The Roots of MMA in Japan
Updated: May 31
As a writer with deep history in the Japanese sports game, Yanagisawa-San understood the sentiment of our focus very well. He was passionate about anything related to combat sports and was in the process of writing another book on the subject, a Kazushi Sakuraba biopic. The interview was fun and light hearted, though backed by the serious research of this seasoned journalist. He was very deliberate with his meaning of things and was sure to correct the little English he could understand when things didn’t seem to connect.
What’s the difference between Japanese MMA and everywhere else?
It’s very unique, for example, Kazushi Sakuraba is one of the most famous fighters in Japan and he comes from a Pro Wrestling background. Antonio Inoki did a rare bout against Muhammad Ali, in what was considered a crazy, weird mixed martial arts bout. Everyone was expecting Inoki (the wrestler) to take Ali down, but he didn’t. Actually, he couldn’t. People don’t realize this but Japanese wrestlers don’t do a lot of takedowns as a general rule. So back to the fight between Inoki and Ali, the match was a real fight, not fixed. People thought it was fixed, but it wasn’t. The fight was really boring and included Inoki laying down and throwing a side kick at Ali’s legs. The match had a really bad reputation worldwide. Inoki was, at the time, promoting to his students that Pro Wrestling is the best style of fighting. All of his students believed him and believed it was real, when we all know Pro Wrestling has a lot of fixed fights. Actually, Inoki was a very hard worker, he trained really hard and really believed in himself. But much of the wrestling training started in turtle position (one person on all-fours), so they didn’t practice takedowns as much as you’d think.
How did Pride become a thing?
UWF International saw the UFC as a rival and wanted to have UWF fighters challenge UFC fighters. Actually, Yoji Anjo became the first person to challenge Rickson Gracie because his brother Royce was not a free agent. Everyone knows that Anjo showed up to Rickson’s gym in California and got his butt whooped. Takada was a big Pro Wrestler in Japan at the time and decided to challenge Rickson to save the face of the Japanese Pro Wrestling scene and so he came up with the idea of fighting Rickson himself. That became Pride 1, Takada versus Rickson was a huge promotion but many Japanese fans and promoters really believed Takada was the better fighter because they believed Pro Wrestling was superior. So many fans didn’t even show up. Pride 1 was supposed to be a one time event but it didn’t really make that much money. Because of the increased debt from the event they needed to continue to do more shows to pay off the debt they had accumulated paying Rickson’s guarantee and building the promotion.
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