Sorry it's been so long since our last installment of MMA history. Partly it's because I've been busy, but I'm not going to lie, part of the reason for the delay is, it just gets complicated trying to trace the evolution of an international sport like MMA.
Anyway, so far we've covered the first UFC and talked about how it was a collision of Japan's Pancrase and Brazil's Vale Tudo style matches. We've also discussed the III: evolution of proto-MMA in Japan and how Antoni Inoki and his disciples had been taking Pro Wrestling back to its shoot-style roots and challenging other martial artists to limited rules matches since the 1970s. By the early 1990s, various students of Inoki had formed several competiting promotions, each with their own take on shoot wrestling and proto-MMA. One of these was Pancrase.
Pancrase wasn't quite modern MMA -- it only allowed open handed strikes standing and frowned on striking on the ground -- but it was a very big advance nonetheless and gave several future MMA legends their start including Ken Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki, Frank Shamrock, and especially Bas Rutten.
Bas is the guy I want to talk about today. Not only was he a great fighter, but he was one of the first credible strikers to pursue a career in mixed martial arts. Bas brought a Muy Thai/Karate /Tai Kwon Do background into Pancrase and made a big impact winning 4 of his first 6 fights by KO or TKO. That's even more impressive when you remember that closed fist punching wasn't allowed.
At first Bas struggled with the submission skills of the promotion's best fighters, losing to Funaki and both Shamrocks. But as the video below shows, he applied himself to becoming a complete martial artist and overcame that early weakness in grappling. Here's a highlight reel of his two matches with Funaki from 1994 and 1996.
Here's Bas talking to Triumph United's Paul Tutka about how he got into MMA and Pancrase:
BR: Yeah, I went to RINGS around then. The guy that ran RINGS, Chris Dolman, came to me and was really impressed with all the acrobatic stuff I was doing in our comedy routines. He asked me if I'd be interested in doing free fighting, which is what MMA was considered back then. So I started going to RINGS' classes and got beat-up pretty bad to start. I thought I'd be more than conditioned enough to do it, but all these little guys were choking the shit outta me! I thought my windpipes could handle these guys, but they just worked me over real bad.
I was going home, which was like a two hour drive, and I was in real rough shape. I got beat-up so bad! I pulled my car over at one point cuz I was so distraught and out of it. I couldn't believe what had happened to me. So I pulled over, called my wide and told her I'd be sleeping in my car on the side of the road. After I slept it off and came home the next day, my wife started laughing at me and was like, "So this is the end of your free fighting experience?" And I said no. I told her to give me three months and I'd start beating all those guys that choked me out. So I trained my ass off and sure enough, I started beating those guys. It was at that time that Dolman called me and said that there were some guys at his gym from a new organization called, PANCRASE. He told me I had to come down.
PT: So we all now that you blew it up in PANCRASE. So I assume the boys from PANCRASE liked your style?
BR: Yeah, it was Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki at the gym (check out this highlight vid of Bas and Funaki in two classic PANCRASE wars, and don't worry, Freddy Mercury in the background had us welling up too, but when doesn't he do that to us, am I right here guys, you know I am, Fat Bottom Girls forever!). One of the champions from RINGS really put the pressure on me there. He wanted to show off to the camera crews that were there and show everyone how great he was, but the only thing the camera crews got was him getting taken to the hospital after I kicked him in the head and busted him open for some stitches. All Funaki and Suzuki said was, "We want him." Six weeks later I was in Japan and it was the greatest thing ever.
PT: So how fast did they throw you in the ring?
BR: They had me fighting right away. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I went into my first fight and this guy was like 45 pounds heavier than me. There were no weight classes back then. But I put him (Ryushi Yanagisawa) in a two day coma and that was it. He was such a nice guy, so I felt pretty bad, but my first fight in PANCRASE went pretty well I guess. And before the fight I asked them, "How many rounds are there," and they said, "Just one." I was thinking that'd be pretty cool but when I asked how long a round was, they said 30 minutes and at that point I was wondering what they hell I had gotten myself into. I'm used to fighting a guy that is five, maybe ten pounds different than me, but here I am in Japan, fighting half hour fights against guys that are 45 pounds bigger than me! But I beat this guy in like 40 seconds and it all took off from there. I was leaving my hotel the next day and the Japanese people were bowing to me, waving to me, getting me to hold their babies in pictures. There was this picture of me in the newspaper knocking out Yanagisawa and it was instant fame overnight. It was so crazy.
PT: You look at a lot of the guys in the sport now and when you ask them what was that one thing that got them into this sport, they all will blurt out Royce Gracie. Few realize that while Royce was doing his thing in the US, you were doing it at the exact same time in Japan. So what was it that pushed you into this whole industry? Guessing it's not Royce though, right?
BR: You know what it was for me? It was back in the gym and those 170 pounds guys were choking me out and beating the crap outta me. That's what pushed me. What if I got into a street fight with a guy like this? I needed to know how to beat this kind of fighter. I started taekwondo and realized it was really only kicks. Then I started karate and although there were both kicks and punching, there was no punching to the face. So then I started doing thai boxing so I could hit a guy in the face. And then from there free fighting and so on and so on. I always wanted to just keep pushing myself to be the most complete, well rounded fighter I could be. I wanted to be a real fighter. A boxer only knows boxing. He's a boxer, not a real fighter. A thai boxer doesn't know submissions, so he's a thai boxer, but not a true fighter. To me, a real fighter is a guy that does everything. And basically, I wanted to know how to do everything so I could consider myself a real fighter.
Bas' is important to the history of MMA not just because he is one of the all-time greats -- one of the only fighters to ever be King of Pancrase and UFC Heavyweight Champion -- but also because he was the first Dutch fighter to make a big impact on the sport.
The Dutch were early pioneers of importing Asian styles into their fighting, as illustrated by the career of Kickboxing legend Rob Kaman. RINGS found an early home in the Netherlands, holding 8 events there in the 1990s. None of those early events exactly set the world on fire. Even for a total No-Holds Barred (that's what we called it back then) mark like myself. Still there were some enjoyable moments -- like "Dirty" Bob Schrijber managing to fight and lose twice in the "Cage Fight Tournament" and future Rickson Gracie victim Yoshihisa Yamamoto debuting with a win at Rings Holland before tearing off a six fight losing streak that would carry him into the new millennium.
The Dutch continue to have an outsize impact on MMA through PRIDE stalwarts the Overeems and Gilbert Yvel, although no Dutch fighter has matched the record of "El Guapo", Bas Rutten.
ere's one of Bas' matches against Ken Shamrock in Pancrase. It's really too bad they never met in the UFC.
Previous installments of MMA History:
XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba's Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock
XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion's Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie's Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ