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#37 Toshiaki Kawada
Arguably the greatest pure striker in pro wrestling history, Toshiaki Kawada's stiff shots and intense matches earned him the appropiate nickname "Dangerous K". Often viewed as the third fiddle during the glory days of All-Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1990s behind Mitsuharu Misawa and Kenta Kobashi, Kawada stringed together one of the most impressive stretches of any wrestler during the 1990s, competing in 18 matches over his career that received a perfect five star rating from the Wrestling Observer.
Kawada was a successful amateur wrestler in high school, winning the Japanese National High School Championship as a senior, when he defeated Keiichi Yamada, the future Jushin Thunder Liger, in the finals. Shortly thereafter he began training with AJPW and made his debut for the company at the age of 18 in 1982. Kawada would spend time on the AJPW undercard and then spent stints wrestling in North America, mainly in Calgary, Montreal and Texas before returning to AJPW in 1986. In 1987 Kawada began to team with Hiromichi Fuyuki as a member of Genichiro Tenryu's "Revolution" group. The Revolution group was the spiritual god-father to the nWo, as Tenryu recruited International Pro Wrestling stars Ashura Hara and Fuyaki to join up with him and some younger wrestlers, mainly Kawada and Yoshinari Ogawa, to team up and take down Jumbo Tsuruta and the established order of AJPW. Teaming up with Fuyaki, Kawada won the All Asia Tag Team Championship three times and after Hara was expelled from AJPW for gambling, Kawada began teaming with Tenryu and had some memorable moments as the top tag team.
When Tenryu left AJPW to jump to the newly formed Super World of Sports, Kawada actually caught a big break, turning babyface and becoming a main ally of the recently unmasked Mitsuharu Misawa in the battle against the now-heel Jumbo Tsuruta. Kawada was a part of many terrific six man tag team matches between Misawa, Kawada and Kobashi as the young guns taking on the veteran group of Tsuruta, Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi in a feud that helped establish all three of the young stars as top names that would carry the company to great heights during the 1990s. Kawada and Misawa teamed up and won the World Tag Team Championship twice and also won the 1992 World's Strongest Tag Team Determination League, edging out Terry Gordy and Steve Williams.
Kawada caught another huge break when Tsuruta was forced to retire from full-time wrestling after being diagnosed with Hepatitis B. Giant Baba asked Kawada to turn heel, betraying his partners Misawa and Kobashi and becoming Taue's new tag team partner. The decision to turn Kawada heel was in a sense a backhanded compliment to Kawada. Clearly Misawa and Kobashi were going to be the big babyfaces for AJPW, because as good as Kawada was he didn't have the same level of charisma as those two. Shorter than both Misawa and Kobashi, Kawada made up for it by becoming one of the first Japanese wrestlers to seriously train with free weights and while he wasn't as flashy as his counterparts, he was best served as being a stout badass. Nobody kicked like Kawada in his prime, and his stiff backdrops and suplexes helped carry the AJPW strong-style to its pinnacle.
Now Misawa's top rival, Kawada won the 1994 Champion's Carnival, defeating Steve Williams in the final which set up a Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship match against Misawa. Misawa prevailed in a 36 minute classic that is regarded by some as being the greatest match of the 1990s, if not ever. Kawada and Misawa had terrific chemistry in the ring together, and each men were so over and their signature moves were so over that the fans would be rocking on the edge of their seats for the last 15-20 minutes of any of their matches. A good example of this came in their match when Kawada set up a powerbomb on Misawa. For the last 15 minutes or so Kawada had endlessly teased the powerbomb, getting closer each time, until finally he connected in what totally should have been the end of the match; except it wasn't leading to an all-time near fall and a great call from the Japanese announcer.
For the powerbomb spot, go to around 26:30 into the following clip
In October of 1994 Kawada won his first world title, defeating Williams to win the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Kawada would retain the title in a famous one hour draw with Kenta Kobashi, in a match that Dave Meltzer called "The greatest one hour match in the history of professional wrestling." Kawada would drop the world title to Stan Hansen in March of 1995.
Kawada spent much of 1996 in trouble with AJPW management as he spoke out against the more traditional booking that AJPW was utilizing at the time. AJPW's rival New Japan Pro Wrestling was doing great business working co-promotional shows under the leadership of head booker Riki Choshu. Kawada was very outspoken about AJPW's need to work with other promotions to increase business, which drew the ire of Baba. Kawada was relegated backwards to more of an upper-mid card spot, mainly working tag team matches with Taue. Kawada began to climb back up the card during the Champions Carnival in 1997, defeating both Misawa and Kobashi to win his second Carnival. Kawada continued to climb back up until he defeated Misawa in May of 1998, for the world title at the first ever AJPW show to be held in the Tokyo Dome, in front of nearly 60,000 fans. Unfortunately Kawada would drop the title to Kobashi during his first title defense and then saw very little storyline development for the remainder of 1998.
Kawada would engage in one the of the most notable matches in Japanese wrestling history in January of 1999 when seemingly out of the blue he was named the number one contender for Misawa's world championship. Misawa and Kawada would engage in another epic that is famous for Kawada breaking his arm mid-match but continuing to wrestle. Kawada tried to get Misawa up for his trademark powerbomb but couldn't due to his broken arm, resulting in Kawada essentially dropping on Misawa right on his neck. It looked honestly like Kawada had killed Misawa, but miraculously Misawa kicked out, although Kawada would go on to win the match, capturing his third Triple Crown championship. Kawada would use the same move, dubbed the Kawada Driver, sparingly later in his career.
Kawada was forced to vacate the title because of the injury and then spent the rest of 1999 on the sideline with an eye injury. When he returned in January of 2000 he mostly put over stars like Kobashi, Vader and Misawa. In June of 2000 Misawa left AJPW, citing creative differences with AJPW following the death of Giant Baba in 1999, taking almost all of AJPW's talent and support staff with him to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. Kawada and Fuchi were the only native talent to stay loyal to AJPW and Baba's widow, which is ironic considering Kawada's past clashes with Baba over the direction of the company. Kawada remained a rock for the company, steadying the company as its undisputed ace and working with the remaining top names AJPW was able to scrounge up. Without Kawada, it is more than likely that AJPW would have folded.
Kawada would win his fourth world title, defeating Keiji Mutoh in 2002 before having to vacate the title again, this time with a knee injury. He would regain the championship in September of 2003 and held the title for over 529 days and set the record for most successful title defenses with 10. During that reign Kawada brought prestige back to the Triple Crown World Heavyweight Championship, defending it against Tenryu, Mutoh, Kensuke Sasaki, Shinya Hashimoto and oddly enough, Mick Foley. Kawada dropped the championship in early 2005 to Satoshi Kojima and then became a true freelancer in Japan, working for various promotions, most notably the sports entrainment based HUSTLE promotion. A notable moment came at NOAH's watershed Destiny event in July when Kawada and Misawa met one final time, with Misawa defeating his longtime rival in front of 62,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome.
Kawada would continue to wrestle throughout the rest of the decade, including matches with up-and-coming Japanese stars like KENTA, Shinsuke Nakamura and Takeshi Morishima. Following the tragic death of Misawa and 2009 Kawada admitted that he had lost his passion for wrestling and his last match took place in August 2010 at the 20th anniversary of the G1 Climax.
While Kawada was never the overwhelming babyface that his rivals Kobashi and Misawa managed to be, and he never reached the same iconic status that Tsuruta did, he became one of the most popular wrestlers in Japan thanks to his unrelenting, punishing style that helped define a generation of great workers. His stiff, physical work translates well to any time period and he remains one of the most underappreciated stars of the last 50 years.
Next week, #36 will be revealed, a wrestler who never once contended for a world championship but became an icon anyway.
The Top 50 so far:
50.Ted DiBiase (click link for description of the qualifications of the list)
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada