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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 25-31, PART FIVE

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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 25-31, PART FIVE

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The youngest of the Shitenno finally wins the Triple Crown. [Source: Weekly Pro Wrestling issue #747, dated August 13, 1996 (taken from Twitter post)]

On May 24, 1996, Taue ended Misawa’s second Triple Crown reign in Sapporo. Underneath, Kobashi and Kawada wrestled for the #1 contendership, and Kawada won. This was the first proper #1 contendership match Kobashi had wrestled since that famous Steve Williams match in 1993, although he had taken part in the contendership league tournament in the summer of 1995.. With the Williams match, there had been a sense of accomplishment that transcended his defeat, as Kobashi dragged himself to the foreign locker room to shake Dr. Death’s hand. This time, there was none of that, as Kobashi disappeared without giving a word to the reporters. 

Kobashi began to use the lariat in the summer of 1996, having acknowledged that he needed to use the moonsault more sparingly and reasoning that he had bigger arms than Hansen. He debuted the move on July 5, in an Osaka six-man tag with Misawa & Akiyama against Steve Williams, Johnny Ace & the Patriot, defeating the Patriot with it. However, he claims he originally thought to use the move as “a honeycomb”, not a finish. (Looking at purolove results, though, he did use it as a finish regularly on the tour. Besides the aforementioned six-man, he got pinfalls in tag matches against Yoshinari Ogawa and Johnny Smith with the move, and used it to win singles matches against Giant Kimala II and Tamon Honda.) When they ran Korakuen Hall on July 20, Joe Higuchi called Kobashi into the foreign locker room. Hansen advised Kobashi to use the lariat as a killshot move.

At tour’s end, in the Budokan on July 24, Kobashi got his title shot, and he made the most of it. The lariat didn’t end up being the killshot, but it gave Kobashi enough time to climb the ropes to hit a diving guillotine drop for the pinfall. When asked to give a comment to the fans, Kobashi closed his eyes and let his lips tremble: “I’d like to work with all of you to make this belt even greater.” On September 5, he defeated Hansen in the latter’s final singles title shot, with his lariat symbolically surpassing the Western Lariat.

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The famous apron powerbomb counter from the January 20, 1997 Triple Crown match. [Source: Weekly Pro Wrestling issue #777, dated February 11, 1997 (included in free preview of archived digital copy)]

Ichinose devotes a good page or two to press comments building up to Kobashi’s Triple Crown defense against Misawa on January 20, 1997. Misawa spoke of having a fight that only the two of them could understand, which evoked his comments leading into their first Triple Crown match against each other, on October 15, 1995. Every move would count, but he didn’t want to wrestle deliberately; he wanted to wrestle with “all of his heart”. Misawa wanted to be better this time than the last, and to be better next time than this time. 

Ichinose mentions Akiyama’s comments on the previous tour, the 1996 RWTL. In AJPW’s continuing effort to cater to provincial markets, Baba cut the number of entrants from ten teams to seven. To compensate, each team wrestled each other twice in an extended round-robin. Akiyama remarked that this was the kind of arrangement that shortened careers. Again, Ichinose’s metaphor of the All Japan bus and its worn Shitenno tires comes to mind. All Japan was in a deadlock, and Kobashi spoke of the 1/20 match as “a battle to change All Japan”. When Akiyama’s comments were referenced in the interview, Misawa embraced the escalation, saying that “you can’t wrestle if you think about the future”. For what it’s worth, Kobashi claimed in a later interview that his comments in the late 90s and early 2000s, and perhaps Misawa’s as well, had partially been a response to MMA: an implicit attempt to legitimize pro wrestling through how much of themselves they put in the ring. Ichinose frames the match itself as reflecting a battle along these lines, citing Kobashi’s armwork approach as an unusually pragmatic measure, while justifying Misawa’s continued use of the worked arm (as well as the famous apron powerbomb hurricanrana counter spot) as reflecting his elevated disregard for survival.

Misawa was too exhausted after the match to even take back his belts, disappearing down the aisle on Satoru Asako’s shoulders “as if he had lost”. When just out of sight of the audience, he collapsed. While Misawa would speak to the press, the lack of the customary toast reflected an atmosphere “unsuitable for alcohol”. Ichinose quotes Misawa’s strained comments: “Kobashi said he wants to change the history of All Japan by winning this match. I'm more of a doer than a talker. Because I'm the kind of person who can't say what I'm going to do. [...] It's a good way to make it easier for the young guys. I want to make it easier for the young guys so that they can feel that if they work hard, they can be like me.”

Ichinose covers contemporaneous press comments that expressed Kawada’s apparent dissatisfaction with AJPW. By this point, as Ichinose puts it, the Misawa-Kawada feud had become a Möbius strip, and Kawada’s comments leading up to it saw him implicitly acknowledge the wall he had hit; even if he won, it was “a journey that would never end”. He also jumps back a bit later on to reference Kawada’s comments on Misawa and Kobashi’s January 1997 match, which he said was “not great in terms of pro-wrestling” before giving a backhanded compliments that the match was great anyway because “two big guys were doing it”. (Misawa did not appreciate these remarks.) Kawada’s recollection of his thoughts after the March 30 show, on which Kobashi pinned Misawa in a Carnival match, also suggests that he felt passed by: “just when I thought I was finally going to surpass Misawa, Kobashi did it first.”  On the topic of wrestling for other organizations, Kawada said that he was happy to have his name mentioned by anyone, and was willing to fight anyone, but that “what was impossible was impossible”. Genichiro Tenryu stated around this time that he wanted to wrestle Kawada to mark the coming tenth anniversary of Revolution. You can guess how far that went.

Ichinose also mentions Kawada’s use of a vertical drop DDT and triangle choke in the June 6 Triple Crown match. The previous night, NJPW had run the Budokan with Shinya Hashimoto retaining the IWGP Heavyweight title against Keiji Mutoh. As Ichinose writes: “While running in the Mobius circle of overcoming Misawa, Kawada's consciousness was more or less focused on New Japan. Was it a rivalry with the Three Musketeers of the Fighting Spirit? Or was it a silent encouragement to the men of his generation?”

This transitions into some comments on the Pillars and Musketeers. As the only one to have wrestled all three Musketeers in a singles context, Kawada’s comments are first. He felt that Mutoh “was good at what he did”, but said that in his opinion, putting things together well or doing things in a certain way was not the same thing as being good. (A bit later on, Taue is quoted commenting on Mutoh’s selfishness as a performer: “He's going to do what he wants to do, and then he's going to come home. I did a lot of work on him before, and he was tired, and I told him not to come home yet, but he forced himself on me.”) Kawada was not impressed by Hashimoto’s toughness when they wrestled, but he acknowledges that Hash wasn’t in great shape at that point. As for Chono, whose ring shoes “should have been illegal”, he didn’t move fluidly.

Katsuhiko Kanazawa, who was Weekly Gong’s reporter for New Japan during the heyday of the Musketeers, is quoted recalling the Musketeers’ stray thoughts on the Pillars: “I think they were pretty negative about it at the time.” Hashimoto expressed reservations about the escalatory nature of Shitenno puroresu: “Even if you drop him on his head, the match doesn’t end.” Mutoh was fixated on Misawa, wondering how he could wear green tights and if “[Misawa] thought he should not be compared to him”. He was also concerned about Kobashi’s use of the moonsault as early as Kobashi’s time teaming with Johnny Ace in the early 90s, asking Kanazawa to advise him not to use the moonsault so much and lighten the burden on his knee. When Kanazawa relayed this, Kobashi appreciated the concern but remarked that his knee was already ruined. Kanazawa also recalls that, interestingly, Choshu thought Kobashi was closer to his ideal wrestler than any of the Musketeers. That didn’t mean that he wasn’t strongly critical of him, though. Choshu wanted him to ditch the orange tights, stop clenching his fist and making faces, and drop the lariat, as “it didn’t suit him”.

On the October Giant Series tour, Misawa defended the Triple Crown twice: first against Steve Williams, then against Kobashi at the 25th anniversary Budokan show on the 21st. At the year-end AJPW TV episode, in which the Shitenno sat and ate chanko in a roundtable chat, Misawa let it slip that he had been “forced” to defend it twice, before trying to walk that back.

Ichinose punctures a pervasive myth about the latter match. In the climax, announcer Shigeko Kaneko claimed that his broadcast partner, Baba himself, was crying. This built a legend over the years, and the incident is sometimes cited as a moment where Baba felt the AJPW style had gone too far. However, Ichinose was there as well, and while he could understand why Kaneko might have mistaken Baba’s glistening face for the marks of crying, he insists that Baba was not actually in tears, and Baba’s comments in fact displayed pride in the match. After the match, though, Misawa claimed that his memory of the match that he had just wrestled was about as good as his memory of their January match.

While 1997 was a career year for Misawa, at least from a kayfabe perspective, he would not win Wrestler of the Year from Tokyo Sports. The ¥100,000,000 that NJPW had made in nWo shirts was a decisive factor in Chono’s win.

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