Japan has been the home of wrestling’s wackiest ideas for decades. In spite of the USA’s sports entertainment branding and Mexico’s wild wrestling atmosphere, often the birthplace of wrestling’s most outrageous ideas is Japan.
One of the most extreme of these ideas: the Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch.
It was born in the brain of Atsushi Onita, who departed AJPW in 1984 after a decade-long stint with the company. Onita spent a few years away from wrestling before reigniting his career as the founder and promoter of Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW). As the company’s owner from 1989 to 1995 he was also the headline star, growing the business from a start-up independent to a leading, revolutionary light of distinctive wrestling in Japan.
Onita’s influences are many, including the brutal deathmatches of the Memphis and Puerto Rico territories and hardcore icons such as Terry Funk and Abdulllah the Butcher. In the third season of Dark Side of the Ring (Episode 10, Blood & Wire: Onita’s FMW) Onita said: “the origin of hardcore wrestling for me was in Tennessee,” where he was struck by the way “the audience gets into [a hardcore match] more than a normal wrestling match.”
It was in Memphis that Onita wrestled as part of a ‘concession stand brawl’, a match where the wrestlers abandon the ring and fight among the crowd.
In this way, Memphis helped to develop Onita’s wicked brainchild, creating the spark that ignited his revolutionary, outside-the-mainstream idea. Without the influences of hardcore wrestling in Memphis, the deathmatch pioneer may never have produced his most famed invention.
Onita’s brainchild is as violent as it gets, replacing the traditional ring ropes with piercing barbed wire, fused with exploding wires that explode whenever a wrestler hits them. The aftermath of the matches are yet more merciless: after a pinfall or submission the ominous countdown begins, warning sirens roar and a mass of explosives erupt even if a wrestler remains in the ring.
For FMW’s second anniversary, Atsushi Onita wrestled in the first ever Exploding Barbed Wire Steel Cage Deathmatch, losing to long-time rival Tarzan Goto in front of a crowd of 33,000 at Kawasaki Stadium. For a company two years into its infancy, an adoring crowd that big is astounding.
Two years on, at FMW’s fourth anniversary, Terry Funk wrestled Onita in a No Rope Exploding Barbed Wire Time Bomb Deathmatch. In front of an enraptured 41,000, again at the Kawasaki Stadium, Onita and Funk fought one of the most famous matches in Japanese wrestling history. It was a bloody and cathartic affair that will always be remembered for its emotional ending: Onita rushing back into the ring to cover up and protect a defeated Funk before the ring exploded in an ear-shredding bang.
By this time Onita had become synonymous with the Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch, in much the same way the Undertaker’s name will be eternally linked to Hell in a Cell.
Atsushi Onita continued his fabled connection to the match at FMW’s next anniversary show in 1994. This time he put his career on the line against the legendary Genichiro Tenryu. Following Tenryu’s victory, Onita stretched out his retirement into a year-long tour (he isn’t the only one). The tour’s culmination was an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch against another revolutionary in the ever-exciting Hayabusa, this time in a steel cage, at FMW’s sixth anniversary.
Nearly 60,000 wrestling fans packed the Kawasaki Stadium to witness Onita’s last match, eclipsing the 52,000 that saw his loss to Tenyru the year prior.
Onita’s retirement didn’t last, he returned to FMW the following year and made a habit out of this, much like fellow icons Mick Foley and Terry Funk.
Onita’s reign over FMW brought with it near countless Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatches, with the odd variation of Steel Cages, Landmines and Time Bombs thrown into the mix. However, the match lived on in the promotion past his “retirement”.
Megumi Kudo and Combat Toyoda fought in the first ever all-female Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch, at FMW’s seventh anniversary, drawing 33,000 attendees for their bloody and violent war.
The stipulation sprang into Michinoku Pro and even NJPW, as FMW began to fall. Over 60,000 people packed themselves into Tokyo Dome to see an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch between Onita and NJPW’s own Masahiro Chono in 1999. The match is remembered by fans today for the iconic visual of Atsushi Onita walking to the ring with cigarette in hand, being pelted by bottles from the New Japan faithful. Unfazed by the crazed crowd, he sat down on a chair halfway down the ramp and lit up his cigarette to puff smoke into the Dome, all while “Wild Thing” blasted out of the speakers and fans continued to rain down hate. It was a moment that summed up both the match and the man.
It was, and still is, a spectacle that has stood the test of time, one that has never become dull, one that leaves its mark on the viewer.
Perhaps George Gerbner had never watched Onita’s skin be pierced by barbed wire, as sirens echoed and the crowd screamed, when he came up with his theory that repeated exposure leads to desensitisation. No matter how many times you take in the sights and sounds of an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch, the spectacle is never lost. You never become numb to its other-worldly violence.
As the years tick by, Japan’s wildest wrestling experiment continues to amaze. On September 4 2022, DDT showcased an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch, unsurprisingly Atsushi Onita one of the six men in the ring. Hearing the visceral explosions and subsequent screams from the crowd is still an experience like no other in pro-wrestling.
The USA has tried the format too, but it’s simply not as good as the real thing. Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley fought an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch at AEW Revolution in 2021, the ring primed to blow after a 30 minute timer had expired. Their match was heated, a barbaric beating laid upon both competitors filled with explosions from each man hitting the barbed wire surrounds of the ring. Ultimately the match is remembered for its feeble finale, the much-anticipated explosion malfunctioning and leaving the audience wanting.
The mishap was a far cry from the violence of Atsushi Onita’s battle with Terry Funk.
FMW perched outside of Japan’s wrestling mainstream at the time but still drew remarkable crowds. It has stood the test of time and remained an anticipated and crowd-drawing event to this day, with companies inside and outside of Japan dipping their toes into the volatile world of Exploding Barbed Wire.
From FMW and Atsushi Onita to AEW and Jon Moxley, the Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch has been encapsulated by the “Wild Thing” entrance theme. Those two words sum up the match perfectly.
You could watch an Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch everyday, but you’ll never become numb to the ear-ringing explosions, heart-pounding drama or tense atmosphere. Perhaps timeless isn’t exactly the most fitting word, but it’s one of those wild pro wrestling ideas that will never disappear.
The screeching sirens and bellowing explosions are an immortal element of wrestling folklore.