If there was ever a cautionary tale about entering the world of professional wrestling, it’s the life of Mark “Bison” Smith, which is captured in the documentary Bisontennial.
At first glance, Smith looked like he was destined for greatness. At his peak he stood 6-foot-3 and weighed 280 pounds. His massive frame was complemented by an incredible dynamism. He could springboard off the ropes like a lightweight or play the monster that threw opponents around. He didn’t look to wrestling for the fame or the money; by his own admission, “I just wanted a job that would pay me to lift weights and look good.”
‘Looking good’ was of particular importance for Smith. Even though he had a loving and supportive family, he struggled at school. From his own personal journals, he admitted that he struggled to make friends and saw himself as a social outcast, which he attributed to “the size of his head.”
Determined to overcome these issues, Smith devoted his time to athletics, first soccer and baseball as a child and then football and wrestling as a teenager. He was naturally strong and gifted, which led him to great success in pro football and later pro wrestling.
As his high school football coach commented, “as an offensive lineman, you start with your feet. And he was a wrestler, so he had great feet, because wrestlers have their feet underneath because they’re ready to move and pounce. And that was one thing the other linemen didn’t have, that’s what made him much better than the rest.”
But Smith wasn’t born with the right genes; according to his brother, “he pushed himself in the weight room harder than I’ve experience in my life”.
After finishing high school, Smith played football for Fresno City College until he managed to get accepted to the University of Colorado and play on their football team. On paper, going to a university with as respected and accomplished team as Colorado’s seemed like a great idea because one would be surrounded by great talent and that talent would rub off on newcomers. In practice, however, it didn’t work out for Smith because the university’s football team was under so much pressure to keep the momentum going that he was barely used throughout his three-year term.
And yet, he still had some good memories of that career, including being in a big brawl between two football teams that also included Warren Sapp and Dwayne Johnson. But most importantly, it was through football that he found his conduit to pro wrestling. He had a game against Colorado alumni football players, one of them being Leon White, better known as (Big Van) Vader.
Determined to become a wrestler himself, Smith found a rather unique way to get wrestlers’ attention: he’d go to the local Gold’s Gym the day of a big WWF/E show and watch them work out. Over time, some of the wrestlers began recognizing him and asked him to spot them when they did their own weight training. He did a set of squats with The British Bulldog, military presses with Ultimate Warrior, and had a 30-minute conversation with Ken Patera.
It seemed like he was getting closer and closer to achieving his dream, his passion. He had the support of all those around him and he had their respect for having the courage to do this since, as his younger brother noted, “not everyone could do that [be a professional wrestler]”. But it wasn’t long before Smith realized that he had too many incorrect preconceptions about pro wrestling.
Smith had to work himself out of a deep slump. Years of working a boring 9-to-5 job and highlighting his week with beer and cheap food at his local bar left him big but out of shape and depressed. After years of talking about being a wrestler, he finally began his formal training at age 26 for All Pro Wrestling (APW) under the tutelage of Donovan Morgan and Michael Modest.
And yet there was a major contradiction with the connection between pro wrestling and pro football. All of the football figures in his life thought and understood that the skills he gained in that sport would translate over well into the world of pro wrestling, as it did for other successful football players like Stan Hansen, Vader, and Dr. Death Steve Williams. But in Smith’s case, his football skills hampered his training. His peers and trainers saw him as clumsy, to the point that they saw so little improvement over a one-year period that he might be cut from the school and from the business altogether.
Then one day, it all came together. He improved more and more until he was able to create a name for himself on the California independent circuit. That is, until he lost a “retirement match”, then disappeared, and re-emerged as the masked Super Destroyer 2000, a modern throwback to the soft-spoken muscular beasts of the past. And while some people thought the gimmick wouldn’t’ve succeeded in modern times, Smith shattered those expectations and indeed “got over.”
Smith had a successful run under the mask which got plenty of attention. By the time he unmasked a year later, that’s when Japan started calling.
When Mitsuharu Misawa and his Pro Wrestling NOAH contingent came to see Harley Race, Donovan Morgan approached them for a try-out match. After all was said and done, the NOAH crew took three Americans back with them: Morgan, Modest, and Bison Smith. It was there that Smith had some of his best matches. Because the style emphasized athletic skill over personality, Smith showcased everything he could do. In some matches he’d hit a flying clothesline like the Undertaker. In others, he’d throw his opponents around with big suplexes like Kurt Angle or Tazz. And in others, he’d cleave his opponent’s head off with a lariat like Stan Hansen. Over time, his stock with the company grew and grew, until he earned a shot at NOAH’s top prize, the GHC Heavyweight Championship which, at the time, was held by Kenta Kobashi.
As Smith himself noted, “Kenta Kobashi is one of those wrestlers you just watch in the ring and say to yourself, ‘Wow that guy is the greatest.’ Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think when I was watching Kobashi on video back in the early ’90s that one day I would be wrestling him in Japan.”
Ricky Marvin, a Mexican wrestler who had a long career in Japan, thinks that few Americans, if any, could’ve had such a good match with Kobashi. “He was an American pro wrestler who learned the Japanese style really well. He had several great matches with Kobashi. Honestly if it were any other American pro wrestler, it would have been difficult to have that same match quality.”
Smith’s career prospered thereafter. He became a staple in the short-lived Pro Wrestling Iron promotion in California. He had a cameo appearance on an episode of WWE Monday Night RAW. He had a match with Nigel McGuinness that was so good it was called “Ring of Honor before there was Ring of Honor”. He seemed destined for greatness…until one tiny issue stopped him from reaching the biggest stage.
Despite making the distinction between a pro wrestler and a sports entertainer very clear, he still tried out for WWE. He made it to the WWE ring and his try-out was overseen by Triple H and Johnny Ace. And while Smith was in the ring wrestling as best he can, Ace couldn’t stop focusing on one relatively insignificant detail: Smith’s hair. Not his physique, his facials, or his skill in the ring, but his hair. But since Ace held such sway over WWE’s hiring at the time, Smith was completely overlooked and his dream of wrestling in WWE faded.
Smith tried to make the best of things as he continued wrestling in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Japan. Sadly, his time in Japan would be haunted by one of the most tragic moments in wrestling history.
On June 13th, 2009, Bison found himself in a NOAH ring tagging alongside Akitoshi Saito. His opponents that night were Go Shiozaki – the company’s latest pet project – and Mitsuharu Misawa. Anyone who knows Misawa’s story recognizes that date.
Years of wrestling in a highly demanding style along with his inability to take time off due to NOAH’s struggling finances post-2006 caused Misawa’s body to deteriorate well past his prime. By 2009, he had developed osteophytes and had several undiagnosed injuries all over his body. Then on this fateful night, all of Misawa’s problems came together in a perfect storm of a disaster. Misawa landed badly on a back suplex, lost consciousness, was rushed to hospital, and was then pronounced dead at 46 years old.
Details surrounding Misawa’s final moments remain scarce, due to a combination of his family wanting to keep some of it private and only a handful of people describing what they saw. Unfortunately, Bison Smith saw firsthand what happened to Misawa that day and the experience was far too jarring for him to describe in this documentary. Instead, that responsibility fell to Ricky Marvin, who was ringside and served as the go-between for the Japanese and American wrestlers.
According to Marvin, Bison noticed earlier in the match that Misawa wasn’t looking good and asked Marvin to ask Misawa. At the time, Misawa replied in Japanese, “I’m fine”. Moments later, however, this was no longer the case.
As Ricky Marvin noted, “The referee stops the match. Mark looks over at Misawa who looked like he was turning multi-colored. Mark started pulling his hair and began to say to himself, ‘This can’t be happening! No. Not again.’ He told me later that this was the third person he’s witnessed dying in the ring. He clutched his head, left the ring and then walked to the backstage area. Other wrestlers told me later that Mark walked into the locker room and was throwing things around. I went up to Mark’s room. He opened the door. He was crying. I asked him, ‘Why are you crying?’ He responded, ‘It was my fault. It happened because I was there.’ I told him ‘don’t blame yourself for something you didn’t do’. It was an accident.”
Sadly things only got worse from there a few years later when Mark “Bison” Smith passed away in late 2011 at 41 years old. The official cause of death was listed as “heart complications”, but his mother noted that there was a history of heart disease in her family. So even though Bison Smith took care of his body and did everything he could to keep himself in good shape, he was unable to escape the consequences of the genetic hand he was dealt.
Bison Smith’s legacy will be one of overcoming some obstacles but not others. He overcame loneliness as a young man and became a star athlete. He undid years of bad physical habits and poor coordination to become a successful pro wrestler. He took an old gimmick in Super Destroyer 2000 and made it work in an era when silent masked powerhouses were seen as dated and irrelevant. And he achieved his dream of wrestling on a big stage and being respected by his peers for his talent.
But you can’t always impress everyone. Sometimes people will focus on the smallest detail as a weak justification for saying ‘no’. Although WWE turned Bison Smith down, he still found success elsewhere. Not necessarily the same degree or level of success but success all the same.
In his own way, Bison Smith embodied the modern adage “shoot for the moon. Even if you miss you’ll still land among the stars.”