Saturday, June 13, 2009
Mitsuharu Misawa, 1962-2009
Misawa was one of the few wrestlers I could point to and say, "This man embodies what makes pro wrestling so compelling to me." In an industry that often relies on silly gimmicks and freak acts, here was a man who went out and used his incredible athleticism to tell compelling stories in the ring--stories that transcended language and culture and won him fans around the world. He was the stoic yet charismatic standard-bearer of a generation of wrestlers from the All-Japan promotion who worked a style that merged the tough, realistic work of the 70's with the flashy, high-risk action that dominated the 80's and 90's. Sadly, it was also a style that proved to be his undoing. Years of crippling injuries left him unable to maintain a healthy physique and as he grew more and more immobile, he seemed to fall back on his ability to absorb tremendous amounts of punishment. After destroying his knees with top-rope splashes and dives to the floor, he moved on to doling out gruesome elbow strikes and taking dangerous high-impact drops directly on his head. When I heard that he had died in the ring after a backdrop suplex, my mind flashed back to the hundreds of times I had seen him land hard on his neck and shoulders from that maneuver. Although it pains me to say such a thing, it was strangely appropriate for his death to come while performing in the ring. It's certainly preferable to the now all-too-familiar cliche of wrestlers being found dead in hotel rooms from some lethal pharmaceutical cocktail.
Perhaps it is naive to think that Misawa's passing will lead to a re-examination of the punishing style that forces many wrestlers in Japan to retire early and nearly crippled. After all, it is likely that very thing--the allure of seeing real injuries during a display of "fake" fighting--that keeps the crowds coming back night after night. Here in America, the demand for incredibly over-muscled stars along with the grueling road schedule, leads far too many wrestlers to risk their health with steroids, human growth hormone, and copious amounts of painkillers. It was likely a combination of all of these factors--along with mental issues that went undiagnosed for far too long--that led Chris Benoit to commit the deplorable acts that he did. Like the Benoit tragedy, Misawa's death is yet another reminder of why my enthusiasm for pro wrestling has diminished in recent years. Unlike comic book heroes, the trials and tribulations of these larger-than-life characters exact a horrible price on the men and women who portray them.