The Reality of Wrestling: The Death of Mitsuharu Misawa

And I thought Abismo Negro would be the big wrestling death this year

Potentially the story of the year in wrestling took place this weekend as Japanese wrestling legend Mitsuharu Misawa died in the ring five days shy of his 47th birthday during the main-event of a Pro Wrestling NOAH show in Hiroshima. Misawa was teaming with Go Shiozaki in a GHC tag title match against champions Bison Smith and Akitoshi Saito. Around the twenty-seven minute mark of the match, Saito suplexed Misawa to the canvas, but Misawa couldn’t and wouldn’t get up. The quick finish was employed with the champions retaining and then the ring doctor tended to Misawa, who when asked if he could move simply responded, “No.” Around 10:10 p.m. (Japan time) Saturday night, Misawa was pronounced dead at a Hiroshima hospital sending NOAH into chaos and adding another name to the list of those in the wrestling business who died too young. Unbelievably, Misawa’s wasn’t the only pro wrestling death to rock Japan in the past week as Osaka Pro referee Ted Tanabe died Monday after collapsing following the main-event of an Osaka Pro show the previous night, a match that Tanabe was refereeing.

P.C. Says: I’m sick of the great ones dying while still active

This death is a lot different than most pro wrestling deaths. The fact that it took place in the ring gives it a special place in the category of pro wrestling tragedy. The biggest difference between Misawa’s death and the majority of pro wrestling deaths is that this one had nothing to do with drugs or any other kind of excess that dominates this business, it was an aging body that finally gave way.

I had been calling for Misawa’s retirement from the ring basically as long as I’ve had this column (almost four years), did think that his final title reign was unnecessary, and the fact that he was still getting big wins to be counterproductive to what NOAH needs and has needed for about as long as Misawa should’ve been retired. I say that not only as a fan of many of NOAH’s young talent, but because if Misawa had three plus years of just focusing on the inner-workings of his promotion, everyone would’ve benefited. That being said, he obviously didn’t deserve this and I’m sad and pissed off that it happened.

The very first match I ever saw from the country of Japan—and the match that got me hooked on Japanese wrestling—was Misawa’s triple crown defense against Toshiaki Kawada at Nippon Budokan Hall on June 3, 1994. Many have called this the match of the 90’s, many have called it the best match in Japanese wrestling history, and many have called it the best match in wrestling history. Whether it is any of those is up to debate, what is certain is that it was another example of how two guys at the top of their game, motivated to put on their best, could put on the same great show time after time; the Misawa/Kawada rivalry was exactly that. In a country where the booking differs to the extent that singles matches occur much, much less than in the U.S., Misawa and Kawada had around fifteen singles matches against each other (excluding Misawa’s time as Tiger Mask II) that stand as one of the great rivalries in wrestling history. Even the two’s match from NOAH’s Tokyo Dome show only four years ago, a match that should’ve been Misawa’s final, was able to outshine a good amount of the stuff below it on the card. The matches were able to be intense, brutal, physical to an extreme, while also being beautiful and most importantly, seamless.

The 1990’s in Japan were one of the finest decades for wrestling and Misawa played a major part in making that possible. The fact that he had the help of possibly the best heavyweight locker room in the history of the sport isn’t too bad, but what put Misawa above all others is that he was the chosen one, Baba’s chosen one that is. I made mention of Misawa getting his first big break with the feud with Jumbo Tsuruta (who died at age 49) a few times in this column and the reason I say Misawa was the chosen one was because Baba chose him for that push when either Taue, Kobashi, or Kawada would’ve made as much sense, especially because Misawa had just unmasked (he was Tiger Mask II until 1990) a few weeks before the first Tsuruta match and Baba could’ve pulled the plug on Misawa at any point. Misawa took this not as something that would allow him to coast since he was top dog, but as a challenge to prove that he was indeed the best wrestler in the company and thus deserving of the top spot. The fact that he had a locker room of wrestlers who could be just as deserving of that top spot almost created a competition amongst the heavyweights in the All Japan locker room during this time to see who the best wrestler on the planet really was.

From 1992-1998, Misawa was that top man. And while certain years allowed members of the All Japan locker room to shine a little brighter than he for various reasons, Misawa was the most consistent and most memorable in that locker room. Putting aside the memorable rivalry with Kawada, there were the matches with Kobashi that earned the legend status that the Kawada feud did, the matches with Taue that seemed to surprise people every time, the matches with Akiyama that created a new young/veteran rivalry, the matches with Americans like Vader, Steve Williams, Johnny Ace (whose best matches came against Misawa), Stan Hansen, Terry Gordy, and Gary Albright showed his versatility while never going fully outside his own style against any particular opponent, no matter how much the style clash.

The NOAH years will become the tragic side of this story as they showed how Misawa could do things successfully that Baba couldn’t (a full and successful junior division) and that his time had passed and he never realized it. During the first few years in NOAH, Misawa continued to have memorable matches as he had in All Japan, with the most noteworthy of these being against former All Japan opponents such as Vader, Akiyama, and Kobashi as well as some new names to his list of great match opponents including Yoshihiro Takayama in two big singles matches noteworthy for their stiffness and outright brutality. The years 2000-2003 offered Misawa the opportunity to take his game into the next century and produce the same brutal and beautiful magic that dominated his time in All Japan. But at some point the compilation of no time off, no major injuries to give him time off, and continuing to work the same incredibly stiff style he did in All Japan during the 90’s took more and more of a toll on Misawa than it had during any other point of his career; that’s when he should have quit. Going out against Kawada in The Dome would’ve been a perfect exit, but Misawa was another who didn’t know when to hang up his boots and was another who didn’t want to. The man’s competitive spirit and willingness to get in the ring cannot be denied, as it was to such an extent—as happens to many in the business—that at his age it continued to cloud his judgment about his own body as it appears that the spinal injury that brought about the cardiac arrest that killed him may have been exacerbated by previous spinal damage; again, no time off.

Like Hashimoto, Misawa’s later years in the business saw him embody many of the negative traits he had not during his glory years, but like Hashimoto this won’t cloud his legacy. The fact that he died in the ring will only strengthen Misawa’s legacy in the country in Japan, as it deserves to be. The All Japan style during Baba’s time there (1972-1999) was a brawling/big move hybrid that became one of the most physically taxing styles in the history of the sport. Misawa was the apex of this style as was the other members of the Four Pillars of Heaven (Taue, Kobashi, and Kawada). With these men came the best decade of matches amongst four wrestlers ever in the history of wrestling. And while the other three played a critical role in All Japan becoming what it became in the 90’s and the matches wouldn’t have been half as good with lesser wrestlers in there, the fact that Misawa’s name is attached to almost every single one of the best matches from that time period is a clear indication as to the kind of wrestler that he was and the kind of person that we lost this past weekend.

The Reality is…he’s gone. Just like that. I did write at the beginning that I’m sick of the good ones dying while still active and I stand by that. Guerrero, Benoit, Brody, Owen, Pillman, the list goes on and on (and those names were mainly from the last ten years). For some reason many of the great ones are destined to seal their legend in a sort of martyrdom, victims of the worst elements of this business, or just unlucky as with any in-ring death with the most noteworthy being “Iron” Mike Dibiase, Gary Albright, and now Mitsuharu Misawa. In his autobiography, Roddy Piper talked about “the sickness” in pro wrestling. What Piper was referring to was the depths some would sink to for some in-ring time. What Piper was mainly talking about was the more degrading and humiliating things such as Vince’s “Kiss My Ass Club,” but I would venture to say that the Four Pillars of Heaven embody the true “sickness” in the world of pro wrestling: putting the business before themselves. When you wrestle the same style at 47 that would did at 27 and that style is as physically taxing as the one that Misawa was wrestling, you are no longer thinking of your own long-term well-being. Look at Taue, who is now down to his yearly big performance and can still bring some good stuff with the hot tag’s in tag matches, but nothing much other than that for the last seven or eight years. Look at Kawada and even Tenryu, two of the best workers of their generations, prolonging their careers in the sports-entertainment/comedy promotion HUSTLE just because they want to still get into that ring. Of course, Kawada still gets to kick the shit out of people so I’m not 100% objective to that one. And look at Kobashi, who I thought would beat Misawa to the grave as morbid as that might sound. In this decade, Kobashi has had two separate major knee injuries (both requiring surgery and time off), beat cancer, and had surgery on his arms after one became partially paralyzed; all of that while wrestling the same brutal style that he had fifteen years ago. It’s not even that Misawa is my favorite Japanese wrestler ever (that honor goes to Kawada), but because he was someone who loved getting into that ring so much, and had such a want to get in there that he didn’t care about his body or himself, no matter the consequences. And while that attitude produced some of the best matches in the history of the business it came at a price as you could literally watch Misawa’s body degenerate over the last five years, and then there was this past Saturday. Monday I listened to Spartan X one more time in honor of the man and his career and am even prouder than ever to say that Misawa/Kawada from 6/3/94 is my intro match when I try to get someone into Japanese pro wrestling. Misawa, thanks for the memories.