By Zach Arnold | November 22, 2011
Throughout the many years I’ve covered both the pro-wrestling & MMA scenes in Japan, I’ve had the honor and privilege of being friends with two men who unfortunately died way too young — Gary Albright and, now, Mark Smith. Gary was the big, scary gaijin giant in All Japan after he left UWF-International. He and Steve Williams (along with Jim Steele) were the Triangle of Power, the top foreign group in Giant Baba’s organization. Gary was a great man who loved, in no particular order: fantasy hockey, hockey, beer, food, his family, and fighting. It was fascinating to talk to Gary during his tenure in All Japan because he lived through a period of time in the Japanese fight game where PRIDE was starting to take off and the two major wrestling organizations (New Japan & All Japan) were facing a squeeze. Yes, they were still popular, but the money was decreasing and so was the network television support. He and I had a few conversations as to whether or not he should leave All Japan to go to the UFC. His reasoning was solid. Strong amateur wrestling background, good size, and this was in the pre-Zuffa days. He was scared about his job stability in All Japan and felt that touring every-other-tour was going to be a demotion. In the end, he didn’t make the jump to UFC. However, he died way too young when he had a heart attack in January of 2000. It was later discovered that he had an enlarged heart (with blockages) and was also diabetic. I’ll never forget reading about his death online because it seemed so surreal to be able to talk to someone directly and then, poof, vanish before you know it.
That’s how I happened to find out about the death of my old friend Mark “Bison” Smith tonight as well. He died at the age of 38 in Carolina, Puerto Rico due to complications from a heart attack.
I knew of Mark when All Pro Wrestling in the Bay Area had their famous “King of Indies” tournament. During this time period, there was a split amongst the top APW wrestlers (Mike Modest, Donovan Morgan, Mark, etc.) who had gotten a look from NOAH and got their Japanese ticket punched. Eventually, a split happened and you had APW (still around today) and Pro Wrestling Iron, the offshoot group with Morgan, Modest, Smith, and others. I first met Mark in 2001 at a spot show and then later met him at another event when Mitsuharu Misawa & Yoshinari Ogawa worked the same show in Northern California. (He, like I, was perplexed as to why Misawa & Ogawa wanted their appearance at the Iron show to be announced as a last-minute surprise.) Nonetheless, I had a great time talking to Mark and became fast friends. It was hard not to like him. Kenta Kobashi saw something in him as a talent. With the Japanese scene struggling and talent signing with other promotions, I thought Mark would become a natural fit in NOAH.
Over the years, Mark appeared on our radio show (which covered both wrestling & MMA). We had lots of funny & insightful conversations about life and the business. Mark had been based in the Bay Area, working as a security guard at a local Target while off tour from NOAH. Suffice to say, a couple of shoplifters got the surprise of their life when they encountered him. Not a smart choice by those individuals.
Mark soon relocated back home to Colorado. He had moved from Colorado to the Bay Area to become a wrestler with APW, so it was fitting that he would go back home to be closer to his family. He also was working for Victor Quinones and his promotion, IWA Puerto Rico, based in Carolina. Mark told me a funny story about the reaction he got from the NOAH office to this development. In Japanese wrestling lore, Puerto Rico will forever be viewed as the place where Bruiser Brody got murdered, therefore it’s a forbidden place for anyone to go. Much of NOAH management consisted of All Japan employees who lived through that period of time in the 80s when Brody died. So, there were a lot of ‘be careful’ messages sent to Mark by NOAH staffers.
Mark loved Puerto Rico. He loved the people and the country’s climate. It was exactly what he wanted. He had seriously considered moving to Puerto Rico full time. Mark wrestled for Quinones during a boom period of sorts in Puerto Rico when IWA PR & WWC, Carlos Colon’s promotion, were feuding hot-and-heavy. Mark was getting paid $750 a week and lived in one of Victor’s houses with a couple of roommates. Mark never had a bad word to say about Victor at all. Given Victor’s experience and tenure in Japan, NOAH management was OK with the arrangement.
Then, Victor died in April of 2006. Once Victor died, IWA Puerto Rico fell apart. The scene in Puerto Rico struggled. Savio Vega and others tried to get IWA PR back in the swing of things and Mark decided later on to head back to PR to help out management. He loved the Puerto Rican fans a lot. He loved Puerto Rico as a whole. I’m convinced that he would have retired on the island. Guaranteed.
I talked with Mark off-and-on during the post-Quinones period in Puerto Rico. However, I’ll never forget my conversations with Mark after Mitsuharu Misawa died in June of 2009. Mark was tagging with Akitoshi Saito versus Misawa and Kenta Kobashi’s protégé, Go Shiozaki. I remember Mark telling me that Misawa was in really rough shape physically but that Misawa faced a tough challenge. When Nippon TV cut their network broadcasting deal with NOAH, it financially decimated the company from being able to run big arenas on a routine scale. This meant that in order to run spot shows in the rural areas outside of Tokyo, NOAH needed the backing of local promoters. The local promoters wanted the big names (Misawa, Akiyama, Taue) to wrestle on shows even if they physically weren’t in condition to do so. Because there was so much pressure to make money and keep things going, Misawa wrestled. Mark & Saito worked a fairly competitive match with Shiozaki & Misawa when Saito back-dropped Misawa. Misawa died in the ring. I will never forget seeing the video broadcast on Nippon TV the next morning showing Misawa with his wrestling boots on his feet while attempts to revive him with an AED failed. Akiyama and Kobashi were both physically hurt to the point that they couldn’t witness what was going on. Misawa was stretchered out and pronounced dead at a local Hiroshima hospital. Mark & Akitoshi were devastated beyond belief.
Because NOAH was out West in Japan, the company chose to go through with its event at Hakata star Lanes in Fukuoka. All the wrestlers were emotionally spent. After wrestling on the show, a funeral was held in Tokyo. The conversations I had with Mark during this time period were startling. He had been through the death of a leader (Quinones) but Misawa was in another class altogether. He was the face of NOAH, he was a trainer, he was a businessman, and he was the glue that kept things together politically. When he died, things became factionalized between the Kobashi unit (he wanted everyone kept around, old-school Japanese mentality) and Ryu Nakata (who wanted to operate the company as a business and keep things streamlined). In the end, Akira Taue & Naomichi Marufuji took over as bad-cop, good-cop but things were never the same. It was crushing for all the wrestlers to have Misawa, Japan’s super hero, die in the ring. He had taken so much punishment over the course of a few decades.
When Misawa died, Mark struggled to figure out where he fit into the grand scheme of things. He ended up having a couple of nice runs as a wrestler in NOAH. He worked the promotion’s current tour of the Global League tournament, a Champion Carnival-type format. On November 14th at Korakuen Hall, Mark teamed up with Kensuke Sasaki-allied wrestler Kento Miyohara to defeat Jun Akiyama & Yoshinari Ogawa (Mitsuharu Misawa’s right-hand man). Mark won in 8′01 with his trademark finisher, the Bisontennial, on Ogawa. Ogawa landed at an awkward angle and needled to be taken out on a ‘tanker’ (stretcher).
In his last singles matches, he beat his tag partner Akitoshi Saito and lost to KENTA. Of all the guys on the NOAH roster, Mark said KENTA was ‘a tough little bastard’ who constantly blurred the lines in the ring.
Mark’s final NOAH match ever saw him team up with Shuhei Taniguchi in a loss to Jun Akiyama & Yoshihiro Takayama. This was November 20th in Sapporo. If Mark knew that his last match would have Takayama involved, he would have been a very happy man.
Of all the Japanese wrestlers that Mark had a chance to meet and be friendly with, Takayama was by far his favorite. He often told me stories about how Takayama wanted to tour all 50 States in a Corvette and basically go Southern Wild Boy while seeing America. I’ve had numerous wrestlers tell me the same thing about Takayama but every time I heard it in conversation, I couldn’t help but laugh. Mark had plenty of stories to share about the boys and he loved socializing after the matches in Japan. Mark genuinely loved being friends with guys like Samoa Joe and Eddie Edwards. He had plenty of kind things to say about Kenta Kobashi, as well, even if it involved bizarre stories like Kobashi practicing his machine chopping routine on blocks of butter or against inanimate objects as practice before matches. Mark was always along for the ride and he loved to travel.
Guys like Gary Albright and Mark “Bison” Smith come along maybe once a decade, maybe once a generation as far as finding someone with the combination of their personality types and physical presence. Mark, like Gary, was not overtly political and was someone who didn’t get involved in political warfare — on purpose. They just wanted to wrestle, put on good matches, have fun, make some money, and support their families. From the bottom of my heart, I am honored to have known both men and am extremely grateful for their honesty & true friendship in a business where the climate is to act the total opposite. We lost another one of the good guys tonight and the world is worse off for it. Rest in peace, Mark. Oyasumi nasai.
When approached by the media for a comment, Kenta Kobashi had nothing but good things to say about Mark and is still in a state of shock. Kobashi admitted that he was ready to consider Mark to be his tag team partner for future matches.
Yoshihiro Takayama: So long, brother!