Mitsuharu Misawa is one of the greatest wrestlers to ever live.
I feel quite comfortable in stating this as I don’t expect much disagreement or argument. Misawa was one of the Four Pillars of Heaven in AJPW. The other three being Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi and Akira Taue.
Misawa led a mass exodus from AJPW in 2000 to form Pro-Wrestling NOAH. His matches in both companies achieve various amounts of praise and critical acclaim. He could have classic encounters in singles, tag, and six-man affairs. Before he was even Misawa, he raised hairs and open eyes as Tiger Mask II. Misawa is an undisputable legend in pro wrestling. A legend that would end in tragedy in the very ring he spent decades entertaining us in. While the legend would end, the retelling, rewatching, memories of the legend will forever remain. His matches are rewatched, analyzed, discussed, and critically thought about by many a wrestler and fan alike, and to this day as the standard and quality of wrestling continues to improve hold up and are widely regarded as some of the best wrestling matches ever.
Every legend has a beginning though. A starting point where the legend begins to grow and expand into what it would eventually become known. There are several points where one can point at Misawa’s career and say “this is where the legend began.” You can go as far back as him signing with AJPW as the absolute starting point. The beginning of a long journey into the transformation of wrestling. After all, if he never signed with AJPW, nothing that transpired afterward would ever have happened.
You can more rightfully point at the moment he unmasked from being Tiger Mask II.
Shining the personality given to him and re-emerging once more as his own is surely a significant development and moment of growth for the career of Misawa. This was no doubt the moment Misawa’s fortunes would begin to change for the better, and up until his final match rarely changed from there. Misawa becoming his own person once more was no doubt significant.
For me though, while moments in wrestling can have a major impact, more often than not it’s a wrestling match that signifies the beginning, the change, the moment you can point at and go “that’s where it all started”. Sure, there are exceptions, but to me, wrestling is driven by wrestling, and Misawa’s growth into legend is no different. I am talking about his legendary June 8, 1990 singles match against Jumbo Tsuruta.
If you don’t know who Jumbo Tsuruta is, I respectfully ask you to educate yourselves on the man. He is one of the best pro wrestling has to offer. The ace after Baba and before Misawa, Jumbo in both the early and later parts of his career (up until Hepatitis took its toll) Jumbo Tsuruta is one of the biggest legends in AJPW and pro wrestling. He’s one of my favorites, a bonafide top ten for me. He was a made man, a top man, the best man. Only the highest of statue wrestlers by 1990 could earn victories over Jumbo Tsuruta. Men such as Tenryu would have many classic bouts against him. With his increasing popularity, fan support, and building momentum Misawa after unmasking would become one of these men.
If one is to believe Dave Meltzer’s retelling, Baba made the decision the night of the show, as he could see the Misawa merchandise sell, and the fans chanted for him. Baba realized Misawa winning could ignite something, and that was the call to be made. If true, that is impressive. With the human embodiment of stubbornness that is pro wrestling bookers, such change on the fly booking isn’t always heard of. Sure, there’s Vince McMahon’s constant desire for “changing plans” but that’s more indecisiveness and indecision than last-second brilliance.
The gamble would pay off.
It takes millions of years for stars to be created. Baba created one in a single night. Missing a sellout by a bare margin on the night of June 8, 1990, it would be until 1996 that they would not sell out in Tokyo. Overall fifty-three of sixty-nine events he would headline at Budokan would sell out. An impressive figure, a figure that can all go back to the night he defeated the legend that was Jumbo Tsuruta.
Baba pulled the trigger, but it would’ve been useless if it fired a blank, a dud. If it was a misfire the consequences could’ve been of significant importance, and the damage caused would be what this article would be discussing. There are drawbacks and chances one must take in order to create new stars, and failure quite often happens. Sometimes that failure is due to the performer himself being unable or unwilling to be up to the task. Misawa was more than willing and able. He elbowed and smashed the task in the face again and again. The match was an astounding commercial and critical success. A match I personally still go back to and rewatch once or twice every year.
What I always found myself going back to in this match is the crowd, the energy, the feel of importance. Having watched this match over and over again that feeling of something important unraveling and building at the same time never goes away. In 2021 eyes the match holds up for energy, intensity, pace, and work rate. Jumbo Tsuruta treats Misawa like a young punk that is beneath him, while Misawa puts on the kind of performance you want out of the babyface. Fire, hunger, passion, determination, a refusal to be bested and kept down. Every action with a sense and desire to prove his self-worth and better his position. Jumbo Tsuruta is a man who has earned everything and feels little desire to give anything back (in character, of course). He takes, and he takes, and he takes, and anything Misawa gets in return he has to fight for an earn. Jumbo only has one goal, to put this punk down and keep him placed on the card exactly where he belongs, beneath him, always.
I won’t fall into the trap of play by play, it is better you watch this match play out for yourself. The crowd starts the match at a fever pitch and rarely loses that tone and feeling. They definitely have, and show, respect for Tsuruta, but you feel the desperation, the desire for Misawa to pull off the victory. As Misawa sweats and fights you find yourself rooting for him, clapping. As the heat rises and the crowd chants for Misawa you prepare yourself for the inevitable slipping on the banana peel. The moment the hero fights valiantly but falls, perhaps another day it will be his. Not this match. In this match there is no paying afterward to see if Misawa can win another day, there is no “he almost had him”. Misawa fights and pins Jumbo Tsuruta in one of the most significant and emotional AJPW matches of all time, and a match that would kick off success and stardom for many in AJPW to come.
Baba pulled the trigger and delivered, but Tsuruta has to be given major credit as well. As the big man on campus, he could’ve thrown his weight, he could’ve sandbagged. He could’ve bitch and complain. As far as I know, and please better historians correct me, Tsuruta never dived in on his feelings about this match and what it meant. He was asked to put Misawa over and did precisely that. Did he eventually get his win back? Of course, and that very year as well (in another great encounter) but by then the new status quo had been established. The shake-up had started. Misawa was now in the stratosphere, his ascension to godhood would never waiver, never be stopped. He began to shine brightly almost instantaneously and those who were drawn by him would stay with him until his light flickered and then, sadly, faded.
I am not the expert or historian to fully dive into the career of Misawa. Everything is written above admittedly comes more from the heart than it does the head. It is the heart that drives us as fans though. It is how I feel about this match in the heart, and now how I analyze and critique it in my head that brings me back to it again and again and again. I think about it in my head, but I feel it always in my heart. Misawa’s heart was into pro wrestling. He gave every bit of his being into tragically it took from him the ultimate price. There is so much to be written and deep-dived and I encourage any fan old and new who has never dove into the greatness that is Misawa to do so. I promise you will be rewarded. This would be a great starting point. Misawa has passed on, but as long as we continue to talk about him, discuss him, watch his matches, and introduce him to new fans, he will live on forever in pro wrestling history.