I am more aware than anyone that I haven’t been keeping up with this very frequently to say the least, but let’s get back to it. Get some Misawa down you!
9 March 1988 – Jumbo Tsuruta pinned Tiger Mask II with a Backdrop (14:38)
Misawa is accompanied here by a Young Lion by the name of Kenta Kobashi. I don’t think anything became of him.
This is the third in this disc’s series of “Misawa gets booked against a bigger dude higher on the card and looks good but gets beaten” matches. There are four women in the ring holding bouquets of flowers so you can tell this is important. Jumbo Tsuruta was the top wrestler in the company at the time and held the NWA International Heavyweight Championship, a belt whose first two champions were Lou Thesz and Rikidozan. Quite the lineage.
I know I said Tenryu’s theme was great, but Jumbo might have the best of all time. Funky shit. I tried learning it on the trumpet recently but it’s hard as fuck and higher than I would be if I smoked RVD’s ashes, and I don’t think I would have been able to play it even when I was younger and used to practise and could make a decent fist of the Haydn Trumpet Concerto. Oh well, at least I know the guitar chords to John Cena’s theme. Sorry, chord.
So, Jumbo Tsuruta. What a wrestler. Equally adept in the 70s, when All Japan’s style was more technical, the 80s, when it became more fast-paced, strike-based and brawly, and the 90s, when it was based more around big moves and lads dropping each other on their heads. A master of ring psychology, and probably one of my top ten favourite workers ever.
This match has great headlocks. Strangely, unlike in this previous two matches on the DVD, Misawa is the one slowing the pace down, which communicates an interesting story of a wrestler working outside their comfort zone to try and beat a top performer at their own game. Every time Jumbo tries Irish Whipping Misawa out of the headlock, Misawa just holds on and goes limp. They did the spot twice and I laughed both times. After a few minutes of this (so not quite as lengthy a headlock as that notorious Danielson/Castagnoli match in PWG), Jumbo gets annoyed and does a stiff-looking Backdrop. It’s on.
From then on the match is a parade of big blows and perfectly-placed nearfalls. You can tell Misawa’s standing on the card is rising because he gets the better of an exchange when they both shoulderblock each other. At one point Misawa does a dropkick so good that someone chucks a streamer into the ring. I think that’s called shooting your bolt prematurely. After the initial role reversal, the bout settles in to the dynamic you’d expect, with Misawa providing the kicks and dives, and Jumbo chucking him around the ring with his big power moves. Eventually a barrage of Backdrops overwhelms Misawa and he stays down. This is the first singles match he has against Jumbo, and it certainly won’t be the last. Jumbo gives Misawa the Indie Handshake of Ultimate Respect after the match and raises his hand. This boy might well be going places.
Jumbo receives a trophy for some reason. I’ve noticed this a lot in these matches. They fucking love giving out trophies. Kobayashi got awarded three of the buggers for his win in the earlier match for the junior heavyweight title. I assume they had a few trophies and just reused them, otherwise Giant Baba would have had to remortgage the house to pay for them and the yakuza would have come for his massive kneecaps.
As Misawa is helped to the back, an excitable child blocks the camera’s view and gives the peace sign while jumping up and down. He is then grounded for bringing shame to his family.
Lovely stuff. Not my words, Michael. The words of Shakin’ Stevens. ****
14 May 1990 – Mitsuharu Misawa and Toshiaki Kawada defeated Yoshiaki Yatsu and Samson Fuyuki when Misawa pinned Fuyuki with a German Suplex (18:35)
Now we’re getting there. This is Kawada’s first in-ring appearance in the DVD set. Misawa had formed a stable of young up-and-comers called the Super Generation Army with Kawada (who went on to become a superstar), Kenta Kobashi (ditto) and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi (not so much, though he was a successful junior heavyweight). But first he had to shed his old life.
Yoshiaki Yatsu was one of the invaders who came over with Choshu, and ended up staying after Choshu returned to New Japan. Samson Fuyuki has the seven-month-pregnant look of a man trying desperately not to be bounced back down to the junior division. He used to be in a tag team with Kawada called Footloose. If you can think of a better tag team named after a Kevin Bacon movie I’d like to hear it.
Kawada’s kicks are stiffer than Vince McMahon watching the WBF. He’s proving he deserved the nickname “Dangerous K” (Kelloggs’ newest, most unpleasant cereal). Misawa is still Tiger Mask, but he’s wearing green tights, so the transformation into his greatest form has begun. Yatsu is great playing the big bully, pummelling Misawa with a quantity of headbutts you’d only usually see Friday night at Bigg Market, shoving the ref away when he tries to pull him off (wahey), and slapping Kawada’s shit as he tries to intervene. Eventually Kawada just comes into the ring and he and Misawa start double teaming Yatsu. The referee doesn’t seem to mind this. Odd psychology, but what comes next makes it all worth it.
After putting the boots to Yatsu, Kawada, to the crowd’s shock, pulls off his partner’s mask, and suddenly he’s MISAWA. The newly maskless man (Cero Mascaras?) throws Yatsu out the ring and starts whacking the fuckety out of him as the audience goes ballistic. Fuyuki tries to interfere and gets shitcanned into the barricade for his trouble. It’s like he just cast Level 5 Death on a Grand Dragon on Final Fantasy IX and went up several levels. It’s awesome.
From then on, the result seems academic. Yatsu is either selling really well or legitimately injured, so Fuyuki does the vast majority of the work. Misawa and Kawada act like a well-oiled machine, and pick Fuyuki apart until Misawa gets the pin, and begins his ascent to greatness.
Not just recommended for historical interest, but a bloody good match too. ***3/4
8 June 1990 – Mitsuharu Misawa pinned Jumbo Tsuruta with a Lateral Press (24:06)
If the previous bout started Misawa’s rise to the main event, this match cemented it. Once again Jumbo Tsuruta, the ace of All Japan, is his opponent, but this time the outcome is different.
So the story goes, Giant Baba was walking around the arena as the crowds were milling about waiting to go in (I assume he was noticed – it’s hard to be incognito when you’re 6 foot 9 and look like an Easter Island statue with a body attached), and all people were talking about was Misawa, who was the talk of wrestling following his unmasking. So a few hours before the scheduled main event, which was meant to be another rung on Misawa’s ladder towards his first big win, Baba decided that Misawa was going over. Jumbo asked if he could lose by countout to protect himself, and Baba was all “nope, deal with it m8”. Striking while the iron’s hot so a performer can reach the level they deserve – what a novel concept!
Misawa is wearing a shiny silver coat made out of the sort of material that paranoiacs use to stop the FBI from reading their thoughts. He has a red mark on his neck that looks like the product of an errant chop or some hard, dirty fucking. Maybe both. Both men are so goddamn over, with Misawa proving popular with women and children, and Jumbo with the blokes. Misawa is the Cena in this situation (though of course we all know it’s Cena’s other half who’s the Misawa fan – dem forearms).
This match also marks the debut on this DVD set of the entrance theme Misawa would use for the rest of his career. People, I give you the incomparable majesty that is Spartan X. There’s a bitching remix of it on the title screen of this DVD, I discovered to my gratification. (There also may or may not be a video somewhere on the internet of me jamming along to this song on my bass guitar).
So anyway, this match is fucking incredible. The difference even from their bout two years prior is palpable – right from the start it’s frenetically paced and hard-hitting. No stupid risks, just good, solid work executed to perfection. Every high spot is logical within the flow of the action, and the big blows and nearfalls build to a magnificent crescendo. Jumbo has more than half of the offence, but this isn’t a “slip on a banana peel” win, or the detestable “John Cena gets beaten on for twenty minutes then stops selling and wins” formula. There aren’t even any “fighting spirit” spots that Kobashi would become known for, where someone fires up, stops selling and makes a comeback. Simply a tale of indomitable will while maintaining a back-and-forth flow. Even the seconds are perfect in feeling every move along with their leaders – Kobashi and Kawada for Misawa, and Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi for Jumbo. There were a lot of six-man tags involving those people in the two years after this, and they were all incredible, well worth watching.
A few slaps let Jumbo know Misawa’s in the fight, but late in the match Jumbo takes control with hard Lariats, Powerbombs and the like, but he can’t put Misawa away. In frustration he starts making silly mistakes, fucking his elbow twatting Misawa out of mid-air, and stacking it on the ropes attempting a jumping knee. The finish comes when he counters a Backdrop attempt from Misawa into a pin, but gets it reversed into a pin of his own for the three. Not a decisive win, but strong enough. This didn’t establish Misawa as the ace of the company (not yet), but certainly propelled him into the main event, where he would stay for the rest of his career. Top bombing. *****
So that’s the end of the first disc (five more to go!) Before I continue, I just want to mention the elephant in the room. Misawa died in the ring in 2009, eight years ago today. His is the most high-profile death to take place during a wrestling match. He was killed by internal decapitation following a Backdrop Driver. It was a bump he’d taken hundreds of times before. The move wasn’t botched, but there really is no harmless way to take a head drop, and this was a case of the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was a combination of competing in main events for two decades, and wrestling an incredibly punishing style during that time.
I mention it now because we’re in the 90s, and the style of All Japan is changing. More big moves, more head drops, longer matches, always pushing the envelope. By the end of the decade most of the main eventers were all but shot physically, leading to them having to work safer (and smarter) in the new millennium, but the main damage had already been done. A lot of what I’m about to watch, by degrees, killed Mitsuharu Misawa.
So is it possible to enjoy these matches? I would say yes. It sounds a little callous and selfish, but Misawa knew what he was doing, and the hazards of performing to such an intense level. Misawa loved what he did and took great pride in it. If we refuse to watch his matches because of what happened in the end, everything he put himself through was ultimately for nothing. Some people might see it differently, but I think it’s possible to watch his matches and enjoy them. After all, every wrestler lives their life in pain to some degree. Kenta Kobashi, Akira Hokuto and Genichiro Tenryu, to name a few, are physical wrecks. And people don’t raise qualms about loving their work. Misawa got unlucky, and if he had retired before the accident happened, I wouldn’t have to raise these points. But I think that he wouldn’t have wanted people not to cherish his body of work because of how his life ended. I’m not sure any wrestler would.