**This is the first entry in a new series on professional wrestling and taken from my MMA blog. Be sure to check Fight Rankings for more in this series in the future.**
If it's not entirely clear from my previous musings, let me make one thing known: I love mixed martial arts. There are few things I enjoy more than watching MMA and I'll look for almost any excuse to enjoy some fights. But that being said, my first real love was professional wrestling.
I would venture to say that quite a few fans of combat sports started out the same way as I did - with WCW Saturday Night, WWF Superstars, and just about any other pro wrestling I could find on my TV. Now, I still enjoy tapes and DVDs of the older programming, but I've grown out of touch with the world of sports entertainment. Perhaps it's something that comes with age, or maybe wrestling is just really shitty right now, but my interest in wrestling has significantly faded.
Still, wrestling was something I've thoroughly enjoyed and I look back fondly at the wrestlers of my youth. As much as many MMA fans would hate to admit it, professional wrestling and mixed martial arts will forever be linked together. Make no mistake, these are two very different forms of entertainment. Professional wrestling is staged athletics while mixed martial arts is a (mostly) legitimate sport.
However, we have two entertainment entities in the UFC and WWE that utilize cable television and pay-per-views as their primary means of reaching an audience. MMA and pro wrestling also compete for the attention of similar performers, college and professional athletes notable amongst those performers.
This will be the first post in a series where I choose a topic with overlap between pro wrestling and MMA. It could be a performer, a promoter, a concept, or any other point of interest shared by these two entities. I'm not interested in converting MMA fans into wrestling fans or vice versa, but it's worthwhile to consider where there are similarities between these powerful industries.
I want to be clear that, in this series, I'm not arguing that mixed martial arts is a sport with a lineal birth out of professional wrestling. MMA was not solely born from Antonio Inoki fighting Muhammad Ali, nor did it begin with the creation of the Jeet Kune Do discipline or the Shooto, RINGS, or the Ultimate Fighting Championship promotions. Rather, these were all momentous events on the lengthy and storied timeline of MMA.
I've had some trouble determining who should start this series, so I think it's best to go back to one of the true legends of professional wrestling - Karl Gotch.
Karl Gotch was born Karl Istaz on August 3, 1924 in Antwerp, Belgium. Gotch would later move to Germany at the age of four and began wrestling at the age of nine. Gotch competed in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling, with his amateur wrestling career culminating with at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London. Gotch wrestled for Belgium under the name "Charles Gotch" and tied for eighth place in Greco-Roman at 192 pound weight class.
After the Olympics, Gotch moved on to the world of professional wrestling, training with legendary English catch wrestler Billy Riley at The Snake Pit in Wigan. Riley was known as an authentic submission grappler who had no qualms about legitimately injuring his opponents. Gotch and Billy Robinson, two of the greatest shoot wrestlers of all time, are both products of Riley's Snake Pit.
Gotch spent much of the late 1950's wrestling throughout Europe wrestling as Karl Krauser. He would spend time wrestling in France, as well as his previous homes of Belgium and Germany. With the assistance of his friend and former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Edouard Carpentier, Gotch would seek greater success by moving to North America.
Gotch's time in the United States and Canada was largely uneventful, though he did spend time in Quebec, Chicago, Ohio, California, and even the World Wide Wrestling Federation based out of New York. Gotch won a handful of titles, but mostly made a name for himself due to a backstage fight with the legendary Buddy Rogers.
As the story goes, Rogers was distrustful of having his NWA World Heavyweight Title legitimately taken from him by shoot wrestlers like Gotch and Lou Thesz. Meanwhile, Gotch didn't appreciate flashy showmen like Rogers and took umbrage with Rogers' refusal to provide Gotch with a title shot. Rogers also felt there was no money to be made in a series of matches with Gotch, so Gotch responded by beating the champion down. Gotch's reputation with American promoters would forever be impacted, but it's not America where Gotch would truly make a name for himself.
While Gotch was toiling on the mid-cards of various American promotions, a ambitious young wrestler named Kanji Inoki, better known by his ring name Antonio, was trying to make a name for himself. After being trained by the legendary Japanese star Rikidozan, Inoki and Shohei "Giant" Baba were a rising tag team in Rikidozan's Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance.
After more than a decade in wrestling, Inoki became dissatisfied with his position within the company. This was especially true after Giant Baba defeated Gene Kiniski for the NWA International Heavyweight Title in December 1970. Inoki was refused an opportunity at Baba's title and was told that it was too early for a title shot. Inoki, Baba, and numerous other wrestlers plotted a hostile takeover of the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, but management caught wind of the scheme. Baba was convinced to stay loyal to the company and Inoki was fired from the promotion in 1971.
In 1972, Inoki formed his own wrestling promotion that would appropriately be named New Japan Pro Wrestling. In the process, Inoki called upon numerous gaijin wrestlers, or non-Japanese wrestlers, to fill his roster for the initial NJPW tour. Notable amongst those chosen were "Bullet" Bob Armstrong, Ivan Kalmikoff, and Karl Gotch. In the main event of the very first NJPW event, Gotch defeated Inoki, but his role with the company was more than just as a performer.
It was Karl Gotch who helped to perfect Antonio Inoki's wrestling style, which would be known as the "strong style." Rooted strongly in catch wrestling, strong style focused on high impact, realistic looking strike and grappling while maintaining the predetermined nature of professional wrestling. Inoki was always a student of the martial arts, while Gotch was remarkable wrestler with a submission background, so strong style proved to be an effective integration of Gotch's and Inoki's unique wrestling styles.
Though the matches were never authentically competitive, the combination of martial arts striking and submission wrestling is the staged equivalent to mixed martial arts. There were few wrestlers with the legitimate credentials of Karl Gotch, which helped to lend credence to the direction of Inoki's New Japan Pro Wrestling. Antonio Inoki looked to create something of his own with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and he was successful in large part because of Gotch's contributions.
Gotch would be an important figure for NJPW for a full decade, competing on a regular basis while training wrestling greats such as Satoru Sayama (the original Tiger Mask), Akira Maeda, and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. It was through these three wrestlers, along with Inoki, where Gotch has had his largest impact on mixed martial arts. Over the years, many of Gotch's students would move from the world of professional wrestling to legitimate combat sports.
Most prominent among these fighters was Inoki himself, who famously fought Muhammad Ali in an early mixed-style match in 1976. Despite his professional wrestling background, Inoki has long been a proponent of mixed-martial arts. He has promoted mixed-martial arts fights on his own NJPW and Inoki Genome wrestling cards and has often promoted MMA fighters in worked matches.. Bas Rutten and Renzo Gracie both wrestled for NJPW, while Inoki's very last professional wrestling match was against American star Don Frye.
Fujiwara, Maeda, and Sayama were amongst the initial competitors in the UWF, a Japanese shoot-style promotion that utilized more realistic wrestling-based fighting styles. In later years, Fujiwara himself would found the Battlearts promotion, also based heavily on shoot-wrestling. While these matches were still worked, the fights were as realistic as Japanese fans at ever seen. Regarding their contributions to MMA, even the great Inoki's accomplishments pale in comparison to Maeda and Sayama.
Following a controversial bout between Sayama and Maeda, the former would become the founder of Shooto in the mid-1980s. Though there have been many rule changes and alterations over the years, the Shooto founded by Sayama is the same Shooto promotion still putting on events in Brazil, Japan, and all over the world.
Maeda himself would found the Fighting Network RINGS mixed martial arts promotion in 1991. The promotion would famously feature fighters such as Dan Henderson, Fedor Emelianenko, Alistair Overeem, and Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera. Upon mounting competition from PRIDE, the RINGS promotion would eventually collapse in 2002.
These men have all become Japanese legends through their pro wrestling and MMA accomplishments, but before they were legends, they were all students of the great Karl Gotch. It was Gotch who was amongst the first to both utilize and teach the shoot wrestling style in Japan. Gotch only directly influenced a generation of professional wrestlers, but through the success of these fighters in combat sports, Gotch's influence is still felt in MMA today.
Even beyond his time in competition, Gotch influenced modern MMA in some very interesting ways. It was Gotch, influenced by the ancient sport of pankration, who chose the name for what would become Pancrase. Gotch would also spend time training Ken Shamrock and Masakatsu Funaki, two of the biggest stars in the history of MMA.
It's no wonder why Gotch has been dubbed "Kami-sama" by the Japanese people, which roughly translates into "wrestling god." The reverence that the Japanese people hold for Gotch is remarkable, as "god" isn't exactly a term used often for athletes and pop culture figures. Aside from Gotch and Lemmy Kilmister, you'll be hard-pressed to find many public figures who have been deemed as "gods".
Through the continued accomplishments of Fujiwara, Maeda, Inoki, and Sayama, Karl Gotch will always be remembered as a supremely influential figure in both MMA and pro wrestling. These notable students of Gotch have done so much to shape MMA and owe much of their success to Gotch himself.
In his wildest dreams, I'm not sure that Karl Gotch could have imagined the impact he would have on a generation of athletes and the creation of a sport.