Origins of MMA: When pro wrestling turns very real in Japan

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Fix

A ‘fix’ is a fight, purportedly legitimate, where one fighter knows the outcome, and the other does not. Professional boxing has proven to be an unfortunate source for hundreds of years of fixed fights, with the usual cause being gambling.

May 18, 1771, in England, Peter Corcoran knocked out Bill Darts in the first round.  The promoter, a noted gambler, Colonel Dennis O’Kelly, allegedly paid Darts 100 pounds (roughly US $10,000 today) to lose the match.

December 13, 1900, in Chicago, IL, Terry McGovern knocked out Joe Gans in the second round of what was alleged to be a fixed fight. The resulting scandal ended boxing in Illinois for almost two decades.

The Jake LaMotta vs Billy Fox real life fix was a central element in the Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. And it was a fix that led Marlon Brando’s Terry Mallot in On The Waterfront to say in agony “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

During the 1960s, Congress investigated organized control in boxing and discovered that fixing fights was at the heart of mob influence.

Even today there are occasional rumblings about fixes in boxing.

A Work

A ‘work’ is a fight where both competitors knows the outcome. Pro wrestling bouts are works – generally, the promoter dictates when the contest will end, and how, and the two athletes improvise the rest.

The Japanese pro wrestling scene often specializes in what is termed a ‘hard work’ where the outcome is predetermined, but the the contact is heavy.

Pro wrestling, as it can be whatever the promoter wants, and thinks will be the most compelling to the audience, often serves as a window on the character of the audience. Americans like drama, so the WWE is essentially a soap opera on steroids, literally.

The Japanese admire stoicism, so puroresu often features stars taking actual beatings bravely or ‘gamely’.

And very occasionally, things turn into a shoot.

A Shoot

‘A shoot’ is a legitimate match. When pro wrestling afficionado Jeff Osborne had the vision to start an MMA promotion not long after the UFC debuted, he called it HOOKnSHOOT. A ‘hook’ being a pro wrestling term for a real submission hold, and a shoot of course being a real match.

For generations, shoots took place behind closed doors. But every once in a very long while, s— got real.

Below are a examples of works that turned into shoots.

Antonion Inoki vs. The Great Antonio (real name Anton Barichievich)
December 8, 1977
Barichievich inexplicably stopped selling Inoki’s attacks and then struck Inoki repeated on the back of the head and neck. A furious Inoki turned it into a shoot (4:28 mark). Inoki is presently the best known figure in the Japanese pro wrestling scene, and also promotes MMA.

The Great Antonio ended his days destitute, homeless, hirsute, and illiterate on the streets of Mongtreal.


Naoya Ogawa vs Shinya Hashimoto
Contest appears to turn real around the 6:00 mark.
Naoya Ogawa, a Judoka, set a record of seven medals at the World Judo Championships, won a silver medal in the aOlympics, and later went on to a 7-2 record in MMA.

 Far from being about as relevant to MMA as say a hockey fight or a bench clearing brawl in baseball, pro wresting works turning to shoots are actually central to the birth of modern MMA.

The Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted on November 12, 1993. However, the Japanese Shooto organization was holding professional shoots starting in 1989, albeit without the world noticing much.

In 1985, Satoru “Tiger Mask” Sayama faced Akira Maeda in a worked, but hard bout, when Maeda started throwing real strikes and intentionally kicked Sayama in the groin (5:00 min mark below). Sayama promptly disavowed professional wrestling, wrote a tell-all book exposing it as fake, and formed the world’s first modern MMA organization – Shooto.