By Herb Borkland
Born in Japan, Kazuo “Sonny” Onoo trained in karate and judo in school clubs before immigrating to Fairbanks, Alaska, at age 11, where he practiced goju-ryu karate. After moving to southern Minnesota, Onoo trained under full-contact Professional Karate Association (PKA) Champion Gordon Franks and goju-ryu legend Chuck Merriman. Onoo competed in Europe as a member of Merriman’s Trans-World Oil team between 1975 and 1987, and the PKA named him the best bantamweight in the world.
In the 1990s, Onoo became a professional wrestling “character.” Acting as liaison between World Championship Wrestling (WCW) and New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), the “villain agent” Onoo negotiated the talent exchange programs which allowed numerous Japanese performers to appear with WCW.
Herb Borkland: How did you first hear about martial arts?
Sonny Onoo: As an immigrant from Japan, I was asked from day one, “Do you know karate?” I grew up in karate and judo clubs in school. As a young man, you want to challenge yourself, to see where you are in the world. That’s just human nature for competitive people.
HB: Turning point?
SO: If you can make a living by turning your hobby into your vocation, you can be excited when you get up in the morning. You train yourself, and you train other people. Owning a few karate schools, with a wife who is an aerobics instructor and certified personal trainer, it’s like getting paid for eating! (laughter)
I was fortunate. Gordon Franks trained me in kickboxing, and I was bantamweight world champion [in semi-contact] from 1975 to 1981 as a member of Chuck Merriman’s Trans-World Oil Team. Later, I became involved in pro-wrestling.
HB: How did that happen?
SO: I met Eric Bischoff in the 1970’s. By 1994, Eric was the president of World Championship Wrestling (WCW). He hired me as an off-camera international consultant. I did the liaison between WCW and New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) by negotiating talent-exchange programs. On December 27, 1995’s Starrcade, I led Team New Japan against Team WCW in a best-of-seven World Cup series.
I soon became this on-camera “villain:” an evil Japanese manager who spoke broken English and said I was "money-hungry, deceitful, conniving and violent."
HB: Do you still train in martial arts?
SO: A funny thing happened a couple years ago. The Battle of Atlanta [martial arts tournament] said, “How about you and Eric get your pads on and do “60 and Older”? This would be a crossover-wrestling-fan promotion for the BOA. I was barely training after 28 years of not competing. Eric couldn’t come, but I went down there and beat the two-time defending champ and won the lightweight championship with a cartwheel kick. Even after 25-plus years, it’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget how.
HB: What does the future hold?
SO: Martial arts are always evolving because of the popularity of MMA. Pro-wrestling is one element of the entertainment spectrum. MMA promotes like pro-wrestling does. There are negatives, though. I like it when one pro competes against another and fights hard to dominate, but at the end of the day, there should be respect. Nowadays, things get too personal. I miss the part [where] martial arts are based on respect and honor.
Martial arts were never meant to be a competition. Competing has nothing to do with studying martial arts. You can be a champion within yourself by making yourself better than you were yesterday.
Herb Borkland is a veteran black belt who can be contacted at [email protected]
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