Nowhere is the history of the growth and evolution of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts more tied the world of professional wrestling than in Japan. It was the Japanese students of Western catch wrestler Karl Gotch that were the beginners of the shootfighting movement, where pro wrestling matches would be live fights rather than scripted matches.
Antonio Inoki was his star pupil, and he would become famous for his proto-MMA match with Muhammad Ali. Inoki is also credited with holding the first sport shoot matches in Japan and developing his own style of professional wrestling. And it was Inoki's students Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki who where the founders of Pancrase, a very successful promotion that mixed worked matches with shoot matches.
Pancrase was very successful in the early 1990's and was home to some of MMA's first international stars, including Ken Shamrock, at the beginning of his run of dominance, and Bas Rutten at his height. Pancrase always portrayed itself as putting on real fights, but on several occasions rising stars were "put over" by a compliant opponent to help build their star. In other cases, a superior fighter would "carry" a lesser fighter for a while to make a fight more exciting. There were also instances of outright works were both fighters were aware of a pre-scripted result, and in several cases this was to get the King of Pancrase title in the hands of a more marketable fighter.
Pancrase was one of the hottest entertainment tickets in the early 90's with stars like Funaki, Suzuki, Shamrock and then Rutten. But then Shamrock left for the greener pastures of the Ultimate Fighting Championship and then American professional wrestling. Rutten vacated the King of Pancrase to spend time with his pregnant and ill wife, and would leave Pancrase outright in 1997. This was not the end of Pancrase - not even close - but it was a downswing for Pancrase as they had lost much of their star power.
All this was occurring against the larger backdrop of Japanese pro wrestling in the 1980's and 90's, which was a fluid and ever-changing picture. At the start of the 1980's Antonio Inoki had leveraged his fight with Ali to become the most well known pro wrestler in Japan. His promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, became the biggest Pro Wrestling show in Japan and was home to both Satoru "Tiger Mask" Sayama and Akira Maeda before they would break away to start their own promotions. The promotion marketed itself as real fighting and featuring the best fighters in the world, often featuring matches with fighters from different martial arts simulating early MMA style-vs-style matches.
In 1982-1983, New Japan experienced a boom with record attendance numbers. But when wrestler pay failed to rise, there were allegations that Inoki and his booker Hisashi Shinma were siphoning money away to other projects. Inoki attempted to blame it all on Shinma, causing a divide between the two men. Sayama left the promotion to form Shooto at that point, which is arguably the first Mixed Martial Arts league. There was a split among the remaining wrestlers between those who stayed with Inoki and those who left with Shinma.
Maeda followed Shinma to form a new promotion, called the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF).
Moving with Maeda and Shinma to the UWF was Nobuhiko Takada, a star in the making with looks and physical talents to become a legitimate wrestler in addition to a headlining personality. Like in the New Japan promotion, the UWF proclaimed themselves the best fighters in the world, and when a martial artist came to challenge them they had Tatsumi Fujinami keeping the gates. Fujinami had a background in Judo, and when combined with catch wrestling training under both Gotch and Inoki, he became a very formidable grappler. His reputation combined with the fact that UWF matches were very hard works featuring full-force strikes and real submission holds had fans believing the promotion was legitimate fighting.
The UWF would merge with the New Japan Pro Wrestling at one point and then break away again; all the while Takada continued to emerge as a star. When the UWF finally closed its doors for good, Takada parted ways with Maeda.
Maeda would start Rings in 1991 and, with the help of Chris Doleman, recruited sambo fighters from Russia to fill his roster. While Rings' main events were often works, the undercards were filled with actual fights.
Takada would also start his own promotion, the Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi); it continued the tradition of hard works and looking as real as possible.
The UWFi was briefly home to Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki, and Ken Shamrock before they left to create Pancrase. One of Takada's most famous matches took place in the UWFi, when he faced former sumo wrestler Koji Kitao, who had a reputation of bad behavior in the ring. The match was agreed upon as a draw, but when Kitao became sloppy, Takada pounced on an opening and landed a clean head kick, resulting in a legitimate knockout.
Nobuhiko Takada knocking out Koji Kitao in 1992
The UWFi became known as the promotion where every fighter was a shooter, meaning they really had the ability to fight, including a young wrestler named Kazushi Sakuraba. Again fans were sucked into believing that they were seeing legitimate matches. Within a few years, the UWFi was the hottest ticket in all of Japanese combat entertainment.
But it was then that the problems began. Late in 1993, UFC 1 broke the illusion, and on top of that, Japanese pro wrestling and Pancrase star Ken Shamrock was defeated at that event. Then in 1994 Rickson Gracie, using contacts through his student and Shooto fighter Erik Paulson, took part in the first Vale Tudo Japan event.
Full Event Video (Rickson's matches start around 21:25)
Rickson's dominant showing combined with Royce's defeat of Ken Shamrock made the Japanese wrestlers' claim to the best fighters in the world look rather shaky. Seeing the value in the Gracie name, Takada reached out to Rickson and offered him a large sum to appear in the UWFi. Rickson refused and reportedly made a comment about not doing "fake" fights.
After the refusal, Takada decided to change tactics. His booker Yuki Miyato came up with what seemed like a genius PR stunt. If they couldn't get Rickson on their side, they would discredit him. Takada talked to Yoji Anjo, the UWFi's toughest guy in the gym and a student of Fujinami. Anjo was to head to the U.S. and storm Rickson's school on December 7th, the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, and challenge Rickson to a fight with the Japanese media in tow. Clearly Rickson would be caught off guard and refuse to fight, and then he would be discredited in the eyes of Japanese fans.
Before heading to challenge Rickson, Anjo made a statement to the Japanese press, "There is no need for Mr. Takada to go. If it is just Rickson, I'm 200 percent confident I can beat him."
When Anjo arrived, Rickson was at home with his family, and Rickson received a phone call that someone was demanding to fight him and threatening the students. Rickson came the school, and when Anjo called him a coward in front of his wife, kids, and students, the fatal flaw in the UWFi plan was exposed.
In the 80's in Brazil, the Gracies and their students had been very active in Vale Tudo fights, representing their art against practitioners of many arts. As stated in previous articles, the animosity between BJJ schools and Luta Livre schools, Muay Thai schools, and even other BJJ factions often spilled out of the Vale Tudo ring in what sometimes more resembled a gang war than a martial arts rivalry. Closed-door matches, dojo storming, and even street fights were not uncommon. In that kind of environment, schools needed a champion - a fighter that struck fear into their enemies and made them think twice about taking action.
Rickson's blend of natural gifts and technical prowess made him a natural choice for the Gracie family. He became their go-to fighter when the honor of the family was at stake. He took countless challenge matches, both in Brazil and later in California, often on short notice. And for the Gracies there was an unwritten rule when it came to these challenge matches - the challenger got what he asked for.
If the challenger was a martial artist simply looking to test himself against the Gracies, the representative of the Gracie school would oblige them, but gently. The challenger would be taken to the ground, but then the Gracie fighter would normally use open hand strikes to open up space for a quick choke, and often after the match was done a free lesson in ground fighting would follow. If the challenger wanted a tougher test, the Gracie fighter would follow suit and fight a bit rougher. But when a challenger was disrespectful, often what followed was a hard lesson in ground fighting.
This video is a match between an unnamed challenger and Gracie fighter Joe Prado, the fighter given gatekeeper duties at the Gracie academy for the 90's. It is unclear why things got so rough in this fight, but it is a good reminder of how violent these rule-less and referee-less matches could become.
Rickson had dealt out such a beating before. In Brazil in 1988, one of the best Luta Livre fighters, Hugo Duarte, was winning matches and speaking ill of the Gracie family. Rickson, the Gracie family enforcer, set out to silence Duarte. Rickson tracked the Luta Livre star down on a beach and challenged him with a slap across the face. In the fight that followed Rickson secured twisting arm control mount and instead of applying a submission hold, Rickson beat Duarte bloody until he retracted all of his statements in front of the crowd that gathered to watch them. The beating was a statement - don't mess with the Gracies.
Faced with the challenge from Anjo, Rickson decided to make another statement. Despite the Japanese fighter have a large size advantage, Rickson mounted Anjo quickly. Rickson then passed over a merciful submission hold and instead rained down punches. Anjo was reduced to a bloody mess in front of the Japanese media. The tables had been turned on the UWFi, and their claims of being home to the best fighters in the world were severely damaged. That image problem was not helped when Rickson returned to Japan for Vale Tudo Japan 1995 and easily dispatched three Japanese fighters to be crowned champion yet again.
According to Japanese pro wrestling tradition, as the head star of the UWFi it fell upon Takada to defend the honor of the promotion by challenging Rickson, but he knew Rickson would never agree to a worked match. So the match was shelved for several years.
Vale Tudo Origins
At the end of 1996, the UWFi closed its doors for good, but Takada was not ready to get out of the promotion business. He set out to make the fight with Rickson happen, and Takada was going to make it big. Takada got significant financial backing from Hiromichi Momose, who had well-known Yakuza connections. Momose created a promotion company, Kakutougi Revolution Spirits (KRS), to push this new promotion and secured other investors.
The first event would be centered around the bad blood between Rickson and Takada, and the name of Pride Fighting Championship was selected. Rickson was offered a substantial, and undisclosed, amount of to take part in a live fight with Takada and accepted.
Pride 1 took place on October 11, 1997 in the Tokyo Dome. While it would feature live matches, this was not a true mixed martial arts event. Some of the matches were works, and one of them was a pure kickboxing match featuring the K-1 Champion Branko Cikatić that ended in a no contest due to an illegal kick to a grounded fighter. The card also featured several veterans of the UFC and the results were mixed. While the mostly untrained Gary Goodridge turned in an impressive knockout over UFC 6 tournament champion Oleg Taktarov, it was balanced out by a rather dull draw between Kimo Leopoldo and Dan Severn. Renzo Gracie and pro wrestler Akira Shoji had a fantastic match that featured several near submissions by Renzo but ended in a draw due to time expiring.
The Rickson and Takada match proved somewhat anticlimactic as Rickson clearly outclassed the wrestler.
All in all, the event was a disappointment. The buzz for the match was not nearly what it would have been if Takada had been able to strike two years ago when the iron was hot, and it failed to fill the Tokyo Dome. It would be an inauspicious start, but Pride was destined to survive its own dark days and grow into one of the most beloved MMA promotions.
For more on this time in MMA history and much more, I recommend checking out Jonathan Snowden's books, which helped this pro wrestling illiterate navigate the rather confusing world of Japanese sports entertainment.
For some sources you can click on and read right now:
Jordan Breen's (Sherdog) This Day in MMA History: Oct 11
Thanks to all of those people for their work