My Journey Through 1990s AJPW: Prologue, Part 1

Hello everyone and welcome to the first leg in My Journey Through 1990s AJPW. We begin our journey not with Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, or any of the greats of 90s All Japan. Instead we begin with the men who laid the foundation which the 90s greats built upon. We begin with the men like Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu, Stan Hansen, Riki Choshu, and more. These men were the beginning of the King’s Road Style, which AJPW is so famous for, so it is only fitting we start with them. Anyway, lets get our Odyssey underway!

We begin on the night of January 28th, 1986. One man, Riki Choshu, is struggling with rib injuries well known to his opponents. However, he will not give up his chance to face the tag team champions with his partner, the young Yoshiaki Yatsu. With a war set to begin and the fans ready, the first match in this journey begins.

Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu vs. Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu (1:28:86).png

Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu (c.) vs. Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu – NWA International Tag Team Championship Match – AJPW New Years Wars Super Battle 1986 Day 25 – 01/28/86

            This is a masterpiece of courage and fighting through adversity. There is always a shroud of inevitability with this match; it is inevitable that Choshu will have to come to terms with his injury when Jumbo and Tenryu exploit it, and it is inevitable that Yatsu will be alone while his partner has to cope with his injury. While their downfall seems destined, Yatsu and Choshu fight anyway and succeed for a while. They are able to fend off their opponents and even show some disrespect to exemplify that they will not take defeat lying down. However, the inevitable happens and Choshu’s injured ribs come into play, forcing him to fight with everything he has. Even though the onslaught is brutal and he would not be faulted for giving in, he continues fighting and is even able to tag in Yatsu to save him. However, Yatsu is now forced to fight two on one since his partner is devastated with injury. He takes the beating of a lifetime, but is able to fight through the inevitable to pull some hope out of the jaws of defeat. Soon, in an ironic twist of fate, Jumbo’s head is injured and now Jumbo must fight through the adversity and chance of his demise. Throughout this match every wrestler fights even though their defeat is all but certain. In places where they should give in, they fight instead because true courage comes from fighting when defeat is imminent.

All that noted, the action of the match is also incredible and further builds upon the story and theme of this match. Early on Yatsu and Choshu are a house of fire, trying to hurt the opposing team early and even the odds. However, as previously noted, their attempts are thwarted, which leads to great, focused work on the ribs of Choshu. Choshu has to fight through this great, stiff offense, which further adds to his status as an underdog. Then, once Yatsu is in the ring, one of the champions focuses on Yatsu in the ring with stiff strikes and the other further injures Choshu on the outside. This further isolates Yatsu and forces him to fight through an increasingly hopeless situation to somehow gain the victory. Down the stretch, the odds are evened when Jumbo takes a beating on the outside and the drama is raised to an incredible degree. With both teams battered and bruised from a hard fought match, one move has a chance to end this war at any time. On top of the drama, the moves themselves are always well executed and the strikes are supremely stiff. There are a few lariats from Jumbo that could have given Stan Hansen a run for his money. Overall, this epic match has everything a great work of art needs. It has a terrific story with multiple layers beneath the surface, great characters who go through development and great struggles, and intense drama that keeps the viewer invested and of the edge of their respective seat. This is a classic match and the perfect match to begin our journey.

Rating: *****

The next leg in our journey is a mere 8 days after our first match, where the two teams collide again. Tensions are still high, and the memory of the previous match is still fresh in these four men’s minds. The stage is set for an epic rematch. The second leg of our journey is…

Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu vs. Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu (02:05:86).png

Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu (c.) vs. Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu – NWA International Tag Team Championship Match – AJPW New Years Wars Super Battle 1986 Day 30 – 02/05/86

In a rematch just over one week after their previous match, these two teams create another classic. While, like the previous match, this match focuses on both injury and courage, another theme became increasingly prevalent, pure hatred. These 4 men loathe each other, which is evident from bell to bell. Fueled by both their loathing for the champions and the knowledge that, if the match goes long they are at an extreme disadvantage due to Choshu’s injury, Choshu & Yatsu immediately distract, cheap shot, and attempt to injure Tsuruta. Immediately a tone is set in this match, where there will be no love lost and Choshu & Yatsu have to do anything they can to have a chance. During much of the early going the challengers maul Tsuruta and work over his spine and neck. The champions took advantage of Choshu’s injury last match, so not only is this a form of revenge, but it is also a way to give them some opening when Choshu’s ribs eventually come into play again.

While the early offense is initially successful, eventually a tag is made, and hatred, vengeance, and a great underdog story take center stage. The hatred, which has been obvious up to this point, is ramped up to 10 with multiple moments where wrestling is forgotten and it becomes something akin to a bar fight. For example, Yatsu, after getting knocked out of the ring, re-enters the squared circle and, after a brief stall, proceeds to charge Tenryu. This leads to open palms being thrown with complete disregard and an overall ugliness that further sells that this is not a friendly contest; this is a blood feud in the confines of a wrestling match. The hatred is not confined to specific spots however, as every single move has an extra kick that it didn’t have before. All of Tsuruta’s kitchen sinks and lariats are stiff, everything Tenryu does is grumpy and snug, Choshu only does moves with a tinge of hate, etc. This feud reaches a new level in this match where, beyond victory, injury is also a goal.

Simultaneously with the pure hatred boiling over, the champions gain an advantage and do the inevitable, take advantage of Choshu’s ribs. It has been cemented early on that Choshu’s ribs are in trouble when he locked in a sharpshooter, but had to let it go due to his ribs, and, with this knowledge, Tenryu & Tsuruta abuse Choshu. He is decimated with the aforementioned brutal strikes and moves of both Tenryu and Tsuruta. While there are tags made, the majority of the match has the champions in control, with both challengers having to fight from underneath. While Choshu and Yatsu do have periods of control, there is always a sense that they are fighting through adversity, whether it be Choshu wrestling with injury or Yatsu occasionally wrestling without a partner to help him. The finishing stretch soon comes, yet is still maintains the feeling that Yatsu & Choshu are fighting from underneath. Even with that, though, there is great drama and an increasing risk of a title change. Without spoiling the match (because that would be just cruel), the finish is perfect in every way and is consistent with all the themes and trends of this match. It is incredible that in the course of a week and a half these two teams can create a master class of psychology, story, action, and, above all else, wrestling as high art. Needless to say, watch this match. It is a classic without any context, but in the context of the feud it is absolutely perfect.

Rating: *****

We return to this company over a year and a half later, and quite a bit has changed. Two tag teams partners have turned against each other and are now main eventing one-on-one for the first time in four years. In a rivalry that will become one of the most famous in puroresu history, Tsuruta vs. Tenryu begins.

Jumbo Vs Tenryu (8:31:87).png

Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu – AJPW Summer Action Series 1987 Day 8 – 08/31/87

            While this may not be at the level of some of the matches we may see in the future from these two, this is a very good beginning. Within the first few minutes the tone for this match was set, and what was to be expected from this match as established. Jumbo chooses to attack Tenryu when he is in the ropes and the corner, attempting to bend the rules in his favor, which cements him as a man who will do whatever it takes to win the match. In response to this, Tenryu bitchslaps Tsuruta as hard as possible, which shows Tenryu will not be putting up with any of Jumbo’s shit. Also, the hatred and disrespect between two former friends and partners is demonstrated. Throughout this match there is a sense of hatred from both men, and at points both competitors seem more focused on injuring the other or mocking the other than victory. There are two examples most prominent; firstly, Tenryu uses Tsuruta’s high knee as a form of taunting, and, in return, receives a dozen slaps to the face and a high knee from Jumbo. Tenryu was overly focused on mocking Jumbo with his own offense, which then directly leads to Jumbo getting the heat on him. A second instance of the hatred of this feud boiling over was when Jumbo wasted time peeling up the mats around the ring. In order to expose the concrete floor and potentially injure Tenryu, Jumbo leaves himself open to attack, which Tenryu pounces on. In this match, the hatred is evident, and while it fuels both men during this match, it also causes them trouble when it clouds their judgment. Also, their familiarity from being tag partners comes into play. They often have their opponent’s moves scouted, and have very similar move sets due to them teaming together. There is one instance of Jumbo trying to hit a high knee in the corner, but Tenryu exposed the turnbuckle and avoids the maneuver.

On top of the top-notch psychology, down the stretch the drama is really great. While there is some brawling on the outside later on due to the hatred, the nearfalls were top notch as well. They built and executed well on the drama. However, to touch on why this is not really a classic, there are three main reasons. Firstly was, after the establishing moments in the first few minutes, they proceeded to exchange pointless rest holds for five or ten minutes. While I was trying to find a reason, it felt overall pointless, like it was just two guys taking turns with rest holds. Also, throughout the match the pace felt a bit lethargic and it sometimes felt as if the wrestlers were going at half speed. While it doesn’t keep this match from being great, it does hold it back from being an all time classic. Above all else, however, was the finish, which was absolute trash. While finishes are often complained about when they aren’t that bad, this finish was that bad and ended the match on a very sour note. So, even though the psychology in this match is air tight and well done, the slow pace and rest holds made it a bit hard to get invested and the awful finish makes the journey seem a little pointless. However, as the saying goes, focus on the journey, not the destination.

Rating: ****¼

Over a year after the previous match, the feud continues. Its only gotten more heated since last time, so it is now time for the two former tag team partners to square off again.

Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu (10:28:88).png

Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu – AJPW October Giant Series 1988 Day 19 – 10/28/88

            This match is the primary example of how to have a match in a blood feud sell the hatred without being a pure brawl. Like the previous 3 matches, the first 5 to 10 minutes set the stage for the match to come. Early on Tsuruta is ready for a fight and tried to go after and attack Tenryu. However, by not giving into his hate and fighting back, Tenryu gains the advantage with a side headlock, using Tsuruta’s overzealousness against him. While Jumbo is forced onto the mat, he seethes and waits for his opportunity to strike, which comes in the form of a backdrop out of the headlock. This seems like a turning point, and Jumbo brings Tenryu to the outside to inflict punishment, but Tenryu again gains the advantage over the frustrated Jumbo, Irish whipping him into the barricade. When Jumbo re-enters the ring, Tenryu attempts the same strategy as before, but Jumbo has none of it and knees him in the chest. This causes the match to break down and Tenryu to drop his strategy in favor of his animalistic instincts of hatred. The stage is set in the first series of moves, and shows that Jumbo is, for like of a better term, really pissed. He hates Tenryu and, more than victory, just wants to hurt him. Also, Tenryu initially tries to outsmart Jumbo, which will become a theme later on in the match, but he is also blinded by rage and wishes to inflict pain on his sworn enemy. With the stage set and all the pieces in place, the body of the match is ready to pick up.

In the middle, and even to the final few minutes of this match, Jumbo is largely in control and uses his advantage to punish Tenryu in any way he can. He uses his strikes and submissions to subdue and torture Tenryu. Every strike has hatred and force behind it, while even the minutest hold has an intensity rarely seen. This structure allows Tenryu to make multiple perfectly timed babyface comebacks, and the viciousness of Jumbo illustrates the great heart of Tenryu for fighting through the pain.

Also, both men are not to be outdone by the other. There is a subtle game of one-upmanship during the middle of the match, which shows that both these men are too proud to allow the other to outdo them. An example of this is when Jumbo hits one of his jumping knees, yet Tenryu refuses to go down and hits an enzugiri. In response, Jumbo refuses to fall, which is very similar to matches recently, like Tomohiro Ishii vs. Katsuyori Shibata. At one point, Tenryu allows his pride to overtake him, and, when he has Jumbo backed into a corner, backs away and yells, “come on” to him. Tenryu is so confident in himself that he allows Jumbo to escape peril, just so he can humiliate Jumbo again. This plan works, as he gets Jumbo to his back and into a heel hook.

As the match progresses with Jumbo in the majority of control, Tenryu gets more desperate. He cannot allow his rival to win, but he is in dire straights himself. This causes Tenryu to try for anything to gain the upper hand, from trying to outsmart and surprise Jumbo with rollups to just throwing his body off the top rope in desperation, hoping is causes damage. While some of his strategies do work, nothing gets him the three, but, on the other side of the match, everything Jumbo has done has worked, but he cannot get the three. At this point, the match becomes a fight to see who can take more, with Jumbo hitting everything, from his patented high knee this time from the top rope, to his backdrop driver, to even some of Tenryu’s offense. Tenryu, however, fights through, stays alive and also brings the fight back to Jumbo. With all the frustration and hatred that has built up during the match, the final few minutes are a pure brawl, with rules being broken, disregard for strategy, and just pure, unadulterated, stiff hatred. Without spoiling it, the finish is a tad underwhelming, but makes sense and keeps both guys very strong.
On top of such a brilliant structure with great logic, there is more to love in this match. To be honest, every move is perfect in this match. The strikes are executed with stiffness, the submissions are laced with such malice in the way it’s locked in and the facial expressions, and even a sloppy moment down the stretch plays into the desperation of Tenryu. Overall, this is a phenomenal match with so many great layers. Matches like this show why both Jumbo and Tenryu are held in such high regard. In closing, this is another classic encounter.

Rating: ****½

The next match is the journey is quite an interesting one. Four months after our previous match the Tenryu/ Tsuruta feud takes a new turn. Jumbo has allied with an old enemy in Yoshiaki Yatsu while Tenryu has allied with someone who will become a huge player in this series, Toshiaki Kawada. With two teams ready to go to war, our next match begins…

Jumbo & Yatsu vs. Tenryu & Kawada (2:23:89).png

Jumbo Tsuruta & Yoshiaki Yatsu (c.) vs. Genichiro Tenryu & Toshiaki Kawada – AJPW World Tag Team Championship Match – AJPW Excite Series Day 1 – 02/23/89

After watching four great matches I am happy to say this match lives up to the rest and then some. Like many matches in AJPW at this time, the first five minutes set up the match perfectly and provide some great action. The first notable thing is how quick the pace is in this match. Kawada is utilizing lightning fast kicks, there is very little resting, and everyone is working fast and stiff. However, underneath this fast work is a brilliant story. Early on, Kawada is eager to prove himself and uses the aforementioned kicks, but Yatsu shrugs him off and attacks Tenryu, cementing the hatred between Tenryu and his two opponents. However, Kawada is not content being an afterthought in this story and tries to go at it with Tsuruta and Yatsu, which end poorly both times. These sequences establish the structure of the match; Kawada will be able to get short bursts of offense, but the veterans will ultimately gain control. Then, Tenryu tags in and goes right after Jumbo with an intense lock up and a beautiful sequence. With this sequence, the crowd is given a slight sample of what is to come while also having these two’s feud established.

The next portion of note is the Kawada heat segment, which is simple and effective. With the knowledge of Kawada from the first five minutes this goes exactly how you would expect it; Kawada gets his ass kicked by the stiff strikes and submissions of Jumbo and Yatsu. Both these men bring Kawada to school and give him the beating of the century, but the most interesting part of this is actually Tenryu. He gets more and more frustrated as the heat goes on and even attacks Jumbo at multiple point during the heat and onward. While Kawada is trying to prove himself to his peers in the match, Tenryu is simultaneously seething on the apron and attacking Jumbo. This match has such tremendous density and does such a great job establishing everyone. It is incredible how everyone has a purpose and gets a chance to shine, which is especially evident after the heat segment.

In the final ten minutes this match kicks into anther gear and the tension finally boils over. When Tenryu gets the hot tag, he immediately has a stiff, hateful sequence with Jumbo, again cementing this feud. Another great moment cements the pure hatred in this match, and it’s when there is an all out brawl on the floor where Yatsu and Kawada are going at each other while Tenryu attacks Jumbo with a chair. After this there is another string of tremendous nearfalls before the finish, where Tenryu uses the rollups he used in the previous match, Kawada shows heart and nearly gets a rollup victory, Yatsu gets a few nearfalls with a German suplex, and Jumbo just tries to kill everyone with pure loathing. The finish build upon everything established so far in the match, Kawada’s heart, Jumbo and Tenryu’s feud, and the pure hatred, and puts a bow on it. The finishing stretch here is the perfect cap to an absurdly complex match that somehow covers everything.

On top of all this, there is an insane amount of stiffness between these four men. The stiffness, which was brutal, further build on the hatred and, in Kawada’s case, helps him get over more with the crowd. Although all this is tremendous, there are a few small flaws that need addressing. Firstly, there is some obvious sloppiness, especially down the stretch, which mars a few important spots in the match. While it does not ruin the match, it undoubtedly hurts it. Also, Yatsu feels like a bit of a fourth wheel in this match. Jumbo and Tenryu have their feud to play off of, Kawada is focused on proving himself, and Yatsu is just kind of there. He seems to only be a fourth body, and that is a shame for someone as talented as him. Even with these flaws, though, this is a classic match with tremendous psychology. Just like all the other matches in this review series, run, don’t walk, to find this match.

Rating: ****¾

So that was the first leg in My Journey Through 1990s AJPW! If you enjoyed, like, comment, and maybe even follow my blog. This post took a lot of work, so I would greatly appreciate it. If you want to keep up with this site, my contacts and social media are here or in the sidebar to the left. Also, check out my work at Free Pro Wrestling, which is a great site where a person more talented than I write about great, legal, free matches. As for what the future holds, I plan to review the Royal Rumble Sunday, so expect that out either Monday or Tuesday next week. Also, I will now be returning to WCW for Starrcade 1991. Whenever I have time I will be working on that review, so keep an eye out. Otherwise, thank you for reading and see you next time!

AJPW 1990s Masterlist:

-Terrance Smith

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