Wrestling is comprised of a series of defining moments that have become ingrained in the very fabric of the sport. Like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or Mark David Chapman gunning down John Lennon outside his New York apartment, wrestling fans remember where they were and what they were doing when something big happened.
The tragic death of Owen Hart. Ric Flair’s debut in the WWF. The first WrestleMania. We all have our own, personal moments.
Mine happened on Tuesday when I heard that All Japan Pro Wrestling President, booker and top star Mitsuharu Misawa tendered his resignation with the company and will start his own promotion.
As I’m typing this, I can literally hear the collective “who?” many of you may be asking after reading that sentence. I’m sure that the majority of North American fans don’t have a clue who Misawa is or what he’s meant to wrestling in Japan.
And that’s a pity. If only you knew. If only you saw him. If only you had an idea. Because since 1990, Mitsuharu Misawa has been the best wrestler on the planet.
Such a bold proclamation will no doubt infuriate North American fans weened on Nitro and Thunder, who await each McMahon family run-in on RAW with baited breath and who think the sun sets and rises over HHH’s head.
But the simple fact of the matter is Misawa has been the best wrestler in the business over the past 11 years.
Since 1990, nobody, (repeat NOBODY), has had more five-star matches, has been a better in-ring performer and has achieved a consistent, higher match quality standard than Misawa.
What makes Misawa so special?
Misawa is not a performer. He’s not a sports entertainer. He’s not an action adventure series hero.
He’s a wrestler.
Not only that, he is a wrestler in the most physically demanding wrestling promotion on earth, competing before the most knowledgeable and critical wrestling fans in the world.
That last part will likely enrage a lot of you out there as well. It wasn’t meant as an insult. It’s just that Japanese fans have a reputation for being the most discerning fans anywhere. They follow the sport from all parts of the globe, have a greater knowledge of foreign wrestling cultures and styles and have a better understanding of how this business works. And they love their wrestling.
And with guys like Misawa, it isn’t hard to see why.
From his days as a mid-carder competing as Tiger Mask II to his ground-breaking feud with Jumbo Tsuruta in 1990, word of his brilliance spread to our shores where hardcore fans sought out tapes of his matches to see for themselves. Soon after, he won the hearts of the readers of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. Five times, Observer readers named Misawa wrestler of the year and three times they voted one of his matches as match of the year. Dave Meltzer himself, considered the leading authority on pro wrestling, picked him as the wrestler of the ’90s.
Not Bret Hart. Not Shawn Michaels. Not Ric Flair. Not Hulk Hogan.
Misawa’s proficiency in the ring can not be understated. Neither can his influence.
If Jumbo Tsuruta can be credited with pioneering Japanese wrestling by introducing a more advanced and athletic style, then it can be said that Misawa has taken it to another level. He set a new standard for athletic excellence, pushing his body each night to the point of exhaustion. He’s used the rings of All Japan Pro Wrestling as his personal stage to put on one memorable performance after another against the best in wrestling: Kenta Kobashi, Toshiaka Kawada, Jun Akiyama, Stan Hansen, Akira Taue and Jumbo Tsuruta.
He is a master storyteller in the squared circle. His ring psychology is the best, (repeat BEST) in the world. There are no wasted movements or meaningless moments in a Misawa match.
Each one of his matches is different, unique from the previous one. Each move, each glance and each gesture in a Mitsuharu Misawa match means something.
His departure changes the entire face of wrestling in Japan. A third major group in Japan, featuring the best heavyweight wrestlers in the world, will take business away from both All Japan and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Because Misawa has expressed interest in working an inter-promotional program in the past, a dream feud with New Japan’s top wrestlers is now within the realm of possibilities. We could see a possible take-off on the influential Choshu’s Army vs All Japan feud that set the promotion on fire in the mid-’80s and was the inspiration that Eric Bischoff’s NWO was modeled after. The possibilities are endless.
His leaving All Japan Pro Wrestling is the equivalent of Hulk Hogan signing with WCW in 1994; of Ric Flair going to the WWF in 1991; of Konnan leaving Mexico’s EMLL office in 1992 with booker Antonio Pena to form AAA. That’s how big this is. This is huge.
What Ric Flair meant to Jim Crockett Promotions, what Hulk Hogan meant to Vince McMahon and what Jerry Lawler meant to the city of Memphis, Mitsuharu Misawa meant to All Japan. No other wrestler over the past 11 years has been more closely identified with his promotion than Misawa.
Mitsuharu Misawa IS All Japan.
Or at least he was until Tuesday. He had been at odds with owner Motoko Baba. Ever since her husband and All Japan founder Giant Baba died, Misawa, as booker, had wanted to take the promotion in a new direction. He wanted to change the face of the promotion and break with All Japan’s isolationist policy and conservative booking philosophy. Mrs. Baba wouldn’t let him.
And so, one of the most important poker games in wrestling began. Misawa, the backbone of the promotion, said either things would have to change or he would walk. Mrs. Baba called him on it. Turns out Misawa wasn’t bluffing.
He walked out on the promotion that he helped build into the archetypal wrestling promotion, taking Kobashi, Akiyama and most of the roster with him to start his own promotion. One where he’ll be able to do things his way, without the second guessing and interference of Mrs Baba.
Odds are beginning to be laid on how long it will be before All Japan goes under. And they will go under. They can’t survive. This move will decimate them. They may hold on for a little while, but the end will come soon.
That’s how much Mitsuharu Misawa means. I doubt we can honestly say that about any other wrestler.
June 26, 2017: All Japan’s Four Pillars of Heaven set the standard
June 13, 2009: Japanese legend Mitsuharu Misawa dies in the ring
June 21, 2009: Funk Jr. & Dibiase remember Misawa as a trainee, foe and friend
June 19, 2000: Misawa knocks All-Japan off TV
June 16, 2000: Misawa announces new Japanese promotion
June 13, 2000: Mitsuharu Misawa leaves All Japan