In January of this year I took possession of a Japanese-imported six-disc set of Mitsuharu Misawa’s finest matches, from 1983 to 2009. I started watching and reviewing all nineteen glorious hours of it, and took a hiatus somewhere in the middle of Disc Four to watch other things. Now that I have somewhere to publish my thoughts, it’s back aboard the Misawa wagon, as I complete my retrospective on the career of my favourite wrestler of all time. I’ll be giving star ratings, deal with it.
22 April 1983 – Shiro Koshinaka pinned Mitsuharu Misawa with a Sunset Flip to win the Lou Thesz Cup (13:36)
This is a couple of years into his career, the final of an eight-man junior heavyweight tournament named for Lou Thesz, that well-known junior heavyweight. The tournament’s designated jobber, finishing with seven losses in seven matches, was a fellow called Toshiaki Kawada. We may be seeing more of him.
First thought: Christ, Misawa looks thin. Second thought: oh GOD, Lou Thesz is reffing. While Thesz was a great worker, and I wouldn’t quibble if you called him the greatest of all time just for longevity, influence and the variety of territories he worked, my god is he the worst referee I’ve ever seen. Memories of him fucking up the count for Vader vs Shinya Hashimoto at New Japan’s first Tokyo Dome show still haunt my nightmares, the white whale to my Ahab. Arguably worse than that goateed bellend who refs for Chikara. Lou in on fine form here, counting a pin before the competitor is actually on top on more than one occasion, and refusing to lift his hand more than a few centimetres from the mat when counting, presumably in the knowledge that his aged arm would crumble to dust if he really slammed it down.
Both men are wearing red trunks, no doubt to contrast with the black donned by New Japan’s Young Lions. A banner in the background reads: “THE FUNKS”. I believe 1983 was when Terry Funk had his first retirement match. Lol.
Armdrags of every conceivable variety to begin, followed by an arm work-based heat segment so long and dull it would make even late-90s British Bulldog think, “ah lad, you maybe wanna step the pace up a bit”. This was Shiro Koshinaka before he stumbled into arse-based self-parody like a wino in search of doner meat. Which the Japanese would probably serve in some horrifying manner, maybe with chocolate sauce, or artichokes, or both. Misawa manages to get some offence in around six minutes in, landing a lovely-looking dropkick. Sadly he misses a second and we’re back to arm work.
In the brief flurries of offence we see, it’s clear that there’s something about the then 20-year-old Misawa. His technique is very solid, and the somersault dive from the top rope – a move I’d love to see make a comeback – looks awesome. Koshinaka lands an arse to the face for a near fall. Because Shiro Koshinaka is not, and never has been, a black woman, it shall be called a Sliding Hip Attack #McMahonLogic. Cross bodies and small packages gain Misawa some nearfalls. Koshinaka attempts a piledriver and Misawa counters with a back body drop, but Koshinaka turns it into a Sunset Flip for the pin. Koshinaka wins the first, and only, Lou Thesz Cup, being presented with a trophy comprised of creamy glass that unfortunately makes it look like it’s full to the brim with gentleman’s relish. For all I know, it was.
Solidly worked match without too much in the way of excitement for the most part, and Misawa provided nearly all of the thrills. The last few minutes were good but overall I probably wouldn’t recommend this for more than historical interest. **1/4
26 August 1984 – Tiger Mask II pinned La Fiera with a Tiger Suplex (8:37)
Misawa is now Tiger Mask, taking over from the legendary Satoru Sayama. For a little background, Tiger Mask was an anime character who was a wrestler. Antonio Inoki and New Japan bought the rights to the character in the early 80s, but were faced with the problem that in the anime he did all sorts of athletic manoeuvres which most wrestlers simply didn’t, or couldn’t, do. Sayama, a magnificent athlete and high-flyer fresh from a sojourn in Britain, got the part and became a huge star. But Sayama hated the role and wanted to do the more realistic “shoot style”, so he quit to form his own promotion, with blackjack and hookers. This would end acrimoniously when Akira Maeda, the other top guy in the company, kicked him in the tallywhackers during a match and left. Eventually Inoki sold the rights to Tiger Mask to All Japan, and Misawa took over.
Misawa is out second, accompanied by a gaggle of underlings in red wifebeaters, including Kawada. He’s wearing a shiny red and gold cloak which made me really want a Twix. His opponent is a Mexican dude called La Fiera. I don’t know much about him as lucha is a bit of a blind spot in my knowledge, but apparently he trained Misawa in the arts of lucha. Anyway, LA FIERA. What a man. Every stage of his disrobing from his entrance gear reveals a ridiculous image. First he’s there in a short-sleeved leather jacket and a dog collar attached to it by a chain, an ensemble I last saw on the sex case version of Rimmer in that episode of Red Dwarf where they accidentally split the ship into a good and an evil version. When he takes the collar off leaving only the jacket, his buoyant hair makes him look like the lost sixth member of At the Drive-In. Suggested finisher: One-Armed Headscissor. It’s remarkable. Certainly more so than his aim in attempting to chuck the pre-match flowers at Misawa (they end up in the crowd).
He’s good in the ring too, the highlight being a wonderful cross body to the outside that brought to mind Hiroshi Tanahashi on his “giving a shit” days. But this match is all about Misawa. This is his debut as Tiger Mask (which explains this match’s presence on the DVD) and it doesn’t faze him at all. Excellent, ahead-of-its-time action full of high spots, lightning-fast arm wringers and even a modicum of selling. Seeing Misawa as Tiger Mask has something of the uncanny valley about it. Apart from the Tiger Suplex and the fake-out plancha to the outside, he’s using none of the spots he’d make famous in the 90s. In their place we get Sayama-like kicks and a beautiful dive over the top rope. And he’s killing it. All Japan was never noted for its junior heavyweight division, certainly not in comparison to New Japan when they got theirs going in the 80s, but this match shows that there’s some good stuff in there. Ultimately fairly brief and insubstantial, but they packed a lot into their time and produced a really enjoyable contest. ***1/2
21 June 1985 – Kuniaki Kobayashi pinned Tiger Mask II with a Bridging Fisherman Suplex to retain the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Championship (11:29)
This was Misawa’s first shot at a singles title. The NWA International Junior Heavyweight Championship was All Japan’s top belt for the junior division. The champ is Kuniaki Kobayashi, who is regarded as one of Misawa’s top opponents from his Tiger Mask days.
Kobayashi is over as fuck, more so than Tiger Mask. He looks pretty solidly built for a junior. If he was around today he’d be pushed as a heavyweight. I assume he’s just on the cusp of 220 pounds, or maybe over. Obviously it may well be a moot point – I don’t think any wrestler ever has been billed at their correct weight. And I can’t imagine All Japan promoter Giant Baba sitting there with a scale and clipboard going “Kuniaki, you’re 220.3 – I’m not letting you out there to defend your belt until you’ve taken a dump”.
Kobayashi starts aggressively with spinning heel kicks and whipping Misawa through the barricade, then going back in the ring and climbing the top rope as if to say “yeah, you stay down there ya shit”. The first section of the match is quite slow technical stuff for the most part, Kobayashi doing well at grounding the smaller man, playing subtle heel. When Misawa gets a chance to mount some offence, you can tell he’s putting together his own spin on the character with moves he would use until the end of his career – the Missile Dropkick where he lands back-first (which is apparently one of the reasons Daniel Bryan’s neck was in a bit of a state), and the spinning Flying Clothesline, albeit landing at a funny angle. Misawa does a dropkick outside the ring and lands back-first on the floor. The mat is thinner than the justification for Brexit (think that’s still just about topical), as is still the style in Japan. I’m not saying it has to be a bouncy castle down there (though don’t tell me that wouldn’t be awesome), but I mean really.
The match ends when Kobayashi hits a Perfectplex, Misawa kicks out at 2, so Kobayashi hits another one and this time just about keeps him down for 3, with Misawa kicking out a millisecond after. I think the moment a WWE wrestler figures out that, rather than staying there with a look of incredulity for upwards of a minute when someone kicks out of their finisher, hitting it again and again until they stop moving is a good tactic, then they’ll end up breaking Ric Flair’s world title record. Heath Slater, it’s your time! Although if HHH had done this at Mania 27, his match with Taker probably would have been about six minutes long. Swings and roundabouts.
Misawa would win the belt in a rematch a couple of months later. I enjoyed this. Nothing I’d rewatch probably, but a pleasant way to pass ten or so minutes. ***1/4