Is professional wrestling art?
Now, I know that may seem like a silly thing to ask. “What? That fake stuff on the USA channel?”
Well, yeah. That. Also, calling wrestling out as fake is like calling out Big Bird for being yellow. We all know that he is yellow, so why try to call attention to it. Wrestling is scripted and predetermined yes, but so is Shakespearean theater, so is Citizen Kane, so are those terrible Transformer movies that make millions of dollars every year.
Now, comparing wrestling to Shakespeare seems to be a worse comparison than oranges and genocide, but think about it. Both have a heroes and villains. Both have stories that can take place over years. Both have characters change from either heroes to villains and vice versa. And ultimately, both have the story end with either a happy ending or not.
To me, it’s all in the presentation of how something is portrayed or handled to allow the viewer or critic to consider it valuable enough to be considered art. Max Landis said that, to paraphrase, “professional wrestling is the last great bastion of performance art. The performers suffer for their craft and they must figure out how to make hurting someone and being hurt look good in order to tell a story.”
Professional wrestling can be considered a “soap opera for men” and “live theater with fighting in place of dance”. Now, that’s all well and good, but can professional wrestling be taken seriously enough to be considered as an art form? My argument is a resounding “yes”.
Yes, what you normally see on the USA Network, WWE RAW, can be hokey, pandering, goofy, stupid, down right insulting, or worse, offensive, but steer away from the traditional WWE offerings into other promotions and times. Be it the NWA hey days with Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes, the New Generation era of the WWF with Steve Austin and Bret Hart, or crossing the Pacific, the current wildfire of a product, New Japan Pro Wrestling with an amazingly diverse and talented roster that produces hit after hit after hit.
But today, I will be focusing on the feud that many consider the single greatest professional wrestling feud of all time that featured the greatest singles and tag match of all time that features two of the greatest wrestlers of all time.
That would be Toshiaki Kawada and Mitsuharu Misawa from All Japan Pro Wrestling from 1988 to 2000.
But why this feud out of any other feud? What makes it so special?
Well, we’ll start off with the idea of what makes Puroresu (Japanese Professional Wrestling); stand out from promotions like WWE.
Japan is a culture inspired by acts of courage, perseverance, and the Warrior’s Spirit, so it would no doubt have a role to play in their wrestling. Heck, it’s not even a Japanese exclusive. Whenever you see John Cena get beat down by a guy like Brock Lesnar but makes a comeback that is the fighting spirit Japan treasures. The difference here is that Japan never had a big goofy promotion like WWE come along and hammer into the ground that professional wrestling is fake. So while it is widely known that pro wrestling is predetermined, Japanese fans put greater importance on men who fight the hardest and win, and by hardest, I do mean HARDEST. If you have seen any Puro match, you will guys hit each other with a ton of force and no pull on the punches. It adds to the realism, in my eyes, but not everyone is able to get into it. I would also like to point out that this is an American looking into a Japanese sport with only an American point of view. I will try my best to convey every piece of the emotion, tension, and importance each event we will be looking at has.
So, with that all said, let’s talk about the brain behind the Kawada/Misawa feud, Shohei “Giant” Baba.
Baba was a former baseball pitcher who joined the Japan Wrestling Association (ran by arguably the most popular wrestler in Japan of all time, Rikidozan) dojo in 1960. There he met and trained with Kanji Inoki, who many people will recognize as Antonio Inoki, the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling. Rikidozan trained both Inoki and Baba to be successors to him in Puroresu, and in hindsight, it was probably a good idea, as in 1963, Rikidozan would be dead from an infected stab wound he received. So with the death of the single greatest wrestler to Japan at that time, it was no surprise that 9 years later, the JWA closed its doors, and normally, this is where the story would end. But Baba and Inoki both learned much from their mentor and both broke out to form their own promotions. Inoki with NJPW, and Baba with All Japan Pro Wrestling.
While both promotions did well under both men’s rule, Baba was seen as the better business man and booker when compared. From 1972 to 1984, Baba not only became one of the most popular wrestlers in Japan, comparable to Hulk Hogan in America, he planted the seeds to his successors. In 1984, as he began to phase himself out of the main event position, he gave way to young stars Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu. Not only that, he would also gather a fantastic roster of Gaijin (Foreign Wrestlers To Japan) that would serve and giant heels for the Japanese wrestlers to overcome, such as Terry Gordy, “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, and my personal favorite, “The Lariat” Stan Hansen. It was around 1988 when the first seeds were planted for what was to become the Kawada/Misawa feud.
Match #1 the 1988 Real Wrestling Tag League December 16th, 1988
Stan Hansen and Terry Gordy vs. Genichiro Tenryu and Toshiaki Kawada
Originally, Tenryu’s team would have consisted of his fellow “Revolution” stable mate Ashura Hara, but was fired by Baba for MASSIVE gambling debts. He was replaced by the junior of the group, Kawada.
Here is a quick biography up to this point thanks to our friends at Wikipedia:
Kawada was very active during his high school years in amateur wrestling, becoming a national champion in his senior year after defeating Keiichi Yamada (who later became Jushin Thunder Liger in professional wrestling) in the finals. He made his professional wrestling debut at the age of 18 on October 4, 1982 for All Japan Pro Wrestling, competing against (future partner) Hiromichi Fuyuki. Kawada was then sent to North America for a year in November 1985, where he gained experience as a professional wrestler in Fred Behrend’s Texas All-Star Wrestling (San Antonio, Texas), Stu Hart‘s Stampede Wrestling (in Calgary) and Frank Valois’ International Wrestling (in Montreal); Kawada was billed as “Kio Kawada from Seoul, South Korea” in Stampede Wrestling for a very short time around June 1986. He was under adverse circumstances, and rarely has he talked about his days in American/Canadian wrestling. His first major break came in 1987 when he joined his mentor Genichiro Tenryu‘s “Revolution” group. Kawada often teamed with Fuyuki under the name “Footloose”, and the duo held the All Asia Tag Team Championship on three occasions between March 9, 1988 and October 20, 1989; their standout rivalries were against Shunji Takano and Shinichi Nakano, as well as against the Can-Am Express (Dan Kroffat and Doug Furnas).
Here, Kawada is the young gun taking most of the offense of the match. He gets dominated by the two larger and stronger gaijin, but still has Tenryu to make the tag to. But even Tenryu can’t last forever as he is worn down enough to the point where one Western Lariat takes out Tenryu for the 3, while Kawada struggles to get back in and make the save.
This match is important in the grand scheme of the Misawa/Kawada feud because it was the match that first planted the seeds for a “plot point” that would be brought up later: the working of Kawada’s knee. For the most part, Kawada, despite being the obviously outclassed and outsized man, is made to look very strong, getting in some offense and not taking the pin. It was only the working of the knee that kept him from making the save and possibly winning the match. Keep that in mind, because that will be brought up a ton later on. Hansen and Gordy go on to win the Tag Titles and the team of Tenryu and Kawada didn’t last long after that.
Match #2 June 5th, 1989
Genichiro Tenryu vs. Jumbo Tsuruta for the Triple Crown Heavyweight Title
Wait. I thought this was about Kawada and Misawa. Why are we talking about Tenryu and Tsuruta? Well, this match became the foundation that the King’s Road style and the AJPW dynasty would be built upon.
Tsuruta wins the title on April 18th of 1989 and is then put into a series with Tenryu that many consider the benchmark of series of title matches. On June 5th, everything changed.
While most matches up to this point had been seen and praised as great or excellent, the June 5th Tenryu/Tsuruta match is what I call the Citizen Kane or The Great Gatsby of wrestling. The formula that was used in this match is essentially the formula that would lead to nearly a decade of sell outs for AJPW and the cementing of the promotion by many as the single greatest promotion on Earth. All fine and good, but what about it makes this so good?
For starters, this wasn’t wrestled like any match beforehand in AJPW. While most matches were wrestled strategically paced, this was a frenzy of powerbombs, lariats, suplexes, and neck dropping, though not to the point of devolution to a total mindless brawl. It was intensely paced, and with Jumbo as the heel, worked the crowd to a frothy, nuclear hot frenzy.
There was also the history between Jumbo and Genichiro. Tag partners that fought cats like the Funks, Bruiser Brody and Hansen, etc. whose lightning pace helped steer the style of Puro from long technical matches to more faster hard hitting action that the sport is known for today. After losing to the Road Warriors, the two partners dissolved and started rival factions. Almost a parallel to what we will see with Misawa and Kawada later on, minus the factions bit.
But the biggest addition to the formula is the match call backs. Match call backs aren’t new. If you ever saw the absolutely brilliant Dynamite Kid/Tiger Mask feud in the early 80’s for New Japan (which also revolutionized Junior Heavyweight/Cruiserweight wrestling), you would see their spills to the outside and the overcoming holds were staples of the conflict. Here, they were pushed to the spotlight and became the defining trait of King’s Road. Now, it became all about the overcoming and build-up of moves and dropping people on their necks.
The legacy of this match can only be understated. Famed wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer famously rated it 5 stars and was deemed by many Japanese publications as the “Match of the Year” and today, wrestling fans see it as one of the best matches of the 1980’s. So with a stacked roster, two great aces in Tenryu and Jumbo, and now the hottest product after such a phenomenal match, how could things go wrong at all? And that is an obvious set up to this: Tenryu leaves in April of 1990.
In April 1990, Genichiro Tenryu, one of the top stars of All Japan Pro Wrestling, left the company to become a spokes model for Megane Super, at the time one of the best-known makers of eyeglasses in Japan. But the company instead used him as the launching pad for a new pro-wrestling circuit, which Megane Super executive Hachiro Tanaka named Super World of Sports.
(BTW, Super World of Sport bombed and Tenryu eventually joined up with Inoki’s New Japan)
So, almost a year after a career and game changing match and later being able to pin his mentor Baba in the middle of the ring, Tenryu leaves to form his own company. This, of course, was a big problem for Baba. He just lost one of his top draws and seeing that Jumbo was not getting any younger, it seemed like time to push a younger, more energetic star that the fans could fall head over heels in love with.
Enter Mitsuharu Misawa.
Misawa was a fan of professional wrestling, especially the All Japan product, from an early age, and wanted to drop out of school in order to begin his training. However, during an encounter with Jumbo Tsuruta, the latter convinced Misawa to complete at least his high school education, so he did. He attended Ashikaga-kodai High School in Tochigi, with future rival Toshiaki Kawada, who was only a year below him.
Misawa was a successful amateur wrestler. Competing in the junior age group, he placed fifth at the 1980 freestyle World Championships. Misawa was trained in professional wrestling by Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer, Shohei Baba, and Dory Funk, Jr.. He made his professional debut on August 21, 1981 for All Japan Pro Wrestling, wrestling against Shiro Koshinaka. From August 1984 to May 1990, Misawa wrestled as the second generation Tiger Mask, succeeding Satoru Sayama, as All Japan Pro Wrestling had purchased the rights of the Tiger Mask gimmick from New Japan Pro Wrestling. In 1986, Misawa graduated to the heavyweight class after five years as a junior heavyweight. Between 1988 and 1989, he competed in championship matches for the AWA and NWA World Heavyweight Championships before a knee injury in March 1989 sidelined him until January 2, 1990. Upon his return, he wrestled Bret Hart to a time-limit draw on April 13 at the WWF/NJPW/AJPW Supershow in the Tokyo Dome.
Match #3 May 14th, 1990
Tiger Mask II and Toshiaki Kawada vs. Yatsu and Fuyuki
While many point to the last match we will talk about as the start of the Misawa Era, this match I would equate to the lit match. With Tenryu gone, Baba selects Misawa to be penned the next ace of AJPW. But first, to create a new star, you would need to make a new identity. Thus the decision was made to have Misawa remove his mask. During the course of the match, both Yatsu and Fuyuki beat the ever loving crap out of Misawa who eventually has enough and asks Kawada to remove his mask. After he does, Misawa goes full on beast mode, turning the tables and picking up the win. Aside from that one moment, this match doesn’t really offer that much as far as the overall story, but twelve days later that pinnacle moment came.
Match #4 May 26th, 1990
Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, & Akira Taue vs. Jumbo Tsuruta, The Great Kabuki, & Masanobi Fuchi
This is where it gets real. During the match, Misawa is near the corner of Tsuruta, and Tsuruta tries to take the advantage and attack Misawa. Misawa, not one to take kindly to that, elbows the ever loving hell out of Jumbo and sends him to the floor. The result of it being, well:
Thus created the first of the big feuds of the Misawa vs. Kawada story, Jumbo’s Army vs. Misawa’s Army with Taue and Fuchi on team Jumbo and Kobashi and Kawada batting for team Misawa. But before we get to those epic 6 man tags, let’s talk about THE pinnacle moment.
Match #5 June 8th, 1990
Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Mitsuharu Misawa
See, on June 8th, 1990, the main event for the night would be Misawa vs. Jumbo Tsuruta. Before the show, Baba watched as people poured into the Budokan Hall, chanting and shouting Misawa’s name. Baba, being that great promoter and booker we established earlier, made the crucial decision right there to have Misawa go over.
And he did in another brilliant *****star match. Misawa overcomes Tsuruta and to say that the crowd was happy is an insulting understatement. The fans crowded the front barricade, shouting and chanting “Misawa” over and over as Jumbo walks to the back. You know how people can say there are defining era changes in Wrestling? Like how Austin beating Rock with McMahon’s help at Wrestlemania X-7 ended the Attitude Era? Well, this was the end of the Baba era of All Japan. For the next 10 years, AJPW would create a dynasty under new names, new rivalries, and a list of some of the greatest matches in wrestling history, but that is for another day.
I hope you have enjoyed the first part of my look at the Misawa and Kawada feud. While not much between the two has started, the seeds have been planted and the stage has been set. Come back next time as the Misawa and Jumbo feud kicks off with them at first being partners and then friendly rivals.
Until then, stay cool.
This article features paraphrases and quotations from various other articles and lists. Thanks especially to Corey’s Tapes,Max Landis, Cewsh Reviews (a much more awesome wrestling review site than mine), and Wikipedia for the information and quotes. Links will be provided below.
http://www.coreystapes.com/misawa.html for match listings
http://cewshreviews.blogspot.com/2013/03/njpw-wrestle-kingdom-vii.html Paraphrased my “Japanese Toughness” decription from
Wikipedia pages of Tenryu, Kawada, and Misawa
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSe1maLmLUI The Landis interview