Monday, May 23, 2016

The birth of mixed martial arts is often identified as November 12, 1993, when UFC 1 was held. However, there were mixed martial arts contests in Japan with gloves that allowed standing knockouts and submissions on the ground. These grew out of pro wrestling in Japan that used authentic techniques.

One of the central figures in this development was Yoshiaki Fujiwara. Fujiwara had his eccentricities, some charming (he is a prolific artisan potter) and some less so (he was infamous to driving his head full force into the metal ring post, to the extent that Olympic Judo medalist Allen Coage feared he would suffer real injury).

In one of his oddest endeavors ever, Fujiwara journeyed to Canada, in an attempt to grapple a bear. To be frank, he looks like a fool.

No longer young, he goaded the bear over and again into charging him, at which point he is leveled like a leaf in the wind. The bear appears to wish him no harm, or he would have been ripped limb from limb. People say things like that, but he would have actually been ripped limb from limb.

The bear, nobly, did the least harm that it could to its harasser. The same can’t be said for the human, unfortunately.

Fujiwara is an often overlooked but absolutely seminal figure in Japanese shoot-style wrestling, and thus influential to the development of grappling and mixed martial arts in Japan.

A former Muay Thai kickboxer, Fujiwara was one of the original members of Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). Besides Inoki, his stablemates included iconic names such as Satoru Sayama, Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada. This group was tutored by the man the Japanese called “The God of Wrestling” – Karl Gotch. Of all his proteges the legendary catchwrestler would call Fujiwara “his best student ever.”

Backstage politics and differing philosophies would cause Fujiwara and many of his peers to abandon the NJPW and form the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF), a promotion which featured the ‘strong-style’ of pro wrestling which would become popular in Japan, showcasing realistic submissions and martial arts techniques. Fujiwara and some of the other wrestlers would return to the NJPW, but Fujiwara would later rejoin the UWF, bringing with him two of his pupils: Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki.

The UWF eventually dissolved and many of the wrestlers would go on in different directions. Sayama would go on to form the Shooto organization, while Maeda would found the Rings promotion. Fujiwara, Funaki, and Suzuki started another group called Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi (PWFG). Then, Funaki and Suzuki too would splinter off, and found the well-known Pancrase organization, becoming two of the sport’s earliest MMA stars.

Today, Fujiwara continues to perform occasionally and pass on his knowledge as a pro wrestling trainer. He has released submission wrestling instructional videos and is associated with Scientific Wrestling, a US catch-wrestling organization. While not directly responsible for founding Japanese MMA, he is still widely respected today by many in the industry as an influential performer and teacher.