The sport of professional wrestling and the bad habit of wrestlers of staying active in the industry far longer than they should has claimed another victim.
Japanese professional wrestling legend Mitsuharu Misawa was killed in the ring earlier today when he was knocked unconscious during a Backdrop Driver and, presumably, his heart stopped. The Backdrop Driver is a common spot in Japanese professional wrestling matches but still a dangerous move even for highly trained professionals.
Misawa was participating in a tag team match with partner Go Shiozaki against Akitoshi Saito and American transplant Bison Smith. Saito performed the move on Misawa, who immediately went limp in the ring. Several individuals attempted to revive him with CPR after he became unresponsive and turned purple. While the silence of the Japanese audience is usually maintained in reserved respect for the proceedings they observe, it quickly turned somber until it was broken with a growing chant of "Misawa."
Misawa was taken to the hospital and coroner reports say he died there. However, witnesses have told Dave Meltzer and various other journalists that his heart had actually stopped beating in the ring. According to reports, he was most likely dead before they even had a chance to get him through the ropes.
Misawa was just days short of his 47th birthday.
Misawa was discovered by Shohei "Giant" Baba at the age of 17. Baba, who was the main draw and owner of All-Japan Pro Wrestling, brought Misawa in after a successful High School amateur wrestling career. He first gained notoriety on a national level as the second man to don the hood of "Tiger Mask," a gimmick made popular by Satoru Sayama in the country in the early 1980s.
In 1990 he dropped the gimmick and began competing under his real name. For the remainder of the decade he was a consistent draw for the company, with legendary matches against fellow luminaries Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi. His feuds with both men made him arguably the biggest star of the nineties and considered by many to be ranked amongst the greatest performers of any era of professional wrestling.
After the death of Baba in 1999, Misawa took the role of President of All-Japan Pro Wrestling while remaining active as a wrestler. In 2000, increasing disagreements over the financial and creative direction of the company with now-owner Motoko Baba - the widow of Shohei "Giant" Baba - resulted in Misawa leading a mass exodus of talent out of All-Japan Pro Wrestling. They formed the "Pro Wrestling NOAH" promotion, with Misawa as President and one of the company's main draws alongside Kenta Kobashi.
Misawa remained with the company as President and member of its roster right up to the moment of his death.
A VICTIM OF THE INDUSTRY?
It had become clear in the last decade that Misawa's body was deteriorating. However, like so many of his American counterparts, Misawa refused to allow age, time, or the natural wear and tear associated with being a professional wrestler to keep him out of the ring. Although he retained a loyal fanbase who saw his stubborn refusal to retire as a sign of "fighting spirit," many argued that his insistence on remaining an active wrestler led to a decrease in attendance at live events due to the inability for most fans to buy into what appeared to be a broken down old man competing with and defeating men half his age (and often younger).
It may seem a familiar story for both fans of professional wrestling and folks who have been exposed to the long-term effects of damage done by men staying in the ring well past their expiration date through films such as "The Wrestler" and extensive media coverage provided in the months after Chris Benoit murdered his wife and child before hanging himself with exercise equipment. Japan in particular has always maintained a very physical style of high-angle neck bumps and hard striking to maintain the illusion of credibility, and it only got worse as Misawa's star was rising.
In the mid-nineties, Mixed Martial Arts came onto the scene in Japan and blew the lid off professional wrestling in the country. Attendance sharply dropped at live professional wrestling events due to the mainstream's exposure to MMA smartening them up as to what a legitimate fight resembled and the insistence of many professional wrestlers to challenge MMA fighters to legitimate bouts - which they more often than not lost in embarrassing fashion.
In the United States, the response to the crowd becoming wise to the con was to put the emphasis on entertainment. Japan, on the other hand, is an entirely different culture. The logical response to them was to increase the emphasis on dangerous in-ring maneuvers and physicality. The result was a sharp increase in injuries and shorter careers for the sake of an audience that was a tiny fraction of what it once was. But while the livelihood itself can be criticized for the tragedy that occurred, more blame can be placed on the fact that Misawa should have been retired for some time.
BELL TO BELL, A MAN TWO DECADES YOUNGER THAN HE WAS
I personally saw Mitsuharu Misawa perform in December of 2007. While he put on a Hell of a performance in the ring, it was apparent in his walk down the aisle that he was a broken man. Although only 44 at the time I saw him, he looked and moved like a man at least fifteen years his senior. It was a sad and sobering experience to see him before and after the match. Bell to bell, it was if he had been able to make time stop and warp reality to make himself twenty years younger.
Therein lied the true talent of Mitsuharu Misawa. No matter what the circumstances before and after a match, while it was happening he had the uncanny ability to capture your attention and make you believe. He could no longer sell tickets due to his physical deterioration and seeming complete lack of personality, but those that saw him live would always come away with the experience of having seen one of the greatest professional wrestling performances of their lifetime.
Misawa's match with Kenta in December of 2007 for the Ring of Honor promotion was the final professional wrestling event that I paid money to see and actively paid attention to. I saw one live event after that - a comp ticket I received from a friend - after I'd reached a point where I no longer cared. In that sense, I count Misawa as having been my final memorable experience at a live professional wrestling event. And for that I'm both grateful and sad.