TALES FROM THE MAT – 08.25.2019: When Mixed Martial Arts Meets Pro Wrestling

By Kris Levin, Columnist


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The convergence of MMA and professional wrestling is nothing new. It’s been a long road from the bloody Brazilian no-holds-barred Vale Tudo tournaments—which date back to the twenties—to the modern sport of mixed martial arts. Likewise, while some of professional wrestling’s earliest roots lay in submission-based grappling called “catch-as-catch-can wrestling,” the game has largely been a choreographed or otherwise cooperative production since the carnival days of the early twentieth century.

Half pro wrestling and half mixed martial arts, this winding series of independent-yet-interrelated sporting ventures has clustered into a knot that is Game Changer Wrestling’s production of Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport, which will be live on iPPV on September 14th from the Showboat in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Featuring former UFC Heavyweight Champion Josh Barnett vs. Jon Moxley in the main event, plus a slew of professional wrestlers with legitimate fighting credentials in a ring devoid of ropes competing in what falls somewhere between mixed martial arts exhibitions and the most graphically hard-hitting professional wrestling known to man, Bloodsport has proven in its first two outings to be nothing short of a tour de force for diehard fans of both avenues of combat.

With its third blockbuster showing just around the corner, let’s take a deep dive into the crossover between mixed martial arts and professional wrestling over the years and see how it has culminated into this unique, groundbreaking event.

Japan

Many point to the 1976 bout between all-time great boxer Muhammad Ali and Japanese professional wrestling icon Antonio Inoki as the mainstream precursor to modern mixed martial arts. Prior to that, “boxer versus wrestler” had been a common trope and marketing ploy in the professional wrestling business dating back to the sport’s origins circa the turn of the twentieth century. However, all modern bouts were worked (wrestling parlance for predetermined or fixed). This is in stark contrast to Ali and Inoki’s bout, which was initially conceptualized as a work but became a shoot (legitimate) combat scenario after a falling out between the two camps over who would emerge the victor of the contest.

Legitimate combat competitions have long proved to be a popular and revered spectator sport in Japan, as evident by its longstanding tradition of presenting mainstream professional wrestling with a no-frills attitude. From his series of matches beginning in the seventies defending his WWF World Martial-Arts Heavyweight Championship to his present role as a matchmaker, Antonio Inoki frequently incorporated mixed martial artists (including Josh Barnett, Bob Sapp, Bas Rutten, Don Frye, Gerard Gordeau, Mark Coleman, and Oleg Taktarov) into the professional wrestling events he promoted during his tenure as promoter of New Japan Pro Wrestling and later Inoki Genome Federation.

For collegiate and professional wrestler Royce Isaacs, two important components of the amalgamation of pro wrestling and mixed martial arts are Nobuhiko Takada and Kazushi Sakuraba. Nobuhiko Takada (2-6-2), a former NJPW Heavyweight, Junior Heavyweight, and Tag Team Champion, found more success in wrestling than MMA: “He was a popular shoot style pro, they wanted him to be the next Inoki. He wasn’t a good shooter though—at least not elite—so instead he got beat up in Pride matches where people were carrying him. His win over Mark Coleman is accepted as an obvious work, but he’s still a god in Japan.”

Known as the IQ Wrestler, UFC Hall of Famer Kazushi Sakuraba (26-17-1) “was a Japanese pro wrestler and decorated amateur who was determined to prove pro wrestling is strong,” Royce explains. “He rose through the puro [Japanese professional wrestling] ranks then competed in an early UFC tourney during its mid-dark period [UFC Japan—December 21st, 1997] and won. In early Pride he went on to become The Gracie Hunter, beating four of the Gracie family including Royce” in what would be his first career loss—TKO via corner stoppage following an extraordinary ninety minute bout.

That isn’t the Gracie family’s only connection to professional wrestling. In fact, their first foray into the world of combat sports was inspired by Carlos Gracie attending a contest of professional wrestler and judoka prizefighter “Count Combat” Mitsuyo Maeda, who he was later trained by, proving to be integral to the creation of Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu. Taking a page from his mentor’s book, Carlos has a widely-publicized match against professional wrestler Manoel Rufino dos Santos in the thirties, complete with all of the hype, trash talk, and dramatic angles common to modern fans. His brother, Helio, was no stranger to submission bouts against professional wrestlers during that era, including a famous, legitimate loss to professional wrestler and judoka Masahiko Kimura (it was from this victory that the “Kimura” submission maneuver is named—good thing his name wasn’t Masahiko Decapitation). Recently, Daniel, Renzo, and Rolles Gracie Jr. have all dipped their toe in professional wrestling under Antonio Inoki and New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Inoki’s last career match occurred at Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye on December 31st, 2000, where the 57-year-old competed in an exhibition match against Renzo Gracie to a three minute time-limit-draw: “Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye shows were wild,” Royce Isaacs comments, “they’d have puro, kickboxing and MMA on the same card.”

“I feel really proud of a professional wrestling lineage. I feel pride in trying to connect those professional wrestling roots to the combat aspects of wrestling. But also the history and lineage of where professional wrestling came from. It’s not fake… pro wrestlers used to be considered some of the toughest guys in the world back in the day. It didn’t matter if they were out there working, their pedigree was otherwise. And anybody that wanted to step up to them learned the hard way.”

Josh Barnett, mixed martial artist and professional wrestler.

Speaking to “The Polar Bear” Paul Varelans, a master of trap fighting and UFC combatant from the early, Wild West days of the sport, he explains: “The line between work and shoot was always very blurred in Japan. Promoters want to feel they have control of an event. Even if it’s not a work, they want to feel like they’re running a work. They put guys in that were going to look good, bleed well, and knew they were going to lose. These guys wanted to control the outcome of these events, but they really couldn’t.”

While Bloodsport is the first standalone event of its kind in the United States, throughout the eighties and nineties, promotions that had a mixture of worked and shoot matches (and often blurred the line between the two)—such as UWF and its later incarnation, UWFi (founded by Nobuhiko Takada), Battlarts, Shooto (founded by legendary Japanese pro wrestler and the first Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama), Fighting Network RINGS (founded by NJPW and UWF veteran Akira Maeda), and Pancrase (named for Pankration, a ruleless hybrid sport comprised of modern-day boxing, kickboxing, and submission wrestling that joined the Olympic games in 648 BCE)—also proved to be a hit in the Far East.

It was at Pancrase that “The Polar Bear” tells me he first personally encountered the aforementioned blurring of the lines, as the promoters kept insisting to him prior to his match that “you don’t have to win.” It wasn’t until later that Varelans put two and two together: “If you play along you’re going to get paid better.”

America

Mixed martial arts finally made its way to the United States in 1993 with the advent of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Almost immediately plagued by legal battles due to its brutal nature, the World Wrestling Federation capitalized off of the sport’s early infamy by creating an MMA-based character for journeyman performer Charles Wright (who was fresh off a stint as a Voodoo witch doctor named Papa Shango and would later become a pro wrestling pimp, The Godfather) called Kama the “Supreme Fighting Machine.”

Later, the WWF would dip its toes into the MMA pool even further with the disastrous Brawl For All shoot tournament, created to launch veteran professional wrestler and noted badass “Dr. Death” Steve Williams into superstardom. This led to a number of injuries and ultimately failed in its initial goal, given Williams was well-past his prime badass-ing years, leaving sleeper contestant (and future mixed martial artist with a record of 1-1) Bart Gunn the victor. For his troubles, Bart was entered into a legitimate boxing match against toughman competitor and oddity attraction Butterbean at WrestleMania XV, which he lost via knockout in thirty-five seconds.

The inaugural UFC event and its subsequent follow-ups would prominently feature Ken Shamrock repping the “shootfighting” style by way of Pancrase. Shamrock, who had previously worked as an independent professional wrestler based out of the Carolinas and later Japan, would use his stardom within the mixed martial arts circuit as a springboard to spend several years in the late-nineties WWF (including three unique Lion’s Den matches, complete with a caged, circular version of UFC’s signature Octagon) alongside fellow early UFC standout and archrival Dan “The Beast” Severn. Tank Abbott, a notorious loudmouth and shoo-in for a pro wrestling crossover, would have a brief run in late nineties WWF competitor World Championship Wrestling as the singing and jiving muscle (complete with a flashy, completely necessary, nipple-exposing t-shirt) backing up the boy band stable 3 Count.

Paul Varelans, too, made a single appearance in Extreme Championship Wrestling in a worked match against “The Human Suplex Machine” Taz, who sported the gimmick of a shootfighter and was backed by his own set of legitimate grappling credentials. Despite the size differential between Varelans—6’8” and north of three hundred pounds—and Taz—5’9” and two hundred and forty-eight pounds, stout as a California redwood—Taz was credibly portrayed as a worthwhile competitor, which Varelans takes pride in helping facilitate. The finish ended up being a smoz loss for Varelans, as a clean loss would have been a blemish that tainted his all-too important record: “It’s balls to the wall. You don’t bend for anyone. It’s all about the win. That was the mindset I grew into.”

“Pro wrestling is, in fact, strong.”

Kazushi Sakuraba, professional wrestler and mixed martial artist.

In 2004, Tough Enough contestant and MMA combatant Daniel Puder turned heads when he answered the shoot challenge of Olympic gold medalist turned professional wrestler Kurt Angle, who nearly mirrored Helio Gracie when his arm came close to snapping via Kimura on WWE television. That double wristlock would remain Puder’s career highlight, as he soon faded from the business (albeit with an undefeated record of 8-0 in MMA). In 2008, the seven foot tall, five hundred pound Big Show would compete at WrestleMania 24 against undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather in a worked contest, only the latest in a long line of boxers’ involvement in wrestling (including a memorable series of appearances by Mike Tyson in 1998 WWF during his suspension from the world of boxing after intentionally biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear).

Three years prior, sumo wrestler Akebono, who achieved the top rank of yokozuna, had a worked sumo bout with the Big Show at WrestleMania 21 and would use that to launch a successful pro wrestling career in Japan. Far from the first sumo in professional wrestling, predecessors include John “Earthquake” Tenta and Koji Kitao (“the only sumo to reach the level of yokozuna and never win a tournament,” Royce Isaacs tells me), the two of which once competed in a worked match against one another in Japan that infamously devolved into a shoot. Despite his character, former WWF Champion Yokozuna is part of the Samoan Anoa’i dynasty and held no credentials in the sport of sumo wrestling (save for a worked sumo contest against Earthquake on WWF TV in 1994). Japanese wrestling pioneer and trainer of Antonio Inoki, “The Father of Puroresu” Rikidozan, too, had sumo experience prior to his time in professional wrestling. In fact, a worked bout against Masahiko Kimura ended in a legitimate double-cross, with Rikidozan shooting on and subsequently knocking out the unsuspecting Kimura in the middle of the ring.

Pro wrestling has long attracted amateur wrestlers and legitimate competitors from other martial arts backgrounds, including Olympians such as gold medalist Kurt Angle, “Bad News” Allen Coage, Danny Hodge, the Iron Sheik, Mad Dog Vachon, Bob Roop, Jumbo Tsuruta, Karl Gotch, Brad Rheingans, Dale Lewis, George Tragos, Naoya Ogawa, Riki Chosu, Masa Saito, Hiroshi Hase, and Harold “Tosh Togo” Sakata of “Oddjob” fame from the 1964 James Bond hit, Goldfinger. Thirty years prior to the advent of UFC 1, “Judo” Gene LeBell, a coach of Bruce Lee’s, had what can be looked back to as the United States’ first televised mixed martial arts match with his 1963 victory over boxer Milo Savage.

On the opposite side of things, a handful of pro wrestlers have tried their hand at competitive mixed martial arts (albeit with equally mixed results): since leaving the WWE amidst controversy in 2014, former World Champion CM Punk has emerged with a UFC record of 0-2; Alberto Del Rio currently sits at a 9-5 record, initially competing in a mask which pays homage to the cultural norms of lucha libre—the vibrant Mexican tradition of professional wrestling which dates back to the thirties—under the familial nom de guerre of “Dos Caras Jr.” Wrestler-turned-actor Dave Batista is currently undefeated in his singular attempt in the cage, while professional wrestler Bobby Lashley holds a record of 15-2 and brought with him fellow American Top Team members to Impact Wrestling in 2017; and, of course, former WWE and UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar, 5-3-1, whose promising MMA career slowed down only after a devastating bout of diverticulitis.

Otherwise, these appearances were generally regulated to a series of bizarre attractions in Japan, such as Bam Bam Bigelow’s losing effort to the man notorious for bearing a full-sized crucifix to the Octagon on his back and taking Royce Gracie to his limit at UFC 3, Kimo Leopoldo; Giant Silva’s series of bizarro matches, mostly in Pride, left him with a record of 2-6; masked Japanese legend Jushin “Thunder” Liger’s loss to professional wrestling and mixed martial arts crossover star Minoru Suzuki (who also had a bout against the masked Mexican sensation Solar, which quickly ended in a disqualification after a low blow); and legendary luchador Canek, who has one win under his belt from his solo, masked professional outing.

Save for the few previously mentioned standouts, mixed martial artists simply didn’t have the success one would expect in the world of mainstream professional wrestling… until recently, that is.

Over the last few years, a variety of stars from the world of mixed martial arts have made a splash in both mainstream and independent wrestling, including Ronda Rousey, Shayna Baszler, Tom Lawlor, Matt Riddle, Cain Velasquez, Phil Baroni, Frank Mir, and more. The list goes on. This recent influx into the pro wrestling zeitgeist is best captured and exemplified with Josh Barnett’s Bloodsport: an entire series of events that act as a tribute, celebrating the rich combat history outlined above.

Outside the realm of sports, when it comes to the legitimacy of these bouts, Royce Isaacs said it best: “A lot of people debate about the early nineties Pancrase fights and whether they were works or shoots, or how much of them might have been worked. I think that’s overcomplicating the whole thing. It’s entertainment, it’s combat, and it’s conflict with a resolution at the end. That’s all that matters, so enjoy it.”


Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, contributor for Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and everybody’s favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.


 

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