Mitsuharu Misawa – A Wrestling Legend Taken Too Soon

Mitsuharu Misawa, at 46 years old, was a puroresu legend used to taking huge bumps and stiff strikes and walking away from them. But at the Hiroshima Green Arena on June 13th, 2009, he entered 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 as he had done on so many occasions. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be. On that evening, we lost one of the finest men in wrestling.

Mitsuharu Misawa.
Mitsuharu Misawa.

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 on this journey after Junior High, but his parents pleaded he concentrate on his studies. 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 success in wrestling eluded him. 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. Besides the in-house Japanese trainers that included Baba, "The Destroyer" Dick Beyer also helped him start.

Beyer was instrumental in the sport’s growth, thanks 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.

Mitsuharu Misawa as a trainee with Shoei "Giant" Baba in AJPW circa '81. Baba became Misawa’s witness at his wedding as well.
Mitsuharu Misawa as a trainee with Shoei "Giant" Baba in AJPW, circa ’81. Baba became Misawa’s witness at his wedding as well.

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 later adopted that unique 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 wrestler he debuted against in Japan. They spent a year working for EMLL, 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 character’s rights based on a popular 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.

His opponents included Kuniaki Kobayashi, Chavo Guerrero Sr., Atsushi Onita (later founder of FMW), and Dynamite Kid.

Around 1986, the high-flying style quickly took a toll on his body, requiring knee surgery. From here, he concentrated on more of a grounded style, which he would later be known for, though he still sparingly took 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 faced "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair, then he challenged a young 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 in a thrilling encounter.

Wrestling as Tiger Mask II, Mitsuharu Misawa faced top opponents like Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat in 1989 for the NWA World Heavyweight Title.

Mitsuharu Misawa’s greatest triumphs in AJPW came in the ’90s when he no longer competed 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 even after previous failed attempts, they knew he would sooner or later be the winner. 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 a sheer technical ace on the mat. 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:

YouTube video

Mitsuharu Misawa was front and center during the remarkable growth of AJWP in the ’90s. He and 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, Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter awarded 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 (a few sources claim nine or as high as eleven), and WWE, in all of its history, had a mere five before creating its NXT brand in 2010, which has already surpassed WWE in 5-star matches.

Misawa had an almost mythical 6-star match against Toshiaki Kawada on June 3rd, 1994, which many call "The Match of the Decade."

There wasn’t another 6-star match, according to journalist Dave Meltzer for 23 years (Kazuchika Okada vs. Kenny Omega got six stars on January 4th, 2017, and later on June 9th, 2018, a whopping and ridiculous seven stars!).

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, including 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’Connor.

The NWA United National (UN) 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."

Mitsuharu Misawa in his patented emerald green tights holding all the belts that comprised the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship: AJWP’s most prestigious title.
Mitsuharu Misawa, in his patented emerald green tights, held all the belts that comprised the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship: AJWP’s most prestigious title.

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 disagreed 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 and establishing a promotion of his own named Pro Wrestling NOAH.

In 2002, Pro Wrestling NOAH began gaining momentum after Misawa defeated Yoshihiro Takayama, who reached his peak in stardom after facing Don Frye in a Pride show. NOAH’s prime years were from 2003 to 2005, with Misawa’s rivalry with Kenta Kobashi greatly helping.

Kobashi and Misawa achieved "Match of the Year" in 1998, 1999, and 2003 in The Wrestling Observer Newsletter. NOAH also had an inter-promotional feud with AJPW and toured other countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, and even the United States, where they worked 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 established 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 he finally reached the top.

In 2006, Kobashi left 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 from Canada. The next progression saw 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 difficulty showcasing its talent, especially with its last time slot, Sundays at 3 AM. Only hardcore fans and people with sleeping disorders would watch wrestling at such late hours.

Wrestling was transitioning in Japan, and MMA replaced it as the country’s big-time combat sport. 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 mirrored 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 wrestled 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 from Saito, Misawa remained motionless on the mat, proving that even the most basic move can turn into tragedy in wrestling. 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. He did not.

The chants of desperation continued, followed by pervaded cries of disbelief. Then, ominous sadness, like mist impeding sunlight from coming through.

Their hero lying 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 (defibrillator) 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.

Misawa took a Saito Drop (a belly-to-back suplex) before he died.
Misawa took a Saito Drop (a belly-to-back suplex) before he died.

Second-generation star Ricky Marvin, who was there the day of the event and interviewed by, 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 recalls "everything happening very fast but simultaneously 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. According to the American Heart Association, it is important to note that cardiac arrest is an "electrical" problem, while a heart attack is a "circulation" problem.

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 2019, La Parka (Jesús Alonso Huerta Escoboza, not LA Park) injured a vertebra in that area after catching his feet 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. According to AAA, three months later, on January 11th, 2020, he died in the hospital due to lung and renal failure. Others believe that it was due to complications of the injuries sustained.

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 were 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 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. The 5-time Triple Crown Champion cannot be ignored when talking about the greatest of all time. Fans will say he died performing in the ring, doing what he loved. But do his widow and two children feel the same?

Here is Mitsuharu Misawa with his daughter, circa 1999.

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. 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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Javier Ojst is an old-school wrestling enthusiast currently residing in El Salvador. He's been a frequent guest on several podcasts and has a few bylines on, where he shares stories of pop culture and retro-related awesomeness. He has also been published on Slam Wrestling and in G-FAN Magazine.