In the wake of the death of Mitsuharu Misawa on June 13, 2009, the topic of safety in the ring has become a hot topic in the professional wrestling world. In the weeks and months to come, the topic may become bigger as companies make rules so that a death in the ring like Misawa does not repeat itself.
During a match at the Green Arena in Hiroshima, Japan, Misawa took a belly-to-back suplex during a match from 19-year veteran Akitoshi Saito. Misawa hit his head, separating his C-1 and C-2 vertebrae. He went into cardiopulmonary arrest and most likely died immediately.
The belly-to-back was being reported as routine and a “seven out of ten” in terms of the danger level, according to most reports.
“There is nothing routine about the move,” Dory Funk Jr., who wrestled Misawa dozens of times, told SLAM! Wrestling. “I saw that people calling the move a ‘seven,’ which is just ridiculous. The move itself is never a ‘seven.'”
Funk Jr. worked as one of the main trainers when Misawa broke into the business in 1981. He continues to train wrestlers today at his Funking Conservatory in Ocala, Fla. He was very vocal against a move like a belly-to-back suplex.
“It’s a very dangerous move in wrestling. It’s a move I don’t train and discourage to my students.”
Misawa was working through various injuries, including various back and shoulder injuries, according to Japanese media reports. Misawa suffered a major concussion in a 2007 match. A trip to the hospital revealed a cervical sprain in his back.
“He had a lot of pressure on himself,” Ted DiBiase told SLAM! Wrestling. “He convinced wrestlers to join him in a new company (Pro Wrestling NOAH in 2000) and did not want to let them down.”
Giant Baba, who was the head of All Japan Pro Wrestling, chose Misawa as his successor, both inside the ring and out, years before the exchange would actually happen. Baba, who never had any children, treated Misawa like a son.
“He was Baba’s boy,” DiBiase said.
Funk Jr. was instrumental in the training of Misawa’s initial training in 1981. He remembered Baba treating him different than the other wrestlers who worked for him.
“There would be training in the ring before the shows,” Funk Jr. remembered. “Baba would make an effort to come to the ring for an hour to watch Misawa and others train in the ring. Baba had a main event to prepare for himself so you knew that if Baba was taking the time to watch that he knew he had something special.”
Baba bought the rights to the successful Tiger Mask gimmick from competitor New Japan Pro Wrestling and gave it to Misawa to use. The original Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama, had raised the bar extremely high with his innovative high-flying moves.
“We remember watching him as a nervous wreck when he debuted as Tiger Mask II,” said Funk Jr. recalling watching the debut of Misawa as Tiger Mask II on August 26, 1984, from behind the entrance curtain with Baba. “He had a gymnastic background and when he was introduced, he had to balance himself on the top rope. This could make or break him because we knew he had the talent but one slip and it could have been it.”
Misawa performed perfectly and became an immediate star. Misawa trained in Mexico for a year to sharpen his aerial skills. When he debuted under the mask, he defeated La Fiera, the lucha libre star who helped train him in Mexico.
DiBiase’s story has two direct connections to Misawa’s death. DiBiase is the adoptive son of “Iron” Mike DiBiase, who won dozens of titles across the world. On July 2, 1969 in Lubbock, Texas, Mike DiBiase died when he suffered a heart attack during a match with Man Mountain Mike. He was 45.
Unlike his father, “The Million Dollar Man” got a chance to quit before it was too late. “In 1993, I had a doctor tell me I had two herniated discs in neck. He told me the odds were in my favour that I would be okay but as a professional did say that one hit to the back of my head could make me paralyzed for life.”
DiBiase took a step back, evaluated his life and family, and made the decision to step away. The in-ring death of Misawa was mighty close to home.
“It did make me think of my life immediately. What happened to my father was always in my mind, and when I had a doctor tell me what could happen, I knew I had to stop right there.”
“We are in an industry where pro wrestling needs to protect their athletes,” Funk Jr. said when asked if there is too much pressure to perform injured. “The training routine in Japan is rough.”
“Japan has an ‘I do’ mentality to wrestling,” DiBiase explained. DiBiase was in a unique situation when one of his sons, Ted DiBiase Jr., made his first trip to Japan for Pro Wrestling NOAH in the spring of 2007. “I told him that they were going to test him and they want him to earn his respect. I told him from my experiences what he could do. I mean, why do things when you don’t have to?”
DiBiase himself faced Misawa many times in the ring. “His matches were brutal,” DiBiase said of Misawa’s style during the 1990s. “I learned that wrestling is more of a two people telling a story and that the skill is not in how hard you hit someone with a chair or throw them through a table.”
Funk Jr. hopes the industry wakes up and brings reform. DiBiase believes the WWE’s Wellness Policy is already taking a giant step in helping.
“Wrestling is filled with personal choices,” DiBiase said. “It’s not an easy lifestyle but you make your own decisions.” DiBiase references The Wrestler, the story of an aging wrestler trying to push himself to near death. DiBiase spoke about a different kind of addiction. “Wrestlers feel this need to feed the addiction of the roar of the crowd and going out and performing. Like any addiction, it can supersede their life, their family, their kids.”
“I believe it will come as a shock to the industry,” Funk Jr. explained when asked if the death will bring reform to safety in the industry. “I do believe they will take steps to regulate themselves better.”
The day following Misawa’s death, NOAH’s Global Honor Champion, Jun Akiyama, vacated the belt when he announced that he had a herniated the disc between his L-4 and L-5 vertebrae. He was working through the injury and the death the day before could not be ignored. It is possible that this is the beginning of a change in Japan’s “I do” routine in professional wrestling.
DiBiase pointed out that the WWE has guys like Shawn Michaels and Undertaker, who have cut their schedules back greatly in recent years. He believes moves like this will lessen the possibly of an event like this repeating.
“I will remember Misawa with respect.” DiBiase said. “He and I came up the ‘old school’ way. He ran business well. He ran a company that stood out in terms of elite in-ring performance.”
“He was my trainee, he was my opponent, he was a good friend,” Funk Jr. said about how he would remember Misawa.
- 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 19, 2000: Misawa knocks All-Japan off TV
- June 16, 2000: Misawa announces new Japanese promotion
- June 15, 2000: Mat Matters: Misawa’s departure cripples All Japan
- June 13, 2000: Mitsuharu Misawa leaves All Japan
- Funk Family story archive