FMW began with a couple of hundred dollars and the courage to be different, but with barbed wire and plenty of weapons thrown in for good measure! After leaving AJPW, Atsushi Onita decided to destroy the wrestling system and build it back up in his vision.
Before Atsushi Onita became one of the most notable names in Puroresu and the pro wrestling world, his family used to be in the cloth business until his father died when he was around 14 years old. Onita needed to find a way to help his family, and in late ’72, AJPW (All Japan Pro Wrestling, founded by Shoei Baba and two of Rikidozan’s sons) held its first show. Onita saw an opportunity the following year when AJPW’s dojo opened and became one of the first to enroll as a student along with his future partner (and sometimes rival), Masa Fuchi.
Once he graduated, the first 3 to 4 years saw him as a preliminary worker in the undercard with Fuchi. In 1980, Onita and Fuchi were sent to the sunny islands of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. In the Dominican Republic, Onita, being just a "green boy" at the time and perhaps a little arrogant, refused to put over the promotion’s star and owner Jack Veneno. They wanted Onita to lose in two straight falls, but instead, he worked stiffer than expected. Afterward, when returning to the locker room, four wrestlers awaited and he got the tar beaten out of him. Fuchi was unable to help safeguard his friend because they purposely locked him out.
Once recovered and with Baba’s connections, Onita contacted Terry Funk, where he and Fuchi could wrestle in the Amarillo, Texas territory along with San Antonio as well. He later moved on to Memphis and later Mississippi where he and his partner Masa Fuchi took part in the third "Tupelo Concession Stand Brawl" in 1981, similar to the first one from 1979 involving Jerry Lawler and Bill Dundee vs. Wayne Farris (later Honky Tonk Man) and Larry Latham (Moondog Spot). The team from Japan faced the young upstarts of Eddie Gilbert and Ricky Morton.
According to Jim Cornette, "Onita and Fuchi were just beginning their careers and had been sent by Giant Baba’s All Japan promotion to the U.S. to get experience so he could bring them back as stars. ‘The Concession Stand Brawl’ was reprised one more time, and this one, in performance at least, was the topper to them all. Gilbert and Morton were hungry to climb the cards, and the Japanese team was determined to hang with them in a dangerous, bloody brawl that even saw the Tupelo promoter’s wife, having not been smartened up, try to get these maniacs out of her food stand."
Before returning to Japan, Onita and Fuchi made a trip to the Carolinas and wrestled for Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling. Giant Baba joined Onita, and they faced Ric Flair and Dick Slater in 1982.
Watch: Onita and Fuchi in a wild brawl in Tupelo versus Wayne Farris and Ricky Morton
Back in Japan, Atsushi Onita Gets a Deserved Push
Upon his return to AJPW, Onita started to receive a push in an attempt to have a capable junior heavyweight representing the promotion and perhaps draw big crowds like the innovative Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama) was doing for their NJPW rivals with his amazing matches against the Dynamite Kid. Onita, who became known as a good worker for AJPW, was never as skilled as the superbly gifted Tiger Mask, but he did adopt a crowd-pleasing and fast-paced high-flying style. These moves were not new to Japanese fans per se, but he, along with Tiger Mask, introduced the style to a new generation. In the process, it changed what was normally perceived as pro wrestling.
In the middle of his big push, Onita finally won the NWA Junior Heavyweight Championship by defeating Chavo Guerrero Sr. Onita received the belt and a trophy for his highly contested victory, but when Chavo went to shake his hand, he shocked the fans by grabbing Onita and back suplexing him. Chavo Sr. proceeded to destroy the shiny trophy by continuously hitting Onita and attacking him with it for a prolonged period of time, leaving him a bloody mess inside the ring. This angle, even if done today, would surely turn heads and get people talking.
Unfortunately, in the middle of this push by Baba, real tragedy struck after a match in 1983 against Hector Guerrero. Onita slipped on some water outside of the ring and tore ligaments, cartilage, and shattered his kneecap.
After surgery and recovery, Onita came back in late 1984, but it was obvious to Baba that Onita was much slower and wasn’t the same dynamic junior heavyweight that was for a short period of time chosen to be the ace to lead the division, so he had to let him go. Barely a month after his return, Onita was forced to retire in early 1985.
Atsushi Onita Injured and Struggles Outside of Wrestling
Away from the ring, Onita was doing a variety of jobs, including construction, until he realized that his knees did not allow him to continue. He also got involved in several "get rich quick" schemes where he found himself in jail for something related to debt or tax problems. Onita dipped his feet in the "wrestling pool" once again by becoming the trainer of the JWP Joshi Puroresu women’s promotion. After nearly four years away from the ring, he got the urge to return full-time despite his limitations in large part due to his previously injured knee. On December 3rd, 1988, Onita wrestled for Ryuma Go’s Pioneer Senshi wrestling promotion, the only independent promotion in Japan for the time being, and a very small one at that.
Most fans might wonder if AJPW let Onita go, then why did he not simply go to rival NJPW instead of to this tiny, almost insignificant indy promotion? The answer is probably because in Japan, movement of talent between the two main – and pretty much only promotions – was extremely rare. Mostly only well-established foreigners had that luxury.
UWF and the Rise of FMW
A new promotion called UWF was changing the landscape of pro wrestling in 1989 and offering an alternative to the "Big Two" by having a shoot-style that strived to make pro wrestling look as realistic as possible. Onita is said to have gone to one of their shows and issued an open challenge to any and all the wrestlers of the promotion. He was eventually kicked out for not even having a ticket, but the press saw it as UWF refusing Onita’s challenge, and some speculated the refusal was out of fear.
Onita, to prove that he too could defeat opponents in a more martial arts/combat style of fighting, decided to challenge top karate fighter Masashi Aoyagi and face him at one of the World Karate Association’s events held on July 2nd, 1989 at Tokyo’s famous Korakuen Hall. It was to be a match under karate rules, but Onita got himself disqualified in the fourth round for using pro wrestling holds and subsequently attacking Aoyagi. The grudge match was set, and it became the main event for the first two inaugural shows of Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling (FMW).
FMW – Not Just Wrestling, but Martial Arts and Wrestling
The newly formed FMW promotion was started by Atsushi Onita because he wanted to be able to face Masashi Aoyagi in more of a mixed style and not just karate, hence the name of his new promotion. He partnered with Kazuyoshi Osako alongside wrestling journalists Mickey Ibaragi and Wally Yamaguchi. The first two in 1991 left FMW and formed W*ing (Wrestling’s International New Generations), who also adapted the deathmatch style of bouts FMW would soon be notorious for.
Onita got defeated soundly in the first match against Aoyagi but was victorious in the second. The first two shows by FMW were a financial success, and Onita and his partners were not obligated to shut down after only a few shows. FMW was indeed established in order to be able to combine real fighting and wrestling; a free-for-all. But in the early years, it was still looking to just survive and attract people, so it brought in foreign wrestlers, used little people in the matches, and even had a women’s division eventually led by the very talented Megumi Kudo. But FMW really carved its niche in the wrestling world by presenting brawling, very physical hardcore matches similar to what Onita had seen in his early career while touring the Texas and southern promotions in the U.S., and he also implemented wild stipulations like barbed wire around the ring like he had seen while in Puerto Rico. Eventually, he took these elements up several notches and attracted attention and, more importantly: paying customers.
Watch: Atsushi Onita faces his eternal rival, Mr. Pogo in this classic match
FMW was always unapologetic when pushing the envelope and with little regard to the safety of its performers. It seemed like their mantra came straight from Director Ridley Scott’s Gladiator starring Russell Crowe: "Are you not entertained?!" Without a TV contract like AJPW or NJPW, Onita’s outfit needed to create a product that begged to be on the front covers of Weekly Gong and needed to be seen in person to be believed. Word of mouth of the craziness and violence in their matches would filled venues all over Japan. It wouldn’t be until several years later when VHS tapes became an important way to promote the product. While not every match was a deathmatch, FMW always incorporated one or two per card to get people to attend and plunk down their money.
The Original Sheik Barely Survives with His Life during Short Stint with FMW
The Original Shiek, who was one of the first practitioners of hardcore wrestling before it was even recognized as a style, made a couple of appearances for Onita’s promotion. On May 6th, 1992, one of these matches almost proved deadly as Bret of BAHU’s FMW World explains,
"Atsushi Onita would team up with Tarzan Goto against The Sheik and Sabu, a mistake that would turn out to be almost deadly as winds would start picking up before the match. The match would start, but the wind would knock the flames onto kerosene that had dripped off the cloth surrounding the barbed wire, and the fire would begin burning the barbed wire off. Onita, Goto, and Sabu would all end up quickly getting out of the ring with minor burns as the match would be quickly declared a no contest. But the 65-year-old Sheik would be left in the ring with the fire beginning to burn down everything as fire extinguishers rushed to put out the flames. The Sheik would be rushed to the hospital for smoke inhalation and third-degree burns. Afterward, the entire building would just be covered in black smoke with a burnt down ring and the barbed wire being completely burnt away."
In their early years, FMW featured the likes of Atsushi Onita, Tarzan Goto, Mr. Pogo, Mitsuhiro Matsunaga, Ricky Fuji, "The Gladiator" Mike Awesome, and even an aging Joe Leduc, Dick Murdoch, John Tolos and Killer Kowalski made appearances. Victor Quiñones, Konnan, Rey Misterio Sr, Horace Boulder (Hulk Hogan’s nephew), and the feared Tiger Jeet Singh were also brought in to add diversity to the cards.
An Angle That Almost Killed the FMW Promotion
FMW’s one-year anniversary show had been booked for Sumo Hall with October 19th, 1990, as the event date. But Atsushi Onita almost killed the promotion before that date even arrived. In August of that same year, in a talent exchange meeting with Puerto Rico’s WWC promotion, one of the key members in attendance would be José González, otherwise known as Invader #1, the man who stabbed and murdered Bruiser Brody two years previously in Puerto Rico. He, along with several others in attendance, stabbed Onita in a publicity stunt where he had even taken Japanese photographers to document everything! The idea was that once he was stabbed and in the hospital covered with blood, he would later vow revenge on González, setting up their future match in Japan. The problem was that Onita had indeed been stabbed and was bleeding rather profusely, but the cut wasn’t deep enough for a hospital to admit him! They did finally find a doctor who stitched him up and allowed the photographers to take their pictures.
Back in Japan, the anniversary show was switched to November 5th and now at Komozawa Olympic Gym instead of Tokyo Sumo Hall because they found out what kinds of matches FMW had and didn’t want any part of them for the historic venue. Needless to say, José González, with the negative publicity Onita’s stunt in Puerto Rico had created, was quietly taken off the card and replaced with Mr. Pogo.
FMW – Everything Including the Kitchen Sink and More!
In 1992, Onita began to phase out "Martial Arts" from the FMW name and focus more on a hardcore style with lots of streetfights and later deathmatches. The name of the company simply became FMW and was no longer an acronym for anything. They resorted to anything and everything at their shows. Not everything worked, and not everything drew the number of fans they wanted all the time, but little was off-limits.
Lots of blood, brawling, barbed wires, electrified barbed wires, weapons galore, exploding rings, timed explosions, fire, land mines, electrified water, a ring in the middle of the ocean, and even in the middle of the jungle were all were featured in FMW; matches and stipulations that made Abdullah the Butcher using a fork to bloody Terry Funk in AJPW seem like a watered-down kid’s show. One of the few ideas that weren’t implemented was enclosing the ring with glass, but it was almost done! Think about what happens to glass when an explosion goes off, and you’ll get the picture. To stay ahead of imitators, FMW had to constantly raise the bar, and the risk to their performers as Atsushi Onita himself soon found out in an almost deadly accident.
On February 16th, 1993, the newly formed team of Onita, The Sheik and Sabu did not last long. In a match against The Gladiator (Mike Awesome), Ricky Fuji interfered and wrap barbed wire around Onita’s head. Onita eventually won the match, but he had accidentally swallowed some of the barbed wire and was taken to the hospital for immediate surgery. Onita would have died of asphyxiation had his air supply been cut. The doctors had to remove the wire from the side of his neck to avoid slicing his mouth open.
Sabu and The Gladiator Upset The Yakuza (Japanese Mafia)
Although FMW in Japan prided itself in being a true alternative to the mainstream wrestling product like ECW eventually became in the U.S., they were similar to their rivals in an unfortunate way: their involvement with the Yakuza (Japanese Mafia).
Recommended related read: Rikidozan – The Life and Murder of The Father of Puroresu
Like every other promotion, FMW would have a section just for the Yakuza and warned the wrestlers that if they brawled in the crowd, to not do it in their sections. Sabu wrestling The Gladiator didn’t heed to the warning, so after the show, the Yakuza went backstage and began attacking Sabu. The Gladiator aided Sabu and got in a couple of licks on the mobsters before running away (possibly for their lives!) with Sabu to the locker rooms and securing the door. The mobsters waited outside for when they decided to come out. Onita had to get involved and apologized profusely to the Yakuza members until they finally agreed to leave. The Yakuza and their ability to "lend" large sums of money was eventually a big blow to FMW’s collapse down the road, but the story of yet another meteoric rise and fall of a wrestling promotion will be explored at another time.
The Quick Success of FMW, People Take Notice
FMW gained success relatively quickly, and Dave Meltzer, in his May 1st, 1995 edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, commented on Onita and FMW.
"Onita’s popularity spawned a new style of wrestling," Meltzer wrote. "Many would not consider this new style, short on skill and long on gore and gimmicks like barbed wire, explosions, and axes, as a positive, but it’s something new nonetheless. And its influence on the business as a whole can’t be ignored. Ignoring Onita as a drawing card would be every bit as silly as ignoring Hulk Hogan when trying to capsulize the recent history of pro wrestling. The two are equally influential. When it comes to a wrestler who developed a new style, popularized it, drew big money from it and became a cult hero in the process, Onita ranks right with Akira Maeda, Hogan and Satoru Sayama (original Tiger Mask) as those who shaped the future of their craft."
Meltzer continues, "Onita [shaped it] with blood, sweat, and of course, a multitude of tears. Onita did it in a country that few would have believed would have supported wrestling so short on skill and high on gore."
Terry Funk Explains the Match Philosophy of FMW:
Self Promotion of Atsushi Onita and the Success of FMW
With Onita’s skill of self-promotion and the magazines featuring him doused in blood, FMW was elevated to heights where they were no longer just a local promotion but one selling out stadiums and turning people away at the doors. The youngster that was forced to retire from AJPW early in his career, was now one of Puroresu’s premier stars, not through pure wrestling, but by any means possible!
He hosted a party to celebrate his accomplishment of over 1,000 stitches and ironically was also hired as an AIDS awareness spokesperson due to the buckets of blood he’d shed in his matches. If only the Red Cross would have seen the potential in this as well! So few people willingly donate blood with the promise of a mere cookie!
On May 5th, 1994, FMW sold out Kawasaki Stadium with a crowd of 52,000 fans and a gate of 2.1 million dollars. In under five years, FMW had gone from an experimental promotion on a shoe-string budget of a couple of hundred dollars to Atsushi Onita, becoming one of the biggest single draws in any country and in all of pro wrestling in 1994. FMW was a promotion that at first saw itself without its own ring and felt lucky if a one-year tour wouldn’t bankrupt the company forever. Now it was practically printing money and burning it too. The promotion may have been knocked for featuring less and less actual wrestling as the years went by, but Onita’s drawing power while at his peak was now proven. He became almost a household name appearing on talk shows, and game shows seemingly every day. This deathmatch superstar was suddenly what everyone was talking about; even the non-wrestling fans took notice. Many at the time correctly predicted that he’d go into politics just like Antonio Inoki upon his retirement.
The biggest gate for FMW in its history was a year later on May 5th, 1995, in which 58,250 fans watched Atsushi Onita in supposedly his retirement match against the innovative and high-flying Hayabusa in an Exploding Cage Barbed Wire Deathmatch. It drew their biggest gate ever at 2.5 million dollars. Hayabusa, in a bout where he was seeking respect from the hardcore fans, took several hellacious bumps, was cut up, and ended up burned all over. Hayabusa was stretchered off after his loss to Onita and was tasked to lead the newly formed FMW after Onita sold the company. Woman wrestler Megumi Kudo also became very popular after Onita’s first retirement because of her wrestling skills and courage demonstrated while engaging in violent matches usually reserved for male competitors.
Atsushi Onita – Burning Bridges (and Himself!)
Although Atsushi Onita is greatly responsible for the success of FMW, he also made many enemies inside the business for apparently not paying the workers fairly. Terry Funk, for example, was only booked for one more tour even with the success of the Kawasaki match from May 5th, 1993, where they drew 41,000 fans that brought in 1.8 million dollars. It was a match that became a favorite worldwide and got mainstream media coverage, which is invaluable to a "small" promotion like FMW. Onita cultivated the image of a "poor" wrestler that would do anything for the success of the company while struggling through hardships to keep the company above water. In his early days, he dressed in second-hand clothing and milked the part of just "a normal guy fighting the system," and the fans loved it. Later though, he began dating many women, and drove around in luxury cars while wearing pricey suits, and still claimed to his workers that money was tight when millions of dollars were coming in for the more successful shows.
Fed up with Onita’s business dealings, several wrestlers left FMW to start the W*ING promotion, which had a rivalry with FMW for about three years until it closed its doors due to financial hardship in March of 1994. This led to the start of a new promotion called IWA Japan (International Wrestling Association of Japan), who would also have a talent sharing agreement with Puerto Rico as W*ING had beforehand. Another promotion called WAR (Wrestle Association R, formerly known as Wrestle and Romance and abbreviated as WAR) founded by the hard-hitting Ginichiro Tenryu co-promoted several events with Onita’s FMW but got stiffed by Onita by not paying him the cut of the earnings as promised from a July 17th, 1994 Kawasaki Stadium show.
Watch a taste of FMW with highlights and high spots:
Atsushi Onita, after his forced retirement of AJPW, became a self-made superstar, a deathmatch superstar if you will, and his roster of mostly mediocre workers hogged the spotlight of the "Big Two" in Japan for many years. Like most successful promoters and wrestlers, Onita and his methods have many detractors, but his influence on wrestling is undeniable. Many years after FMW closed its doors, it continues to be looked at with fascination by many fans, but with much derision many wrestling purists. Dismissing FMW as just "garbage wrestling" is unkind. At least call it "Flaming Barbed Wire Exploding Deathmatch Garbage Wrestling." Thank you.
Update: 2018, Atsushi Onita came out of retirement. And in 2021, he once again revived his famed promotion, calling it FMW-E (Explosion) which plans to feature exploding barbed wire deathmatches. His first show is planned for July 4th, 2021 and will be called Independence Day.
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All information (unless noted otherwise) is based on the research of BAHUFMW and his expertise on FMW and the deathmatch wrestling scene in Japan. His page can be found here and his Twitter account here.