A few people have asked me whether anything has ever made me question my love of professional wrestling, or put me off the medium altogether. Many things have put me off specific promotions, whether it be for moral reasons, or simple personal preference; the Katie Vick angle put me off WWE for a significant period, for example, but there's one thing that had me questioning my love for wrestling as a whole, and that was the tragic death of Mitsuharu Misawa.
Here's something that I wrote at the time, way back in June 2009;
For one reason or another, the spirit of Misawa has hung over my every thought, and every attempt at writing I've made since I heard about his passing. I've found myself unable to watch wrestling without thinking of the shadow that's been cast over it.
Let me explain. And, for the benefit of how very many of you will be reading this without knowledge of the event or of the man, I'll start at the beginning.
Mitsuharu Misawa was a hugely talented Japanese wrestler - talented enough to inherit the Tiger Mask gimmick from Satoru Sayama, arguably the greatest Junior Heavyweight of all time, and one half of one of the most influential series of matches in the history of Junior Heavyweight wrestling (along with The Dynamite Kid - a name which will doubtless pop up in this blog again) - in many people's eyes, Misawa was one of the greatest of all time. And that's not the rose-tinted hyperbole usually attached to a performer after their death; even with his tendency to "phone it in" outside of big matches in recent years, Misawa really was that good, having been rated in more "five star matches" by the Wrestling Observer than any other single wrestler.
Sadly, on June 13th, when teaming with Go Shiozaki against Akitoshi Saito and Bison Smith for Pro Wrestling NOAH (a promotion formed by Misawa himself upon his departure from All Japan Pro Wrestling), Misawa landed badly following a routine back suplex, and the resulting spinal cord injury lead to cardiac arrest. Misawa-san was announced dead by the time he reached the hospital.
Misawa never meant that much to me; he was never my favourite wrestler, and I felt that his work in recent years had got sloppy and formulaic, with a tendency to rely too much on his trademark forearm smashes and let the other worker do almost all of the hard graft. He probably should have retired years ago.
But there's still a reason that Misawa's shadow has hung over me for the past five days.
As a wrestling fan, you get used to the unexpected news that a wrestler you grew up watching, or even someone you were watching only days earlier, has passed away. But, as sad as it is, the majority of those deaths can be attached to the excesses that wrestling attracts, and almost requires - Eddie Guerrero, Brian Pillman, Chris Candido - all victims to the cocktail of painkillers, steroids and recreational drugs that are almost a necessity to succeed in an industry characterised by what Roddy Piper labelled "the sickness" - the illogical need to put a corrupt, morally bankrupt business over the needs of your own body.
Misawa perhaps suffered from the sickness in a different way, though. Japanese wrestling, puroresu, has never had the widespread drug problems that blight the North American wrestling scene, and as such it's rare we hear of a Japanese wrestler being taken before their time. But the style is hard-hitting, and more physically punishing that just about anything you could conceivably put your body through on a nightly basis - The Dynamite Kid can attest to that, as he would doubtless find himself a physical wreck even without the years of drug and alcohol abuse that only accelerated his decline. And, in a world where it's common practice for a man to be dropped with incredible force on to his head and shoulders multiple times a night, if anything it's a surprise that this tragedy had been averted for so long.
Misawa was a good fifteen or twenty years past his physical prime. At five days away from his 48th birthday, it was glaringly obvious that he was not the same worker he once was - but when it came down to it, he still tried to wrestle as if he was. And while it's scarily common for wrestlers to continue working well into their 50s, the truth is that the human body simply isn't built for that kind of punishment - and Misawa was a true casualty of that fact. While not a victim of the "sickness" that claimed the likes of Pillman or Guerrero, his was simply an aged body that couldn't take any more - this was, in many ways, a sad echo of Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler".
What this all means, though...I'm not so sure. Perhaps that's what bothers me about it all. This was a tragedy, but it was also a true surprise - genuinely nobody was expecting this, and the wrestling world was ill-prepared with how to deal with it. It's still too early to see where this will leave Pro Wrestling NOAH. As I stated earlier, though, what's truly shocking is that this kind of thing doesn't happen nearly as often as one might think - and that's a testament to the true talent of professional wrestlers not just in Japan, but all over the world, to be able to take another's life in their hands night after night, in a perverse dance of death.
What was highlighted on June 13th was the real dichotomy of the wrestling industry - Misawa's death was met with tremendous outpourings of grief from all corners of the wrestling world, and from the people of Japan, but that same wrestling world was ludicrously ill-prepared to deal with the situation, and it's tragedies like this that remind us of wrestling's shady carnival roots, and uncertain legal status as a pseudo-"sport". With none of the legal regulation that cover mainstream sports applying to professional wrestling in Japan (or in much of the rest of the world), there is no insurance policy and, bizarrely, no doctor is required to be in attendance. The doctor that attended to Misawa, attempting to revive him while still in the ring, was plucked out of the crowd.
Think about that for one moment...in a business where false footing or the slightest mistake could result in critical injury or even, in such a sad and thankfully rare case as this, in death - there is no required medical coverage. It's only through sheer luck that there was even a doctor on hand when a man suffered a fatal injury in the middle of the ring, due to what is essentially a routine move - a move taken by wrestlers the world over every single night.
This is when wrestling's unique place in culture needs to be assessed. It's not quite a sport, it's not quite drama. It's not quite real, it's not quite fake. But, to quote Michael Cole, "the hazards are real" - and between the Chris Benoit triple murder/suicide, countless deaths caused directly or indirectly by substance abuse, and now the tragic death of Mitsuharu Misawa, it's really time that the wrestling industry starts to take more responsibility, and that the rest of the world starts to take the wrestling industry a little more seriously.
For too long, the lives and careers of some of the most talented athletes in the world have been in the hands of unscrupulous and corrupt promoters, willing to turn a blind eye to their employee's "personal demons", so long as they still draw in the fans. And for too long, those same promoters have had the authority to kick a wrestler to the curb when they've been unable to work.
In an ideal world, there would be support for these men and women. Jesse Ventura called for the formation of a wrestler's union in the 1980s, but was quickly silenced by Vince McMahon, and the issue has failed to pick up steam ever since, although Darren Aronofsky called for wrestlers to be eligible for medical coverage by the Screen Actor's Guild as recently as January of this year.
When you make your living as a professional wrestler - part sportsman, part actor - and you're risking serious personal injury night after night after night, for our entertainment, it's downright insane to think that there is no independent agency you could rely on to even pay your health insurance. Between the young kids coming up and just trying to live a dream, barely able to afford to get from show to show, to the veterans still hanging on because they've got nothing left, the Randy "The Ram" Robinsons of the world, of which there are far too many...perhaps you could blame it on bad life decisions, perhaps this whole corrupt hellhole of an industry has had its day and needs to be put to pasture...or perhaps there's still something in there worth saving.
Hopefully losing one of the all-time greats will bring this dicussion to the forefront, and maybe change a few things. It's about bloody time.