Mark Guthrie discovers that Sumo is not Japan’s only wrestling
Back when I lived in the UK I had an office job alongside a lad who, in his spare time, took part in local wrestling bouts. “Like Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior?” My reference points were a little dated. “Yeah,” my co-worker confirmed. “You? Like The Undertaker and Andre the Giant?” “Yeah,” he replied, wearily. “But you’re five-foot-four!”
If there were two things that I knew about pro-wrestling, it was that he was far too small to make it as a wrestler; and that if he was able to ‘fight’ huge roidheads and still turn up to the work without a scratch, then it was all just fake.
I was disavowed of the former assumption two years ago when my friend was signed up to WWE. The latter was annulled after I attended my first Big Japan Pro-wrestling Deathmatch.
Japan: Where Hardcore means Hardcore
Hardcore wrestling, where disqualifications, count-outs and other such safeguards don’t apply and weapons are not only permitted but encouraged, has been around since at least the mid-20th century. But it was not until a Japanese organisation, Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW), got involved in 1989 that hardcore truly came to mean ‘hardcore’.
Centred around the organisation’s founder and biggest star, Atsushi Onita, FMW was the home of ‘deathmatch’ events. In a world where huge muscles and acrobatic combat stand steroided-shoulder-to-steroided-shoulder with theatrics and pantomime, wresting is not immune to a touch of hyperbole. Yet, FMW’s deathmatches came close to their billing, combining the willingness of competitors to risk their personal safety to the Nth degree and a complete disregard for health and safety, all in the name of entertainment.
Throughout the 1990s, Japanese pro-wrestling saw a series of events that could only be described as batsh*t nuts. Piranha battles saw competitors win by holding their opponent under a bath filled with flesh-eating fish for ten seconds. Scorpion battles were similar, if more fraught with danger. Rings were covered in barbed wire as standard, with fighters being thrown into the lacerating wire or attacked with weapons coiled in it.
Ring of Fire
The deathmatch fights were perhaps best known for their pyrotechnics, with explosive barbed-wire barricades made of rigged paraffin heaters dotted around the ring, or hanging vats of what was, for all intents and purposes, flaming napalm. However, with these ‘landmines’ proving somewhat costly, wrestling organisations began to cut corners, and began simply hanging paraffin-soaked cloths around the ring ropes (which were actually, of course, barbed wire), leading in 1992 to a ‘Hellfire deathmatch’ event where the entire ring was set ablaze leading to the evacuation of the venue. Fortunately, no one died (though according to some reports one sixty-eight-year old participant was hospitalised with serious burns and fell into a heat-induced coma) and the tradition continued, with in 1995 Yukihiro Kanemura being power bombed onto a huge inferno which removed seventy-five per cent of the skin tissue on his back and shoulders.
Not that I knew of any of this insanity. When a friend of mine suggested we check out a bout, I wasn’t necessarily enthused due to my aforementioned ‘it’s all fake’ antipathy. I was relieved of that notion pretty quickly when, as we went to grab seats and I chose chairs near ringside my mate shook his head. “Don’t want to get blood on us,” he said. I laughed. He wasn’t laughing. We moved two rows back. We should have moved further.
Reality Bites… and Kicks, Punches and Rubs Glass in Your Face
The first battle was a tag team fight featuring the legendary Abdullah Kobayashi. At five-foot-nine and 20st 7lbs, Kobayashi is a huge butterball of a man – not that I’d say that to his face – and his back is covered in a thousand lacerations that told of a lifetime in the pursuit of violent entertainment, and their source soon became apparent. This was a ‘fluorescent light tube deathmatch’, and every now and again huge strips of lighting where brought into the ring. Their purpose? For hitting each other, of course.
With the first swing of a bunch of tubes in his opponent’s face, Kobayashi sent glass everywhere. Sugar glass, I presumed, like they used in movies. But then, when I went to take a swig of my beer, I stopped mid-swallow as I noticed a chunk of glass floating in the foam. This sh*t was for real. As was the blood that splattered over a girl in the front row. She stood up. She screamed for more blood.
The second bout on the ticket was a comparatively more sedate affair, more akin to the WWE style that I had expected – lots of posturing and acrobatics. That was until they brought out a full set of table and chairs, all wrapped in barbed wire, and it was close to being over when one guy was bombed from the top rope into the table, razors and all. But then out came the bowling balls, and victory came when a ball met its, ahem, three-pinned target. The crowd howled.
I’ll be honest, after all of that, being of a somewhat squeamish nature, I had to take a break and retired to the bar for a while where I had a fortifying beer (or three). I was going to need them. The next and final fight was the Rest in Peace Fluorescent Lightbulb Graveyard match, and when I came back out I found that the ropes were entirely covered in the glass tubes and barbed wire. This, I realised, was going to get messy.
An Angel and a Crazy Monkey
Another tag team battle, the crowd’s roar reached a crescendo when Jun “Crazy Monkey” Kasai and “Black Angel” Jaki Numazawa took to the ring. Along with Abdullah Kobayashi, these two are perhaps the best-known wrestlers on the deathmatch circuit. I finished my beer in readiness, not wanting another mouthful of glass.
Before long the ring was awash with remnants of lightbulb. If someone wanted to headbutt an opponent, it was through the tubes. Dropkicks were through glass. And when an opponent was down, handfuls of glass were rubbed into backs and faces, so that when the fight came out of the ring and clattered into the audience blood flew everywhere. Kasai, living up to his ‘Crazy’ moniker, chose to rub the glass into his own forehead, the blood cascading into his wild, odd-coloured eyes.
By the end of the show there was not a light bulb standing, not a fighter unbloodied and my sensitive psyche as scarred as Crazy Monkey’s forehead. And my opinion of Japanese pro-wrestling? As real as it comes.
Originally produced for NEO Magazine (UK Print)