I have this six-hour video tape that I won in an auction on eBay in 1999. That year was arguably the most popular pro wrestling has ever been in the United States. I’m not sure exactly how, but through the internet I’d gotten wind that spectacular things happened in Japan: new high spots, high-flying, deathmatches with sadistic props.
— Brandon Howard (@BrandonThurston) August 26, 2015
I might’ve heard about tape trading, but I had almost no tapes to trade. So I browsed eBay and weighed the options. The 1994 Super J-Cup with high-flying junior heavyweights was a popular tape. Matches from promotions like FMW and IWA Japan with their “garbage” matches involving blood, barbed wire, beds of nails, thumbtacks and explosives were a popular choice, as well.
Hayabusa embodied both of these spectacles. He was the high-flier who also did deathmatches. “Best of Hayabusa Vol. I & II”, crammed onto a T-120, recorded at SLP was the obvious choice.
The video quality is terrible; grainy; the picture looks soaked; the colors bleeding; faces indistinguishable from any angle but a close-up; a copy of a copy, who knows how many times over. Before long I was regularly getting tapes from numerous Japanese wrestling promotions. His matches on that tape against Jushin Thunder Liger and with Jinsei Shinzaki against Jun Akiyama and Mitsuharu Misawa were my introduction to New Japan and All Japan, respectively.
Like anybody, I almost never watch anything on a VCR anymore, but I keep that Best of Hayabusa comp tape on a bookshelf as a keepsake to my first exposure to wrestling other than what was broadcast to my home’s TV.
Just as Hiroshi Tanahashi today is imperfectly explained to new fans as “the John Cena of Japan”, so too you could make the analogy that while New Japan and All Japan were like WWF and WCW, FMW was like ECW. The easy analogy to make for Hayabusa is of course Sabu, who Hayabusa modeled his pants and boots after.
HAYABUSA VS. ATSUSHI ONITA
The biggest match of Hayabusa’s career was actually one of his first under the Hayabusa gimmick. In 1995, his long excursion was almost over, and he was set to return to Japan to become a top star for FMW.
Eiji Ezaki was just a young boy in FMW in the early 90s before wrestling extensively in Mexico, where the masked persona he became known for was born. He was brought back to Japan briefly for the Super J Cup in 1994. Knowing Hayabusa from his trips to Mexico, Jushin Thunder Liger specifically picked Hayabusa as his first round opponent in the tournament. Afterward, he quickly went back to Mexico.
He had a short run in the Florida indies, too, where he shot an angle to face The Gladiator (Mike Awesome) at FMW’s Kawasaki Stadium show on May 5, 1995. While in Florida, the two were crafting a match they were to perform on the super show, but that match wouldn’t happen as scheduled.
Tarzan Goto was scheduled to face Atsushi Onita in Onita’s retirement match, to put the cap on one of Onita’s greatest rivalries. Onita, however, insisted on winning his final match. Goto refused to put him over. The row resulted in Goto leaving FMW to join IWA Japan. Onita needed a new opponent.
They shot a classic Japanese wrestling angle. Onita called a press conference to announce his new opponent was Big Japan co-founder Takashi Ishikawa. The 26-year-old Hayabusa interrupted the press conference and begged to be Onita’s opponent instead. Onita reacted like he was furious at Hayabusa for interrupting the press conference. Ishikawa, on the other hand, seeing how badly Hayabusa wanted it, decided then and there, before the press, that he was out of the match, that he would not stand in the way, leaving Onita with almost no choice but to accept Hayabusa as his opponent.
The show drew about 50,000 fans, paying $2.5 million at the gate at Kawasaki Stadium. Onita and Hayabusa main evented before one of the biggest pro wrestling crowds ever in Japan that wasn’t drawn by the top stars from New Japan, All Japan or NOAH. This is especially impressive considering FMW had no TV show, and gained a following merely through magazines and commercial videotapes.
Watching the match myself for the first time was one of those breakthrough pro wrestling experiences. It was the first time I’d seen a match with multiple believable nearfalls combined with ridiculous deathmatch gimmicks, explosions, a barbed wire cage and a referee suited for orbit. Atsushi Onita was a rollercoaster of emotions and charisma, and this match was no different.
Of course, Onita was not going out on his back for Hayabusa, either. Their exploding barbed wire cage deathmatch was brutal. The drama solidified Hayabusa as the new top star for FMW. Onita defeated Hayabusa and showed him his respect. Amid soot, tears and burns, the camera zoomed in as Onita clutched the hand of Hayabusa’s fallen body. However his loss always haunted his ability to draw for the remainder of his career and the remainder of the promotion’s run.
THE OFFER TO JOIN NEW JAPAN
The Kawasaki Stadium show the following year drew about 33,000 fans: a large crowd, but clearly down due to Onita’s retirement. Hayabusa suffered huge lacerations in the main event tag match where he teamed with Masato Tanaka against Mr. Pogo and Terry Funk.
While recovering from injuries from that match, he visited Florida, where Jushin Thunder Liger was working TV tapings for WCW during his stint there that whole month of May 1996. Liger asked Hayabusa to join New Japan, where Liger was the booker for the junior heavyweight division. Hayabusa considered it but ultimately turned down the offer to wrestle for New Japan, where he likely would have made far more money. Having also turned down a deal to jump to IWA Japan in 1994 that would’ve paid him better than FMW, he remained loyal to his home promotion. Liger was so upset Hayabusa did not accept the offer that it resulted in the end of their friendship.
By 2005, after Hayabusa’s life-changing injury, he and Liger reunited for an interview and posed for photographs together.
Hayabusa was also my gateway to my favorite era for a promotion ever, All Japan in the 1990s.
While still remaining the top star for FMW, Hayabusa made a deal with Giant Baba to occasionally wrestle for All Japan from 1997 to 1999, mostly in tag matches with Jinsei Shinzaki, as well as on both of the promotion’s Tokyo Dome shows during that period.
It was through seeing these matches from All Japan, which appeared at the end of my tape, that my teenage mind got its first idea of how good Japanese wrestling could be, even if it didn’t consist of maniacal weapons or zillions of flipping high spots.
OCTOBER 22, 2001
I remember riding the bus to school at age 16, couched in one of those rubbery bench seats, reading with dread one of the featured stories in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that week. It looked pretty certain that the wrestler who I’d discovered Japanese wrestling through might never walk again, let alone wrestle. Hayabusa’s most moving performance, however, was still to come.
This past summer, he entered the ring unassisted, 14 years after sustaining the injury that paralyzed him, as fans at Korakuen Hall cheered him on and some of wrestling’s biggest stars stood by to support him.
Hayabusa is not one of the biggest stars in the history of Japanese wrestling outright, but to English-speaking fans, he is.
For myself and many others, whether you discovered him on VHS, Tokyopop, P2P networks or YouTube, Hayabusa served as a gateway to a new world of wrestling. With his high-flying and hardcore style, his unique mask and face paint, he was the ideal of what we imagined Japanese wrestling was like.
Credit to BAHU’s very informative Hayabusa bio for a lot of the background information here.