Genichiro Tenryu reportedly destroyed all videotape footage of himself being pinned by Atsushi Onita in their tag match for Tenryu’s Wrestle Association-R promotion in March of 1994. It was he and Ashura Hara who represented WAR in their match against FMW bad boys Tarzan Goto and company head, Atsushi Onita, but the story in this match lies firmly in Tenryu and Onita’s past: both wrestlers are products of the early late 1970s and 1980s AJPW’s trainees.
Tenryu’s May bout with Onita was inside and exploding barbed wire cage, but it wasn’t a bloodbath, necessarily. With Tenryu and Onita was a matter of pride, ego versus ego, the renegade breakout star taking on the best, “Mr. Puroresu.“
While the foundation for the story was rock solid, what turned this into an even fiery hot shot angle was that Onita put his career on the line in the match, he said to the public something to the effect of “If I lose, I will retire.” The match sold out Kawasaki Stadium in Kawasaki, Japan quickly after the announcement.
As a crowd of 52,000 screamed his name into the open Kawasaki air, Atsushi Onita circled Genichiro Tenryu around the ring, staring through his opponent for roughly 30 seconds, all without blinking.
The lockup is arguably the most important storytelling tool in this match. Onita and Tenryu’s first collar-and-elbow lockup was snug and rooted in danger and reality, the idea here not to out-grapple your opponent but to gain enough leverage so as to knock your opponent into the exploding barbed wire rope rig. They teased Tenryu forcing Onita into one side of the cage and the crowd flooded the sky with their own fear and excitement, rushes of “Ooo-ahhhs” for every moment like this.
Interpreting the bout this way, using the lockup and concept of leverage as a guide, we understand the major advantage former sumo player Tenryu had within the story during this May 1994 blockbuster. Who wants to get into an exploding cage with someone whose livelihood it was to study leverage? In context, this backstory adds a deeper layer to the narrative, intensifying the in-ring work that without context most people today would consider boring, sloppy or outright bad.
After the tease into the cage, the two broke the lockup and circled each other once again. Onita continued his hero-bully stare through Tenryu as “Mr. Puroresu” never broke eye contact with the mat, his mind never swayed from nonsense, his gameplan so well-defined and automatic that there really isn’t a need for his in-ring persona to engage with opponents the way that someone like Onita’s does.
Tenryu later took Onita down to the mat with a mean headlock and held it a few moments. Onita returned by standing up and teased shoving Tenryu into the exploding barbed wire cage. Tenryu had none of that and began laying deep knife-edged chops with sounds that still to this day echo noises you’d hear at a local deli, the sound of hard flesh crashing into cold flesh.
Onita’s selling in the 1990s is almost funny, looking back on it. While it worked in that he was a bonafide superstar and drew huge crowds in Japan, his way of selling and way of wrestling, in general, could almost be interpreted as a parody of something, of the idea of the Western hero. Onita’s eyes were always wide as a fly’s when Tenryu chopped or smashed him. Tenyru’s first lariat of the match was what ignited the first explosion, as he sent Onita crashing into one side after said lariat; Onita sold it like he was shot with a pistol.
His commitment to the fearless renegade persona he portrayed in FMW connected in an intense way with the crowd, as you can hear the broadcast version of it. Every “Onita call” is visceral and from the depths of the fan’s gut, which Onita feeds off, or rather hams up. This ring behavior is important in understanding Onita’s hot shot booking psychology; his loose cannon personality seamlessly rides the wave of a hot-shotted angle because it serves both the character and the story in similar ways, simultaneously.
Onita regained control of his own after this sequence. He bulldog headlocked Tenryu to the ground and controlled the pace for a few moments. His character got the better of him here as he began knuckle-punching and taunting Tenryu, stomping and cursing him as he attempted to stand back up on his feet. Again, Tenryu never expressed much frustration in his face, whereas the firecracker Onita constantly resembled a psychotic Sonny Chiba character ready to enact vengeance on some poor soul.
Onita used a jumping DDT on Tenryu and took him back to the mat in the bullyish bulldog headlock. Onita’s arm and back wear sliced up and bleeding at this point. It was visible and added to the drama.
Tenryu later countered with a kneebreaker and a series of chops all while painting wrist control, a move setup I often attribute Tenryu with making popular. He became visibly frustrated at this point, and later and in haste rushed towards Onita who had the presence of mind to move out of the way and send Tenryu into the exploding cage for the first time, to the shock and enchantment of the crowd.
This is one of the most important takeaways of the match: Tenryu’s character “fails” not at all because of Onita, but because he, in a flash of frustration, charged at “Mr. Liar,” in essence dropping whatever gameplan he wore on his face earlier, leading to disaster. The story at this moment is the value of self-control and what can happen if you lose it for even a brief moment.
Onita punished Tenryu a bit after this, with one particularly rough looking Thunder Fire powerbomb, dropping Tenryu at an ugly angle on his shoulders and neck. Tenryu kicked out and took advantage after an overly aggressive Onita himself become a bit hasty; he charged shoulder-first into the adjacent side of the exploding cage. Tenryu sold this instance by expressing more than ever with his face and words. He shouted and scowled, then power bombed Onita into oblivion.
The first powerbomb and pin combo led only to a two count, so Tenryu took Onita by the tights and without a hint of nuance tossed Onita back into the cafe. Because why not?
Onita used a small package for a near fall on Tenryu. The crowd was on after this near fall. As Tenryu attempted to powerbomb Onita a second time you can clearly hear a young female screaming “ONITA!” towards the wrestlers. Onita’s fans were relentless in their support here.
After a handful of jumping enzuigiris and Onita no-selling them, Tenryu used a brutal high angle powerbomb with a modified jackknife pin for the surprise victory, before the pinfall.
Did Onita retire after this? No, but fans weren’t completely upset: Onita said he would retire, just not immediately, and decided to come back in 1996 after just 19 months.
From here, FMW changed immensely, though not immediately. The company trudged along for another seven years until they shut their doors, but, as mentioned, not without one more run in 1996.
Atsushi Onita will be appearing at Wrestlecon for GCW on April 5th and 6th, 2019 in New York City.