Japanese wrestling legend Mitsuharu Misawa, one of the greatest of all time by any metric, died in a shocking in-ring incident on June 13, 2009.
He lost consciousness, and was later pronounced dead after taking a routine suplex from Akitoshi Saito in a tag team bout also involving Go Shiozaki and Bison Smith. His death was initially thought to have resulted from cardiac arrest, before police reports indicated that a cervical spinal cord injury was likely the real cause. We'll never know for sure: his family opted to invoke a clause under Japanese law not to release it.
While the cause of death is disputed, there is no doubt that his years pioneering the King’s Road style were a significant—if not the sole—factor. The King's Road was punishing. Those who trod it were depicted as superhuman, able and more than willing to administer and absorb ludicrous punishment. Infamous for its reckless, neck-centric offence—Misawa's Tiger Driver '91 super-finisher remains the most wince-inducing your writer has ever bore witness to—it made cripples of its gladiators.
The wear and tear crept up on Misawa in devastatingly tragic fashion, but it wasn't so patient with Steve 'Dr. Death' Williams; world class just three years earlier, by the time he joined the WWF in 1998, Williams was a husk of the warrior he was in the East. The style had caught up with him so rapidly that he is now best remembered in the mainstream, dispiritingly, as a punchline: an Attitude Era footnote as a result of his Brawl For All humiliation at the hands of Bart Gunn.
Though the style was popularised in and mostly associated with All Japan Pro Wrestling in the nineties, the quintessential example of its quality—and unsettling legacy—can be seen in Misawa’s seminal March 1, 2003 GHC Heavyweight Title defence against Kenta Kobashi from Pro Wrestling NOAH, revered in many circles as the best pro wrestling match of all time….
…before its dangerous bones were exhumed years later. But we’ll get there.