Mitsuharu Misawa: A Retrospective Tribute

James TriggsCorrespondent IJune 14, 2009

Image credit: Neil Swint

The term "legend" is thrown about a lot. The original meaning refers to a story about supernatural beings or events. The fantastic and the larger than life.

Mitsuharu Misawa is a legend in the truest sense of the word.

On pro wrestling forums, Misawa achieved a sort of mythical status, a figure who purportedly did some of the finest work ever done inside a ring. Stories were and still are told about his feud with Kenta Kobashi, arguably the best fued of all time.

Misawa could put on such great matches that it did seem supernatural. Some of his matches are of such a quality that it can be hard to believe that human beings have been able to achieve it.

Even people who heard of him but hadn't seem him in action referred him to those looking for great wrestling.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with puroresu in the past two decades had to hear his name and would quickly regard him highly even without seeing his matches.

If you were looking to get into puroresu, that is, Japanese pro wrestling, or just wanted to see some great wrestling, Mitsuharu Misawa was one of the first names that would come up.

If you have never heard of Misawa until his recent death, then you have come to the right place. Here is a look back at Misawa's career and a tribute to one of the best to ever set foot into the ring.

Mitsuharu Misawa was born on Monday, June 18, 1962, in Yūbari, Hokkaidō. His family soon moved to Koshiyaga, Saitama, where he was raised.

In his youth, he longed to become a professional wrestler. Pro wrestling is all the richer because Misawa pursued his dreams.

As he grew older, he attended Ashikaga-kodai High School, in Ashikaga City in Tochigi. His potential as a pro wrestler was evident at the beginning: he was a successful amateur wrestler and placed fifth in the 85 kg division at the 1980 FILA World Championships.

He was trained to become a pro wrestler by three of the industry's biggest names: Shohei "Giant" Baba was the founder of All Japan Pro Wrestling and is considered to be one of the best promoters of all time. AJPW was to be the promotion Misawa was in for many years.

Dick Beyer, known as "The Destroyer", is a great wrestler who has been integral in the rise of pro wrestling in Mexico and Japan. Dory Funk Jr., is one of the best trainers of all time, a great wrestler and an excellent champion.

Mitsuharu Misawa could not have asked for better trainers and in paying our respects to Mitsuharu Misawa, so too must we thank his trainers.

In March 1981, he joined Giant Baba's All Japan Pro Wrestling. He made his debut not in an arena, but in the open-air, against Shiro Koshinaka at the Horse Race Course in Urawa City, Saitama. This occurred on Aug. 21, 1981. He lost the match but in retrospect, it was a moral victory.

Ever since he debuted, Mitsuharu Misawa proved he belonged. He was one of the most promising talents of the time and his skill was clearly at a high level and he would continue to develop. 

He was soon given the name "Kamikaze" Misawa. He worked often with Shiro Koshinaka, given the name "Samurai" Shiro.

"Kamikaze" Misawa and "Samurai" Shiro were two rising stars when they were sent in March 1984 for a three month tour to Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre, a Mexican promotion. The fact that he was sent on this tour shows the faith AJPW had in him.

This experience was no doubt beneficial and soon after his return AJPW made the decision to entrust him with the Tiger Mask persona.

The persona had been created by New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1981 to attract younger fans of the popular anime, which had ended a decade prior.

Satoru Sayama was the first Tiger Mask and filled the role for two years, Sayama is the one of the most athletic performers and one of the best kickers there has ever been in pro wrestling.

He didn't need to use high-flying moves. You could see his athleticism in the way he kicked and the way he moved. That is how athletic he was.

Satoru Sayama was engaged in an excellent feud with The Dynamite Kid that produced some classics that rank among the best matches of all time. Sayama and The Dynamite Kid put the Junior Heavyweight Division on the map with incredible performances.

Tiger Mask was a nationwide phenomenon until Sayama left NJPW in 1983 and the gimmick was put on hold.

In 1984, AJPW bought the rights to the character.from NJPW. Giving Mitsuharu Misawa the opportunity to be the next Tiger Mask was asking Misawa to fill some very large shoes.

Misawa had proven how good a wrestler he was, but did he have what it took to become a true standout star?  Giant Baba hoped and believed he did.

Giant Baba was to be proven right, perhaps even more than he expected.

Mitsuhara debuted as the new Tiger Mask at the Den-en Coliseum in Tokyo on August 26, 1984. He would go on to feud with Kuniaki Kobayashi, the "Tiger Hunter," due to his matches against both Tiger Mask and Tiger Mask II in numerous quality matches.

In addition, The Dynamite Kid, Chavo Guerrero Sr. and Atsushi Onita feuded with Tiger Mask II. Guerrero and Onita were the two big stars of the division in AJPW before Misawa. The Dynamite Kid had famously feuded with Tiger Mask. 

Tiger Mask II's feuds included continuity with what Sayama had done as Tiger Mask in another promotion, something that went down very well with the fans and should perhaps be done more often with other wrestlers. This unique kind of continuity added to the depth of the psychology and storylines in Misawa's matches, which Misawa has since become renowned for.

Tiger Mask II didn't make the revolutionary impact his predecessor did, not that he could really be expected to, but neither did he disappoint in the role.

He managed to fill the shoes of Tiger Mask and held his own with Satoru Sayama's legacy. That was a huge accomplishment.

Until 1990, Misawa would continue in his role as the second Tiger Mask. He became the first Tiger Mask to get involved in the Heavyweight division for which he was to become better known for participating in. He was taken under the wing of Jumbo Tsuruta, arguably the best wrestler in the world at the time.

In the heavyweight division, the seeds of his future were evident, partly through his feuds and partly through his other matches against future rivals, such as Kenta Kobashi.

Though on the losing end of his first feud against Tsuruta, working with him helped Misawa to take up his mantle of the ace in AJPW after Tsuruta retired. His feud with the veteran Gen'ichiro Tenyru was also a helpful experience for Misawa.

The direction he would take later was also evident in his challenging AWA World Heavyweight Champion Curt Hennig for the title at Korakuen Hall on Jan. 2, 1988 and his championship match against NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat on March 8, 1989, at the Nippon Budokan.

A shocking turn of events occurred at the May 14, 1990, show at the Tokyo Gym. In a tag match partnering with Toshiaki Kawada, he ordered his tag partner to remove his mask five minutes into the match.

Two days later, he officially re-debuted as Mitsuharu Misawa, no longer Tiger Mask II (apart from some special Tiger Mask reunion tag matches).

It is this period of time that we start the era of Misawa's greatest triumphs. Shortly after, on June 8, Misawa finally defeated Jumbo Tsuruta in a thrilling match in the Nippon Budokan. This was no mere passing of the torch moment.

Tsuruta was like a fine wine, as his last few years were also his best years. Defeating Tsuruta at his peak as a wrestler (if not in age) established Misawa as a true top star of the company and proved once and for once he had what it took to carry a promotion.

In addition to his second feud with Tsuruta, Misawa would regularly challenge Stan Hansen for the AJPW Triple Crown, but would not be successful until Aug. 22, 1992 at the Nippon Budokan.

Misawa also lost the rematch against Tsuruta in September 1990, and it was this pacing of Misawa's success that made him truly popular and great.

For that we must thank Giant Baba, the booker at the time.

Misawa always had something to accomplish next. He always had purpose. You never felt that he had nothing to do. Whether it be in his personal feuds, being champion or his being in the title hunt, it always had deeper meaning than with many other wrestlers.

Misawa is synonymous with good storylines and good psychology and this is what made his classic matches classics, more than just the high-quality wrestling itself.

His feuds with Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, Akira Taue and Jun Akiyama led to a great period of wrestling in All Japan Pro Wrestling, with these four being the bastions of the promotion's main event scene, with a great amount of high-quality matches. There is so much that an be said about this period.

In his prime, Mitusharu Misawa was a great wrestler, definitely one of the best in the world. He was extremely consistent and in general, a joy to watch.

Many of Misawa's matches were multi-layered with psychological meaning and this made his matches mean so much more, though like anyone, it is more difficult to appreciate his matches unless you see his development in the storylines.

Almost everyone enjoys a good story. Therefore, almost everyone will enjoy a Misawa match. More than simple enjoyment, his matches are more powerful because the storytelling is coupled with a high-level of physicality and technical moves.

The intelligent way Misawa had been booked perhaps influenced Misawa's way of thinking. Perhaps Misawa's in-ring intelligence led to his intelligent booking. More likely, it was elements of both. Misawa's great strength was his intelligence in the ring.

He was the one that took the lead in how matches were structured and he excelled at that. A big part of the classics he was a part of was attributable to Misawa.

This also can be seen in the next stage of his career. In the wake of Giant Baba's death on Jan. 1, 1999, Misawa succeeded him as company president by virtue of his rank in AJPW.

As company president, he was in charge of booking. On May 28, 2000, he was removed in this position by the executive board.

Misawa had done nothing wrong, but there was a disagreement with Motoko Baba, Giant Baba's wife, over the company's direction.

A mass exodus occurred on June 13. Most of the talent joined Misawa in leaving AJPW, a massive blow. Toshiaki Kawada, Masanobu Fuchi were the only two natives to remain. Stan Hansen and Taiyō Kea were the two major gaijin that remained.

Some of these wrestlers have held senior management positions. Twelve office workers at AJPW later left to follow Misawa and the other wrestlers.

The television station that had aired AJPW for 27 years, NTV, confirmed on June 19 at a press conference, it was confirmed at AJPW would no longer be aired. NTV held 15 percent of AJPW's stock and they prevented AJPW from being aired on another network.

In a huge press conference on June 16, that had the nation's attention with over 100 reporters and photographers present, it was announced  that they were leaving to start up a new promotion in a more 'modern style.'

That promotion was to become Pro Wrestling NOAH, after the biblical story of Noah's ark. This name was announced a day later.

A few days later, NTV announced they would be airing Pro Wrestling NOAH, under the title 'Colloseo.' The huge support for Misawa shows the sheer respect people had for him and his abilities.

Pro Wrestling NOAH has become one of the best promotions in the world thanks to Misawa, featuring outstanding matches and high quality shows, especially since 2005.

Misawa himself was declining in recent years, but he still entertained the crowds like before and he remained productive as a wrestler and a company owner to the very end.

The establishment of Pro Wrestling NOAH helped usher in a new era of wrestling in Japan that allowed for more leeway when it came to interpromotional matches. Pro Wrestling NOAH also is helping pro wrestling to recover from its state today.

Mitsuharu Misawa is dead, but his legacy will live on in Pro Wrestling NOAH and in through his classic matches that will be talked about and enjoyed for ages to come. 


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