Imp’s NJPW Adventure
This entry comes with an Onita warning. I use pictures, it is an Onita match, there will be violence.
Last Summer, it dawned on me I’d been subscribed to NJPW World for some time, yet I hadn’t really dived into the company’s history. I hadn’t taken note of the huge archive provided by the streaming service. So I made a pledge, a promise that one by one, I’d go back and watch these historical bouts. Finding out as much as I could about the surrounding stories in the process, to help piece it into NJPW’s history and slowly put together my knowledge of their past.
With NJPW’s ever growing expansion into the US, I’m assuming there are others who also fit into the bracket of ‘Interested, But Know F’ All’.
So this series is going to be a record of my attendance at the New Japan School of Professional Wrestling. A catalogue of all the matches thast have an impact on me or are goddamn interesting to look back on wearing our 2018 future goggles. And maybe a deathmatch or two.
To truly understand the future you need to learn about the past. But first, how was New Japan actually doing at the end of the 20th Century?
The State of New Japan in 1999
The Three Musketeers (Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono and Keiji Muto) were incredible draws for New Japan throughout the 90s. All three won the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, won the annual G1 Climax tournament and became superstars/legends in the process. Towards the tail end of the decade the company was building towards the future, but those three men were still the backbone of the product.
The 1990’s was possibly the hottest wrestling has ever been in Japan and NJPW’s biggest rival, All Japan Pro Wrestling, had a run of absolutely outstanding consistency. The likes of Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada meant that their Heavyweight main event scene was out of this world. The bumps to the noggin those guys took are insane and scary to look at with the knowledge of head injuries we have today, but AJPW’s main event was spectacular and could seemingly do no wrong.
On the other hand, New Japan was perceived to have had the by far greater Junior division, partly due to the fact that Giant Baba (AJPW boss at the time) didn’t really care for the Juniors. He still featured them, but more in the vein of ‘they have one so we need one too’. On top of that NJPW had the likes of The Great Sasuke, Jushin Thunder Liger, Wild Pegasus, Dean Malenko & Eddie Guerrero on their books. So good luck matching that! Don’t get me wrong, New Japan’s main event was still really good and had a fair few classics of their own, but AJPW was seemingly pumping out classics every single event. Damn insane!
There was also FMW, acting as an ECW playground mix of great wrestling and crazy hardcore. As well as WAR, acting like an NWA type of affair, bringing in loads of amazing talent from around the world to showcase. With the likes of Rey Mysterio Jr, Chris Jericho & Lance Storm all getting breaks there.
All of that amazing competition, all of those promotions putting out fantastic content, resulted in Japanese wrestling reaching absolutely gigantic heights in the 90s. Every promotion was drawing huge crowds, FMW was regularly main eventing with deathmatches and even they are reported to have pulled numbers of 50,000+. It’s almost unfathomable to think of today, but Japanese wrestling’s mainstream popularity in the 90’s cannot be overstated.
In regards to 1999 specifically, the reported Tokyo Dome attendance for NJPW Strong Style Symphony 1999 was 63,500. Which is impressive for a 55,000 maximum capacity stadium. The actual attendance was 53,000, but still, they drew a fecking big crowd. All packed into The Dome to witness IWGP Heavyweight Champion Keiji Mutoh defend against ultra MMA heel Don Frye. However that is not the affair I’m here to jabber on about, I’m going to talk about the opening match instead!
April 10th 1999 – Tokyo Dome – Strong Style Symphony
NO ROPE EXPLOSIVE BARBED WIRE DEATH MATCH
Masahiro Chono vs Atsushi Onita
I’ll say this again, this was the OPENING MATCH! Jesus Christ, what an amazing way to kick things off. It does make sense in context though, as Chono was just coming back from a neck injury and Onita hadn’t been with New Japan very long. So this match was always going to be spectacle over substance, like a Michal Bay movie.
However, there is one thing that sticks out immediately: the entrances. They’re both so good that there is no way I’m continuing this column without making you watch them both first! Trust me, you NEED to see these as they are just amazing. The amount of character that gets over with just the entrances is so impressive.
Quite possibly the greatest pair of entrances I have ever seen and the crowd went rabid for both of them! Onita gets booed out of the arena, whilst fans throw trash at him as he makes his way down the ramp. The best part? He couldn’t give less of a shit. He has a chair with him, half way down the ramp he calmly sits down and lights up a cigarette! With garbage pelting him the entire time! It’s an amazing sight and Onita comes across as an absolute badass because of it.
Not forgetting Chono’s entrance, in a God damn HUMMER! The best part of this entrance? His music has a slow build as he drives to the stage, but then the main riff kicks in accompanied by the following questionable phrase, “WHAT THE F*** YOU N****** GONNA DO?” And the crowd goes absolutely batshit for it! The pop is huge! Whilst I’m sat here winding the video back thinking, ‘wait, what did that guy just say?’ I’m assuming something got lost in translation with that entrance theme, but even with that the whole thing was still oozing with cool. ‘Boss’ Chono just exudes badass and the Hummer was a perfect fit for his character. In fact both guys seem incredible after those crowd reactions, I think the correct phrase is ‘over as f***’.
Two of the coolest entrances I have ever seen! And don’t forget, this was the opening match of the show!
So why were they fighting?
As you could probably tell by those entrances, this one has bit of context behind it.
In the early 80’s, to combat NJPW’s new Juniors, AJPW hand-picked Atsushi Onita to lead their own Junior Division. He had a decent run, however he had to retire in 1984 after suffering a broken leg. A small fact about the man, Onita’s rather crazy. Against the advice of doctors, 4 years later he decided to get back into wrestling. After getting turned down by the UWF, Onita created his own promotion ‘Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling’ (FMW). Initially meant to be a one off show, the promotion ended up lasting 12 years and turned Onita into a household name. He would use the show to create what he wanted in wrestling, this is where the ultra-violent death match style of wrestling was born.
Onita was a huge fan of Terry Funk and the Memphis style brawls, of which he had experienced whilst on excursion there earlier in his career. So he decided to incorporate that style into his shows, but also take it up a notch and import some Puerto Rican influence. In a match to culminate his feud with Tarzan Goto, he came up with the idea of doing a no rope barbed wire match and electrifying the wire! Hooray, how nice. Every time someone got thrown into the electrified wire, there would be an explosion. Surprisingly, it worked so well that the match won the 1990 Tokyo Sports Match of the Year!
Good news for all weak PG minds like mine, his ideas only built on the crazy after that! Making the spectacle a more prominent feature of the death matches with some ‘lovely’ ideas. Including: Barbed Wired Floor, Explosive Land Mines, Time Bomb, Ring of Fire, Exploding Ring Time Bomb, Double Hell and of course an Electric Bomb Cage. All coming together in a retirement match against the future Ace of FMW Hayabusa in an – wait for it – Electric Bomb Cage Exploding Ring Time Bomb Death Match! Told you he was crazy.
In true retired wrestler style, Onita did return to FMW a few years later in a lesser role, but the company had made the decision to move away from its violent roots. This lead to disagreements and Onita parted ways with the promotion, only to surprisingly show up in New Japan later that same year!
New Japan Pro Wrestling fans HATED Onita! He was the embodiment of the style some people called ‘Garbage Wrestling’. But also the hate was partly because of how he debuted in New Japan, by taking out Kensuke Sasaki with a steel chair. This lead to the two having a match at 1999’s January 4th Show, which ended in disqualification after Onita threw a FIREBALL into Sasaki’s face. Onita debuted as an unliked heel, but after this he became absolutely despised.
Atsushi Onita had come to NJPW because he wanted to fight the legnedary Riki Choshu, however he was made to prove himself in order to earn the match. So Chosu threw Sasaki at Onita, then after the FIREBALL incident his second opponent was unveiled to be none other than the recently returned Masahiro Chono. Someone who was the embodiment of the heart and soul of New Japan Pro Wrestling. However this was not to be just any ordinary match, it was to be Onita’s own game, a No Rope Explosive Barbed Wire Death Match. The first ever of its kind in New Japan’s history.
Think about that for a second, just imagine WWE bringing in someone like Sabu and letting him do an ECW-like No Rope Barbed Wire match. Even in the Attitude Era, I get the impression that would never have happened in a million years. Onita was so popular, such an amazing draw, that New Japan let him do HIS Death Match on THEIR show.
As for the match itself… do you like explosions? Do you like the teasing of the potential of explosions? Then this match is for you! However this match starts with a quick test of strength instead! A test that is instantly won by the bigger man Chono, some logic in this crazy match? However Onita whips him towards the barbed wires, which is countered with a slide and the ‘Boss’ poses his nice big muscles. I really expected this match to be a nonsense brawl, so this little sequence was a nice surprise. Both showing off Chono’s strength and athleticism.
Which is further exemplified by Chono pulling out a delightful DDT, rolling into a top mount and pounding in Onita’s face. However the story repeats itself, as Onita takes the first opportunity to shove Chono towards the barbed wires and the big man does the standing on one leg and wobbling tease! I love going, “Woooooooah,” along with the crowd with spots like that, I just find them funny. No one beats Arn Anderson in that regard though. Seriously, google ‘Aloha Arn’.
Suddenly something happens! Sirens start to sound and the red and blue flashing lights on the corner posts go off! What’s happening? Presumably signalling something? Were they turning the electricity on? I don’t feckin’ know. Nothing immediately happened and they just got on with the match. Does that mean Chono’s wobbly tease would never have ended in an explosion anyway?
Anyhoo, Chono launches Onita’s chair in anger, but the agile target ducks and the chair goes flying into the barbed wire. BOOOM! Everyone, including the ref, jumps down into the safety position in fear. Building up the tension by having something else hit the wires, even more surprise logic work! I mean, it’s not a technical masterclass, but at least they’re trying!
Unfortunately, this is where all that ends. The match slows to a craaaaawl, as if they suddenly remembered they were the first match and shouldn’t be going too fast. For a couple of minutes they hit each other with the chair, but there’s no umph and the crowd goes a bit quiet. There’s a brief awesome spot where Chono goes to pick himself up off the ground with the aid of the ropes and the ref immediately reminds him with as much animation as possible that there are no ropes! Silly Chono, what are you like? But the biggest flaw in this style of match is spotlighted, what happens between the big explosions?
Dammit, this really is like a Michael Bay movie! The issue is the match gets so slooooow when they aren’t doing anything regarding the barbed wire, this match is about 15 minutes as well! Out of nowhere we get our second explosion of the match, when Onita whips Chono into the barbed wire – BOOM! – and the crowd is awake again! Onita hits a DDT onto the chair to little reaction, but that’s not enough to keep Chono down for the pin. Interesting that Onita didn’t consider the explosion a big enough deal to warrant a pinfall.
The second section of the match is pretty similar, but with the aid of a mini slap and headbutt battle! Feels a bit weird as this animosity just wasn’t there in the first section, but I guess that’s better than it never showing up at all. Things end when Onita goes for a charging headbutt and Chono moves out the wa- BOOM! Whenever a nice sequence starts to build, you’re reminded that the actual end game is getting to see an explosion.
Speaking of, that latest explosion resulted in Onita getting a nasty looking big gash on his right arm. So at least someone decided to sell the lasting effects of the explosions. All three men in the ring grimace at the gash for a bit, it is rather gnarly after all. After some standing and thinking, Chono decides to lock in an armbar and shouts at the ref, “This is no wrestling, mother f*****!” He then grabs round the wound and twists so the top half closes over the lower! JESUS CHRIST CHONO! Imp no likely, going to my safe place for a minute…
The interesting thing is Chono looks legitimately pissed off, as if realising all the reassurances of safety from backstage weren’t entirely accurate. He puts his hands on his hips and shakes his head, he’s either a great actor or this legitimately shook him a bit. Either way, it gave the bout a much needed narrative. Oh yeah, it also made the match go into another slow patch! Selling the wounds of war, I guess?
Things start to pick up when both knackered men pull themselves off the mat to their hands and knees, and proceed to start headbutting each other. There’s a sense of animosity building now, that gash added something that wasn’t there before. Chono, the talented wrestler, pissed off at the idea of being forced into competing in a match like this.
The final act turns into Chono hitting a big move and going for the cover, but with longer pauses because they’re both knackered. That is until the greatest spot of all time, where all three men go into the explosive barbed wire! That’s right, Chono, Onita AND Red Shoes the ref! They all go into the wire and slowly collapse to the mat! Brilliant comedy, the crowd loved that as well. So that spot went down a treat, what about the final big boom?
Unfortunately, the final big spot has Onita and Chono pulling each other into the wire and it goes down without much of a reaction. Then neither man is able to get up and substitute ref Tiger calls for the bell! The crowd goes, “Oh, that’s the end. Cool.” With blood still leaking out of Onita’s arm, because he got another cut in all that. With the crowd in confused chatter as the commentators assumedly try to explain, I say ‘assume’ because I don’t speak Japanese. A logical ending I guess, just a bit of an anticlimactic one.
It’s sad the match itself didn’t reach anywhere near the high quality set by the entrances. I mean, it was alright if you like explosions. I guess that’s the official rating I’d give this: ‘Will Enjoy If You Like Those Transformer Movies’. That said, you really don’t see matches like this in mainstream wrestling, so it’s really interesting to look back on. The fact this match ever happened is a worthy story, so I guess the actual quality was never really going to hinder the overall reception.
The crowd reactions are really the big story here, as post-match Chono shows Onita up the ramp in a sign of disrespect. After a few seconds Chono goes up on his own and the crowd just boo Onita, the odd object thrown onto the ramp and numerous people giving him the thumbs down. Man, after he bled for them, they still wanted nothing to do with him!
I wouldn’t really recommend the match though, maybe it’d be alright if you time stamped the explosions and just skipped to them. Hell, I had more fun doing the research than I did actually watching the bloody thing. Big HOWEVER, those entrances are simply amazing. I swear I’ve never seen reactions like it, such hatred, such passion. Like Onita was damaging their version of wrestling by urinating on it with his hardcore death match style, it really is something special.
Just like WWE, New Japan in the 90s is so different to the product of today. And also just like WWE, a lot of that is actually for the better.
Side Note I: I’d just like to point out that Red Shoes the Referee had Ski Goggles on his head for the entirety of this match, he never used them.
II: The main event of this show also featured an absolutely amazing reaction, when MMA fighter Don Frye got booed out of the arena. Seek that out if you can, the match itself is very mat based and rather boring though.
III: If you care, after this match Onita had one last ‘test’ against The Great Muta. Yes it was another death match, yes the entrances were amazing yet again and yes that is the one where Atsushi wrestled his last match as The Great Nita. It was a mega dream match of sorts, but it was also a death match. So not really.
Finally in the Summer of the next year, Onita got his match against Chosu and they all lived happily ever after…
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