A Tiger Unmasked
I didn’t have home internet access until I was a few years into adulthood and had gotten my first real job to pay for it. Because I didn’t have easy access to the World Wide Web of shared information, I felt like I was missing out on a lot of things.
As a diehard wrestle-nerd, I felt the sting of not knowing what all the fuss was about over Japanese wrestling.
I knew that I dug the Great Muta, Ultimo Dragon, and Jushin Liger, from video-tanning store one dollar VHS tape rentals of WCW PPV’s. But when I read of the awesomeness of “Puroresu”, I felt like I did when kids with cable talked about all their favorite shows in elementary school and all I had was the rabbit-ear-antenna picked up PBS and ABC.
It wasn’t until I was naively volunteering to be a practice dummy for novice wrestlers to try their unskilled hands out at hitting “Burning Hammers”, in a half-burnt down frame shop turned weekly wrestling arena, that I learned about the “Five Star Series” of Kobashi vs Misawa.
It took me a little while, but eventually one of my “tape-trading” buddies gave me a copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy ultra low definition VHS with one of Kenta Kobashi and Mitsuharu Misawa’s classic encounters, and it was great...but just great.
Somehow, despite how they clearly put their hearts and Buddha Natures into this match, despite how they courageously risked life and limb, despite how you could feel-through-hearing that the live crowd’s emotions were being blown around like a plastic shopping bag in the wind (The most beautiful thing that creeper in American Beauty had ever seen!), I expected more.
What the hell was wrong with me? Had the act of becoming a wrestler myself really jaded me so much that I could watch one of the greatest matches of all-time and not have a full blown fangasm? I guessed so.
Having accepted my enthusiast impotence, I closed my accounts with the bank of early ‘90’s All Japan and moved on. Until a very kind friend, Jaz Jones, gave me one of his signature random, surprise gifts: a stack of seven uncased rewritable DVDs labeled by sharpie as discs 1-7 of “Misawa”.
Okay, this was it. I had no excuse, now. Time to really tighten down the waistband on wrestle-aficionado tights and give this guy whom I appreciated, but I will admit with humbled head that, as a Satoru Sayama fan, I saw as “Tiger Mask, Too”.
The DVD series began with Misawa as Tiger Mask 2, and my appreciation began to grow as I watched him have great matches that I never would have sought out because they weren’t against the Dynamite Kid. Still, it was just an appreciation for match quality, and, once again, I was wondering if I had gotten reverse-Grinched and my battle-buff heart had shrunk three sizes.
I kept watching, kept paying attention, trying to see what everyone else seemed to. Then, slowly and gradually I began to recognize something that got my perceivably-too-small heart pumping.
Huh. These matches weren’t just great, they were building off of each other; becoming sequentially greater.
Something that my trainers had preached at me, but I couldn’t really understand, and thus disregarded as old school nonsense, flashed into my mind, “Wrestling’s all about telling stories.”
I started to pay greater attention to detail and began to notice how Misawa was using perfectly placed moves to create continuity both within the match itself and from one match to the next.
Without understanding more than about 1% of the commentary, I began to fully understand, and become totally immersed in, these square circled sagas.
Decades before Netflix binge watching became a thing, a professional wrestler was crafting what could easily be respected as merely must-watch-matches into a must-tune-in-next-time series!
Holy f___ing sh__!
What I was experiencing must be what it is like for the musically initiated to listen to a Beethoven symphony. I was witnessing the awe-inspiring opus of a true grappling genius.
Not only was Misawa more than “Tiger Mask, Too”, he was even more than Tiger Mask 2.0.
How amazing: I never understood the Southern ‘Rasslin’ mantra of “go out there and tell a story”, until I heard it explained to me by a guy who didn’t speak English.
More importantly than even that indispensable gift of understanding, he taught me that all borders are either created by the imagination or sustained by lack of imagination.
Thank you, Misawa-san, so much.