A Blood Called Shooto Nearly 25 years ago, Japanese professional wrestler Satoru Sayama -- better known as the original Tiger Mask -- had an idea about fighting, the seed of Shooto. The first-ever amateur Shooto event was held in 1986, while 1989 marked the first-ever occasion of “professional Shooting.” All mixed martial arts observers know of Greek Pankration -- and the more modern tradition of Brazilian vale tudo -- but Shooto has the longest lineage of any single combat sports entity in contemporary MMA. Fittingly, that lineage will be celebrated this Sunday in Tokyo, when leading Shooto promoter Sustain stages its 20th anniversary event. “Shooto” is an intriguing concept, its definition varying depending on who you ask. Although Sayama left the world of Shooto in 1986, his original vision is adhered to by authorities who view Shooto not as an organization but as an international sport unto itself, with its own system and rules, taking place from Japan to Australia to Brazil to Belgium and beyond. For some MMA fans, following Shooto is proof of fanaticism about the sport and, for others, an unfathomable hobby for MMA elitists. One thing that is readily clear, however, is that those who are passionate about Shooto have an intensity about it that is completely incongruous with how most people celebrate other MMA entities. Even in the heyday of UFC-versus-Pride debacles, debates raged over extrinsic qualities of aesthetic production values, roster quality and fighter purses. The world of Shooto, on the other hand, appears to have some invisible, intangible magic that grips its subjects at the soul. Few know it better than Taro Wakabayashi. The Craftsman Behind the Curtain Wakabayashi is a familiar face for those who have followed Shooto over the years. Strong jawed, short sleeved and bow-tied, he has been in the ring as a referee for well over a decade and has served in the Shooto offices for even longer. In 1992, at the age of 27, he left his job at Japanese advertising powerhouse Dentsu Tec to become a staff member with Akira Maeda’s Rings Fighting Network and, shortly after, a nascent K-1. In 1994, he entered the world of Shooto as a matchmaker and, over the last 15 years, has helped create MMA’s most comprehensive system. He may be MMA’s most experienced referee, having officiated quite literally thousands of bouts between amateur and professional Shooto. However, he also serves as a professional Shooto matchmaker -- responsible for a good deal of the pairings on Sunday’s card -- as well as being in charge of the gym administration for all official Shooto gyms. In addition, he oversees Shooto’s sophisticated amateur system. There are typically three to five amateur Shooto events per month, all over Japan. A young fighter who aspires to become a pro Shootor must fight his way through the amateurs, winning regional tournaments and performing well at the annual All-Japan tournaments in order to become a professional. This process has shaped and groomed a tremendous amount of Japan’s top MMA talent for the last 20 years, producing a list of names too expansive to enumerate. More importantly, the world of Shooto represents one of the only opportunities available to those outside of Tokyo who want to become mixed martial artists. Virtually all MMA in Japan is centered in Tokyo, and for athletes in northern Hokkaido or rural Tottori, chances to embark on a career in MMA are slim to nil. However, Shooto covers all 47 of Japan’s prefectures; it’s the only Japanese MMA entity even remotely that ambitious. Although the amateur system existed before Wakabayashi, its current state is owed to his craftsmanship. “The actual system, the sport, the commission, it’s all quite strong,” Wakabayashi says. “I think that kind of minute detail is very appealing or attractive to people.” Neither “appealing” nor “attractive” does it justice. Although it’s unsuitable to term Shooto an organization because of its conception and system, it’s also not appropriate because it represents something much larger. With its rich history, its production of fighting talent, its comprehensive system and the democratic sensibilities that let any athlete determine his own destiny in fighting, Shooto has become an intense culture unto itself. That statement may sound like asinine puffery. However, one need only look at this Sunday’s card to assess its truth. Why is it that the likes of Takanori Gomi, Mitsuhiro Ishida, Mizuto Hirota, Akiyo Nishiura and Kotetsu Boku -- all veterans of big-money Japanese MMA shows -- are fighting on the card for far more meager purses? Why is it that these established stars treat their returns to the Shooto ring as a proud duty, rather than an obligatory chore? Why did Takeshi Inoue give up the chance to fight in Sengoku’s featherweight tournament to defend his 143-pound crown? And why has Rumina Sato, during a 15-year career, refused to fight outside of Shooto-sanctioned events until he wins a Shooto world title? Pride in a fighter’s home organization is nothing new, but to look at how Shooto-bred fighters talk about Shooto is starkly different. If you didn’t know much about MMA, you might think they were discussing their own offshoot religion. It’s the kind of deep cultural tie that makes T-shirt slogans like “Shooto is my life” and “Shooto and Truth never die” honest, appropriate and commonplace among Shootors. It’s the sort of gravity that makes event titles like “The Victory of the Truth” and “Alive Road” seem less like run-of-the-mill English and more like spiritual instruction. “You know, I’m 43 years old. I don’t really know or understand what the younger generations see in Shooto,” Wakabayashi says with a chuckle. “I personally wanted to become a fighter when I was younger, and while that didn’t happen, I’m personally just trying to following my dream.” Even if he finds it hard to believe, that’s not to say Wakabayashi is ignorant to how seriously fighters take Shooto. “Even if these fighters eventually become famous and fight in the big shows, Shooto is like their home, somewhere they can always come back to,” he says. “Even if they start their own gym or dojo, their students are going to be fighting in amateur Shooto, and the cycle goes on and on.” Yuki Nakai is a Shooto hero.Wakabayashi does not need much prompting now; it’s like a chain reaction. The intangible aspects that make Shooto something larger than sport are something he’s undoubtedly paid mind to before. “One of Shooto’s strong points is that it’s honest. Shooto means choosing the right thing, being honest, going in the right direction; it’s about propriety,” Wakabayashi says. “In Shooto, we do the things we do for the ‘right’ reasons. We don’t have fighters fighting opponents outside of their weight classes, we don’t have excessively young fighters fighting in the events, and we don’t pit experienced fighters against inexperienced fighters. We do things properly for the sake of martial arts.” Wakabayashi takes a silent, thoughtful moment of introspection before he continues to carefully groom an analogy. “The way I see it, Shooto is like a school,” he says. “Young people these days, especially in Japan, they like ‘virtual’ things, like video games and so forth. But in the martial arts, it’s very interactive. You need to learn all kinds of things: mannerisms, how to respect people and how to make friends. And when you fight, you can’t really lie. You can have a real life experience in Shooto.” Wakabayashi himself is no different than the other fighters for whom Shooto touches something deeper within, embracing the same kind of spiritual slogans. He appears to be the author of some of them, as well; perhaps he’s Shooto’s answer to Publilius Syrus. “I’ve always said this as a kind of personal catchphrase: ‘Shooto isn’t my work; Shooto is my life,’” Wakabayashi says. Like any culture, Shooto has its own mythos. Shooto is replete with many suitable hero figures in its hall of champions, past and present, but one figure looms larger than all others. “When I think of Shooto icons, I usually think of Sayama first. Without him, there would be no Shooto,” Wakabayashi says. “But after him, it would definitely be Yuki Nakai.” A Hero Emerges Nakai was the third 150-pound world champion of pro Shooto. He roared out of the Super Tiger Gym in 1993, emerging as Shooto’s finest young talent. When Shooto authorities put together the second Vale Tudo Open card in 1995, Nakai was the ideal candidate through which to prove the strength of Japanese fighters and especially Shootors. The rest of the details are crystallized in MMA lore. Vastly outsized by the rest of the tournament field, Nakai took on notoriously lawless Dutchman Gerard Gordeau in the first round of the tournament. Gordeau brutally eye-gouged Nakai repeatedly over the course of their 27-minute bout. Nakai eventually emerged victorious via submission -- and even came back out in the semi-finals, eye bandaged, to submit American wrestler Craig Pittman. Nakai was trounced in the finals by Rickson Gracie but ultimately became legendary for his resolve. Gordeau’s gouging permanently blinded Nakai in his right eye. Although he was forced to retire at the age of 25, Nakai concealed his disability from the public for two years, fearing the backlash that may result against the sport he loved so passionately. Nakai is an even more complex figure for Wakabayashi. Not only is he a close friend, he is actually a business partner: it was Wakabayashi who co-founded the original Paraestra gym in Tokyo with Nakai in December 1997. In fact, Wakabayashi was the man who gave the original Tokyo gym the name “Paraestra,” and he still trains in that same gym today -- one of dozens of Paraestras all over the world. “Gordeau was someone I’d known. I’d known him for years, and he was my friend,” Wakabayashi says. “I knew he had his good points, but I also knew he had the potential to do bad things during fights.” There’s a true otherworldly reverence audible when anyone speaks about Nakai. Wakabayashi is no different. “When that fight was proposed, I was against it. I knew that even if Gordeau was faced with a smaller opponent, he’d still have done anything to win,” he says. “But Nakai told me then, ‘I’ll be fine. Do you really think I’d lose to him?’ By him saying that, I couldn’t really oppose him from fighting.” The Shootor's Passion It makes things simple when Wakabayashi is asked what he sees as Shooto’s greatest moment. “I think that for me, the greatest moment is when Nakai won against Gordeau. Because of the fight with Gordeau, we couldn’t give Nakai a Shooto license anymore; that was very difficult for me,” Wakabayashi laments. It’s the ultimate cliché of literary analysis, the scourge of any well-bred English major. It’s invoked nauseatingly by a great many pseudo-intellects and try-too-hards desperately feigning deep thought. It’s the Christ narrative. Yet, for Nakai, it’s never a comparison for which one has to reach but rather the one that instantly implants itself in the mind. Nakai’s story may be a devoutly secular one, but it isn’t particularly hard to understand why those in the world of Shooto see him as something greater than a fighter, trainer or originator. It’s monumental when titles such as “Shooto world champion,” “world-class trainer,” “the father of BJJ in Japan,” and “MMA pioneer” somehow do not seem grand enough for a particular person. However, Nakai’s selfless suffering -- his own passion -- is what both implicitly and explicitly informs the morality and mentality of Shooto. To watch, Nakai makes the abstract ideas about “fighting spirit” more concrete. Anyone can physically watch his bouts and see him fight, unwavering, and understand sacrifice and conviction in combat; this symbolism is easy. However, no less important are the less obvious tenets of improvement and evolution that Nakai promoted by bringing Brazilian jiu-jitsu back to Japan, demanding to discover how it was that Gracie had beaten him. The kanji characters used to write “Shooto” literally mean “learn” and “combat.” Surely then, Nakai is Shooto’s icon, its Christ. “In previous Vale Tudo Open events, all our Japanese fighters had lost. Seeing Nakai fight, guys like Rumina Sato had decided not to leave Shooto, and a guy like [Hayato] ‘Mach’ Sakurai decided he wanted to be a part of Shooto,” Wakabayashi says. “After watching Nakai fight, that’s when Shooto became my life.” Picking Bones No matter how momentous and sentimental its past, I can’t help but feel professional Shooto has come to a crossroads with its 20th Anniversary. Over the last decade, Shooto Japan has, however wittingly, carved out its niche in the lighter weight classes. It was home to many of the top welterweights at the turn of the decade -- Anderson Silva, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Jutaro Nakao and Tetsuji Kato -- but with the rise of the UFC, the strength of its 168-pound division evaporated over time. Eventually, the lightweight division was its calling card, due to the depth of the division and the fact that so few well-paying organizations had opportunities for these fighters. Rumina Sato, Caol Uno, Dokonjonosuke Mishima, Takanori Gomi, Joachim Hansen, Vitor Ribeiro, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Mitsuhiro Ishida and others all jump off the page on a list of Shooto’s top 154-pounders. However, when Dream Stage Entertainment retooled its Bushido program and launched its own lightweight division, and K-1 backer Fighting and Entertainment Group launched Hero’s, the fighters who had created the image of Shooto Japan as the factory of lightweights were gone. Even with the rise of the promotions that picked the bones of its 168- and 154-pound divisions, Shooto Japan still remained the locus of flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight divisions. Shooto authorities and promoters never intended to define a role for Shooto in this way, but it was the only show in town, thus defining its role for the last five years. Will Shooto lose Kojima?However, Shooto’s control over the sub-lightweight world is rapidly shrinking, domestically and internationally. This year has featured featherweight tournaments from both Dream and Sengoku -- each bracket replete with Shooto veterans -- and Sengoku plans a strong emphasis on the bantamweight division in the near future. Meanwhile, Zuffa’s World Extreme Cagefighting product has become the righteous delicacy of hardcore fans, controlling most of the world’s top fighters at 135 and 145 pounds, including many Shooto veterans who have crossed the pond to fight in the cage. With the anticipated forthcoming addition of the WEC’s flyweight division, which will likely include Shooto world champion Shinichi "BJ" Kojima, there’s a serious question as to whether or not professional Shooto can withstand another redefinition. Promotions, Possibilities and the Art of Party Planning Not too surprisingly, Taro Wakabayashi -- the man who arguably knows Shooto best -- is not concerned with the world outside of Shooto. “We’re just going to continue on like we’ve always been, without really changing anything,” he says. “I think one of Shooto’s attractive points is just that it continues. There have been fighters who have been fighting for 20 years, and there are new fighters, too, but no one is going to remember the champions of a promotion that has disappeared.” Hearing Wakabayashi’s answers, and having talked with Shooto bigwigs in the past, I’m always stunned by the honesty with which they assert that Shooto as a concept and ideology is what’s important, not Shooto as a powerhouse promotion. Wakabayashi’s analogy of Shooto as a school seems increasingly more apt; the emphasis is placed firmly on the pragmatic improvements of athletes -- as people and as prizefighters -- rather than any promotional niche on which Shooto brass can capitalize. For the man who says Shooto is not his work but his life, the idea that Shooto would be impacted by the promotional strategy of big money MMA is simply folly. “Money is important, but there’s more to life than just that: the experiences you have with your friends and things like that,” Wakabayashi says. “That’s Shooto.” Part of it is that Wakabayashi, like his fellow Shooto officials, takes a sincere pride in seeing Shootors go on to high-profile, lucrative status in MMA. There’s a deep belief that Shooto is not the ring fighters stand inside but something inside of fighters when they’re in the ring. However, that’s not to say that fighters never return to that ring, since Shooto homecomings are prevalent for star Shootors and play a considerable role in Sunday’s 20th Anniversary card. “I’m very much involved in matchmaking, so I actually thought a lot about these matches,” Wakabayashi says. “I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about them, but I think they’re fitting for the 20th anniversary.” It is befitting simply in terms of the star power. Although it would be impossible to feature every active important fighter who once graced the Shooto mats, promotional group Sustain has put together a card featuring high-profile Japanese talent, including Gomi, Ishida, Sato, “Lion Takeshi” Takeshi Inoue and arguably the sport’s greatest female, Megumi Fujii, among others. However, the event simply isn’t a collage of talent, a homecoming hodgepodge of meaningless fights. Rather, these fighters face forks in the roads in the Shooto ring. “This card doesn’t really represent all of Shooto’s weight classes, so it probably doesn’t convey the whole picture of what Shooto is,” Wakabayashi asserts. “But in terms of relevance, there are certain fighters on the card who can either win everything or lose everything.” All-or-Nothing Anniversary Wakabayashi’s assessment could not be much more accurate. To scan up and down the card, nearly all of the major matchups on the bill are built on the principles of make-or-break, do-or-die scenarios. Something Special The many faces of Shooto.Kenichiro Togashi and Tetsuji Kato will fight, essentially, to help themselves get in line for a run toward prominence, rather than simply being called upon by promoters to serve as gatekeepers. Kotetsu Boku and Yutaka Ueda will meet with vastly different motives; Boku, a rock-solid and serially underrated veteran, has not been able to stick around in shows like Hero’s and Dream and has battled to become more than a slick one-dimensional striker. If he’s to be considered something greater than criminally overlooked and if he wants to earn more lucrative purses, then he must deal with Ueda, a hard-punching prospect with designs on upward mobility in Shooto. A loss for Boku leaves him to uncomfortably fill a role as the gatekeeper-to-the-stars in the division, while a loss for Ueda makes him just another lightweight, rather than one to keep an eye on. Ishida and Mizuto Hirota have both been on the rollercoaster. Ishida was the first man to put a blemish on the record of Gilbert Melendez but was shockingly choked out by former Shooto world champion Uno in last year’s Dream lightweight grand prix. Hirota upset streaking International Fight League champion Ryan Schultz in Sengoku’s lightweight tournament before an underwhelming performance in his semi-final loss to Kazunori Yokota. With Dream still possessing a rock-solid contingent of that weight’s elite and Sengoku shrewdly piecing together its own strong 154-pound division, a loss for either fighter leaves him even further behind in an ever-expanding lightweight universe. Both Ishida and Hirota have been to major shows; Yusuke Endo and Willamy Chiquerim have not. The 26-year-old Endo has teetered on the cusp of a breakout for the past three years, but despite wins over blonde brawler Ganjo Tentsuku and UFC sparkplug Clay Guida, he has not been able to get over the hump and get to his golden ticket. The 21-year old Chiquerim, the Shooto South American 154-pound champion, has struggled to find suitable tests on the Brazilian regional circuit and now has the chance to leap into the consciousness of hardcore fans and Shooto authorities. A loss for either man further consigns him to the regional scenes he’s desperate to escape. The recent doldrums of former lightweight king Gomi have befuddled and bemused MMA fans. “The Fireball Kid” has looked positively lackluster over the last two and a half years, and with a crop of young and gifted lightweights emerging, a third straight loss would all but banish him to the periphery of the division, despite being perhaps the most accomplished fighter in the division’s history. However, in opposition, he finds current Shooto world champion Takashi Nakakura, who’s one of the sport’s most improved fighters over the last two years. At 32 years old, the time is now for the Osakan, who belongs to the same championship lineage as Uno, Hansen, “Shaolin” Ribeiro, Kawajiri and Gomi himself. If the new-look Nakakura can knock off Gomi, bigger paydays and marquee opposition will not be far behind. That leaves the main event, a quintessential passing of the torch. While it may not be his last bout ever, this will likely be Sato’s last chance in his 15-year odyssey to become Shooto world champion. Sato’s championship quest has been MMA’s ultimate exercise in repetitious heartbreak, as his career of high-profile failures has made him the sport’s ultimate tragic hero. It was a decade ago -- at Shooto’s 10th Anniversary show -- that he first challenged a young, unheralded underdog named Caol Uno for the title and was upset in one of MMA’s seminal classics. Now 35 years old, this fight represents the last stand for “Shooto’s Charisma,” as he takes on Shooto’s poster boy nouveau and 143-pound world champion, “Lion Takeshi.” Inoue gave up a potential berth in Sengoku’s featherweight grand prix to defend his title against Sato, showing the kind of unflinching loyalty that typifies Shootors. The bout is more symbolic than it is relevant. With one win in the last four years, Sato in no way deserves a shot at Lion Takeshi and will likely be knocked out. However, it all seems strangely appropriate for professional Shooto’s 20th Anniversary. And in the off-chance that Sato actually won, well, words would surely fail. “It’s an all-or-nothing event,” says Wakabayashi. “It’s very life-and-death and very much fitting of a Shooto card.” Nothing out-of-the-ordinary is going to happen, per se, in that familiar ring at JCB Hall in Tokyo on Sunday. It is, in some ways, just another card, just another nine MMA fights. It probably won’t rewrite MMA’s top 10s and pound-for-pound universe or blaze over blogs with feverish discussion. However, the blood and magic of professional Shooto exists both within and beyond MMA. To read Shooto’s 20th anniversary as just another excellent nine-fight card misses the point entirely. “Of course, I think it’s important to make promotions bigger or make more money or foster more famous fighters,” Wakabayashi says. “But I’ve learned it’s not really all about that. What is important is that the fighters grow. It’s really a very precious and rewarding experience, as a human being, to be involved in something like this.” Something like this. Something that inspires a culture of fighters, not just in their skill but in their conviction. Something like blood. Something called Shooto. Here’s to another 20 years of that something special.
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