Japan’s Rich MMA History: The Ken Shamrock Interview (2015)
Part One of Seven: An Introduction to the Hard-style Pro Wrestling
By William Colosimo | firstname.lastname@example.org
Some of the roots of today’s mixed martial arts (MMA) stem from submission wrestling. Bits and pieces of the origins of the style have been told, with many parts still left blank. This interview with one of the pioneers of the game is an attempt to fill in some of those gaps- and while by no means comprehensive, it is a large segment of the puzzle and should help illuminate some things that may have previously been unclear.
William Colosimo: Ken, I was hoping to talk to you about your early fight career- mainly your time in Japan from 1990 to 1996.
Ken Shamrock: Okay.
WC: MMA fans in the United States aren’t overly familiar with the Professional Wrestling Fujiwara-Gumi (PWF-Gumi). The organization has a rich history with Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki, and yourself- it’s a part of the origins of MMA- but as many don’t know about it, I’d like to delve into the topic.
KS: For sure.
WC: Let me go over some of the basic history before I get into the questions. Funaki and Suzuki had a prowrestling match in April 1990. This was held in the 2nd, “Newborn” UWF (formerly known as the Universal Wrestling Federation). Around June 1990 Dean Malenko had shown you tape of that match, which had inspired you to move in that direction. After that you had gone to a UWF tryout in Florida, set up through Malenko. A couple months later, maybe August 1990- there was your Japan tryout- and two months later in October 1990 you had your first UWF match with Yoji Anjo.
My first question for you- I had read a Bart Vale interview where he had mentioned that you had two Florida tryouts. Is this true? Was there one with Masami “Sammy” Soranaka and one with Bart Vale himself?
KS: No, no. There was one tryout.
WC: Okay- there was one tryout with Sammy Soranaka. I had heard on your interview on the Steve Austin podcast that Bart Vale was one of the people at the tryout that you had to spar with- he was one of maybe three people there.
WC: Was that sparring session pretty much just grappling?
KS: It was a while back and I don’t remember- I don’t know if he was allowed to strike and I was gonna take him down- all I know is that I had to do so many squats, and then I had to go against three or four different guys at the gym in the States- and Bart Vale happened to be one of them. I think I went with him last. It might have even been a different day- I don’t remember. But, I know with the guys I went against, at that particular time- especially at that gym- I went through all of them. So, it wasn’t like it was a challenge for me. And again, like I said- I can’t recall whether or not there was any striking on the stand up- it could have been, it could have not been- I just know that when we went at it, we went at it from the stand up to the ground. Whether it was just takedowns or if it was whatever it was- but I know that I obviously did very well because they moved me to Japan after that and did a tryout there because they wanted to find out how I would compete with the other guys because the ones that I did go against in Miami, I went through pretty easily.
WC: Okay. After that tryout, you went to Japan, and you were in the UWF for their last two shows- versus Anjo, where you got the win- and Funaki, where you got the loss. Then the UWF folded. With you being a newcomer- was Anjo OK with putting you over? What were your thoughts on his skills overall?
KS: I can’t really go into the politics on that, but- for me it was awesome. You know, I mean I thought it was a great opportunity for me to get in the ring and compete in front of that many people. I really appreciated working with Anjo, it was a great opportunity- and I made the best of it.
WC: PWF-Gumi had their first show in March 1991, three months after the final UWF show. Now, was Yoshiaki Fujiwara the public face of the new company or was someone else like Soranaka in control? Was Fujiwara the owner and booker?
KS: I’m not sure how that was. After the UWF disbanded, there was three different entities- there was Fujiwara, Akira Maeda, and Nobuhiko Takada. There were three guys that broke off, and we went with Fujiwara- me, Funaki, and Suzuki. We went with him for a while. And again, I’m not sure how all that worked in the office there or what was going on. It seemed to me like Fujiwara was the face and that they were trying to build the organization around him.
WC: When you went over to the UWF for those two matches- I believe you had mentioned in the past that Soranaka was the first to show you the heel hook- and he did that in Florida, and then you went to Japan two weeks prior to the Anjo match and you trained a little bit with Funaki and Fujiwara at that point.
KS: No, no- I had actually went to the Japan tryout and competed against four different guys- Suzuki and Funaki being the last two. I basically did a mini-tryout there. Then I went back home, and that’s when they told me that I would be coming back out for a match. And when I came back out for the match, I started working with some of the guys there- but I wasn’t there for two weeks, I was only there for a week.
WC: Okay, a week before the Anjo match and then you started training in their submission wrestling.
WC: Do you remember specifically who you were training with?
KS: I don’t- they were all trying to help me, and it seemed like everybody was interested in me doing well. So, I feel like I got help from a lot of different people.
WC: So Suzuki and Funaki were the third and fourth people you sparred with at your initial Japan tryout- was Yusuke Fuke one of the first two guys you sparred with?
KS: Yes, he was. Fuke was one of them.
WC: Would you have any idea who the other person was?
KS: I really don’t know.
WC: Did you ever spar live in the gym with Fujiwara?
KS: I don’t recall. There’s no question that when I first went in, those guys were so much better than I was with the submissions. When it came to the wrestling and the tough “fighting” fighting- that’s where my strength was. When it came to strictly submissions, I had a lot to learn.
WC: Concerning your time in the UWF and PWF-Gumi- do you have any specific impressions or memories from your interactions with Karl Gotch?
KS: When he came in there he was definitely a little older. Just a tough guy, very leather skinned. Tough personality- but at the same time, personable. At times he would work out doing some squats and things with us- he was just always in tremendous shape. I didn’t get to know him real personable, but we got to work with him here and there. My impression of him was just a leather skinned, tough man- but personable.
WC: Do you have any personal impressions or memories of your interactions with Yoshiaki Fujiwara?
KS: I thought Fujiwara was a fun guy to be around. And I wasn’t around, but just the stories in his younger days- man, there was nobody that could touch him when it came to ankle locks. He was a master at that. But, I got there later on when he was a little bit older. He was a machine- he could train all day long. And, I respected him. But he didn’t like to get hit.
WC: Do you remember if Fujiwara and Karl Gotch were two people who specifically helped you with a lot of your submissions?
KS: Karl Gotch helped everybody. He was kind of the guy that would be walking around, and then he would see somebody in the ring doing something wrong- he would go up there and show them how to do it by putting them in it and doing it properly. So, he was just kind of floating around, and when he’d seen somebody that needed correction he would correct them.
WC: What’s your impression on the kind of relationship Funaki and Suzuki had with Fujiwara? Would you say he was their mentor, a teacher, or was it purely a business relationship?
KS: No, they were young boys- under Maeda, Takada, and Fujiwara. They were trained by those guys, so they showed respect to them. But, just as myself- they had this vision of being able to do something more. Sometimes you’ve got to get out from underneath the people who are keeping you from doing what you need to do. And they had every right to want to be better and do more, because that was who they were. Obviously Fujiwara, Takada, and Maeda- that’s just not what they wanted. But, you can’t stop other people from trying to reach for the stars. And I think Suzuki and Funaki wanted to do something different, something that was more challenging. That was my thought process also, and it had nothing to do with being disrespectful to any of them. It just had something to do with what we had burning inside of us.
WC: When we say “young boy”- for the benefit of readers new to some of the Japanese culture, can you give me a general definition- was it an understudy? How would you describe a young boy in Japan?
KS: It’s like an internship when you’re in a job or a business- you gotta go fetch the papers, empty the trash, get coffee- all that stuff. A gofer at a construction job- clean the trash up at the end of the job, go grab wood, staples, and nails- you’re just going and running and doing things for people who have been there longer. And that’s kinda what the young boy is in the dojo, they’ve got to clean the mats, they’re there for guys to spar with and beat up on, cook the dinners and clean the dishes- and it’s a little bit more extreme in Japan, as opposed to what it would be here. But, the terms are pretty much the same as an internship or a gofer on a construction job.
WC: Young boys were prevalent in Pancrase- but was that a Japanese tradition from prowrestling? Was that young boy system around in PWF-Gumi and UWF?
KS: No, that young boy system was traditional from their culture. Even in the military. That’s just how they treated their elders, people that had taught or were teaching them whatever it is they were doing. That’s their culture.
WC: Did you do a lot of promotion for PWF-Gumi- was the company trying to push you in the Japanese magazines? Did you know you were becoming a star or a fan favorite there?
KS: Yeah, when I was in UWF- the very first match I had- I remember after I fought Anjo, we had such a great match, a lot of people thought I was hurt, a lot of people thought it was real- and that just goes to show you- that was my very first match. So you can understand their excitement for me to be able to go in and do what I did in my first match. The people were chanting my name when it was over, and Sammy came up because he was refereeing the match at the time. He walked up to me as I was in the corner holding my head, and he looked at me and he goes “You’re superstar.” I said “What?” and he goes “Superstar. They’re cheering your name.” And I didn’t understand what they were saying, I couldn’t really understand- it was my first time over there. They were calling me Wayne Shamrock. And I didn’t understand it- and then he said “They’re chanting your name.” I started to listen, and I could hear it. I remember I stood up and raised my hand and they went nuts. I thought to myself “Wow, this is a rush.” From that point, not only did the UWF realize- because I went out with Maeda after that match, they had taken me and I believe Sammy, I can’t remember who was with me- but they took me out to dinner after my first match. And they were talking about it and saying “You did a good job, we’re looking forward to this and this...”
And then I came back and I had a match with Funaki- my second match there. We put another tremendous match on. Again the fans went crazy on that one. And it was then when Funaki had realized “Wow, this kid is different”- because I blew him up. He was tired, he was exhausted. When you watch the match- Funaki actually tripped over me trying to put the finishing hold on me. He tripped over me, and he even told me after it was over. He said “Man, I was exhausted, you wore me out.” It wasn’t even a long match, it was like a ten minute match or something like that- but we had really gone pretty stiff. That’s when I gained his respect. I think that’s when we formed our relationship from there on out where I started to become- ah, after the Anjo fight I think people realized they had something, and then after the Funaki one they knew they had something.
WC: So you were a star there, and the way you probably knew you were a star was by the way the crowd popped during your matches?
KS: And not even that, just by the way I was being treated by everybody else- there were some guys that were jealous that wouldn’t talk to me, and then there were guys that would just be talking to me and telling me how great I was, and then the top guys- like Maeda, and Fujiwara, and even Sammy, who brought me in- were telling me that I was gonna be a superstar, and said what I did was tremendous. I didn’t know, but I felt it. I felt like “Hey, you know what- this is real.”
WC: So you just answered my next question on if you felt the company was giving you a push- it sounds like UWF and PWF-Gumi kind of wanted you to shine.
KS: Yeah there’s no question I was their meal ticket, that they could build their company. Because they had a lot of Japanese guys there- the international stars are what really push a lot of those companies- having that competition from the international celebrities, or stars, or fighters- or whatever you want to call it. That’s how their companies work- is by having that salt and pepper in the organizations, and having somebody that’s marketable and likeable to the Japanese fans.
WC: And when you bring that up- Bart Vale, being an American- he used to wear the red, white, and blue flag shorts, real large guy- when he was in the UWF at first he was losing a lot, but then in PWF-Gumi he started going on a winning streak, they got him the belt- it seemed like they were really pushing him. Were you and Bart basically the two top foreigners- and do you think Bart was possibly being pushed more in PWF-Gumi?
KS: Yeah, I believe Bart had a better relationship with Fujiwara than I did- even though I liked Fujiwara, we worked in some practices together and I built a relationship with him. But, I think what they knew is that I had a tremendous liking, but I almost think- and I don’t know this for sure, I’m only guessing- I think that they realized that I was gonna be going, I was going to leave- and that Suzuki and Funaki had plans to do something different, and they knew that they were talking to me, and Sammy told me what was going on and asked me what I was going to do, and I told him “I would really love to be able to do both. I would love to be able to do the shoot-style and this, if it’s possible. I don’t know. But whatever I do, I’ll let you know for sure.” So I think that they knew that I was stuck on the fence on what to do, and I was at that time because I didn’t know what they were doing, I didn’t know what they had planned, I didn’t know if this was real or if they had the ability to do what they said they were going to do.
WC: You had said the Japanese fans were chanting “Wayne”- on all the Pancrase tapes I’ve seen, they refer to you as Wayne Shamrock- is that something you told them, or is that your middle name? What was the reason behind Wayne Shamrock?
KS: I don’t know man, they just went with it. I said “OK.” I just went with what they told me (laughter).
WC: A question on Funaki, your main trainer: between his English and your Japanese- how did you guys communicate effectively?
KS: Very carefully (laughter). Very slowly and very clearly. I don’t know, I guess when you’re around somebody a long time and you’re training with them, you almost get what they’re trying to say with expressions and movement. You’ve done it so many times in training that you just know- so, I guess we just trained around each other long enough to know what it is he wanted.
WC: You were in Japan for long periods- how would you get around and communicate for the weeks you were there for a match?
KS: Well, I learned enough while I was there to get around. I couldn’t speak a sentence but I could introduce myself, I could order food, ask for directions- just small things.
WC: Along those lines, during your time in PWF-Gumi- how would it work with your stay in Japan? Would you go to Japan one or two weeks before the match to train, or would you stay for a couple weeks after the show?
KS: Well when I first went out there I would go for about four or five days at a time. Probably about my fourth or fifth match in I realized that I needed to spend more time learning- I couldn’t find anywhere in the States to actually go learn. So, I decided that I would go ahead and just fight- I would stay, because we had one every month- so I would stay for the next fight which was three to four weeks before the next one- and then I would fight, then I would fly home and I would just do weight training, cardio, run, maybe wrestle a little bit at a school or something. Then I would fly out and I would fight, and then I would stay in Japan– so every other month I was training in Japan, and then every other month I was home just doing some wrestling and working on my technique of submissions.
WC: So that was basically your routine for the two years you were in PWF-Gumi- and maybe it changed up in Pancrase as you had more experience with the Lion’s Den?
KS: Yeah- once we started moving into the Pancrase, that’s when I started to think- especially when I knew we were doing a shoot- I developed a team actually while I was in Fujiwara. I developed a team to help me train for the actual prowrestling events. And as I was doing that, we were actually doing a real shoot in the gym, just because that’s what I wanted to do. Then, Funaki asked me to join with Pancrase, and I said “Yeah, absolutely.” He asked me if I could bring fighters from the U.S. and I said “I’ve already got some guys I’m training with, absolutely.” So once I knew we were doing the shoot-style and that I was gonna be a part of the Pancrase organization, as a person bringing in talent from the U.S.- then I started putting out tryout flyers and information for people to come see me and tryout, which was another story of its own (laughter).
Saturday - Part Two of Seven: The Professional Wrestling Fujiwara-Gumi
Sunday - Part Three of Seven: Pancrase
Monday - Part Four of Seven: Pancrase Controversy
Tuesday - Part Five of Seven: Creating The Lion’s Den and Entering the First UFC
Wednesday - Part Six of Seven: UFC 2, UFC 3, and the Machado Family
Thursday - Part Seven of Seven: The Russian Bear and The Hammer
Visit Ken at www.kenshamrock.com
William Colosimo is a very part time writer who is always interested in interviewing fighters from either a submission wrestling lineage or the no holds barred era of fighting
Ken Shamrock is looking to reacquire all old Lion’s Den video footage- recordings of tryouts, gym fights, etcetera. If anything is in your possession, please feel free to contact him at www.kenshamrock.com