Yakuza, Steroids, and Heart Trouble: The Lineal Title Journeys to Japan

Photo ©Susumu NAGAO

Last week, Strikeforce announced that their heavyweight title would not be up for grabs in their upcoming heavyweight tournament. That's their choice. But some titles are bigger than any promotion. The Strikeforce title may not be at stake this year, but MMA's lineal heavyweight championship certainly will be. Yesterday we followed the mythical title, one bigger than any promotional entity, from United States to Japan. Today we continue that journey.

In 1998 a long forgotten fighter by the name of Enson Inoue upset the great Randy Couture to take the lineal heavyweight title to Japan, the spiritual home of mixed martial arts. Inoue will forever remain a legend to those who saw him in his time. Reckless and wonderful, the Japanese fighter was the personification of Budo.

The Japanese gangsters who controlled the MMA industry in that country embraced him as one of their own. This was especially unusual because Inoue was actually from Hawaii and the Yakuza is notoriously xenophobic. Despite his Hawaiian homeland he was accepted, almost revered. He ran in a tough crowd and made violence a part of his life. It was a switch he couldn't always turn off, even outside the ring. One of SHOOTO's top stars, he found his way to PRIDE after an incident with a tabloid reporter saw him suspended from the very traditional fighting company:

I gave a reporter from a gossip type of magazine what he deserved. He was trying to take photos of me and a famous Japanese actress while we attended a Rings event. The story he was trying to write could have hindered the actresses career. I resigned from Shooto because they showed me 0% support. In fact they threw me out to the lions just to save their own face.

The move to Japan's leading promotion seemed inevitable anyway. PRIDE was poaching fighters right and left, most notably from Akira Maeda's RINGS, and Inoue was too popular to remain beyond the glare of the bright lights for long. Inoue was given an easy mark for his first PRIDE bout, Soichi Nishida, a Japanese fighter with seemingly no identifiable martial skills. Grotesquely overweight, Nishida is unquestionably the worst fighter to ever challenge for the lineal title. Inoue made short work of him, not even wasting 30 seconds on his overmatched foe.

At the height of his skills, he wanted more than the Nishidas of the world. PRIDE was organizing the most ambitious tournament in the history of MMA and Inoue knew who he wanted first: the great Mark Kerr. A former NCAA champion (Kerr actually beat Couture in the NCAA finals) wrestler, Kerr was considered by many to be the best heavyweight in the world. He had dominated competition in the UFC before departing over a contract dispute.

Kerr was different than Coleman or even Couture. He embraced the grappling game. His submission defense was good enough that he controlled opponents at submission wrestling events as easily as he had controlled victims on the wrestling mats. He would be Inoue's equal in skill but fifty pounds heavier. It would make all the difference. Kerr won a conservative bout, eliminating Inoue from the tournament and securing rights to the lineal championship of the world. Inoue took the loss well. To the Japanese star, the test was more important than the outcome:

"I don't worry what the outcome is -- I think winning and losing is kind of like the tail of a dog. When the dogs walks, he doesn't worry if his tail's wagging right or left. I worry about fighting and giving everything I got, you know. 'Cause that's the only thing I can really control. Winning and losing is beyond my control, it's destiny."

In the next round of the tournament it looked like Kerr would have an easy path to the semi-finals. In his way was Japanese pro wrestler Kazuyuki Fujita. Like Brock Lesnar, Fujita had a significant amateur background, coming within a single bout of making the Japanese Olympic team. But Japanese wrestlers were generally competing at a much lower level than their American counterparts and Kerr himself had come agonizingly close to making the Olympic team in 1996. He dominated Fujita in the early going, showing all the talent, aggression, and physical ability that made him so revered among the MMA hardcores. And then his body shut down. No one has ever described a fight more eloquently than cracked.com did this one:

For three minutes, everything either fighter did resulted in a hard part of Mark Kerr getting smashed into Fujita's medically impossible head. It looked like an industrial training video on how to turn a human into soup using just one naked man. If I was Fujita's family, I would have already been ordering a box of gorilla-sized diapers and flash cards so he could relearn all our names. But this face-suicide was all part of Fujita's plan. After five minutes of savage anaerobic assault, Mark Kerr's brain and body agreed that it was time to give up. He went fetal and Fujita punched the back of his head for 10 minutes. Which, in back-of-the-head time, is fucking forever.

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The night was far from over for the fighters in the PRIDE tournament. The winner would have to conquer three opponents in the course of a single night. After the sustained beating he received from Kerr, Fujita just wasn't up to that challenge. He did step into the ring again that night, but his corner threw in the towel before he and his semi-final opponent Mark Coleman ever touched.

Technically it was a loss. Many people have the lineal title pass to Coleman here. But the title is mythical, existing only in our imaginations. We aren't bound by the rules imposed by promotions and athletic commissions. Coleman never beat Fujita, no more than Harold Howard beat Royce Gracie at UFC III. Something as profound as the lineal heavyweight title shouldn't change hands on a technicality. It should happen in the ring or the cage, with two men doing battle and testing their wills. And so it shall be, at least in this telling of the tale.

Fujita went on to defend the title three times in PRIDE, making him the most successful champion yet. He dispatched Ken Shamrock, a veteran of the UFC and Pancrase, and RINGS standout Gilbert Yvel, a vicious standup fighter who struggled with the more lenient rules in the PRIDE ring. It was Shamrock who gave Fujita the tougher challenge. The former UFC Superfight champion, making his return to competitive MMA after years in the WWF, beat Fujita standing throughout the fight just as he had Alexander Otsuka in his PRIDE debut. This was Shamrock at his best. Unfortunately, he wasn't prepared for Fujita's iron head. He unloaded on the Japanese wrestler for the better part of six minutes, unloaded so hard and strong that his body finally gave out. Shamrock's heart was beating wildly. He felt weird enough to stop the fight, yelling to his cornerman Pete Williams that he couldn't continue. "Petey My Heart!" he exclaimed, bringing an end to a one sided bout and leaving Fujita perplexed, undoubtedly concussed, yet still champion.

His final succesful defense was a shellacking of fellow pro wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama in a battle of two men who could take a beating. Not necessarily dish one out, but take it better than any other men in MMA history. Takayama was overwhelmedby Fujita who was, after all, more than a circus act with a bizarrely thick skull. Fujita was a legitimate fighter, too much for Takayama to handle. Still, there were plenty of questions surrounding the champion. Fujita had survived Kerr and Shamrock only because his opponent's bodies gave out in the middle of combat. How would he fare against a fighter in his physical prime? A fighter as famous for cracking skulls as Fujita was for having an uncrackable skull? We would soon find out, as the PRIDE star would be staring across the ring at K-1 star Mirko Cro Cop in his next fight.

Tomorrow the lineal title finally finds its way to its rightful home.

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