Japan’s Pro Wrestling Icon: Mitsuharu Misawa

By Ross Everett

Mitsuharu Misawa died in Hiroshima, Japan earlier this year less than a week before his 47th birthday. He was in a tag team match for his Pro Wrestling NOAH promotion with Go Shiozaki against Bison Smith and Akitoshi Saito. Saito hit a back suplex on Misawa, which appeared to knock him unconscious. Medical staff attempted to revive him in the ring, but when CPR failed he was taken to a hospital by ambulance. He never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead on arrival.

That’s at least a small bit of solace amid the tragedy of Misawa’s death–he died in the ring doing what he loved, and what he did better than just about anyone on the planet. Misawa’s last moments were spent working the kind of brutally stiff, athletically realistic match that got a generation hooked on Japanese wrestling.

A top level amateur wrestler in high school, his skill gained the attention of All Japan Pro Wrestling president Shohei Giant Baba. He made his professional debut in’81, and got his first big break in’84 when he was chosen as the second Tiger Mask replacing Satoru Sayama. In’90, he had his longtime tag team partner (and occasional rival) Toshiaki Kawada unmask him.

Misawa would wrestle as himself from then on, and become an even bigger star in the process. In June,’90 he became one of the top stars in All Japan Pro Wrestling when he defeated Jumbo Tsuruta. He soon faced Triple Crown Champion Stan Hansen in an unsuccessful challenge for the title, and would become arguably the biggest native star in Japanese pro wrestling for the next decade.

Hed have legendary battles against Kawada, Hansen, Kenta Kobashi, Jun Akiyama and Steve Dr. Death Williams in singles competition. Hed also become a force on the tag team scene along with Kawada facing Williams and Terry Gordy along with Tsuruta and Akira Taue. Misawa would continue as a mainstay in AJPW until the early part of this decade. After the death of Giant Baba, he repeatedly bumped heads with his widow over the companys direction and in 2000 quit to establish Pro Wrestling NOAH. He would serve as the companys president while wrestling a full time schedule until his untimely death.

Japanese pro wrestling served as a gateway drug for many into shoot fight sports and MMA. Before the Internet, fans would trade videotapes to stay up on the latest matches from Japan and along with Jushin Thunder Liger and The Great Muta Keiji Mutoh it safe to say that Misawa is one of the wrestlers most responsible for getting a generation of American fans hooked on the product. For American fans at the time”and with the WWE at its creative low point”the All Japan and New Japan Pro Wrestling product was nothing short of a revelation.

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