The World's Greatest Fighter Was A Pro Wrestler Who Couldn't Fight

The World's Greatest Fighter Was A Pro Wrestler Who Couldn't Fight
From Deadspin - October 13, 2017

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 bydisgruntled 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 wasnt 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 boutspro 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 countrys 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, didnt 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 companys trainees did, performing basic matchesin plain black trunks and black boots, with the idea being that everyone would master the businesss fundamentals before heading abroad for seasoning. (The closest American comparison I can muster off the top of my head, since there isnt 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 Inokiwho had his own ties to proto-MMA, most famously involving a legitimate match against Muhammad Alion 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 companys 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 wouldnt 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 Maedas alliesTakada includedleaving 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 stylemore recognizable as a style of traditional pro wrestling performance, heavy on kicks, suplexes, and low-defense grapplingRINGS claimed to be another sport entirely. (It would eventually evolve into a legitimate MMA promotion, featuring the likes of Emelianenko, Antnio 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 MMAs first breakout stars in the UFC.

UWFI and RINGS both thrived almost immediately, even with their dramatically opposite approaches. While Maedas RINGS sought out Russian and Dutch sambo players and kickboxers without existing pro wrestling connections to fill out the roster, Takadas 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 wasnt 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 hadnt 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 Takadas 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 didnt 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.


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