Mitsuharu Misawa: Another Legend Lost Too Soon
*Post-Script: For anyone who reads this & is downloading from the link I provided, please go easy on the volume of downloading. The site isn't going anywhere, and in the wake of Misawa's passing, the host is having trouble handling the amount of downloading that is happening. Mega Upload links are fine to download, but please ease up on anything else. Thank you.*
Six years ago, after I left University, I began downloading Japanese wrestling matches, otherwise known as Puroresu (the Japanese term for Pro Wrestling).
My initial goal was to find as many matches of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s The Great Muta as possible, because of the indelible mark he had left on a nine-year-old with his classic series with Sting in the newly formed WCW in 1989.
However, during this time I stumbled onto a match from All Japan Pro Wrestling. The match was from January of 1993, and it was a tag team match: “Dr. Death” Steve Williams & Terry “Bam Bam Gordy” (AKA The Miracle Violence Connection) vs Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa.
I knew the match itself was great, and yet I didn’t particularly enjoy the Americans in the match. So I found another match, this time from June of 1993: Toshiaki Kawada & Akira Taue vs Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa.
At the end of this 30 minute classic, I sat at my computer, jaw agape, shaking my head at not just the physicality of the battle, but of the storytelling, the layers, the psychology involved in the match.
And while all four men were responsible to a degree for all of that, one, more than any other was the primary creator. That man was Mitsuharu Misawa.
Misawa, whose career began in 1981, was fortunate enough to play the second Tiger Mask from 1984-1990. During this time, he was taken under the wing of Jumbo Tsuruta, one of the all-time greats of Puroresu, and not-so-arguably the best worker of the 1980’s in Japan.
In May 1990, Misawa, with the help of teammate Toshiaki Kawada, unmasked about five minutes into a tag match, shocking the crowd who had known it was him since 1988, when his wedding got play in the newspapers, and his alter-ego was identified.
Shortly thereafter on June 6, Misawa fought Jumbo Tsuruta in a match that ended up signifying the passing of the torch in All Japan.
A still-in-his-prime Jumbo was bested by Misawa, who legitimately looked as good as Jumbo did, in the second of myriad 5-star classics that Misawa would take part in.
During the 1990’s, the style of All Japan was called King’s Road. The aforementioned Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi, and Taue were deemed “The Four Corners of Heaven,” and from June 1990 to July 2000, arguably the greatest 10 years of in-ring competition that ever took place occurred in All Japan.
Of the Four Corners, Misawa is the one who truly led the way. He held the Triple Crown Championship (AJPW’s World Heavyweight Title, except it is three World titles in one) on five separate occasions, the first three of which for over a year each.
Misawa is the one who is widely credited for being the leader in the ring, the one calling the match (or who laid out the key spots beforehand).
Misawa is the one who is credited with being the best storyteller of the Four Corners. Basically, Misawa was the Best of the Best.
Some of you who are reading this are fans of Ring of Honor, and other US Indy promotions who use their own version of Strong Style wrestling to attract fans.
If you were to ask any of those wrestlers who they model their style after, it’d be the Four Corners, and Misawa’s name would most likely be at the top of the list.
If this article were taking a lighter tone, I would bother to count the number of 5-star matches Misawa has been credited with vs. the number that Ric Flair has had (not that I’m a Meltzer worshipper, but he is the one whose ratings are most recognized), but this isn’t that type of article.
Needless to say though, if there is one man who has had as many or more than Ric Flair, it’s Mitsuharu Misawa.
Post-unmasking, Misawa’s series of 6-man tags and tag matches vs Jumbo’s teams are legendary. Many puro fans would pick out one of those 5-star 6-man tags as the greatest 6-man tag in history.
Misawa’s series with both Kawada and Kobashi are the stuff of legend. 6-3-94 is synonymous with both old-time tape traders, and puro message board junkies, as arguably the single-greatest match of all time, from any country, of any era.
Misawa and Kawada took a feud that had been building while they were still tag team partners, and put their bodies through an unfathomable battle.
The consummate mix of perfect psychology, multiple layers of storytelling playing off past singles and tag team battles, and a level of physicality that would make even the most bloodthirsty, “hardcore” fan cringe, is the single match that most puro fans point to and say “This is why I watch puro today.”
In my humble opinion however, 6-9-95, yet another infinitely well-known date, is the single greatest match of all time. It again pitted the Four Corners against one another, Misawa & Kobashi vs. Kawada & Taue.
Forty-plus minutes of non-stop storytelling & bodily destruction, the likes of which anyone who has only watched American wrestling has never, ever seen. Just the thought of it gives me chills.
I could go on. 1-20-97, Misawa vs. Kobashi, the greatest opening to a match I’ve ever seen, and probably my personal favourite match ever.
02-27-00, Misawa vs. Jun Akiyama, the one they groomed to be the next great one, in arguably Akiyama’s greatest performance ever, arguably Misawa’s last King’s Road Era-level performance ever, and unquestionably the last truly great, classic match from the King’s Road Era.
After the death of All Japan Pro Wrestling’s leader, Shohei “Giant” Baba in 1999, Baba’s wife named Misawa the President of the company.
However, she did not get along with Misawa, who while keeping with many of the past traditions, wanted to change with the times and modernize the company.
This led to Misawa and in total 24 of the 26 contracted All Japan wrestlers leaving the company in July 2000 when their contracts ended (in Japan, contracts end & are renewed on a yearly basis at the same time every year for each company).
Kawada was the only one of the Four Corners who stayed behind in All Japan, surely in part because of real-life tension between him and Misawa.
Misawa named his new company Pro Wrestling NOAH, after the Biblical story of Noah. NOAH was given All Japan’s former television timeslot, and was immediately one of the top-two companies in Japan.
While NOAH has arguably been the best in-ring product of the 2000’s in Japan, their success has been somewhat limited. Major injuries to Kenta Kobashi, who became incredibly beloved, possibly even more so than Misawa, took Kobashi out of the ring multiple times.
In 2001 (knee injuries), most of 2002 (same), Mid-2006 to December 2007 with Cancer, and most recently from last summer until this past March, nerve damage in his forearm from throwing too many chops (having to change his style due to the knee injuries, Kobashi became known as “Chopbashi” in some circles, for his reliance on all things chop).
Beyond this, NOAH took too long to build up their next generation of stars, and the ones that did come along were simply not as skilled in-ring workers as the Four Corners were.
At the same time, MMA had taken over from Puroresu as the big time combat sport in Japan, and so times became tighter.
During this time, Misawa’s body broke down rapidly, and by 2004 (if not sooner) his name value was much greater than his in-ring work. But sadly, that didn’t stop him from pushing himself.
Saturday night in Japan, at 8:01 PM (7:01 AM EST), Misawa, in a Global Honoured Crown Tag Team Title match, with partner Go Shiozaki, challenging Bison Smith & Akitoshi Saito, took a backdrop suplex from Saito, and went into cardiac arrest.
Thinking about the next 10 minutes and what took place gives me chills. The referee pumping Misawa’s chest as you’re taught to do in CPR class. The locker room emptying as word filtered back with news of what’s happening in the ring.
At one point, all the wrestlers who are standing in the ring, about a dozen of them, all simultaneously, frantically tear their shirts off and give them to the Doctor who is now performing chest compressions.
Saito, who performed the move that was simply the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, absolutely distraught, the lone person standing in a ring full of kneeling wrestlers and medical workers. I can’t even keep typing about this, it’s just too hard.
Misawa would have turned 47 years old on Thursday. He has a wife. He has children, though quite honestly, I don’t even wanna look up how many. This story is already too tragic.
By all accounts he was a good person. There are some wrestlers in Japan who you hear nasty stories about. Misawa wasn’t one of them.
On the thread on the wrestling board that I am a regular at, there are over 200 messages, many left by members who said they felt compelled to post despite not having posted in months, or years.
Of the 200+, easily 100 individuals have posted and have been profoundly affected by this.
On a scale of 1-10, 10 being most severe, the move was called a 7, as reported by one of the top wrestling journalists in America who has many Japanese sources. And while that may sound heavy, believe me when I say that Misawa & Co. took 7’s in their sleep.
This man has no-sold 10+’s before on more than one occasion. Unfortunately for his family, his friends, his company, and his fans, this was one move he couldn’t no-sell.
Many are already speculating as to the fate of Pro Wrestling NOAH. Will the Ark sink without the company’s founder? Will Kenta Kobashi, who in all likelihood will hear the cries to retire before he befalls the same fate, take over the reins?
Will Kobashi himself, now a shell of his former self in the ring, push himself far too hard in an attempt to lead NOAH through this unfathomably dark time? It’s obviously far too soon to know, I just hope Kobashi uses logic over machismo in this situation.
I also fear for the employees of NOAH. Not so much the wrestlers, the vast majority of them are good enough to catch on with another top company if need be.
But the behind-the-scenes workers. The ones who aren’t making a lot of money, but are working in NOAH because they love Puroresu, who knows what their fates will be should NOAH close.
Most of all, I fear for Misawa’s wife, and children. Growing up without a father is a terribly unfair fate. Growing old without your significant other is a terribly unfair fate. I don’t know if they celebrate Father’s Day in Japan, but if they do…wow.
And while Kobashi, Taue, Akiyama, and many others from NOAH will most assuredly be there for the Misawa family both in the short & long term, all of their presences combined will never replace that of Mitsuharu Misawa. I guess the same can be said for the fans too.
While the first Four Corners tag match that I saw got me into All Japan, David Ditch (http://wrestling.insidepulse.com/author/davidditch/) is the reason I was able to amass the collection of AJPW matches that I have, and fall in love with it the way that I have.
Ditch hosts a site, http://theditch.biz/ which features matches from the JWA in 1969 all the way to the end of King’s Road Era All Japan.
Ironically enough, today he posted part two of a tv block from June of 2000, the part of the tv show that featured the press conference where Misawa announces that he and almost the entire AJ roster are leaving to form NOAH.
I guess it’s fitting in a way. On the day he dies, we see the press conference where Misawa, long the leader of All Japan inside the ring, creates a company to lead Puroresu into the next generation. I just wish he was still around to lead it himself.
R.I.P Mitsuharu Misawa, 1962-2009
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