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Pre-PRIDE Japanese MMA: Shootfighting vs. “Shoot-Style” Wrestling

The genesis of Japanese MMA began in professional wrestling. After “God of Wrestling” Karl Gotch introduced catch-as-catch-can to the country in the 1970’s, many Japanese performers began utilizing legitimate submission holds as well as other realistic martial arts techniques in their matches. The legendary Antonio Inoki, inspired by Gotch to create his own “strong style” of wrestling, even brought in actual fighters from karate, boxing, and judo to square off against him for the title of “World’s Top Martial Artist.” The series of worked (Fake) matches saw Inoki going up against the likes of famed fighters such as Leon Spinks, Willem Ruska, Don Frye, and Willie “Bear Killer” William. His most famous match, however, was a legitimate shoot fight against world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. The heavily hyped fight, completely bogged down by a set of bizarre and extremely restrictive rules, saw Inoki repeatedly slide into Ali’s knees like a baseball player for fifteen rounds while the champion clowned around and silently prayed his legs wouldn’t be fucked for the rest of his career.

The disappointing match didn’t quell the Japanese public’s desire for realistic wrestling. During the mid-80’s, promotions began emerging that pushed even further beyond Inoki’s “strong style” of wrestling in terms of reflecting actual combat. Organization’s such as the Universal Wrestling Federation, Fighting Network RINGS, and UWF International deemphasized the theatric elements of wrestling and attempted to make the sports entertainment spectacle appear more like a legitimate athletic contest. Unlike traditional wrestling, grapplers performing in this shoot-style format almost always abided by the rules and rarely put on a match without a definitive victor. There was even a point system implemented that could determine a winner based on knockdowns, rope escapes, and throws.

As the style of wrestling grew in popularity, many grapplers began questioning the age-old notion in the business that the public would never pay to see a real match. The wrestlers performing for these shoot-style promotions trained legitimate submission grappling and striking skills in practice, and sparred each other for real behind closed doors. They were essentially mixed martial artists who were paid to perform exhibitions of their talents rather than fight for real. The dissatisfaction felt by many of these wrestlers gave birth to Pancrase and Shooto, the first mixed martial arts promotions in the country.

Following the emergence of MMA in Japan and the subsequent debut of PRIDE, the popularity of shoot-style wrestling began to wane into more of a niche market. Fans who had previously thought the stiff, martial arts-based wrestling was actually real quickly realized that MMA was what they had been looking for all along. Twenty years after this revolution occurred, these old shoot-style matches and early MMA fights are now readily available for new fans to enjoy thanks to video sharing sites such as Youtube… And tragically, these uninitiated rubes can’t fucking tell difference between the two.

To be fair, I can’t say it’s entirely surprising that someone would confuse a worked fight for a real one (or vice versa). Early Pancrase events were extremely similar in presentation to the shoot-style promotions that preceded it. Not only did the fighters talk as if Pancrase was simply a new style of wrestling, but they also wore the same brightly colored speedo-centric costumes they had donned when they were performing works (Shooto fighters also frequently wore brightly colored get-ups, usually long spandex pants). Indeed, Hulk Hogan would not have seemed out of place in the Pancrase ring:

Beyond that, there are number of other factors that add to the confusion:

– The ruleset used in Pancrase’s early years was heavily based on shoot-style wrestling. Only palm strikes to the face were allowed, grabbing the rope forced the referee to break any submissions, weightclasses were non-existent, etc.

– There’s a widespread notion that many, if not most, early Pancrase fights were worked. That is a gross exaggeration, but there is some basis to the belief. Pancrase founders Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, who were fighters as well, wanted to put a show on for the audience and gain attention for the fledging organization. Whenever they fought opponents of significantly less skill (Funaki and Suzuki were demons at submission grappling) they would often “carry” the fight to make it appear more competitive. Sometimes this backfired, as when Funaki allowed kung-fu stylist Jason DeLucia (Fresh off of his second defeat to Royce Gracie) to put him in a knee bar. Funaki miscalculated his distance from the ropes and was unable to grab for an escape, thus resulting in a submission defeat and an injured knee.

Along with this, several exhibition fights appear online without context and show up on fighters’ records. Ken Shamrock vs. Matt Hume, for example, features a number of obvious spots (Planned moves) and ends in a Northern Lights Suplex. Though the Japanese audience at the time knew it would just be a worked exhibition, an uninformed viewer watching it today might assume the whole promotion was blatantly rigged.

– Some promotions put on both pro wrestling and MMA bouts. RINGS is a particularly frustrating example of this because a lot of wrestling matches have ended up on Sherdog and other record databases. This includes Alexander Karelin’s match with Akira Maeda, which any sensible person knows immediately was a work because God is not generous enough to have let us watch Karelin fight in MMA.

– Although the shoot-style wrestlers had been training submission grappling even before the advent of MMA, their original jobs as entertainers still entailed that they put on a show for the audience. Thus, the techniques and holds that were the most crowd-pleasing were still emphasized more than others. Leglocks and armbars, for example, were utilized much more than chokes because they were considered more exciting. These habits carried over to when the wrestlers began fighting for real in Pancrase and other organizations, resulting in grappling matches that simply didn’t look like what a modern MMA fan would expect to see. The ground action really did feel more like pro wrestling than it did BJJ.

The glaring flaws in the grappling games of the early shootfighters were put on full display when Ken Shamrock fought Royce Gracie in UFC 1. When Shammy had Royce on his back, he immediately fell back for a heel hook. After that failed (partly because Royce wasn’t wearing giant shinguards that make it easier to execute), he promptly turtled up because he wasn’t used to having to defend chokes, and subsequently got strangled. After Masa Funaki duplicated these results against Ken back in Pancrase, everybody’s ground game progressively got more practical.

– Sometimes legitimate shootfights really did occur in wrestling promotions. Ken Shamrock’s match with Muay Thai champion Don Nakaya Nielsen in Pro-Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi, for example, was a real fight and apparently played a role in Pancrase launching the following year.

– A handful of assholes tried passing off their worked wrestling matches as real. Bart Vale, who wrestled for Pro-Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi, became a prominent figure in the early American MMA scene by claiming his victory over Ken Shamrock in the organization was a shoot. Black Belt Magazine, in their usual fashion, still promotes his victories as legitimate even to this day.

These befuddling factors might cause a person to just totally disregard the infant years of the Japanese MMA scene. In doing so, however, he would be ignoring some of the most phenomenal showdowns of the greatest warriors the sport has ever produced. Ken Shamrock, Bas Rutten, Minoru Suzuki, Frank Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki, Semmy Schilt, Guy Mezger, Maurice Smith, Oleg Taktarov, Erik Paulson, Yuki Nakai, Rumina Sato… Some of the best ever fought in that era. Organizations such as Pancrase and Shooto were offering its athletes prestige and a steady paycheck while the UFC was still struggling to keep its fighters from being arrested wherever they held an event. MMA was a REAL sport in Japan during a time when it was just a pay-per-view sideshow in America.

If you consider yourself an MMA nerd, you have to check out these old school wars. Much like the early, “There are No Rules!!!” UFC bloodbaths, there ain’t nothing quite like these early Japanese speedo duels. Distinguishing between a worked and shoot match isn’t difficult if you have a trained eye:

– If the promotion you’re watching is the Universal Wrestling Federation, Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi, BattleARTS, UWF International, or Kingdom (Which Kazushi Sakuraba performed for) the fight is almost certainly a WORK. Don’t be fooled by how hard these dudes hit each other or how technical and realistic the fighting seems. This style of wrestling isn’t like Lucha Libre or American “sports entertainment.”

– If the promotion you’re watching is Pancrase or Shooto, then the fight is almost certainly a SHOOT except in special case.

– If you’re not sure what the Hell you’re watching, keep an eye out for the usual pro wrestling fair: Suplexes, people feeding into submission holds, overreactions to strikes (They call this “selling” in the wrestling biz), fighters falling down deliberately, etc. Something to note is that in worked shoot-style promotions, it was surprisingly more common to see fighters wearing karate/Judo gis and other uniforms related to their background styles. Fighters in Pancrase and Shooto rarely wore anything more restrictive than a singlet.

– Keep in mind that a flashy move being used in a fight doesn’t automatically make it fake. Many early shootfighters were ex-wrestlers, after all, and were liable to dick around on occasion. In Manubu Yamada’s title fight with Ken Shamrock, for example, the Japanese fighter actually attempted to nail his opponent with a flying drop kick. The strike didn’t land and Yamada spent most of the fight being dominated on the ground.

– RINGS can be tough to analyze because the promotion was purely wrestling before 1995, and later began simultaneously hosting real MMA fights alongside worked shoot-style fights. Many of their prominent fighters did both, adding to the confusion. Although it’s safe to say Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko didn’t do any works, most RINGS fights need to be judged on an individual basis. Just remember to keep an eye out for the usual wrestling shit and don’t trust Sherdog!


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