When you hear the phrase “indie wrestling,” what exactly does it make you think of? You may be picturing a show in a high school gym, rec center, Knights of Columbus Hall, or something like that. Some promotions might be lucky enough to make a deal with the local minor-league baseball park and pack in a few thousand fans on occasion, but it’s not something that happens more than once or twice a year. Even in 2017, with social media and a large, diverse talent pool helping fuel a boom period for making money in smaller-scale promotions, one of the positive signs of improved business is that some promotions are consistently drawing crowds in the 300-500 ranges. There is money to be made, this is to say, but much of it comes from diversified income streams and fans’ increased willingness to travel to shows that they think look fun. Even the biggest indies aren’t really major league.
In Japan, indie wrestling as we know it didn’t really exist before the very end of the 1980s. Occasionally, an exodus of stars from a major, nationally-televised promotion led to a splinter group finding success, but this happened above the indie level. (In contemporary terms, think Brock Lesnar, Shinsuke Nakamura, Samoa Joe, Daniel Bryan, Jason Jordan, Chad Gable, and The Authors of Pain leaving WWE to start doing faux MMA on Fox Sports 1 or something like that.) There was “university wrestling,” where largely untrained college students would do shows on mats, and there were scattered groups so small that they never got coverage from the always-engaged Japanese wrestling media, but that was it. That all changed once a handful of veterans on the periphery—all of whom could easily be mistaken for being retired—wanted back in the ring.
One, Atsushi Onita, took indie wrestling to a level that has never been topped before or since, inventing a new, particularly violent and theatrical kind of wrestling in the process. Easily among the most charismatic and iconic wrestlers of all time, he even parlayed his cult stardom into being elected to the upper house of Japan’s legislature. And this Saturday, he wrestles in the United States for the first time in 20 years.
Appropriately enough, it’s on an independent show at a hockey rink in New Jersey.
Onita had the same path as most other Japanese wrestlers who broke in during the 1970s: Spend a few years as an anonymous preliminary wrestler, go on an extended trip overseas to round out your skills and let the fans forget you, and eventually return as something of a pushed star. He was small by the standards of that era’s top stars, but charismatic and physically talented enough that when All Japan Pro Wrestling needed a top junior heavyweight, Onita was clearly the guy. While he wasn’t nearly as spectacular as of the original Tiger Mask, who helped put smaller wrestlers on the map in New Japan in 1981 with his flashy kicks and high-speed flying, Onita was the most spectacular of the AJPW juniors. That style, though, with a lot of suplexes and dives to the floor, was especially taxing by the standards of AJPW, which had a decidedly slower pace. After blowing out his knees and having a disappointing comeback, Onita retired at the beginning of 1985.
He never lost the itch, though. Once his knees healed to the point that he could put on an acceptable performance, Onita geared up for a return. In late 1988, Onita and another wrestler who had found himself outside of the mainstream, Gran Hamada, decided to shoot an angle for a big match. One night, Onita ran in and attacked Hamada as he was refereeing a match for the women’s promotion he worked for, setting up a bit for the lone indie promotion in the country, Pioneer Senshi, run by past-his-prime junior heavyweight Ryuma Go.
Onita thought long and hard about his next step. He grandstanded, showing up at a card promoted by the UWF, which billed itself as legitimate “shoot wrestling.” (It wasn’t.) UWF staff wouldn’t let him in, but that just allowed him to claim that he was the genuine article and they were scared. Onita then used his newfound status to get a slot in the main event of the second annual Ikki Kajiwara Memorial, a mixed pro-wrestling, karate, and kickboxing card put on to honor the creator of the original Tiger Mask anime. Taking on karate star Masashi Aoyagi in a mixed rules match, he eventually got disqualified after repeatedly using heel tactics like shoving the referee and hitting his opponent with a chair.
The Aoyagi match got Onita noticed again, and with just $500 in startup capital, he launched Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling, or FMW. The launch was an overwhelming success, and now he had a niche to fill. The first show, on October 6, 1989, sold out the Nagoya Sports Center with an announced 4,000 fans there to see him lose an incredibly dramatic rematch. And when I say they were there to see him lose, I don’t just mean they were there to see the match and saw him lose. When you watch the video, shot on a camcorder placed at an odd angle to the ring, it quickly becomes clear that the crowd is at least 60 percent Aoyagi students and their families, there to watch karate triumph over wrestling with their master as the vessel. A few days later, Onita won the rematch, selling out Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall. While he hadn’t wrestled on a full-time basis in several years, he immediately thrived in the Aoyagi matches. There was a visceral sense of chaos that you couldn’t get from the major promotions at the time, and the mixed crowds gave the events a tremendous atmosphere even though the star wrestler was a long-retired mid-card talent.
Having captured the attention of the the wrestling and larger sports media in Japan, Onita now needed something other than the wrestling vs. karate feud to hold the attention of both reporters and the wrestling fanbase at large, while also protecting his knees. So he looked back at his time touring abroad in the early 1980s, especially in Puerto Rico and Tennessee. Both were territories heavy on brawling, and Onita had adapted to the local style better than most Japanese wrestlers on their “learning excursions.” In particular, Onita and AJPW dojo classmate Masa Fuchi had one of the greatest brawls of the 1980s during his time in the south. Against local second-generation stars Ricky Morton and Eddie Gilbert, they had the fourth brawl through the concession stand at the “Tupelo Sports Arena” (a barely renovated warehouse) in as many calendar years. While the repetition meant the impact on local fans was not what it could have been, the action was beyond that of the previous iterations, resulting in one of the first true classics of the tape-trading era of wrestling fandom.
Once FMW became a full-time touring promotion and the Aoyagi feud was largely over with, the main event style became a hybrid of the Tennessee and Puerto Rican-style brawls. From Tennessee, he took the ability for the match to go all over the building, use of any weapon not nailed down, and intense, personality-driven storytelling, all of which were popularized by local legend Jackie Fargo and, later, by Jerry Lawler. Puerto Rican wrestling, meanwhile, taught him the use of barbed wire and a degree of bloodletting not common elsewhere in the world. The “street fight” style became FMW’s signature, and because the promotion was offering something truly different, crowds continued to be strong once Aoyagi was out of the picture. The Japanese press, including the two weekly full-color magazines, ate it all up and gave the promotion ample coverage, as the matches just looked so damn cool. Americans, meanwhile, took notice as well, with an April 1990 tag team match placing high in the Wrestling Observer’s match of the year balloting.
There was still one ingredient missing, though, which came later in 1990: Explosions. Onita and Tarzan Goto did battle in a ring surrounded by “electrified” barbed wire that triggered an explosion each time a wrestler hit it. The match made the cover of Weekly Pro Wrestling, and FMW started to cement itself as a force in the Japanese scene. Onita, meanwhile, developed the persona that helped him become a legend: He was more of an American-style babyface, a folk hero badass whose fans adored him so much that they rushed the ring to get touched by the water he spat out before each match, After a match, he would go on extended soliloquies on the mic, cutting promos in a way that wasn’t really done in Japanese wrestling. If you went to an FMW show, you knew exactly what you were getting, and Onita milked every second of it.
“It was an idea that other promotions were not doing,” DDT promoter and longtime top star Sanshiro Takagi told Deadspin, comparing the early explosion matches to efforts like his recent bout inside an empty Tokyo Dome. “New Japan and WWE do not do things like this.”
Crowds kept going up, with Onita becoming a tremendous self-promoter on top of making himself an underground superstar, to the point that FMW first packed Kawasaki Stadium with an announced 48,221 fans after being open less than two years. Onita came up with and/or carefully borrowed as many creative ideas as possible to get media attention, since the promotion had no television outlet. There was the night in 1990 where the ring “didn’t show up” and the whole card took place on mats, which got FMW on the cover of the daily Tokyo Sports newspaper. Or the card that took place on a floating ring in the middle of a swimming pool at a water sports complex (with the main event featuring explosions when someone hit the water, naturally).Or the time that Onita used careful photo editing to make it look like the wrestler who fatally stabbed Bruiser Brody in a Puerto Rican locker room had done the same to him. (Okay, that one didn’t work out well.) Hell, Leon Spinks even showed up to do the honors for Onita at one point.
But it wasn’t just the gimmickry that brought thousands of fans to each show even though FMW had no TV exposure. Onita became a very solid grassroots local promoter, as well. “I think Onita screamed energy,” recalled FMW wrestler Rick Titan, now a life coach and motivational speaker. “Apparently, he went to the bars every night to help promote. He never drank; he would drink coffee and smoke all night long. He would get over with the girls, get over with the wrestling fans, sign tons of autographs, and stay up until early in the morning. They’d have posters up, and vans running around with big sirens on them, announcing who was fighting in the next for days.”
There was perhaps also some additional help, albeit a type that other promotions also benefitted from. One night, Titan recalls, he and the late Mike Awesome were told by the referee that the show was sold out. “We’re like ‘Awesome, man! We’re gonna have a packed arena, screaming fans all over the place.’ When we go out there, it’s half to three-quarters full.”
He heard two stories as to why this was: One was local businesses buying tickets for giveaways, that couldn’t unload all of them. The other also involved local businessmen.
“I heard the Yakuza, or the mafia, had been sponsoring things, and I think that was pretty big out there,” Titan said. “I don’t know know if they went door to door; I heard that, but they would sell tickets to people, and people were scared, so they’d buy the tickets. They felt like something would happen to them if they didn’t buy the tickets.” (Based on stories other wrestlers, including Bret Hart and Chris Jericho, have told over the years in their books and various interviews, this sort of thing wasn’t even remotely specific to FMW.)
From a mainstream perspective, Onita really caught fire in 1994, when he took on Genichiro Tenryu at Kawasaki Stadium in a match where he would retire if he lost. Tenryu had been a top AJPW star en route to taking a big money offer to start his own promotion, and thus carried more cache than anyone else you could book for an indie show. He shocked the crowd by beating Onita … who announced that he was actually just starting a year-long retirement tour. While Onita’s announcement hot-shotted business, the company was a mess, thanks in part to Onita going into debt knowing that a new on-paper corporation would replace the old one when he retired and divested himself of FMW. Goto, a long-time top star and Onita ally, left for a new promotion, while business fell off for FMW post-retirement as everyone learned just how much of a draw their boss was. Onita, now dubbed “Mr. Liar” by a hurt fanbase, came back after 18 months, and while FMW became a strong indie once again, it was never quite the same.
While Onita’s second prime ended with the 1995 retirement, he became an even bigger star, working for NJPW as a special attraction on major shows en route to his eventual successful bid for the Japanese Diet. He also flirted with wrestling in America and bringing the explosion match to the West, but these attempts never really got going. Since the launch of FMW, his only U.S. appearance of note had been as one of the headliners on a 1992 show at Cal State Los Angeles’s gym that was marketed to the local Mexican and Japanese communities, a must-see clash of styles that was arguably the best U.S. indie match of its era. In the 25 years since, in spite of more that one false start, he had zero advertised matches in the States.
That caveat is because in in June of 1998, he did appear as The Sandman and Tommy Dreamer’s partner at an ECW Arena event in Philadelphia. According to ECW head of creative Paul Heyman, “Onita was obsessed with Sandman,” having aped his cigarette smoking/beer drinking routine in Japan, and all he wanted to talk about was facing Sandman as the headliner of a combined show back home. The crowd, which was normally more on top of Japanese names than any other in the country at the time, didn’t react the way you would expect, likely because not only had he lost weight and cut his hair short since his heyday, but was also wearing some sort of traditional Japanese robe and sandals instead of his usual tank top and jeans ensemble.Then he immediately turned on Sandman and left. In spite of a press conference that night, nothing came of it.
“We expected seeing Onita show up dressed like ‘FMW Sandman,’ since all the Japanese magazines had run pictures of him doing Sandman’s entrance in Japan,” Heyman told Deadspin. Onita wanted to do a transformation from the guy in the robe to the cigarette-smoking, swagger-having character he had been doing in Japan in recent months, but it didn’t come across at all.
“It didn’t resonate with me, but in dealing with him/them, they granted every concession we asked for. Everything from what matches to bring over to the cost for our participation to merch split was simply agreed upon without negotiation nor haggling. The only thing that mattered to Onita was the program with Sandman. If this was the vision he wanted to implement, it was certainly a concession we were willing to make, considering how easy they made everything else.”
Two years after that fell apart, Onita made a deal to come to the United States for a match with Sabu in XPW, a promotion launched by Extreme Associates pornographer Rob Black with the idea of being a direct competitor to ECW. There was another “press conference,” this time shot for TV, where an angle would be shot to set up an Onita match with Sabu. With only the XPW crew, one outside photographer, and one videographer present, Onita attacked Sabu, tried to set a table on fire, and was unable to get his lighter to start while time stood still. By the time this aired, it was pretty well known on the indie scene that the match wasn’t happening.
Thanks to the dodgy history with ECW and XPW, there was initially skepticism around wrestling that Onita’s CZW booking would happen. That changed when the match got closer, as it’s not as if he’d ever no-showed a event stateside. Deals for matches without any announced date or location just fell apart. Everyone I’ve spoken to in CZW has been confident that he’s showing up for months, and Onita has even supplied a promo announcing that he will bringing along other wrestlers from Japan. It’s actually happening: The man who was one of the most bootlegged videotape sensations of the 1990s is finally hitting American shores to dish out his unique brand of violence.
“Mick Foley, Terry Funk, Atsushi Onita, Kevin Sullivan, and Abdullah the Butcher, amongst others, were early influences which led to me always wanting to partake in this genre of the business,” Onita’s opponent, Matt Tremont, told Deadspin. From the moment he realized that he wanted to be a pro wrestler, Tremont knew that he wouldn’t be content doing a WWE style or even more traditional brand of wrestling, being entirely sure he wanted to do the “death match” style. “I was probably 13 years old when I first got a VHS compilation of FMW and Onita Explosion matches, and I was hooked.”
Some wrestlers dream of headlining WrestleMania. For someone like Samoa Joe, there was probably a point where it was hard for him to believe that it would get better than working a Budokan Hall-style, super dramatic main event with Kenta Kobashi, the best and most talented wrestler of the 1990s. For Matt Tremont, he has been dreaming his entire adult life of engaging in a public, almost ritual bloodletting with a man who has been subject to well over 1,000 stitches in his unique career. And on Saturday night, it’s actually happening.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY who co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.