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Weekly Spotlight: Atsushi Onita and the Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch

As AEW Dynamite closed on Wednesday Night, World Champion Kenny Omega challenged long-time rival Jon Moxley to an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch. Longtime fans and tape traders cheered, while more mainstream, traditional fans were left scratching their heads. Though it’s the main event at AEW’s Revolution PPV on March 7, many were still unaware of the history behind most gruesome of matches.

In the early ’80s, Atsushi Onita was All Japan Pro Wrestling’s top junior heavyweight and company president Giant Baba’s first ‘disciple’ as the first official trainee of the AJPW dojo. However, in April of ’83, Onita smashed his left patella in a match against Hector Guerrero, after flying off the apron and landing with full force. This injury and others forced him to first retire in 1985, though it wouldn’t be Onita’s last retirement.

After a failed martial arts match with Ryuma Go, Onita returned to pro wrestling, founding his own promotion in 1989, creating Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling. Onita, unable to work the more fast-paced junior style, reinvented himself as a lone warrior willing to sacrifice his body for glory.

With influences from the violent Puerto Rico and Memphis territories, FMW became the host to some of wrestling’s most brutal matches. Having Onita as the top star and Brass Knuckles Champion—a name taken from the old rough and tumble Dallas, Texas territory—FMW became a hit both in Japan and in the States. The promotion became a headquarters to outcast journeymen like Tarzan Goto, Mr. Pogo, but also the late, great Hayabusa.

FMW 1991: Atsushi Onita vs. Tarzan Goto, illustrated
One of the most talked-about concepts to come from FMW was the Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch. Unlike the American barbed wire matches popularized in the ’70s, where the ring ropes were wrapped in the century-old farm tool invented in DeKalb, Illinois, the ropes were taken down and replaced with barbed wire. A small charge of C4 explosive was also attached to the wire casing. When an opponent was tossed into the mesh, not only would they find the sharpened barbs waiting for them, but also a small detonation. The first EBWD match was used as the penultimate match in Tarzan Goto

FMW became so successful that it quickly spawned rival deathmatch promotions like W*ING and IWA Japan, and later Big Japan Pro Wrestling, the latter of which still runs today. At one point, WWE and Onita held official talks about possibly hosting the match in the States.

Even ECW in the US took a huge page from Onita’s promotion when crafting their ultra-violent alternative style of pro wrestling. ECW owner Paul Heyman even brought the icon to Philadelphia in 1998, with a plan for Onita vs. Sandman match down the road, though it never came to fruition.

Onita would compete a number of FMW’s staple Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatches, including bouts against the aforementioned Hayabusa, Mr. Pogo, and even the legendary Terry Funk. Onita vs. Funk, which took place in a jam-packed Kawasaki Stadium, added the exploding ring element. The match was storytelling 101 from two in-ring veterans under unorthodox circumstances. The added elements of violence created a unique experience that felt legitimately dangerous, even if the match and the effects were mainly smoke and mirrors, more akin to an action movie than a pro wrestling match.

The end saw Onita defeating Funk via pinfall, then throwing himself atop Funk to protect him from the explosion that went off moments later. Funk and Onita headed to the back, holding each other up, as the two battle-weary warriors left showing each other the ultimate sign of respect.

So, which elements will Omega, Moxley, and Tony Khan bring to Daily’s Place in two weeks when the Exploding Barbed Wire Death Match makes its American pay-per-view debut on March 7 at AEW Revolution?

Justin M Knipper contributed to this article.

Illustration from Pro Wrestling Encyclopedia (プロレス大事典) by Fumihiko Saito

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