Often, when wrestling reporters cover mixed martial arts or vice versa, their readers revolt, wondering what the hell the sport and the pseudo-sport actually have to do with each other beyond the occasional crossover athlete like Brock Lesnar, Ken Shamrock, or CM Punk. The reality is that the history of MMA is inextricable from the history of wrestling. The earliest proto-MMA promotions of note, Shooto and Pancrase, were in fact formed by disgruntled pro wrestlers who wanted to test themselves and the catch wrestling that they had learned over the years, and there have been long periods when the lines between real pro wrestling and fake MMA were blurred to the point where it wasn’t always clear which was, in reality, more authentic. The deep entwining of the two forms, though, found its ultimate expression in the early history of Pride Fighting Championships, which ran its debut card 20 years ago this week. To understand it in its full context, you need to understand the history of Japanese pro wrestling.
Pride FC, which would eventually become the most important MMA promotion in the world, home to legends like Fedor Emelianenko and Wanderlei Silva and the highest-level hand-to-hand fighting the world had yet seen, was launched with a card that featured a not just legitimate MMA fights, but also worked bouts—pro wrestling matches, essentially, if performed in a more realistic style than you would see on Monday Night Raw. This only made sense, because the Japanese fighter headlining the card was Nobuhiko Takada, who had become one of the country’s biggest sports stars as the ace of UWFI, one of several pro wrestling promotions that did shoot-style matches: More or less realistic pro wrestling billed as a legitimate alternative to what the “fakers” in New Japan Pro Wrestling and elsewhere were putting on.
Takada, though, didn’t come out of nowhere. He started in NJPW in the first place, as did some of his shoot-style peers like Kazuo Yamazaki. Debuting in 1981, he started the same way that all of the company’s trainees did, performing basic matches in plain black trunks and black boots, with the idea being that everyone would master the business’s fundamentals before heading abroad for seasoning. (The closest American comparison I can muster off the top of my head, since there isn’t really a good one, might be Shawn Michaels, someone who was marked for brilliance in the ring from the start and ripe for stardom outside of it thanks to his striking good looks.) After accompanying boss and top NJPW star Antonio Inoki—who had his own ties to proto-MMA, most famously involving a legitimate match against Muhammad Ali—on a 1983 trip to Calgary, he started to get more exposure, culminating in a consensus match of the year candidate against Yoshiaki Yatsu in April 1984.
Takada appeared to be poised to be one of the company’s next big stars, but instead bolted to a new promotion, the UWF, in the aftermath of Inoki being accused of embezzlement. Initially just a new promotion featuring NJPW-style wrestling, it had shifted towards a more realistic style at the behest of top stars like Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Satoru Sayama, both legitimately gifted catch wrestlers. The new style was a huge hit in Tokyo, but nowhere else, and so the promotion closed. Sayama left wrestling to develop a new sport, which eventually led to the formation of Shooto, his proto-MMA promotion, while the other key native Japanese stars went to NJPW for a years-long feud .
There, Takada picked up where he left off, getting pushed as a top junior heavyweight and tag team wrestler. He put on numerous great matches, to the point that calling him the best performer in the whole business wouldn’t be a huge exaggeration. But when his closest ally, Akira Maeda, decided to cheap-shot top star Riki Choshu by breaking his orbital bone, the cycle repeated itself, with a new UWF forming and all of Maeda’s allies—Takada included—leaving with him. This UWF did better than the original, but mismanagement and limited growth led to the company being shuttered at the end of 1990.
At that point, instead of anyone going back to NJPW, the company split three ways: Takada and his faction formed UWF International; Maeda launched RINGS; and Fujiwara (who got an assist from a billionaire eyeglass magnate) started Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi, which loosely translates as Fujiwara Family. While UWFI and PWFG continued doing the same basic UWF style—more recognizable as a style of traditional pro wrestling performance, heavy on kicks, suplexes, and low-defense grappling—RINGS claimed to be another sport entirely. (It would eventually evolve into a legitimate MMA promotion, featuring the likes of Emelianenko, Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Randy Couture.) This alphabet soup of “shoot” and shoot-style pro wrestling got even more complicated when PWFG saw mass exoduses in 1993 and 1996, the former of which led to the creation of Pancrase, which was, at least nominally, actually real, and which produced Ken Shamrock, soon to be one of MMA’s first breakout stars in the UFC.
UWFI and RINGS both thrived almost immediately, even with their dramatically opposite approaches. While Maeda’s RINGS sought out Russian and Dutch sambo players and kickboxers without existing pro wrestling connections to fill out the roster, Takada’s UWFI was a mix of established UWF stars, new trainees, and known American pro wrestlers who had some kind of amateur pro wrestling or judo background. This meant that, at least early on, the UWFI booked everyone from The Iron Sheik to Allen “Bad News Brown” Coage to guitar-playing journeyman J.T. Southern, leading to a surreal mix of flamboyant pro wrestling pantomime and reasonably authentic fighting technique. At the main event level, Takada, with his movie star looks and quick, powerful kicks, was given the most credible athletes of the lot, like Bob Backlund, the former WWF champion with a background as a serious amateur. Gary Albright, a Nebraskan collegiate standout who had turned pro without much success in the late ’80s, became his big rival.
Dispatching the likes of Backlund and Albright in impressive if relatively conventional pro wrestling matches wasn’t enough for Takada. Some of his most notable and impressive wins, like a “mixed rules” bout with boxer Trevor Berbick, who walked out on the match claiming that the rules had been changed on him, came under just plain weird circumstances. Others, like the match where he legitimately knocked out sumo grand champion turned pro wrestler Koji Kitao with a high kick, were reported in the wrestling media as double crosses. (One Backlund match ended with an accidental knockout win for Takada, but if it hadn’t come out of nowhere a few minutes into the match, resulting in pissed-off fans, it would probably get lumped in with the Kitao match.) This is perhaps not surprising; after all, Takada was a long-time running buddy of Maeda, who had developed a reputation for this kind of thing. In any event, these were instances of the fundamental blurring of the lines between reality and fiction in wrestling and MMA. Which was more real: A Pancrase fight that, boxing-style, featured legitimate competition with one fighter taking a dive, or a UWFI wrestling match in which one fighter took advantage of and legitimately injured the other?
Between the tension and drama this kind of question raised and Takada’s charisma and abilities as a performer, UWFI did tremendous business, including packing baseball stadiums. Unfortunately for Takada, though, in the mid-’90s, some fans started to look at the promotion in a different way due to the rise of Pancrase and the UFC. Sayama had also started running full-on MMA (then called “no holds barred”) cards in the form of Japan Vale Tudo, a Shooto affiliate. Next to real fights, semi-real fights based on pro wrestling rules, and even the more grounded pro wrestling in in RINGS, the UWFI looked very much like regular pro wrestling.
This was nowhere more evident than on April 2, 1995, where the magazine Weekly Pro Wrestling ran a show at the Tokyo Dome featuring one bout each from 13 major promotions. The shoot and shoot-style groups’ matches were all slotted back to back, and with PWFG seemingly giving up on shoot-style by booking a match with comedy wrestler Don Arakawa, the UWFI offering was the shadiest looking of that portion of the card. It probably didn’t help that it was a six man tag team match, but compared to the (probably?) real Pancrase match and RINGS’ brand of stoicism, the UWFI just looked, well, fake.
The in-ring style wasn’t the only issue, though. Rickson Gracie, purportedly the best fighter of Brazillian jiu jitsu master Helio Gracie’s many sons, had won the 1994 version of Sayama’s Japan Vale Tudo Open. All things considered, even if Gracie was clearly the class of the tournament—as he was when he won again in 1995—he arguably had a tougher field than most early UFC tournament winners did. (After all, the Shooto connection meant that there were more fighters in the field with submission grappling knowledge.) Still, the UWFI decided to take Gracie head on, issuing grandstand challenges for him to fight Takada in the UWFI. Gracie, not wanting to muddy the waters, issued a statement saying that he wouldn’t go to the UWFI because they didn’t have real fights, but would gladly take on Takada on a Japan Vale Tudo card. The UWFI contingent continued the public shit-talking, with Takada disciple Yoji Anjoh, considered the best fighter on the roster, offering to fly to California to challenge Rickson at his gym, something that local martial artists were often invited to try. His famous last words were that he was “200% sure” that he would win.
If you know anything about MMA and/or jiu-jitsu, this sounds completely ridiculous, but there is a lot of context that needs to be considered. Most importantly, the NJPW and then UWF/UWFI wrestlers had been trained in catch wrestling—a completely legitimate form of grappling successfully used in high-level competition by the likes of Ken Shamrock and Josh Barnett—for years, and it was considered something like a secret art tightly held within pro wrestling. That training in a form of wrestling and submission work no one outside the business understood surely meant something, right?
Further, while pro wrestling performances aren’t necessarily a good gauge, if you watch UWFI footage, Anjoh does incorporate more diverse techniques than most of his peers, including Muay Thai-style clinching. It’s not a stretch to think that he was one of the the more learned martial artists of the bunch, and even if there were future legitimate MMA standouts Kazushi Sakuraba and Kiyoshi Tamura in the gym, Anjoh had size and stature, which likely played a role in him getting the nod over his smaller peers. Finally, in hindsight, the idea of someone from this stable thinking that he could beat Rickson Gracie seems less preposterous when you consider how Sakuraba, then a less experienced UWFI trainee, would systematically defeat Gracie’s brothers and cousins using what he learned there.
When Anjoh got to Rickson’s gym, he wasn’t there, so he drove over after getting the call, taping his fists on the way. After asking the assembled Japanese media to leave, Gracie took Anjoh down, mounted him, and beat the everloving crap out of him. Anjoh had no chance, and his battered, swollen face was all over the sports pages and wrestling magazines over the course of the next week. (He later showed a good sense humor about it—donning a mask as “200% Machine” to poke fun at his promise to win the gym fight—en route to eventually becoming an effective preliminary-level heel in more conventional pro wrestling promotions.)
Given prevailing norms in Japanese combat sports, Nobuhiko Takada was immediately expected to avenge his protege’s defeat by returning the favor and smashing Rickson Gracie. There was one small problem with that: Takada couldn’t fight a lick.
Just how Takada could be so bad at fighting, especially compared to his peers and his proteges, is a question that has never really been properly answered, at least in English-language media. But he knew that he was a fraud, and that he had nothing for Rickson Gracie. He left the issue alone. UWFI business suffered, and with financial problems mounting, the promotion cut a deal to feud with NJPW, aided by previous grandstand challenges to their world champion. The first NJPW vs. UWFI show, in October of 1995, saw NJPW given full booking control, and it was a massacre, with the host promotion winning almost every match over the alleged shooters. The exclamation point saw Takada lose the main event via a highly symbolic submission to Keiji Mutoh: The latter won with his signature figure four leglock, a worked hold in that it’s basically impossible to apply without cooperation, exposing Takada as just another “faker.” The feud continued to do big business, inspiring WCW’s even more successful NWO angle, and Takada even won Mutoh’s IWGP heavyweight championship in January; still, the expiration date on the whole program was clearly set at the first show. Takada dropped the belt three months after he won it to Shinya Hashimoto, who had the strongest “tough guy” aura of NJPW’s top stars, and the UWFI was over.
A few outside dates at a five-figure price tag aside, Takada was done with pro wrestling proper, even as the wrestlers from his dojo started a new promotion, Kingdom. The saving grace, though, soon became clear: Even though he hadn’t avenged Anjoh, nobody really knew that he couldn’t fight, so if he took on Rickson in an honest-to-God fight, it would draw a ton of money. He found some backers—presumably the same way anyone in Japan finds backers for a fighting promotion—and they announced Pride for October 11, 1997 at the Tokyo Dome. With the real story being about just about everything else leading up to it, there honestly isn’t much to say about the fight itself. Takada looked sad and terrified during his entrance, and he was right to be. Gracie ran through him en route to securing a submission by armbar.
The event was enough of a success that with the next card, which lacked Takada, drawing badly by comparison, building him back up for a rematch was of the utmost importance. His bout with random American kickboxer Kyle Sturgeon was, thus, like all of Takada’s wins, a total work, something he later admitted in his memoir. The “fight” was typical of what became a pattern with Takada’s wins: They looked like abbreviated UWFI matches, with pro wrestling-style selling and other theatrics. His most infamous “win,” over legitimate heavyweight MMA legend Mark Coleman, even saw the former Olympian, even featured Coleman, caught in a heel hook, dramatically selling and teasing that he didn’t want to give up before tapping out. Setting aside what a pro wrestling trope that is, it’s also the hold you would least want to hold out in.
As much as Takada knew he was fucked going into the frst Rickson fight, he did try to get better training to put up more of a fight the second time. Sure, he might lose, but he wouldn’t embarrass himself. He went to California to train at Beverly Hills Jiu Jitsu Club, which housed one of the sport’s best MMA teams at the time. Going into his training camp, one could consider the possibility that Rickson, being legitimately one of the greatest Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners of all time, just beat Takada because he would be a tough out for a lot of fighters in the early days of MMA. When Takada got there, it turned out that was not the case. The man once believed to be the greatest fighter in Japan, who had been training submission wrestling in some form for almost two decades, was getting caught in a submission and tapped out every time he rolled. But that wasn’t when he was training with pro fighters. That was what was happening when he was rolling with the white belts, the beginners who had nowhere close to the amount of training he had.
With a potential disaster of a squash match seemingly on deck for the rematch, Rickson took his time instead of going for the quick finish. At least Japan’s greatest fighter could say he held on longer this time. And his destruction at the hands of Gracie would set the stage for MMA to reach unprecedented heights, as the undersized UWFI wrestler Kazushi Sakuraba avenged the honor of pro wrestling by running through the Gracie family in spectacularly compelling and entirely legitimate bouts that built Pride into a monolith whose direct influence is felt in every aspect of MMA today. But that is an even stranger story, for another time.