5 years ago today, a great shockwave came out of Japan. It wasn’t an earthquake or a typhoon, but rather it was the sound of wrestling fans finding out that at 46 years old, Japanese Wrestling Legend Mitsuharu Misawa had tragically died.
I remember being loosely introduced to Mitsuharu Misawa through early WWE Smackdown games on the PS2. Create-A-Wrestler had these pre-made move-sets, and as it turned out, about half of them were for Japanese wrestlers, and that included Misawa. It wasn’t until 2004, when SKY TV introduced me to The Wrestling Channel, and it was there that I was introduced to Japanese Pro Wrestling…and at first, I hated it…I just didn’t get it. I realised who these guys were, but I wasn’t that impressed at the time. One reason possibly being that these were just regular TV matches, not epic main events, and I wasn’t used to the slower style or the silent Japanese crowds who were actually focusing on the match like a movie and then going ‘OOOOOAAAAHH!’ when something amazing happened. Several years later, The Wrestling Channel was cancelled, and Youtube became the global phenomenon it is okay. I became interested in seeing what “The greatest japanese wrestler of all time, Jumbo Tsuruta” was like, and behold, I found his June 8th 1990 match against a then 27 year old Misawa. The match was insanely good. I loved it. Afterwards I came across Dave Meltzer’s list of 5-star matches. I noticed something interesting about the list; the WWE only had 4 5-star matches at the time (Before CM Punk & John Cena at Money In The Bank 2011 created a 5th)…while All Japan Pro Wrestling had a total of 33! Many of which had the same names; Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Akira Taue, Toshiaki Kawada, Jun Akiyama, Stan Hansen, Jumbo Tsuruta and others. I looked for every one of these matches, found most of them and became a fan.
A new question then pops up, not only from non-wrestling fans, but fans who only watch WWE as well; who was Misawa? Mitsuharu Misawa was quite possibly the best heavyweight wrestler of his generation, and easily 1 of the top 10 best wrestlers of all time. His match-quality in his prime was so refined and high that he was nicknamed “The Standard-Bearer Of Future Generations”. A number of his singles and tag team matches are legendary. Wrestling moves have been innovated by him and effectively named after him as well, including the Tiger Driver (from his time as Tiger Mask II) and the Emerald Flowsion (because he wore emerald coloured tights). He did the elbow smash so well that it was a potential finisher in his matches. He was the most successful AJPW Triple Crown Champion of all time (holding it 5-times and 1000 days longer than the 2nd longest combined holder). A 3-time Wrestler Of The Year Winner, a 2-time Most Outstanding Wrestler Of The Year Winner, the record-holder for most 5-Star Matches given by Dave Meltzer, at 24. And up until his death, he was also a boss. From early 1999 to mid 2000 He took over All Japan Pro Wrestling after previous boss, Shohei “Giant” Baba, died. He kept it floating before business disputes with his late employer’s wife led him to creating Pro Wrestling NOAH (named after the biblical figure), and leading to the largest mass exodus in wrestling history, as 90% of AJPW’s roster left to join NOAH (showing his popularity among peers). For 9 years after that, Pro Wrestling NOAH became the number 2 and even the number 1 professional wrestling company in Japan in terms of in-ring quality. Rookies from AJPW who went to NOAH developed greatly and became big stars. Misawa was not only boss, but remained a reliable main eventer up until 2008, when he decided to wrestle lower on the card and develop younger talent. Stepping down, and letting a new era dawn on the company
Misawa’s approach to selling wrestling moves was among the most dangerous, even for Japan. A style that made fans wonder how he could ever wrestle again after a number of his matches. When a wrestler needed to try a new move to see how safe or dangerous it could be, Misawa was often the go-to guy. He received and sold some of the sickest moves out there, many of which involved dropping him on his head, neck and shoulders. At 6 feet 1 inch and weighing 110kg (242lbs), it was a lot of weight on important parts of the body. The Backdrop Driver that killed him, was a routine move. A freak accident, and nobody’s entire fault. Misawa felt he needed to continue working. Worried about the finances, and whether they were making enough money to stay afloat. It was believed that some of his types of injuries have retired numerous american wrestlers, and he was still working while not letting himself heal. It could be argued that in some way he worked himself to death.
His lack of presence in professional wrestling remains felt. Puroresu (Japanese Pro Wrestling) doesn’t feel the same without him, let alone Pro Wrestling NOAH. His students and peers carry on his legacy, and I still consider him to be the man who helped ruin the WWE for me. Allowing me to realise that popular wrestling with high production budgets isn’t always the best wrestling. Youtube provides us with an excellent privilege that wasn’t available for those who had to trade video tapes to see what was going on around the world. When time is available and you’re a wrestling fan, check out his matches in AJPW during the 1990s. You won’t regret it.