Greetings. I’m sure my more puroresu-versed colleagues on this website will serve this matter more fully but I felt compelled to comment on it nevertheless. I’ve previously written three in-depth obituaries and late last night a pervasive and numbing sense of familiarity gripped me as I read of the passing of another professional wrestler. Alas, the untimely death of Mitsuharu Misawa, one of the finest professional wrestlers ever, stems seemingly from a tragic accident. Misawa-san took what was described as a routine belly-to-back suplex, a move renowned for it’s simplicity and options in execution and was unable to return to his feet. He died in the ring with friends and co-workers beside him and the fans who adored him chanting his name. He was 46.
As anyone involved in this business knows, it’s far from uncommon for an obituary to be written, such is the frighteningly high mortality rate in the so called “Sport of Kings”. The difference here is Misawa-san has literally died in the ring after taking a move, an occurrence thankfully rare in the grand scheme of things, but arguably all the more tragic for being so arbitrary. It is admittedly not unheard of for an able-bodied athlete to essentially drop dead. In 2003 a footballer for Cameroon (Marc Vivien-Foe), then aged 28, fell to the ground and died (after a heart attack) in the middle of a football match. An autopsy confirmed he had a pre-existing heart condition (Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy) which caused a thickening of the heart muscles, ultimately resulting in a heart attack. This condition is exacerbated by the physical stresses of participating in a highly competitive, physically taxing sporting environment on a near daily basis and is undetectable without a specific diagnostic procedure.
The Japanese wrestling industry does not typically suffer from issues such as systemic drug abuses. The question of “champagne presentation” is less pressing in Japan ergo there’s less call for the superhuman physiques and the glitzy showpieces. The emphasis is on the competition and the grandeur and pageantry you’d normally associate with the western product is virtually nonexistent. Pro wrestling in Japan has always presented itself as serious, credible and physically demanding. To this end it must be noted that Misawa-san’s physical conditioning steadily declined from 2003 onwards, as rapidly advancing age and years of hard hitting matches of a championship standard took their toll. Misawa-san had steadily reduced his involvement in singles in favour of tag-team matches and the much loved “dream scenario” cooperation matches involving the stars from other promotions. He enjoyed a 3rd, 16 month GHC championship reign from December 10th 2006 to March 2nd 2008; which by his own admission only lasted as long as it did because, in Kenta Kobashi’s continual injury-induced absence, there was no one else who could be entrusted with the prestige of being champion.
I must emphasize my regret that I wasn’t fully able to appreciate the Mitsuharu Misawa of fifteen years ago who frequently tore the house down with the likes of Vader, Stan Hansen and Kenta Kobashi. I remember when I started watching wrestling being fascinated by the articles and accounts I would read of the seemingly endless streak of world class matches these ring generals would have. It was a fascinating and different insight into the weird and wonderful world of professional wrestling. I was fortunate enough a few years later to witness several of Misawa-san’s finest matches via the original Wrestling Channel in the UK. The physicality and intensity of these encounters was beyond anything I’d seen previously and the mutual respect and admiration these men exuded for each other and their performance was then and is now unequalled in any other form of professional wrestling.
It’s entirely possible that Misawa-san’s body, after years of competition, simply gave out in what were seemingly the most benign of circumstances. The intensity of the performance in Japan has seen the vast majority of long standing workers abandon the more punishing parts of their repertoire and build their performance around the enormous fan interest and psychology of the contest. Mitsuharu Misawa was highly successful in this way, becoming a warmly appreciated elder-statesman revered as a legend in Japan and treated with the respect and affection his achievements merited when he wrestled in England or America. It is somewhat ironic that Misawa-san’s death occurs just over ten years since the passing of his mentor Shohei “Giant” Baba, resulting as it did in the schism within All Japan and the formation of Pro Wrestling Noah. With the Japanese industry as a whole struggling at this time of economic uncertainty, the loss of Noah’s President and figurehead spells an uncertain future for the company and casts a looming shadow over the future of puroresu itself.
I have watched the footage of the scene immediately after Misawa-san’s collapse. The looks of anguish and increasing despair on the faces of the boys and the crowd were quite chilling and in this context the chants of “MISAWA” were absolutely heartbreaking. The sad truth of events such as these is sometimes these things happen. There’s seemingly no rhyme or reason for the sudden demise of a man who gave a great deal to professional wrestling and will be remembered as such. That is scant consolation for the family and co-workers of Mitsuharu Misawa, who will undoubtedly be in a state of immense shock and grief. Also, my sympathies go out to Akitoshi Saito, who will undoubtedly be in a very dark place right now. There is always a raw feeling when events such as these transpire and I feel for everyone associated with professional wrestling in Japan and the late Mitsuharu Misawa.
In closing I choose to remember the Misawa who absolutely rocked the house with Kenta Kobashi in one of the most extraordinary matches I’ve ever witnessed on March 1st 2003. An absolute belter from start to finish, its the type of contest the men and women who lace up the boots dream of having. Two extraordinary men put on a show that night and now one of them has left us. I have a feeling though, the name “Mitsuharu Misawa” will continue to endure for a very long time…
Mitsuharu Misawa (1962-2009) R.I.P.
Daniel R. Browne.