By Liam Byrne @tvtimelimit
Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue vs Mitsuharu Misawa and Jun Akiyama 12/5/97 and 12/6/96
Real World Tag League Final
The Real World Tag League is one of the oldest and – for a long time – one of the most prestigious tournaments in wrestling. A tag version of All Japan’s Champion’s Carnival singles competition, it would see a raft of the best tag teams from across the world compete in a period of time in November and December to see who the best partnership was. The round robin rules not only allowed for a succession of interesting match-ups across the tour as each team tended to meet at least once, it saw some interesting combinations of wrestlers that didn’t necessarily face each other in singles competition. That, alongside the drafting in of interesting gaijin teams, made it an event that is as interesting in reality as it is looking back at some of the more random combinations over the years.
Having got rid of the short-lived, but occasionally reappearing, rule that the AJPW World Tag Team Titles would be vacated to be contested in the Real World Tag League in 1994, the 1996 and 1997 versions of the event saw an opportunity to push the next challenger for the titles. In 96, Johnny Ace and Steve Williams were the champions; Ace would still be the champion in 97, though this time wrestling alongside Kenta Kobashi. The title holders were unsuccessful on both occasions, ending the tournament third and fourth respectively.
What was notable about the finals in consecutive years was twofold: firstly, they involved the same competitors as the team of Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue took on Mitsuharu Misawa and Jun Akiyama; secondly, they were both matches awarded a full five star rating from Dave Meltzer. Whilst people’s mileage on the importance of star ratings varies, it was a pretty significant seal of approval.
In the 96 tournament whose format meant each team met twice, Akiyama and Misawa opened the tournament with a time limit draw against the reigning champions, whilst they would subsequently go on to defeat them later in the competition. This was mirrored by the Holy Demon Army of Kawada and Taue. More importantly, the round robin matches between the two teams saw an even split with Akiyama and Misawa picking up the second contest and potentially a smattering of momentum. It was the last time either team would lose before the final.
The early exchanges in the match set out to showcase Akiyama and Misawa as a legitimate challenger to a team who had held the AJPW World Tag Team Titles three times before. A Misawa Tiger driver within the opening minutes earned a two count, whilst Akiyama traded blows with Kawada to show he was as capable of mixing up strikes as his esteemed opponent. However, the first third of the contest ended up being dominated by a methodical beatdown of Akiyama; a charge into a Taue chokeslam leaving on the canvas and vulnerable to a sustained attack.
After several moments teasing a comeback, a backdrop out of a Kawada sleeper finally allowed Akiyama some respite and for Misawa and Kawada to trade some huge bombs in the center of the ring. Taue’s role felt like it devolved into schoolyard bully, treading on Misawa’s head several times with a look of disdain that was wiped off of his face by subsequent Akiyama jumping forearms – the first off of the apron, the second off of the top turnbuckle. Having struggled to maintain control from the start, Misawa and Akiyama relished a chance to take the match to Taue, landing an exploder and a frogsplash amongst other offense.
With the momentum seemingly on the side of Akiyama and Misawa, Taue upped the ante in an attempt to take Akiyama out of the contest. A Nodowa Otoshi off of the apron left the relative youngster out for a prolonged period, with Misawa on his own to fend off the Army’s advances. This was Misawa though, and he was always liable to go down fighting. He’d grab a nearfall off of a huracanrana out of a powerbomb attempt, as well as landing his roaring elbow on Kawada. Akiyama somehow managed to get up to break a pinfall on a Taue sitout powerbomb, only to get dumped with a Nodowa Otoshi/backdrop driver combination. Misawa still kicked out of an enziguri and a powerbomb, but a second powerbomb finally put paid to his resistance.
Having put themselves in prime position for a tilt at the titles, the Holy Demon Army delivered, defeating Johnny Ace and Steve Williams on January 17th, winning the AJPW World Tag Team belts for the fourth time.
It would be three hundred and sixty-four days later that the two teams met once again in the final of the Real World Tag League. With only one match against each team in the revised format for 97, the Holy Demon Army scored the important victory in the round robin to give them the edge on Akiyama and Misawa. However, it would be the defeated finalists from the previous year who scored the big win over the reigning champions, Kobashi and Ace. Try as they might, Taue and Kawada had to be content with a time limit draw.
The match started in a much more sedate fashion, with Akiyama and Kawada not trading strikes in the same fiery fashion of one year prior. Indeed, their initial exchange is short and it is Misawa who crumples up Kawada with several forearms to the face. Rather than trying to prove themselves, Misawa and Akiyama as a team felt more assured, though a spinning wheel kick led to the first concerted effort for the Holy Demon Army. Taue in particular would send Misawa into the turnbuckle with a Nodowa Otoshi and land a second one after a Kawada Irish whip.
Unlike the previous year, Misawa would initially struggle against Kawada and Taue, with Akiyama even getting booed by the fans for his decision to try and break up a Kawada stretch plum. The fated Nodowa Otoshi off of the apron was teased early on, but Misawa managed to fight his way out of the hold and nail a rolling senton off of the apron to take Taue out. Not this year, that was for certain.
Akiyama in general was much sparkier, holding his own and trading moves with both Taue and Kawada. It took the veteran Taue attacking him from behind to halt Akiyama’s momentum, leading to more vicious beatdown of the relative youngster. Submissions that targeted the back and a slam at ringside sought to injure Akiyama and disable his chances of using the exploder effectively. Each strike and offensive move looked significantly more violent, Akiyama punished for having the temerity to offer up resistance.
A blocked kick allowed Akiyama to finally make the tag, with Misawa blocking big moves from both men and catching a two count off of a tiger driver and a frog splash on Kawada. An over-rotation on a German suplex by Taue also allowed Misawa to roll through and land a running forearm to the bigger man. The Holy Demon Army were clearly struggling to contain both men, with Akiyama landing two exploders on Kawada and the double German suplex combination grabbing another nearfall.
There was a role reversal on the finish stretch as a kick to the face by Kawada on Misawa had Akiyama valiantly fighting off the Army, an issue made significantly more difficult by a backdrop driver and a powerbomb prior to Misawa’s interventions. A painful looking stretch plum and a Taue sitout powerbomb looked to have the match won, but Misawa managed to get up at ringside and break the pin.
A frankensteiner that reversed Kawada’s powerbomb attempt and wiped out Taue in one fell swoop was impressive by Misawa, but ultimately futile. A Nodowa Otoshi dropped Akiyama, only for a quickfire exploder in response. Taue, unfazed, dropped Akiyama with a second Nodowa Otoshi and a jumping high kick to the face. Somewhat anticlimactic perhaps, considering what had gone before, but this was enough to give the Holy Demon Army the second Real World Tag League victory in a row.
History also repeated itself as Taue and Kawada defeated Kobashi and Ace for the AJPW World Tag Team Titles on January the 25th to start their fifth reign as champions.
The obvious question is which is the better match? The arrival of Akiyama in the second match as a thorn in the side of both Kawada and Taue just gives it the edge over the first contest in my opinion. However, both matches are a perfect way to spend thirty minutes as they rightly deserve every one of the five stars that they had bestowed upon them.