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History of All Japan's Triple Crown title
By JOHN F. MOLINARO -- SLAM! Wrestling

The year was 1989.

 Tanks and soldiers open fired on thousands of Chinese students, thirsty for freedom and fighting for democracy, in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The Berlin Wall came crumbling down, inspiring change all across Europe and ending the "Cold War". Nelson Mandela had meetings with South African President F.W. de Klerk in December that would result in his release from prison two months later after 27 years.
Triple Crown tournament 2000 poster


 While these events made history on the geo-political stage, wrestling history was being made at the same time in Japan. On April 18, 1989 Jumbo Tsuruta defeated Stan Hansen in Tokyo to unify the Pacific Wrestling Federation (P.W.F.), United National and All Japan International titles into, arguably, the single most important championship in wrestling: All Japan Pro Wrestling's Triple Crown.

 Jumbo Tsuruta. Mitsuharu Misawa. Kenta Kobashi. Toshiaka Kawada. Stan Hansen. Genichiro Tenryu. Steve Williams.

 All of them battered and bruised warriors. All of them sweated, spilt gallons of blood and pushed themselves to the point of physical exhaustion. All of them set a standard of in-ring excellence. All of them the best in the world.

 All of them Triple Crown champions.

 Earlier this year, a new chapter in Japanese wrestling history was written when then-Triple Crown champion Kenta Kobashi left All Japan for Misawa's upstart Pro Wrestling Noah. Tomorrow, an amendment to that chapter is added when All Japan kicks off a two-week, eight-man tournament to crown a new champion.

 Although the Triple Crown came to fruition via the Tsuruta-Hansen unification match in 1989, the origin of the title can be traced back even farther.

 All Japan President and owner Giant Baba, one of the patriarchs of Puroresu, (Japanese pro wrestling) was at odds with the National Wrestling Alliance (N.W.A.). His working relationship with then-N.W.A. president Jim Crockett Jr. had deteriorated. For years, the N.W.A. World champion would tour All Japan for weeks, taking on the promotion's top stars. Following the sale of Jim Crockett Promotions in 1988 to Ted Turner, that custom stopped.

 No longer having access to the World Champion, Baba could see the handwriting on the wall. He had to create his own World champion and so the Triple Crown was born.

 "By '89, the N.W.A. World title had ceased to mean a lot and Baba's relationship had already fallen apart with Crockett and later WCW," states Dave Meltzer, editor of the 'Wrestling Observer Newsletter'. "The relationship was not good because (Ric) Flair would be booked on tours and then Crockett would pull him out... that happened at least twice. (Baba) couldn't get the champ (booked) on enough dates. Baba, by making the Triple Crown, would have a world title that would truly be considered the world title because the American world titles were losing value."

 The inspiration behind the Triple Crown dates back to Baba's days in the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (J.W.A.), the promotion he wrestled in prior to forming All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972.

 "It goes back to his youth when there was just the International title in the old J.W.A.," explains Meltzer. "In '72 when he started All Japan they had the P.W.F. belt replace the International belt because the J.W.A. still had it."

 In 1976, Baba created the United National title, a championship that was traded between Jumbo Tsuruta, Harley Race, Abdullah the Butcher and Ted DiBiase. The N.W.A. International title followed in 1981 and became the All Japan International title in 1986.

 On March 9, 1988 United National champion Genichiro Tenryu defeated P.W.F. champ Stan Hansen in Yokohama. Two of the titles were unified. Two of the three pieces in creating a new world champion had come together.
Lance Storm
Jumbo Tsuruta. To see a clip of Tsuruta defeating Stan Hansen to create the Triple Crown title, click HERE (1 MB).


 On April 18, 1989 Baba's dream of creating a single world champion was realized as All Japan International champion Jumbo Tsuruta defeated Stan Hansen, the P.W.F. and United National champ at the time, to unify the three titles and create All Japan's Triple Crown.

 The selection of Tsuruta, arguably the best wrestler in the world at the time, helped establish the title immediately.

 "Jumbo was the guy to be World champion at that time," believes Meltzer. "Of all the guys there, he was the best worker."

 "Giving it to Jumbo right off the bat, it speaks a lot to what Giant Baba thought of (the Triple Crown) more than anything else," opines Jeff Marek of Live Audio Wrestling. "It really did cement it right off the bat."

 On June 6, 1989 Genichiro Tenryu became champion, defeating Tsuruta at Tokyo's venerable Nippon Budokan Hall. The bout won match of the year honours from 'Tokyo Sports', Japan's leading sports publication, and was regarded as one of the greatest Japanese title matches of the 1980s.

 "I remember watching that match a week or so after Jumbo died, and I'm watching this thing and it's better than any match I've seen this year," says Meltzer. "(All Japan) were the only ones to treat the World title like it mean something. Jumbo and Tenryu really set the standard with some of those matches. Jumbo and Tenryu first set the standard (for the Triple Crown)."

 Tenryu would lose the title back to Tsuruta in October. Terry Gordy became the first foreign wrestler to win the title, defeating Tsuruta on June 5, 1990 in Chiba. Gordy would drop it three days later to Hansen in Tokyo. Gordy won it for a second time on July 17, 1990 from Hansen in Ishikawa, only to be stripped later that month when he was hospitalized. On July 27, Hansen defeated Mitsuharu Misawa in Matsudo to become the new champion.

 Gordy was used as a transitional champion between Tsuruta and Hansen. Baba decided to elevate Misawa to All Japan's upper echelon by having him defeat Tsuruta on June 8, 1990. He believed it was too soon to give the title to Misawa and he didn't want his first ever win over Tsuruta, whom he had chased for years, to be for the title.

 "When the decision was made to finally have Misawa go over Jumbo, they didn't want to give away Misawa winning the world title that early in the game," reveals Meltzer. "So they had to take the belt away from Jumbo and they had the Americans fight over it for a long time. And Misawa didn't win the belt for two more years. That was the big thing... Misawa was going to start beating the top guys but they didn't want to give away the World title. It was all about the chase."
TRIPLE CROWN CHRONOLOGY
  • 4.18.89: Jumbo Tsuruta defeats Stan Hansen in Tokyo to unify the Pacific Wrestling Federation, All Japan United National & NWA International titles into the Triple Crown title.
  • 6.06.89: Genichiru Tenryu defeats Tsuruta in Tokyo.
  • 10.11.89: Tsuruta regains the title from Tenryu in Yokohama.
  • 6.05.90: Terry Gordy beats Tsuruta in Chiba.
  • 6.08.90: Stan Hansen defeats Gordy in Tokyo.
  • 7.17.90: Gordy regains the title from Hansen in Ishikawa
  • 7.90: Gordy is stripped of the title after being hospitalized.
  • 7.27.90: Hansen defeats Mitsuharu Misawa to win the vacant title for in Matsudo.
  • 1.19.91: Tsuruta becomes the first three-time champion, defeating Hansen in Matsumoto.
  • 1.28.92: Hansen wins the title for the third time, beating Tsuruta in Tokyo.
  • 8.22.92: Misawa defeats Hansen in Tokyo to win the title.
  • 7.28.94: Steve Williams defeats Misawa in Tokyo.
  • 10.22.94: Toshiaka Kawada defeats Williams in Tokyo.
  • 3.04.95: Hansen wins the title for the final time, beating Kawada in Tokyo.
  • 5.26.95: Misawa defeats Hansen in Sapporo.
  • 5.24.96: Akira Taue defeats Misawa in Sapporo.
  • 7.24.96: Kenta Kobashi defeats Taue in Tokyo.
  • 1.20.97: Misawa defeats Kobashi in Osaka.
  • 5.01.98: Kawada beats Misawa in Tokyo.
  • 6.12.98: Kobashi beats Kawada in Tokyo.
  • 10.31.98: Misawa beats Kobashi in Tokyo.
  • 1.22.99: Kawada beats Misawa in Osaka.
  • 1.23.98: Title becomes vacant after Kawada broke his arm in the match the day before.
  • 3.06.99: Vader defeats Taue in Tokyo to win the vacant title.
  • 5.22.99: Misawa wins thte title for the fifth and final time, beating Vader in Tokyo.
  • 10.30.99: Vader beats Misawa in Tokyo.
  • 2.27.00: Kobashi beats Vader in Tokyo.
  • 06.14.00: Misawa, Kobashi and compnay split from All Japan to form Pro Wrestling Noah. Triple Crown becomes vacant.


  •  Chasing the World title... the quintessential, moneymaking storyline in wrestling. The drama. The tension. The suspense. The anticipation.

     The chase.

     Like having Ric Flair chase then-N.W.A. Champ Harley Race for five months in 1983 before regaining the title, Misawa chased the Triple Crown. Tsuruta won the title from Hansen on January 19, 1991 and turned back the challenge of Misawa in a memorable Budokan Hall bout on April 18. Nearly a year later Hansen, having defeated Tsuruta on January 29, 1992 in Tokyo, successfully defended against Misawa in another classic at the Budokan on March 4.

     It wasn't until August 22, 1992 in Tokyo that Misawa defeated Hansen to win the Triple Crown.

     Misawa's title victory was the culmination of a masterfully executed storyline by Baba. With great attention to detail and a slow, methodical pace, Misawa chased the title for two years! When he finally won the Triple Crown, a symbolic torch was passed to him. He was to be the new flag-bearer and cornerstone of the promotion.

     The Misawa chase, a testament to Giant Baba's creative genius, is the single greatest example of textbook booking.

     "Baba's strength was creating something that people couldn't wait to see and he made you wait," illuminates Meltzer. "You couldn't wait for Misawa to win it and you waited two years for it because that was the hook. You knew it was going to happen, you knew it would. The whole story of All Japan in the 1990s was the rise of Misawa."

     From there, Misawa went on to hold the title for close to two years. Defending against Tsuruta, Hansen, Steve Williams, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaka Kawada, Misawa established himself as the best Triple Crown Champ and the greatest wrestler on earth. His legendary series of title defences against Kawada earned a place in the wrestling Pantheon.

     "Misawa got more great matches out of different types of opponents than anybody else I ever saw," maintains Marek. "You could always count on him for a five-star classic (every time out). He did it consistently for ten years. His sense of timing was better than anyone's I'd seen in wrestling, ever. Misawa and Kawada... those two guys understand each other better than any other two people on the face of the earth in the ring. They really do click. It's really remarkable. There's nothing better as far as I'm concerned. I've never seen better wrestling."

     Misawa's reign ended on July 28, 1994 when Steve 'Dr. Death' Williams won the title in Tokyo.

     Williams' run as Triple Crown champion stands as the highpoint of his career.

     "It's just like winning the gold metal in the Olympics," Williams told us this week while in Japan preparing for the tournament. "It was a great feeling to win it as an American and my fondest memory was when I fought Kobashi for the best match of the year."

     The Williams-Kobashi match from September 3, 1994 saw both competitors nearly kill each other with crushing blows in physical match before Williams won in 41 minutes. The match received widespread acclaim from the Japanese media.

     "I would have to say working against Hansen and Kobashi, those were the best matches I had," admits Williams "They were no walk in the park. They were tough to fight, not like the Hollywood boys in the States."

     The States.

     Where the focus is more on flash and gimmickry. Where ratings and pay-per-view buy-rates mean everything. Where ring-work means very little.

     Japan.

     Where ring-work has always meant everything. Where wrestling has always been a sport, never sports-entertainment. Where Triple Crown matches always ended in a clean finish and were always more physical, punishing and brutal than American matches.

     Always.
    TRIPLE CROWN FACT SHEET
  • THE ACTUAL TITLES: Pacific Wrestling Federation, All Japan United National & International titles
  • FIRST CHAMPION: Jumbo Tsuruta
  • MOST REIGNS: Mitsuharu Misawa (5), Stan Hansen (4)
  • LONGEST REIGN: Mitsuharu Misawa (1 year, 11 months)
  • SHORTEST REIGN: Toshiaka Kawada (1 day)
  • FOREIGNERS WHO WON IT: Terry Gordy, Stan Hansen, Steve Williams and Vader
  • CITY WHERE THE TITLE HAS CHANGED HANDS THE MOST: Tokyo, 15 times (12 of them at Nippon Budokan Hall)
  • SHORTEST MATCH WHERE THE TITLE CHANGED HANDS: 12 minutes and 12 seconds (10.30.99 Vader over Misawa in Tokyo)
  • LONGEST MATCH WHERE THE TITLE CHANGED HANDS: 43 minutes and 29 seconds (10.31.98 Misawa over Kobashi in Tokyo)
  • TRIPLE CROWN CHAMPS WHO WON THE IWGP WORLD TITLE: Vader and Genichiro Tenryu


  •  "You couldn't get over with a gimmicked finish, every finish had to be a clean finish," clarifies Meltzer. "The challenger really had to be made to look good because he was going to do the job at the end and what made the belt so special was the champion really was the champion because he always won clean. There were no run-ins, no nothing. So guys knew they had to get over with their work. Even as good as some of the big WWF matches are, I don't think I have seen a big WWF match that compares to those guys. I don't think there's anyone here that does matches that can compare."

     "They're more realistic," adds Marek. "Not a whole lot of flash, not a lot of 'hit the ropes-duck-clothesline'. None of that kind of stuff. The guys really lay it in and it's still as cooperative as it is in North America but each guys goes into each match with the task and understanding that 'this is going to hurt'. They make it look as real as they can. It's a harder style. A clash of strengths."

     Williams concurs.

     "I'll tell you, I feel that myself and anyone who has won the Triple Crown have earned it. It's a fight to get it and we've made the Triple Crown one of the toughest matches you can see."

     After defeating Williams for the title, Toshiaka Kawada lost it to Hansen on March 4, 1995. Hansen's fourth and final reign, it was the last hurrah for the old warrior that helped to carry the promotion during the 1980s. Two months later, Hansen lost the title to Misawa in Sapporo. From there, battered and bruised from decades of punishment, Hansen would be fazed out of the All Japan main events. His work began to deteriorate. While the spirit was still with him, the physical demands of Triple Crown matches were too much for his body to comply.

     Misawa held onto the title for a year, having classic matches with Kobashi and Kawada that earned him Wrestler of the Year honours from the readers of the 'Wrestling Observer Newsletter'. He lost the title to Akira Taue on May 24, 1996 in Sapporo.

     Taue's time on top was brief as he lost the title to Kenta Kobashi on July 24, 1996.

     In one of the most incredible title defences in history, Kobashi went to an exhausting 60-minute draw with Kawada on October 18 at the Budokan. The match, and others like it during his reign, helped him earn the wrestler of the year award from the 'Wrestling Observer Newsletter'.

     On January 20, 1997 Kobashi lost the title to Misawa in Osaka.

     Misawa, now in his third reign, was determined to solidify himself as the greatest Triple Crown champion ever. For over a year, he had one match-of-the-year candidate after another. A June 6 encounter with Kawada went over 31-minutes. On September 6 Misawa defeated Jun Akiyama, a young star whom many labelled 'the next Misawa'. A month later, Misawa beat Kobashi in another mat-classic. January 26, 1998... Akiyama is cast aside once more in another great match.

     It wasn't until May 1, 1998 at All Japan's first Tokyo Dome show that Misawa lost the title to Kawada.

     Kawada's victory was another example of textbook booking. Kawada had chased Misawa for over six years before earning his first pin-fall victory over him in a title match. Kawada's win was special.

     Very special.
    TRIPLE TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
    1ST ROUND:
     10/14/00 - Tokyo, Korakuen Hall: Toshiaki Kawada vs. Steve Williams
     10/16/00 - Fukushima: Jinsei Shinzaki vs. Stan Hansen B Block
     10/18/00 - Miyagi, Natori Citizen Gym: Genichiro Tenryu vs Mike Barton B Block
     10/21/00 - Nagoya, Nagoya Aiichi Prefectural Gym: Shinzaki/Hansen winner vs. Tenryu/Barton winner b Block finals
     10/22/00 - Osaka, Osaka City Central Gym: Kawada/Williams winner vs. Johnny Smith A Block finals
     10/28/00 - Tokyo, Nippon Budokan: Triple Crown tournament finals


     "It was the Dome and they had to do something they'd never done before," explains Meltzer. "Everybody kind of knew it but it was exactly what the people wanted to see. They had waited years and years to see that finish."

     Kawada's reign was short lived as Kobashi won the title a month later in June. Kobashi was a transitional champion, losing the title to Misawa on October 31 in a 43-minute showdown that won 'Wrestling Observer Newsletter' match-of-the-year honours.

     Misawa's fourth reign would be his shortest, dropping the title to Kawada on January 22, 1999 in Osaka.

     The match was a gruelling, taxing affair that ended after 24 minutes of action. Kawada broke his arm in the opening minutes but managed to carry on, giving the performance of a lifetime in another match-of-the-year candidate. The match is further evidence of the heightened danger and physical demands of Triple Crown matches.

     "That was the gutsiest performance I ever saw," offers Marek. "Considering (the injury) happened five minutes into the match and they went another 20 with a broken arm. For Kawada to pull that off with a broken arm, that was incredible."

     An incredible performance that, nonetheless, had its downside. Kawada was forced to vacate the title the next day and was forced out of action for months.

     Two months later, Vader became only the fourth American to hold the Triple Crown, defeating Akira Taue on March 6 in Tokyo to fill the vacancy. Vader's reign lasted until May 2 when Misawa won the title for the fifth and final time in the Tokyo Dome.

     A month after winning the title, Misawa beat Kobashi in 43-minute marathon held onto the title for a few months before losing it to Vader on October 30 in Tokyo. At a mere 12 minutes and 12 seconds, it was the shortest match ever where the Triple Crown changed hands.

     Kobashi won the title for the third time on February 27, 2000 defeating Vader in Tokyo. Fourth months later, the landscape of Japanese wrestling was inextricably changed forever as Misawa split with All Japan to form his own promotion, Pro Wrestling Noah, taking top stars like Kobashi, Akiyama, Taue, Vader and others with him.

     And so, for the past five months, the Triple Crown has been vacant. Japanese fans, renowned for being the most loyal in the world, have been deprived of the sporting spectacle that is the Triple Crown.

     Twenty-five separate reigns between ten men. Ten of the very best wrestlers that ever laced up a pair of boots. All worthy of the Triple Crown title.

     "(All Japan) have never had a weak link as champion," opines Meltzer.

     "There's never been a weak champion," agrees Marek. "You can look at the Triple Crown as the (pinnacle) of Japan. It really is a mark of distinction for a Japanese wrestler to hold the Triple Crown. The Triple Crown has always been emblematic of, in a real way, who the best wrestler was in the world at that time."

     What the Triple Crown champions are, in essence, are artists. Gifted visionaries, dedicated to their art, their craft, their profession.... their sport.

     By way of matches physical and psychological, scripted and improvisational, these men used unique brushstrokes from their vast palette of manoeuvres and repertoires to create masterful canvases that moulded, sculpted and stretched the boundaries of a professional wrestling match into previously unchartered territory. Which is, of course, impossible, unless one is speaking metaphorically. Or, unless you're one of the men that have held the Triple Crown.

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