‘On This Day’ is a commemorative article series. It is dedicated to specific events, matches, and occurrences in wrestling history. We revisit those key moments and look back at how they went down and what they meant to the wrestling industry. Mitsuharu Misawa versus Toshiaki Kawada ‘6-3-94’, is that match.
“Singles match of the decade.”
“The greatest wrestling match of all time.”
“The Pinnacle of professional wrestling.”
“The best of King’s Road All Japan.”
“Six stars out of five.”
These are but a few of the terms and expressions used to describe this legendary wrestling contest. Twenty-six years have passed and it’s still heralded as one of the best wrestling matches of all time. Even as the industry changes, tastes evolve, the sport transforms and the market for wrestling videos gets increasingly saturated, this match still holds up well.
But how is that possible? How did a match from another part of the world, described in a different language, and executed in such a unique style, withstand the test of time to such a degree? Let’s find out.
Today we’ll look at the legendary, no, the mythical wrestling match between Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada from June 3rd, 1994. It’s a match so great that people refer to it by its date.
Misawa versus Kawada: ‘6-3-94’
The legendary booking style of Baba’s King’s Road
All Japan Pro-Wrestling was formed by Giant Baba, a man with an incredible sense of vision and planning. The stories he and his wrestlers didn’t just last for months; they went on for years. Baba planned stories, rivalries, and match-ups meticulously, weaving multiple narratives into one, coherent, grand narrative.
Think of it as the wrestling equivalent of George R. R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ book series. Those books tell individual stories with characters crossing paths from time to time interacting with one another. At the same time, there’s a larger narrative being told, and the reader is exposed to an absolute tapestry of interrelated plot points and events that move the story forward. Baba did this with pro wrestlers.
Misawa versus Kawada: ‘6-3-94’
The rivalry: Misawa vs. Kawada
Misawa and Kawada are more than just professional rivals; their story goes much deeper than that. So much so that it cannot be separated from their professional interactions. They were high school mates, amateur wrestling champions, and in the same training class in AJPW. They worked together during their rookie years, but went their separate ways on foreign excursions. Misawa went to Mexico, learned how to be a high-flyer, and returned to Japan to become Tiger Mask II.
Kawada, on the other hand…floundered. He wrestled mostly in the southern United States and throughout Canada. He was said to hate his time in both places and learned very little. And when he learned of Misawa’s rechristening and masking, the seed of jealousy was planted. Upon his return to Japan, Kawada was always second fiddle to Misawa, even when he was masked. Baba had Misawa pegged for the top spot when Kawada had wanted it for himself. Especially since he believed that he’d have benefited from a mask more than Misawa.
Then, in 1990, a new chapter began.
Misawa: from masked man to Emerald Emperor
Misawa unmasked in May 1990 and three weeks later he defeated then-company ace Jumbo Tsuruta. In doing so, Misawa told the whole world – and especially Tsuruta – that he was AJPW’s future. From there, AJPW evolved into a years-long stable war between Tsuruta and his army of established wrestlers plus Akira Taue versus Misawa and his fellow rookies.
In those wars, Kawada was Misawa’s #2, always having his back. This went on until the summer of 1992, when Misawa defeated Stan Hansen to become the new AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. Misawa defeated a symbol of the old guard to usher in a new era. But Kawada could take no more. Soon, Kawada would turn on his friend and become his true archrival.
In early 1993, Kawada turned on Misawa and joined forces with Akira Taue, forming The Holy Demon Army. Kawada made his intentions clear: he wanted Misawa’s title, top spot, and glory.
Misawa versus Kawada: ‘6-3-94’
This was Kawada’s third attempt at the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship since 1992. Kawada was trying to prove to everyone that he was as good as Misawa, if not better. But there were skeptics, especially since Kawada had never pinned Misawa. Not once, not in any sort of match. Misawa had that edge over Kawada and he knew it. But Kawada had worked his ass off in one big match after another. And many people believed that Kawada was the better wrestler, yet Misawa was still the ace and champion. Kawada hoped to prove his believers right and the detractors wrong.
He and Misawa had teased facing off a few weeks prior on May 21st 1994 in a tag team match that’s hailed as one of their best. The two didn’t really come to blows that much; they were saving that for this match.
As both Misawa and Kawada entered the famous Budokan Hall, the crowd was split evenly between them. Even though Kawada wrestled like a villain – or at least, as an antihero that like to cut corners – he had his share of supporters. And as the opening announcements were made, Kawada’s fans outnumbered Misawa’s. So much so that the usually easy-to-hear organized fan chants turned into an unclear maelstrom of raucous fans cheering for their favorites.
And yet, among that clamor, for one brief moment, one can hear chants of ‘KA-WA-DA’ quite clearly.
The match itself is a masterclass in pro wrestling as art. Every action has deeper meaning. Kawada tried to fight Misawa with chops, but Misawa answered with elbows and wins the exchange. But when Kawada charged with a kick, Misawa was forced to dodge instead of taking one. Because he knew Kawada’s kicks are as dangerous as his own elbow strikes. And just like that, both me are established as peers instead of one being higher than the other.
Misawa then tried to tank one Kawada kick and did, but couldn’t tank a second one and got dropped. Kawada thought he had the upper hand…until Misawa landed a Backdrop Driver and the stalemate resumed.
Sensing Misawa was going to try and out-grapple him, Kawada began working Misawa’s arm to try and weaken his strikes. That initial work failed him because Misawa reversed his way out and soon kicked Kawada out of the ring…literally. At that point, Kawada had enough of Misawa’s grandstanding and made it personal by knocking Misawa out of midair with Misawa’s own elbow smash.
Misawa versus Kawada: ‘6-3-94’
From there, Kawada took control and proceeded to kick the crap out of Misawa. In fact, Kawada kicked him so hard he ruptured his eardrum, causing blood to pour out of Misawa’s ear. Kawada continued his onslaught, mainly with his dangerous kicks. But Misawa had enough of this and started to kick Kawada. Not just anywhere, but right in the left knee. And in doing so, Misawa gave us a perfect example of AJPW’s emphasis on callbacks in the larger story.
Kawada has a history of knee issues, which had cost him big wins in the past. The one that most AJPW viewers remember is that this weakened knee cost Kawada and Taue the 1993 Real World Tag League. What was largely forgotten was that this assault of Misawa’s didn’t just harken back to 1993, but to something even earlier, to the same tournament from 1988!
Five years before Misawa and Kobashi defeated Kawada and Taue by focusing on Kawada’s knee, Stan Hansen and Terry Gordy had done the same. At that time, Kawada was the less-experienced wrestler teaming with veteran Genichiro Tenryu. Kawada was to Tenryu in the 1980s what Kobashi was to Misawa in the 1990s.
A Damaged Knee
Kawada got his knee destroyed to the point it cost him and Tenryu the match and the tournament, and Misawa was determined to take advantage of this to not only ground Kawada’s onslaught but to potentially find a new avenue to victory.
Misawa attacked without mercy and Kawada tried his best to withstand the pain. But he couldn’t. He crumpled to the mat in pain several times, and sometimes as Misawa was in the middle of an attack. Because if there’s one thing Kawada was amazing at, it was at this concept called ‘delayed selling.’
Kawada would endure an attack, try and no-sell it, land a move of his own, and fall down, overcome with pain and unable to fight on. Few wrestlers have applied this concept, as most of them prefer to sell a move right away instead of trying to fight through it to show their iron will and then selling the move to make it look more impactful.
Kawada did that many times in this match, trying to survive Misawa but being unable to do so. In doing so, Kawada became something of a hero in his own right, instead of being cast as a villain for being opposite Misawa.
The Unwavering Return in Kawada
Kawada channeled that into an even stronger desire to defeat Misawa, and hit his opponent as hard as possible. At one point, Kawada dropped Misawa with his gamengiri kick, and he thought he knocked Misawa out legit. He had to even lift Misawa’s head to see if he was still conscious.
Subtleties like this one – where the line between scripted and reality is blurred in a way to make it look like they’re hurting each other for real – is what makes this match so great. The wrestlers don’t insult your intelligence as a viewer by making strikes obviously fake or ignoring real injuries. Those elements are exploited to their fullest, making the attacking wrestler smarter and the defending wrestler tougher for having to fight from underneath.
Misawa versus Kawada: ‘6-3-94’
From there, the match evolved into a true rollercoaster, filled with ups, downs, twists, turns and countless reversals. Spots from earlier on in the match were repeated, but with different outcomes to add more to the story. Kawada landed a gamengiri kick earlier, but Misawa blocked his second one. Misawa failed to land a Tiger Driver earlier, but was able to weaken Kawada enough to land it a second time. He landed a diving move earlier, but Kawada cut him off the second time.
Misawa blocked a powerbomb, so Kawada punched him out of frustration. Then Kawada tried the same again, but when he went for the punch Misawa dropped him with an elbow instead. It was simply counter after counter after counter. This was wrestling at its simplest, yet it was logical and unpredictable. It was fantastic.
As the match reached its peak in its third act, Kawada was in full control. After dropping Misawa on his head with a brutal Dangerous Backdrop, Kawada thought he had Misawa’s number. He thought he had all the tools needed to win. All he had to do was plant Misawa with his Folding Powerbomb. And so he tried. After so many reversals, Kawada planted Misawa with that finisher…but Misawa kicked out. At the last possible second, Misawa kicked out.
Now Kawada was getting desperate. So he tried the move again, but Misawa kicked out again. So Kawada resorted to desperate measures: the Stretch Plum, a vicious submission hold that combines the crossface chickenwing with a dragon sleeper.
If Kawada won this way it would’ve been extra poignant. As a booker, Baba despised submission holds and preferred clean pins. So for Kawada to make Misawa give up would’ve been a huge win for him and a devastating loss for Misawa. And boy would that’ve made Kawada happy.
He spent years in Misawa’s shadow, and now he was getting close to making the Emerald Emperor give up. Kawada wrenched that hold as hard as possible, twisting Misawa’s already-damaged head and neck in ways other than how God intended. But not even 40 seconds in a brutal neck-cranking submission hold could keep Misawa down.
Then something went off in Misawa. He got a second wind after enduring everything Kawada had to offer. Misawa started his comeback and then got revenge by dropping Kawada on his head with a brutal German suplex. Then he landed his trademark bridging Tiger Suplex, a move he had beaten many opponents with, including Kawada himself.
But Kawada wasn’t about to let history repeat itself. And so he kicked out of the same move that had cost him the title before. A new chapter in the Misawa-Kawada rivalry was now being written.
Dangerous K and the Emerald Emperor
Misawa tried to spike Kawada again but Kawada kept finding new and creative ways to knock Misawa down. His newest weapon was an abisengiri, a rolling koppu kick popularized by Jushin Thunder Liger (who, in an interesting twist, was the person Kawada beat to become a national amateur wrestling champion before both of them became pros). This was enough to give Kawada some much-needed recovery time as Misawa escaped the ring. Then the two of them had an epic stare-down; each man determined to win at all costs. And then the war reached its zenith.
As soon as Miswa re-entered the ring, the brawl was on. They beat the absolute hell out of each other. Elbows, chops, kicks, head-butts, everything. Kawada tried to kick a cornered Miswa into oblivion, only for Misawa to fire back with elbows. But Misawa didn’t go for a pin; he wanted to end this war with a decisive finality and put Kawada in his place. So Misawa unleashed a flurry of vicious elbow strikes that not seen anywhere in wrestling before or since.
Kawada tried to mount a comeback with another abisengiri, but Misawa had it scouted this time answered with another elbow. Again, a King’s Road wrestler used logic to anticipate his opponent’s offense and developed an answer for that move, and this was after only about five minutes.
An Iconic Finish
Then we as wrestling fans were treated to one of the most iconic match finishes in history. With an exhausted Kawada incapable of defending himself, Misawa hooked his arms. Fans knew the Tiger Driver was coming, but this wasn’t the same as earlier. Instead of flipping him, Misawa drilled Kawada head-and-neck first straight downward with the Tiger Driver ’91. And then referee Joe Higuchi counted three, and Budokan Hall lost its roof.
Sixteen thousand strong exploded out of their seats in joy. Commentator Ryu Nakata’s explosive ‘COUNT TO THREE! COUNT TO THREE!’ became the AJPW equivalent of Jim Ross screaming ‘STONE COLD! STONE COLD!’ on the top of his lungs.
Misawa versus Kawada: ‘6-3-94’
This is the match for which clichéd expressions were made. It was amazing, spectacular, unpredictable, and most importantly, simple. The in-ring action was straightforward, with the story evolving logically and organically. Everything made sense, as each sequence layered onto the one before it like a carefully-designed wedding cake. But that layered story was complemented by a level of logical unpredictability that’s virtually nonexistent today.
The modern wrestling landscape has transformed considerably over the past twenty-five-plus years. Modern fans have wildly different expectations nowadays. A match that’s ‘epic’ by today’s standards emphasizes athleticism over logic, speed over patience, and gratuitous flips over personal and nuanced storytelling.
It’s likely that a modern fan watching wrestling classics like this would complain before praising. Compared to what companies like PWG, AEW, and to an extent WWE put on these days, this match is slow, oversimplified, and repetitive.
But those ‘criticisms’ are reasons why this match aged so well. Today’s wrestling market is so oversaturated with similar-looking wrestlers wrestling the same ‘I-can-do-absolutely-anything-even-if-it-doesn’t-make-sense-for-my-character’ philosophy. That leads to most wrestling matches today have a disappointing sameness to them. Maybe it’s owing to a lack of patience and shorter attention spans, but people want to see more moves done in a shorter period these days.
Those matches age like milk, while this one aged like fine wine.
Pro wrestling is often dismissed with a snide remark as being for morons. That it’s a male soap opera, that it panders to the lowest common denominator, that its audience is too stupid to distinguish between scripted and reality. Those naysayers have never seen a puroresu match, much less one of this magnitude. This is a cross between combat sports and clever, nuanced storyline. It’s blurs the line, but in the best way possible.
You can watch this match without any understanding of any pre-existing story and still find something to enjoy. These are two highly-skilled ass-kicking machines that put on arguably the best performance in each of their careers. It isn’t often that a wrestling match can be re-watched so many times without losing its luster. But this match manages to stay as exciting on first viewing as it does on its hundredth.
Small wonder, then, that most people refer to it by its date. All you have to say/type is ‘6-3-94’, and wrestling fans will know exactly what you’re talking about.