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#7 Mitsuharu Misawa
One of the first Japanese wrestlers to find popularity in the United States as a god to tape-trading hardcore fans during the 1990s, Mitsuharu Misawa enjoyed a peak that saw him become not only an iconic superstar in Japan, but also arguably the best in-ring performer in the history of the industry. The owner of 24 career five star matches from Dave Meltzer and the Wrestling Observer (more than any other wrestler in history) Misawa would earn the incredibly complimentary nickname "The Standard Bearer for Future Generations". Today, almost a decade after his tragic death, Misawa's name still remains synonymous with wrestling of the highest quality.
Misawa grew up a passionate fan of professional wrestling and idolized AJPW superstar Jumbo Tsuruta. He originally wanted to drop out of high school to pursue a career in the industry, but a chance encounter with Tsuruta saw Tsuruta convince the star-struck Misawa that he should at least finish high school before trying to become a wrestler. He attended Ashikaga-kodai High School in Tochigi, Japan where he was one grade above his future career rival Toshiaki Kawada. He also excelled in amateur wrestling, finishing fifth in the 1980 Junior World Championships in freestyle wrestling. In 1981 he began training with AJPW, being trained by The Destroyer, Giant Baba and Dory Funk Jr. He debuted in the company in 1981 wrestling under his real name.
As a young lion, Misawa began the slow and arduous climb up the Japanese wrestling ladder. He spent the first couple years of his career wrestling over 150 matches a year for AJPW, almost always as the opening match and often losing. Still, AJPW owner Giant Baba was very high on the young student, and he was sent to Mexico for extra-seasoning, where he mastered a lot of different high-flying maneuvers that often defied his 6'1", 240lb frame. In Mexico he worked for Empresa Mexicana de Lucha Libre under the name Kamikaze Misawa, which was uh, not the most politically correct name.
A big break for Misawa would come oddly enough when the original Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama, announced his retirement from professional wrestling. Sayama was a lightning quick junior heavyweight, only about 5'6" and under 200lbs, who redefined a lot of what kind of high-flying action was acceptable in puroresu with his work in New Japan Pro Wrestling. In addition the Tiger Mask-gimmick was lifted from a popular manga series of the same name. With the original Tiger Mask now retired, Baba believed that there was still an opportunity to make money from the gimmick, so he purchased the rights to the character from NJPW and gave Misawa the gimmick. Unlike with a lot of masked gimmicks, there was no attempt to trick fans into believing that Misawa and Sayama were the same person, which obviously wouldn't have worked because Misawa was physically much larger than his predecessor. Instead he went by the name Tiger Mask II, and immediately went from being a curtain-jerker to being the ace of the AJPW Junior Heavyweight division. He also innovated an iconic move that he would continue to use after his unmasking, the double-underhook sit-out powerbomb known as the Tiger Driver.
Misawa made his in-ring debut under the mask in August of 1984, wrestling Mexican star La Fiera. After appearing in mostly tag team matches, Misawa defeated Kuniaki Kobayashi in August of 1985 for the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Championship. He would defend the championship for ten months and ended up vacating the championship in June of 1986 when he announced that he was going to move up to the heavyweight division. As a heavyweight, the still masked Misawa would team up with some of the top stars in AJPW, Baba and Dory Funk Jr. and it became apparent that Misawa was going to be a future main event star for the company. He would also make some appearances in the United States at major events; teaming with Baba at the NWA's Jim Crockett Sr. Memorial Cup at the Louisiana Superdome and defeating Buck Zumhofe at the American Wrestling Association's WrestleRock event at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Throughout 1988 Misawa continued to be a solid mid-carder in AJPW, but remained stuck there despite his burgeoning popularity due to AJPW stacked roster of veteran talent. A knee injury in March of 1989 would sideline him for the rest of the year, and he would make his return in January of 1990, wrestling his first match at the Tokyo Dome. The show was a rare joint venture between the World Wrestling Federation, New Japan Pro Wrestling and AJPW, and Misawa wrestled a WWF up and comer by the name of Bret Hart. The two would fight to a 20 minute draw, and it is incredible to think that one of the earliest matches of the 1990s would involve the two wrestlers who would do more to define wrestling in the 1990s than any other.
In April of 1990, AJPW was rocked by the departure of Genichiro Tenryu, who left the company to be the face of a new promotion, Super World of Sports. Tenryu had been a bedrock for AJPW throughout the 1980s and been involved in numerous successful angles. This left a massive void for a top heel in the company, as well as a needed boost of star power. Baba, in one of his many brilliant ideas as booker of AJPW, decided to turn long-time top babyface Tsuruta heel, and replace him as the top babyface with three young wrestlers, Misawa, Kawada and Kenta Kobashi.
The trio would all go on to enjoy immense success throughout the decade as the top names during AJPW's highest period of success, but at the beginning they were a curious trio. Kawada had mostly been an underling in Tenryu's heel Revolution stable, although he eventually graduated to being Tenryu's partner by the end of Tenryu's run in the company. He was unproven at the main event level, but there was no denying that he had a ton of talent in-between the ropes. Kobashi had the least amount of experience of the three, having made his debut a couple years prior and had famously had a 63-match losing streak to start his career. After finally winning his first match in 1989, he began to gain momentum thanks to his charisma and physique and it was looking more and more evident that Baba had discovered a diamond in Kobashi.
Misawa however, would prove to be the crown jewel out of the trio, enacting himself as the leader of the group as they faced Tsuruta and his band of veteran wrestlers eager to strike down the ambitious youngsters. In a gutsy move, Baba decided to unmask Misawa in a match in May of 1990. The angle took place during a match against Yoshiaki Yatsu and Samson Fuyuki when Misawa shockingly ordered his partner Kawada to unmask him, thus ending the Tiger Mask II gimmick.
The real turning point came on June 8, when Misawa was set to face Tsuruta in a singles match. The match was originally scheduled to have Tsuruta defeat Misawa, but before the event Baba stuck his head through the curtain and was amazed with the crowd support that Misawa had. He quickly changed the finish to Misawa going over and although Tsuruta originally protested, suggesting a double count-out or a disqualification, Baba remained adamant that Misawa was going over. The two would then engage in a sensational, five-star match that saw Misawa defeat Tsuruta when Misawa reversed a pin attempt to get the pinfall. Tsuruta almost never lost cleanly in the middle of the ring, and to lose to a wrestler who up until a few weeks ago was a masked mid-carder proved to be a seminal moment in the company.
Misawa's next big challenge came the following month, when he challenged Stan Hansen for the Triple Crown Championship. Although he was defeated by Hansen, a respectable showing by a man who was still very much a youngster in the eyes of the fans in a big title match against a legend like Hansen continued to enhance his appeal. Misawa would also have a series of six man tag matches, teaming with Kawada and Kobashi to wrestle Tsuruta, Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi. The matches, particularly the first one, a 51-minute barnburner that saw the youths upset the veterans, redefined how good and important six man tag matches could be to a promotion, with four of their encounters earning a perfect five star rating from the Wrestling Observer.
The masterful building of Misawa as a top talent for AJPW was something unlike anything seen in Western wrestling. In Japan, there is not much fluidity between the mid-card and the main event. The true top stars in the company, the ones who end up holding the world championship, are fiercely protected and almost never lose unless it is to one of the other protected stars. In the WWE, they only book one or two stars this way, like the way Hulk Hogan and John Cena have been booked in the past. In Japan, there are more men that are booked that way, making the main event a deeper division. They are able to do this because championship matches are rarer than in the US and tag team matches often main event major shows. Top stars are often paired with a lesser partner (Tsuruta had Akira Taue, Baba had a young Tsuruta, Inoki had Seiji Sakaguchi and Hansen had Ted DiBiase) that would take the pinfall in matches to protect the top guys. When a wrestler, especially a young wrestler, was actually able to cleanly defeat one of the top guys, it was seen as a major accomplishment, akin to a WWE wrestler winning the Royal Rumble or Money in the Bank—a bona fide confirmation that that wrestler was going to be a huge star.
Misawa's victory over Tsuruta cemented his status as a top name and an effective replacement of Tsuruta as the top babyface in the company. While Tsuruta avenged his loss with a pinfall victory over Misawa in September, Misawa remained on the fast track for superstardom when he and Kawada defeated Tsuruta in the World's Strongest Tag Determination League in December. Tsuruta, now the Triple Crown Champion, defeated Kawada in April of 1991, giving him a bit of a setback, but he would quickly rebound. He defeated Terry Gordy, a former Triple Crown Champion and one of those few protected names in AJPW twice in successive months. The second victory came when Misawa pinned Gordy in a match that saw him and Kawada topple Gordy and Steve Williams for the AJPW World Tag Team Championships, Misawa's first title win since he was wrestling as Tiger Mask II.
Their first tag team title defense came in September of 1991, when they defended against Tsuruta and Taue. The match ended when Misawa forced Tsuruta to submit to a sleeper hold, reportedly the first time that Tsuruta had submitted in his illustrious career. They would hold the championships until December when they were vacated so they could be awarded to the winners of the World's Strongest Tag Determination League, which were won by Gordy and Williams.
Misawa would spend half of 1992 continuing to feud with Tsuruta and his group, and eventually earned another shot at the Triple Crown Championship. This time he fulfilled his goal, defeating Hansen in August to win the championship for the first time. If there was any doubt that Misawa was going to be the face of AJPW, his title victory ended any speculation that anyone else was going to anchor AJPW. It was also Misawa's first singles victory over Hansen, meaning that he now had victories over every previous Triple Crown Champion, with the exception of Tenryu who had left the company.
In October of 1992, AJPW was rocked when it was announced that Tsuruta had been diagnosed with Hepatitis, effectively ending his career as a full-time professional wrestler. Once again Baba was out his top heel, and just like the previous time his solution was to take a babyface and make them a heel. This time it was Misawa's partner, friend and grade school classmate Toshiaki Kawada who would turn heel, teaming with Taue and Fuchi to take on Misawa, Kobashi and a new wrestler, Jun Akiyama. While the loss of Tsuruta would hurt AJPW, working with Kawada would end up being a huge boost to Misawa's career. While he was still climbing the ranks of AJPW, it made sense for Misawa's main rival to be a veteran grappler in Tsuruta, but now that he had accomplished everything in wrestling, including winning the Triple Crown Championship, his main villain needed to be an equal. As Misawa's former classmate and someone that could match his athleticism in the ring, Kawada was the natural fit for the role and the two would remain rivals until the end of their careers.
Misawa's first world title reign would be the stuff of legend, lasting a record 705 days or just a shade under two years. During a time when world title changes would happen with great frequency, Misawa's lengthy reign stood out for its sheer magnitude. In fact, Misawa's Triple Crown Championship reign has been the longest world championship reign over the last 25 years and the longest since Hulk Hogan's original WWF World Heavyweight Championship reign that began in 1985. He would defend the championship against the likes of Hansen, Taue and Kawada in well-received bouts and carried the company to impressive heights when it came to attendance and crowd involvement.
Misawa's appeal is fairly obvious. He had good charisma and could tell a story in the ring; but the real reason that he became the most popular wrestler for AJPW and a legend in the United States is because that he is better in the ring than pretty much anybody else in the history of the industry. There are a lot of really great wrestlers on this list, including Shawn Michaels, Kenta Kobashi, Ricky Steamboat, Ric Flair, Jumbo Tsuruta, Kurt Angle and others, but Misawa has as many great matches as any of them. Nobody in wrestling history can honestly claim a resume that is greater than Misawa's; if you have not seen some of his great matches than it is hard to understand just how brilliant in the ring Misawa was.
Misawa combined excellent pacing with a blend of different wrestling styles from all over the world. Technically sound, he took the style that was developed during the 1980s by Tsuruta and gave it a little twist. The matches would set the standard for future big matches, particularly in Japan and the influence of his matches are still very evident, including in NJPW's main event talent like Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada. Misawa could trade submission holds and wrestle on the mat thanks to his amateur background, but perhaps his most fearsome weapon was his devastating elbow strikes, which he would throw in different variations throughout the match. In addition he utilized many high-flying moves that he developed during his time in Mexico and as Tiger Mask II that defied his size. If a wrestler ever had the complete package in what you wanted out of an elite in-ring performer, Misawa had it.
His original title reign would come to an end in July of 1994 when he was defeated by Steve Williams in a classic match. The match ended when Williams delivered his trademark backdrop (called the Homicide Backdrop) that dropped Misawa right on top of his head for the pinfall. Misawa's grueling style involved many violent bumps involving the head and neck. It was part of the reason his matches were so good, but it was also probably a factor in his untimely death.
Misawa would get a measure of revenge when he and Kobashi defeated Williams and Johnny Ace in the finals of the 1994 Real World Tag League which also gave them the AJPW World Tag Team Championships. Misawa would regain the Triple Crown Championship in May of 1995 when he defeated Hansen and this time he held onto it for a year, dropping it to Taue. A reign for Kenta Kobashi followed but Misawa defeated his partner in a dramatic match in January of 1997, and held the championship for well over 400 days. That title reign came to an end in May of 1998 when he was defeated by Kawada. The match was the main event of AJPW's 25th Anniversary Show and was the company's first show at the Tokyo Dome, drawing a record 58,000 fans for the biggest gate in company history.
Misawa would win the championship two more times in his career, defeating Kobashi in October of 1998 and swapping the title with Vader in 1999. His five Triple Crown Championships are tied with Kawada and Kohei Suwama for the most in history and he has twice as many cumulative days as champion as anybody else.
Following the death of Giant Baba, Misawa assumed the role of company president. Unfortunately he began to feud with Baba's widow Motoko about the direction of the company. Business began to slide down for AJPW and Misawa was shockingly fired from his position in the spring of 2000. Although still an active wrestler with the company, Misawa decided to leave AJPW and form his own company, Pro Wrestling NOAH along with any of those who were loyal to him. That ended up being quite a bit, as every active native wrestler in AJPW with the exceptions of Kawada, Fuchi and Maunakea Mossman, left with Misawa to form NOAH.
Unlike most new promotions, NOAH was driven by an impressive array of star power, including Misawa, Kobashi, Taue, Akiyama and Vader. The star power immediately established NOAH as a top promotion in Japan and they secured a TV deal with Nippon TV, which had thrown AJPW off of their network after a 28 year relationship that dated back to the start of the company. The company ran their first show in August of 2000 and it was main evented by Kobashi and Akiyama defeating Misawa and Taue. NOAH quickly gained steam and Misawa won a tournament to crown the first world champion (called the Global Honored Crown Heavyweight Championship) in 2001, defeating Yoshihiro Takayama in the finals.
Despite the fact that Misawa was the owner of the company and booked himself to be the first GHC Heavyweight Champion, he was selfless in his booking and established other stars beyond himself. He dropped the championship in July of 2001 to Jun Akiyama, and worked mostly tag matches with his partner Yoshinari Ogawa. Although he created the GHC Heavyweight Championship, it is Kobashi and not Misawa who is the most iconic champion in NOAH history, holding the title for over 700 days at one point. Under the careful watch of Misawa, NOAH created the next generation of wrestling stars in Naomichi Marufuji, Takeshi Morishima, KENTA and Go Shiozaki.
Misawa would hold the GHC Heavyweight Championship on two more occasions, once in 2002 and a 400+ day reign that began in December of 2006 that saw him travel to the United States for the first time in two decades and defend the championship in Ring of Honor. In spite of their harsh breakup, Misawa would return to AJPW for a couple matches in 2004, defeating Satoshi Kojima and tagging with Keiji Mutoh and defeating Hiroshi Hase and Kensuke Sasaki in what was billed as a "Special Dream Tag Match". In 2005 Misawa met Kawada for the final time, this time in the main event of NOAH's Tokyo Dome show Destiny, in front of 62,000 fans, the biggest crowd in company history, with Misawa defeating his greatest rival in another classic match.
In 2008 Misawa was defeated by Morishima, ending his 16-month world title reign. He would then mostly wrestle in tag team matches, often with Shiozaki, into 2009. On June 13, Misawa and Shiozaki were in the middle of a grueling GHC Tag Team Championship match against the champions, Akitoshi Saito and Bison Smith. Saito delivered a basic back suplex to Misawa, who landed on the back of his neck and slipped out of consciousness. The match was stopped and Misawa was taken to the hospital, but the great Misawa was already gone and he was pronounced dead. Although Misawa's family invoked a Japanese law that allows the family of the deceased to request that the official cause of death not be released to the public, it was speculated that he died of a cervical spinal cord injury that sent him into cardiac arrest. Misawa took more bumps on his neck than pretty much any other wrestler in history, and again it was that willingness to take those bumps that made him great, but ultimately it probably ended up factoring into his tragic death.
The death of Misawa rocked the wrestling world—no wrestler of his caliber and fame and ever died from an injury directly sustained from a wrestling match. Taue was named the president of NOAH, but the company never really recovered from Misawa's death and later in 2009 they lost their contract with Nippon TV. Although NOAH still exists today and draws fair crowds by Japanese standards, it is well below the heights it saw under the leadership of Misawa.
So why rank Misawa this high—in the stratosphere of wrestling's greats? He is the best world champion AJPW ever had, according to Dave Meltzer he has had more five star matches than anyone in history, he was a top name in wrestling for nearly two decades and led two different promotions to their highest points. But more than that, Misawa ranks this high because of a product of puroresu that makes their stars unique. Being over in Japan is different than being over anywhere else, and as I mentioned earlier the top names are protected much more than in the US. It allows the true legends of the business (Rikidozan, Baba, Inoki and Misawa) to have a completely different hold over their audience.
I look to a match that took place on June 3, 1994, a Triple Crown Championship defense against Kawada. By all accounts, it is one of the greatest matches in the history of wrestling, an artistic and dramatic masterpiece put on by two men who understood each other as well as any two opponents that have ever locked up. The match ends with Misawa delivering a devastating version of the Tiger Driver, the Tiger Driver '91 where he drops Kawada right on the back of his neck—it honestly looked like Misawa had killed him. After the referee counted the pinfall and the Japanese announcer was shrieking over the finish, the fans from the upper sections of the audience rushed down to ringside and soon about 80 percent of the audience was within 50 feet of the ring. At that moment the fans began to throw streamers into the ring, arms outstretched and chanting "Mi-Saw-WA! Mi-Saw-WA!" over and over again.
Note: Fast-forward to the 37:30 mark in the video below to view the end of the match.
Fans and wrestlers alike love to talk about big pops from the crowd, and pops for guys like Hulk Hogan and Steve Austin remain memorable, but when you think about it, any professional athlete can get the equivalent of a big pop. A baseball hits a big home-run, a football players scores a touchdown in overtime or a soccer player scores a late goal and the crowd goes just as crazy for them as they would for Austin winning the world title. But getting the fans to cry for you and to consistently chant your name after a victory because your own performance was so great? That is a level of appreciation that just cannot be found in many mediums and certainly not in American wrestling, it just isn't designed that way. Misawa was not just an athlete to his fans, he was deity, someone who deserved not just applause for their efforts but outright worship; and that is why he ranks this high.
Next week #6 will be revealed, the only wrestler to my knowledge who has a statue of themselves german-suplexing a car.
The Top 50 so far (click link for description of the qualifications of the list):
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta
11. Stan Hansen
10. The Undertaker
9. Verne Gagne
8. Terry Funk
7. Mitsuharu Misawa