The American wrestling world is talking about things I care about again, which brings me out of partial hibernation from my lifelong obsession with pro wrestling to recount something I love. What was it this time? AEW is doing a deathmatch and had Atsushi Onita cut an interview to promote the upcoming deathmatch. I wrote this post for one of my writer’s Facebook groups a few months back, recounting my love for the match between Masahiro Chono and Atsushi Onita from NJPW.
The quality of the match isn’t really what I’m concerned about, though. Talking about wrestling through the lens of how many stars you’d rate the match and trying to weigh to value of an isolated match for performance alone tends to be a zero sum game. I think about this match a lot, but more specifically, the entrances and the strong thematic elements at play.
Chono is a NJPW homegrown star, a top talent, well paid, respected and projects an image. The fans love him. Atsushi Onita is a wildcard in every way. He always forged his own path ahead and was bad at playing by the rules that could’ve made him unbelievably wealthy. That wasn’t his path, though. Instead he’s brash, unreasonable and irrational. I’m not exaggerating when I say he could’ve been the biggest star of the era if he stayed put in a larger organization. Instead, he founded his own company and they ran it like outlaws.
Even with him being an outlaw, he was wildly popular with the fans that knew him and larger companies were always trying to pick him up and channel that energy. This match itself is… whatever. Chono isn’t interested in taking damage and won’t fling his body willingly into barbed wire like Onita will. What’s worth watching and analyzing, to me, is the entrances.
Onita comes out to Wild Thing, folding chair in hand and is being pelted by drinks from the fans at the Tokyo Dome. There’s 50,000+ people there and they all hate him, or to be more accurate, love to hate him. He knows this, knows they want to see their hero, Chono, lay waste to this invader that belittles all they believe in. He knows that’s what’s gonna happen, too, because it’s wrestling, it’s predetermined. So he sits his ass down in the chair, lights up a cigarette and gets repeatedly smacked by drinks and other trash with a grin on his face. When he gets up and walks, it’s slow, methodical and oozing with intent. In those moments, he’s taking the whole of the experience in and conjuring a performance that is a feedback loop in unison with that energy. Time seems to slow down and the intent of his gait turns Wild Thing, an energetic song, into a funeral dirge.
By contrast, Chono comes out in an armored vehicle, wearing his own absolutely ridiculous clothing from his expensive clothing line that still exists today (this was 1999, mind you), with a cigar in his mouth and the fans love it. They eat it up. This is their guy.
Onita is the working class stiff that always told the bosses to shove it, he’d do it himself, and there he is, smoking a cigarette with his beaten up folding chair, torn up jeans and off-the-shelf tank top. Chono is smoking a cigar, wearing thousands of dollars in gauche clothing, a company man until his retirement 10+ years later.
While I won’t criticize wrestling pundits and fans that watch wrestling for the athletic displays and are looking for meaning within the context of the moves, technique and general layout of the matches, I believe that wrestling transcends these concepts alone and judging wrestling solely on the minutiae of concepts like workrate, selling and big, exciting moments alone loses the nuance. Performances like this are rare and unique. They’re a master class in those in between moments that I wish more wrestlers would get a feel for.
While both men had matches that fit this criteria in their youth, the magic of their meeting wasn’t what they were capable of doing as athletes and athletic performers alone, but the entirety of their performance and abilities.
I’m glad Atsushi Onita is remembered and modern promotions like AEW, run by nerds like Tony Khan who hung out on the same message boards as I did when I was in college, are able to pay homage to and respect the magic someone like Onita conjured in his performances.
Modern stars like Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley undoubtedly owe a debt of gratitude toward performers like Onita and will attempt to pay homages to his work, like they have in the past, in their upcoming deathmatch. Selfishly, I wish they’d tell a compelling story like Onita and Chono were able to do through mere entrances alone, albeit that is difficult in the age of COVID. The older I get, the more I reflect on the almost massive subtext that two men walking to a ring lined in barbed wire projects and in all of my time watching wrestling, how this is one of those moments that always sticks out to me. So while the deck is stacked against performers like Omega and Moxley meeting in another deathmatch against each other in an era where it’s not safe to fill arenas with fans and give these types of performances…
It’d be nice.