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This Day in Wrestling History (June 13): Mitsuharu Misawa Passes Away


8 years ago today, puroresu legend and Pro Wrestling NOAH founder Mitsuhara Misawa died of heart failure during a match in Hiroshima, Japan. He was 46.

Born June 18, 1962 in Yubari, Hokkaido, Japan, Misawa was a fan of wrestling growing up, especially All Japan Pro Wrestling. He dropped out of school to begin his training at an early age, but a chance encounter with Jumbo Tsuruta convinced Misawa to go back and at least complete his high school education. Very little else is known about Misawa's personal life; fellow wresters who had known him for decades didn't even know he had children or was married.

After placing fifth in the 1980 freestyle World Championships as an amateur, Misawa turned pro. He trained under Dick "The Destroyer" Beyer, Shohei "Giant" Baba, and Dory Funk, Jr. He made his professional wrestling debut for All Japan in August 1981. He also spent some time training under La Fiera in EMLL in Mexico. In August 1984, he succeeded Satoru Sayama as the legendary Tiger Mask. He would wrestle under the mask for most of the next five and a half years (save for about a nine month period where he was sidelined with a knee injury).

During that time, Misawa transitioned to the heavyweight division after spending the first five years of his career as a junior heavyweight. In April 1990, he fought future WWF Champion Bret Hart to a time limit draw at a WWF/New Japan/All Japan supershow in the Tokyo Dome. Later that month, Genichiro Tenryu abruptly departed All Japan; Giant Baba, realizing he needed a new ace for the company, turned to Misawa. He voluntary unmasked during a tag team match in May 1990. Less than a month later, Misawa upset Jumbo Tsuruta at Nippon Budokan.

Now a bonafide main eventer and threat to the All Japan Triple Crown, he took on Stan Hansen for the championship in July, but it was a losing effort. Later in the year, he teamed with Toshiaki Kawada and finished third in the World's Strongest Tag Determination League. They finished four points behind the Miracle Violence Connection (Terry Gordy & Steve Williams). In July 1991, Kawada and Misawa would win the tag titles from the MVC in July 1991. In a historic title defense that September, Misawa submitted Tsuruta to retain the tag titles. After chasing the All Japan Triple Crown for two years, he finally won it in August 1992 from Hansen. He would win the championship five times over the next seven years, the first reign lasting nearly two years.

Misawa would go on to become the face of All Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1990s. In addition to the five All Japan Triple Crown Heavyweight Championships, he would win nine tag team championships with five different partners, two Champion Carnivals (1995 and 1998) and win the World's Strongest Tag Determination League four years in a row (1992 to 1995). In addition, he would have twenty-four five-star rated matches by Wrestling Observer Newsletter (he also had one back in 1985), more than anyone in history, and would be a member of that publication's inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1996.

Following the death of All Japan head booker and founder Giant Baba in 1999, Misawa inherited the position of president of the company. After clashing with widow Motoko Baba and his subsequent removal by a board of executives, Misawa shocked the wrestling world by leaving All Japan in May 2000. He took nearly everyone with him, with 23 of the other 27 members of the roster leaving as well.

Misawa formed Pro Wrestling NOAH, inspired by the Biblical story of Noah's ark. He would return to All Japan just twice, both times occurring in 2004. Misawa would go on to win three Global Honored Crown Heavyweight Championships, the last reign lasting about 15 months. He would also have one more five-star rated match by Wrestling Observer Newsletter, bringing his total to 26.

Misawa maintained a full-time schedule until his death. During a tag team title match with Go Shiozaki against GHC tag champions Aktoshi Saito and Bison Smith on June 13, 2009, Misawa lost consciousness following a belly to back suplex. He was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The cause of death as outlined in the official police report was a spinal cord injury that caused cardiac arrest. The official cause of death is not known due to Misawa's family invoking a law that prohibits disclosing such cause.

Following his passing, tributes came from across the wrestling world, including Ring of Honor, AAA, New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling NOAH (which holds a tribute show every year around the date of his passing), and wrestlers including CM Punk, Yoshi Tatsu, and Kaito Kiyomiya. Chris Hero would adopt many of his forearm strikes into his moveset. Though there was a private service for Misawa,

At the time of his passing, Misawa was survived by his wife Mayumi (who is now Pro Wrestling NOAH’s majority shareholder), daughter Kaede, and an older brother.

A partial list of accomplishments for Mitsuharu Misawa:

  • 5-time All Japan Pro Wrestling Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion
  • 6-time AJPW World Tag Team Champion
  • 2-time AJPW All-Asia Tag Team Champion
  • NWA International Junior Heavyweight Champion
  • 2-time Champion Carnival winner (1995 and 1998)
  • 4-time World’s Strongest Tag Determination League winner (1992-1995)
  • 3-time Pro Wrestling NOAH GHC Heavyweight Champion
  • 2-time GHC Tag Team Champion
  • 2009 Global Tag League winner

From Tokyo Sports:

  • 1982 Rookie of the Year
  • 2-time Fighting Spirit winner (1985 and 1990)
  • 1997 Performance Award
  • 2007 Wrestler of the Year
  • 3-time Tag Team of the Year (1991 with Toshiaki Kawada, 1993 and 1994 with Kenta Kobashi)
  • 5-time Match of the Year winner (1995, 1997, 1998, 2003, and 2007)

From Wrestling Observer Newsletter:

  • 25 5-star rated matches
  • One 6-star rated match (vs. Toshiaki Kawada, June 3, 1994)
  • 3-time Wrestler of the Year (1995, 1997, 1999)
  • 2-time Most Outstanding Wrestler (1997, 1999)
  • Most Underrated Wrestler of 1988
  • 2-time Best Flying Wrestler (1985 and 1986)
  • 2-time Feud of the Year winner (1990 and 1991, both with Jumbo Tsuruta)
  • 5-time Match of the Year winner (1985, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2003)
  • Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame Class of 1996

The June 22 and July 1, 2009 editions of Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s feature story was on the passing of Mitsuharu Misawa. You can read the story in full here (you can subscribe to the Newsletter here—not required, but totally recommended). A portion of the story from the June 22 issue:

On the last night of his life, Misawa & Shiozaki, coming off their tournament win, were to challenge Bison Smith & Akitoshi Saito for the GHC tag team titles.

Misawa’s neck was bothering him during the match, so he must have worsened the damage he’s had for years at a show over the previous week. He had believed he suffered a shoulder injury earlier in the tour. He was having a hard time, because this was a title match, which meant you had to work at that level. After Shiozaki worked most of the way, Misawa made the hot tag on both guys, mostly throwing his standing elbows to Smith, before getting cut off. Smith delivered an Iron Claw slam, one of his finishers, but Misawa kicked out, and Smith tagged to Saito. Saito did a series of moves, one of which was to be a back suplex.

It was described as a seven when it came to the degree of danger on a one-to-ten scale, but his head did hit the mat. Misawa just laid there. He immediately told ref Shuichi Nishinaga, “I can’t move,” and then passed out. Nishinaga immediately stopped the match at the 27:03 mark, at about 8:45 p.m.

At first, the crowd didn’t quite understand what they were seeing. Because Japanese pro wrestling is not regulated, there was not, as would be the case if it was a New Japan show, a doctor at the show.

Misawa wasn’t moving, but to the fans, they had seen people sell that all the time, and had seen plenty of spectacular knockouts in televised kickboxing and MMA matches. The first sign of a big problem was, when over the microphone, they asked if there was a doctor in the arena.

There was a local doctor who was a spectator, and came to the ring and saw there was no pulse, and tried to perform CPR. He used automated external defibrillator pads to try and shock Misawa’s heart into beating, without success. Very quickly, all the wrestlers came to the ring, and were all stunned and very nervous. A lot of women in the crowd were crying and there were chants of his name. Some of the wrestlers, in a panic, were screaming his name as well, begging for him to hear them and for him to respond. Fans watched, and soon sensed the panic as Misawa started turning purple. EMT’s arrived and worked on him for a long time, trying without success. This scene of them working on him aired on a number of national news and sportscasts over the weekend.

He was rushed to Hiroshima College Hospital. Saito went to the hospital to stand by his side. Morishima was told to stay at the arena and address the crowd, as most of them had stayed, waiting for word on what they had just seen. Morishima told the fans that Misawa was at the hospital and his condition was critical, but said, “We don’t know anything new.” He said somberly, “Thank you for caring.”

Misawa was pronounced dead in the hospital at 10:10 p.m. In the history of pro wrestling, there have been probably 100 or more deaths either in the ring, or in the hospital shortly thereafter from circumstances related to a match. But with all due respect to Owen Hart, or a regional legend like Ray Gunkel, none of those people were near Misawa’s level of stature.

The belief was that he died in the ring, but they publicly announced he died at the hospital so those in the arena wouldn’t think that he died in front of them.

And because you’re probably curious, here’s the complete list of five-star matches Misawa had.

  1. (1985) vs. Kuniaki Kobayashi on March 9
  2. (1990) vs. Jumbo Tsuruta on June 8
  3. (1990) with Toshiaki Kawada vs. Jumbo Tsuruta and Akira Taue on September 30
  4. (1990) with Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta, Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi on October 19
  5. (1991) with Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi vs. Jumbo Tsuruta, Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi on April 20
  6. (1992) with Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada vs. Jumbo Tsuruta, Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi on May 22
  7. (1993) with Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama vs. Toshiaki Kawada, Akira Taue and Yoshinari Ogawa on July 2
  8. (1993) with Kenta Kobashi vs. Akira Taue and Toshiaki Kawada on December 3
  9. (1994) with Kenta Kobashi and Giant Baba vs. Masanobu Fuchi, Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue on January 29
  10. (1994) with Kenta Kobashi vs. Akira Taue and Toshiaki Kawada on May 21
  11. (1995) with Kenta Kobashi vs. Akira Taue and Toshiaki Kawada on January 21
  12. (1995) with Kenta Kobashi vs. Steve Williams and Johnny Ace on March 4
  13. (1995) vs. Akira Taue on April 15
  14. (1995) with Kenta Kobashi vs. Akira Taue and Toshiaki Kawada on June 9
  15. (1995) with Kenta Kobashi and Satoru Asako vs. Toshiaki Kawada, Akira Taue and Tamon Honda on June 30
  16. (1996) with Jun Akiyama vs. Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue on May 23
  17. (1996) with Jun Akiyama vs. Steve Williams and Johnny Ace on June 7
  18. (1996) with Jun Akiyama vs. Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue on December 6
  19. (1997) vs. Kenta Kobashi on January 20
  20. (1997) vs. Toshiaki Kawada on June 6
  21. (1997) with Jun Akiyama vs. Toshiaki Kawada and Akira Taue on December 5
  22. (1998) vs. Kenta Kobashi on October 31
  23. (1999) vs. Kenta Kobashi on June 11
  24. (1999) with Yoshinari Ogawa vs. Kenta Kobashi and Jun Akiyama on October 23
  25. (2003) vs. Kenta Kobashi on March 1

And his one six-star match: (1994) vs. Toshiaki Kawada on June 3.

Discuss your favorite Mitsuharu Misawa moments in the comments below.

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