Mitsuharu Misawa may have been the greatest professional wrestler living anywhere on the planet. His name wasn’t widely known in the U.S. except among the most dedicated wrestling fans, but in Japan he was one of the industry’s top stars for twenty-five years. From 1984 to 1990 he wrestled under a mask as Tiger Mask II, the successor to the legendary original Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama. Transitioning from a junior heavyweight to the main event heavyweight division after unmasking, Misawa went on to dominate All-Japan, one of the two dominant Japanese promotions, for the next decade. His matches with sometime tag partners Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama are celebrated by wrestling fans all over the world as some of the greatest ever. In 2000, after five reigns as All-Japan’s Triple Crown Champion, Misawa left to found his own company, taking nearly the entire roster along with him. Of All-Japan’s native stars only Kawada and the aging Masanobu Fuchi stayed behind. Everyone else followed Misawa to his aptly named Pro Wrestling NOAH.
Misawa died in the ring last night in the main event of a NOAH show at the Green Arena in Hiroshima. Working a tag match with Go Shiozaki against Akitoshi Saito and Bison Smith, Misawa took a bump on his upper back and neck following a backdrop suplex from Saito. He lost consciousness. The match was stopped and CPR was performed in the ring, but Misawa was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly thereafter. Cause of death is speculated to be a heart attack, though there’s been no official announcement that I’ve seen.
Update (6/16): Wrestling Observe/Figure Four Online is reporting the cause of death was a spinal cord injury resulting from the suplex, not a heart attack as earlier speculated.
The backdrop suplex is a horrific looking move, with the wrestler receiving the move being dropped backwards onto his head, but it is a staple of puroresu, as pro wrestling is called in Japan. Wrestlers are trained to take the move safely and forbidden to take the bump in an actual match until they have demonstrated a mastery of it. When was the last time you saw a Japanese wrestler with a skinny neck?
Misawa is not the first wrestler to die in the ring. Last month marked the tenth anniversary of the death of Owen Hart, who fell from the top of the Kemper Arena in St. Louis as the result of a botched entrance stunt during a WWF pay-per-view event. Before that, Plum Mariko, a star in Japanese Women’s Pro Wrestling, died following a Ligerbomb in 1997, also in Hiroshima. In 1993 Oro, a 21 year-old Luchadore, died in Mexico City following a botched sell of a clothesline. The case most similar to Misawa’s own death is that of Gary Albright, who died in the ring in 2000. Albright, himself a former champion in All-Japan who had once challenged Misawa for the Triple Crown, was working a World Xtreme Wrestling show in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. His opponent executed an Ace Crusher (also called a Diamond Cutter, an RKO, a whole slew of other things), and Albright fell unconscious. The match was quickly ended and Albright was rushed from the ring and pronounced dead. Cause of death was determined to be a heart attack.
Still, none of these others had reached the level of stardom of Misawa. Owen Hart is the best known to us in the United States, but at the time of his death he was working a midcard comedy gimmick. Misawa was the greatest wrestling star in Japan. Imagine if Steve Austin or Triple H had died while working a match. You’d hear about it for days, whether you gave a shit about wrestling or not.
I haven’t seen many Misawa matches, though I’ve been fortunate enough to see a few. Eight years ago I shelled out some money to a tape trader for a ten-volume set of the Best of Japan for the year 2000, and there were several Misawa matches included. These were from the earliest NOAH shows, and featured Misawa taking on his great opponents Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama. They’re some of the best matches I’ve ever seen. Wrestling in Japan is given a much more serious, sports-like presentation than in the U.S. It’s still flamboyant and silly and circus-like in its way, but when the top stars step into the ring against each other, it’s all business. Matches are stiff and hard-fought, with hard strikes and brutal throws. It’s combat theater, and Misawa was its greatest gladiator. The ailing Japanese pro wrestling business will certainly miss him.
Read a proper news story on Misawa’s death here, courtesy of The Sun.