TheBigBoot Goes Global #1: Mitsuharu Misawa (18th June, 1962 – 13th June, 2009)
A famous announcement signalling the introduction of one of pro wrestling’s modern day legends, often the start of another five star classic; one that we will sadly no longer hear.
Last Saturday, Japanese wrestling icon, Pro Wrestling NOAHFounder-President and one of the greatest wrestlers of all time Mitusharu Misawa died following a bout in Hiroshima. Whilst teaming with Go Shiozaki against GHC Tag Team Champions Akitoshi Saito and Bison Smith, Misawa was knocked unconscious following a backdrop suplex from Saito. A stunned, hushed crowd watched as a doctor from the audience tried to revive him using CPR before he was rushed to a local hospital who pronounced him dead at 10:10 PM.
Robert Heard already has a comprehensive look at Misawa’s entire career and his attitude to the business up on the site that is well worth checking out. This article is more my personal reflections as to how (and why) I will always remember him from the perspective of a wrestling fan in the UK.
Over the last several days, I have read many tributes to Misawa stating Misawa/Kobashi matches that responsible for getting them interested in the wonderful world of puroresu (Japanese pro wrestling). Misawa played a part in my own journey as a fan albeit in a different way.
Growing up a wrestling fan, I was exposed to Japanese wrestlers from Day One. Fans of World Of Sport-era British grappling got to witness the likes of Sammy Lee (Satoru ‘Tiger Mask I’ Sayama), Kwik-Kick-Lee (Akira Maeda) and ‘Flying’ Fuji Yamada (Jushin Liger) first hand as the future puroresu superstars were sent to the UK for seasoning.
In 1989, one year after ending it’s coverage of British wrestling ITV started broadcasting NWA WorldWide (later WCW WorldWide) a programme which at the time featured another wrestler who would go on to achieve legendary status in his homeland – The Great Muta (aka Keiji Mutōh). Meanwhile, the late Jumbo Tsuruta was a regular name to appear in the wrestling magazines, normally due to his connections with the AWA (mentioned in every article on Rick Martel back then) or the fact he was wrestling Terry ‘Bam Bam’ Gordy in Japan.
Although a fan of all the above, for me it was the exploits of Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger during his 1991-92 run in WCW that got me interested in wrestling outside of Europe and the United States. As a result the first Japanese wrestling I got into was New Japan, especially since it became easily accessible via EuroSport around the same time. So whilst I can’t say that Misawa matches were the reason I became interested in watching some Japanese wrestling, I will say that he was the reason I got into All Japan Pro Wrestling.
Whereas with New Japan there was people like The Steiners, Muta, Liger, Big Van Vader, Road Warrior Hawk, 2 Cold Scorpio, and Chris Benoit all of whom I was already very familiar with/fans of from their work in the States, with AJPW it was Misawa who was the first one that got my attention when I ordered one of those ‘Best Of Japan >insert month<’ tapes after seeing the kind of star ratings they regularly got in Rob Butcher’s monthly tape lists.
Whilst many puro fans will tell you that Kenta Kobashi is the first one of AJPW’s ‘Famous Five’ (Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, Jun Akiyama, and Akira Taue) that people who have never seen the style before “get” because he was flashier and more fiery, and that the more reserved personalities of Misawa and Kawada take longer to appreciate, for me it was the opposite. The first time I saw AJPW I liked Misawa the most and, as a result, I got into the others (plus Americans like Stan Hansen – whom I liked from WCW but didn’t yet know much about), precisely because I already liked ‘Double M’. To be brutally honest, if I hadn’t enjoyed Misawa the first time I saw him I might not have bothered with AJPW/NOAH ever again (I turned off a lot of U.S. and European Indy wrestling just because I didn’t enjoy it anymore).
Maybe it was because he was portrayed as the ‘Ace’, the ‘Main Man’ of All Japan that made me connect with him. At the time, Bret Hart and Ric Flair (pre-Hogan arrival) were both being portrayed as the top babyface and the top wrestler in WWF and WCW respectively so, first seeing Misawa in 1994, he seemed to be promoted in a similar way. Along with guys like Terry Funk, Sabu, Atsushi Onita, and the late Eddie Gilbert, Chris Candido, The Public Enemy, Eddy Guerrero and Art Barr he was one of the first who showed me there was more to wrestling outside the usual Joint Promotions/All-Star Wrestling/WWF/Jim Crocket Promotions/WCW/CWA/USWA/WCCW//Mid-South/UWF/NJPW/GLOW stuff that I had been accustomed to seeing up to that point. It wasn’t hard to see why even back then people considered him to be one of the greatest wrestlers of all time. Many consider him the greatest. In this case, I found this wrestler really was as good as the hype suggested.
Misawa was trained for wrestling from an early age. As a teenager he attended Ashikaga-kodai High School, alongside future rival Toshiaki Kawada, and while there young Misawa became the Japanese high school national amateur wrestling champion at 187 pounds in 1980. He also placed fifth for Freestyle wrestling in the World Championships that same year. Recruited out of school by All Japan founder the late Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba he officially joined the company in March 1981 and following training under the guidance of Baba, The Destroyer (Dick Beyer) and Dory Funk Jr. he made his debut on 21st August that year.
Misawa’s first real push came in 1984 when he was chosen to be the second incarnation of Tiger Mask (following Sayama). As well known as he became in the gimmick he would go on to even greater fame without it. In a memorable angle, during a tag team match on 14th May, 1990 he told his partner Kawada to remove his mask which he threw into the crowd. Mere weeks later (8th June) in his first main event at the legendary Budokan Hall he defeated the companies top star Jumbo Tsuruta in one of my favourite Japanese matches ever. That one classic has been credited as the beginning of a new era in AJPW with the rise of the “Super Generation Army”. Misawa’s rise to the top was completed on 22nd August, 1992 when he defeated Stan Hansen to win the Triple Crown Championship (AJPW’s World Title). He would hold the belt for almost two years, during which period I started to follow Misawa as he held off every challenge, before memorably dropping it to ‘Dr. Death’ Steve Williams on 28th July, 1994.
The win over Hansen had established him as AJPW’s ‘Ace’, their ‘Top Dog’, literally The Man who would carry on AJPW’s Royal Road in the tradition of Giant Baba and Jumbo Tsruta, by taking it to the next level. It was a role he would occupy for the remainder of the decade, during which he captured the Triple Crown a record five times (a combined time of 1,799 days) and contested numerous hard-hitting thirty-plus-minute singles and tag matches opposite the likes of Hansen, Kawada, Taue, Williams, Gordy, Kobashi, and Vader, many of which are regarded as legitimate classics. To this day, his 3rd July, 1994 Triple Crown defence against Toshiaki Kawada is considered by many to be the best singles match of all-time – an example of pro wrestling taken to its highest point as an art form. Less than a year later, his 9th June, 1995 match alongside Kenta Kobashi against Kawada and Akira Taue in which Kawada scored his first pinfall over Mitsuharu Misawa is possibly the best tag team match ever. That both matches happened at or near the peak of the tape-trading boom in the UK brings back fond memories for many fans of that era. In fact even as late as 2003, when UK tape trading guru Glen Radford decided to sell off his collection, I made sure to pick up master copies of some of those to have them in the best quality possible (at the time).
By the time Baba passed away on 31st January 1999, Misawa was a strong contender for ‘Wrestler Of The Decade’ but the new millennium brought some tough challenges. Following the death of Baba, Misawa was named AJPW President but a series of disagreements with Shohei’s widow Motoko Baba led to him being removed from the Executive Board and leaving the promotion in 2000. Taking his cue from the first book of the Bible, Misawa named the new group ‘Pro Wrestling NOAH’, only in this case the Ark was filled with the majority of the AJPW. Proof of the high regard in which Misawa’s peers regarded him, the mass exodus left only Japanese natives Toshiaki Kawada and Masanobu Fuchi, and ‘Gaijan’ (foreign wrestlers) Stan Hansen and Maunakea Mossman (Taiyo Kea) remaining in All Japan. NOAH debuted with a show appropriately named Departure on 5th August, 2000.
Although Misawa held his new company’s top belt, the GHC Title, on three occasions he was eager to pass the torch. Through an unfortunate combination of injuries to other top stars and newer stars not getting over as legitimate headliners he was forced to continue to feature himself in a prominent role despite his mounting injuries. As someone who works with small businesses as one of my ‘day jobs’, I can relate this to the experience that many owner-managers face. Misawa’s most talked about NOAH match, amongst Western fans came against Kobashi on 1st March, 2003 at Navigation For Evolution. Despite the accumulative injuries both men had from years of working a highly physical style (Kobashi had surgery eleven times in total on both knees prior) they were able to pull out a dramatic 33 minute match in which Kobashi finally defeated Misawa for the GHC Title. Kobashi’s first major title win over Misawa was supposed to signal a new era but for some it came several years too late. Nonetheless, it is hard to remember a Japanese match post-1997 that generated as much discussion amongst fans that don’t regularly follow puro.
In 2004, fans in the UK and Ireland got a chance to see the promotion on a regular basis when NOAH was broadcast on The Wrestling Channel. The following March they got the chance to see him up-close as Misawa teamed with Tiger Emperor and Yoshinari Ogawa against Doug Williams, James Tighe and Scorpio as part of TWC’s International Showdown at the Coventry Skydome. Amazingly, that wasn’t his only appearance in the UK (or in Coventry) as the Japanese legend also joined forces with Yoshinari Ogawa (vs. Doug Williams and Stevie Knight) in Scotland’s BCW (the night before International Showdown), and with Naomichi Marufuji (vs. old rival Kenta Kobashi and Go Shiozaki) and Kotaro Suzuki (vs. Bison Smith and Mark Haskins) as part of last July’s European Navigation tour which represented NOAH’s first events outside Japan. Little did anyone know it would be for the last time?
As common as wrestlers deaths seem to be, 46 is still no age to go (since then Japanese referee Ted Tanabe died at the same age). Any death is sad, but death in the ring has added poinancy.
Whether you were a hardcore puroresu wrestling fanatic or just someone like me , not the most regular watcher but normally takes time out to check out the bigger matches each year, the chances are, if you saw him, Misawa had an impact. His trademark green and white tights, forearm-based offense and one of the best entrance tunes in the business (Spartan X) are as identifiable with Puro as any wrestler has ever been. His rivalries with Kawada and Kobashi are possibly the most famous series of Japanese wrestling matches to Western fans.
So how would I explain Misawa to someone who hasn’t seen him? I would just say that in the twenty-plus years I have been following this crazy thing we call ‘pro wrestling’ there have been many wrestlers ranked amongst my favourites to watch, but there are very few wrestlers I have ever called “great”. Personally, I would put Misawa up there with (or above) the likes of Jumbo, The Funks, Race, Flair, Steamboat, Savage, Hart, Dynamite, Rocco, Liger, Mutōh, Takada, Vader, Kobashi, and Kawada as wrestlers people should check out because they were amongst the very, very best I have seen at what they did.
A successful business owner, a company figurehead and an iconic wrestler, Misawa performed at a level very few have been able to match as evidenced by the fact he was involved in more (24) matches rated ***** by The Wrestling Observer than any other worker in history. His contributions to the business will be sorely missed. At this time I feel sorry for his family, friends and also everyone the Misawa match, especially Saito.
Misawa would have turned 47 this Thursday. Last weekend pro wrestling has lost one of its best. He will be sadly missed. I thank him for the hours of enjoyment he has given me.
Carl ‘TheBigBoot’ Robinson