Dark Side of the Ring: Blood & Wire: Onita’s FMW – What We Learned

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Dark Side of the Ring is here once more! Following on from last week’s tragic episode, which centered around the tragic life and death of Chris Kanyon, this week’s episode focused on an entire wrestling promotion: the Japanese, Atsushi Onita-founded Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW). A pioneering, deathmatch promotion which would inspire modern promotions such as Game Changer Wrestling (GCW) and Combat Zone Wrestling (CZW), as well as the ’90s phenomenon Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW), FMW is one which invokes both inspiration, as well as controversy. Here are the takeaways from the latest episode.

Blood & Wire: Onita’s FMW – What We Learned

Background Information

Founded in 1989, FMW – led by Atsushi Onita, who also wrestled for the promotion as its top babyface- would become an instant hit among the more hardcore of wrestling fans. Much like ECW, which would come into existence a few years later, it quickly developed a core, cult following which enabled the promotion to exist as an alternative to the more traditional Japanese wrestling promotions, namely New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW). Immediately, the episode interviews hardcore wrestling icons, Mick Foley and Sabu, with both making it clear that FMW was a hardcore wrestling pioneer.

Sabu, no stranger to bleeding profusely in the ring himself, states “every night, Onita would bleed to death”. FMW star Ricky Fuji, who is interviewed throughout the episode, claims it was his inner “fighting spirit” which enabled him to endure so much damage in the ring. Indeed, FMW exists as an archetype hardcore wrestling promotion and we will no doubt hear more on how and why as the episode progresses. A promotion whose top star ended up paralyzed, and its CEO dead, it is no surprise that FMW remains one of the more controversial promotions to have existed – and a perfect candidate for an episode of Dark Side of the Ring.

Onita’s Introduction to Pro Wrestling

Following the narrator intro, Atsushi Onita kicks off the episode by explaining to the audience how he came to be a professional wrestler. Onita claims he came to discover it through reading Japanese comic book Giant Typhoon – with the central character of the fictional story being based on Japanese wrestling legend and AJPW founder, Giant Baba. He exclaims that he read it and thought “wow, pro wrestling is awesome”. He was impressed by Giant Typhoon, the character of the story, being able to go to the United States and headline Madison Square Garden. Onita saw this as an impressive feat for a Japanese pro wrestler and wished to do the same, or at least something similar. Onita came through the AJPW Dojo, before being sent on an excursion to the United States – a move typical in Japanese wrestling, as it allows the young wrestler, dubbed a “Young Lion”, to hone his craft internationally before returning a bettered, more complete article.

Terry Funk’s Influence Over Onita

Mick Foley and Terry Funk both go into detail in expressing Funk’s influence over the young Onita. Per Foley, Funk had informed him that Onita had been sent to Amarillo, Texas, and it was here where Onita would pay close attention to the man who would become arguably his biggest influence in wrestling.

“He would watch me in barbed wire matches, he really idolized me and that’s why he came to Amarillo. To be like Terry Funk, you know. What a horrible thing to want to be. He wanted to be an idiot too.” – Terry Funk on a young Atsushi Onita

Atsushi Onita confirms that Terry took him under his wing. After arriving to the United States injured, following an incident in the Dominican Republic – where he was beaten down by all pro wrestlers in the locker room for refusing to job to an opponent – Terry was the man who most acted as a mentor and friend. Though they struggled to verbally communicate because of the language barrier, Terry “bought him a car; got him his first job and sent him on the road.” An infamous brawl which broke out at a wrestling show in Tennessee, where Onita was kicked in the face by a fan’s high heeled shoes, led to Onita realizing that this hardcore brand of wrestling – which he claims originated in Tennessee – invokes excitement in the audience.

Return to Japan and Freak Injury

Following his excursion, Atsushi Onita would return to All Japan Pro Wrestling a much improved, polished worker. However, a serious injury – gruesomely described by Onita – would cut short his return. A bone piercing through the skin of his knee (the result of a shattered kneecap) was enough to make him realize that he would be on the shelf for a while. Onita, then a high flyer, would have to re-work his style to something less reliant on fancy, athletically gifted aerial moves. Quite simply, he was no longer able to compete at the same level he did before, but using his clearly developed, business understanding brain, he managed to change his style to something which would help define the 1990s era of pro wrestling.

Birth of FMW

Following his freak injury and diminished ring capabilities that came with it, Onita began to experiment. “To bring people in, you need some kind of an attraction” states Onita. He did just that, by hiring martial artist, Masashi Aoyagi, to compete with him in the ring – pitting wrestler against martial artist. Onita describes how fans would start clashing in excitement – a similar emotion to the one he noticed in Tennessee. He was clearly onto something; and that something was Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, better known as FMW. It is here where Mick Foley happily describes FMW as being akin to a “buffet of brutality”, and he is not wrong.

Martial artists; pioneering women’s wrestling and hardcore extravaganzas, complete with barbed wire ring ropes (sometimes electrified), were all on display on a regular basis in FMW. Terry Funk states that FMW workers would “annihilate their bodies” to ensure that they had a better match than opposing companies did. Foley describes how a fireball incident once caused a female wrestler’s outfit to burn into her skin – causing immeasurable pain and distress. Onita wanted to do things that Giant Baba of AJPW and Antonio Inoki of NJPW hadn’t yet thought of doing, or were simply unprepared (or even unwilling) to do.

FMW: Violence Unlike Any Other

Ricky Fuji describes how that, even though the action was focused squarely on the ring, fighting would regularly break out in the audience. As Mick Foley says “a single barb can do a lot of damage”, and the image of Sabu’s completely scarred body, shown during the episode, is evidence of that. FMW, no doubt, was a hardcore promotion which shortened the lives – and diminished life quality – of a number of different performers.

The connection that company founder, Atsushi Onita, had with the FMW audience allowed them to feel his pain in the ring – and he felt a lot of pain. “I would bleed every match” states Onita. At the end of every Onita match, he would publicly cry to the audience as Joan Jett’s version of “Wild Thing” played (Jon Moxley, another star known for deathmatches, enters to the ring to a different version of the song in tribute to Onita). His cries were not a work, however; his cries were legitimate cries of pain, which the audience related to on an emotional level.

The Sheik Gets Burned

In a tag team match which saw The Sheik (“The Original Sheik”, wrestling legend and uncle of Sabu) and Sabu going against Atsushi Onita and Tarzan Goto in a “fire deathmatch” (where the ring becomes increasingly engulfed with fire as the match progresses), a terrifying injury was suffered by Sheik – then 66 years old – who never managed to get out of the ring as promptly as planned. As a result, he suffered serious burns to 60% of his body, where the skin on his back, as described by Sabu, was “melting off” as Sabu attempted to pour cold water on him to cool him down. Injuries such as this, as admitted by Onita, were a result of him growing a “big head” as a booker; each next stunt would become more dangerous as time went on because it made for tremendous viewing and, simply, no one had died. Yet.

Underworld Influence

Much is made of the mafia’s influence in the United States. At particular points of US history, the crime families have controlled casinos; arenas and have been involved in nationwide crime operations, bringing tornadoes of death, murder and disappearances across the States. Japan is not that much different; the Yakuza, the most prominent underworld crime faction in Japan, also had its hand in arenas, casinos etc and, therefore, it brushed shoulders with professional wrestling. Sabu describes an incident where he was being beaten to death by a group of the Japanese mafia before Mike Awesome jumped in to save his life. The Yakuza would become more involved with FMW as time progressed; bringing tragedy with it.

Nationwide Fame

Atsushi Onita achieved nationwide fame through FMW. Big time babyface showings, such as when he covered Terry Funk to protect him from an exploding ring following their deathmatch, endeared him to the Japanese public. He was a hero; a white meat babyface who people looked up to. He was earning over 2 million dollars per year; owned five cars; appeared on chat and game shows. Ricky Fuji jokes that he saw Onita on a different TV show “almost every day”. He had led FMW to becoming the undisputed third largest promotion in the country, or, as Jericho puts it, “maybe number two, depending on how NJPW and AJPW were doing”.

First Retirement

Five years after the birth of FMW, Atsushi Onita would shock the FMW audience and announce his retirement from the ring in 1994. “He didn’t want to do it anymore”, states Terry Funk. Who could blame him? He had achieved fame and fortune and no longer needed to nearly kill himself every time he stepped into the ring. He would continue wrestling for a year while the late Japanese wrestling legend, Hayabusa, would develop to become his direct successor as the ace of the company.

Shoichi Arai Takes Over FMW

Shoichi Arai, who had been with FMW in backstage and ring announcing roles since the beginning, assumed control of the company following Onita’s resignation from the company he founded. It was a move which shocked everyone, Arai included – he had no knowledge of how to run the company and many argue Onita’s decision to hand over to Arai was poor judgement. Shell, the daughter of Arai, described the move as a bad decision – with her father being too kind to run a promotion like FMW. The popularity of FMW waned following Onita’s exit and Arai’s takeover, as the company entered a decline which it would never fully recover from. The golden era of FMW was dead.

Return of Onita

After an acting career fails to take off, Atsushi Onita announced his return to professional wrestling just one year later and, specifically, to FMW – this time to work for Shoichi Arai. Onita would return as a heel, as he demanded; he envisioned a rivalry between the old (Onita) and the new (Hayabusa) as being the best way to save FMW. However, Arai would name Kodo Fuyuki the new head booker of the promotion and as the company’s booker, he took the company in a new direction; one more akin to WWE’s “sports entertainment” brand of wrestling than FMW’s hardcore style. With FMW on the wane, it made sense to change direction. However, a change in direction as bold as this was not too popular with traditional fans and Onita himself.

Second Exit From FMW

Atsushi Onita would once again leave the company he founded. This time, however, he was asked to leave by Shoichi Arai; with the company’s new direction, Onita no longer fitted in with the long-term ambition of the promotion. “I was kicked out of the company I founded” says Onita in the episode. FMW wanted to proceed with Hayabusa as the top star but unfortunately, on October 22nd 2001, Hayabusa would suffer a career ending injury in the ring. A springboard moonsault off of the middle rope would go drastically wrong; leading to Hayabusa landing on his head and leaving him permanently paralyzed. One bad move and FMW’s new top star would never wrestle again. He would never walk again without assistance.

FMW’s Financial Woes

Following the career ending injury to its star attraction, FMW’s financial woes only worsened. Without their top draw, ticket and merchandise sales dropped dramatically. Instead of asking Onita for help in steadying the FMW ship, Shoichi Arai instead loaned from loan sharks – the Yakuza – to help run the company. This would prove to be a fatal move. The more he borrowed from the Yakuza, the less he could pay back; his daughter states that his phone was ringing all the time, as the Yakuza grew increasingly threatening towards him. Sabu then states how, after his last match for FMW – where he and other workers were not paid – Arai told him that he was going to hang himself the following day. He did just that, killing himself in a schoolyard on May 12th, 2002. The intention of the suicide was simple; he believed his life insurance would cover the rest of the debt owed to the Yakuza. Sadly, it did not, and Arai’s daughter tells of how she now has nothing because the crime family took her family home – everything. She directs some of the blame towards Onita, stating that she believes he used her father’s kindness to push the company onto him. FMW would fold following Arai’s death and split into two new promotions; Kodo Fuyuki’s World Entertainment Wrestling (WEW) and Mr. Gannosuke‘s Wrestling Marvelous Future (WMF).

Brief Return

In 2015, FMW briefly returned – with Atsushi Onita wrestling once more, with Hayabusa serving as an executive producer. Tragically, disaster would strike again; just one year later, at the age of 47, Hayabusa would collapse in his home and die. His death was brought on by the complications of his career ending injury and paralysis suffered a decade and a half earlier.

FMW’s Legacy

Mick Foley says that while FMW was in the East geographically, it was the “wild, wild west of wrestling”; where anything could and would happen. Atsushi Onita states that he believes he invented true hardcore wrestling and distributed it internationally. Sabu says that what he learned in FMW, he took to ECW; bringing with him the hardcore wrestling style which would shape the United States’ pro wrestling future. When asked what he would say to Onita if he could seem him now, Terry Funk jokingly flips off the camera before laughing that he “loves him”.

Summary

There is no doubt that FMW’s influence, particularly coming from the earlier incarnation of the promotion – when led by Atsushi Onita – changed the world wrestling landscape, not just Japan’s. It influenced ECW, which would act as the United States’ third largest promotion in the 1990s; also inspiring the Attitude Era, with its grittiness and hardcore style. Whereas FMW has been rife with tragedy and controversy, there is no denying its cultural impact.

More From LWOS Pro Wrestling

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world. Catch Dark Side of the Ring on VICE, with new episodes airing each Thursday at 9 PM EST.