Atsushi Onita is generally credited with bringing the deathmatch style of professional wrestling to Japan. Most American pro wrestling fans are familiar with Japanese deathmatch wrestling thanks to Mick Foley (competing as Cactus Jack), who famously took on Terry Funk in the finals of IWA’s King of Deathmatch tournament on August 30, 1995 at Kawasaki Baseball Stadium, but Onita was having deathmatches in Japan as far back as 1989, even going so far as to create his own promotion, the legendary Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, or FMW. FMW might be the very first hardcore wrestling promotion, as ECW didn’t go “extreme” until 1994 and Combat Zone Wrestling wasn’t even founded until 1999.
Japanese wrestling is mostly known for its hard-hitting and technical strong style, but Onita changed the game with his penchant for conceiving and participating in ridiculously dangerous looking matches, which typically feature barbed wire in place of ring ropes, with the wire rigged to “explode” when a wrestler makes contact with it. The result is a loud, bloody spectacle designed specifically to tickle the reptile brains of pro wrestling fans.
Given that the ropes are such an integral part of professional wrestling, these matches tend to be paced quite differently, since the wrestlers don’t have the ropes to whip each other into or jump off of. Instead, deathmatches are a slow burn, building towards that inevitable point where one of the grapplers gets tossed into the barbed wire and all hell breaks loose. The wrestlers must still attempt to pin or submit each other, but a deathmatch is much more about the insane spots then it is about wins and losses.
Of course, deathmatches have continued to evolve through the years to include razor blades, broken glass, light tubes and a variety of other implements to make for even more grotesque bloodbaths, but likely none of that would be possible if not for Onita’s innovation.
A few of Onita’s completely bonkers matches are embedded below for your enjoyment.