I don’t have many regrets in life. I’m not really built that way. I have bad tattoos and I laugh at them in the mirror most mornings. I’ve done stupid stuff and been lucky enough to have friends who know me well enough to roll their eyes and not stay mad for too long. Like anyone else, I think about the perfect thing to say to someone the moment it’s not longer meaningful, but I’ve done my best to never dwell. I suppose it’s sort of funny, and probably not at all surprising, that one choice I still lose sleep over is skipping out on seeing Kobashi vs. Samoa Joe.
I had plenty of excuses at the time. I’ve never really been huge in to puro. I liked all the four pillars stuff I had seen, and I recognized how much of an influence it had on everything, but seeing that stuff for the first time was not the earth shattering experience for me that I think it was for a lot of my peers. I could continue making a big long list of all the reasons I came up with not to go but it’s all pretty irrelevant now. It boiled down to not really seeing what the big deal was going to be. Kobashi vs. Joe was a dream match for a lot of people, and that’s all I saw it as: a dream for others and not for me. As soon as I got a chance to watch the match, I knew I was wrong. It wasn’t just a match up between generations and titans and great wrestlers, it was an experience for those lucky enough to have the foresight that I lacked. The energy of that show crackled through the DVD and in to my living room and while I was disappointed that I had missed a great match, I was distraught that I had missed a moment, a true, palpable, meaningful moment. I vowed not to make that mistake again.
That longing for being present and part of something was on my mind when ROH announced that Misawa was coming for Glory by Honor weekend. It wasn’t even a choice for me. It was a compulsion. In some way, I felt relieved, I felt like I could right a wrong from my past. I bought tickets and when they came it was as though I had been mailed a second chance. In the two years since Kobashi had been in ROH, I had been able to acquaint myself a little more with NOAH and AJPW, but I devoted myself to watching Misawa as much as possible in the months leading up to the event. I didn’t want to miss anything. When I watched the Kobashi match, it felt like being at a concert but only knowing a couple of the songs. I wanted to learn all the lyrics this time. I wanted to hum the tune. I wanted to scream along with the chorus and turn to the person next to me and see them screaming the same thing.
Misawa had always been an inscrutable performer to me. So many other Japanese wrestlers translate so immediately. Kobashi would get over as a babyface in any country in any era. The connection that the crowd had with Jumbo is recognizable and understandable. Misawa was different. He was always so stoic, so workmanlike. He wrestled as though he was in an empty room. I remember reading that he was an amateur champion in his youth, and I can’t help but think when he came out to wrestle for his high school team, his demeanor was the same. The world would fade away beyond him and his opponent. His goal was singular and his opponent’s goal was irrelevant. He could be a frustrating watch as well. I have to imagine that if the internet message boards existed in Japan in 1994, at least one person was posting “Misawa wins lol”. But I think the victories were the point, and part of the greatness of the performer. So many victories in wrestling feel hollow. Someone overcame the odds, but we as devoted fans cannot help but look past the result and feel some part of the story was lacking, or what machinations behind the curtain played a part in the outcome. When Misawa won, it was because he overcame the odds, sure, but it was also because he was a platonic ideal of focus and greatness. His inevitable victory was frustrating in the way that some people surely felt about Michael Jordan. His greatness was oppressive in a way but not diminished because of that.
I wish I could point to a singular moment when Misawa clicked for me and I got it. I think instead that understanding came in bits and pieces, like when you start reading a book and you don’t get what all the fuss is about but one day you realize you’ve been thinking about it at work for like an hour straight and then the next week you stay up until 4 AM to finish it. My mind would wander and I’d think about his dives to the outside or when he’d flip over the ropes and land so delicately on the apron and how he had a lot more athleticism than he got credit for. My friends would invite me out and I would tell them I’d already made plans, which wasn’t really a lie. I would just leave out the part where my plans were buying a forty ouncer and watching a tag match from 1995 I had seen dozens of times already. It was like a montage in a romantic comedy, but instead of Julia Roberts, my obsession was a bizarrely pale Japanese man.
Despite my high praise, none of my friends were keen on driving to New York to see a wrestler that they had never heard of. I made the long trip with only a few coca colas, too many cigarettes and a bunch of CDs for company. Somewhere in Pennsylvania, a Billy Bragg album got stuck in the stereo and I had to pull over for a half hour to figure out how to fish it out so I could put something else on. When I finally got it out, I did a victory dance in the rest stop parking lot and could not have cared less who looked at me funny. At that moment the world was perfect. I had conquered a machine and I was mere hours from taking part in something that I was sure would be bigger than myself and bigger than wrestling. The girl I was seeing at the time had stopped returning my calls about a week prior to this, and every song on that Billy Bragg album felt like it was about the two of us. The CD stopped playing and it was like a spell had been broken. I was released. I was alone both literally and figuratively but I was on a road toward a goal and happiness and experience and every second took me farther and farther way from heartache. I pressed down on the gas and shifted up to fifth and with each little white line that went by I felt more and more giddy with anticipation.
I remember really feeling the goosebumps for the first time when Misawa and KENTA followed the code of honor. Sure, hearing his entrance music was pretty incredible but when they shook hands, it felt like something special, something unique to that exact moment and place. Shortly after, everyone was going crazy for that first strike exchange. Misawa’s elbows live were a sensory experience, like going to a baseball game and truly hearing the crack of the bat live and getting a sense of the physics of the thing. I’m not ashamed to admit that I joined in on that early “This is Awesome” chant. It was. We were all seeing something we never thought we’d see.
KENTA doesn’t break clean in the corner and Misawa absolutely kills him with two elbows. He had this look of total disdain on his face, and then he motioned to KENTA’s prone body, as if to say to everyone can you believe this shit. Misawa bumps pretty big for some of KENTA’s kicks, and I remember being sort of in awe of how slow Misawa looked when walking around but how athletic he still was when he needed to do something that added to the narrative. It was a remarkable display of body control to still be able to dial up that extra bit of torque when he needed to. KENTA throws bombs in this match way earlier than I remembered, with the knee to Misawa when he was draped on the ropes and two huge kicks to the back. KENTA does that awesome spot where he hops over the top rope and instead of a splash or a stomp he lands next to his opponent before just barely grazing them with the back of his heel. Such a prick move. I always thought someone should have stolen it.
KENTA takes an elbow in the corner and sells like he just got shot with a rifle. I guess this is the normal match structure for a junior against a heavy, but I’ve really been impressed rewatching this and seeing how credible his offense looks, but how big he has bumped to make sure the inherent hierarchy is a constant undercurrent. I think I’m in the minority, but I really loved the post-2000 grumpy Misawa stuff. It’s like watching an old wild west gunslinger who has come to terms with his own mortality, but he’s not going to go down without a fight. Misawa at this point would go in to every match thinking if some punk ass little kid throwing Kawada kicks wants to be champ, that’s fine, but he’s got to actually take it from me. He had too much pride to just lie down, no matter how tired he was and how much pain even the simplest things caused. It’s such a heartbreaking character and performance. He’s so good at doing tiny things to show how much more it hurts than he wants to let on; only showing vulnerability when he knows his opponent can’t see, working holds with just a little more desperation each time.
Again, KENTA bumps off an elbow as if he has a death wish, this time letting Misawa catch him mid springboard. Misawa hits a tope and it’s a pretty incredible sight. I remember seeing him in the ring and thinking to myself no, no he wouldn’t possibly and then watching everyone sitting on that side have the same exact thought and rise to their feet. It’s a bit strange, watching this again, as so far the crowd has come across as almost subdued. In reality, I think people were enraptured. I’m so easily distracted at wrestling shows but I remember just being glued to the presence of the man. Speaking of being easily distracted, Green Lantern Fan is sitting ringside, as always. Is he wearing a Rent shirt? Can anyone tell? Does anyone remember this? If I had a time machine I’d use it just to find out the answer to this question.
KENTA kicks out of a Tiger Driver which we all totally bit on. Misawa goes to the top but gets caught by KENTA with a big kick. That’s been an interesting recurring theme in this match, that the person trying to use to top rope will get caught with a strike by the other, although I think that’s a hard narrative to escalate. They do a decent job working that little segment around it which ends with KENTA hitting a knee strike to a mid flight Misawa. They go back and forth for a moment before KENTA counters a Tiger Driver and just blasts Misawa with a Go 2 Sleep. Just crushes him. He hits him so hard it makes me a little uncomfortable, even more so when ROH shows a million replays of it like the NFL used to do back when people referred to concussions as “getting your bell rung”. Everyone was up. Everyone thought it was over. Misawa gets back up and goads KENTA in to another strike exchange, which leads to an Emerald Flosion. The last few minutes have shockingly felt like the WWE Main Event style, with very simple physical stories, huge bombs for near falls, and a reliance on negative space and referee counts to build drama. KENTA gets a final brief flurry, but it leads to Misawa finally getting the pinfall with what can only be described as an ill advised head drop variant on the Emerald Flosion.
This is an interesting match for me personally in that it’s one of the only matches I can think of that really doesn’t translate at all when watching it on DVD. It really felt like a classic live. Maybe not a classic, I don’t think anyone was really shouting about it being five stars or anything like that, but an experience. We felt like we had witnessed something noteworthy, which in some ways is way rarer than a great match. I wrote earlier how the crowd almost seems subdued when watching it over again. I really think people were just listening, soaking it all in. It wasn’t a match that needed copious chants, it was a match where everyone felt honored to be let in on. Before my current career, I worked in theatre for a long time and the times I can point to as being the most rewarding for me were student matinees when the show and the subject matter was just a little out of reach for the kids. I remember doing Anna Christie, this really fucked up love story, and the high school kids that day all got it on some level. Everyone understood the themes innately, our inherent need to be reclamated and how our mistakes and our regrets force us to sabotage the chances we have at happiness and success. At fourteen and fifteen, they just didn’t have the experiences yet to know quite why it hit them so hard. You could’ve heard a pin drop. Those kids fed off of us, but we fed off of their rapt attention just as much. In some way I think this match was like that. Not that Misawa was telling us some fucked up love story, but we as an audience were watching a story unfold that was just beyond our grasp. A story of a man being greeted by strangers in a foreign land as a legend and wanting desperately to give a performance that lived up to that adulation. A performance that his body just couldn’t give anymore. He tried anyway, and there is always something poignant about effort, especially when we know in our hearts that it’s futile. At 23 I think I just saw someone giving his all, someone wanting to put on a show. Now in my 30s, those moments for Misawa have become something I can empathize with.
With no plan and no company, I wandered around Manhattan until I found a bar I liked and figured I’d content myself until I needed to find a place to stay. I don’t know how long I walked, but eventually I ended up somewhere with tall boys in a cooler for a couple bucks each and The Queers playing on the jukebox. I don’t know if there was a smoking ban in New York by then, but everyone had cigarettes and it felt like I was getting away with something. I sat at the bar and had a drink and then another and then bought one for the bartenders. At some point in the night, one had a break and sat down and we started talking about beer and music and whatever else. She asked me what I had been up to that night and I told her all about the show, and Misawa and how unreal the whole night had felt. She poured two shots and said “There’s magic in watching someone prove their not quite done yet,” and we drank while I Need Adventure by GG and the Jabbers played. I’ll never forget that line, it was like something out of a movie, a total stranger summing up everything I was thinking with such tremendous brevity. The next time I was in the city, I wanted more than anything to find that bar again, and to relive that night and to buy another drink for those bartenders and listen to more great records. I looked high and low for that bar with a couple friends in tow and we couldn’t find it. Some part of me was relieved when we failed.