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So yesterday as I was preparing for UFC 99, I was told, “Hey did you hear about that Japanese wrestler who died?” I was unable to use the internet for pretty much the entire day so naturally I had not heard about anybody dying. Now there are hundreds of Japanese workers, so I immediately assumed it was a lesser known talent, possibly somebody from Big Japan. The biggest star that popped into my head was Atsushi Onita.

Words cannot describe how horrified I was when I learned that it was Mitsuharu Misawa who died.

Misawa’s final entrance the night he died (courtesy of Alan Counihan):

Of all of the workers in Japan, of every single soul who has ever made a small or a big impact in puroresu, why was Mitsuharu Misawa taken from us? I will admit that it was rather difficult to pay attention to UFC 99 with the lingering thought that I’d never see another Misawa match again.

I grew up a wrestling fan watching American-styled pro wrestling and became somewhat of a local tape trader in the late 90s. I was not exposed to the All Japan strong style of work until well-after it’s heyday. With the advent of things such as the Internet (and especially YouTube), these legendary matches that Dave Meltzer had praised so much throughout the years in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter could finally be seen at the touch of a button. It was then that a boatload of fans from the United States finally got to see what the fuss was all about.

Mitsuharu Misawa is one of the greatest professional wrestlers to ever step foot in a ring. Now I know a lot of people say that, but Misawa was one guy who could actually lay claim to it. When you talk about the top 10 best in-ring workers of all time (yes ALL-TIME, even back to the Abe Lincoln days), any list that does not include Misawa is probably written by some mark who’s never seen anything outside of WWE. Other than Kenta Kobashi, no other professional wrestler has achieved more 5 star ratings in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter than Mitsuharu Misawa.

Misawa became well known early on as one of the proteges of the legendary Giant Baba, who ironically and tragically passed away himself exactly ten years ago. Misawa was soon packaged as Tiger Mask II, an answer to New Japan’s Tiger Mask gimmick, which was one of the most popular characters in 1980s puro. Soon after, Misawa unmasked and off to the races he went. Mitsuharu Misawa became the top star in All Japan Pro Wrestling, and alongside Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, Akira Taue, and a handful of hugely popular gai-jin, carried All Japan Pro Wrestling to having the best in-ring product of any company throughout the 90s. Every single time you watched one of those crazy Tag Team Grand Prix matches, or a Triple Crown Match, you were guaranteed a minimum of 25 minutes of brutal, smash-mouth, stiff, strong-style pro wrestling that almost always was a classic match. You were just about out of your seat at the near-falls. You squirmed every time you saw somebody get dropped on their neck. The work was immeasurable. They say that pro wrestling is fake. All Japan was realer than you’d think folks.

Misawa’s famous win over Jumbo Tsuruta and subsequent victory over Stan Hansen to capture the AJPW Triple Crown are moments that will forever be etched in time. You could see fans in tears, crying, because their hero had finally done it. Misawa had SEVERAL classic matches with his main rivals Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi, as well as with Stan Hansen, Johnny Ace (John Laurinatis, WWE’s current Head of Talent Relations), and more. Every single match Misawa was seemingly nothing less than ***1/2.

Misawa reigned supreme in All Japan until 1999. Baba died and because of creative differences with Baba’s widow, the grand puro exodus occurred. Misawa, along with the rest of All Japan’s top stars (except Kawada and some of the Gaijin) left All Japan and formed Pro Wrestling NOAH, with Misawa as president and figurehead (as well as booker).

Pro Wrestling NOAH continued the tradition of strong style wrestling that was emphasized in All Japan, but also gave new stars a chance to shine. Guys like KENTA, Mohammed Yone, Naomichi Marifuji, and Bison Smith became huge stars and made tons of money in NOAH. But even with Kobashi getting cancer and injuries to a lot of the top guys, as well as talent trades, one thing you could count on was that Misawa was always there. Was he on top a bit too long? Perhaps. Was his work on the same level in 2008 that it was in 1998? Certainly not. Should he have retired five years earlier? Maybe. Still, Misawa was a staple of not only NOAH and All Japan, but of the Japanese culture as a whole.

With Misawa no longer in the NOAH locker room, what sort of changes will occur in the company? Will the booking change? Will the morale change? NOAH hasn’t exactly had a great 2009 and this right here was the icing on the cake in terms of tragedies.

But today we forget about the future of NOAH for just a little bit and focus on the life and legacy of Mitsuharu Misawa. What does Misawa mean to me? To me, Misawa is hard work, dedication, and a willing to take risks and prevail. Mitsuharu Misawa WAS pro wrestling in it’s purest form: an athletic competition where you leave everything in the ring. Night in and night out he did that and I for one will never forget it and neither will my peers Alan, Louie, and all of the others who were enthralled with those insane matches and moments that he left us.

Today, we celebrate the life and legacy of one of, if not THE, greatest wrestlers of all time.

Arigato Misawa-sama…

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3 thoughts on “The Legacy of Mitsuharu Misawa

  1. Since I think it’s important that this is noted, Misawa actually had one more match granted the usually elusive, 5 Stars, by Meltzer than Kobashi.

  2. Yes Forety, and I’m going to give you the exact same answer I gave you on AIM hours ago when you first brought this up: “I’m referring to singles matches.”

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