are largely a mirror of Summerslam with Bret controlling the arm before Bulldog takes over with a kitchen sink. Bulldog in control and Bret’s initial comeback were nothing special, although I would argue that it worked to the match’s benefit because it lulled the viewer into a false sense of security. Things are rolling along and you expect it to be Bret-by-numbers, but then Davey Boy counters a superplex attempt by crotching Bret on the top rope, and before you know it, Bret’s bleeding buckets. If ever there was a time when a cut was begging to be worked over by punches, it was here, so this ends up being another case where Bulldog could have taken a match to another level if his punches were better. But his power moves were plenty brutal, and Bret was bloody enough to add a sense of elevated peril. Bret collapsing from blood loss while trying to apply the sharpshooter was especially brilliant. Although the production crew being ordered not to show any close-ups diminished the impact of the bladejob somewhat, all the pools of blood around ringside told the story well enough. Bret’s Misawa-esque extended comeback may have been the best of his career, and although the finish was rather abrupt, you would expect a guy presented as a technical wizard to be able to pull victories out of nowhere like that. ****1/2 

Vader vs. Antonio Inoki (NJPW, 1/4/96) 

Only Inoki would think to have a harpist as part of his ring entrance. But it’s not just Inoki’s Kim Jong Un-esque entrance that marks this as the kind of spectacle that could only take place in New Japan. You’ve got the aging martial arts master squaring off against a behemoth who may as well be from another world, and the work in the ring combines garbage brawling and quasi-MMA. It’s like something out of Mortal Kombat. Truth be told, the match doesn’t consist of much more than Vader beating Inoki within an inch of his life before Inoki picks up a fluke win, but what a beating it is, especially THAT German suplex. If you’ve seen the match, you know exactly what I’m talking about. When two larger-than-life charismatic figures decide to paint in the broadest strokes imaginable, you end up with an epic worthy of the Tokyo Dome. ****1/4 

Shawn Michaels vs. Diesel (WWF, 4/28/96) 

This is probably the premier example of Good Shawn, where his over-the-top bumping and selling get his opponent and the match over rather than putting the attention on himself at their expense. Of course, the Hogan match at Summerslam is Exhibit A for Bad Shawn. Diesel strangling Shawn over the top rope with the referee’s belt and ripping off Mad Dog Vachon’s prosthetic leg to use as a weapon come across as shocking even today. I ended up preferring the Bret match at Survivor Series, but either is a reasonable pick for Kevin Nash’s best singles match. Both matches show that Nash is at his best in a no-DQ environment with plenty of smoke and mirrors and an opponent who can keep things interesting when he goes into plodding Michael Myers mode on offense. ****1/2 

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Mitsuharu Misawa/Jun Akiyama vs. Toshiaki Kawada/Akira Taue (AJPW, 5/23/96) 

Kawada and Taue come into this match with no respect for Akiyama, and he makes himself a star at their expense as a result. When Akiyama comes in off a hot tag early on, the HDA make him look like a million bucks. Then, after taking control with an illegal double-team, they flip the switch and start beating Akiyama like he owes them money. They’re like the best possible Midnight Express. I really loved the inordinate amount of slapping they did while working him over. It’s as if they were so outraged by the way this young punk stepped to them earlier in the match that they decided to add insult to injury rather than finishing him off. Being the senior partner in a tag team can be tricky because you can’t leave your junior teammate out to dry but you also have to be careful to not be too overbearing. Misawa plays that role pretty much perfectly. He steps back and allows Akiyama to handle his business, only intervening to block an apron chokeslam. Dragging Akiyama to his corner and tagging himself in was an incredible ace moment. Kawada and Taue still don’t take Akiyama seriously down the stretch, as shown when they swat him away like a bug rather than trying to put him away when he makes a save. As a result, he’s ready to go when Misawa needs to tag out, and he ends up turning the tide for his team and Kawada once again suffers the humiliation of being pinned by Misawa’s junior partner. Virtually perfect both as a tag match and as a starmaking vehicle. ****3/4 

Sting vs. Lord Steven Regal (WCW, 6/16/96) 

I know a lot of people are high on the 1999 DDP match on Nitro, but this is my pick for Sting’s last great match. It’s also my favorite Regal match, as he flawlessly integrates his European shtick into traditional US main event style. In addition to tying Sting into knots, he threatens to slug the referee, trades words with the fans in the front row, and just goes out of his way to engage in buffoonery. He seemed to be having the time of his life riling up the WCW fans. Even if Sting is little more than a training dummy throughout, he deserves credit for putting his body in Regal’s hands. Regal voluntarily releasing the Regal stretch at the end is something I would normally hate, but I thought it worked here from a character standpoint. Regal had employed pretty much his entire offensive arsenal at that point, so he lost it when Sting didn’t submit immediately. The prim and proper English gentleman losing his cool when things don’t go his way is a classic trope. He then enraged Sting with a backhand slap, which was a callback to their contract signing. Plus, as the late Charlie Murphy said, you don’t slap a man. This may not be much more than a one-man show from Regal, but what a show it is. ****1/4 

Riki Choshu vs. Shinya Hashimoto (NJPW, 8/2/96) 

At their best, these are the two masters of wringing every ounce of meaning from even the smallest of moments. With little more than basic strikes and hateful glares, they manage to produce a Wrestlemania epic years before the concept came in vogue. Even the opening lockups were more physically intense than most modern strike exchanges. The obvious highlights were Choshu selling Hashimoto’s kicks like blows from a cricket bat and Hashimoto absorbing Choshu’s lariats like a condemned building absorbing a wrecking ball until he finally crumbled. Also, Hashimoto injuring his leg going for a spin kick on the outside was a deceptively brilliant transition. Not only did it give Choshu plenty of time to recover from the beating he had absorbed, it made Hashimoto a sitting duck for the Choshu lariats. Other than a lengthy resthold in the middle, this was flawless minimalist smashmouth wrestling. ****1/2 

Kenta Kobashi vs. Stan Hansen (AJPW, 9/5/96) 

Hansen has far fewer classic Triple Crown matches than you might expect given his storied career. I think he seemed to believe that title matches should be largely mat-based and wrestled mostly on the level, which worked against his greatest strengths. This is much closer to a typical Hansen match and is all the better for it. My guess is that he figured this would be his last title shot (it was, as it turns out) and he might as well go out on his terms. As for Kobashi, he had won the Triple Crown for the first time back in July, and this is his first defense. To be honest, he didn’t seem to quite know how to carry himself as champion. Some of his selling in the early going was Flair-esque, like he was the touring heel champion trying to make the local babyface look good. However, it does lead to an awesome moment when Kobashi decides he’s had enough of Hansen’s shit and pulverizes his ribcage with body blows. 26 minutes is a lot to ask of Hansen at this stage of his career, but they make it work for the most part. The match is organized in a three-act structure. The first act is centered around the two trading strikes and bombs, and the depth of their respective arsenals makes up for the lack of specific direction. The second act begins when Hansen levels Kobashi with a tope and then powerbombs him on the concrete. He follows it up shortly afterward by ramming Kobashi into the ring post and cackling like a madman. Once Kobashi makes it back into the ring, you can practically see the cartoon birds circling his head. The third act begins when Kobashi dodges a lariat attempt on the apron, causing Hansen to ram his arm into the post. Kobashi then initiates his comeback by going after Hansen’s arm. Hansen even takes a Pillman-style bump from the apron to the guardrail. They get a ton of mileage out of both men selling on the outside, which allows them to work around Hansen’s physical limitations to produce a hard-hitting title match of acceptable length. Hansen’s last great singles match ends up being one of his very best. ****1/2   

Shawn Michaels vs. Mankind (WWF, 9/22/96) 

For my tastes, this is as close as you can get to five stars without quite hitting the mark. A couple of the spots were a bit too contrived and the finish sucked (I believe the story was that Vader missed his cue), but this was close to perfect otherwise. The action never lets up, and the psychology is close to airtight. Although the match was clearly carefully laid out beforehand, it still feels spontaneous and chaotic. Perhaps even more remarkably, they produce a classic while working against type. There are no spectacular Shawn highspots or insane Foley bumps, at least not by their standards. Shawn always tried to be exciting, but he never looked as dangerous as he did here with his two-pronged attack on Foley’s leg and hand. Foley sells impeccably throughout, even hobbling to the back when Undertaker chases him backstage after the match. One brilliant psychological detail that I just noticed on this most recent viewing is that Foley doesn’t throw a single punch after Shawn destroys his mandible claw hand with a chair. This is almost certainly the greatest match in company history up to this point, and it still ranks in the upper echelon of WWE title matches. ****3/4 

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I thought I noticed on last watch Foley not throwing any punches after getting hit with the chair, but I wasn't entirely sure if I'd missed one or two. So it's pretty cool that someone else picked up on it. It's my favourite match ever and probably has been for close to twenty years. 

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Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin (WWF, 11/17/96) 

1996 Austin is one of my favorite wrestlers of all time. He had the aggressive edge he became best known for, but it was built around a base of no-frills mat wrestling. It made him a more versatile worker because he could kick his opponent’s ass and also grind them down, often in the same match. He even managed to have a good match with Hunter Hearst Helmsley. This here is his magnum opus. In fact, this is probably the closest any match has come to achieving my ideal of how a typical big match should be worked. They seamlessly mix brawling and technical wrestling, and there are no dangerous moves, risky bumps, or a million nearfalls. And they work 28 minutes, probably the perfect length for this kind of match, without any obvious restholds. I really like the consistent theme of Austin having Bret’s signature moves scouted and countering, which played into the story of Austin being obsessed with Bret while watching him from afar. They also did a great job of protecting the stunner. Bret rolled toward the ropes after Austin hit it, and the second it took for Austin to pull him back to the center of the ring was just enough time for Bret to recover. Austin going for multiple frustrated pin attempts was a nice touch as well. Note how Bret was able to lift his shoulder up after Austin hooked the leg on the initial pin, so Austin made sure to put all the pressure on Bret’s shoulders on the subsequent pins and force him to expend energy kicking out. And the ending is of course legendary. It’s the kind of flash pin that feels like a rewarding finish because Bret clearly outwrestled his opponent. ***** 

El Hijo del Santo/Scorpio Jr./Bestia Salvaje vs. Negro Casas/El Dandy/Hector Garza (CMLL, 11/29/96) 

It turns out that Hulk Hogan may have only had the second-biggest heel turn of 1996. Santo, the son of the biggest icon in the history of lucha libre and a legend in his own right, did the unthinkable and turned rudo. Apparently, his motivation was to continue his feud with Casas, who had become so beloved at Arena Mexico that the promotion had no choice but to turn him tecnico. This is a rematch of the previous week's match where the Santo rudo turn took place, and the tecnicos are out for revenge. It quickly turns into a wild bloody brawl with Santo in particular on the warpath. He’s responsible for most of the match’s standout moments, from ramming Casas into the post during his entrance to ripping out a row of chairs and hurling it at Dandy to his senton/tope combo. But what really sets it apart is the sense of controlled chaos. The match is structured around the rudos isolating a tecnico in the ring and keeping his teammates on the outside while the other tecnicos try to fight their way back in. It’s that sense of structure that keeps the match from getting completely out of control with too much happening at once for the viewer to keep track of. There were a few moments where some of the wrestlers were just standing around waiting for something to happen, which took me out of the match somewhat. It also contains two of the most terrifying botches in wrestling history. Garza’s attempted shooting star press to the outside is the more famous of the two, but it’s immediately preceded by Salvaje coming up way short on a tope. But the violence and intensity more than outweigh the hiccups in execution. ****3/4 

Mitsuharu Misawa/Jun Akiyama vs. Toshiaki Kawada/Akira Taue (AJPW, 12/6/96) 

I've always thought this was the least of the three 90s All Japan matches known simply by the dates they took place (6/3/94 and 6/9/95 are the other two). It’s obviously out of this world great, but I’ve never seen it as a serious contender for greatest match of all time. I’ve noticed that virtually everyone who sees it on that level is a Kawada superfan. They seem desperate to interpret the match, and 1996 All Japan in general, as an epic tale of redemption for their husbando. I find that especially puzzling because Kawada largely gets his ass handed to him and needs Taue to bail him out. The main thing holding this back for me is the fact that the first twenty minutes or so are nothing to write home about. Specifically, the control segments consist mainly of the wrestlers running through their movesets in a way I didn’t find all that compelling. That’s relatively speaking, mind you. The All Japan crew going through the motions still smokes 99% of all other wrestling. But there’s nothing that rises to the level to Kawada and Taue slapping Akiyama around in May or Kawada stomping on Kobashi’s leg like he was trying to put out a fire on 6/9/95. The turning point for me is the Misawa/Akiyama German suplex train followed by Kawada popping up and collapsing to the outside. Everything from that point on is golden, especially the all-time classic finishing run. The key is that the HDA have learned their lesson from May. Back then, they had Misawa seemingly on the ropes, but they don’t take Akiyama seriously as a threat and make no real effort to put him down, so Misawa ends up being able to tag out and take a necessary breather. This time around, they make sure to kill Akiyama dead whenever they get the chance. As a result, he’s nowhere to be found when Misawa needs to make the tag. Misawa fights valiantly, but it’s only a matter of time before the numbers game catches up with him. Overall, I’d say that this is mostly a four-star match with a five-star closing stretch. ****3/4 

Shinobu Kandori vs. Megumi Kudo (LLPW, 1/5/97) 

This blows every ECW garbage match out of the water as far as I’m concerned. The crucial difference is that it’s a wrestling match with weapons rather than a weapons match. Items like kendo sticks and garbage cans being conveniently located under the ring is one of the dumbest modern wrestling tropes, so I appreciated that there was none of that here. Just chairs and tables, which would naturally be at ringside, and the chain Kandori brought with her. Just as importantly, they kept the contrived spots to a minimum, as anything that required too complicated a setup ended up backfiring. I liked how Kandori’s submissions were shown to be ineffective in a street fight, forcing her to ramp up the violence to beat the deathmatch queen at her own game. On that note, I’ll say that this marks the upper bound of the level of violence I’m comfortable with in a pro wrestling match. They definitely went too far with the chain strangulation stuff, and the shot of a bloody Kudo lying glassy-eyed with the chain around her neck looked like something out of a snuff film. But at least that’s something that would plausibly end a match, unlike a lot of garbage/deathmatch spots that serve no purpose beyond turning a match into a geek show. I mean, I’m sure being slammed on thumbtacks hurts, but it’s not the kind of incapacitating pain that would cause someone to be pinned or submit. Even Kandori trying to throw Kudo off the balcony at the end was driven by pro wrestling logic. Kudo had almost gotten lucky with a couple of pin attempts despite being thoroughly decimated the second half of the match, so Kandori took her to a place where she wouldn’t have to worry about being caught with a flash pin. Plus, it was a clever way to end the match without having to do something truly horrifying. Other than all the attempted murder, the only thing I really disliked about this match is Kandori no-selling her way back into control. ****1/2 

Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Kenta Kobashi (AJPW, 1/20/97) 

This is probably the greatest match of all time from a psychology standpoint. The story is broad enough for even the most casual fan to pick up on, but there are also plenty of subtle details for aficionados. Misawa is in the unusual position of challenger in a Triple Crown match, and he’s far more aggressive than usual at the outset. Both men have seemingly inexhaustible arsenals of mid-level offense, so they can trade bombs for the first fifteen minutes or so of a match and still have plenty in the tank for the stretch run. The first turning point comes just before the fifteen-minute mark when Misawa rams his arm into the guardrail after Kobashi sidesteps a diving elbow smash. Kobashi goes after the arm with an impressive variety of attacks, and Misawa’s selling is impeccable on both a macro and micro level. He does throw some elbows, but there’s not much behind them. He’s holding back to avoid further damaging his arm and also perhaps to lull Kobashi into a false sense of security. He has to wait for the moment when he can really make it count before he can throw one with full force. That moment comes when he destroys Kobashi’s lariat arm with an elbow smash in the match’s second turning point. Kobashi more than holds up his end in the arm selling department, most notably when he catches Misawa coming off the top with a lariat but can’t capitalize. Not only does the pain in his arm prevent him from covering immediately, it prevents him from executing a proper cover. On the first attempt, he simply drapes his arm over Misawa’s body. On the second, he hooks the leg with his weak arm. The finish is perhaps my favorite of all time, as Kobashi kicks out of the TD91 but is completely drained in the process. Misawa is then able to get the pin after a running elbow, a “lesser” move. Cumulative damage is a criminally underutilized concept, and it’s nice to see the escalation train go in reverse for once. On top of all that, the match goes 42 minutes, but it flies by in what feels like 15. Pro wrestling doesn’t get much better than this. ***** 

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I haven't seen 6/9/95 or 6/3/94 in over ten years so I won't bother trying to directly compare any of them, but in general I'm with you on the '96 Tag League final, right down to the spot with Kawada collapsing outside being the thing to properly grab me. I thought the back half of this was about as good as you could ever want and in a lot of ways it might be the best performance I've ever seen from Misawa. He's out of this world in that last 15 minutes. But yeah, I don't love the first half.

And for a match that goes a good 15 minutes longer than I can ordinarily be bothered with, 1/20/97 felt like a pretty strong GOAT candidate when I watched it last year. With lots of 90s All Japan now I can really only watch it (or re-watch it, I guess) in small doses, and it's far from my favourite kind of wrestling at this point, but when they really knock it out the park it still verges on the transcendent. 

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Bret Hart vs. Steve Austin (WWF, 3/23/97) 

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people call this an I Quit match. It’s a submission match, and that’s not just an academic distinction. I like it far more than any I Quit match precisely because all the focus is on the ring action and not some bullshit with a microphone. This is another match that’s so legendary that it’s pretty much impossible to have a fresh take, so I’ll just say that this is almost certainly the match I’ve seen more often than any other. It’s also probably been the most influential in the development of my tastes. Thanks largely to this match, I came to view brawling combined with submissions as basically the ideal wrestling style. Even setting that aside, there’s hardly an off note to be found here. Crowd brawling sections pretty much always suck, but this one was tolerable due to the selling and transitions being stronger than most. I especially liked Austin desperately trying to establish separation after being backdropped on the floor. Bret did his usual excellent job of making planned spots look organic and spontaneous, and Austin’s leg selling was world-class. I loved how he needed help from the ropes to make it to his feet and then hobbled around while gradually regaining his mobility only to be back at square one when Bret would go back to the leg. For a long time, I held the contrarian view that their match at Survivor Series was superior. I still think it’s probably better from an intellectual standpoint, but the visceral appeal of the submission match won out this time around. In fact, as of now, this is my pick for the greatest match in North American history. ***** 

Randy Savage vs. DDP (WCW, 4/6/97) 

The DDP feud was Savage’s last great rivalry, and this is my favorite of their matches together. I thought their subsequent matches were too neatly planned out and reliant on smoke and mirrors, but this one is largely carried by Savage’s all-star heel work. The brawling in the opening minutes won’t blow you away, but it’s chaotic and uncooperative enough. This turns into a heeling clinic from Savage about a third of the way through. Gaining control by using Kimberly as a human shield is a fantastic scumbag move. Savage’s punches are awesome as always, and a wrestler knocking out a referee and using his belt as a weapon is a spot I enjoy perhaps to an irrational degree. He even reenacts the ring bell spot from WM3, only with Kimberly in the George Steele role, which is an upgrade any way you slice it. I can’t bring myself to care about anything DDP does in the ring other than the Diamond Cutter, so it’s to the match’s benefit that he spends most of it selling with occasional hope spots peppered in. This ends up being a case study in how little you can get away with doing if you have an over and protected finisher you can hit out of nowhere. Randy Orton clearly took note. ****1/4 

Bret Hart vs. Undertaker (WWF, 9/20/97) 

I've seen various matches described as “Bret as NWA champion,” but I think this one matches that description better than any other. In fact, this is exactly the kind of match that Ric Flair would have had with a local stiff in the 80s. There’s Flair-style leg work, Flair-style bumps (Bret sliding back-first into the ringpost may as well have been a corner flip), and an 80s-style screwjob finish. There’s even an atmosphere reminiscent of a touring world champion visiting a territory since One Night Only was a UK-only PPV.  Above all, this is an incredibly easy match to watch and follow. The action never drags, everything flows nicely from one segment to the next, and all the important moments are given room to breathe. There are also plenty of awesome individual spots, like Bret clotheslining Taker back down after a sit-up and Taker returning to his roots with heart punches after Bret went sternum-first into the exposed turnbuckle. Bret was all about targeting his opponent’s legs in 1997, so he has it down to a science by this point. In addition, the timing of his leg attacks to cut off Taker’s comebacks is impeccable. Taker does a fantastic job of selling it for most of the match, although he pretty much forgets about it by the end. I will say that there were several moments where the referee’s lenience took me out of the match. The first such moment was when he applied an absurdly long count while the two were brawling on the outside in an unfortunate harbinger of Attitude Era walk-and-brawl. The second was when both men tried to use the ring bell, indicating that the WWF rulebook was written by Sideshow Bob. Just as there are no Nobel Prizes awarded for attempted chemistry, you apparently can’t be disqualified for merely attempting to use a foreign object. Still, this is by far the best match of Taker’s career up to this point and maybe his best match period. ****1/4 

Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio Jr. (WCW, 10/26/97) 

I can’t recall ever seeing any serious criticism of this match, and with good reason. After all, what’s not to like? The highspots are breathtaking even today, and they work at a breakneck pace without sacrificing an ounce of classic wrestling psychology. In fact, the underlying logic behind the spots is what sets this match apart for me. Virtually all of Rey’s crazy spots are counters or reversals. Whenever he goes for something fancy that Eddie has enough time to react to, he crashes and burns. It’s that sense of struggle and risk that most modern high-flying matches lack. I suppose wrestling has evolved to the point where someone hitting an aerial maneuver cleanly even when an opponent sees it coming from a mile away is simply accepted as creative license, but I say this match shows that those maneuvers are far more rewarding when they have to be earned and aren’t simply taken as a given. In addition, Eddie’s viciousness on offense along with Rey’s bumping and selling make this a classic fight as opposed to simply a classic athletic exhibition. Everything Eddie lands seems like it would cripple someone. As far as I’m concerned, this is the perfect juniors match as well as the greatest match in WCW history. ***** 

Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama (AJPW, 7/24/98) 

1998 is the year Akiyama became a bona fide singles main eventer, and he proved to be the shot in the arm All Japan needed. After all, the same four or five guys going up against each other repeatedly becomes tedious after a while no matter how great the wrestlers are. But Akiyama also added a new wrinkle to the main event scene with his ability to take body part work to the next level. He might be the greatest of all time at targeting and breaking down a body part with his combination of laser focus and variety of offense. In this particular match, he goes after Kobashi’s injured leg, even busting out unorthodox moves like a top rope dragon screw and a quasi-Oklahoma Stampede into the guardrail. Kobashi does his part with some world-class selling, most notably after an Akiyama figure-four late in the match. It initially kills the crowd because they don’t buy it as a finisher, but Kobashi gets them back into it with his selling performance. These two also deserve credit for their brilliant pacing. This is the kind of match where you’re shocked to hear the 20-minute call because it feels like hardly any time at all has passed. There are some unfortunate elements of late 90s All Japan like popping up from big moves and head drops that don’t lead to anything, but the classic wrestling at the heart of this match more than makes up for it. ****3/4 

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