Two commonly used themes in pro-wrestling are that of vengeance and redemption, while one less common (but no less intrinsic) is the ‘passing of the torch’ moment. It can be used in a variety of ways, to mark the arrival of a new strong talent, to signify the end of a champion’s dominance or, as in the case of Jumbo Tsuruta vs Mitsuharu Misawa, to symbolise a generational shift and provide a clear, defined watermark between the past generation and the next. There hadn’t really been a passing the torch moment in Japanese wrestling that was quite like Jumbo vs Misawa up to that point. Baba and Inoki had been denied any potential moment by the untimely death of Rikidozan, not that ‘The Godfather of Puroresu’ losing to his proteges was ever likely to occur in that era. Jumbo usurped Baba’s place at the top of the AJPW card, but likewise never earned a singles victory over his mentor. Fujinami never defeated his mentor Inoki either, nor did he manage to replace Inoki as the top draw in NJPW. Tenryu managed to defeat Jumbo to win the Triple Crown, but Jumbo took it back a few months down the line and a year later Tenryu left in a huff to break out on his own.
But there were some key differences between Tenryu and Misawa. Tenryu had come to All Japan from the world of Sumo Wrestling. He already had some name status and, after a brief period of training, was thrust into a fairly high position on the cards. Misawa, meanwhile, toiled away for years as a young boy before being sent on learning excursion to Mexico and returning as the second incarnation of Tiger Mask. Tenryu was already something of a star from the moment he arrived, but the All Japan fans had watched Misawa grow from a young boy losing opening matches for a year straight to the man who boldly shed the Tiger Mask gimmick and declared that he was a heavyweight wrestler. More than that, he was Jumbo’s student and it was becoming increasingly obvious that it was Misawa who was the stand-out talent of the next crop of All Japan trainees ready to step into the limelight. Ready to step-up and potentially challenge for Jumbo’s spot as the top dog in AJPW.
The other big factor in the equation was Jumbo Tsuruta himself. The second half of the 80’s had been a turbulent time for Jumbo. He’d cemented himself as the ace of All Japan and one of the best wrestlers in the world, but when Riki Choshu and his outlaw JWA promotion invaded AJPW in 1984 the fans saw a different side of Jumbo. He was much more aggressive, attacking Choshu and his cohorts before the bell would sound as well as ruthlessly targeting Choshu’s injured ribs. The fans were shocked to see their hero in such a light and, perhaps for that reason, Jumbo left much of the battling against Choshu’s Revolutionary Army to Genichiro Tenryu. Jumbo was still involved, but he was restrained and the emphasis had shifted to Tenryu standing up for All Japan. In 1987 Choshu returned to New Japan, but not before he and Yoshiaki Yatsu dropped the tag titles to Tenryu and Jumbo, with Tenryu winning the pinfall on Yatsu. Emboldened by his big title win, when Jumbo and Tenryu lost the tag titles a few months later, Tenryu abandoned Jumbo and formed his own stable ‘Revolution’ with Ashura Hara, Toshiaki Kawada & Samson Fuyuki.
Tenryu went straight after Jumbo and his allies, winning the tag belts that year and then finally winning the Triple Crown from Jumbo a year later. But while Jumbo was certainly willing to match Tenryu’s aggression, there didn’t seem to be much question that he was still the man in AJPW. He was getting on in years, but his ability hadn’t diminished and he showed that by reclaiming the Triple Crown from Tenryu and then decisively defending it against him a month later. Fast forward a year or so and, in a parallel to Tenryu’s turn on Jumbo, Misawa formed his ‘Super Generation Army’ and set his sights firmly on Tsuruta and the other ageing stars of AJPW. Jumbo responded in kind, but as All Japan entered the 90’s it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to retain his hold on the promotion’s top prize, the Triple Crown. There was a creeping sense of desperation that entered Jumbo’s work, as Misawa and his army gained more and more confidence the further they pushed against the established stars of the promotion. Finally, at last, Misawa scored a pinfall victory over Tsuruta in a tag match and that’s where the dynamic changed.
Jumbo brought out the aggression he’d used to face Tenryu, he brought out the ruthlessness and anger he’d had to restrain to keep the fans on his side when facing the wildly popular outlaw Riki Choshu and he turned it all on his student Mitsuharu Misawa in one last ditch effort to hold back the oncoming tide. Misawa defeated Jumbo Tsuruta 1-on-1 at the Nippon Budokan on June 8th, 1990 to a sold-out crowd of 15,000 fans. It marked the culmination of a ten year journey for Misawa from the very bottom to the very upper reaches of All Japan competition but, not only that, it marked the beginning of the end for the legendary career of Jumbo Tsuruta. Jumbo had fought like a wounded old lion who knew that, sooner or later, someone would come along and defeat him and take his place and that someone was Mitsuharu Misawa.
It wasn’t the last time the pair would meet in the ring and Misawa wouldn’t score a singles victory over Tsuruta again, but the very fact that he’d managed to do it in the first place set him on a career path that could only end with one thing: the Triple Crown. Misawa finally got his hands on the fabled belts in 1992, defeating ‘The Unsinkable Battleship’ Stan Hansen to become Triple Crown champion. He would hold onto the belt for seven hundred and five days, during which time another legendary feud began as Misawa had to face the challenge of former tag partner Toshiaki Kawada, a feud that would go on to define the 1990’s for All Japan. Jumbo Tsuruta had a few more memorable matches in him but his career was winding down and, as he struggled with illness, he would retire in 1998 before his untimely death in 2000, a year after his mentor Giant Baba passed away.
Jumbo cemented himself as the top guy in All Japan by defeating all comers from the world over, but Misawa cemented his reputation with a single pinfall victory over Jumbo Tsuruta in 1-on-1 competition and, by doing so, became the ace the promotion needed in Jumbo’s wake. Perhaps more impressive than the feat itself was the fact that Misawa managed to fill Tsuruta’s big shoes, but then he did have an all-star supporting cast in the other ‘Four Pillars’ of All Japan: Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi & Akira Taue. Regardless, the Jumbo vs Misawa feud was a true passing the torch moment in AJPW. It told its story so simply and efficiently, the perfect series of matches at the perfect time with two of the absolute best wrestlers of their respective generations both at monumental turning points, not only in their careers, but in wrestling at large. Legendary.