Dealing With Anger While Sparring

As martial artists we might fancy to think ourselves as cool-headed as the Shaolin monks, but in reality we’re all just human under that veneer of honor and civility. Egos can unfortunately creep into training, and that can be particularly destructive to the dynamic of the gym and the relationships we have with our fellow students. Randori, when we’re actively working against a resisting partner, is the time when emotions really need to be kept in check. Frustration is not uncommon, especially when one is not executing techniques against an opponent effectively as he would like. If you find yourself succumbing to your own pride while rolling, here are a few steps to go through so you can cool off:

1. Take short, rapid breathes. The often-advised “deep breathing” strategy is actually counter-productive.

2. Eschew technique. Muscle everything.

3. If your frustration continues to mount, go out of your way to deliberately injure your partner.

4. Leave the mat mid-roll and begin pacing around the back of the gym. Mean-mug anybody who approaches you, and ignore your coach while he implores you to calm down.

5. Rush out to your car and pull the undersized Little League bat out of your trunk. Go back inside and attempt to menace your teammates.

6. Break down in a fit of tears and whine unintelligibly for the next half-hour.

7. Optional: Be forcibly extricated from the gym and beaten by your teammates in the parking lot. They’ll do just enough damage to keep you out of the hospital, and will leave you handcuffed naked in the snow to give you time to think about what you did.

8. Find your outburst posted on Youtube a week later and start the process all over again.


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!


On October 17, 1995, the World Combat Championship hosted its first and only MMA event in Charlotte, North Carolina. The promotion was essentially just an early UFC pay-per-view knockoff, but featured some great talent for the time. Among the fighters in the tournament were Renzo Gracie, Olympic Judo bronze medalist Ben Spijkers, Shooto champion Erik Paulson, and IBF cruiserweight boxing champion James Warring (Also making an appearance was mulleted shootfighting fraud Bart Vale). Little did anyone suspect, however, that the most dangerous man on the card that night was an unheralded alternate fighting in the first match of the preliminaries. His name was Jerry Bell, and he could’ve potentially contaminated every single competitor who fought in the cage that evening.

Hailing from Columbia, South Carolina, Bell got his start in combat sports fighting in Toughman contests all across his home state. The semi-professional Toughman competitions typically feature boxers with little or no training going up against other local brawlers in a debris-strewn ring while their beer swilling friends shout useless advice at them from the stands. Bell achieved some notable success in this circuit, becoming a three time champion of South Carolina and also fighting in the national Toughman tournament. He would go on to prepare for his legitimate professional boxing debut under the tutelage of local trainer Billy Stanick, who claimed the young heavyweight possessed tremendous athleticism and heart.

Before he was to turn pro, however, Bell decided to embark on a little side venture by competing in the bareknuckle, no-holds-barred World Combat Championship. As required, he received an HIV test before fighting but evaded his doctors calls following the examination. Bell, who by his own admission both was promiscuous and “didn’t believe in” contraceptives (douchebag), was nervous what the results would reveal. The repeated calls would not deter him from proceeding with his plans to step into the cage.

Like the UFC events of the same era, the World Combat Championship emphasized style vs. style contests, even going so far as dividing the tournament bracket into “Strikers” and “Grapplers” divisions (To add to the humor, Cecil Peoples was referee). Bell, being a preliminary fighter, would not be a part of the main draw and would instead face another combatant for a chance to be an alternate. His opponent, Phil Benedict, was a short but heavily muscled NCAA wrestler who could bench press 400 lbs. Despite the opposition and being a pure striker, Bell gave a relatively good account of himself, opening up a cut on Benedict’s nose with a straight right cross in the first few seconds of the fight. He wound up on top of his stocky opponent after Benedict failed with a throw, but would quickly be reversed and submitted with a choke just half a minute into the bout. Benedict would end up losing to Renzo Gracie in the semi-finals of the main draw later that night.

Bell would go on to make his professional boxing debut the following year, defeating his opponent by knockout in the first round. During this time, he would continue ignoring his doctor’s attempts to contact him and proceed with his daily training regimen as if everything was normal. Finally, TWO YEARS after receiving the test, Bell gave in and answered his doctor’s calls to have his worst fears confirmed: He was HIV positive. Shockingly, he kept this revelation hidden until 1998 while he progressed with his boxing career. When he finally decided to quit Bell had amassed a 9-0-0 record, knocking out every single one of his winless opponents in the first or second round.

Despite the fact that his MMA career lasted all but thirty-three seconds, Jerry Bell’s fight with Phil Benedict in the WCC is of profound historical significance to the sport. Bell’s bizarre and tragic personal saga, abetted by his own recklessly irresponsible decision making, is tough to stomach considering he did possess a decent amount of talent by most accounts. The most recent information available on him states he’s currently serving a fifteen year sentence for first-degree burglary. His story sheds some light on the dangers of poor oversight in combat sports, as he was allowed to compete both as a no-holds-barred fighter and a professional boxer despite carrying a lethal contagious disease. The notoriously inconsistent regulation of amateur MMA bears some serious scrutiny when you realize a guy like Jerry Bell could slip through the cracks.


Can scientific wrestling make a comeback?

Ever since the debut of the Ultimate Fighting Championship on pay-per-view, grappling martial arts have received a major boon in popularity.  No longer does boxing and cinematic kung-fu dominate the American public’s perception of unarmed combat as they had for years.  When people think of fighting nowadays, takedowns and chokeholds are almost as likely to come to mind as punches and kicks.  Grappling has shoehorned itself into our combative consciousness.

And yet, despite the fact that more people are studying arts like BJJ than ever, grappling as a spectator sport does not look like it’s going to take off any time soon.  MMA is strictly the only venue where people will pay to see men apply armbars and heel hooks on one another.  The viewing audience for pure wrestling, sans punches and kicks, seems to be limited to what can fit in a high school gymnasium.  This is interesting considering that, traditionally, wrestling was amongst the most popular sports in both America and the world as a whole.  Many moons ago, the popularity of legitimate professional wrestling actually rivaled that of baseball.  Following the expansion of the theatrical style of worked wrestling matches, however, public interest in scientific wrestling tapered off and never really recovered.

Could legitimate grappling contests ever regain any kind of public recognition in this country?  People have tried to bring it back before.  Real Pro Wrestling, a Tennessee based promotion, was formed to bring amateur wrestling back into the public eye. For two seasons, it broadcast wrestling contests on ION Television before the company eventually folded in 2007.  It would seem, especially in this day and age where both MMA and theatrical wrestling dominate the airwaves, that scientific wrestling does not have much of a chance at making a comeback.

Nothing is impossible, however.  After examining the success of other combat sports, as well as theatrical pro wrestling, I’ve come up with a list of ideas that I believe would need to be implemented in order for pure scientific wrestling to have a shot at becoming popular again:

– To start off with, it must be stressed that grappling is, in fact, combat.  Heavy emphasis should be put on the fact that all grappling styles are martial arts, even American wrestling.  There are several ways to facilitate this.  First off, regardless of whatever rule set is ultimately used, the matches should take place inside of a ring.  People associate rings with fighting, as both boxing and professional wrestling takes place inside a ring.  Rings are also more glamorous than traditional wrestling mats, which have an amateurish feel to them  (To prevent grapplers from tumbling out, it would likely be a good idea to line the bottom rope with a net, as they did in Vale Tudo).

Secondly, more militarized and interesting terminology should be used to describe techniques.  For example, instead of rear naked choke, announcers could use the law enforcement term for the hold: Lateral vascular restraint.  If not that, then perhaps the widely known sleeper hold.  Not only will this make grappling seem less like a sport and more like fighting, but it will also pique the interest of new fans and make them want to know how the techniques work.

Finally, Human Weapon style self-defense instructionals could be included in the hypothetical grappling program along with competitive bouts.  It must be made known that grappling can be used as a means to protect oneself.     

– I think neither ordinary amateur wrestling nor submission grappling rules would be most effective at capturing the public’s interest.  The rule set should allow for the entire gamut of grappling styles to compete, from Sumo to BJJ.  Taking a cue from Catch Wresting and Judo, a grappler should be able to win by both submission and three-count pinfall.  The addition of pinfalls, I believe, would both help enable more crowd pleasing action and give grappler from non-submission styles a more even plane to compete on.

– Stylistic and cultural clashes should be encouraged.  A promoter of this hypothetical grappling promotion would find it in his best interest to emphasize the international scope of the sport.  Fighters from exotic and esoteric styles (Pehlwani, Glima) should be brought in to contrast with fighters who use more conventional styles.  Grapplers should also be allowed to wear the traditional attire of their style, even if the different uniforms change the dynamics of the match (Such as gis).  Taking a cue from pro wrestling and Pancrase, vibrant colors should be encouraged to catch the eyes of potential spectators.

– The point system should be simple as possible to insure the uninitiated have no trouble keeping track of what’s going on.  Catch wrestling utilizes a twelve-minute time limit with no scoring system, so the only possible outcomes of a match are pinfall, submission, or draw.  With a system like that, there wouldn’t be a risk of new fans being distracted by how fighters are supposed to earn points.  The trade off is that a lot of matches would have the potential of going the distance with no decisive winner being declared. 

A rope escape points system similar to Pancrase and pro wrestling might also be something to consider.  Fighters would have a set number of points in the beginning and would lose one each time they grab the rope to escape a submission or pin.  There’s a lot of bullshit that could come with this one, however: Accidental rope grabs, and fighters risking serious injury trying to grab the rope instead of tapping.               

– It’s ok to get creative with the competition format if it helps getting people to watch.  David vs. Goliath and tag team matches are two good possibilities.  Open weight brackets, after all, are a staple of grappling tournaments.  Hook N’Shoot also used to hold tag team submission grappling matches, so it’s not a completely novel idea.  

– Well known names from the MMA and pro wrestling world could be brought in to attract attention.  The primary focus, however, should be put on young up-and-coming grapplers.  For an organization in any combat sport to be successful, it needs homegrown stars that people would identify the promotion with. 

Now that I’ve laid out all these ideas, I take it you’ll probably want to ask me this: Is it even necessary for scientific wrestling to make a comeback?  What would be the point in this day and age when MMA training is so widely available?  Well, there are several reasons why I think wrestling’s resurgence would be a positive thing, both for the sport itself and the martial arts community as a whole.  Despite MMA’s booming popularity, wrestling programs are still being cut in high schools and colleges all across the country.  If more kids were interested in learning the art of wrestling, these programs would be able to stay afloat and keep offering young people competent martial arts training as well as scholarships for college.  Along with this, a professional venue for scientific wrestling would give martial artists who are solely interested in the art of grappling another means to make a living besides teaching.  Despite MMA’s success, boxing and kickboxing are still popular worldwide.  Why shouldn’t grappling also get that kind of recognition?