Apocalyptic Wrestling: The Self-Sacrifice of Atsushi Onita

The first thing you need to understand is this: The world is coming to an end.

Not “the world” as in the planet Earth. Not “the world” in its metaphoric context, which is to say the world as it is perceived by the human consciousness one assumes will cease perceiving at the end of the world. When I say that the world is coming to an end, what I mean is that the systems we’ve built, the services we rely on, and the way we relate to each other will be changed forever by what we’re going through now, by a global pandemic we were woefully ill-equipped and poorly governed to prevent. The world is coming to an end, and it’s hard to know what’s coming next.

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The second thing you need to understand is this: Professional wrestling, as a simulation of the human experience, is going to change.

We’re already witnessing that change in action. It’s empty arena shows. It’s “social distancing” matches. It’s pre-taped disaster WrestleManias and New Japan talk shows and the anxiety that this already dangerous enterprise is suddenly a lot scarier. It’s the eventuality that there will be no professional wrestling at some point during all of this, that the lights at the WWE Performance Center and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ training facility will go out and stay out until it is safe to perform. Live wrestling may be missed, but the art itself, a century-plus of recorded content, will be there. What the sport will look like in the future I can’t venture to guess.

At the intersection of these facts stands Atsushi Onita, legendary innovator of the death match and true independent. Recently, he’s been seen in DDT, hitting Danshoku Dino in the ass with his blast bat, a baseball bat that, get this, explodes on contact. In the 1990s, he was the owner and star of Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, an indie promotion whose influence reached ECW out in Philadelphia and, by extension, the WWF. FMW’s a wild ride. Initially its featured attractions were matches between Onita and practitioners of other martial arts. By its end, FMW was an “entertainment style” promotion, something loosely resembling the WWF’s Attitude Era. A lot of stuff from FMW (Hayabusa, the rivalry between Masato Tanaka and Mike Awesome, Megumi Kudo, etc.) is truly incredible and worth your time. But what’s important right now is Onita and the wrestling he pioneered, how it envisioned wrestling as a spectacle subject to apocalypse and what one’s response to that apocalypse ought to be.

The No Rope Barbed Wire Exploding Ring Time Bomb Death Match

Imagine, it’s May 5, 1993 and you’re at Kawasaki Stadium, a large, open air venue, for an evening of wrestling. Things proceed as per usual, one match after another, until the sun sets and it’s time for the main event. The ring crew comes out and begins replacing the ring ropes with strands of barb wire. Theoretically, there’s nothing new to this—barbed wire matches date back awhile, and Onita and Tarzan Goto had an exploding barbwire match in 1990—except two of the words at the end of this match’s poem of a stipulation: “time bomb.”

If you’ve watched wrestling for any length of time, you know that introducing an object to the audience’s visual field will eventually be used by the wrestlers, like the principal of Chekhov’s gun but applied to birthday cakes, baseball bats, oversized dildos, and barbed wire. The drama isn’t so much in the introduction of these objects so much as it’s the anticipation of how they’ll be used. In modern ladder matches, for example, part of the gimmick is watching as wrestlers build new and horrifying structures out of the otherwise unnecessary number of ladders ringside, the better to fuck their backs up on. The dramatic conceit of a barbed wire match, even a barbed wire match where the wire explodes on contact, has not changed since its introduction: It’s not a question of whether or not someone will touch the wire so much as the question is who goes first, how badly, and how long will the wrestlers tease things out before rushing headlong into the gimmick’s promised bodily mutilation.

The addition of a time bomb to this formula is ingenious. Say Atsushi Onita and Terry Funk wrestle an even match, avoid the wire entirely, and hit the time limit. That’s nice, except that the time limit here isn’t a bell and a disappointed crowd, it’s a fucking fireball. Of course, a draw would undermine the emotional core of this match, but we’ll get there shortly. This wrestling match is a machine that produces anxiety, from the exploding barbwire to the referee dressed like a firefighter to the clock that’s constantly ticking in the background until we get to the five minute mark, at which point it’s on the screen, accompanied by an absolutely horrifying siren.

Try as people might to claim otherwise, there are relatively few cultural objects that do justice to the anxiety and terror at the heart of human existence right now. This wrestling match, with its ridiculous conceit and intentional spectacle, is not one of those objects. The anxiety of a wrestling match, after all, is meant to be pleasurable. Here’s a plot, here’s the players, here’s the moment of release. With rare exception, that’s how professional wrestling works. But I’m not watching this match as a means of explaining the world. I’m watching it as a signpost for what’s to come for this sport, for its almost entirely unique portrayal of self-sacrifice on behalf of others.

We leave together or not at all.

If this is your first time taking in an FMW match, I want you to look at how it’s shot. This was an independent wrestling company, but its matches—particularly Onita’s—are shot cinematically in a way that pre-dates the WWE by decades. In the opening seconds, you get a sense of the arena’s size, the number of people of the crowd, and the small, dangerous space Onita and Funk are set to wrestle in. The backstage shots of Funk and Onita in their locker rooms are tense—both men know they’re leaving the ring with some scars tonight. There is no commentary, so all you’ve got is the audience screaming, Onita and Funk breathing and yelling, the motion of bodies on a wrestling ring, and the noise the explosions make as they pop off.

It’s not possible to make a one-to-one comparison between this match and the empty arena wrestling we’ve been given for the past couple of weeks, but something I am fascinated by is how different this match sounds without commentary. This was standard on a lot of FMW releases, but I keep trying to figure out why current television wrestling bothers me (beyond it’s being a horrific stunt), and I think the reason is that nothing about it feels different. Within the universe constructed by WWE and AEW, the stakes and presentation are exactly the same, it’s just that there’s no fans. In their absence, all of the personnel extraneous to the operation, commentary included, feel like they’re getting in the way. Here you have a wrestling match that’s different not just because of its gimmick or circumstance, but because you can listen to it like music, the bumps and shuffling feet and bombs instruments used to evoke emotion from the unknown. This is not an ordinary match. Right now, why is any match being treated as ordinary?

The timer. Five minutes. A siren. Both men are already gassed by the time these elements are introduced, but there’s an intensity to what they’re doing that’s hard to describe, a combination of wanting to get the fuck out before the ring explodes and wanting to win the match. Onita does, kicking Funk off of him mid-spinning toe hold, Funk hitting a bomb setting him up for an Onita DDT, but the siren won’t stop. It can’t. We were promised a time bomb, and a time bomb is what we’re going to get.

So with 2:42 left on the timer, Funk decides to keep up the attack. It’s surreal, Funk choking Onita in the middle of a ring set to explode, siren blaring, Onita’s “Wild Thing” kicking up. These two have a history—Funk was one of Onita’s trainers, and they had a falling out. Funk’s thing is that he needs to beat Onita, and he just failed. Funk gets distracted by the referee, which allows Onita to take the advantage again. He basically murders Funk, hitting him with two Fire Thunder Powerbombs, and as soon as the clock hits 1:00, he throws the referee out of the ring.

Onita could leave the ring. He does, with 0:20 left on the timer. Plenty of time to get away from the bomb. But Funk isn’t moving, and Onita sees that. With 0:13 left on the counter, he tries to get back into the ring, to wake up his one-time mentor and friend. It’s too late, so he does the only thing he can think of doing—he throws himself on Terry Funk’s prone body and takes the brunt of the blast for him.

This is one of the best moments in wrestling history, a spot that reliably makes me cry regardless of how many times I’ve seen it. Here’s the thing—Onita has no reason to save Terry Funk. They both knew what they got themselves into when they signed the match, and Funk tried to leave him laying at the end of the match. But it doesn’t matter, Onita realizes that what he’s done is going to hurt Funk beyond the consequence of a wrestling match, and he steps in to protect him. It is, I think, one of the great acts of tenderness in wrestling.

In truth, it doesn’t have much competition. Wrestling isn’t usually a spectacle about the good one might do for others, but maybe it should be. That’s not to say that we do away with faces and heels or other elements of wrestling narrative, but it feels pretty ridiculous to turn on wrestling in 2020 and see that nothing’s changed, that a spooky Mr. Rogers is upset about something that happened four years ago or that Matt Hardy is piloting drones. In the last moments of FMW’s presentation of this match, Funk and Onita are together. They’ve both seen some shit, and they’re both going to leave better men because of it. That’s what I want out of wrestling right now, if we’re going to have wrestling. It’s a big ask, acknowledging the reality and danger of the situation they’re in by wrestling in an empty arena, but if we can’t escape reality, we may as well go through it together.