Did you know that former ECW World Champion (and longtime rival of Masato Tanaka) Mike Awesome played defensive end at Missouri for legendary coach Dan Devine? This was before he became a Green Beret paratrooper with hundreds of jumps to his name.
Now, either of these things are true: The late Michael Alfonso was born in 1965, thus was five years old during Dan Devine’s final season at Mizzou. Alfonso was also not a Green Beret. But these are the backstories assigned to Mike Awesome in the Tokyopop English-dubbed DVD releases of FMW shows in the early 2000s.
Tokyopop republishes manga for American audiences, though using the present tense is a bit misleading. The company enjoyed a meteoric rise in the marketplace before a Great Recession-era collapse. Tokyopop exists today, but nowhere near its early 2000s peak.
That the company got into dubbing and redistributing Japanese wrestling isn’t that strange. With ECW and WCW dissolving around the turn of the millennium, the marketplace faced a considerable void WWE’s brand of sports entertainment didn’t fill.
English dubbing is a must, as the language barrier can be the most difficult entry point for American fans getting into Japanese wrestling. I posit that as vital to New Japan’s current Stateside success as the outstanding wrestling itself is its English commentary — and Tokyopop did it nearly two decades before NJPW World.
That Tokyopop partnered with Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling to reach an American audience isn’t even weird, despite FMW being founded on deathmatch wrestling. This was an era in which ECW had cultivated a rabid cult following, after all, and the two promotions worked together.
ECW gave FMW talent like Hayabusa their first American platform, and brought the legendary Mike Awesome-Masato Tanaka feud to our soil. So awareness among a key target demographic already existed.
However, FMW was on its last legs around the turn of the millennium. The company underwent a change in leadership in the mid ’90s, with Shoichi Arai taking over as president and de-emphasizing the promotion’s definitive characteristic of deathmatch wrestling. It failed to catch on, and Arai committed suicide after falling deeply in debt to investors rumored to be Yakuza-affiliated.
The assorted Yakuza scandals in Japanese wrestling and MMA, which drove FMW and PRIDE out business and badly crippled both All Japan and Pro Wrestling NOAH, deserve a Dark Side of the Ring episode, but that’s conversation for another time.
FMW’s switch to a more cartoony, sports entertainment approach at the turn of the millennium is evident in the Tokyopop releases, despite often showcasing some of the promotion’s more famous matches from its deathmatch heyday.
Almost all of the 14 DVDs made their way onto YouTube in the platform’s early years. Sadly, they have been scrubbed and are now as difficult to find as the Pat O’Brien voicemails.
I remember watching a six-man tag between Awesome, Horace Hogan and Hisakatsu Oya against Super Leather and the Headhunters and was absolutely flabbergasted at the suggestion of Awesome playing for Dan Devine. Somehow, that always sat with more as more preposterous than Awesome being a Green Beret.
Other backstories assigned to the wrestlers: Horace Hogan went by the nickname “The CPA,” and portrayed are reformed money-laundering accountant for the mob. Picture Jason Bateman’s character in Ozarks only he’s 6-foot-6 and about 280 pounds with a shaved head.
The heel team, meanwhile, featured three mob assassins. The Headhunters wrestled extensively in Mexico in the ’90s and ’00s, and had cups of coffee in both WWF and ECW. Their characters were never all that fleshed out in the States, but the name fits the gimmick in FMW — goofy as it might sound.
Ditto Super Leather, re-dubbed from Leatherface for copyright purposes. Michael Kirchner, who worked under the military gimmick of Corporal Kirchner during the WWF’s national expansion of the mid-’80s, wrestled as Leatherface. The backstory: Working as a mafia enforcer, Super Leather/Leatherface would wear the skins of his victims.
Now, these are utterly preposterous storylines, but more or less correctly interpreted. Puerto Rican promoter Victor Quinones led a foreign mob stable in FMW that included the Puerto Rican Headhunters, Awesome and CPA before their defections, and Terry Funk.
Yes, Terry Funk.
Funk wrestled some of the more prominent matches featured on the Tokyopop releases, though not the following Barbed Wire Match against FMW legend Atsushi Onita.
The storylines and backstories are strange enough on their own when presented in the context of Tokyopop’s dubs. However, the English commentary team Tokyopop used often presented these stories in a deadpan, tongue-in-cheek tone so similar to Kenny Blankenship and Vic Romano of the early 2000s English-dubbed Japanese gameshow Most Extreme Elimination Challenge, I once Googled to see if it they used the same voice actors.
No dice, but the style and voices were similar enough I wouldn’t have been surprised otherwise.
The Tokyopop FMW DVDs are still in circulation through outlets like eBay, and honestly, are not much more expensive than the price-gouging rates Suncoast charged circa 2001. They are worth a look if only for the sheer weirdness.