Toshiaki Kawada Return Match:
Surviving a bout with Death in which he blew out his knee, Toshiaki Kawada once again persevered, returning a little more than a year later. While he was absent, Motoko Baba turned her stock in All Japan Pro-Wrestling over to new President Keiji Muto. Though Muto’s idea of Pro Wrestling Love had previously bared little resemblance to Kawada’s brutal style or the classic story, psychology and selling All Japan matches he made famous in the early to mid 90’s, they welcomed Kawada back by allowing him to do his match. I’m sure there are actually better matches from All Japan’s peak period I rated lower, but there have been few matches I’ve truly gotten excited about since the departure of Mitsuharu Misawa and co. Obviously it was nice to simply see Kawada at all, but great to see him able to do what he does best rather than simply doing big offense and strike exchanges because that’s all the opposition is up to.
Slotting Muto & Kojima into the classic All Japan tag was simple enough, as it’s not much of a stretch for them to play Misawa & Kobashi respectively. Fuchi has to be himself though, the crafty and dastardly assistant to the grumpy old star. The primary difference is Kawada’s status as the returning hero made him a super over babyface despite whatever eye rakes or brawling on the floor his partner pulled out.
The match was extremely well laid out, progressing logically and in a manner that made it more dramatic and compelling. Fuchi convinced Kawada to allow him to start, but Kojima stiffed Fuchi until he had enough. Kojima is the fiery “young” punk who won’t back down to the heavy hitting veteran, matching Kawada’s stiffness until he was hurting. Muto did his traditional pro style until Kawada started kicking his bad knees, prompting Muto to retaliate with a Dragon screw that “reinjured” Kawada’s bad knee, taking him out of the match. Fuchi’s shady offense was more acceptable when he was forced to go alone, but when Muto turned the tide with his Dragon screw to figure 4, Kawada surprisingly resurfaced, breaking it up with a kneedrop then delivering a revenge Dragon screw. Fuchi’s knee was injured though, and he was unable to make it to the corner to tag for several minutes despite Kawada continuing to run interference.
Just when things were finally going well for Kawada & Fuchi with a double enzuigiri setting up the first major near fall, a Kawada powerbomb, Kojima back body dropped his way out of a second powerbomb and Kawada’s knee gave out on him when he tried to pop up to maintain control. Muto the Merciless came in and took Kawada’s knee apart to repeated booing, the fans no doubt fearing Arashi might be permanently entrenched in the main event if Kawada went down again.
In a sense, Muto just did the same few things he’s been doing endlessly for the last 5 years, but since Kawada was returning from a knee injury and Muto injured Fuchi’s knee early, it worked much better than usual. One of the huge differences Kawada makes is his grasp of the ebb and flow of the match. Muto’s matches are consistent to a fault, to the point of tedium, but his knee attack in this bout came at opportune times and was broken up by comebacks, interference, or Kojima using some different moves.
Muto & Fuchi are no longer major in ring performers, but are certainly well above effective when they chose to be, as they did today. Seemingly not wanting to be outdone by Kojima, the consistent in ring star of the promotion, Muto has actually given a number of solid performances in relatively minor 2003 matches. Though this was certainly not his best work of the year, the main thing is he was willing to go along with Kawada without getting out of line. The fact that he made no effort to “expose his opponent” or sabotage the match, as he tends to do with stiff believable opponents to tarnish their credibility, was an improvement over his previous major bouts with Kawada. Kawada and Kojima delivered the expected moments of greatness, going at it hard and fast, blistering and bruising each other. Kojima had the determination to match his skill, getting his lariat blocked by a Kawada front kick, but firing right back with another to prompt a double sell.
The finish left a little to be desired, but at least they actually continued pushing the younger wrestler. Fresh off winning the Champion Carnival, Kojima knocked Kawada out with his lariat then sustained Fuchi’s backdrop finisher and beat him with two lariats as a hobbled Kawada was unable to stand on his bad knee, thus making it easy for Muto to cut him off. The big push during the Champion Carnival tour set Kojima up for a shot at Shinya Hashimoto’s Triple Crown on 6/13/03, which was also one of the best All Japan matches of the year. 27:10. ****1/4