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

The latest in a semi-regular series looking at Vice’s awesome show. I’ll be following it up in the next week with a look at this promotion’s biggest star appearing in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Full disclosure, my knowledge of the promotion is severely limited, but it didn’t affect my enjoyment of this show.

Atsushi Onita To Appear At CZW Cage Of Death XX Next Month(Above: Not the Japanese Corey Feldman.)

Great prologue with remarks about the big rise and bigger fall of the promotion as well as Terry Funk saying that you had to be “nuttier than a fruitcake” to wrestle for FMW and remarking on how top star and promoter Atsushi Onita maybe ran over a few people on the way to the top “but probably had to”.

Onita opens the show in his trademark leather jacket, talking about being a wrestling fan from an early age. He began as a Giant Baba protege as well as idolising Dory and Terry Funk. Terry, who’s not well these days, puts in a good showing in the interview. Onita began as a junior heavyweight, travelling to America to hone his craft. He took a beating from the entire locker room in the Dominican Republic after disagreeing on a finish to a match. Funk took him under his wing and set him up with a car (“He wanted to be an idiot like me!”). He went to Memphis and took part in another iteration of the famous concession stand brawl, which heavily influenced his style. Accumulated injuries, culminating in a freak knee injury, meant he couldn’t become the breakout junior heavyweight that he hoped to and he faced an early retirement.

However, in 1989 he came back after challenging a martial artist in effectively a mixed martial arts match that was worked over a series of events. He realised he needed an attraction to draw big crowds. This gives us images like Onita hitting the Thunder Fire Powerbomb on a guy in a gi and missile dropkicks against similarly-dressed fighters. This quickly morphed into a hardcore style involving barbed wire. That wasn’t enough, though, so electricity and explosions were introduced too. Onita’s take was to do everything Baba and Inoki were afraid to. Mick Foley recalls the time a female wrestler got hit with a fireball and it burned into her skin with her wailing inhumanly as he headed to the ring for his match.

Ricky Fuji, still rocking the same look as in his heyday but not quite the pretty boy he used to be, pops up as he brought in guys like Chris Jericho (who the same can be said for) and Lance Storm from Calgary. Sabu, with his uncle the Sheik, would tour as well. Sabu hated wrestling in barbed wire and the subsequent trips to the hospital, so would use Krazy Glue and tape to close his wounds.

Mick Foley, another regular in the nineties and someone who probably shouldn’t be able to speak as articulately as he does still, comments upon Onita’s uncanny ability to allow the audience to feel his pain and putting to best use his regular look and limited skills, which made him more accessible than most (the same could, of course, be said for Foley). Jericho adds that Onita’s post-match routines where he would be covered in water and sweat and be crying and rallying the fans into a frenzy with cult-like promos about FMW living forever and never dying, which went over like gangbusters. Fuji talks about Onita heading to the hospital (with ambulance sound effects provided) and thinking “Right, what’s next?”.

The first major casualty of FMW was the Sheik, who was part of a fire match with Sabu, Onita and Tarzan Goto. It got hot too fast and Sheik couldn’t get out and air was escaping in the roaring inferno. He managed to slip out and got burnt over 60% of his body and was really badly hurt by it. Sabu says there were no hard feelings, though, they knew what they were signing up for and they got paid. Terry Funk interjects to say the latter wasn’t always the case, and Onita admits he was spending like crazy on his house and cars, making two million a year at his peak.

There was also money from the Yakuza, who owned most of the arenas. Foley talks about meals after the matches where the hosts were missing their pinkies. He didn’t like it, but accepted it. Sabu made the mistake of taking his match to their section, which were large but barely inhabited, and got a beating off them afterwards. Mike Awesome, the Gladiator (who they’ve picked a terrible lookalike for!), managed to save him.

By 1993, FMW was rivalling All Japan and New Japan, so Onita brought Terry Funk to Japan to wrestle him and see what he had built. They wrestled in front of 40,000 in an exploding ring match. With the match running against a timer and tension building, Onita had Funk beat and left Funk to the explosion, but then has an epiphany and realises he can’t do that to his mentor and runs back in and covers his idol with his own body. Jericho describes it as one of the greatest matches and greatest babyfaces moments of all time. Funk wishes he was paid the respect monetarily, though!

Onita attempted to translate his wrestling stardom into mainstream success, so announced his retirement. One movie later and not much else, he had to come back. They did prepare a success in Hayabusa, whose daughter appears to speak on his behalf. The wrestlers talked about what a fantastic wrestler and guy he was, but he wasn’t really a death match guy. So, the promotion didn’t do as well and it necessitated Onita’s return.

Ring announcer Shoichi Arai took over as the promoter of FMW, with Jericho doing a good impression of him and riffing on his appearance. He didn’t have what Onita had, including his vision. His daughter also speaks for him. She admits that he didn’t know how to promote the events. Funk adds that Onita basically left it in his hands and gave him “jack shit” to work with, hence the drop off in crowds.

Onita returned as a heel, with an old vs. new feud of FMW. This was obviously inspired by the promotion vs. promotion (worked and legit) feuds of the nineties. Arai had to tone down the matches to get them on TV and brought in Samson Fuyuki as his booker. Fuyuki did an “entertainment style”, which meant stuff like guys getting pissed on, eating stupid stuff, dancing and matches with firecracker up the arse penalties. Onita was asked in a public meeting between the boys to leave the promotion and felt lied to and betrayed.

Hayabusa was gaining popularity post-Onita but slipped on a moonsault and broke his neck, leaving him permanently paralysed in one of the most tragic moments in wrestling. Sabu comments that if it had happened to him he would’ve preferred to have died than be left in that position. His daughter talks about the depression he went through after that. Foley talks about how it was the final blow for FMW, as they weren’t able to find a new star and started hemorrhaging money.

Fuji recalls how he couldn’t get paid by Arai, who was calling upon the Yakuza to help him out. His daughter talks about he was using his own savings. Onita suggests he was possibly too proud to ask for help from legitimate sources, but when the loan sharks started circling it led to the breakdown of Arai’s marriage and the mom taking the daughter. After the last FMW event, where nobody was paid, Arai committed suicide to cash in on a life insurance policy that still didn’t cover the debts he had (his widow’s father eventually paid off the remainder).

Onita: “I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, but Arai failed in business. I am still here. I survived somehow.” Arai’s daughter feels Onita took advantage of her dad’s kindness and innocence. Onita gets really cold as he lights up a cigarette, saying “Just tell the loan sharks you can’t pay!” in an “End of story!” move. Probably easier when you’re a tough wrestler and not a nebbish executive.

FMW briefly returned from the ashes with Onita as a star and Hayabusa behind the scenes, but Hayabusa died a year later. His daughter talks about how he worked hard to regain some mobility and independence. Foley takes his hat off to him for through tremendous exertion and on crutches walking to the ring one final time in an emotional moment.

Foley sums up the promotion as “the wild West”, where “if you could think it you could do it” and how spectacle came first. Onita credits himself for creating hardcore wrestling. Sabu talks about taking FMW to ECW to introduce it there. Funk gets the final word by being asked what he’d say to Onita and showing the middle finger, before admitting he loves the guy.

Melting it down: Really interesting episode on an aspect of wrestling I wasn’t really that familiar with then or now. Some tragedy with the key characters, although Onita managed to slip and slide through a lot of that, looking out for number one. Would’ve liked a bit more on the negative reaction to his return (Mr. Liar), but Onita is a bit of a Dusty Rhodes-like character who’s fascinating to listen to and incredibly charming even while spinning yarns and being economic with the truth. Not a bad interviewee in the bunch, even with the language barrier in some cases. Could’ve watched for ninety minutes on this promotion, not just half that. Great show!