Interview with Atsushi Onita

When we think of legendary pro wrestling figures from Japan, our minds may automatically cast back to the Four Pillars, or Masahiro Chono, maybe even Kazuchika Okada.

But equally deserving of a place among the nation’s elite is Atsushi Onita, a true innovator in the field of Deathmatch Wrestling, and still going strong today despite being in his sixties!

Having recently seen his invention used by a mainstream US promotion in AEW, Onita has returned to the forefront, and with him, the return of his fabled promotion FMW (now FMW:E – for Explosion).

Inside the Ropes’ Liam Wyatt recently had the opportunity to speak with Onita on his legacy, his plans for the future and much more.

Onita-san, you recently announced the return of FMW, as FMW:E – why was now the right time to re-launch FMW?

These days, the world is suffering from a COVID-19 pandemic, so we tend to hesitate to start something new. I think it is time to take a chance, even in a hard time. Consumers spend less, and the economy is bad for show business today (because of COVID-19). So, I think starting from a negative would be the best way to succeed, because I should do my best, right? In Japan, the audience of people for events is still limited, and there are many restrictions such as not being able to make a loud voice (chant) in the venue. Even in everyday life, there is a lot of anxiety and stress, because we always take measures against infectious diseases. That’s why I wanted to show people something that could excite them.

How much of a role did AEW’s promoting an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch play in your decision?

Even before AEW held the show, I wanted to do an original exploding deathmatch show in the United States. I felt a responsibility, and I also felt a sense of mission, because of the terrible explosion deathmatch CZW did. I asked American friends to help me with the fire lows and finding the venue. With AEW’s show, FMW’s exploding deathmatch was recognized around the world. It’s ironic, isn’t it?. After AEW’s show, many fans sent me messages. All of them said they want to watch my original explosion deathmatch, so I think it is the time to kick off the new promotion as FMW which I established long time ago.

You were featured in a video package as part of the promotion for that match (Moxley vs Omega) – how did you get involved?

Before the match, AEW offered me through an agent to come as an observer, as they will have an explosion deathmatch. AEW didn’t ask me for permission to do an explosion deathmatch, nor did they ask for technical cooperation. That was all done by AEW on its own. Unfortunately, I had already received a match offer from the late Mr. Pogo’s group and I declined AEW because the schedule was not possible. However, I wanted to send a video message to Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega with respect because they decided to fight in the barbed wire explosion deathmatch that I invented. I was just curious about what AEW’s own explosion deathmatch would look like.

Clearly, there were some technical issues but what did you think of Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega’s match overall?

I think both Jon Moxley and Kenny Omega had a nice match. That match was fantastic. I felt that the lack of explosion power was a shame because they had a really great fight.
AEW’s explosion was disproportionate to the goodness of the match.

Historically, the USA has struggled to deliver these types of matches on the same scale as what has been achieved in Japan. Why do you think that is?

This is a simple reason. First, the difference in the fire laws. Then there are technical issues. It seems that the fire law differs each state in the United States, and it seems that the handling of gunpowder indoors is generally stricter than in Japan. I’ve heard that regulations are loose outdoors, but I don’t know the details. The technical problem is, frankly, the explosion deathmatch shouldn’t be done in a day. Since I created it, it has been evolving with each match. It’s getting more and more powerful in collaboration with engineers. Sometimes other wrestlers and I would get burned, sometimes our fingers are almost blown off, and we continue to improve with it. It’s not something you can imitate right now.

Do you think modern-day audiences have been missing the FMW style of action?

I don’t think professional wrestling has a definition. Nothing is as tolerant as professional wrestling, I’m sure. My professional wrestling career continues because of my freedom of thought. I want modern professional wrestling fans to know the freedom of professional wrestling from the past FMW. I’m planning to show the past footage in the live stream on July 4th.

Things have changed since the 90s, with the emergence of social media and cancel culture. Do you feel you can be as free in your matches and match stipulations today as you were in the original FMW?

This era is different from the early FMW era, so I wouldn’t be able to play the same match as that time. Regulations have also increased in this era. However, I would like to express as much as possible in the current situation.

FMW:E’s first event is scheduled for July 4th in Yokohama. What can you tell us about the show?

The old FMW I created had everything, with minis wrestling, women’s wrestling, hardcore style wrestling, and explosion deathmatches. I had created a view of the world that looks like a circus. I don’t know if it will be accepted in the world today, but FMW:E also wants to try and innovative in professional wrestling, like flipping a toy box. Because of this era, I want to take on the challenge without being small. I saw Britt Baker’s match at AEW a while back. It was bloody and gutsy, and it was cool. When I entered CZW, there was a good hardcore woman wrestler, and a few years ago at WrestleMania, WWE also focused on women. If motivated women get together, I would like to do an explosion deathmatch for women wrestlers, and I would also like to train young hardcore wrestlers.

Will the show be available to international audiences?

Of course! We also sell livestream tickets, so I hope people all over the world will see this show. This time, the live streaming ticket costs 1,000 JPY, which means about 9.99USD. To be clear, it’s easy to buy, isn’t it? I decided on this price because I am aiming to develop old fans and new fans. I want young fans to be able to watch easily. I want you to know that wrestling is not just about who has won or lost, or who is strong or weak and that something like a hardcore explosion deathmatch is also a part of wrestling. I want you to experience the depth of professional wrestling, and I hope that the number of fans in new generations and new regions will increase.

What are your plans for FMW:E beyond July 4th? How often do you expect to run shows? Will you be touring domestically and/or internationally?

We are planning the next show, following the launch on July 4th, for the fall. Now that the virus infection hasn’t settled down, we’ll have shows in Japan and broadcasting live. If vaccination spreads worldwide and this disaster is settled down, I would like to show our explosion matches to many fans overseas. It might be difficult for FMW:E to hold a show overseas alone, so it would be nice if there was a group in some country that would like to hold it together. I guess it will be after this autumn but I think we will have shows once or twice a month.

Many Japanese promotions have a foothold in the USA now thanks to AEW. Would you be interested in developing a working relationship with them?

I’m interested in holding my original explosion deathmatch in the United States. However, there is no specific story about doing it with AEW. Once upon a time, I had the opportunity to talk to Vince McMahon. The story of a business alliance. However, if I made a business alliance, FMW would be dyed in the color of the group, so I didn’t. if freedom is lost, then it will be painful and not fun. That’s why I’m going to do FMW:E on my own .

You mentioned talking with Vince McMahon – How close were you to working with the WWF and was creative control the reason that the deal did not materialise?

I went to see Vince McMahon myself. At that time, I was thinking about FMW’s expansion into the United States, so I wanted his help. But he said there are limits and restrictions on doing deathmatches in the United States. He is a great businessman. With his help, I felt that FMW would become a subsidiary of WWF. But I knew that contracting with him meant that I couldn’t express myself freely. Even ECW, which is said to have been founded when Sabu brought FMW videotapes back to the United States, has become a subsidiary of WWF. As swallowed by WWF, I felt its unique appeal disappeared. I want to express my idea and what I want to do. It’s very important not only for my wrestling but also for my way of life.

Throughout your career, you’ve been a part of so many innovative match types. Do you have a favourite match stipulation?

My favourite match is against Terry Funk. The No Rope Exploding Barbed Wire Time Bomb Death Match. And the No Rope Exploding Barbed Wire landmine deathmatch that I did with Tiger Jeet Singh. I came up with a landmine deathmatch when I heard the news that there was a Gulf War at that time and many landmines were buried along the border. I got a hint from that.

Has there ever been a match stipulation idea that you haven’t been able to make a reality?

Yes, I have. When I was doing FMW, I wanted to do an explosion deathmatch on the US Navy’s aircraft carrier Independence, which was just anchored in Yokosuka.
When I consulted the Navy with the United States through the chief of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, it was OK at first. However, a sexual harassment incident or something happened within the US Department of Defense, and holding of events was banned at all. I wanted to make it happen.

You’ve had many classic moments but I wanted to ask about a few specific ones. What are your memories of working with Chavo Guerrero Sr and your legendary feud for the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Championship?

Chavo Guerrero Sr. is a great man who established the junior heavyweight division in Japanese professional wrestling. Until then, only heavyweights were famous in Japan. Chavo Guerrero was a junior heavyweight leader. He messed me up with a trophy after I won the title of the NWA International Junior Heavyweight Championship. You want to know how I felt about it, don’t you? I think it was a great thing because he and I were fighting professionally during the match, as a result of our pride clashing. Besides, it has made me what I am today. That event with Chavo Guerrero may be the origin of my deathmatches.

The original FMW was an incredible, trailblazing promotion. What was it like to be at the centre of that?

At that time, I was desperate to entertain people. I was working hard to get big-name recognition and appearing on TV for interest in both myself and FMW. Every show, every match, I had no choice but to always look forward and open up. I never thought about making it easy. I came up with ideas one after another and was always on the edge.

What was your experience working with the boxer, and former World Heavyweight Champion, Leon Spinks like? Was he concerned about wrestling in a cage match?

Was Leon Spinks scared of the cage deathmatch? The answer is no. As with any wrestlers, they’ll be prepared when they get the match. When I told Leon Spinks that I was going to do a cage deathmatch, he didn’t say no. I think he had made up his mind. I remember that I had my teeth broken by Leon Spinks in the match before the cage deathmatch. After all heavyweight boxers are amazing. His punch was so heavy – I felt some kind of horror at that time! Leon Spinks was a professional. Even when we went on a tour, he was always doing shadow boxing at the gymnasium. He was a serious person for boxing. I took him on a tour. I wanted to make an opportunity for people living in the countryside of Japan to see a former world champion who has only been seen on TV. I think seeing fantastic things and meeting a great person in real life is very important. It was a great experience for fans, wasn’t it?

Undoubtedly so. Now moving forward to 1995, you had a retirement match against Hayabusa. What were your feelings after that match?

I thought it was finally over. Why did I retire at that time? The deathmatch had become too radical. I thought in my heart that I would have no choice but to die in the end, as we were having to go further and further. At that time, I became septic and fell seriously ill. After somehow surviving, despite being told by the doctor that I had a 70% chance of mortality, I thought whilst in the hospitalised bed. In deathmatch, dying is not justice. It’s grotesque and not what I want to express. I survived and began to think on that. After that match, I felt like a big weight being lifted off my shoulders.

At the time, did you regret retiring and did you genuinely think that was going to be your last match?

From the bottom of my heart, I thought the match would be the last. However, FMW has fallen into financial difficulty. I decided to return because I wanted to help FMW. Of course, there were pros and cons, but at that time my feelings were that I wanted to help the FMW that I established – I had to help.

Later in your career, you wrestled for New Japan in the late 90s and seemingly brought the FMW style to them. What are your memories of that period in your career?

I have smoked at the Tokyo Dome, where it was absolutely non-smoking! In addition, I brought the top wrestlers of New Japan Pro-Wrestling to the realm of my explosion deathmatch. As always, there are negative opinions about the deathmatch style. New Japan was about smart wrestling, so their fans were negative about my style. However, despite the denials and rejections from the fans, people still rushed to the venue at that time. Even though New Japan was doing smart wrestling, as usual, it wasn’t pulling in so many fans.

With the launch of FMW:E, you’re back in the thick of the wrestling world. What are your goals for the coming months and years?

I’m most interested in raising a hardcore successor. I’m interested in that now.

With thanks to Onita-san and his team for their time. FMW:E’s debut show, Independence Day, will broadcast on July 4th. Tickets to stream the event can be found here.