Mitsuharu Misawa, at 46 years old, was a puroresu legend used to taking huge bumps and stiff strikes in the ring and walking away from them. But on June 13th, 2009, he entered into cardiac arrest in the middle of the ring. A distraught looking Akitoshi Saito, who had just performed a relatively simple version of the belly-to-back suplex, hoped that his opponent would answer the call of “Misawa!” “Misawa!” from his adoring fans, like he had done on so many occasions. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. On that evening, we lost one of wrestling’s finest.
Mitsuharu Misawa – Wrestling Dreams and Triumphs
Born in Yubari Hokkaido on June 18th, 1962, but raised in Koshiyaga Saitama, Mitsuharu Misawa dreamed of becoming a professional wrestler. He planned on embarking this journey after Junior High but was urged by his parents to concentrate on his studies instead. A reluctant Misawa attended Ashikaga-Kodai High school in Tochigi, Prefecture, where he met future wrestler and rival Toshiaki Kawada, who was a year below him.
With only wrestling on his mind, an impatient Misawa found little interest in school and was determined to drop out, but a chance meeting with Jumbo Tsuruta changed his mind. Tsuruta convinced Misawa about the importance of an amateur wrestling background if he was committed to turning professional. Plus, having an education was essential to fall back on if he didn’t succeed in wrestling. Misawa took Tsuruta’s advice and won the High School Wrestling Championship in his weight class.
In March 1981, Misawa had an enviable ensemble of trainers when he joined Shoei “Giant” Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling. Other than the in-house Japanese trainers that included Baba, “The Destroyer” Dick Beyer also helped him when starting. Beyer was instrumental in the growth of the sport going back to his matches in Japan during the ’60s and ’70s. Dory Funk Jr. also helped guide a young Misawa who developed into one of the preeminent wrestlers to ever come from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Did you know? Before entering wrestling, Misawa was always a fan of AJPW and German wrestler Horst Hoffman, who frequently wore emerald green tights. Misawa would later adopt that color scheme in his ring attire, which later became his trademark look, earning him the nickname “Emerald Warrior.”
In 1984, Misawa traveled to Mexico with Shiro Koshinaka, the same wrestler he debuted against in Japan. They spent a year working for EMLL, which is now named CMLL — the country’s time-honored promotion. The purpose of the trip was to gain more experience, especially in aerial maneuvers.
Upon returning to Japan, Satoru Sayama, in NJPW, who wrestled as Tiger Mask, decided to retire. Shoei “Giant” Baba acquired the rights of the character, which based itself on a Japanese manga. Misawa then became Tiger Mask II from late-’84 until 1990, facing top competition in the Junior Heavyweight Division and continuing feuds where the original Tiger Mask had left off.
Around 1986, the high-flying style was quickly taking a toll on his body, requiring him to have knee surgery. From here, he would concentrate on more of a grounded style which he would later be known for, though he would still sparingly take flight in matches when needed. Misawa, as Tiger Mask II, with his bulkier frame and a more strength-based grappling style than Satoru Sayama, was more suitable for working with all types of wrestlers and not just Junior Heavyweights.
On March 9th, 1987, he would face “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair, then he challenged Curt Hennig (Mr. Perfect in WWF) on January 2nd, 1988, for the AWA World Heavyweight Championship. The masked Misawa later took on Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship on March 8th, 1989.
Mitsuharu Misawa’s greatest triumphs in AJPW came in the ’90s when he was no longer competing as Tiger Mask II. He finally defeated Jumbo Tsuruta, when the star was still in his prime, establishing Misawa as the person to carry the promotion into the future.
He often teamed with his future rival, Toshiaki Kawada, winning the AJPW World Tag Team Championship twice with him and four times with other partners, not to mention earning countless other single and tag titles.
What made Misawa so compelling was that he was a tireless worker in the ring with seemingly limitless stamina and high pain tolerance. His forte was his wrestling ability and his sheer ring intelligence.
The crowd adored him because they knew that eventually, he would be the winner even after previous failed attempts. Like most wrestlers in Japan at the time, he had no gimmick. Instead of behind the scenes drama, his storytelling was in the ring, displaying a high level of physicality and technical moves. His matches were multi-layered, chock-full of psychology, and with a work rate that consistently produced must-see bouts.
Watch Career Highlights of Mitsuharu Misawa Below:
Mitsuharu Misawa was front and center during the remarkable growth of AJWP in the ’90s. He, along with Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaki Kawada, and Akira Taue, became known as “The Four Pillars of Heaven.” These are not to be confused with “The Fighting Spirit Three Musketeers” of NJPW, who were Keiji Mutoh (The Great Muta), Masahiro Chono, and Shinya Hashimoto.
1995, 1997, and 1999 saw Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter award Misawa “Wrestler of the Year.” He’d also participate in an astonishing twenty-five 5-star matches throughout his career (one as Tiger Mask II), which is still more than any other wrestler. As a comparison, Ric Flair has eight, and WWE in all of its history has a mere five before creating their NXT brand in 2010, which as of August 2019, has seven. Misawa had a 6-star match against Toshiaki Kawada on June 3rd, 1994, which many call “The Match of the Decade.”
Did you know? AJPW’s most prestigious title is called the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship and consists of three unified titles. The PWF (Pacific Wrestling Federation) Heavyweight Championship was a belt created by Giant Baba in 1973 after winning matches over a series of high-caliber opponents; Bruno Sammartino (one win, one draw), Terry Funk, Abdullah The Butcher, The Destroyer, Wilbur Snyder (one win, one draw), Don Leo Jonathan, Bobo Brazil, and Pat O’Conner. The NWA United National Championship was mostly defended in Japan but did make some appearances in the United States.
The NWA International Heavyweight Championship from ‘81-’88 was AJPW’s main singles title. All three became the Triple Crown on April 18th, 1989, when NWA International Heavyweight Champion Jumbo Tsuruta defeated the PWF World Heavyweight and NWA United National Champion Stan Hansen. Until 2013, the Triple Crown was still represented by three belts instead of one. When unified, the Triple Crown was also presented by Nippon TV from ‘89-2000 with a large globe-shaped trophy with the words “World Heavyweight Champion.”
NOAH – A Second Life in Wrestling for Mitsuharu Misawa
When Giant Baba died on January 1st, 1999, Misawa succeeded him as company president because of his rank, only to be removed on May 28th, 2000, after Misawa was in disagreement with Baba’s widow Motoko over the direction of the company. One month later, on June 13th, Misawa led a mass exodus, leaving AJPW without a roster, establishing a promotion of his own named Pro Wrestling NOAH.
In 2002, Pro Wrestling NOAH began gaining momentum after Misawa defeated Yoshihiro Takayama, who had reached his peak in stardom after facing Don Frye in a Pride show. NOAH’s prime years were from 2003-2005 with Misawa’s rivalry with Kenta Kobashi, helping a great deal. Kobashi and Misawa would yield “Match of the Year” credits in 1999, 2000, and 2003 by The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. NOAH also had an inter-promotional feud with AJPW and would tour other countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States working with Pro Wrestling IRON in California.
Watch: Kenta Kobashi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa — Recipient of the “Match of the Year” Award in 2003.
When Misawa dropped the title to Kenta Kobashi in 2003 and thus establishing him as the promotion’s star, the fans readily accepted him more than Jun Akiyama, who had been getting a tremendous push for years. Sadly, Kobashi’s ravished knees stymied his career, and his body began to fail him when finally reaching the top.
In 2006, Kobashi would leave the company for a year after being diagnosed with kidney cancer. He would be held back another 20 months due to a nerve injury.
NOAH had been arguably the best in-ring product in Japan for the first part of the decade, but the struggles to stay on top were enormous. For years, the older stars performed in front of sellout crowds, but after a litany of injuries, they could no longer sustain the company. The urgency to pass the baton to the younger talent like Naimichi Marufuji, Takeshi Rikio, KENTA, Go Shiozaki, and Takeshi Morishima was evident. Still, they did not have the credibility of the fans. Unfortunately, Japan went into recession, and the worldwide economic crisis also affected Nippon Television in 2009, which stopped broadcasting wrestling for the first time in 55 years.
Ingrained in the social fabric, wrestling in Japan began in its infancy with Rikidozan and Masahiko Kimura facing The Sharpe Brothers, to the next progression with Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. The heydays of the mid-’90s with AJPW and Misawa in his prime were a thing of the past.
Now NOAH would have a difficult time showcasing its talent, even if the last time slot they had, was Sundays at 3 AM. Only hardcore fans and people with sleeping disorders would watch a wrestling show at that hour. Unfortunately, wrestling was in a transition period in Japan, and MMA replaced it as the big-time combat sport in the country. This meant advertising revenues were, for the most part, not going into wrestling.
Nonetheless, despite his ongoing injuries and cervical osteophytes (found in 2007), which caused constant pain when doing simple things like brushing his teeth and turning his neck, Misawa continued wrestling in 2009 to keep the company afloat.
He was a known chain smoker whose body had broken down, was out of shape, and had lost much of his mobility. Misawa was a shadow of his peak years in AJPW when having those extraordinary matches with Toshiaki Kawada. Still, the people loved him, and as the owner and booker of NOAH, Misawa continued to push his body to the limits that ultimately broke it.
Misawa’s destiny would mirror Giant Baba’s, who was still wrestling two months before his death in various three-man tag matches before his passing in 1999 of cancer. Misawa had wanted to retire in 2007 (in his mid-’40s) but then needed to continue until Kobashi could return full-time. That in itself would have been just a temporary band-aid for the promotion’s hemorrhaging.
From 2005 onward, Misawa continued to wrestle a full-schedule, mainly competing in tag team bouts. But on December 10th, 2006, Misawa put NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Championship title on himself for the third time. This reign lasted 16 months until he dropped the belt to Takeshi Morishima on March 2nd, 2008. During his last run, he faced the likes of Takuma Sano, Bison Smith, Akira Taue, and Samoa Joe in Ring of Honor.
After years of punishment, wrestling in the “puro style,” on June 13th, 2009, just five days before his 47th birthday, Mitsuhiro Misawa’s body succumbed to his last bump in the ring.
The Death of Mitsuhiro Misawa
On June 13th, 2009, Mitsuhiro Misawa teamed with Go Shiozaki against GHC Tag Team Champions Akitoshi Saito and Bison Smith. After receiving a belly-to-back suplex by Saito, Misawa remained motionless on the mat, which proves again that in wrestling, even the most basic move can turn into tragedy. After sensing the gravity of the situation, referee Shuichi Nishinaga stopped the match.
A doctor in attendance performed CPR but was unsuccessful after several attempts.
While Misawa lay in the ring, fans in attendance called his name, as was the custom when cheering him on during his storied career. The calls soon became yells, many fans shrieking at the top of their lungs, urging Misawa to give them a sign.
The chants of desperation continued, followed by pervaded cries of disbelief. Then, ominous sadness, like mist impeding sunlight to come through.
Their hero laying there immobile was not part of the show. After several uncomfortable minutes, the EMTs were on the scene, attempting to revive him with an AED as his body continued to discolor.
The locker room had already emptied when word filtered back with the bad news of what was happening in the ring. The medical personnel gingerly slid his unresponsive body onto a stretcher, and a crowd followed behind, looking like a funeral procession filled with wrestlers, their seconds, and doctor’s assistants. Mitsuhiro Misawa was soon taken by ambulance to Hiroshima University Hospital. He was pronounced dead at 10:10 PM.
Second-generation star Ricky Marvin, who was there the day of the event and interviewed by superluchas.com, believes the heat that evening in the arena may have been a factor in Misawa’s death. He felt that it made it difficult to work, and Misawa “looked exhausted” in the locker room before his match. He also recalls “everything happening very fast but at the same time very slow,” and “asking God not to take him, because it wasn’t in my hands to apply first aid, I could only ask God.”
Two hours later, the sad news arrived that Misawa had passed away. Many of the wrestlers were inconsolable.
Although Misawa’s family invoked a law that requested the police not publicly release the official cause of death, the official police report speculated that a cervical spinal cord injury caused cardiac arrest, which led to his death.
After the night of the incident, the Hiroshima Prefectural Police Central Office stated that the diagnosis was “cervical cord transection.” Dave Meltzer specified the injury being a separation of Misawa’s first and second cervical vertebrae.
When this happens, cardiac arrest is common, and Misawa probably died in the ring. It is important to note that cardiac arrest is an “electrical” problem, while a heart attack is a “circulation” problem, according to the American Heart Association.
In a similar incident on March 21st, 2015, Hijo del Perro Aguayo also broke vertebrae in the same area after landing awkwardly with his neck on the steel ring ropes, before Rey Mysterio hit him with his 619. Aguayo, too, would die before reaching the hospital.
In October of 2019, La Parka (Jesús Alonso Huerta Escoboza, not LA Park) injured a vertebra in that area after getting his feet caught on the ropes while trying to land on an opponent outside of the ring. His head smacked the steel guard rails, and he lost consciousness. Three months later, he died in the hospital due to lung and kidney failure.
When Misawa didn’t get up off the mat, it was genuinely shocking because he was like Japan’s Superman, comparable to how Ric Flair was for wrestling fans in the United States. He was a wrestler who always prevailed no matter how impossible the odds, and unfailingly got up regardless of the devastating wrestling moves he had endured. Did he continue wrestling purely as a business need? Or had he become addicted to the adulation and roar of the crowd? When does it become time to quit? When is one more match one too many? Should anything take precedence over friends, family, and even life?
The Legacy of Mitsuharu Misawa
Mitsuharu Misawa, nicknamed “The Emerald Warrior,” will forever be heralded as a legend of the sport — as someone who always raised his game to the highest level. When talking about the greatest of all time, the 5-time Triple Crown Champion cannot be ignored. Fans will say that he died performing in the ring, doing what he loved. But does his widow and two children feel the same?
In 2019, Go Shiozaki, who was Misawa’s tag team partner that fateful evening, had this to say before a GHC Heavyweight Tag title defense he would be having with his partner Katsuhiko Nakajima: “I was next to Misawa in that last match. That fact will forever remain. That is why in the milestone of the tenth year, there must be an answer, and that is to have a match that Misawa would approve over. Then I can go to a new era.” He further adds, “Even now he exists in my heart. We are the new NOAH, and it is my turn to show this to Misawa clearly.”
Watch: Mitsuharu Misawa’s 6-star match against Toshiaki Kawada
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