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History of All Japan's Carnival tournament
By JOHN F. MOLINARO -- SLAM! Wrestling

Spring showers might bring May flowers but for avid followers of Japanese Puroresu, Spring means only one thing: All Japan Pro Wrestling's annual Champions Carnival tournament. The brainchild of All Japan founder Giant Baba, the tournament is the premiere event on the Japanese wrestling calendar.

 One of the reasons is because of the quality of the wrestling. Each year the Carnival brings together the best heavyweight wrestlers in the world for the three-week tournament, producing a series of high-quality matches unparallel by any other promotion in the world.

 The tournament also has a legacy of incredible story telling. Since its inception in 1973, the Carnival has featured intricate booking, threading several different storylines together. With its twist-and-turn booking, the Carnival reads like an engaging novel with endless chapters neatly interwoven together.

 Baba displayed such booking mastery each year that videotapes of the event became required viewing for up and coming bookers in the United States in the '70s and '80s. Baba's acute booking acumen was passed down to Mitsuharu Misawa who took over booking duties last year after Baba's untimely passing. Today, Misawa stands poised to lead All Japan into the new millennium as he is about to book his second Carnival tournament.

 This year the tournament turns 20. Giving the term "March Madness" an entirely new meaning, the Carnival boasts a rich and storied history.

 All Japan was barely six months old when Baba came up with the idea for a singles tournament pitting the top heavyweights in the promotion in a single elimination tournament. That initial Carnival was a mish-mash of Japanese and foreign stars like Mark Lewin, Baron Scicluna and Curtis Iaukea, Hiro Matsuda, Thunder Sugiyama and Samson Kutsuwada.

 The match everybody wanted to see was Baba against The Destroyer. Years earlier, the Destroyer became a household name in Japan, battling Baba in a series of matches on national TV that, to this day, still stand as the highest rated programs in Japanese television history.

Giant Baba, left, and Antonio Inoki. Photo courtesy Puroresu Dojo


 As the top foreign heel in Japan, hopes were high that Baba and The Destroyer would hook up in the finals. Alas, it was not to be as Lewin beat the Destroyer in the semi-finals, before succumbing to Baba in the finals.

 One year later Baba was at it again, bringing in top foreign talent for the Carnival. Abdullah the Butcher, Mr. Wrestling and Rufus R. Jones worked the tournament. Perhaps more noteworthy was the presence of a young, former Olympian by the name of Jumbo Tsuruta. Tsuruta instantly became a huge star thanks to the tournament and went on to become All Japan's top star and perennial champion in the '80s. Baba won the tournament for the second straight year, beating Mr. Wrestling in the finals.

 In 1975, Baba tinkered with the Carnival's format. The four wrestlers that advanced to the semi-finals were thrown into a round-robin tournament where the wrestler with the best record would be declared the winner. Baba further cemented his status as a national hero, fighting back the challenges of foreigners Gene Kiniski, The Destroyer and Mr. Wrestling.

 One year later, Baba came up with a format that would become the Carnival's trademark. A crop of 14 wrestlers would compete in a round-robin tournament. Wrestlers would earn two points for a win and one for a draw, with the two top point getters squaring off in the finals.

 The move was a pure stroke of genius, providing a perfect showcase for Baba's unrivalled booking style. Baba used the round-robin format to get over All Japan's "clean-finish" policy, keeping his star wrestlers protected and strong. Because the Carnival used only clean finishes, a young prospect was instantly elevated to superstar status whenever he scored a pinfall over a top star.

 Each year Baba kept the point race so close that by the final day of the tournament, four to five wrestlers always stood a chance of winning one of the top two spots. Because of this, the last few matches inherently had an important storyline embedded into them, creating great heat and great in-ring matches.

 1976's tournament stands proof to Baba's genius. A mere two points separated first place finisher Abdullah the Butcher and the seventh place finisher, Curtis Iaukea. Abdullah was able to end Baba's stranglehold on the Carnival, defeating him in the finals and ending his three-year winning streak.

 In 1977, Baba fine-tuned the tournament's format. The top point getter (Abdullah the Butcher) advanced to the finals while the 2nd and 3rd place finishers (Baba and Tsuruta) would square off in a match, with the winner advancing to the finals. Baba reaffirmed his dominance of the Carnival, beating Tsuruta in the final to claim his fourth championship.

 In 1978, Baba returned to the original round-robin tournament. That year's field included former AWA World Champion Don Leo Jonathan, Luke Graham and a young, star who was making a name for himself back home by the name of Ted DiBiase. Baba won his fifth title in six years by again beating Abdullah in the finals.

 1979's tournament saw American star Dick Slater make his first of many Carnival appearances. Mexican wrestling legend Dos Caras (Mil Mascaras' brother) worked the Carnival, finishing eighth. This tournament marked the first time Baba was not involved in the finals, as Abdullah the Butcher won his second championship, beating Tsuruta.
CARNIVAL TOURNAMENT WINNERS
  • 1973: Giant Baba
  • 1974: Giant Baba
  • 1975: Giant Baba
  • 1976: Abdullah the Butcher
  • 1977: Giant Baba
  • 1978: Giant Baba
  • 1979: Abdullah the Butcher
  • 1980: Jumbo Tsuruta
  • 1981: Giant Baba
  • 1982: Giant Baba
  • *** No Champion Carnivals were held from 1983 - 1990
  • 1991: Jumbo Tsuruta
  • 1992: Stan Hansen
  • 1993: Stan Hansen
  • 1994: Toshiaki Kawada
  • 1995: Mitsuhara Misawa
  • 1996: Akira Taue
  • 1997: Toshiaki Kawada
  • 1998: Mitsuhara Misawa
  • 1999: Vader
  • 2000: Kenta Kobashi


  •  As All Japan entered the '80s, Baba pulled out all the stops as he loaded up that year's tournament with several top foreign stars. Dick Slater, Terry Funk and Ted DiBiase were the top foreigners battling the likes of Baba, Tsuruta and Tiger Toguchi. Slater finished in first place with 19 points but lost to Tsuruta in the finals.

     In 1981, All Japan was embroiled in a bitter promotional war with rival office New Japan Pro Wrestling. That year's Carnival was Abdullah's last as a month after the tournament, he jumped to New Japan Pro Wrestling. All Japan would answer back with a major signing of their own in December, stealing Stan Hansen out from under New Japan's nose.

     In '81, Bruiser Brody was terrorizing Japanese wrestling rings with his brutal brawling style. He was the top foreign heel in Japan, commanding one of the most lucrative guaranteed contracts at the time. Brody competed in the Carnival that year, finishing in first place as he buzz-sawed his way through a field that included former NWA World champ Jack Brisco, Tim Brooks and the Great Kojika. Baba beat Tsuruta in the semi-final and then went on to upset Brody in the finals to claim his sixth championship.

     A year later, the Carnival field swelled to 18 competitors. Ted DiBiase returned after a two-year absence joining the usual cast of characters. Making their first Carnival appearance were The Mongolian Stomper, England's Billy Robinson and Japanese legend Genichiro Tenryu. Baba held back the challenges of Brody, Tsuruta, DiBiase, Tenryu and Robinson to win his record seventh tournament.

     In 1983, as the original Tiger Mask and The Dynamite Kid were revolutionizing the junior heavyweight division in Japan, New Japan was handily beating All Japan in their bitter rivalry. Perhaps because of the public perception that All Japan was the number two and because they didn't want it to be overshadowed by New Japan's record-breaking business streak, All Japan didn't hold a Carnival tournament in 1983. In fact the tournament went on sabbatical for seven more years before returning in 1991.

     In 1991, All Japan was a very different company compared to 1983. Baba's promotion enjoyed top status in Japan, routinely putting on the best heavyweight matches in the world. Boasting a roster of top international stars mixed with the best Japanese wrestlers, All Japan was an archetype office, copied by other promotions due to its record-breaking business, in ring product and efficient management.
    CARNIVAL TOURNAMENT FACT SHEET
  • MOST CHAMPIONSHIPS: 7 (Giant Baba)
  • MOST CHAMPIONSHIPS BY A FOREIGNER: 2 (Abdullah the Butcher & Stan Hansen)
  • NUMBER OF NON-JAPANESE WINNERS: 3 (Abdullah the Butcher, Stan Hansen, Vader)
  • REIGNING TRIPLE CROWN CHAMPS WHO WON THE TOURNAMENT: 5 (Jumbo Tsuruta '91, Stan Hansen in '92, Mitsuhara Misawa in '98, Vader in '99, Kenta Kobashi in'00)
  • TOURNAMENT CHAMPS WHO WON TRIPLE CROWN LATER THAT YEAR: 4 (Toshiaki Kawada '94, Mitsuharu Misawa in '95 & '98, Akira Taue in '96, Vader in '99)
  • FORMER WORLD CHAMPIONS WHO COMPETED: Don Leo Jonathon (AWA), Jumbo Tsuruta (AWA), Vader (WCW), Stan Hansen (AWA), Giant Baba (NWA), Gene Kiniski (AWA & NWA), Terry Funk (NWA), Jack Brisco (NWA), The Destroyer (AWA)
  • OTHER NOTABLE COMPETITORS: Mark Lewin, Hiro Matsuda, Curtis Iaukea, Baron Scicluna, Mr. Wrestling, Rufus R. Jones, Bob Orton Jr., Killer Kowalski, Bull Ramos, J.J. Dillon, Ted DiBiase, Dick Slater, Dos Caras, Bruiser Brody, Wayne Ferris (AKA Honky Tonk Man), Genichiro Tenryu, Billy Robinson, Dynamite Kid, Doug Furnas, Johnny Ace, Danny Spivey, Dan Kroffat, Johnny Smith, Cactus Jack, Terry Gordy, The Patriot, John Nord, Gary Albright, Jinsei Shinzaki, Steve Williams


  •  The Carnival of 1991 ushered in a new format, splitting the field of wrestlers into two groups. Wrestlers would compete in the round-robin format with the winner of each group facing each other in the finals. The 1991 tournament ushered in a new era for All Japan, showcasing the crop of young, hungry stars that would bypass the promotion's aging veterans and go onto become the cornerstones of the promotion for the next ten years. Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaka Kawada and Kenta Kobashi made their Carnival debuts in 1991, setting in stone the future for All Japan.

     Competing against an array of foreign stars like The Dynamite Kid, Doug Furnas, Johnny Ace, Johnny Smith and Mick Foley, the young stars gained their first taste of Carnival exposure. Still it was the veterans who were the story, as Tsuruta defeated Stan Hansen in the finals.

     In 1992, the field boasted a field of 20 wrestlers, including top foreign heels Steve Williams and Terry Gordy, Danny Spivey and Yoshinari Ogawa. This year's tournament was based on a storyline of the young lions challenging the veterans for supremacy. Hansen won his group while Misawa, outdistancing Tsuruta to win his group, met in the finals. In a match that has gone down in Japanese wrestling lore, Hansen held back the challenge of the rising Misawa to claim his first championship.

     Regardless of Baba's decision to give Hansen the win, it was clear that Misawa's strong showing had elevated him to the next level in All Japan's hierarchy. Because Misawa was the first among the young group to make it to the finals, he instantly became earmarked to occupy the promotion's top spot down the line.

     Misawa's ascension to that spot would have to wait a little longer though. Going back to a single pool where the top two point getters would meet in the finals, Hansen again defeated Misawa. Looking back, while Kobashi and Kawada had respectable showings, it was the last place finish of a 24-year-old Jun Akiyama that was noteworthy. The young star lost every match. Few thought much of his potential. If only they knew.

     Another year, and another tournament. The Carnival tournament of 1994 was a surprising one for many reasons. Misawa finished 9th while Akiyama rebounded from the previous year's showing with a 7th place finish. In what is arguably the greatest Carnival tournament match of all time, Toshiaki Kawada beat Steve Williams in the finals, becoming the first of the young lions group to win the Carnival. Despite his lengthy reign as Triple Crown champion, it seemed that Misawa was destined never to be put over in the tournament.

     Alas, Misawa finally fulfilled his destiny, winning the championship in 1995 defeating rival Akira Taue in the finals. Hansen, Kawada and Kobashi all had strong showings leaving the rest of the pack, including Kroffat, Spivey and Takao Omori far behind.

     By 1996, the buzz of the Japanese wrestling world was about Kenta Kobashi. Out of the young lions group, he was the only one to have never won the Carnival. He was being touted as the best heavyweight wrestler in the world at the time and it seemed only a matter of time before Baba would give him the Triple Crown (which he did in July of '96) and a Carnival championship.

     1996 seemed to be his year. Talk before the tournament was of how, and not if, Kobashi would win the tournament. In a huge shocker, Akira Taue won, defeating Steve Williams in the finals. Kobashi finished third in the round-robin tournament, just missing a berth in the finals.
    CARNIVAL TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE

     3/23/01 - Tokyo, Korakuen Hall: Mike Barton vs. George Hines, Steve Williams vs. Jim Steele, Taiyo Kea vs. Johnny Smith, Gen'ichiro Tenryu vs. Mitsuya Nagai, Toshiaki Kawada vs. Yoshiaki Fujiwara
     3/24/01 - Tokyo, Korakuen Hall: Taiyo Kea vs. Jim Steele, Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Steve Williams, Toshiaki Kawada vs. George Hines, Gen'ichiro Tenryu vs. Mike Barton
     3/25/01 - Fukushima, Shirakawa City National Polity Commemorative Gym: Taiyo Kea vs. George Hines, Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Mitsuya Nagai, Gen'ichiro Tenryu vs. Johnny Smith
     3/27/01 - Iwate, Northern Kamiichi Multi-purpose Building: Mitsuya Nagai vs. Mike Barton, Steve Williams vs. Johnny Smith, Toshiaki Kawada vs. Jim Steele, Gen'ichiro Tenryu vs. Yoshiaki Fujiwara
     3/29/01 - Chiba Koen (Park) Gym: Mitsuya Nagai vs. Johnny Smith, Taiyo Kea vs. Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Toshiaki Kawada vs. Mike Barton
     3/31/01 - Niigata, Nagaoka City Welfare Hall: Johnny Smith vs. George Hines, Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Jim Steele, Taiyo Kea vs. Steve Williams, Gen'ichiro Tenryu vs. Toshiaki Kawada
     4/1/01 - Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefectural Building #1: Jim Steele vs. George Hines, Mitsuya Nagai vs. Steve Williams, Toshiaki Kawada vs. Johnny Smith, Gen'ichiro Tenryu vs. Taiyo Kea
     4/4/01 - Nagano, Minowa Townspeople Gym: Steve Williams vs. George Hines, Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Mike Barton, Toshiaki Kawada vs. Mitsuya Nagai
     4/7/01 - Osaka Prefectural Gym II: Mitsuya Nagai vs. Jim Steele, Steve Williams vs. Mike Barton, Gen'ichiro Tenryu vs. George Hines, Toshiaki Kawada vs. Taiyo Kea
     4/8/01 - Mie, Yokkaichi Australian Commemorative Gym: Johnny Smith vs. Jim Steele, Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. George Hines, Taiyo Kea vs. Mike Barton, Toshiaki Kawada vs. Steve Williams

     FINAL:
     4/11/01 - Miyagi, Sendai City Gym


     In 1997, Misawa entered the Carnival as Triple Crown champ. He had reclaimed his spot as the best wrestler in the world with a masterful title reign and seemed a lock to win the tournament. But come March, Misawa was banged up and he was suffering from several nagging injuries. There seemed little doubt that he would not win the tournament. The question that begged to be answered was whether or not Misawa would put Kobashi over in the finals.

     Baba had other ideas. For the first time, three wrestlers tied for first place with 19 points: Misawa, Kobashi and Kawada. As a result the trio were forced into a one-night sudden-death playoff. Misawa squared off against Kobashi as the two went to a 30-minute draw. The storyline was that Misawa further aggravated his injuries as was in no condition to carry on. Spent and exhausted from his match, Misawa fell easy prey to Kawada in under seven minutes. It was the first time Kawada had ever scored a pinfall victory over Misawa in a singles match.

     Riding an emotional high from his previous victory, Kawada vanquished the challenge of Kobashi in a 21-minute classic, continuing Kobashi's drought at the Carnival.

     The following year, as the storyline went, Misawa was determined to return to top form and win. By this time, Jun Akiyama was wrestling main event matches against the group of three, always coming out on the short end of the stick

     Baba saw fit to elevate Akiyama further by having him face Misawa in the finals. Misawa, who years before was the young lion, now saw himself in the role of the aging veteran, trying to hold back the challenge of the hungry lion. Akiyama wasn't quite ready to occupy one of the top spots in the promotion as Baba had Misawa go over the young star in a 22-minute classic.

     Tragedy struck the world of Japanese pro wrestling on January 31st, 1999 as Giant Baba passed away. With the long-time owner and booker of the promotion dead, the future was put in the capable hands of Misawa.

     The 1999 Carnival was a tournament of several firsts. With Baba deceased, this was the first Carnival booked by someone else. It also marked the first time Stan Hansen would not compete in the tournament. The aging legend's work rate was not was it used to be. He had slowed considerably in the ring and Misawa, in a controversial decision at the time, decided to leave him off the Carnival line-up.

     Former WCW World Champ Vader had debuted for All Japan at the end of 1998 and entered the 1999 Carnival as Triple Crown champion. With Misawa now in charge, speculation rose as to whether he would keep Vader strong by having him win, or if he would finally give Kobashi his first championship win.

     He decided to keep Vader strong, having him defeat Kobashi in the finals. Vader's role in the company as the top heel was cemented while Kobashi was left a beaten man once again.

     This brings us to this year's Carnival. The format has reverted back to its original single elimination format. While Baba used to book several time limit draws to protect his top stars and build heat, Misawa doesn't have that luxury. He has to book winners in all the matches and decide the framework for the tournament.

     In years past, the round-robin format guaranteed matches between the likes of Kobashi, Misawa and Kawada. Aside from the first round Misawa-Kawada encounter, no such matches are guaranteed. Furthermore, matches like Masao Inoue vs. Mike Barton and Izumida vs. Wolf Hawkfield mean that two of those wrestlers will advance to the quarter finals; in years past under the old format such marginal talent were used merely to fill out the tournament. Now, the credibility of the Carnival will be hurt with the presence of "scrub" talent in the quarterfinals.

     Booker Misawa has some interesting decisions to make over the next three weeks. Will he finally end the Kobashi jinx and give him a tournament championship? Will he elevate Jun Akiyama by having him go over in the finals? Will he have Vader win it all to make up for taking the Triple Crown title off of him and give him a monster push? Will he put Kawada over in an attempt to rejuvenate his career after being on the injured reserved for a year? Or will he elevate a new star like Johnny Smith and fool all the critics and pundits?

     All questions that will be soon answered.

    Predictions and full preview




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