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MMA Origins: Erik Paulson, Shooto's Forgotten Champion

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Arguably the oldest Mixed Martial Arts promotion, the Japanese wrestling circuit Shooto was also the home of one of the sport's first truly well rounded fighters. Erik Paulson would become Shooto's first American champion and one of MMA's forgotten greats.

Originally started in the 1980s by Japanese professional wrestler Satoru Sayama, Shooto was a competition-based professional wresting circuit. Sayama was a former student of European catch wrestler Karl Gotch, and was a fierce competitor frustrated by the politics of pro wrestling. So Shooto was his attempt to create a sports league in which winners would not be predetermined.

Originally there were no gloves, so only punches to the body were allowed but open hand strikes could be directed to the head, and no strikes were allowed on the ground. Kicks and knees were allowed to any part of the body and all submission holds were legal. Fighters who were knocked down were given an eight count to recover. In 1989, Shooto held its first professional event and the sport began to grow quickly in Japan. Gloves were added and punches to the head became legal.

Up until this point the successful fighters in Shooto had been almost exclusively Japanese, but that would soon change with the arrival of Erik Paulson.

Born in Minnesota in 1966, Paulson started martial arts young with Judo in 1974. However when Paulson got into a fight as a youth and attempted a hip throw, his attacker pulled him down by his hair. Paulson was able to fend off his attacker with strikes from his back. Paulson stopped training Judo and turned his back on grappling for a time, believing striking was the way to defend one's self. In 1976 Paulson started training Taekwondo, then boxing in 1978, and also took part in karate and kickboxing during high school. Also while in his high school years Paulson would start learning Kali, the Filipino art of stick and knife fighting, and Jeet Kune Do, the martial art of Bruce Lee, from Rick Faye.

When Paulson graduated from high school he moved to California, where he continued to boxing and earned his black belt in Taekwondo. It was then that Paulson began training with the legendary Dan Inosanto, under whom he studied Jeet Kune Do, Wing Chun, Silat, Muay Thai and other martial arts.

In 1986 Paulson began to hear about a family of Brazilians that would fight anyone who came to their gym and several of his training partners wanted to learn what these 'Gracies' were doing to be so effective. So they pooled their money to get Paulson private lessons at the Gracie garage academy. Pauslon learned the basic self defense standing grappling program from Rorion and Royce Gracie, and then later began working with Rigan Machado and Rickson Gracie on the ground grappling aspect of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

So it was for several years that Paulson bar-tended at night and learned a multitude of martial arts by day. Then in the late 1980s Japanese shootfighter Yorinaga Nakamura moved to California and began to teach at Dan Inosanto's academy. Paulson attended a seminar hosted by Nakamura, where he showed shootfighting's catch wrestling based grappling which made heavy use of submission holds not being taught by the Gracies.

While this video is from 1992, this is Nakamura performing a shootfighting demonstration and you can see Erik Paulson watching in the background.

In terms of the blending together the three elements of striking, clinch fighting, and ground grappling this was far ahead of anything Paulson had encountered before in the Untied States, and was similar to what was taking place in Brazilian Vale Tudo during the late 80's and early 90's.

Paulson began training heavily in Shootfighting, originally just to gain an edge over other Gracie students in rolling during class, but soon he wanted to compete on a lager stage. Nakamura had shown Pauslon tapes of Shooto events in Japan and in 1990 Paulson declared he wished to fight in Japan.

After Paulson explained to Nakamura his background in martial arts, together they sent in a tape of Paulson in action to Satoru Sayama. Shooto sent for Paulson in early 1993 and in June, a few months before the first UFC, Paulson had his first professional fight.

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He would face Kazuhiro Kusayanagi, and Paulson would win with an inverted triangle choke. He returned to the States eager for more and when he learned of the Gracie's plans to launch the UFC, Paulson asked if he could fight in the event. The Gracies said no, that there would be only one representative of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in the tournament and any student that wished to enter in the same bracket as a Gracie would no longer be welcome at the school.

Paulson accepted this and actually was in the Gracie corner at the first UFC. He also continued to fight in Shooto. Late in 1993 Paulson fought Naoki Sakurada to a draw, returned a year later in 1994 when he defeated Kenji Kawaguchi by armbar, and in 1995 Paulson choked out international Judoka Ben Spijkers after four rounds.

In 1995, Paulson also won a quick submission victory over Yasunori Okuda, and is one of the few full fights from his early career that is available online.

Later in 1995 Paulson heard of a one night tournament being held in North Carolina with a large cash prize. Called The World Combat Championships (WCC), which would feature distinct Strikers and Grapplers divisions, the winner of each would meet in a final match. The catch was that Renzo Gracie was taking part, but Paulson asked Rickson if it was alright with him if he took part in this tournament. It is difficult to put together what the actual agreement was between the two but Paulson did enter the WCC under the impression he had Rickson's blessing.

Paulson ended up in the Strikers division, which meant that he would not be allowed to use any submission holds, even while ground grappling. This rule would end up costing Paulson, even though he won his first fight it was a much more grueling affair than it needed to be because he was not allowed to apply choke holds.

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WCC- Erik Paulson vs. Sean McCully

Paulson would advance, but was severely drained. In the semi-final, boxer James Warring took advantage of Paulson's fatigue and long hair, which Paulson couldn't cut due to his role in an upcoming movie, to defeat the Shooto veteran by TKO. Renzo would go on to win the entire event. (full event video here)

When Paulson returned to California he was shocked to find that Rickson no longer thought it proper for Paulson to train at his school. Paulson spent some time away from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but his old friend and teacher Rigan Machado reached out to Paulson and invited Paulson to come train with him and his brothers. Paulson would remain with the Machado brothers and earn his black belt under them.

After doing some time on Baywatch as an extra and stunt man, Paulson returned to Shooto and in May of 1996 he received a title fight against Kenji Kawaguchi, the fighter Paulson had armbarred two years earlier. Paulson had been hounding for this title shot, but Kawaguchi had denied him, claiming that Paulson was a professional martial artist while Kawaguchi was a working man with a job to consider. While the idea of a champion not wanting to fight a challenger simply based on the feeling the contender is the better fighter is laughable, Kawaguchi should at least receive points for honesty.

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Paulson got his title shot, and defeated Kawaguchi by reverse toe hold to become the first American champion of Shooto. Paulson would defend his title once and would fight in a variety of shows in the late 90's, but he would never make a UFC debut. At this point in the UFC's development, the lack of weight-classes meant that Paulson would have been far too small to realistically compete against the best the UFC had to offer. Don Frye, Mark Coleman, and Dan Severn all dwarfed the then 180 lb Paulson, so Paulson continued to fight but slowly gravitated more towards coaching.

Paulson finished his Shooto career 8-1-2, but much of his accomplishment and skill is lost to the majority of MMA fans. His coaching career has been equally successful, as he taught many fighters including Josh Barnett, Brock Lesnar, Sean Sherk, and Ken Shamrock.

While Paulson certainly has a legacy all his own, one of the longest reaching effects of his career is the doors he opened and the connections he made that allowed Rickson Gracie to travel to Japan and eventually found one of the most beloved MMA promotions of all time.


For more on Erik Paulson here are links to my sources:

Rolled Up Episode 30: Evolution through Diversification with Erik Paulson

Excellent interview with Paulson mixed with some technical demonstrations. Budo Jake gets Paulson to talk about his martial arts journeys, some of his other beliefs, and gets tapped out about a dozen times.

Karl Gotch Week: Satoru Sayama, Shooto And The Style Of Japanese Catch Wrestling

KJ Gould's celebration of Karl Gotch, focusing on his influence on Japanese catch wrestling and the creation of Shootfighting. It also highlights Paulson's successes in the Japanese promotion.

Erik Paulson Talks Grappling Roots

Erik Paulson talks about where his grappling style came from, working with different schools and his new book.

Michigan Project Interview with Erik Paulson

A compilation of clips in which Paulson speaks to his background in detail, if a little out of order.

Erik Paulson Garage Instructional

A huge play list of Paulson working out in the 90's. It is nine parts long and Paulson shows off some seriously awesome lockflow.