If you became a fan of Japanese wrestling in the late 90s or early 2000s, then you know there was no one quite like Hayabusa.
Hayabusa’s combination of breathtaking aerial moves and brutal exploding barbed wire matches were like nothing you’d seen before. He had one of the most beautiful 450 splashes in the world, back when those capable of doing that move were relatively few. He was the inventor of the Falcon Arrow and Phoenix Splash (still a highly dangerous move as Kota Ibushi can attest). His dives and springboard offense were like poetry in motion. He wouldn’t always land everything perfectly, but the feast or famine results conveyed the fearlessness of his daredevil character. When you found a new Hayabusa match you never knew what he was going to do next, or what new insanity you were going to witness. His highlight reels still hold up to anything you’ll see 20+ years later.
Hayabusa’s unique mask and attire combined with an excellent song choice to create one of the best entrances of the 90s. Hayabusa introduced himself to Japan at the 1994 Super J-Cup by immediately kicking Jushin Thunder Liger to the outside and hitting a dive as the first two moves of the match. That introduction perfectly communicated the innovative style he would share the world over the next seven years until his career ended in tragedy when he was paralyzed executing a move he’d done hundreds of times before. Despite that horrific injury, Hayabusa continued to be an inspiration by pursuing a singing career and re-learning how to walk. He was even able to enter a wrestling ring one last time.
Hayabusa’s impact can still be seen in 2022. It’s been over 20 years since he had his last match, yet he’s still cited as a major influence. Serpentico named Hayabusa as the inspiration for his look. Hayabusa was a mentor to BxB Hulk and an influence to others (like PAC and Dragon Kid) in Dragon Gate. Seth Rollins named Hayabusa as an influence during his interview with Steve Austin on the Broken Skull Sessions. Will Ospreay, arguably 2022’s Most Outstanding Wrestler, once cosplayed as Hayabusa. Hayabusa’s influence on Bandido’s in-ring style and aesthetic is most obvious. Bandido paid tribute to Hayabusa in PWG earlier this year. When Hayabusa passed away in 2016, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor, Brodie Lee, and The Young Bucks were a few of the many that noted him as inspiration.
With such clear in-ring innovation and historical significance as an influence on this current generation, why is Hayabusa at risk of falling off the ballot for the Wrestling Observer’s Hall of Fame?
The primary criticism of Hayabusa’s Hall of Fame candidacy is that he doesn’t meet the drawing criterion, since FMW wasn’t nearly as successful with Hayabusa on top as it was when Atsushi Onita was its ace. While it’s true FMW was more successful with Onita, that assertion lacks context and doesn’t tell the whole story of Hayabusa’s effectiveness as a headliner.
Unlike New Japan and All Japan which had been doing crowds of over 10,000 since the early 1970s, FMW was established in 1989 by its owner and top star Atsushi Onita. From 1989 until his retirement in mid-1995, every single FMW event that drew more than 4,000 fans featured Atsushi Onita in the main event. The entire promotion revolved around its owner fighting a series of opponents in increasingly dangerous and outlandish match types involving weapons, barbed wire, and explosions. which he did to great success. Utilizing compiled attendance data from Cagematch, we can see that FMW was the third biggest promotion in Japan for the six-year period of 1990 through 1995.
Wrestling Promotions in Japan Drawing More than 100,000 Fans Between 1990-1995 (Per Cagematch)
[NOTE: This only includes shows where attendance data is available on Cagematch. The number of shows making up the total attendance has been included to convey how many shows were captured for each promotion.]
|Rank||Promotion||Abbreviation||Show Count||Total Attendance|
|1||New Japan Pro Wrestling||NJPW||750||3,531,842|
|2||All Japan Pro Wrestling||AJPW||863||2,861,160|
|3||Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling||FMW||722||2,219,423|
|4||All Japan Women’s||AJW||593||1,198,491|
|5||Universal Wrestling Federation + UWFI|
|7||Super World Sports||SWS||64||354,473|
|8||Fighting Network RINGS||RINGS||55||348,489|
|9||Wrestling International New Generations||WING||188||339,106|
|11||International Wrestling Association||IWA||110||241,367|
|13||Japan Woman Pro-Wrestling||JWP||84||163,294|
|14||Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi||PWFG||41||140,186|
|15||Network of Wrestling||NOW||84||133,313|
Atsushi Onita is one of the greatest draws in pro wrestling history, and one of the biggest wrestling stars Japan has ever seen. That level of success and stardom lead Onita to believe he no longer needed wrestling and could transition into a full-time acting career, so in mid-1995, he decides to retire. Top stars retiring isn’t anything new in wrestling, but what happens when the top star is also the owner and has no interest in continuing to run the promotion?
The answer: he borrows money which puts the company in debt, pays himself millions, puts himself over the promotion’s next ace, retires as champion, and then sells the debt-riddled company to the ring announcer. Atsushi Onita’s Exploding Barbed Wire Cage retirement match with Hayabusa drew over 58,000 fans at Kawasaki Stadium (FMW’s largest attendance figure ever).
However, none of the money from that massive event would go to the post-Onita version of the promotion. From Bahu’s incredible FMW history website:
“Atsushi Onita had borrowed a lot of money from others knowing he wouldn’t have to pay it because the FMW company would be finished following retiring on May 5, 1995 anyway. Shoichi Arai would borrow $100,000 from Atsushi Onita to create a new company called Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling, Inc. which was original company that Atsushi Onita had started back in 1989. Arai then gave Onita $50,000 dollars right back to Onita by buying the FMW title belts, two buses, and photo scanner among other things. Arai would be CEO of the company as he would sale 50% of the company to Atsushi Onita’s step-father Mr. Matsubara to make up for all the money that he owed Atsushi Onita. The new FMW would start completely from scratch. Even though there had just been a 2.5 million dollar gate show for Atsushi Onita’s Retirement Show, the new FMW saw none of that money. After the wrestlers and the building was paid for, everything else went to Atsushi Onita including $300,000 for him performing on the show.”
Thus began FMW’s constant struggle with cash flow, mismanagement of finances, and acceptance of predatory loans that would last for the duration of its existence. FMW couldn’t afford to scrape buy as another promotion in the mix. It needed to be a major player in the Japanese wrestling landscape.
While it may have had the same name and largely the same roster, Shoichi Arai’s FMW was really a start-up promotion with respect to both finances and identity. Leading this new promotion was a daunting challenge for Hayabusa to take on as he was just returning from a two-year US and Mexican excursion. The retirement match with Onita was only Hayabusa’s third match in Japan under that gimmick; the prior two being a 1994 FMW match with Sabu and facing Jushin Thunder Liger at the 1994 Super J-Cup. He was known by his real name Eiji Ezaki for several years as a young lion type, but Hayabusa was an entirely new and mysterious character to both the FMW and Japanese audience. Imagine if Kazuchika Okada had returned to New Japan from his excursion in 2012, only to be beaten by Hiroshi Tanahashi, who then immediately retired as champion and took his luscious locks to the silver screen. Would you expect the New Japan audience to immediately buy into Okada as the new ace and for business to be as good or better than it was with Tanahashi? That’s the challenge Hayabusa was faced with. So how did he perform as FMW’s top star?
Wrestling Promotions in Japan Drawing More than 100,000 Fans Between 1996-2001 (Per Cagematch)
|Rank||Promotion||Abbreviation||Show Count||Total Attendance|
|1||New Japan Pro Wrestling||NJPW||798||3,972,654|
|2||All Japan Pro Wrestling||AJPW||705||2,328,770|
|3||All Japan Women’s||AJW||931||1,437,435|
|4||Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling||FMW||613||1,325,448|
|5||Big Japan Pro Wrestling||BJW||417||650,933|
|6||Pro Wrestling NOAH||NOAH||152||398,900|
|9||Japan Woman Pro-Wrestling||JWP||219||275,435|
|11||Fighting Network RINGS||RINGS||43||255,896|
|13||Hyper Visual Fighting Arsion||ARSION||258||216,138|
|14||International Wrestling Association||IWA||151||192,411|
|16||Tokyo Pro Wrestling||TPW||73||165,691|
|17||Universal Wrestling Federation + UWFI||UWF(I)||15||124,437|
While FMW during the Hayabusa era of 96-01 draws approximately 40% (894k) less than it did in 90-95 with Onita, it maintains its position as the third largest promotion in Japan. All Japan Women had about 100k more in total attendance, but they ran over 300 more shows to obtain it. Big Japan is 5th with less than half of FMW’s numbers. It’s also worth noting that FMW isn’t the only promotion that sees a decline during this period. UWFi ceases to exist after 1996. WAR’s total attendance drops by 52%. RINGS drops by 26%. IWA (one of FMW’s primary competitors) dropped 20% in total attendance even though they ran 41 more shows.
It’s worth noting that Atsushi Onita returned to FMW at the end of 1996 (shockingly, his acting career didn’t work out). Onita worked one match in 1996, 20 in 1997, and 40 in 1998. In terms of who deserves credit for drawing in these years, Hayabusa was still the full-time top star as he worked over 100 FMW shows in both 1997 and 1998 and was virtually always in one of the top two matches on every show he worked. Onita’s return did help increase FMW business in 1997, which peaked in a Kawasaki Stadium show that drew over 50,000 fans to see his death match with WING Kanemura. Hayabusa tagged with Jinsei Shinzaki in the co-main event against the visiting Kenta Kobashi and Maunakea Mossman. Despite the major success of that show, Onita’s drawing ability would never be as strong as it was before his retirement. Some fans considered Onita a liar for going back on his promise to never wrestle again. That perception lead to a heel turn towards the end of 1997. Unfortunately, heel Onita never had the same appeal and he left the promotion at the end of 1998. His last FMW match was the co-main event on a show Hayabusa headlined. Some fans didn’t believe he was actually leaving, or figured he’d return in a year the same way he’d done before. He never did. FMW had become Hayabusa’s promotion to lead.
Hayabusa’s peak drawing power can be illustrated with a handful of events. There were over 33,000 fans at Kawasaki Stadium in 1996 to see him team with Masato Tanaka against Terry Funk & Mr. Pogo in a “No Ropes Exploding Barbed Wire Double Hell Exploding Ring Death Match.” 11,000 fans attended the 10th-anniversary show vs. Mr. Gannosuke. 10,500 fans were at the 2001 anniversary show teaming with Great Sasuke in a death match against Mr. Gannosuke & Tetsuhiro Kuroda. Hayabusa also served as a special attraction in the main event of Michinoku Pro’s biggest show of 1996 (7,980) vs. Jinsei Shinzaki and tagged with Great Sasuke against Kaientai in Michinoku Pro’s second biggest show of 2001 (7,912). However, the best demonstration of Hayabusa’s value as a draw may have been what happened to FMW when he was absent.
Hayabusa struggles with injuries in the first half of 1996. While he’s able to perform in the main event of the big anniversary show at Kawasaki Stadium in early May, he’s unable to return to the ring full-time until August. Post-anniversary show, FMW runs 23 events between 5/17/96 and 7/31/96 with an average attendance of 1,831. When Hayabusa returns to the ring on 8/1/96, FMW’s next 23 events average 2,148 for an increase of 17%.
In 2000-2001 something similar occurs. Hayabusa misses 45 shows between 11/18/00 and 5/3/01. For the 45 shows without Hayabusa, FMW averaged 1,716 fans. For the first 45 shows after Hayabusa returns, FMW averages 2,366 fans per show (even when excluding the discounted ticket Edogawa River Boat Race Field shows). That’s an increase of 38%!
The biggest evidence of Hayabusa’s impact on FMW may be that the promotion ran its last event within four months after he suffered his career-ending injury. Perhaps its closure was inevitable given the debt accrued over the years from borrowing money from loan sharks and the Yakuza, but losing their top star sealed FMW’s fate.
While FMW in the Hayabusa era may have been Japan’s third-biggest promotion between 1996 and 2001, how does it rate within the larger historical context of pro wrestling in Japan?
Here are some comparisons to promotions from different time periods who have candidates appearing on the Observer Hall of Fame ballot.
|Promotion & Time Period||Show Count||Attendance|
|All Japan 01-06||547||1,440,111|
|All Japan 07-12||592||876,176|
|Toryumon (All Events)||527||649,930|
|Dragon Gate 2000s||577||730,929|
|Dragon Gate 2010s||1561||1,540,205|
*DDT figures taken from WrestlingData.com and not CageMatch
FMW’s 96-01 doesn’t hold up to NOAH at any point in the 2000s. However, it compares reasonably well with All Japan, the third biggest Japanese promotion of the 2000s. During this decade, All Japan struggled with a similar identity crisis to the one FMW faced when Onita retired. While All Japan was about 22% bigger (based on average attendance) during the 6-year period of 01-06 than FMW was in 96-01, they needed to bring in a considerable number of big-name Hall of Fame talent to replace Misawa, Kobashi, Akiyama, and all the stars that left to form NOAH. The list of Hall of Fame talent working regularly in All Japan during this period includes Toshiaki Kawada, Keji Muto, Genhichiro Tenryu, Hiroshi Hase, Dr. Death Steve Williams, Kensuke Sasaki, & Shinya Hashimoto. Compare that to Hayabusa’s full-time FMW opponents like Mike Awesome, Masato Tanaka, Mr. Gannosuke, Kodo Fuyuki, Mr. Pogo, Hisakatsu Oya, and Tetsuhiro Kuroda.
When NOAH and All Japan had to transition to a new generation in the late 2000s into the 2010s, their declines were just as severe (approximately 40%) as FMW’s decline when Onita suddenly retired without passing the torch or building the next generation of stars. All Japan and NOAH’s figures for 07-12 are 34% and 17% smaller than 96-01 FMW in raw numbers. Comparisons to Toryumon’s entire existence, or entire decades of DDT and Dragon Gate serve to illustrate the scope of how big Hayabusa’s FMW was in relation to more recently created promotions who now have their own candidates on the Hall of Fame ballot. Under some of the worst circumstances possible, Hayabusa lead and maintained Japan’s third biggest promotion for six years; a promotion that was bigger than any number 2 promotion in Japan over the past 15 years.
Hayabusa’s dedication to high-risk innovation and loyalty to supporting the place he started came at the cost of his career and, eventually, his life. He became a martyr for pro wrestling. He should also become a Hall of Famer.