In this installment of MMA Origins, T.P. Grant looks at the evolution of fighters in the mid-90's and the first fighters to find success by using a variety of skill sets, focusing on Bas Rutten's title run in the Japanese Pancrase promotion.
This article series has tracked the migration and progression of the marital arts competitions that lead to the creation of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts. That was the first goal. The second goal is to track the evolution of the competition and fighters within the sport.
The migrations of the Japanese art of Judo to Brazil and European Catch Wrestling to Japan touched off the movement towards modern MMA. Japanese professional wrestling transitioned to become a competitive sport. Vale Tudo became larger in Brazil and then eventually traveled to the United States, creating a third breeding ground for Mixed Martial Arts. In those early days, grapplers dominated matches. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and Luta Livre clashed for Vale Tudo dominance in Brazil, in Japan professional wrestlers trained in catch wrestling dominated and in the U.S. first Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and then wrestling took over the UFC.
The Brazilian Vale Tudo scene benefited by being the oldest and having the most time to develop. So, in the 1980's when Shootfighting was just starting to develop, fighters in Brazil were taking a step towards moving their skill sets forward. As the competition in Vale Tudo became more intense, fighters looking for an edge turned to adding striking skills to their grappling ability. Many turned to Muay Thai and by the early 90's pairing Muay Thai with submission grappling quickly became a trademark of Brazilian fighters.
How advanced the Brazilian scene was compared to the American scene became obvious in 1995 at UFC 7. Royce Gracie had dazzled American fans with his grappling and hard fought victories in the early 90's, but since the departure of the Gracies the UFC competition started to swing towards larger and stronger athletes. Hulking fighters like Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Oleg Taktarov and Tank Abbott became the stars of the UFC. This new UFC would come face to face with a different breed of Brazilian fighter, not a missionary sent to spread the word of Jiu Jitsu, but a hardened Vale Tudo veteran in Marco Ruas.
Nicknamed "The King of the Streets", Ruas was an excellent grappler, and Vale Tudo lore has it that Ruas was able to grapple Rickson Gracie to a draw in a closed doors match. On top of that Ruas was one of the very first grapplers to begin to blend his Brazilian Jiu Jistu with not just other grappling techniques but also with Muay Thai kickboxing.
While not a small fighter by any means, at UFC 7 Ruas was faced with massive fighters all weighing in excess of 240 lbs. Ruas defeated them using a variety of skills including leg locks, positional grappling and had leg kicks. The path to the future of MMA had been clearly laid out, fighters needed to continue to evolve and define their skill set to fit the situation if they wanted to succeed in this new sport.
This is not to say that all fighters would become well rounded fighters, rather that successful fighters were those who best adapted their skill set to fit an MMA context and maximize their strengths. Fighters began to train for the sport itself rather than just practice a martial art. Some fighters focused on their strength, looking to impose their style on the other fighter while others looked to shore up weaknesses.
Back in Japan, Bas Rutten had a very obvious weakness to shore up. Rutten was a rising star in the Pro Wrestling promotion, Pancrase, which did a majority of their fights as actual live "shoots" instead of worked matches with predetermined results. The Dutch fighter came from a Kyokushin Karate and Taekwondo background and had dominated fighters with his striking, but struggled in his early career against strong grapplers.
In the spring of 1995 Rutten was at a crossroads in his career. He was 7-4 at the time, all four of his losses coming to catch wrestling trained fighters. The most recent of which was a submission loss in his rematch with Ken Shamrock. Rutten had done a small amount of grappling training beforehand, but after this loss Rutten committed himself to improving his skills on the ground.
In his first return to competition, Rutten faced Takau Fuke in a remtach. Fuke had out grappled Rutten in their first match but Bas snatched a win with a knee to the liver. In their second match, Rutten was able to lock on a quick heel hook that clearly surprised Fuke.
But it was Rutten's match with decorated kickboxer Maurice Smith that really showed off his shift in focus. The match appeared to have striking written all over it, but Rutten turned to his developing grappling game to gain a serious edge over Smith. Rutten would win with a knee bar identical to the one that Ken Shamrock had used to defeat the Dutchman just a few months ago.
Rutten then scored another leg lock win against UFC veteran Jason DeLucia in June of 1995. With this win streak Rutten was again one of the rising stars of the promotion and was given a rematch with Frank Shamrock, the other major rising star of Pancrase.
Frank had debuted with a win over Rutten and had since developed into one of the most promising prospects in the sport. This time around it would be Rutten who claimed victory as he was able to stave off the grappling of the catch wrestling prodigy and even threaten Shamrock with submissions.
With that win under his belt Rutten was given his second shot at the King of Pancrase title, against Minoru Suzuki who had won the title in a worked match against Ken Shamrock. Suzuki, while younger than Rutten, was far more experienced in grappling and had studied under the legendary Karl Gotch in catch wrestling. Suzuki was the co-founder of Pancrase along with Funaki, and came from a professional wrestling background. Rutten had defeated Suzuki once in an upset, but this time there was no overlooking the Dutchman, who was quickly emerging as the best fighter in Pancrase now that Ken Shamrock had left to the UFC.
In their second match, Suzuki was able to use his wrestling to completely negate Rutten's striking and took the Dutchman down at will. Rutten was on his back for the majority of the match, defending against submissions and at one point he was forced to use a rope escape when Suzuki threatened to end the fight with a kneebar. But Rutten was clearly not afraid of Suzuki's grappling, attempting a kneebar of his own at one point. In the end, Rutten scored a shocking win, but this time it was the method of victory that caused the surprise. After fifteen minutes of fighting Suzuki shot in for yet another takedown and this time Rutten was able to lock on a guillotine, roll Suzuki on to his back and force the tap. It was not unheard of for Suzuki to be submitted, but only very skilled grapplers had forced the catch wrestler to tap in the past.
And the Dutchman wasn't done after just having won the title. Rutten was faced again with Maurice Smith just two months after winning the title and defeated the kickboxer with a rear naked choke. Rutten then submitted Japanese pro wrestler Ryūshi Yanagisawa, and then heel hooked UFC veteran Guy Mezger. Rutten was then sidelined by an injury and Pancrase held a Interim title fight with Frank Shamrock facing Minoru Suzuki. Shamrock won by kneebar, winning the first title of his career.
When Rutten returned to action in early 1996 he faced with Katsuomi Inagaki. Rutten was able to pepper Inagaki with liver shot after liver shot before ending the fight with a vicious knee strike to the head. It was Rutten's first (T)KO win in thirteen fights.
Rutten and Shamrock then met to unify the two Pancrase titles.
Rutten now had two wins over Frank Shamrock and Suzuki and was undoubtedly the champion of Pancrase. By 1996 Ken Shamrock had fought his last match in Pancrase and third match with Rutten was an impossibility. The only other unavenged loss on Rutten's record was to his friend and former grappling instructor Masakatsu Funaki.
So, in September of 1996 Rutten and Funaki met for a second time. When both fighters entered the ring, Funaki made a throat slitting gesture at Rutten, which enraged the Dutchman. The result was one of the best fights in the history of Japanese MMA.
This was the last defense of the King of Pancrase title for Rutten. After another win in October, Rutten would announce that he wanted to spend time with his pregnant wife and would not be able to maintain the kind of schedule Pancrase demanded of their champions. Rutten vacated the title.
While this was the end of his title run in Pancrase it was hardly the end of Rutten's storied career. Half a world away from Brazilian Vale Tudo, the UFC and Marco Ruas, Rutten had become the first fighter to succeed using well rounded skills on a consistent basis. And this success from adding skills came two years before Frank Shamrock would take the UFC by storm and force American MMA to under go a similar transformation. But it was Bas Rutten's training in grappling, in addition to his dangerous striking, that started the movement towards well rounded fighters in Japanese MMA.
Special thanks to Zombie Prophet for the gifs