(NOAH) "The Testament of Misawa"; the letter to the wrestler he would lose his life against. 10 years after his death. What Misawa left behind.
12th June 2019
For wrestler, Akitoshi Saito, the feeling was not one he had ever experienced. The backdrop has the power in the first move it makes, when you raise your opponent. Once you get the momentum, you drop it from the highest point, as that is when the opponents body becomes slightly heavy.
He would still stand after it, after all, the opponent was the master of "passivity" in wrestling. That is when on turning around, it was noticed that something was wrong.
Mitsuharu Misawa did not stand. He did not move.
The referee rushed over to him.
Finally, after saying in a small voice "stop the match", Misawa stopped responding.
It was June 13th 2009 at the Hiroshima Prefectural Gymnasium, and the venue which had been boiling for the fierce fight, calmed down.
The first "received" threat
"I came to Noah because of Misawa."
It is May 2019. Ten years have passed since that match, and during the Aichi tour, Saito talked about his relationship with Misawa.
Before entering wrestling, Saito was a true athlete. In swimming during elementary school he won the junior Olympics. In college, he won the Japan championships, and was designated an Olympic athlete. At the same time, he was also training in Kyokushin. The working adult, had become a martial artist.
He came to New Japan in 1992, starting with a run in, and taking advantage of his background in athletics, his striking style was highly appreciated. However, he wished to experience the style of All-Japan, another major group. He left New Japan after a period of inactivity and caught Misawa at the end of a radio program waiting to leave.
Misawa left all Japan in 2000, and launched Pro Wrestling Noah, which Saito was allowed to join.
In the ring, he had his first "personal experience".
"Misawa was the first to make me feel fear other than being attacked. He was a passive genius. No matter what technique you used, he stood. From the customers point of view, they notice my attack and it may seem like I am doing well, but from the side of the match, you feel as if your skills have suddenly lost power. I felt helpless, and even fear".
Breaking through this fear means that your opponent will work harder than usual. Misawa will accept everything. In that way, any match in which Misawa was involved was a good match in which each wrestlers individual character was full whether win or lose, and always kept the audience entertained. The style of Saito's attack was also shining more than previously with the big hall with cheering like a roar at the offense and defense.
This is wrestling. This is wrestling. And it was unprecedented.
"With Misawa, I was able to continue wrestling. Without Misawa, I would not have what I have now. I have always thought that"
Resolution and Reality
The back drop was steep, but it did not look dangerous.
However, Yoshinobu Kanemaru immediately noticed that Misawa's reaction was not normal, and he rushed into the ring. The referee stopped the match, and the doctor, who had been watching from ringside, quickly came to the ring.
Soon, heart massage started.
Kanemaru also got into the ring.
Misawa's complexion was a deep blue.
It was decided to use a heart difibrullator, but the sweat needed to be wiped off. Kanemaru and the other wrestlers all offered theirs at once to desperately wipe the body of Misawa.
Before long the paramedics arrived, and a stretcher was set up and Misawa was transported to hospital. Although wrestling was accompanied by danger, he had been prepared to dive into this world, still, Kanemaru stood there without being able to process the reality of what was happening.
More than a follower, "my own colors"
Kanemaru's wrestling life began at being Misawa's "second".
In the spring he participated in Kōshien at Yamanashi Gakuin High School. At that time in the athlete's directory his entry was written as "future dream = pro wrestler."
After his graduation, he entered All Japan. As baseball playing Kōshien teenagers have a promising high level of physical ability, immediately after his debut he was assigned a surprisingly big role.
In 1997, on the 10th anniversary of the death of Ikki Kajiwara, he was in a match with all the Tiger Masks from the first to the fourth generation. However, only Misawa, the former second generation Tiger Mask could be there due to scheduling. Kanemaru was nominated by Giant Baba, the then president of All Japan, saying "you can do it."
"I was surprised, as he is a superstar. I wondered myself if I could do it."
Advice came to the bewildered Kanemaru in the form of a phone call from Misawa.
"Do your best. I would like you to do it in your own color".
No, no, after all, you have to follow Misawa's style. Kanemaru thought this until it came to the match, and he understood the meaning of Misawa's words. The audience were going crazy about the first time ever all four Tigers were stepping into the ring.
He thought about the anticipation that Misawa always receives, and he noticed that since the personality of the successive Tigers is so strong, this is not a place for imitation. So he fought in his own colors, the venue was intense, and after the match he was told that he had done well by everyone.
In order to please the fans, you have to strike out in your own color, that was something he learnt from Misawa by chance, and from there Kanemaru has consolidated his position as a skillful wrestler with his own personality.
"Misawa has died"
The voice on the mobile phone headset sounded coldly robotic.
On June 13th 2009, round about 11pm, Naomichi Marufuji stopped the car in a parking area of the Tonmei Road in response to the message. He had continued to step on the accelerator for about two hours after leaving his home. He didn't really know where he was, but he seemed to be in Shizuoka prefecture. He had been sidelined with a major injury that had torn ligaments in his knees, and had been resting at home when he saw the news online.
"Misawa transported to hospital after an accident during the match".
He called the tour staff, but could not get through.
It was too late to get the last Shinkansen, but he could not help it. He left the house and jumped into his car.
He begged, please be safe. With prayers he drove the car fast, but soon after, the news arrived.
He looked at the night sky. There were no tears. This wasn't real.
He returned home and headed for Hiroshima the next morning on the Shinkansen.
Looking at the body in the hospital, the reality came true and the tears came, but he could not cry in front of Mrs. Misawa, who had received a far worse shock than himself.
The moment he left the room he fell to his knees, and didn't stop crying, the tears pattering on the smooth linoleum floor.
When Marufuji was in High School, he had already decided that he would become a professional wrestler. During the third year winter vacation, he took an introductory examination to All Japan Pro Wrestling. He read books in advance, and gathered information to prepare for the physical exam and interview.
"But in fact, I was given a completely different type of test. If I could stay for a week at the training camp like a trainee, I would pass".
Actually, this had been Misawa's plan.
As soon as he passed the test and became a trainee, he became Misawa's assistant. Five months after the introduction, he made his debut at unusual speed.
"For three months from passing the test, until I graduated from high school to beginning training, I continued to train with the wrestlers at the dojo. There were 500 squats daily. To be a professional you need this, you need to be able to experience dojo life. That is why I made a quick debut."
Misawa did not give technical guidance to Marufuji. He took him out for meals and even in private he was kind, but he almost never talked about wrestling.
"I feel that he was teaching me by example about what a professional wrestler should be."
Marufuji hadn't yet debuted, when Misawa was asked by a fan if he could have a photo taken with him. The fan gave Marufuji a camera, and urged him to take a picture.
Then the gentle Misawa, who cherishes fans above anyone else, spoke in a rare loud voice, "This is a professional wrestler. Not a photographer".
The fan took the camera and went to search for other staff and ask them to shoot the picture.
"I learned from Misawa that the bottom line is that there are places in which you cannot bend as a professional. So, I think that Misawa's greatness as a wrestler was similar to dignity and respect."
"Misawa was very friendly, and sometimes contacted me like a friend. Until the end he appeared to me like a someone from the world of movies, or a hero from another world. Because he valued his professional pride, I wondered if there was an image that he had created".
Remains in the room of the late teacher
It was Kotaro Suzuki, who had been serving as Misawa's second, who told Marufuji and the others.
"The moment the backdrop happened, I thought something was wrong. He gave a small spasm and didn't move. But, if the second gets into the ring, then the match is broken. The referee stopped the match, but those few seconds were very long."
When the end of the match was announced, Kotaro immediately jumped into the ring. He confirmed the situation, and bought the paramedics in. Even after Misawa had been taken to hospital, he remained at the venue. He explained the situation to people who were close to him, and then took a taxi to the hospital.
Even after it was confirmed that Misawa had died, Suzuki continued to be active. At the hospital, he sent an e-mail to the roster, and finally he called Misawa's then assistant. This was his duty. Listening to the other person crying at the other end of the phone, he too broke down and the dark hallway echoed.
When his tears stopped, he headed to the hotel. It was not to get rest, he needed to pack up Misawa's room.
He would look after him until the last.
"I strangely remember that "Super Robot Wars" was in the Game Boy Advance. He really liked manga and games. While putting away the console, I remembered that just two days before his death we went to Karaoke together."
Professional encouragement. The words of the mentor.
Since his childhood, he had adored Mitsuharu Misawa. Even in Pro-Wrestling video games, his characters were always modeled on Misawa. When he was in Junior High, he copied the techniques of the second generation Tiger Mask one after the other. He had the same birthday as Misawa. He felt there was an "en".
After graduating from university he passed Noah's introductory test which had been started by Misawa, and joined as a student of the first class ever at the Noah dojo. Misawa immediately gave him the name, "Kotaro", and he was entrusted as his attendant.
"Misawa didn't really give me much technical instruction, but he watched the match closely and gave advice on matters as divergent as winning and losing".
In the tag championship match in Sapporo, in the early part of the match, his partner Ricky Marvin was injured and Suzuki struggled alone and fought a match of equal strength.
Kotaro's team lost the belt, but afterward, Misawa invited him to a sushi bar in Susukino. Marvin came too, and he was praised for boosting the match in a development that could have disappointed the audience.
"To be praised was the biggest incentive. After all, I think that Misawa was a special wrestler, and I had an extra feeling that I should become the same professional".
Preparing "the letter from Heaven".
"I thought about taking my life".
At the venue in Aichi Prefecture, Saito watches the trainees sweating in the ring before the event starts, and looks back on ten years ago.
On the night of the accident, Saito stayed the night in the room where Misawa placed. There was a possibility that he would revive in 48 hours, and Saito prayed.
It was morning when he left the hospital and returned to the hotel, he saw a load of sports papers piled up in a store.
The headline bought the reality to Saito.
I have done a terrible thing.
Torment and blame myself again.
He felt he couldn't continue wrestling and he felt that there was no longer any place in the world for him.
But, if he died, then the fans would no longer be angry.
But, shoudln't be also accept what was coming, instead of vanishing from eveyone?
That time in the hotel decided his future life. The conclusion was due to an overwhelming attitude that Misawa had towards "receiving".
The next day Noah were in Hakata without fail.
When Saito went to the ring, he collapsed in tears before Misawa's portrait. He decided he would continue wrestling, no matter what.
However, what was coming, was not common.
While there were voices of sympathy for the "unfortunate accident" on the internet, there were unrelenting voices of blame.
Misawa had been diagnosed with "severe cervical break", and as we understood later, this had occurred due to a twist of the neck. It was considered unlikely that the cause was the impact of a single backdrop. Nevertheless, a number of people in "the profession", pointed out that "it was intentional", and from the public perspective this was the voice of authority, and spread like it was credible.
Despite the ill wind, Saito managed to make his own decision. It was a letter that provided support at such a time of conflict. The message was from the dead Misawa.
"With that letter, I was able to continue wrestling. For ten years now, I have had it with me in my tour bag. Wait a moment, I will get it from the waiting room."
"I will protect what Misawa left"
Marufuji was watching from outside the ring as Saito was kneeling down.
Before the match, the roster had gathered and talked about the future.
"Misawa would not have wanted to stop the show".
There was a discussion and everyone was united "for Misawa".
Marufuji felt the same, but he also felt a sense of alienation. He had a knee injury, and he could not wrestle and it was with regret he watched the memorial from outside the ring.
He knew that he needed to return to the ring early. He was in a hurry, but recovery did not go well.
While doing rehabilitation, he thought about Misawa.
"He was a unique wrestler. He had the body of a heavyweight, but he was able to keep up with the movements of a junior heavyweight while having a heavyweight body. He was genius. It was really amazing. There was however a shadow on it. After Misawa took the heavyweight belt in 2006, I had a revenge match with him. It was only about half a year, but I couldn't believe how heavy his movement had become."
Still, he understood why he had to keep on going.
"All the fans from all over the country were waiting to see Mitsuharu Misawa. Even from a management status, it was necessary for Misawa to attract customers alone, and because the sense of responsibility for him was twice as strong. So we had no choice in matches but to overwhelm Misawa with match contents. The bottom line is otherwise, there is no peace of mind".
I thought so, and he had a good match with KENTA when both junior and heavyweight. That the size of the body did not matter was something that Misawa, who exceeded the movement of the juniors by being a heavyweight, taught.
Marufuji's feelings were the same as Misawa's.
It was said in some circles that Misawa had wanted to retire, but it was not in time.
Marufuji had made up his mind, "I will wrestle for Noah for the rest of my life. I will protect what Misawa left behind."
"I want you to continue wrestling"
"Sorry, you have placed a heavy load on me".
What was spelled out in the letter
Two years before the accident, Misawa had entrusted a letter to a close friend with a message "if I ever die in the ring, please give this to the person when it happens".
"You trusted me, and applied your technique with all your strength..."
"...and I couldn't respond to it. It was a betrayal of trust. I am sorry".
On the envelope of the message there were water marks. Is it sweat after the match? A teardrop? Saito silently turns the paper over.
"I want you to continue wrestling..."
"It may be painful, but I want you to continue..."
"Misawa left a message knowing that his last opponent would suffer pain. I was inspired to respond to that thought".
September 13th 2009 was just three months after the accident.
Having struggled in a singles match against Takeshi Morishima, Saito looked up to the sky, and then decided that since the backdrop had been sealed on that day he should start using it again, as "I think I have to move forward, for Misawa". He only uses it now for important matches. Whenever he does it, he still has complicated feelings towards it.
"After all, the time is right, but I still think about my opponent, "please get up". I want you to stand, but don't stand up right away. Both are true feelings".
Searing the image of "receiving".
Just before Misawa's death, Kotaro Suzuki joined a heel unit. It was a fighting style which meant that sometimes he did not chose to win, and from the moment of the accident he decided to inherit Misawa's wrestling.
"I thik the importance of Misawa, and the the thing that was more important than anyone else, was how he "received" during the match. I cannot escape from my opponents skill, so I meet it head on. During training, there was no way to deal with it. He was consistent until the end."
What I still remember is the match showing Misawa's "greatness" in a title match between Misawa and Kobashi, which took place at the Nippon Budokan in 2003.
The two used dangerous skills, such as head drops. Then Misawa released his deadly Tiger Suplex from the ramp to the concrete floor outside. It was not only Kobashi who received it, but Misawa was so strongly struck by hitting the ground that he screamed, "I am going to die".
To those in the profession, they know the impact of falling to the outside of the ring in their bodies. Suzuki was watching with a beating heart, worried.
The fans hearts shook too.
The sound of running feet engulfed the Budokan, and many excited people rushed to ringside at the end of the match. The match was commended for a professional wrestling award, and the best bout of the year. But, there was also a view that having done the match without regards to his own safety, Misawa shortened his life.
Still, Suzuki wanted to believe that what Misawa cherished was worthwhile.
As one of the people fascinated by Misawa's fighting style, he wished to inherit his style.
"Since then, I have always thought that. There are people in Noah now who knew Misawa, are quite small. I have no intention of imposing on them something like, "because this was how Misawa did it". Only the people who were with him, should feel this. That is what I believe. I would like to carry on the way that Misawa cherished as much as possible."
You don't lose in professional wrestling
In December 2009, Marufuji finally returned to action in a singles match against Atsushi Aoki (who passed away in a traffic accident in June 2019). He won the match by using the "Tiger Flowsion", which he had been preparing to use as a trump card against Misawa. The technique was an original one by combining the "Tiger Driver" and the "Emerald Flowsion", which are Misawa's special moves.
"I admired Misawa, and became a professional wrestler, but I don't want to be him. If I imitate him I cannot do anything, I cannot surpass him."
There is regret and remorse that Misawa could not have peace of mind about this. So, although the technique was his teachers, he did not want to inherit the technique as it was. He wanted to add his own interpretation and arrangement.
After losing Misawa, Noah had a history of pain.
Drop in business, massive withdrawal of attendances. However, Marufuji remains still carrying Noah. In 2016, he won the Wrestling Award for best match of the year in a match against New Japan ace, Kazuchika Okada.
"In professional wrestling, there is a pride in not losing anywhere. However, it has become difficult to transmit that to the world. I wanted to prove that against Kazuchika Okada, even by going out to other promotions. By doing so, I want to give my juniors confidence.
I remember that in the early 2000s, mixed martial arts was all the rage, but still Misawa and Noah filled the stadiums with "pure wrestling", and kept the fans buzzing, and watching that I was able to believe in the power.
"The important thing is that everyone can have confidence. It is not because I alone can do it for Noah. I will keep Noah, and I want to restore the majesty of professional wrestlers and the dignity that Misawa had. I want to return Noah to that position, where professionals can be admired by other professionals".
"Essence" that shines in a group with different colors
In 2019, Kanemaru is fighting in New Japan. Even in a popular group of many people, he demonstrates his presence as a professional wrestler with speed.
"My physical ability is a lot lower than it was when I was young, but wrestling is more than that. Speed can be created by how to set it, how to create the tempo and how to think about using it."
You may laugh, but the importance of an individuals color was taught to him when he substituted for Misawa. He still thinks about the range and scope of his teacher.
"I cannot forget the match between Misawa and Kobashi in 2003. There was not only pace, there was tempo and there was intelligence. The battle was packed with all sorts of elements, which kept the fans crazy for over 30 minutes".
My color, and the drawers for technique.
Only when they are together can you keep so many fans happy.
"That wrestler is my ideal, and in that sense the technology I gained at Noah is still alive. In New Japan, with a different color, I stand out very much when fighting with Noah's essence. The reason that I am able to do that, is because I worked under Misawa."
The meaning of life following the letter.
Shortly after his debut 30 years ago, Akitoshi Saito had the daunting experience of becoming Misawa's last opponent. Still, Saito continues to rise in the ring. Last year he won the GHC tag championship.
"I think that is because of the accident, the message Misawa left was "I want you to think about the meaning of being my last opponent". I have been searching for the answer, and I recently came up with it. For those who are suffering the same pain as me, and I want to show that you can stand up and do your best."
Unfortunately, there are many people who are forced to become "perpetrators" of accidents. As a result, there are a lot of people who receive a "lynching" on the internet, even though they are not too blame. Such a reputation is hard to lose online, and sadly it is a major obstacle to recurrence.
Saito is the same. Misawa passed away, and showed him the way in the form of a "letter" to such a student. He receives his opponents attack head on, and he stands up no matter how many times he is knocked down. Misawa comes to mind here. Did he also fight with the desire so he could encourage others?
He was resolute, Saito says.
"I will continue to receive, and I will continue to fight. This is what Misawa showed me, this is the meaning of my life"
Picture credit: Line News
NOTE: If you quote from or use any part of this article in any of your own, please be kind enough to give me credit for the translation.
NOTE: If you quote from or use any part of this article in any of your own, please be kind enough to give me credit for the translation.