Japan: The cradle of MMA Fergus Ryan, November 2010 An unfortunate by-product of the UFC's monopoly in global MMA is the misconception that the sport was created in Denver 1993 at UFC 1. Not so, as Japanese organisations held events with a brand of MMA that predate the UFC. Shooto was created by pro wrestler Satoru Sayama in 1985 who wanted to see what would happen if pro wrestling “fights” were real. It merged traditional martial arts and wrestling with no closed fists strikes. Creating a national system, young fighters could graduate from amateur to professional through various ranks. Holding its 1st pro MMA show in 1989, it remains the only MMA promotion to stage shows in all 47 of Japans prefectures (all other MMA promotions concentrate on Tokyo). It has been a nursery leading fighters like Shinya Aoki and Takanori Gomi. To give an indication of the th esteem Shooto is held locally, Gomi, a veteran of big-money shows, fought on the 2009 20 anniversary show for a meager purse and “Lion” Takeshi Inoue gave up the chance to fight in Sengoku’s featherweight tournament to defend his Shooto belt. Following in Shooto’s footsteps, pro wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki formed Pancrase in 1993. Disillusioned with pro wrestling and with similar rules to Shooto, they centred on the lucrative Tokyo market, attracting more international talent including Ken Shamrock (a pro wrestler in Japan at st the time). Shamrock would eventually become the 1 King of Pancrase, the organisation’s open- weight champion. An injury to Ken brought in his more talented brother Frank, who took over the King of Pancrase title. Bas Rutten started his MMA career in Pancrase enjoying a rivalry with the Shamrock brothers. Initially slow to change its rules, only adopting closed fist strikes in 1998, Pancrase lost out to newer promotions that were getting looser with the striking rules. When not suspended, Josh Barnett is proud to represent Pancrase as their reigning open weight champion and UFC stalwart Nate Marquardt is a 7 time middleweight King of Pancrase. Not to be outdone Shooto created the Vale Tudo Japan (VTJ) promotion in 1994. Closed fist strikes and strikes to a downed opponent were now legal. VTJ ran evens from 1994 to 1999 with the star being Rickson Gracie, winning the ‘94 and ‘95 tournaments. Rickson had long been considered the Gracie family champion and finally had a stage to prove it. At VTJ 95, Japan found an unlikely hero in the diminutive Yuki Nakai, the 150-pound Shooto champion, who showcased budo or Japanese fighting spirit. The smallest competitor, Nakai beat Dutchman Gerard Gordeau in the first round, despite being repeatedly eye-gouged during the 27-minute bout. Nakai came back out to win his semi final only to be beaten in the final by Gracie. Retiring at 25 after being blinded in his right eye, Nakai only revealed the extent of the injury after 2 years, not wanting Shooto to be blamed or criticised for such a brutal outcome. And then came Pride in 1997, showing the world how big MMA could be while the UFC floundered. Lured by the money and the esteem that fighters are held in Japan top international fighters joined the local warriors to wow the crowds. During the UFC’s “dark years” Pride was broadcast in 40 countries and still holds attendance records for live shows with over 90,000 people at the Pride and K-1 co- production, Shockwave/Dynamite, in August 2002, and over 67,000 people for its own Final Conflict 2003 event. The UFC was remerging after the Zuffa purchase only getting on average 45,000 pay per view buys and attendance of 10,000 in the arenas in 2002. Possibly the greatest collection of fighters ever assembled was for the Pride Open Weight Grand Prix tournament in 2000. Mark Coleman was victorious but the hour and half bout between Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba became the stuff of legend as pro wrestler turned MMA fighter hands the UFC pioneer his 1st defeat. Many of the biggest names in the game cut their teeth in the Pride ring – Wanderlai Silva, the Rua brothers, the Nogeuira brothers, Quinton Jackson, Fedor Emelianenko, Dan Henderson, Mirko Filipovic, Anderson Silva not to mention the countless local fighters like Sakuraba, Gomi, Fujita. In the end the decline was swift as financial problems, links to the Japanese mafia and a talent drain resulted in the sale of Pride to the UFC. New promotions World Victory Road and DREAM have failed to recapture the highs of their predecessor. We wouldn't have the UFC today if Japanese MMA and particularly Pride had never happened. While monopolies can be prohibitive for competition the UFC is taking MMA to places other promotions simply can’t and it’s important for the sport they continue to do so. But it’s equally important we remember the contribution Japan had in the rise of MMA.
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