Deathmatch Wrestling – The Birth of Bloodshed. Long before the days of pizza cutters and fluorescent light tubes were regular ordnance for guys like Jon Moxley and Nick Gage, getting busted open was a taboo in the world of professional wrestling. Bloodied foreheads were rarely seen in the old-school wrestling territories, and when they were, they weren’t met with the same excitement they’re met with today with deathmatch wrestling.
There were no “holy sh*t” chants or cell phone cameras capturing the trickling vital fluids, only the concerted gasps and collective unease of the fans in attendance.
Deathmatch Wrestling – The Early Years
In the 1950s and 1960s, former police officer and notorious tough man, Bull Curry, “The Long Tall Texan” Dory Funk Jr., and WWE Hall of Famer, “Classy” Freddie Blassie, introduced a style of professional wrestling that even with retrospect, heavily blurred the lines between fiction and reality.
According to JP Zarka of the Genius Cast with Lanny Poffo, Blassie demonstrated so much violence towards the babyface wrestlers in his territories, that throughout his 50-year career, he was “stabbed by incensed fans 21 times, and was once doused with acid!” Reactions towards Curry and Funk were not too dissimilar.
In a field of catch wrestling, submission holds and grappling, Curry, Blassie and Funk established the “brawling” style, in which strikes and kicks would be favoured over holds and clutches. To add to this novel savagery, the wrestlers would often bleed.
Sometimes the wrestlers would truly bleed from the strikes delivered unto them, but other times they would “blade,” a method used to facilitate blood, in which a wrestler cuts their forehead slightly using a small, hidden razor blade, unbeknownst to the audience.
This “brawling” became commonplace in wrestling, particularly in matches that were the culmination of long-standing feuds between two performers. Since the style was so prevalent by the 1960s, the subsequent blood, as a result, was too. During this time, blood was often seen after one wrestler used a weapon or foreign object on their opponent.Matches featuring the likes of Curry and Funk, in particular, saw plenty of bloodied foreheads, as their predisposition to choke their opponents with wooden chairs and eventually use them as weapons became customary. These matches and their edgy nature garnered a fanbase of their own and soon, the savagery would evolve in order to further satisfy the fans’ thirst for blood.
Match stipulations that actively encouraged violence and bloodshed such as cage matches and “no holds barred” matches would be popularized and often be placed as the main event of any wrestling card they were scheduled on. Over the next 20 years, North American wrestling promotions would continue to cultivate the “brawling” style, and in turn, the use of foreign objects during matches, such as chains, ropes and chairs, would eventually normalize and advance in both quality and quantity.
One of these promotions was Big Time Wrestling, perhaps better known as NWA Detroit. One of the company’s main secondary titles was the “WCWA Brass Knuckles Championship,” which would make its way around the American wrestling territories until 1987.
Though it would eventually assume the form of a standard hardcore championship, its initial tenure in NWA Detroit saw it only defended in matches where the participants wrestled wearing brass knuckles. Its first and most prominent champion was Bull Curry, who would go on to hold the championship a total of 24 times.The Detroit territory was also home to the likes of The Sheik and Abdullah The Butcher, both of whom would be famous for their contributions to influencing contemporary hardcore wrestling. The violence conveyed by this new breed of sadistic combatants was unseen to fans of the relatively tame styles of Blassie and Curry in the Texas territory only 20 years earlier.
Jeff Bilbrey of Detroit Sports Nation cited Big Time Wrestling as the birthplace of hardcore wrestling. It was “the place where hardcore wrestling was born as it is still understood today,” Bilbrey said. “The territory of Detroit was therefore dominated by disturbing characters.”
Abdullah The Butcher, whose career is perhaps best defined by his four massive forehead divots as a result of his craft, made his name as one of Detroit’s most feared wrestlers. He used a myriad of weapons and foreign objects in his matches, and blatantly broke the referee’s rules in the process. He would bleed profusely, while ensuring that his opponent bled just as much.
WWE Hall of Famer and late father of The Rock, Rocky Johnson, told The Hannibal TV that Abby “had razors on every finger” to ensure that no part of his and his opponents’ flesh was left uncut. “Look at him now, his head looks like a canoe,” Johnson said. “People were actually running from him. Walking down the street, they would see him and they would run across the road.”
Alongside bashing his opponents repeatedly over the head with rusty steel chairs, he would carve his opponents’ foreheads with his trademarked fork. Even with today’s eyes, the sight of those sharp prongs jabbing into the bloody flesh of an anguished Terry Funk is hideously awe-inspiring.
When Abby was done stabbing his foes with his favourite utensil, he would turn it on himself and begin carving cuts into his own forehead. Not only was this 360-pound man a sadist, he was a masochist. People were genuinely terrified of the “Madman from the Sudan.”
The Sheik, though perhaps most well-known for being the uncle of ECW legend Sabu, was another member of the Big Time Wrestling roster that was feared for his fervor for senseless violence. Michael Kaufman of The New York Times wrote that The Sheik “more or less single-handedly escalated the violence and commercial appeal of professional wrestling in the early years of television.”
Like Abdullah The Butcher, The Sheik carried around a sharp object that would be his main go-to weapon to deliver sneak-attacks on his opponents. “How fake [The Sheik’s] assaults on his opponents may have been seems to be a matter of conjecture,” Kaufman said. Sheik wasn’t done after these assaults however, as oftentimes before he would go for a pinfall victory, he would blow a fireball into the faces of his opponents.
Sharpened pencils, burned flesh and blood-soaked canvases are the trademarks of The Sheik’s career, and without Ed Farhat, the man behind the gimmick, hardcore wrestling would be a much more mild, subdued medium.
Around this time, across the Atlantic and east of the border, the Puerto Rican wrestling territories (particularly World Wrestling Council) were going through a boom period of bloody bouts and violent matches as well. Bruiser Brody, Carlos Colon and later Abdullah The Butcher popularized moving the matches from the squared circle to the outside of the ring, beyond the boundaries set by the referee.
Dutch Mantell, an eight-time champion for WWC reflected on Brody’s matches in Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring’s third episode. “People would actually run from him,” Mantell recalled. “They’d just start scattering.”
WWE Hall of Famer “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan says he owes plenty of his success to Brody, and in an interview with Slam Wrestling, he implied that the big man wouldn’t shy away from defending himself against fans if needed.
“When I started, wrestling was dangerous, people [in the crowd] would punch you and kick you,” Duggan explained. “Brody told me, ‘Forget [things like] feathered boas and sequined robes…if you carry something to the ring, carry something you can use.'”
And use he did, as every match featuring Brody involved an entrance that saw him swinging that signature chain around his head, scaring away any audience member too close for comfort.Matches featuring the likes of Brody and Abby in Puerto Rico took the revolutionary style of hardcore wrestling and amplified it to extents that upped the risk factor not only for the performers, but for the fans as well. Wrestlers would use the environment of the arena to their advantage, while not chincing one bit on the blood and gore.
Aside from heaps of weaponry, throwing an opponent over the barricade and into a portion of the audience became commonplace, creating significantly more room for interaction between fan and performer. Despite this very evident liability, to have that kind of synergy within a promotion was important for future hardcore wrestlers and promoters to understand how the audience reacted to the art. This is where Memphis came into play.
Jerry Lawler, Terry Funk, Bill Dundee and Eddie Gillbert all took this novel idea of hardcore wrestling to new extremes, introducing legitimately dangerous match stipulations. It’s these matches that grant Memphis the reputation it has for being one of the most violent wrestling territories of the 1980s and 1990s.
Ladder matches, scaffold matches and dog collar matches all introduced new risk factors, distinct from the previous iterations of hardcore wrestling. A 15-foot drop onto the canvas from a scaffold or ladder, and potential strangulation from a dog collar or chain wrapped around a wrestler’s neck were reasonable concerns, yet that’s why it was so alluring.
The Memphis territory would also go on to evolve Puerto Rico’s notions of fighting in the crowd and eventually host two infamous “concession stand brawls,” one in 1979 and one in 1981. The wrestlers involved in both matches left the ring and brawled around the arena to the concession stands while the fans in attendance surrounded them.
Popcorn machines were smashed, janitorial equipment was broken over the wrestlers’ heads, barstools were thrown and ounces of blood were poured. But most importantly, not a single fan wasn’t on their feet..
It’s at the second Memphis concession stand brawl that one of the participants, Atsushi Onita, would begin turning the gears on how to take hardcore wrestling to its next evolution. Onita recalled in episode 10 of Dark Side of the Ring’s third season,
“I think the origin of hardcore wrestling for me was in Tennessee. The audience gets into it more than a normal wrestling match. One time the audience got too excited. A young woman kicked me in the face with her heels. The second she kicked me, I had a huge gash and blood was gushing from my nose. At that moment I realized hardcore wrestling triggers people’s excitement. That was a revelation for me.“
And with that, a bloodied, battered and lacerated Onita mentally laid out the blueprints for what was to be the most innovative, violent and depraved sector of professional wrestling that the industry would have seen up until that point.
Deathmatch Wrestling – Onita’s Explosive Rise
That night, Atsushi Onita’s plan for creating a promotion that specialized in hardcore wrestling had commenced. The Memphis territory proved to a young Onita that the style of wrestling he partook in during the concession stand brawl elicited unrivaled excitement in the fans.
After his short stint in North America, Onita returned to his native territory, All Japan Pro Wrestling, where he was slowly becoming a fan favourite. His high-flying style and lack of consideration for his own safety during matches (that he had warmed up to since Memphis) granted him an upper-card babyface run that transcended fan-bases and promotions.
That was until a horrific injury that saw his kneecap shatter during a post-match celebration put him on the sidelines. His mobility was permanently limited after the fall and he was told by doctors that he would never wrestle again. “They told me I could never go back,” Onita told Vice. “I was totally lost.”
Vice’s profile on Atsushi Onita and his Frontier Martial Arts Promotion included an interview from Mick Foley, who had shared the ring a number of times with the former Brass Knuckles Heavyweight Champion. “He was limited as an athlete,” Foley said. “He realized that his future in wrestling [lay] in the powers of perseverance and imagination.”
After some years on the shelf, Onita again reflected on his time in Memphis. He remembered that in order to excite the crowd, something extraordinary needed to be performed. “Chaos makes pro wrestling compelling,” Onita exclaimed.
With this in mind, Onita challenged real-life karate champion Masashi Aoyagi to a series of matches in the UWF, all of which saw the former battered, bruised and bloodied near the end. It’s these matches that gave Onita the confidence that a promotion with a primary focus on violence could work. Birthed out of Japanese wrestling fans’ thirst for brutality was Onita’s Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling promotion.
“FMW had everything […] but the hallmark was the blood and guts. It was like a buffet of brutality,” Mick Foley recalled on Dark Side of the Ring. Onita’s philosophy was essentially to “always push further,” a motto and mindset that would only be augmented in the years to come.
Onita told Vice that when he was a small child, he had seen a barbed wire fence. His curious young mind drove him to prick one of the barbs with his fingers. Immediately, he started bleeding and right away, he “learned that barbed wire was scary.” When FMW was in its beginning stages, Onita realized the effects that fear has on the fans’ drives to continue watching a product.
In a state of childhood reflection, Onita decided to introduce a match stipulation for FMW that saw the ring ropes replaced with barbed wire.
These no rope-barbed wire matches (which often saw Onita as a competitor) regularly saw heaps of blood on the backs, arms and heads of the wrestlers involved. Every which way ropes are standardly used in a normal wrestling match were in these matches too, yet given the circumstances, displayed a considerably more shocking effect.
Instead of wrestlers bouncing off the ropes, the wires would hook into their skin, trapping them in place. Instead of an irish-whip into the ropes to set up for a finishing maneuver, the irish-whip was the finishing maneuver. The addition of barbed wire added a whole new layer of barbarity into the already very violent FMW.
In the summer of 1990, that “always push further” attitude swiftly heightened, as Atsushi Onita faced off against Tarzan Goto in the first ever “No Ropes Exploding Barbed Wire Deathmatch.” For this stipulation, the ring was surrounded by a cage to keep the wrestlers encased inside of the barbed-wire covered perimeter.
The ropes this time, however, (still covered in barbed wire, mind you) were rigged up with mini electrified explosives. When the barbed wire was impacted, a loud “BANG” would be heard, as fire, sparks and smoke emanated from the ropes and bound the squared circle.
These explosives would become commonplace in FMW, enhancing not only the spectacle, but the risk factors as well. No longer were inanimate objects responsible for bloodshed and torn flesh, now it was earthly elements. Trusting these elements, particularly those of the burning hot variety, came with a dangerously high price, however, as on two separate occasions, a performer’s well-being was seriously harmed.In a 1992 match that the Sh**loads of Wrestling blog calls “the most dangerous match ever,” Sabu and his then 65-year old uncle, The Sheik, were set against Atsushi Onita and Tarzan Goto in an outdoor ring with its apron surrounded by fire. In only a couple of minutes, the very flammable ring ropes caught fire as winds picked up in the arena. The ring and its surrounding area had essentially turned into a giant fireball.
Onita, Sabu and Goto escaped the fire in a timely manner, yet The Sheik was caught inside of it for about 30 more seconds. That’s 30 seconds of little-to-no oxygen, surefire panic and unbearable temperatures. When The Sheik finally made it out, he attempted to continue the match all the while, skin and flesh were literally falling off of his body.
Five years later, a match between two of FMW’s most popular women stars in Megumi Kudo and Shark Tsuchiya, which just so happened to be Kudo’s retirement match, bore the stipulation of a “No Ropes Exploding Barbed Wire Double Hell Deathmatch.”
The “Double Hell” in the title refers to two barbed wire boards on the outside of the ring, which when impacted, sets off an explosive. Near the end of the match, Tsuchiya blew a fireball into the face of Kudo, resulting in what Mick Foley described as “otherworldly sounds of suffering.” Foley later got a closer look at Kudo as she was being tended to after the match and saw that her ring gear had been “embalmed” into her skin and burned into her flesh.
In 1993, FMW hosted their first “No Rope Exploding Barbed Wire Time Bomb Deathmatch,” in which the standard explosions occurred, as well as a new gimmick, where after 15 minutes, the ring would explode in a fiery blast. This match would go on to show fans and critics alike that through the guise of violence and cruelty, a genuinely emotional story could be told.After Onita won the match, the nuclear-threat-like sirens sounded to indicate that any moment the ring would explode. Acclaimed FMW historian, Bahu (Bret) wrote in his History of FMW blog, “with seconds left, Onita would cover his body over Terry Funk’s as an FMW ring would explode for the first time. The match would become a cult favorite all over the world, and would be covered in non wrestling magazines due to the bizarreness.“
Despite the absurdity and brutality of the match, Onita portrayed a hero who was willing to sacrifice himself for the well-being of one of his opponents.
At a 1994 FMW event, the card featured what is perhaps one of FMW’s, and in turn, hardcore wrestling’s most infamous matches ever, for perhaps only its craziness alone.
The match was billed as a “No Rope Electrified Barbed Wire Swimming Pool Dynamite Double Hell Deathmatch,” that saw the babyface team of Atsushi Onita, Katsutoshi Niiyami and Mr. Gannosuke up against the heel team of Hideki Hosaka, Mr. Pogo, and The Gladiator, better known to American fans as the late-great Mike Awesome.
Akash Cillanki of Sportskeeda impeccably describes the stipulation, explaining that the “ring is set up on a barge which is in the middle of a swimming pool. There are no ropes,” he writes. “Two sides of the ring have electrified barbed wire. The other two are left open as an avenue to throw your opponents into the pool which triggers explosions.” Surprisingly, Cillanki wasn’t exaggerating one bit.
During the match, Onita was stabbed in the stomach with a sickle and outside of the ring, The Gladiator was sent into an exploding lake of fire. Those were only two of the countless breathtaking spots in the 13-minute showcase of unadulterated deathmatch wrestling glory.In 1995, Onita wrestled his retirement match against FMW’s hottest rising star, the incredible Hayabusa. The match was a demonstration of the company’s unreal brutality, utilizing barbed wire, blood, mini explosives and finally, one large explosive at the end that saw the entire arena covered in smoke.
Both men were in sheer agony. When Onita finally won the match, he picked Hayabusa up, embraced him and cried. This would become one of FMW’s most significant and memorable matches for the emotion conveyed by both men, in conjunction with the utter brutality purveyed unto one another.
Voices of Wrestling columnist, Kelly Harrass remembers the end of the match. “When it is clear that Hayabusa can’t stand under his own power at all anymore, the stretcher is brought over. Onita lifts him onto the stretches as the fans chant […] for their new ace,“ Harass writes.
“Onita hugs Hayabusa before he’s taken to the back as one final show of his appreciation. Onita thanks the fans in an intense and emotional promo before succumbing to his exhaustion and collapsing. The fans yell his name over and over with tears in their eyes, thanking him for everything he’s done for them. The emotion in the building is overwhelming. Onita says his final goodbyes to his fans and rides off into the sunset.”
Onita would retire ownership of FMW to its new president, Shoichi Arai, and with new ownership came a slow decline in hardcore wrestling and deathmatches for the promotion. Though Hayabusa would cement his legendary status in these final years, FMW is most well-remembered and well-known for its early years while it revolutionized deathmatch wrestling and brought it worldwide recognition with deathmatch wrestling.