Kakutogi Road Presents: 1991 Year in Review Extravaganza!

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Jul 27, 2020
*Editors note: Both Michael Betz’s and Mike Lorefice’s comments will be preceded by their initials. *

MB: A new dawn is upon us, beckoning us into unexamined dimensions, a journey that is constrained only by the limits of our imaginations. Yes, 1992 has arrived, and we have successfully navigated through the first year of documenting an endless ocean of shoot-history and are now looking forward to what awaits us on the horizon. This humble scribe was surprised at overall depth of quality that 1991 had to offer. Yes, there have been some growing pains, as is to be expected when any new concept is birthed, and there were some outright stinkers along the way, but when examining the totality of everything, we are left with the conclusion that while there is still plenty of room for refinement and growth, the core value of what we have been witnessing is far greater than what a modern pundit would have you believe.

So now we will take a moment to break down the highlights of 1991, and we will start with the UWF-I.

ML: UWF-I was better and more interesting in 1991 than I remember it being. Takada doing nothing of note, Yamazaki having a rather uneventful year that saw him reduced from part time main eventer to full time afterthought, a lot of my favorites barely wrestling or not being there yet, and the small shows with just a few matches were things that had stood out to me.

Obviously, the ascendance of Kiyoshi Tamura from injured reserve to one of the handful of best pro wrestlers in the world was huge, though he obviously has more memorable years later on that overshadow 1991 in the grand scheme of things when you are simply cherry picking matches. You get a much different perspective looking back sequentially, and seeing how Tamura really defined the style of his matches, and elevated the level of the other performers he was involved with to reaches they never approached on their own.

Elevating the opposition had previously been the signature of Yamazaki, but while his thoughtful style still produced different and perhaps unique matches in the UWF-I cannon, it was clear he was largely at cross purposes in this league as he had made a shift to more patient and realistic martial arts oriented matches, while most of the rest of the natives had moved away from even the realism of the U.W.F., such as it was.

Beyond the positives of instituting a regular legitimate kickboxing match and having a couple actual shoots, UWF-I in 1991 was overall more realistic than U.W.F. was in 1990 because the new faces either had an actual martial arts background or were trained for shoot wrestling rather than New Japan, usually both. Tamura & Kanehara upped the level of the grappling considerably with a quick scrambling style based on chaining attacks while Kakihara brought a speed and intensity to the striking that we hadn't seen. The level of amateur wrestling was certainly much higher, as all the Americans had a solid base, and we began to see legitimate takedowns creep into the game of the Japanese fighters rather than needing a suplex or a judo throw to get the match to the canvas. Billy Scott was certainly the leading light of the American camp, as he was by far the best athlete, and was able to absorb and implement the teachings of the great Billy Robinson into a style that was similarly active and kinetic to what the better young Japanese workers were trying.

Though Yoji Anjo had been a solid, reliable time eater throughout the 2nd U.W.F., his stock rose here as the general jack of all trades who could deliver the match that was needed rather than just rehashing what he was most comfortable with. He was still much better as a follower, but his adaptability and diversity allowed him to add to all his matches no matter what role he was in.

MB: I have been pleasantly surprised, if not outright flabbergasted at how advanced Tamura was, right from the start. My only experience with him before starting this project was some of his late 90s work in RINGS, and while I thought he was great, I preferred him in shoots, as I sometimes thought that his flashiness in his worked matches was a distraction, but I have now been opened up to just how great a talent he was, as seeing his speed, fluidity, and elevated concept of shooting, as far back as early 1991, you could tell he was simply on a different plane of reality, compared to his contemporaries. To me, he was the overall highlight of 1991, by a wide margin, as even though he hasn’t really been booked in the best fashion (due to the current insistence on setting up Albright as the monster nemesis that will eventually face Takada) he has always been a living highlight reel, and leaves his stamp every time he is featured.

Yamazaki on the other hand, is a man out of place, and sadly would have been better served in the PWFG, or even RINGS. His cerebral, methodical, and nuanced style is out of step with where the UWFI is, and wouldn’t be a major problem if they had the foresight to use him correctly, and had given him the win against Takada at the 10-6-91 event. Had Takada been willing to swallow his pride for a brief moment, that could have opened up all sorts of booking avenues, and possibilities down the road, and wouldn’t have hurt him in the long run. But there is an ancient and true maxim that goes, “He who lives by Takada, must die by Takada” and that really is the story of the UWF-I in a nutshell. By booking him as an invincible superman, surely tapped into some kind of nationalistic fervor that paid off in the short-term, it all fell apart once real shooting became more mainstream in Japan, and Anjo embarrassed the promotion by issuing a challenge to Rickson Gracie, that he couldn’t make good on. To be fair, there had to be more issues going on than just Anjo’s antics as money problems and Yakuza ties were/are very common in Japanese pro wrestling, and while unsubstantiated, there has been speculation by some over the years that whenever a pro wrestler was put in Pride FC, it was due to having to repay Yakuza debts, and may have been why Takada allowed himself to be embarrassed by Rickson at Pride 1, and 4. Regardless, the UWF-I would probably be around today, had there been some more thoughtful booking, and no one was possibly more hurt by this lack of foresight, than Yamazaki.

Anjo should probably get some kind of MVP award, as he is turning out to be the Arn Anderson of the shoot-style world, a title he will surely hold until Tsuyoshi Kosaka arrives on the scene. Anjo has enough skills that he can pretty much do what ever needs to be done, and he has the cardio necessary to have a long match if needed. He can flow between both the shootier aspects, as well as the more pro-wrestling orientated spots, and while he isn’t going the be the best in either, his versatility makes him one of the UWF-I’s greatest assets.

Here is chronological list of the best UWF-I matches of 1991, with our comments.

ML: 5/10/91: Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Masahito Kakihara 14:16. Giving their brightest new lights the opportunity to usher in the new era of shootfighting was a great way to start the new promotion. Tamura and Kakihara did themselves and the promotion proud with a crisp and energetic contest. As is always the case with the early shoot style, the standup was a lot more credible than the mat because kickboxing and muay thai were well established sports, while judo and amateur wrestling had their place in the Olympics, but had never been deemed entertaining enough to be ticket selling sports, and thus the fighters were probably less encouraged to fully utilize or really even develop those styles. Instead, they just incorporated the spectacular end game of the throw rather than teaching the audience to be patient while they set one up. When all else failed, they could always get the bout to the canvas with a good old-fashioned leg scissors, as Kakihara did here. This was a good match but obviously nowhere near their best work. One has to keep in mind that Tamura was out from 10/25/89 when sloppy Maeda accidentally fractured his orbital with a knee until the final UWF show on 12/1/90. Then there were no shows for the next 6 months as everyone reorganized, so this was only the 7th match of Tamura's career, which still put him 2 ahead of Kakihara, who debuted on 8/13/90. Though these two have always been linked because of their age and popularity, at this point they weren't the best matchup for one another because their strengths differed considerably. Both are talented enough to offer things in the other man's realm, but for the most part the match played out logically, with Kakihara trying to avoid grappling and Tamura trying to avoid striking though there was one truly standout exchange and Tamura did considerably more striking than in any of his other matches this year. Overall, though, this layout really hurt the match because the development of the sequences is what makes Tamura shine and stand apart, while this was basically just a back & forth spotfest. What Kakihara had right from the outset was a very infective, wild passion. He may not have been cut out for real fighting, but if he were, he would have been one of those high risk all action fan favorite fighters who goes for bonuses and finishes, one way or the other, rather than just trying to win safe. Kakihara certainly had his routine, but he may have been the only wrestler that, no matter how many times you saw him engage in those rapid fire palm barrages or wild kicks, you still felt his match was legitimately getting a bit out of control. That out of control nature, combined with their blistering speed, really elevated the believability of his strikes, as throwing fast as you can combos is much more intense and believable than the usual loading up on 1 strike, which everyone can see coming a mile away and clearly witness the faults of. Tamura was a good compliment to Kakihara because he could ground him just enough that they could strike a balance between an out and out highlight real and a technical fight. Overall, this was much more toward Kakihara's style though, and a bit too overeager. ***


Makoto Ohe vs. Rudy Lovato 5R.

MB: After the usual preliminaries, rules demonstrations, and awesome theme music, we are underway with a kickboxing match between Shootboxing alum Makoto Ohe vs an American Kickboxer whom I’m wholly unfamiliar with, named Rudy Rabord. Before the fight we were treated to some pre-match interviews that offer a fascinating glimpse into the byzantine situation that was the state of Kickboxing in those days, in which Rudy explained that he had been doing his usual Kickboxing training, but to prepare for this match he was really working on how to use knees. Such a thing seems elementary in our post K1/Muay Thai familiar world, but in 1991, the only time an American was likely to have to deal with low-kicks, knees, or clinch fighting, was when he fought abroad in Japan, Europe, etc.

In any event, we are underway, and this is GOOD. Immediately both fighters start tearing into each other with no let up. After a steady barrage from both men, we begin to see that Rabord’s seeming lack of experience with a more Thai style of fight is becoming a chink in his armor. Ohe was able to really take advantage of the clinch and work a steady stream of knees into his opponent, which mostly garnered a response of Rudy putting up his hands and having the ref break it up.

By the time the 2nd round was underway though, Rabord had seemingly come up with an answer, and started tirelessly working stiff/short uppercuts to punish his clinch-happy adversary. Rudy wasn’t out of the woods entirely, as Ohe continued to spam Rabord with low kicks that he was ill equipped to check properly. After a while the pattern of the fight started to shift into what was basically a battle of foot vs fist, with Rabord having the edge in boxing skills, and Ohe with the experience with low-kicks and knees. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of punches from Ohe, or kicks coming from Rabord (there were), but we did wind up getting a great snapshot of the disparity between Western/Eastern styles of kickboxing from this era.

Round 3 had hardly started when Ohe delivered a devastating thigh kick to Rabord, which almost took him out of the fight for good. Somehow Rudy managed to hang on, but after this he was pretty much forced to rely on his boxing, and his legs were pretty much out of the equation at this point. To his credit, Rabord continued to chip away with uppercuts, when Ohe wisely shoved his opponent into the corner and delivered a straight punch that would have resulted in a 10-count, but when Rabord fell, his leg fell in-between the ring ropes, which caused the ref to consider it a slip instead. Rudy spent the rest of the round just surviving and hoping the bell would ring.

Round 4 starts, and immediately Ohe throws a kick into Rabord’s midsection, which leads to a knockdown. Rabord was able to get up quickly though, only to suffer more punishment for his efforts. All seemed to be lost, when miraculously Rudy was able to turn the tide of the fight by throwing a couple of perfectly timed sidekicks into Ohe’s solar plexus, as he was charging in. It would figure that the most American of all kickboxing staples, the sidekick, would be the key that could potentially unlock victory here, and makes me wonder if he should have been using this technique a lot earlier in the fight.

The rest of round 4 and round 5 saw more of the same, I.E. Rabord continuing to throw combinations, and eating nasty kicks from Ohe, but amazingly at the end of round 5, it was Ohe that was barely walking, and needed help back to his corner. The fight was declared a draw, and a great fight it was!

ML: Kickboxing never had a history of worked matches, so lucky for us, the powers that be had no problem putting on a match with legitimate, high level all out lightning speed combos before their series of flatfooted, pulled palm strikes. UWF-I's foot fighting division was essentially just Ohe, but Ohe was both an exciting little fighter as well as a good one who had been champion in Shootboxing, and while in UWF-I, went on to win the ISKA World Super Lightweight Title. Tonight's opponent was "Bad Boy" Rudy Lovato, a journeyman boxer from Albuquerque who once had one of his fights stopped when a rowdy fan pelted him with a soda bottle. Though he won that via unanimous decision and went on to claim the vaunted Canadien American Mexican Jr. Middleweight title, he wound up 21-40-4 in a 21 year career. That being said, he was a legitimately good, multi-belt champion in the less lucrative and largely undocumented art of kickboxing, and he truly ushered in UWF-I's new division with a memorable fast pace war. The action in this contest was pretty insane because they had no regard for defense to the point that early on they often didn't even wait for each other, simultaneously throwing their lengthy combos. Lovato had much better hands, and with Ohe not looking to defend (the only way this match slowed down is that he often grabbed a clinch to bring knees), it was amazing how many shots in a row he could land, often even with the same hand. Ohe was definitely the more diverse striker though, and the basic problem for Lovato is he couldn't match Ohe's kicks, which were shredding his legs. Even though Lovato scored a knockdown in the 1st catching Ohe coming in with a right straight, he was almost forced to pat on the inside when Ohe initiated the clinch rather than fighting hard to keep enough distance to land his damaging hooks & uppercuts because Ohe would answer those with debilitating leg kicks. Lovato did his best to slow Ohe down, really digging the body hooks in as his best answer for the low kicks. One of the things that made this fight so interesting is Lovato was winning the short term wars, he had the knockdown and was the one who would stun Ohe from time to time, but Ohe was winning the long term battle because his offense was slowly shutting Lovato down. Given Lovato was based in the US, it's likely he had little to no experience with kicks below the waist and knees being legal, but in any case he wasn't checking enough of the kicks or was telegraphing his check, which would allow Ohe to just bring the kick up to the thigh. While Lovato's right leg was worse, both were ready to go early in the 3rd, and Ohe finally took this round then got a low kick knockdown to start the 4th. Lovato switched things up going to something of a side stance and throwing a couple side kicks, which forced Ohe to close the distance, and when he clinched, Lovato backed & punched his way out instead of accepting it, nearly dropping Ohe with a right. Though they battled it out late in the round, fatigue was finally setting in, and Ohe never truly recovered. The 4th was a great round, with Lovato now holding his own at range in punch vs. kick exchanges, but Ohe no longer had the forward drive in the 5th, so Lovato was finally able to dominate with distance boxing. Though this was the only legitimate fight on the card, it also told the best story, and it was fun that the tale it seemed to be telling was actually reversed, with Lovato's volume & body punching winning the attrition war & allowing him to mostly use his power punching late even though he no longer had much ability to move had Ohe still been able to press him. Lovato should have won a decision, but UWF-I uses an odd scoring system instead of blind mice, and while Lovato finished up 29-27, that's not a big enough margin for a victor to be declared. Great match.

Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tom Burton 9:08.

ML: The most overachieving match of the UWF-I. The first minute of this fight alone had more compelling moments than the entirety of Takada's feeble effort to pull anything out of Burton in the debut show's main event. Tamura was actually interacting with Burton, and that was making it a riveting, high quality match as they kept pulling unconventional answers. Right from the get-go we saw not simply a basic a striker vs. wrestler fight, but that Burton had knees to answer Tamura's kicks, while Tamura had a roll to counter Burton's takedown and take the top himself. The whole match was based on this sort of back & forth where one discipline of martial arts provided the answer to another. Look, Burton may not be the tightest or most agile worker out there, but Tamura was fantastic here, crafting a match that was intense, explosive, exciting, unpredictable, and creative, and to his credit Burton was consistently able to go outside of the box to answer him. This was on the short side, but that was really a necessity given Burton. Even if Burton was a little sloppy and awkward in his slams and transitions, no one would have expected this bout to often be shockingly excellent. It was really exciting seeing Tamura demonstrate what he could truly do for the first time, and get such a match out of Burton, whose career is practically only memorable for the matches against Tamura. As such, I'm ranking this at in the UWF-I top 5 of the year over a couple other solid contenders, Scott vs. Anjo and the 11/7/91 tag, that could possibly be marginally better in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time didn't make nearly as much of an impression upon me. ***1/2

Yuko Miyato vs. Kazuo Yamazaki 11:00.

MB: Yamazaki was my favorite of the Original UWF roster, as he always brought a great psychology to his matches, used proper feints and footwork, and had a demeanor that always suggested that he was in a real fight, which is sadly a rarity in pro-wrestling. He may have been misued a bit in the Original Uwf, but at least he was given equal status to Nobuhiko Takada, (even having a win over him) but as time went on it seems like the powers in charge became content with him basically being a mid-card act, which was well beneath his talents.

This match breaks from the high-octane approach of the prior bouts, with an almost subdued, methodical performance from both men. As both men spend several mins feeling each other out, Yamazaki comes across as a cat waiting for the perfect moment to pounce on its prey, whereas Miyato seems to know this, and is cautiously looking for an answer. About halfway into the bout, Yamazaki just decides to start kicking Miyato into oblivion, which forces a rope escape, and sets a new tone for the match. Miyato returns the favor and in the course of these exchanges we learn the true counter to an achilles hold, which is simply to kick your opponent in the head with your free leg. So simple, and yet so elusive. Well played, Miyato.

This was Miyato’s final act of defiance, as Yamazaki proceeded to use him for target practice for the rest of the match, effective kicking him to shreds. Both myself, and the crowd at the Korakuen hall loved enjoyed every glorious min of it, as truly, Yamazaki does not seem capable of turning in a bad performance.

ML: Yamazaki is such a subtly great performer. Tamura, Takada, & Han were more flashy, but because of that they often just jumped to the action & kept it coming, whereas Yamazaki set things up and did many little things that were ahead of his time to make his matches credible. Though he doesn't have a specific background in karate or kickboxing (he was one of 3 members of the high school judo team), his mentor was Satoru Sayama, and he used to teach in Sayama's gym during the original UWF days. Yamazaki was willing to start slow, using little hand fakes, leg lifts, quick hip twitches to keep Miyato guessing when and how he was coming. Yamazaki seemed to take over when Miyato ducked a right hook kick, but then ate a left kick to the liver. However, Miyato answered with his one big weapon, the rolling solebutt. I like Miyato, but lack of creativity was really his big problem, in that he really seemed content to be the undersized guy who could hit a couple home runs, though as this is fighting rather than baseball, that style was more equivalent to having a puncher's chance. The match was just designed to put some heat back on Yamazaki since he lost to Anjo on the 1st show, but Yamazaki knew how to keep Miyato in it while gaining incremental advantages. Yamazaki's focus was on destroying Miyato's legs, and he was targetting them with most of his kicks & submissions, without forcing things. Miyato's kick to break Yamazaki's Achilles' tendon hold was both the shock & highlight of the match, it was almost as if he just boosted his butt off the canvan into a sort of ground enzuigiri. Increasingly though, he had no defense for Yamazaki's low kicks, and ran out of points getting knocked down by them. ***

7/3/91: Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Yoji Anjo 17:35.

MB: The first thing that any astute observer will notice is the overwhelming power of Anjo’s zebra striped Zubaz tights, which as of this writing, is only available to the level 20 Barbarian Class. This feat in ring attire doesn’t seem to faze Tamura however, and we are off, and it’s hard to keep up. Not even a minute and ½ into this and we already have stiff strikes, a slam, a double leg takedown, and a beautiful O-Goshi throw from Anjo. The pace never lets up either, as all sorts of position changes, and submission attempts from Anjo occur, before Anjo is finally able to force a rope escape due to catching Tamura in a straight armbar.

Following the rope break, a beautiful sequence followed, in which, Anjo attempted a flying armbar to which Tamura counters with a cartwheel, which is absolutely genius, and shows that we are witnessing something that is truly far ahead of its time. The rest of the bout was filled with a tidal wave of transitions, submission attempts, and passionate striking, all done at breakneck speed. The fight finally ended when Anjo was able to secure a single leg crab, but to his credit, was able to quickly torque it in a way, that actually came off as somewhat credible.

While this fight won’t hold up on the believability scale to a modern MMA audience, due to the tempo, and lighting fast fluidity, it was still truly something special, and may so far be the best glimpse of what both this style of pro-wrestling has to offer, as well as what REAL fighting may have to offer, that we’ve seen so far. Up to this point, it was probably just a given in the pro-wrestling world, that you had to have Irish Whips, clotheslines, and hokey submissions, to create a product that people would want to see, but here we have wrestlers, actually moving like 3-demisonal fighters, (or at least catch-wrestlers) and showing that there may be something after all to shooting.

ML: The man who will advance the worked game to its highest level arrives here, in just his 9th pro match. As the leading light of the next generation of shooters, the guys who debuted in one of the worked shoot leagues rather than being trained in the New Japan dojo, Tamura at least feels a lot more like a catch wrestler than a pro wrestler, and this is the most progressive match we've seen so far. Tamura may not yet be reaching new levels of believability, but as by far the most explosive grappler in shoot wrestling, he's at least expanding the boundaries of what crazy things you can get away with and how entertaining you can be without simultaneously testing the groan factor. Kakihara has more hand speed, but isn't nearly as slick or well rounded, certainly can't adjust & transition on the mat or maneuver his body the way Tamura can. Tamura is just such an amazing mover that watching him do a simple pivot to avoid a takedown, much less his more spectacular movements, is usually more exciting than watching the juniors do their gymnastic counters. There was an amazing spot where Anjo was not so much trying to set up a guillotine but just to control Tamura with a front facelock, however Tamura did this crazy counter where he bridged backwards just to get low, then when he had separated Anjo's clasp by getting under it, he changed the direction of his explosion entirely & somehow took Anjo's back into a rear naked choke. I want to say that Tamura does things that nobody can do, and while that's probably the case with this particular maneuver, generally it's more accurate to say he just does them so fast he catches the viewer (if not also the opponent) off guard, whereas with most anyone else you could see these moves coming and they might even look clunky because they aren't fast enough to disguise how they are being done and/or the cooperation or lack of opponent's reaction they entail. This was really a different match for Anjo because Tamura was already such a tidal wave that, when he had a full tank, Anjo was just reacting to him desperately trying to keep up. Anjo is known for his cardio, and normally is prone to more durdling given he's almost always in the longest match on the card, but you could see early on that when Anjo thought he was safe, the next thing he knew Tamura had his back, so Anjo could never relax & had to be proactive. While this started off sort of like a junior heavyweight match, rather than slowing after the early fireworks, it was arguably even faster & more explosive once they shifted from throws into the matwork, with some great twists, turns, and rolls to escape the opponent's submission or counter into their own. The story of the match was early on Tamura would gain the initial advantage with his blinding speed, but Anjo had a massive experience advantage, and by being the smart veteran who focused on working the body to slow Tamura down, he was able to not only get into the match, but eventually take over due to his superior striking offense & defense. As the match progressed, it wasn't so much Tamura doing circles around Anjo, but rather Anjo making Tamura pay to get the match to the canvas. It's always been a point of pride for Tamura to find the answers to what the opponent is doing and generate offense out of defense rather than grabbing the ropes, though obviously he'd get much better at this as his career progressed. Despite Tamura already being the best defensive grappler in the worked game & making a ton of great squirmy counters to save himself, there's quite a few rope escapes as Tamura is a massive underdog given Anjo has been around since '85 and is now hitting his peak. However, by doing everything he can to avoid the rope escape, Tamura generally elevates the moves that actually require them to the intended level, in other words rather than just gaming the system as we'd see the strikers do in the few actual shoots this year, these felt like moves that were deep enough they would have won had they been caught in more advantageous ring position. They exchanged advantages on the ground a lot, but one of the big differences is while Tamura would look for the immediate payoff with a submission, for instance a lightning go behind into a rear naked choke, Anjo was confident in his ability to win the attrition battle, and thus happy to take any opportunities for damage, for instance burying knees in Tamura's face. Anjo was also happy to put the youngster in his place, so when Tamura would get too overexuberant, fiesty, or nervy, Anjo would do something within the rules but slightly dickish or excessive such as the knees to take him down a peg. Tamura was already really over, and the fans would go nuts when he appeared to have a chance to win, for instance the half crab after ducking Anjo's leg caught reverse enzuigiri. He didn't have too many of those chances though, as most of his highlights were early on, and it became more of an uphill battle as Anjo wore him out beating up his midsection. That being said, it's not as if Tamura wasn't getting submissions, but Anjo was defending them better in the story sense of finding ways to get out of trouble without losing points. Still, Tamura was so impressive the match seemed a lot closer than it was on the scoreboard, which mostly isn't that relevant given points are a resource as long as you still have 1. Though Tamura's performance was the awesome one, Anjo really did a great job of both following him as well as filling in around him and deserves a ton of credit as well. ****1/2

7/30/91 Kazuo Yamazaki vs Billy Scott 12:39

MB: This will be the debut match for Billy Scott, a westerner that wound up sticking with the UWFI throughout its duration, and even in the promotion’s spiritual successor: Kingdom. To this day he is very active in the MMA/Catch Wrestling community, with his own academy in the Bowling Green area of Kentucky and holds various seminars throughout the country. Here, he must face the ultimate trial by fire, and have his very first professional wrestling match, against the seasoned Yamazaki. Hopefully, the promoters installed a more rigorous vetting process this time around, and will spare Yamazaki from another round of embarrassment, a la JT Southern.

After the referee conducts a diligent search for foreign objects, the match is underway, and we can see that Scott is the best Gaijin that the promotion has seen so far, as he actually moves like someone with a solid wrestling pedigree, but unlike Tom Burton, he has the speed and fluidity to go with it. The first couple of mins have them feeling each other out, with Scott faking some shooting attempts, and Yamazaki feeling out his opponents’ distance with some fast kicks. Scott succeeds with a takedown, but his training in submissions must have been limited to the school of “crank on something, and hope for the best,” which doesn’t faze Yamazaki in the slightest.

The match followed a pattern of Scott being the takedown artist, but not being able to pin Yamazaki down for long, or able to lock in an intelligible submission. Yamazaki would keep finding crafty ways to transition out of his predicament and turn in it into a leg/ankle attack. Eventually Yamazaki got the win when his Scott came rushing at him with his head down, and he was able to slap on some kind of version of a standing arm-triangle choke. What was great about this match, was that each wrestler went into it with a mindset of having to feint, set up attacks, and actually work for a takedown, or submission attempt against their opponent, as opposed to just handing everything to each other. Unlike much of the overtly choreographed wrestling of the past, it seems that this style can allow its practitioners the ability to shoot for good portions of the match (at least in terms of positioning) and sprinkle in cooperation in others.

In any event, Yamazaki was a master of ring psychology, and to his credit, Billy Scott showed a lot of poise for a rookie, and had good patience, and movement, in his debut. His submission acumen needs work, but that can surely improve in time. It’s very likely that the UWFI has secured a great talent in Scott, and I hope to see him improve in the days to come.

ML: Yamazaki hasn't exactly had a great opportunity to shine yet. After frustratingly getting strapped with the Southern man, who clearly couldn't keep his head, he now found himself involved in the trial of Billy Jack. Luckily though, Scott, who wound up being my favorite American fighter in the promotion (other than monster for hire Vader, who almost doesn't count given his matches were almost purely powerbomb driven pro wrestling beatdowns), shows a good deal of ability even in his debut. What set this match apart was their ability to tantalize the audience through a display of defense. This wasn't a match where they'd lock the submission, and then 45 seconds later the opponent magically grabbed the ropes, it's a match where they always seemed close to something on the mat, but rarely got it. Early on, they kept testing each other, kind of for the fun of it, with the fighter who defended the move trying his hand at it, and failing as well. They really had the answers for each other in standup, with Yamazaki being ready for Scott's single leg takedown, which seemed to be Billy's biggest weapon from his amateur wrestling days, and Scott avoiding taking too many of Yamazaki's kicks, answering aggressively to at least take away Yamazaki's space so he had to grapple with Scott instead. Yamazaki was a massive favorite here as he's the #2 fighter in the promotion going against some new guy from Tennessee, a place where wrestlers seemingly only know how to throw punches, yet still have no actual footwork or technique. Yamazaki is somewhat subdued early, just testing Scott out & seeing what he has to offer, while Scott is much more excitable, which is his personality anyway, but the difference especially makes sense here given he's the new guy trying to make a strong impression against a top dog who sees this more as a tune-up/sparring kind of walkover. Yamazaki tends to be a step ahead for the first 10 minutes. Though he's not running away with the contest by any means, you can see his brilliance in the story of the match where he sets up Scott turning the tide & actually becoming a threat to win when Scott finally catches Yamazaki's kick & counters with a back suplex into a 1/2 crab for the matches big near submission. The fans were instantly ignited, chanting "Yama-zaki" because in the context of the bout they've been viewing, someone actually being trapped in a submission, especially mid ring, is a real threat. Yamazaki does a great job of putting the submission over by not going over the top, taking a down after a rope escape trying to recover, & then still just stalling by fixing his kneepads to try to steal Scott's momentum. Yamazaki then coming back with high kicks somewhat defeated the purpose though. This was really the time for Scott to have a minute or two with Yamazaki in danger to show what he could do before Yamazaki turned the tide back and perhaps won, and while that's mostly what happened with Scott coming right back with a belly to belly suplex & working for an STF, the transition to the finishing segment was a bit abrupt & the segment itself felt rushed, as was the case with Miyato/Nakano earlier in the night. Both matches felt like the workers may have been finding their way to a pre scripted finishing sequence, but these two did a better job of having a match before that & finding a way to stay true to it rather than just biding time until the usual UWF-I flashiness. As a whole, Yamazaki/Scott worked quite well because they kept active enough that the fans cared about them coming close but not quite getting there, and the drama kept increasing. In the end, not a lot happened by the usual UWF-I pro wrestling standards, but much of what made it good is they were successful in teasing the audience that things almost happened. This was certainly more credible than the usual no resistance exchanges, and to me, much more exciting and dramatic because of that. ***1/4

8/24/91: Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Yuko Miyato 9:42

MB: Next up is our Shoot-Style Prodigy, Kiyoshi Tamura vs the resident workhorse, Yuko Miyato. Right away, we are off to a fast pace as Miyto plunges into his bag of Tachi-Waza tricks, looking for a takedown, in this case with a nice Kata Guruma (Fireman’s Carry), and O-Goshi (Major hip throw), but Tamura is too slick on the ground and once the fight travels there, he reverses his situation and secures a straight armbar on Miyato, forcing a rope escape. Miyato defaults to a more kickboxing based strategy, landing a few strikes, but there is no containing Tamura in any position for more than a few seconds, and the rest of the fight followed in a whirlwind of transitions, submission attacks from every angle, and naked aggression. While this wasn’t realistic in modern MMA terms, with the 23432 position changes, it was exciting, and we are getting more and more glimpses of not only Tamura’s genius, but how a new art is emerging from the pro wrestling zeitgeist, as we are starting to see glimpses of what is possible when skilled practitioners get together and pretend to fight, like they are really going to fight. Tamura ends the fight with a rear naked choke, coming off a failed kneebar attempt from Miyato. This was very entertaining, if a bit short, and Miyato’s bread-and-butter Judo/Kickboxing style played well with Tamura’s flash&fury.

ML: It's hard for me to imagine that anyone improved more in 1991 than Kiyoshi Tamura, who, after missing virually all of 1990 with a fractured orbital, is now both leaving everyone in the dust, while at the same time pulling incredible matches out of them that are way beyond what his opponents are doing with anyone else or the increase in quality the other top workers can pull out of their opponents. Tamura is making great leaps in his ground movement, developing a perpetual motion style (which obviously is what you should be doing if you are actually trying when the antiquated techniques of the opponents don't control your body, much less lock you in place, but basic logical techniques rarely stop pro wrestlers from lazy hokem) that makes everyone else seem like dinosaurs. Miyato was a good performer in the U.W.F. where the standard of mat wrestling was still more toward New Japan's idea of good enough, but has looked rather dated so far in UWF-I until this match where Tamura's insistence on moving hid the holes in Miyato's no control ground game and really made him an effective performer once again. Meanwhile, Tamura's defense is improving magnificently, as his style is increasingly built around turning defense into offense. He's developing his game based upon the premise that with his speed and technical mastery, as long as he can play the motion (scramble) game, he'll eventually win the battle of adjustments. Miyato is one of the quicker guys in the promotion, but it's immediately apparent that he's having trouble keeping up with Tamura, who has made the adjustment to Miyato's attack or counter as soon, if not before, he got it off. Miyato would like to slow things down a bit, but he doesn't have the wrestling or BJJ to force Tamura to stay put, and Tamura isn't going to volunteer that on his own, so Miyato is forced into Tamura's hyper mode. This was such a great sprint because Tamura was able to utilize the legitimate positions and techniques with movements that were so quick and precise it was at once super flashy but also urgent and realistic. Whenever Miyato tried to go on the offensive or change positions, Tamura found a way, often totally unexpected, to use his movement against him & take over. For instance, there's a beautiful spot where Miyato tried to swing into an armbar from side mount, but Tamura used a backwards roll to get off the canvas, spinning into a standing position but immediately dropping back down into an Achilles' tendon hold. Another great counter saw Miyato slipping out the side of Tamura's facelock & trying to work the arm, but Tamura pivoted off a headstand to take Miyato's back. Every time you see a Tamura match, you see these kind of things that no one else is doing, done so fast, smooth, & effortlessly that they just seem second nature. Miyato definitely has the striking advantage when he can keep it in standup, and finally took over with a middle kick knockdown followed by a spinning heel kick knockdown. Miyato has a giant 13-6 advantage on the scoreboard after a belly-to-belly suplex into a 1/2 crab forces a rope break, which is something we are already seeing Tamura use less and less of. This is beginning to look like the great Tamura vs. Anjo match where the advantage shifts to the wily veteran Anjo the longer the match goes, and the point system favors the guy who can score on his feet because it's much easier to get a knockdown than 3 near submissions, even from someone who favors the striking end, that's just so ridiculously imbalanced. Tamura isn't slowing down this time though, and does another crazy counter, now being ready & taking a guillotine off a Miyato's second attempt at the fireman's carry. The bout grows increasingly brutal after Miyato just cold cocks Tamura in the face & tries for the ipponzeoi, but Tamura takes his back & drops into a rear naked choke. One of the problems with the match is Miyato doesn't have enough counters of his own to really chain the escapes & submission attempts together, but finally he does deliver, peeling the hooks off by attacking the top leg then spinning into a kneebar only to have Tamura spin to his knees & aggressively slap Miyato in the face until he releases, then adds in some stomps for good measure. The impact & intensity of the striking is really growing by the second, and while the match may be less believable at times because of Tamura's flash, the fire & heat these guys are building up is at least allowing the audience to buy into the fact that they don't like each other & really want to win. Miyato is laying into Tamura with some big body kicks down the stretch, but Tamura does his drop down/go behind to drag Miyato down into another rear naked choke. Miyato attacked the top leg again, but Tamura released the choke & used what's left of his hooks to roll Miyato to his stomach. Miyato immediately scrambled back to his feet before Tamura could flatten him out, but Tamura pulled him down into the choke for the upset win before Miyato could get close enough to grab the ropes. This is just Tamura's 11th match, and it's a big notch in his belt coming against a 6th year fighter who was 2-0 against him. While 10 minutes seems short for these guys, especially given it's a 3 match plus a one sided shoot card with nothing else looking like it needs tons of time, length is not really what you are looking for in a worked shoot. In fact, being shorter almost certainly probably made for a better match because Tamura could just keep exploding the whole time & Miyato didn't seem to be his usual 1 trick pony, being for once the favorite while also forced to react to all the crazy stuff the kid was throwing at him. The usual downfall of a Miyato match is it just drags on the mat, especially when they start playing footsies, but this was all blazing fury, as even Miyato was actually reversing and sweeping regularly rather than just laying around on the mat. This wasn't as epic as Tamura vs. Anjo, but it was better in many respects, and almost every moment was interesting & exciting. It's been almost 29 years, but I was still constantly rewinding to see what Tamura was managing to do & how he pulled it off, which is very abnormal for me. Tamura was clearly a whole lot better than in the Anjo match even though it's only been a month & a half. Though the "downfall" is that Yuko isn't as good or well rounded as Anjo, Tamura got a ton out of him carrying the veteran to the match of his career. Tamura's stuff just feels way more modern than anything else we are seeing, the maestro not only innovating in a breathtaking manner but raising the level of his opponent so many notches it's hard to even fathom them having a match with anyone else that remotely approaches this. ****1/2

9/26/91: Kazuo Yamazaki vs. Yoji Anjo 11:49

MB: Satoru Sayama’s favorite padawan, Kazuo Yamazaki, must face fashion ace Yoji Anjo, in a bout that I must admit excites me with anticipation. Things start with Anjo offering his hand in the spirit of camaraderie, but is met with empty disgust on the part of Yamazaki, but has his revenge moments later, as they immediately begin trading kicks, and Anjo gets the better of Yamazaki, by grabbing his leg and kicking out the other leg, causing his opponent to fall.

So far, a few mins into this match, and it is incredible in terms of the energy and atmosphere that these two are able to generate. Yamazaki plays it off, like a thuggish veteran that refuses to give any respect to the upstart in Anjo, but Anjo keeps delivering in fire and intensity, which is really resonating with the Japanese crowd. There is a great sequence in which Yamazaki is working over a leg, trying to take a basic ankle lock, and turn it into a more sinister heel-hook, which causes Anjo to panic and fly towards the ropes like his life depended on it.

Yamazaki wasn’t able to relish this for too long, as not long afterwards, Anjo nailed him with a beautiful high kick to the ribs of Yamazaki, immediately prompting a knockdown. It continues to go back and forth, but Yamazaki can’t seem to catch a break as whenever he is able to land a submission on Anjo, he is forced to pay a hefty price by being lit up like a Christmas tree in the standup portions. Yamazaki is able to somewhat abruptly win the match with what I can only describe as an emergency single-leg Boston Crab, that he had to pull out of nowhere, after taking a volley of palm strikes from Anjo.

Excellent. Despite having to end the match with the worst thing to come from Boston since tariffs, this was totally awesome, and easily the best match that Yamazaki has had so far in the UWFI.

ML: Both a story match and an attempt at a more realistic bout in between two cartoon jobber matches. Though Yamazaki is normally one of the better strikers, here Anjo shows his superiority early, and Yamazaki shifts to being strategic, gambling that the risks Anjo is taking with his big strikes will eventually outweigh the rewards. Despite Anjo throwing some bombs, this isn't a particularly flashy match, as it's more about Yamazaki's patience & craftiness trying to see his strategy through. It's not nearly as reductive as I may be making it sound, with Anjo still being able to do things on the ground & Yamazaki still scoring in standup, but the general thrust is Anjo wants to make something happen & is thus willing to take chances, while Yamazaki wants to grab him, and ultimately that usually means taking a few shots. Even then, it doesn't always work, for instance Anjo pulls ahead when Yamazaki catches a middle kick, but goes down on delay before he can capitalize. They work with this idea of whether Yamazaki can seize the opportunity to take the offensive once he sacrifices himself to get the catch, but the match ends rather abruptly just when it's finally beginning to take off. Considering it's sandwiched in between two matches whose combined time was less than 4 minutes, you'd think they could have given these guys 15 minutes to work with. Had the kickboxing shoot not gone the distance, this show wouldn't even have lasted an hour. ***


Kiyoshi Tamura & Yuko Miyato vs. Tatsuo Nakano & Tom Burton 18:48

MB: still have no idea what is hoped to be accomplished with these tag matches that the UWFI insists on putting together. It would be one thing if they had a giant roster, and ran the risk of putting on 3hr shows if they didn’t consolidate their talent, but they have barely been able to go over an hour with these events, and that’s with all the walkouts, ceremonial introduction, etc. The actual time of people wrestling is considerably less than that. To make matters more bizarre is that there are no belts, or really any stakes involved, just another mishmash of who they want to throw together this month. In this case it is the small/lithe gentleman vs the brazen monsters, so we will now experience size vs skill, speed vs raw power, and slick holds vs steroids.

The contest itself was entertaining and fast paced, and somewhat surprisingly, everyone looked good here. Even Tom Burton was looking looser, and more fluid this time. Of course, Tamura is still the rock star, and is really bringing the new generation of tech to the shoot-game. Cartwheeling out of bad positions, rapid transitions, and creative grappling entries, show that he was really something special. To make it even more impressive is to think that he was a very high caliber contender in real shoots too, which isn’t something too many fighters can lay claim to, the ability to excel in both the real and worked ends of the spectrum.

Tamura wins by finally figuring out the counter to the Boston crab, which is to apparently is to turn a quasi ankle-pick into a toehold. Well played, sir.

ML: It's hard for a Tamura match to overachieve, but given the tag match format, I think it's fair to say this one did. Though the format may be hokey, this is a great example of a doubles match that worked, keeping a higher pace than they could have in a singles match of this length (18:48) without losing the intensity, as well as keeping guys who don't have amazing stamina or huge move sets effective by breaking their portions up. The key to the match was Miyato, who, all things considered, probably gave an even performance than he did in his great match against Tamura on 8/24/91. Beyond being an entertaining and fiery presence who pulled the fight out of the opponents, he also really upped his technical game in all areas. Miyato was again making an attempt to move more like Tamura, turning and spinning out, even using the go behind. There was a nice sequence where he hit a backdrop into a half crab then spun into a facelock. Miyato set a good tone for the match, showing some good use of distance & footwork in standup to get his low kicks in, and doing a good job of taking advantage of the opponents inability to actually do anything to control him once they got him to the mat, just exploding rather than honoring the imaginary forcefield that normally keeps UWF-I fighters other than Tamura down. This is really what I've been wanting to see from him, things that make him relevant & dangerous despite being undersized. The story of the fight was that the larger team of Nakano & Burton would start out ahead on the mat, getting the judo throw or takedown, but then their more skilled opponents would start moving & countering before they got anywhere with their submission holds. Miyato wasn't showing a path to victory so much as wearing the bigger guys out by making them keep working at a higher pace than they would like because he was feisty & annoying, and if they didn't get him down again, he was just going to make it harder by continuing to beat up their legs. Tamura was able to get a takedown on Nakano, and his counters were often into his own submissions, rather than simply scrambling back to his feet & forcing the opposition to start over. Tensions were escalating as Nakano dropped into an Achilles' tendon hold, but Tamura countered with a heel hook only to have Nakano keep kicking him in the face until he released, which allowed Nakano to take his back. Miyato got back to his feet enough that Burton began to slow down and was caught off guard when Miyato finally threw his hands, stunning Burton and allowing Miyato to get the spinning heel kick in for a knockdown. I was surprised at how much ring time Miyato was logging, Tamura was really getting the star treatment here, coming in for brief sequences where he looked good, but letting Miyato carry the load. There was one crazy Tamura spot where Burton had his back & started to go for a cravate, but Tamura handspringed & took a front facelock. Nakano got a couple near finishes on Tamura including a snap suplex into a high kick when Tamura was getting back up, and as usual, Tamura was way down on points. I liked the finish where Tamura losing the battle of pulling himself halfway across the ring to get to the ropes before Burton could turn him over into the Boston crab, which allowed him to use Burton's momentum against him (Burton was busy dragging him back), tripping him up into an ankle lock for the win. I'm not saying much about Nakano or Burton here, largely because they were instruments who were very well played by maestros. ***3/4

Billy Scott vs. Yoji Anjo 11:29.

MB: Next up is Yoji Anjo vs Billy Scott. The last time we saw Scott in a singles match was a surprisingly awesome affair with Kazuo Yamazaki, and out of all the imported Tennessee talent, he has showed the most promise, by far. Here he must face his sophomore test against everyone’s loveable zebra-warrior in Anjo, and they don’t waste any time.Immediately after the bell, Anjo rushes in with a slap to try and set up an o-goshi throw, but Scott just shoves him off, and gives him a stiff kick in the back for his trouble. This causes our zebra to wisely rush back to the safety of his savannah, backing off to regroup before charging in again. He attempts another hip-toss, but Scott is wise to these judo shenanigans, and responds with a couple of ultra-low single-leg takedowns, a la Sakuraba, succeeding with his second attempt, which he converted into a slam.

They both then proceeded to get into a slap fest until Anjo pulls out a sweet Kani Basami out of his bag of tricks, which shows that maybe there is something to be said for these judo parlor tricks, after all. What followed next was a barrage of strikes, takedowns, reversals, until Anjo scored the first rope escape against Scott, in what could be loosely interpreted as a kimura from an open guard. Anjo quickly followed this up with a head kick knockdown, furthering his score against Scott.This upswing didn’t last long though, as shortly afterwards, Scott got a takedown and finished the match in what is one of the most bizarre submissions I’ve ever seen, which resembled something between a “twister” and a neck-crank.

Bizarre finish aside, this was a great match, and although they could have let it breathe more in spots, the fast pace kept it highly entertaining. Scott is continuing to show that he has a bright future, as he adds a credible gravitas with his look, and athleticism.

ML: Scott took a big step forward here, partially because he's a tough & proud guy who isn't going to allow Anjo to take advantage of him. These guys really stepped up the level of defense & intensity, not only refusing to go along with the opponent, but making each other pay with a swift foot to the face. While this wasn't a shoot by any means, of all the works we've seen so far, it's probably the match that felt most like it both in terms of the fighters moving quickly & desperately to avoid what the other fighter was trying & getting a bit out of control and even nailing each other when they had the chance. They really put a lot of energy into the takedowns, throws, and scrambles, and both fighters inserted their share of cheap shots. They took some brief rests on the mat, where Scott isn't the most fluid to begin with once he gets you there, but made up for it by seeming to legitimately piss each other off in standup, leading to some strikes that were arguably too mean & some scrambles where the loser normally would have given up much easier. 11:29 was a good length for this, as it started great, and maintained the intensity throughout, but the holes were becoming more and more apparent the longer it continued. I was surprised that Scott got the upset here, although Anjo is one of their better fighters, I wasn't opposed to it because Scott did a nice job of standing up for himself & hanging with the veteran. With this being Scott's 3rd match, it's hard to argue against this overachieving. ***1/2


Yoji Anjo & Tom Burton vs. Yuko Miyato & Kiyoshi Tamura 20:44

MB: So, despite my many lamentations and wailings throughout the night, the UWFI continues to be a harsh mistress and insists on giving us more tag-team matches, if for no other reason then to give their roster something to do. In this case it’s Kiyoshi Tamura/Yuko Miyato vs Tom Burton and Yoji Anjo, but at least this is off to a fast clip as Anjo and Miyato immediately go at each other with a sense of urgency, with Anjo giving Miyato plenty of kicks, and even a nice Ippon-seoi-nage (or one arm shoulder throw, if you prefer).

Not long afterwards, Tamura was tagged in, and we got to see further evidence why he was a once in a lifetime kind of talent. Shortly after getting in the ring, Tamura wasted no time in engaging Anjo, and in one breathtaking display, shot a beautiful low single-leg takedown (the kind that Sakuraba later became famous for) and was able to convert that attempt into almost taking Anjo’s back with a rear naked choke, with such a grace and fluidity, that has to be seen to be believed. The rest of this match was simply off the charts in terms of entertainment value. Everyone did a great job, and even though I’m tempted to complain that there still isn’t much of a point to a tag match (within a promotion that doesn’t so much as have any titles to vie for) such objections would ring hallow, as all the performers here gave a 100% intensity, that was riveting from start to finish, and I suspect that this will be the match of the night.

ML: Tamura is sometimes criticized in his younger years for being too showy, but I'd counter that his flashy aspects are actually some of the most realistic moments in his matches because the scrambles are so fast and explosive that both fighters wind up mostly just reacting to one another. Take, for instance, the amazing opening sequence Tamura does with Anjo where Tamura tries to take Anjo down in stages, first getting the clinch but with overhooks, so he has to switch to an underhook, but that high bodylock takedown would now be too predictable, so he drops down after the leg instead. Meanwhile, Anjo keeps pivoting and scrambling, trying to counter with a knee to the face, but Tamura avoids by dropping down to the right, and continues scrambling until he gets behind Anjo and sweeps his leg with his arm. Other than that amazing sequence, the match has a lot of feeling out and thwarting one another early, establishing the strategies that Anjo & Miyato want to strike, while Tamura & Burton want to grapple. The action picked up during Tamura & Anjo's 2nd encounter, when Anjo got a knockdown with a high kick and Tamura got trapped in the corner because he still hadn't recovered when the ref restarted. Anjo, who already kicked Tamura in the balls, got a somewhat dishonorable knockdown out of this with a knee in the corner rather than respecting the ropes. A fired-up Tamura answered with this neat hybrid between a swinging neckbreaker and a snap suplex and started stomping Anjo's face then soccer kicked him until Anjo escaped to the floor. Even though the tag match format negates some of the intensity, urgency, and believability, Anjo's shenanigans and Tamura's fire helped negate that, and this wound up being quite the heated affair. One problem with the UWF-I is in these matches where they try to start off showing it's difficult to make things work, they tend to then go too far in the other direction trying to be super entertaining in the later stages to make up for it, and certainly by shoot style standards they were kind of spamming throws in the 2nd half. Tamura vs. Anjo was great, and the other stuff was fine to good, with the interrupted flow of the tag format being more of a liability than the other guys not being Tamura. Burton doesn't have the speed or body control to work the sort of match these guys were really trying to do, but he stepped up his game as much as he was capable of. His peak level is still nowhere near that of the others, but I prefer to credit him for probably reaching it here, whereas Miyato is actually the one who could have delivered a little more than he did. The finish was pretty lame with Anjo countering Tamura's rear naked choke attempt into a sort of reverse wakigatame where Tamura was lying on his back. This might put a little pressure on the wrist or elbow, I guess, but is even that much less likely than the regular cornball version to either be a maintainable position or actually put enough pressure on an improperly isolated joint while one has the catch to force a submission. Nonetheless, while no one is going to confuse this with Ozaki & Kansai vs. Yamada & Toyota 11/26/92 or Kawada & Taue vs. Misawa & Akiyama 12/6/96, this was another strong candidate for the top 5 UWF-I matches of the year, though it's slightly below last month's tag with Nakano instead of Anjo. ***1/2

Nobuhiko Takada vs. Bob Backlund 16:42

MB: A rematch that absolutely no one was asking for, as the last one was such a fiasco that Sapporo almost had a riot on their hands, but that isn’t going to stop Takada and Co. from trying again. The referee spends what feels like ten mins going over the rules with Backlund, who somehow managed to run the gauntlet of human facial expressions in that span of time, and we are off. Backlund’s goofy mannerisms aside, this is already better than the last outing (though that’s not saying much) as they spend some time feeling each other out, and Takada shows some impressive sprawling technique as he stuffs one of Backlund’s double leg attempts by putting his right arm around Backlund’s neck, while putting his right knee on the ground and the same time, and was really shifting his bodyweight into Backlund’s neck, preventing his ability to torque, and effectively nullified the takedown.

The rest of the match was mostly both men jockeying for a toehold or ankle lock with a decent crescendo towards the last couple of mins. This match was mostly free from strikes, until the end, which was a positive, as this allowed a format for Backlund to come off credibly, if a bit outdated. Backlund’s strikes towards the end looked hokey, but he did hit an excellent double underhook suplex that sent Takada flying across the ring. The match ended with Backlund hitting a German suplex, that Takada shrugged off, and responded with an keylock for the win.

This was ok and had this been the original match between the two, I don’t think too many would have complained. Backlund has the amateur wrestling chops to look decent in the grappling portions, but there is only so much you can do with him, as his lack of submission, and striking knowledge, plus age, prevents him from being much more than an occasional special attraction. Still, taking away their first match out of the equation, this was a fine, if forgettable main event.

ML: Backlund is one of those guys I really want to like because his skills are based in realism, but can't because his mannerisms are based in Doinkism, which totally negates that. When you are just acting like a WWE clown, you are also wrestling like one whether you are doing a perfect double leg or just poking the opponent in the eyes Three Stooges style. The first Takada/Backlund from 12/22/88 was the first worked shoot I saw, it was one of those matches hyped as so great it must be seen to be believed, ending up tossed at the end of kind of an Ultimo Dragon compilation because even though it had nothing to do with juniors or lucha, it was just that good it transcended styles and genres. It didn't really capture my imagination at the time, still just feeling more like spectacle, and in that case I'd rather see more of Ultimo doing backflips. I've liked it more and less at times since then, but nonetheless, it's by far their most famous match. It's definitely the best for the crowd, which I could care less about, but it's an electric atmosphere partially because the outcome is in doubt with Takada having lost to Maeda & Yamazaki earlier that year before coming back & beating Maeda on the previous show to finally get a big win in U.W.F. Though the first half had a lot of dead spots, there's some things to enjoy in the match as they did a lot in the 2nd half to make up for it, with Backlund's bloody nose & Takada's bruised face giving it some extra aura. I just never believed in the match for a moment, as it was the same old crap with Backlund just standing there letting Takada do his bag kicking routine on him, and thus actually managing to look more stupid than usual. I'm going to take the unpopular opinion and say that this third meeting is actually their best match because they shockingly made an effort to avoid what the opponent was trying to do. One of the biggest problems with Takada is it never feels like he works for anything, but that's not the case here, there's movement, there's countering, there's even some craftiness. While there are less kicks, they are more exciting and feel more earned. There are still a lot of issues here, but comparatively speaking, there's a lot more effort put into making an attack good here, which allows the match to rise to the level of being interesting even though it's a bit slow and dry compared to Takada's most famous flashy firework showcases. The usual lazy Takada lockup instead sees Takada utilizing it to land fast body punches that open up the backdrop that he'd normally just go into naked. This is the first match we've reviewed that Takada actually seemed motivated for, and Backlund was also easier to take, as he toned down the goofiness quite a bit. The finish was even pretty good with Backlund hitting his famous doublearm suplex then barely getting Takada over for the resisted U.W.F. style German suplex only to have Takada swing into the chickenwing armlock upon impact for the submission. ***

12/22/91 Hiromitsu Kanehara vs. Masakazu Maeda 15:00

MB: The first match of the evening will be between Hiromitsu Kanehara and Masakazu Maeda. Kanehara was an absolutely fantastic talent and may be one of the most underrated figures from this era. Like Tamura he was excellent both as a pro wrestler and a shooter, although to the unlearned his MMA record might indicate otherwise. While his 19-27 win/loss stats are true, further examination shows that he often faced a murderers row of opponents in their primes, and gave many of them a very hard time, including Ricardo Arona, Matt Hughes, Dan Henderson, Mirko Cro Cop, and Wanderlei Silva. His best win was possibly his hard-fought victory against Jeremy Horn in the A-Block of the 1999 King of Kings tournament, for the RINGS promotion. In the days to come, we will look forward to covering him in more detail.

This will be the debut for Maeda as well, and strangely he only wrestled a total of 6 times, all within the span of a year, and all against Kanehara. The match starts with Maeda taking a light-on-his-feet kickboxing approach and throwing some crisp high kicks towards Kanehara, but couldn’t maintain the offense for too long before being taken down and put into an ankle lock, thus deducting a point via a rope escape. What followed next, was another 14 minutes of what turned out to be a very well rounded and nicely paced match. There was plenty of everything here, submissions, striking, suplexes, and reversals, but everything was blended together well, and turned out to be a great way to set the tone for the evening. You could tell that Kanehara was the better of the two men, and was carrying Maeda by allowing him some offensive moments, but Maeda gave a good showing of himself, and makes me wonder why he never did anything outside of wrestle Kanehara, as he seemed to have enough potential to grow into being a solid talent. The match was ruled a draw, despite Kanehara being ahead on points 9-4. Unlike Rings, which will award the victory automatically to the fighter ahead on points, apparently the UWFI defaults to a draw if the contest goes to the time limit.

ML: he exciting thing about this year end show was not the dopey boxers, even though shoots are welcome, but rather the bright young talent on display with the return of Kakihara and the debuts of Kanehara & other Maeda. Maeda's career didn't last long, but this was the classic undercard fued of the early UWF-I days, with their bouts in early 1992 already becoming highlights of the promotion, if not stealing the show entirely. Right away we can see Kanehara using the more evolved level of grappling that Tamura employs that revolves around chaining quick, deceptive movements. He was changing levels, trying to fake Maeda out so it was more difficult for him to win the scrambles. Maeda was more of a striker, and Kanehara keyed on his kicks, looking to catch one to initiate a grappling exchange. What's so impressive about Kanehara is his confidence. Maeda, while certainly already decent, was more hesitant and prone to hedging on his strikes, whereas Kanehara already worked like a veteran, pulling off high level sequences as if they were second nature because he's been doing them all his life. In traditional pro wrestling, it's easy to tell the rookies matches as they are either really basic or just kind of short and limited, but none of those characteristics were present here. It's more like Kanehara was out to steal the show, and truly believed himself capable. They went through most of the points, with Kanehara mounting a 5 point lead despite Maeda having a few knockdowns with flying knees and palm strikes, but being unable to put Maeda away before time expired for the draw. Forget about this merely being a great debut or even rookie match, although Maeda could use a little more menace on his shots, this was one of the better worked shoots of the year. Kanehara would be an easy pick for rookie of the year, if not for the beyond exceptional competitioin of Volk Han. ***1/4

Top 5 wrestlers in the UWF-I for 1991:

ML: 1. Kiyoshi Tamura. Tamura set the bar for pro wrestling grappling about 10 times higher with his explosive style that really brought scrambling and chaining attacks into the pro wrestling game. He made the matches much less predictable by introducing complex, fast paced sequences that continued far beyond the single action/reaction based style that was previously in place, greatly increasing both the intensity and the level of difficulty by extending both the length and the scope. Now it wasn't simply the first attack that you had to defend, but rather each attack was as much an attempt to succeed with the takedown or submission or control gain as it was a diversion to get the opponent off guard for the subsequent attempt, if the previous one didn't work. Though none of the other performers were near Tamura's level, he was able to bring them into his new universe and raise their game to levels they didn't attain with anyone else. Basically everyone who worked with Tamura also had their best match with him, which is the mark of a truly next level performer. In this case, it's partially because the opponents were forced to work so much harder & faster to try to simply keep up with Tamura and prevent him from outclassing them to the point of embarrassment that the best they had emerged. Certainly, a great deal of skill, precision, speed, and body control is also required from the opponent to pull off the style Tamura wanted to work without a hitch, and they too deserve a lot of credit, as the Kazuchika Okada's of the world would have just laid on the mat looking clueless and letting Tamura just do whatever he could to their corpse rather than engaging Tamura in his interactive, back & forth jockeying.

2. Yoji Anjo. My recollection of the original U.W.F. is that Anjo tended to blend in with the other solid undercarders, separating himself, if at all, by his ability to sustain his level for longer durations. In 1991, there's definitely a distinctive difference between Anjo and the likes of Miyato and Nakano, as Anjo can both add a lot to a match where he's the follower as well as actually carry a match. Anjo may not be great, but he's really reliable. He can do any style, at any length, and while he doesn't always succeed, his matches don't feel formulaic and, at worst, have some interesting aspects. As the top dick in the promotion, he's able to pull the otherwise largely missing grudge aspects out of his opponents, these shenanigans again differentiating his matches from the rest.

3. Kazuo Yamazaki. While 1991 was probably the worst year of Yamazaki's career since at least 1983, he's still one of the only shooters who will always stand on his own feet and craft a match. Though I'm ranking Anjo ahead of him, it's due to the great work Anjo did against Tamura, an opportunity Yamazaki wasn't granted, and it should be noted that Yamazaki was, of course, the one laying out the good, if somewhat disappointing match he and Anjo had. Yamazaki & Funaki were very similar this year in that they made a conscious choice not to be flashy. As such, I think their actual talent greatly exceeds their end results, but I also respect this decision, and can say that their matches hold up a lot better as quasi shooting because of it. Yamazaki didn't have nearly as many good opportunities as in years past, and while he also didn't make the most of them, he was still a very interesting watch because he's a thoughful performer who has the courage to work outside the expected.

4. Yuko Miyato. Miyato is the best follower in the league. Left to his devices, he's basically a one trick pony who just wants to play the underdog and get in 1 or 2 Hail Mary spinning solebutts that won't actually win him the match anyway, but Tamura got him to improve his matwork considerably, upping the number of counters and reversals and just doing things faster to maintain the intensity and viewer interest. As a consequene, Miyato was generally more well rounded this year, and in spending much of his time working with the more capable workers who were also more toward his equals in standing, he seemed better positioned to display a more diverse & technical game.

5. Hiromitsu Kanehara. Kanehara only had one match, but he already showed more ability to carry a match than probably anyone other than Tamura & Yamazaki. Granted the sample size is incredibly small, but he's arguably already the 2nd best grappler, and 3rd best overal worker in the promotion behind those same two. One could make a case for Scott, who was around most of the year, and as such even had a better match with Anjo, but Kanehara was really able to display next level chain grappling skills even against a fellow newcomer, whereas Scott had the benefit of being carried by the 2nd & 3rd best workers in the league.

MB: While any comments I add here, are strictly academic nitpicking, I will go ahead and offer my thoughts.

1: Kiyoshi Tamura: There really isn’t any argument here, as Tamura is clearly ahead of of everyone, in terms of his raw talent. You could argue that Yamazki is more experienced, and employs a greater psychology to what he does, and I would tend to agree, but the speed, athleticism, and outright freshness, of what Tamura has brought to the table so far, has been nothing short of a game-changer. From what we have seen so far, it isn’t surprising that this man went on to have, what is arguably the greatest pro-wrestling match of all time, against Tsuyoshi Kosaka in 1998.

2. I respect and can agree with Mike Lorefice’s decision to put Anjo in the 2nd spot, though I would personally place Yamazaki here. While it’s true this has not been a good year for him, this is due to the garbage booking he has been saddled with, and not a reflection of his talent. Nothing can be taken away from Anjo for being the most versatile talent the UWF-I is employing at the moment, but that again is due to how everything is being layed out by the UWFI’s management. Yamazaki is still the best talent in the game at this point, if we count not only his skills, but his experience in this style, but we all know that he is about to be eclipsed by the rising stars of Tamura, and Volk Han. Even then, neither Han, nor Tamura, had quite the methodical and oft times, cerebral approach that Yamazaki did, and while that didn’t translate into the raw entertainment value that those two provided, I do feel like Yamazaki’s best moments translated better into the actual essence of shooting.

3. Again, the 2nd and 3rd slots could easily be interchanged here, without any complaints from me, but I would put Anjo in this spot. His cardio, and versatility are without question, though his results have been uneven. Still, he always brings something interesting, even when it doesn’t quite click.

4. Hiromitsu Kanehara. Though it may be incredulous on my part to put a one-match rookie in the 4th slot here, I feel like I have been more impressed with that one match, then I have with anything MIyato has done. Don’t get me wrong, Miyato is a solid talent, that is quite malleable, but my main issue with him, is he like Nakano, hasn’t evolved at all since the NEWBORN UWF, and feels a bit dated, whereas Kanehara feels like part of a fresh new generation that is going to take us to the next level.

5: Billy Scott. There is no doubt that Scott has a long way to go, in terms of refining his striking and submission skills, to be able to match many of his peers, but what he has in spades, is a very believable gravitas that surrounds him. Right away you feel like this is a serious athlete, that is going to be a threat to be dealt with, and he has carried himself very well, especially for a rookie.

UWF-I Rookie of the Year

ML: 1. Hiromitsu Kanehara

2. Billy Scott. Though Burton had a couple of strong matches by virtue of Tamura's wizardry, Scott was clearly the bright spot among the foreigners, a fiery, intense, and energetic hard worker who soaked up the technique imparted to him and improved with each showing.


1: This was a very tough call for me, but I will agree with Lorefice on this. Though I was tempted to pick Scott, by default to him having more output this year, I can’t deny the incredibly skills and poise that Kanehara showed. While Scott felt like a rookie (albeit a very talented one) Kanehara felt like someone that was a seasoned pro, right from the jump.

2. Billy Scott: Scott has nowhere to go but up, as he is probably the best westerner, we have seen in any of these promotions, outside of Ken Shamrock. With some more time, and refinement, he will be a major force to be reckoned with.

Top 5 matches in the UWF-I for 1991

ML: 1. 7/3/91: Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Yoji Anjo

2. 8/24/91: Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Yuko Miyato

3. 6/6/91: Makoto Ohe vs. Rudy Lovato

4. 10/6/91: Kiyoshi Tamura & Yuko Miyato vs. Tatsuo Nakano & Tom Burton

5. 6/6/91: Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tom Burton

MB: 1. 7/3/91 Kiyoshi Tamura vs Yoji Anjo: I have to agree that this was the best thing that we saw from the UWF-I. A great match all the way around, and a serious notice to the entire combat-sports realm, that Tamura is a serious talent, that can’t be slept on.

2. Makoto Ohe vs Rudy Lovato: This was probably my favorite match of the year, but since it was strictly a kickboxing match, I’m not sure if it is fair to put it at the number one spot. In cany evert, it was a total blitzkrieg from start to finish, and will forever be a timeless footfighting classic.

3. For reasons that I’m not quite sure that I can articulate, I found the 11-7-91 Tag match to be one of the very best of the year, out of this promotion, putting it slightly ahead of the 10-6-91 version with Nakano. This completely shattered my expectations, and even Tom Burton looked good in this one.

4. Tamura vs Miyato. Another great match, with Miyato providing a fast, and capable foil to Tamura. He didn’t have the smug heelishness that Anjo has, but he made up for it with great urgency, and really helped to make this a great match.

5. Yamazaki vs Anjo. I liked this more than my man Mike Lorefice, but I thought this was a great paring, who’s only real downfall was the lack of time they gave them. The almost 12 minutes that they had to work with were great though, and again, if not for the bizarre booking, we would have possibly had a MOTY candidate, had they been giving the proper amount of time to space this out.


Active Member
Jul 27, 2020
Kakutogi Road Presents: 1991 Year in Review Part 2 PWFG

*Editors note: Both Michael Betz’s and Mike Lorefice’s comments will be preceded by their initials. *

ML: PWFG got out of the gate quickly and felt like the best of the worked shoot leagues for much of the year. They had the opportunity to not just be about one great talent, as initially, that balance was there where even though Minoru Suzuki was the clear standout performer, it wasn't about who was fighting Suzuki, but rather which combination of Suzuki, Ken Shamrock, Naoki Sano, & Masakatsu Funaki we were getting. Unfortunately, that big 4 was based around borrowing Sano from SWS, which seemed very feasible given both companies were owned by Megame Super, and their president was a big pro wrestling fan who kept urging the PWFG guys to come fight in SWS. This working relationship quickly unraveled to a large extent when Suzuki's 4/1/91 match with veteran Apollo Sugawara turned into a shoot, resulting in essentially the same finish as the famous Takada/Berbick match, with the fight ending because Sugawara just said the hell with it and up and left the ring. Sano may not have been the best shooter, but was a talented enough pro wrestler that he had the Match of the Year and best junior match up until that point with Jushin Thunder Liger on 1/31/90. While UWF-I had some misses, they did a much better job of rounding out their roster as the year progressed, whereas Sano's loan running out left a big hole in PWFG which they never managed to fill.

Minoru Suzuki's technical skills were actual below Masakatsu Funaki's, but he grasped the urgency and intensity necessary to make the style effective and appealing a lot better, as well as that speed is more important than absolute precision. There was a real sense of danger in his matches, this feeling that you always had to be on guard. This played into Ken Shamrock's strengths well, as Shamrock not only played the wild powerhouse, but proved to be someone not to mess with when he (cheap) shot on rookie Kazuo Takahashi.

Funaki held down the credible end of the spectrum, showing a technical precision and grasp of the positions that clearly separated him from the rest of the league. That understanding didn't always make for the most entertaining matches, as his position before submission style was way ahead of its time, but also plays a lot better when winning is up to the fighters rather than the whim of the booker. While it sometimes felt Funaki was sacrificing himself for the development and advancement of the craft and others felt like he was the precursor to GSP in just being out there to win no matter what it looked like, he was, perhaps surprisingly, able to prove this style viable, and always came off as the top star of the promotion whether Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Suzuki, or Shamrock liked that or not.

Fujiwara seemed very interested in realism for one show, but it's almost as if he realized he simply couldn't keep up with the way the style was developing, and quickly descended into just goofing around for cheap giggles when he wasn't bullying the opponents he knew possessed neither the standing nor the balls to call him on it. While his promotion was the most realistic of the 3 as a whole, he was increasingly painful to watch, and almost came off as a shoot style version of a comedy wrestler, with his matches being so lame you just waited to see what antics he would pull.

MB: PWFG was the best overall product out of the three shoot-style promotions in 1991, and probably had the highest percentage of must-see moments from this year, but in retrospect it’s also easy to see why this promotion didn’t survive after the great exodus of talent in 93 over to Pancrase. Throughout 1991, you can see some of the performers here, continually edge closer and closer to real shoot territory, which indicates that somewhere buried in the collective haze was a desire to push the envelope and really fight for real. Also, as Lorefice pointed out, not having Sano around for most of the year was to their detriment, as they really needed another 2-3 high caliber guys to really be an unstoppable force. That is one of the unfortunate aspects of the UWF splintering off into three separate promotions, was the thinning out of the talent pool, as we can see a huge disparity between the higher tier of Funaki, Shamrock, and Suzuki, vs the lower end, like Wilkins, Kiroware, and the man who’s name should never be uttered, Johnny Barrett. Imagine if someone like Yamazaki had migrated to the PWFG as opposed to the UWF-I, that alone could have made a huge difference in rounding out their roster.

Fujiwara is really the odd man in this equation. I think that he has realized that he is perhaps in over his head, as there is no way at his age, or athletic ability, he is going to hang with the kind of matches that we are starting to see take shape, but to his credit, he seems to be ok with not having the entire focus of the promotion be around him, as he has been willing to have matches in the midcard, or miss an event if need be, whereas there is no way that the UWF-I will allow their league to be about anything other than Takada, and the particular monster-of-the-week that he will be slaying on that month. As long as Fujiwara has a strong roster, then he will be able to get away with the clowning antics that we have seen from him, but if he starts hemorrhaging talent, then it’s going to be painfully obvious to all, that he can’t carry this promotion.

Still, things are looking good for them going into 92. They were able to acquire Duane Koslowski, who seems to be a great talent, that can only get better and better, Takaku Fuke, who stole the show with his epic match against Jerry Flynn, and then proceeded to get a good match out of Bart Vale the next event, and Kazuo Takahashi, who still has a ways to go in rounding out his striking and submission skills to match his great wrestling, but has so much heart, and verve, that he is awesome a welcome addition.

PWFG’s Best Matches in 1991

3/4/1991 Wayne Shamrock vs Minoru Suzuki 30:00

MB: Now we get to the first glimpse of magic in this shoot- world. Ken, "Wayne" Shamrock vs Minoru Suzuki. Fujiwara should get a lot of credit here, as he was willing to put himself in the mid-card and allow some of the younger talent a chance to shine, which was something that eluded a lot of the young Japanese talent in those days.

Here we find a very young Suzuki facing an incredible looking specimen in Shamrock, and it's rather amazing to see that right from the jump, Shamrock was an awesome performer that really shined in this kind of format. One has to wonder if he had jumped back into Japanese pro wrestling instead of the WWF in 1996 how his later career would have turned out, as all he really seemed to get out of his tenure there, (outside of a fat stack of cash), was a lot of injuries.

This match opened us all up to a whole new world of possibilities that “shooting," could provide. While this match was not the smoothest and being a 30min draw it did have its fair share of dead spaces, both fighters did an excellent job of parlaying intensity and frustration, throughout. They constantly looked for submissions, even in bad positions, and you could really see an example of a grappling mentality, before the positional thinking of a BJJ influence crept in.

The match also had a nice progression to it, as it was mostly submission orientated in the beginning , saving the flashier stuff like a belly to belly suplex, and much nastier striking until later in the match, which gave it natural feel, as if the stakes were getting higher, and it was time to pull out all the stops.

A little dry in spots, but a great start to this and a great insight into the fact that maybe...just maybe.. there was a future paying audience to be found in real fighting.

ML: Suzuki vs. Shamrock is the reason to watch the first Fujiwara Gumi show, an ambitious all out 30 minute draw where their ability to show all the sport is capable of may fall slightly short of their desire to do so, but that desire is so high it's hard to fault them. Being one of the newest and youngest fighters in U.W.F., Suzuki had a hard time seizing the limelight even though he was having strong matches on the undercard, but immediately really came into his own as a regular top of the card performer in PWFG. Fujiwara’s match with Johnny Barrett was definitely more believable, a trend that would quickly be reversed, but it was the younger fighters that Fujiwara gave the spotlight to, particularly Suzuki, who set out to evolve the shooting style by working and countering the holds rather than just lying around and taking rope escapes as many a man had been content to in U.W.F. Structurally, this was still a pro wrestling bout, quite a well built one, at least working up to and in the suplexes and dropkicks that "shouldn't have been there". That being said, their desire to up the realism from the U.W.F. level was quickly, if subtly on display right from the opening sequence where both were hesitant & used small feints to try to set up their strikes, which were really distraction to open up a single leg takedown. There wasn't much striking in the 1st half, which is probably a good thing because Shamrock was often too fake with his hands. However, tensions really escalated in the 2nd half when Shamrock went from a series of mount palms to illegal soccer ball kicks to Suzuki's head, prompting Suzuki - after a break to recover - to come back at Shamrock with a series of short range standing headbutts, which thankfully bore no resemblance to Fujiwara's big windup comedy spot. I would have liked to see them explore the takedown possibilities more rather than revert to the old more Greco style high clinches leading to throws to get the match to the ground, positionally the bout still left a lot to be desired once they hit the canvas as well due to the lack of BJJ, but the grappling was a lot more realistic than much of the U.W.F. stuff because the fighter on the defensive was active, twisting, turning, and rolling to either escape, take the top and/or use their own counter submission. While it wasn't the smoothest match, and it didn't have the best sequences, I was impressed by the active matwork with regular position changes. Most shooters can counter, but one thing that elevated this match above the pack was the intensity and effort they fought with. Everytime you thought one man had made some headway, the other took the advantage at least partially back. The frustration seemed genuine, particularly when Shamrock rope escaped Suzuki’s ankle lock. They just fought so hard throughout the duration of the contest that it never felt as though it would be a marathon, in part because they never stalled, but much of their success was in getting over the concept that they were equals without the usual corniness that has full time draw written all over it. Though the high number of rope escapes wasn't ideal, they did allow for an entertaining ground-oriented contest where they were able to keep working hard & threatening one another for half an hour. I appreciated their lack of laziness, not so much in keeping the pace, but the fact that Suzuki, and to a lesser extent Shamrock, understood the importance in putting the effort into their grimacing and contorting to maintain the interest, anticipation, and credibility of what they were doing. They worked some highspots into the submission oriented match such as the overhead belly to belly suplex with a float over and a dropkick, and did some nasty striking in the second half, but the crowd really took to this one because they made their attempts and refusals seem important. By the end of the night, these two had the crowd in the palm of their hands. There was some booing for the draw, but they soon gave the performers a big hand for their exceptional effort. Suzuki was pretty great here, and Shamrock could complement him well enough that the match worked exactly as they hoped, stealing the show with a semifinal draw that propelled them to the main event on 8/23/91.****

5/16/91: Naoki Sano vs. Wayne Shamrock 26:15

MB: Here we get to a true treat, and the highlight of this card. PWFG’s lack of star power on the bottom tier of their roster definitely led to some unfortune excursions into the more obscure corners of the jobber universe, but in this case, their subcontracting out some talent led to a homerun. Sano started his carrer in the 80s as a jobber for NPJW before getting a chance to hone his craft in Mexico in 87 and he was able to parlay that experience into a successful run in the Jr. Division of NJPW, with some memorable matches against Jyushin Liger. When SWS (Super World of Sports) started doling out the cash in the early 90s he jumped aboard the gravy train, and was plying his craft there, when PWFG worked out an agreement to have him loaned out for a couple of matches. His stay here was brief, as Kazuo Yamazaki, and Nobuhiko Takada lured him over to the UWFI shortly thereafter.

If Sano is known at all to a modern MMA fan, it is probably for his surprisingly good showing against Royler Gracie at Pride 2, in which he was able to nullify a lot of Royler’s offensive tools, and could have possibly caused a major upset had he not been so tentative in that fight.The fight starts and is already looking to be amazing, as Sano seems like a perfect opponent for Shamrock. Both were of a similar height, and both had impressive bodybuilder physiques, so this is looking like a clash between the unstoppable force vs the immovable object, straightaway.

The first few mins start off with the fighters feeling each other out on the ground, with Ken ever looking for a leg attack entry. This is interesting to watch from a modern vantage point, as it was clearly by people that weren’t in the BJJ mentality of “position over submission.” Sano will attempt to place Ken in a bad position, and as soon as Ken is able to reposition himself, he instantly goes for the attack, which was the mindset of Catch Wrestling. Both men jockey back and forth on the ground for a while, with both trading kimura, toe hold, and choke attempts. This goes on for a while, until Shamrock is able to secure a rear naked chock, thus forcing a rope escape from Sano.

They get stood back up and escalate the entire affair with some stiff palm strikes, and nasty knees from Sano. Everything is looking very snug and believable until a momentary show of flashiness takes place with a jumping DDT from Sano. This didn’t really amount to a whole lot, as Shamrock quickly reversed his position by applying a hammerlock variant, into another rear naked choke attempt, and rope escape. After trading a couple of kicks, Shamrock hits an explosive Northern Lights suplex into a Kimura, which is super impressive looking, but admittedly fake as all get out. This surprisingly didn’t accomplish much as Sano was right back up with some more kicks and managed to score a knockdown against Shamrock. Shamrock gets back up and they continue to trade submission attempts, but one thing I’m starting to notice is that this has a great back and forth feel, without the sometimes-scripted feeling that a Rings match would give off. The limited rope-escape format of RINGS could add a lot of drama to a match, but oftentimes produced matches that felt very formulated. The PWFG approach of unlimited rope escapes allows for a much more organic match to take place, although can also lead to bouts of meandering if not done correctly. The match continues to seesaw all the way until the 25:00 min mark, when everything culminates into an explosive crescendo, as both men give everything they have into knees/palm strikes towards one another. Sano gets behind Shamrock and hits a dragon suplex, followed by a straight armbar, for the win. While not perfect, this was a great match that really showcased the new and uncharted territory that this style could deliver. It was fairly credible, outside of a few highspots and Shamrock’s striking needing to be a bit stiffer. Still, this was a glimpse of some of the magic to come, and Sano proved to a perfect foil to the powerhouse that was Ken Shamrock.

ML: Suzuki's match with Shamrock on the previous show was considerably better because he has a lot more ability to both lead & react, and is by far the most creative of the three, but while Shamrock was forced to initiate a lot more here, he was able to maintain his patience & do a good job, with Sano bringing some good things to the match. Sano was the better standup fighter, landing some solid low kicks early (though he didn't really attempt to follow them up) and a lot of good openhand shots that helped force Shamrock into a more grappling centric performer. The basis of the match was ultimately Shamrock controlling with superior wrestling, forcing Sano to make things happen. It's unfair to compare a shoot debuting Sano to Suzuki in the style Suzuki has been training in for 2 years, but in any case Sano obviously wasn't totally ready to match his ability in junior heavyweight action yet. He was good in the striking exchanges and had some submissions in his arsenal, but most of his transitions & counters would have taken the bout to a more puroresu place, and he was trying not to go there too often. While the bout had the long match vibe too it throughout, emphasizing position changes on the mat over finishing opportunities, that was mostly okay because they kept the credibility a lot higher than it would have been, even if things meandered a bit more. I don't want to make it sound as if credibility was near the top of their priorities, Sano got a takedown with a jumping DDT and a knockdown with a jumping spinning heel kick that mostly missed, while Shamrock did a few of his suplexes, but they built the match up well to these meaningful highlights, and didn't lose the plot when they failed to finish with them. Sano began to press in the standup, with Shamrock happy to get involved in a flurry because it would help him grab Sano & land his clinch knees, which tended to result in the bout hitting the mat one way or another. The finish didn't really work for me because by continuing to exchange the openhand strikes on the inside, Sano somehow getting behind Shamrock when he missed one of these short shots without much hip turn was pretty clunky. Nonetheless, Sano did a released version of one of his wrestling favorites, the Dragon suplex, turning into the wakigatame for the finish. Definitely a good match, you could certainly argue very good, but my memory of it was better than it looks to me today. ***1/2

Minoru Suzuki vs. Naoki Sano 30:00

MB: This was a treat, and one of the best matches, shoot-style or otherwise, that we have seen up to this point. This was a fast paced 30 min war, that featured all sorts of grappling that was ahead of its time for most audiences. Guillotine chokes, ankle picks, half guard work, armbars, and heel hooks, were spliced together with more standard pro wrestling fare, and terse striking exchanges. The striking in this match was also very logical, in that they would focus on the grappling first, and when that seemed to stall out, then one would break up the monotony with strikes, in an effort to force a change, or create an opening. There was some pro wrestling tomfoolery, (at one point Suzuki gave Sano a piledriver as he was warding off a takedown with a sprawl/underhook technique) but it didn’t detract from the match, in fact because the flashier spots were used sparingly and towards the end of the match, it did have the effect of spicing things up a bit, towards the end. This match showed us, that despite their flaws, the PWFG was the best of the Shoot-Style promotions at this point in time, and had the potential for something truly extraordinary

ML: The previous two high end PWFG matches were Shamrock vs. Suzuki and Shamrock vs. Sano, but with Suzuki being the man in his matches vs. these opponents, and these matches both being notably better than Shamrock vs. Sano, it's more clear that he's the leading light in this promotion. Suzuki is really grasping the urgency as well, if not better than anyone. Even though his arsenal floats somewhere between pro wrestler & what we'd come to know as an MMA fighter, he does it with so much speed & desperation that the same technique comes off almost completely different than in a traditional pro wrestling style match. This feels like a struggle, like there's real danger if you are unable to react to them before they can react to you. The fact he was not only able to accomplish this, but keep it up for the majority of a half hour match where he also managed to take things down seemingly not to rest, but rather to set up further escalation with another wild dramatic burst that didn't feel false was pretty remarkable. It's difficult to keep the illusion of a shoot alive for 5 minutes, but the incredible tension that these two are able to sustain throughout such a long contest is really what sets it apart. I don't want to make it sound like this was all Suzuki, Sano was growing in this style by leaps and bounds. You can see that his confidence is so much higher here than it was against Shamrock on the previous show, and he's just flowing a lot better, really on point with his reactions as well so it doesn't feel like pro wrestling cooperation. Sano again allowed the opponent to lead, but Suzuki is a lot better leader than Shamrock, and Sano is a better opponent for Suzuki in the reaction style because speedy offense & counter laden chain wrestling are the backbones of the junior heavyweight wrestling he's so good at. Although Sano is the newbie in U-style, he's the veteran in this match, and he's able to show that by staying composed and trusting that, unpredictable as Suzuki may be, he still has the counter/answer to anything Suzuki can throw at him. The match was very spot oriented, but they did a good job of just avoiding or immediately defending the submissions so they weren't straining the credibility for so called drama with the minute armbar before the opponent finally finished sliding to the ropes shenanigans. I won't say that they didn't strain credibility, I mean, Suzuki tried his dropkick, but they did so only by performing fast, explosive moves. Still, I liked the first half better when things were more under control than the second half when, ironically, what began to make the match look like it would be a draw was that they started hitting high spots that would have been finishes if they were used at all in PWFG, but they weren't getting the job done. That being said, this managed to be both exciting enough to be a great pro wrestling match of the era and credible enough to be a great shoot style match of the era. The weakness of the match was the transitions from the striking sequences to the mat sequences, not so much because they lacked great ways to get it to the mat, though that's also true, but mainly because they really only knew a bit of Greco-Roman based wrestling, so the action kind of artificially stalled out in a sort of minimal exertion mid-ring clinch while they plotted their explosion to get into the next great mat sequence. This aspect did improve as the match progressed with the introduction of knees, but this is also where they started incorporating the pro wrestling maneuvers. Though Sano is the spot merchant in pro wrestling, it was actually Suzuki that was initiating the more suspect spots here, with Sano shrugging them off. I though the no cooperation belly-to-belly suplex was good precisely because it wasn't cleanly performed, but I could have lived without the later versions, the piledriver, and a few other flourishes. Suzuki did a great job of blending pro wrestling affectations with shoot style desperation though. For instance, chopping Sano's wrist to try to break his clasp that was defending the armbar or slapping his own face to keep himself from from going to sleep in a choke were nice dramatic nods even though they obviously aren't what you'd learn from Firas Zahabi. The crowd was pretty rapid throughout for this big interpromotional match, probably the best reactions PWFG has gotten so far, as they were really eating this up. It felt like Sano really pulled ahead midway through the contest when Suzuki initiated a barrage of strikes, even using body punches, but Sano ultimately won what turned into a palm blow exchange, dropping & bloodying Minoru. However, Suzuki had more stamina than Sano, and as the match progressed he began to be too quick for Sano, and was now getting strikes through that had previously been avoided. Sano may well have just been blown up, but it added to the story without reducing the quality in any way. The contest finally climaxed with both working leg locks as the 30-minute time limit expired. You'd think PWFG would want Sano back as soon as possible, and the draw should have led to a rematch at some point, but sadly Suzuki was the only native Sano ever fought in PWFG, with his remaining 3 bouts being against Vale and Flynn. ****1/2

8/23/91: Masakatsu Funaki vs. Wayne Shamrock 21:03.

MB: And now… the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Ken Shamrock vs Masakatsu Funaki. This will be the first time that Funaki will be given a main event here in the PWFG with someone that I expect to really bring out the best in him, and I’m looking forward to it. Funaki wastes no time in throwing a kick Ken’s way and pays the price by being on the receiving end of a belly-to-back suplex. Funaki gets up quickly and starts to kick a grounded Shamrock, which causes Shamrock to put his hands behind his neck and start fighting off his back, trying to upkick Funaki, with an exchange that is somewhat reminiscent of Allan Goes vs Kazushi Sakaraba 7 years later in PRIDE. This doesn’t last long though, as Funaki quickly goes back to the ground, and they go back and forth for a bit, until stood back up by the ref. They immediately go to pounding each other once back on their feet, with the best strikes I’ve seen from Ken so far, and Funaki really putting some velocity behind his kicks.The rest of the fight had it all, strikes, submission attempts, constant jockeying for position, but most importantly, it had an abundance of intensity. They constantly went at each other for 20+ min, and allowed themselves to be stiff, and it always felt like they were giving their all. Even though the finish looks a bit hokey on paper (Shamrock with a knockout via dragon suplex) it never felt anything less than excellent. One of the best matches we’ve seen so far.

ML: This was some ballsy booking, but that's what made it great. PWFG was still determining their top foreigner. Shamrock had been the best performer by a mile, but Vale had been around longer, and after a rocky start in U.W.F., had gone undefeated in 1990 (4-0), even avenging his loss to Yamazaki. Funaki had beaten Vale on PWFG's debut show, but Vale was 3-0 since. Logically, this is where you had Shamrock ascend to the top, especially since Funaki had defeated him on the final U.W.F. show on 12/1/90. However, the timing was tough because Funaki, who had been in the main event of every show and was the top star of the future if not the present, was coming off a crushing defeat to old man Fujiwara, so the normal rebound would be for him to once again defeat Shamrock, confirming the pecking order of Fujiwara, Funaki, Shamrock/Vale, Suzuki. The match was worked like Shamrock was going to ultimately lose, in other words the early portion was about establishing Shamrock on the level with Funaki by having him take the lead, getting Funaki down with the suplex, winning the kicking battle to score the first knockdown, etc. Funaki's calm & confident demeanor made the match seem closer than it was even during Shamrock's best portions, but by any definition this wasn't Shamrock running away with it, but rather a very competitive back and forth contest where Ken scored the signature shots in between regular exchanges of control that, as the match progressed, were more likely to be won by Funaki. Funaki's patience was something of a negative here, especially when combined with Ken's tendencies to durdle on the mat. Though obviously the underlying problem was the lack of BJJ knowledge from both, the result was a rambling ground affair that was still in the old U.W.F. mode of laying around passively for no reason when the opponent wasn't controlling in a manner that prevented either exploding to counter or to stand back up. Their speed & athleticism was sometimes on display in standup, but because the match was so mat based, I don't feel like it's aged particularly well. It's a good match to be certain, but I remembered it being one of the highlights of the year when in actuality, it's merely a good match, on par with Funaki's matches against Sano but nowhere near Ken's match with Sano, rather than being in the class with the best stuff of Tamura & Suzuki, who seem miles ahead of the rest of the pack in retrospect. I thought the released Dragon suplex finisher from Ken to score the huge wildly celebrated upset was great because it was in the mold they'd set the whole time, parity but Ken occasionally manages to pull off a great spot. That being said, this was a 21 minute match with a few highlights in between a lot of watching & waiting, honestly more like what we'd come to see from Pancrase though without the modernization of the positions to allow them to get away with it better. ***

9/28/91: Wayne Shamrock vs. Minoru Suzuki 16:34.

MB: Now we have, what we are all looking forward to, Minrou Suzuki vs Ken Shamrock. When we last saw Suzuki, he gallantly defended the honor of pro wrestlers everywhere by defeating the human oil slick, Lawi Napataya, in a shoot. Shamrock on the other hand had his reputation cemented as the top foreign talent in his prior bout with Fuanki. This is the 2nd time these two have met, as they both had an excellent 30min draw against each other at the inaugural PWFG event.Things start off with an intense stare down and we are off. Right away I’m impressed with Suzuki’s footwork, very springy, and always feinting in a way that leads you to think he could shoot in at any moment. Shamrock fires off a high kick followed by a palm strike right away, and he is completely jacked here, just dwarfing Suzuki. Suzuki gambles on shooting in with a deep single leg from a mile away but is stuffed by Shamrock. However, Ken gives up his superior positioning by diving for some kind of toe-hold attack, giving his back to Suzuki. Suzuki uses this reversal of fortune to work for a crab, but Shamrock shows us the secret that we have all been looking for, that one simply needs to slap the next person in the face that tries to get you in this Boston contraption.

From here, Suzuki falls back for a straight ankle lock, much like Shamrock tried against his first confrontation against Royce Gracie, and just like Gracie, Ken went with his opponent’s momentum to wind up in top position. After both fighters tried various unsuccessful leg attacks, they went back to their feet, and kept jockeying from the clinch. One nice sequence showed Ken give Suzuki a stiff knee to the midsection, which gave Suzuki an opportunity to hook Ken’s free leg and attempt a kneebar from the takedown. Suzuki couldn’t quite extend the leg far enough, so he used a kimura grip to put the added threat of a toe-hold into the equation, and was able to put enough torque on that maneuver to force Ken to take a rope escape. Next we see a beautiful takedown set-up from Suzuki, as he does a very subtle short stomp to Ken’s thigh, and immediately dives in to go for a clinch, followed up by a standing switch, while Ken is momentarily distracted. It didn’t wind up working, as Ken did a switch of his own, which caused Suzuki to turtle up, and Shamrock showed us a technique to deal with a turtled opponent that I had never thought of, which was to grab his opponents foot and dive over the opposite shoulder, as to wind up repositioned in a place where you have enough leverage to finish a toe-hold. While some would look back into this hazy shroud that is early 90s catch-inspired grappling, and only see rudimentary ideas, if we dig a little deeper, we can see some interesting truths made manifest. Namely that wristlocks, toe holds, and other leg attacks, put the entire BJJ orthodoxy on shaky ground as they are techniques that are able to be hit from all sorts of angles, including what would otherwise be terrible positions.

Shamrock succeeded in getting a rope escape from his unusual foot attack, and they both returned to clinch warfare soon afterwards. The rest of the match saw various armbar, and leg attacks from both mem, punctuated by Ken’s need to slap the stuffing out of Suzuki in between the ground exchanges, but the match ends, when Suzuki hits a standing Kimura on Ken, only to be reversed into a dragon suplex, which gave Ken a knockout victory. This was excellent, and a great way to end the show. While it wasn’t able to build as much drama as their first fight, due to being about 14 mins shorter, it didn’t have any of the dead spots of that bout either, and was non-stop from the opening bell. If I had to pick between the two, I would still give their first match the edge, in terms of quality, but make no mistake, this was very good, and an excellent showcase of the new possibilities that are emerging. It’s strange that real fighting is being advanced by a group of people that are pretending to fight for real, as if they were in a real fight.

ML: A major step up for Shamrock, who really puts it all together here after the somewhat disappointing match with Funaki, and gives his best performance to date by a wide margin. Shamrock is just fighting a lot more aggressively & assertively, getting solid strikes in even though it's not really a striking match, and then making decisive moves on the mat even though he's experimenting with different positions & leg locks that are more the game of his crafty opponent. In addition to being two of the best shoot style workers, Suzuki & Shamrock also stand out for being able to tell little pro wrestling stories without having to stop the match or be corny & unrealistic to do so. This wasn't the best match we've seen so far, but it was probably the richest in terms of having a lot of little things going on, and something of a running storyline that didn't feel forced. Shamrock quickly established his standup advantage, putting Suzuki in the familiar grappler vs. striker role. When Suzuki kept manipulating Shamrock's ankle until the lock was tight, only to have the ref immediately make him break because Shamrock was in the ropes, he pounded the canvas in disgust and then grinned at Shamrock, kinda taunting him that he should be better than to have to dive for the ropes, at the same time he's content to point out that he's already got one up on Shamrock. Shamrock soon answered with his own ankle lock, and while Suzuki is less anxious, he does take a rope escape and then begin doing the good sort of pro wrestling selling where he shows he's hampered - has difficulty putting weight on that ankle - without having to stop the match & make the ref look like an idiot for allowing a match where someone doesn't respond for a minute to continue simply because pro wrestling never actually modernizes. Sticking in the pro wrestling mode, these two are able to show they don't like each other, but again in the good sort of way where Shamrock immediately kicks Suzuki in the ankle because his rival has made the mistake of revealing it as a weak point. They soon proceed to a spot where the ref breaks them as both are in the ropes working for the same ankle submission. The ground continues to more or less be a stalemate as Suzuki answers Shamrock's Achilles' tendon hold with one of his own, but later Suzuki gains an advantage instead answering with a heel hold, which forces Ken into a rope escape. Though the argument could be made that Shamrock has the advantage because he's handily winning the brief standup exchanges, Suzuki is doing a better job of getting the quick lock up, and is coming closer to getting the submission once it hits the ground. He forces another rope break with an Achilles' tendon hold, and is able to get armbar position twice, though Ken fights it off before he can extend the arm. Shamrock also defends a wakigatame attempt & is able to take Suzuki's back while they are standing back up. Suzuki avoided a suplex earlier, and now uses a Kimura grip to spin out into a standing wrist lock, but this leaves him exposed, and Shamrock just takes his back & hoists him for a huge Dragon suplex. Shamrock bridges to go for the corny pinfall, but after the ref counts 1, he releases & instead has the ref count Suzuki out when he can't answer the 10 count, which again is a ridiculous carry over from pro wrestling that needs to go in order for the ref to have a shred of credibility. Anyway, I think they were on the right track with this finish, but Shamrock should have done a released Dragon right into an immediate ref stop KO. Though the match never felt great, it was a rich, well themed & focused match where both were on the top of their game. We haven't really seen this sort of match so far, and they were also doing some different things with the ankle & joint manipulation. I think they really found a nice balance of being a pro wrestling match with some of the storytelling & acting at the same time they were a proto shoot match with the sort of footsies we'd see in early Pancrase where the best defense was often to just apply your own submission to whatever limb the opponent left exposed. If you like quantity then their 3/4/91 match is certainly better given it's almost twice as long, but this match is a lot tighter & shows they've grown and improved considerably during the past 6 months. ****


Yusuke Fuke vs. Jerry Flynn 30:00

MB: When we last saw Fuke he gave us a very solid performance against Wellington Wilkins Jr, and when we last witnessed Flynn he was in a rather pedestrian match against Bart Vale, through no fault of his own, but with Fuke at the helm this bout should be an accurate gauge of how he will fare within this style. Right away Flynn fires off a nice kick to Fuke’s thigh but is taken down by a beautiful single-leg entry before he could launch another one. There must have been something in the water over in those days, as Fuke, Takahashi, and later Sakuraba, always had insanely proficient single-leg techniques in their arsenals. After the takedown they both jockey for position, and trade submission attempts, before having to restart on their feet, and once they do, Flynn unleashes a barrage of kicks and palm strikes, that are a lot quicker than you would expect from a man of his size. Flynn is looking very solid here so far, and while he didn’t look bad against Vale, he was limited on what he could do working with him, and by being paired up with someone a lot more fluid like Fuke, he isn’t having to scale things back as much.

The rest of the match saw Fuke really earning his pay for the evening, as he took plenty of stiff kicks and palm strikes from Flynn in most of their standing sequences, and the groundwork was nicely paced too. Whenever it hit the mat they kept things at a fast tempo, without ever getting hokey, and also added some nice touches like when Flynn would escape from an ankle lock attempt by kicking Fuke in the head with his free leg, or at one point when Fuke was working for an armbar, and decided to slap Flynn in the face several times to open his opponent up. This went to a 30min draw, and I must admit that I’m quite impressed with this. In fact, I would go as far as to say that this is one of the best matches we’ve seen so far, as at no point over the entire 30mins did this ever drag, and it was able to really strike a balance between realism and entertainment value. Fuke and Flynn were able to give us a long match with the stiffness and flow of a shoot, but with a faster, and more entertaining pace, without ever feeling corny or contrived. Where I would have assumed Flynn to have been a lumbering ox, he moved gracefully for a man of his size, and it never felt like Fuke was having to really stretch to make him look good. While the idea of having a 30min draw for the opening match sounded odd to me on paper, it wound up being a great way to put Flynn over, and has really opened my eyes to Fuke, as I always just saw him as a middling journeyman figure from Pancrase, I had no idea he was basically the PWFG’s answer to Yoji Anjo, as a cardio machine, that could be used in a variety of capacities within the card to good effect.

ML: Fuke has already done a shoot where he failed to take down the greasiest of Muay Thai competitors for longer than it took Lawi Napataya to just grab the ropes, and I was really impressed at how he took the distance & his strategy into consideration. This was probably the most realistic fight we've seen so far in terms of approaching the wrestler vs. grappler dynamic. Flynn had a big reach advantage, but Fuke mostly stayed on the outside looking for a kick he could catch when he wasn't making his move to initiate the takedown. Fuke generally did a good job of moving in and out and would actually even move laterally then cut an angle to get in on Flynn's legs. In the meantime, Fuke would try to check Flynn's low kicks, which really made me take them a lot more seriously. While the length kept it from being the fastest paced or stiffest match, they did a great job of upping the urgency & stiffness when it mattered. If there was a potential submission for either, or a takedown attempt for Fuke, they found an extra gear or two to fight, and hit, hard to answer it, then would relax somewhat when they were more or less out of danger. I really liked Fuke blasting Flynn with palms to the face to fend off his leglock. Anyway you slice it though, the length was still the problem, largely because Flynn basically just did his thing, and while Fuke was credible & technically proficient, there were only so many scenarios he, or anyone, could think of to keep a realistically bent vanilla striker vs. grappler match going for half an hour. I don't want to downplay Flynn's contributions, he was the more well-rounded of the two in that he could offer more to counter & answer Fuke on the mat than Fuke, who had little striking, could in standup. While these guys were green, this was nonetheless a huge step forward for both, and one of the signature bouts of 1991 in terms of moving the sport forward in a more believable direction. ***1/2

Masakatsu Funaki vs. Kazuo Takahashi 6:24

MB: Now we have a battle between Masakatsu Funaki, and Kazuo Takahashi, that is sure to violate several building ordinances, as the amount of yellow neon sported between the two, is clearly a safety hazard. Takahashi doesn’t waste anytime firing off an excellent single leg, that would be the envy of any current MMA fighter, taking Funaki down, and quickly slaps his way out of Funaki’s guard, and is able to gain side-control. Takahashi quickly goes for an armbar, but Funaki is way too slick on the ground, and easily escapes the attempt, and is able to get back to his feet. Takahashi blasts him right back down to the mat again, and repeats his armbar attack, only this time Funaki rolls out, and opts to mount Takahashi this time instead of standing back up. It is a treat to see Funaki’s methodical nature, even at this early stage of his career. As he has the mount, he patiently rides Takahashi, and starts to grind his elbow across his face, forcing him to squirm a bit, and uses this technique to its fullest, looking to open up a submission. Takahashi remained composed, so Funaki dialed it up a notch and started firing some short, stiff, forearm strikes to Takahashi’s face. This still wasn’t enough to force Takahashi to make a mistake, so Funaki gets up, smacks Kazuo in the face, and soccer kicks him in the head as the ref calls for a break. While the ref is separating them for a restart, Kazuo runs right after Funaki, and gets a swift kick to the thigh for his trouble, but if there is one thing that Takahashi has that Funaki can’t seem to stop, is the speed of his single-leg, and he uses it to good effect, and is able to stop Funaki before he could fire off another kick.

Funaki’s groundwork seems to consist of putting his hand over Takahashi’s mouth and punching him in the face, which doesn’t really yield any results. Takahashi eventually passes the guard but seems to get bored with the idea of maintaining a superior position, and quickly goes for another arm attack, that fails just as quickly as the first two. He loses his position to Funaki, who goes into side-control mode, and goes back to his tactic of using the blade of his forearm to annoy Takahashi. After making Kazuo squirm a bit, Funaki starts to posture up, and shifts his body towards his opponents legs, which instantly set off Takahashi’s spider sense, and caused him to franticly grab the ropes for an escape. They stand back up, and this time Takahashi has no slick takedowns for his mentor. Instead he suffers the wrath of a stiff thigh kick, followed up with another kick to the face forcing a knockdown. Kazuo gets up at the count of 9, and takes some more punishment, before Funaki misses a kick, and it’s back to the ground. Sadly, the only submission he cares to try is an armbar, and his 4th attempt fails as well. Kazuo winds up on the wrong end of a north-south situation, but tries to make the best of it, by going for a toehold against Funaki, but the master has all the answers, and simply gives a hard blow to Takahashi’s stomach, forcing his legs to dangle, and goes right for an ankle lock. The lock is in snug, and Kazuo taps out. Excellent match, that I would assess as a ¾ shoot. They weren’t cooperating, and everything (with the exception of the ending) felt authentic, even they weren’t quite going at each other with an absolute 100% intensity either. This was definitely a great blueprint on how much shoot you can put into a work.

ML: Funaki rose to the challenge of crafting a competitive match against an opponent who was clearly well beneath him. While the match was a bit repetitive in that Takahashi's chance was getting a single leg then finding an armbar, at least that chance was made real, and thus the threat seemed genuine. Funaki going from one hip to another to back up enough to try to keep Takahashi inside his guard when Takahashi exploded trying to pass is the sort of thing we haven't seen anyone else care about (or probably understand) that made maintaining the defensive position seem to be of the utmost importance. Funaki has been the most realistic worker so far, and while that can often be to his detriment as his striking tends to be much more exciting than his grappling, which is his bread and butter, Funaki found a good mix tonight. Funaki knew he needed to punish Takahashi before Takahashi took him down, and hopefully Takahashi would either get KO'd charging into a well timed blow, or some of these strikes would at least slow his shot down enough that Funaki could find an actual defense. Takahashi came close just before the finish, eating a few palms before ducking a high kick into a takedown & passing into an armbar attempt. Funaki rolled though, and then they did a pretty lame finish that, unlike most of what came before it, felt very contrived, where Takahashi tried to transition into a kneebar, but Funaki made Takahashi release with a body shot then went into an Achilles' tendon hold for the win. While it was the first submission locked, Funaki winning with a strike or guillotine to counter the takedown would have been a lot more fitting for the story they'd been telling than Funaki grabbing a leg out of nowhere & Takahashi offering no defense. I think they had to keep this short both because it was a big mismatch & because Takahashi is a one-trick pony, but at 10 minutes they might really have had something here. ***

PWFG’s Top 5 Wrestlers in 1991

ML: 1. Minoru Suzuki. Suzuki did the best job of transitioning from the pro wrestling style to the shoot style, just having a better grasp of what made both tick from a viewer standpoint. He combined the urgency and intensity necessary to make the matches work as "shoots" with the more subtle brand of entertainment of pro wrestling where actions and affectations that aren't necessary but also aren't unreasonable are thrown in for dramatic purposes, finding an exciting balance between the credible and the energetic. Even when he was doing somewhat nonsensical things such as trying to work in his dropkick, his matches still overall felt like epic struggles where you couldn't let your guard down for a second. As we are seeing with Tamura, being fast and explosive are far more important to the quality of worked shoot style than absolute technical precision because ultimately you are still getting away with something, it's just that the less time you give the audience to identify that, the more difficult it becomes for them to see the holes. Suzuki had excellent speed and footwork in standup even though that wasn't the strength of his game, and was the only fighter who won two shoots, a planned one where he relied on his grappling to beat Thai fighter Lawi Napataya and an unplanned one where he relied on his footwork and handspeed to humiliate SWS' Apollo Sugawara.

2. (Ken) Wayne Shamrock. Shamrock's intensity and work ethic were his best attributes early on, but despite having some of his best matches at the outset, he clearly improved a lot over the course of the year, particularly in the striking department. Shamrock benefitted from having the best run of opponents, but even when he was carried by Suzuki & Funaki, he added a lot to the matches and always felt like a distinct talent. He really began to hit his stride with the Suzuki rematch, with his improved familiarity and confidence allowing him to work a more decisive, aggressive, and assertive style with strikes that were now solid, if not even impressive.

3. Naoki Sano. Sano was a great, albeit overly reckless pro wrestler who was willing to go the extra mile. He had a learning curve, and clearly had a lot more potential in this style than he was able to reach this year due to spending most of it in his home promotion, SWS, taking on Americans that were neither juniors in style nor in weight, finally claiming the inaugural SWS Light Heavyweight Title from an overroided Model. On talent alone, Sano was probably the best follower we saw in this style in 1991, immediately having a memorable match with Shamrock, a match of the year with Suzuki, and a couple of good, more technical and less competitive matches in SWS with Funaki. Sano went 1-2-1 in his initial important run, but with Megame Super having deemed it too danger to have interpromotional matches with PWFG on SWS's shows after the Suzuki/Apollo debacle, Sano wound up only making a few more appearances in a filler role. This was really a shame because he'd clearly improved a lot in the style in just a few matches, and I feel like he could not only have reached another level himself, but helped the stars of this promotion get there too.

4. Masakatsu Funaki. Funaki had his own break them down style, and being positioned at the top of the cards, he was able to carry his opponents through it, or just smother and thwart them. Sparring was important to the PWFG wrestlers dojo preparation, and was definitely influential toward Fujiwara & Masami Soronaka (though he didn't see most of them since he lived in Florida & was only in Japan when the events were close) determining the results of the matches in the sense that while they had to keep the fans happy, everyone knew who was really better, and thus should win. My sense is Funaki either thought the matches should be as realistic as possible or really wanted to win at this point, or both, and mostly continued to implement the positional grappling he dominated with in training, rather than somewhat switching into entertainment mode when the bell rang. Funaki arguably had the most charisma of anyone in the shoot game when he wanted to, but increasingly it was instead his calm & confident demeanor that set him apart. He had the best technical and positional understanding of all these guys, and nothing was going to fluster or sidetrack him because technique trumps emotion. While some of his matwork looked like Takada's on the surface, in other words just laying in wait, Funaki actually had a plan and things going on, and was able to implement this trap setting style where he exploited minute advantages and adjusted to stuff the opponent's escapes until he created the opening/forced the mistake, rather than literally doing nothing in hopes that the opponent would eventually bail him out one way or the other as Takada did. Funaki also had tremendous hand speed, but unlike Kakihara, who made a career out of that, was largely reticent to display it in more than brief flashes, being more confident in his ability to dominate on the mat. I respect that Funaki was very much working for everything and out to show that nothing comes easy when the opponent is actually (or at least theoretically) trying to resist, but he was often frustrating because it always felt like, in the best of times, he was good when he should have been great.

5. Yusuke Fuke. Fuke was one of the only workers to participate in an actual shoot, and was even able to demonstrate ideas that were otherwise almost completely absent from the pro wrestling spectrum such as distance control, getting in and out, and checking kicks in some of his works. In some ways his technique was better than even Funaki's, and one could argue that, despite being an undercarder who only had 3 matches under his belt prior to the U.W.F. split, he did the most this year to advance the sport of pro wrestling toward legitimate martial arts. It's unfortunate that he's positioned with guys that never deliver, Bart Vale & Wellington Wilkins Jr., as he's the only one who seems to have the potential as a worker to to fill the hole left by Sano.

MB: 1. I agree that Suzuki was the best performer this year, as his understanding of intensity is unrivaled. Whereas Funaki is sometimes too patient, and Ken is still finding his rhythm, and sometimes wavers in his approach to a match, Suzuki seems to understand that this is supposed to be a fight and acts accordingly. It also helps that out of all the performers, Suzuki probably won the lottery in the matchups department, as everything that was in, was able to showcase his skills and put him in a favorable light, as the lowest tier fighter he had to face was Bart Vale, and even though he had to do a 30min match with Fujiwara, he was able to put enough intensity into it, that it still came off better than Funaki’s match with him. He was also able to avenge the good name of the PWFG, and professional wrestlers everywhere, when he defeated the Sultan of Slime, in a shoot.

2. Ken Shamrock. I had an internal debate between him and Funaki for this spot, and while Funaki clearly has more experience, and skill at this point, Shamrock had been put in several great matches, while Funaki was poorly utilized for the first few months. Shamrock would have taken this in spades, had he not showed a streak of unprofessionalism, with him putting very little effort into his match with Wilkins, which resulted in a mediocre offering, and taking a huge cheap shot against Takahashi during their fight. His fight with Takahashi was one of the most entertaining of the year, for what it was, but soccer kicking your coworker in the orbital that you has to work every month alongside you, was a jerk move, that was completely unnecessary, especially when you would have easily won the fight without resorting to that. Still, it is obvious that PWFG has a tremendous talent on its hands, and if he can be properly cultivated, could very well be on his way to superstardom.

3. Masakatsu Funaki. This is where I will deviate from Lorefice a bit, and put Funaki in this slot, instead of Sano. Had Sano done more in the PWFG during this year, I would put him here easily, but for me it’s a combination of Funaki’s skill, being active for the entire year, and most importantly, we have seen him really start to hit his stride as this year as gone on. While he was straddled with questionable booking for the first three months, having to deal with Vale, he who’s name cannot be uttered, and being forced to have a lackluster match with Fujiwara, he hit a home-run with his bout with Shamrock, and has really started to showcase his own style with his matches with Koslowski, and Takahashi. His matches with those aforementioned two, have probably been the closest to emulating real shoots, that we have seen from anyone, and while that isn’t the flashiest way to go about things, when put into context, he was basically inventing a new approach before our eyes, and wound up pushing this entire affair closer and closer to real MMA, and for that I have to give him a lot of credit.

4. Naoki Sano. Sano was fantastic, and his only real drawback was not having enough experience in this style to carry an inferior opponent like Bart Vale. His match with Shamrock had an awesome look of two juggernauts colliding, as both men’s physiques helped make the aesthetics of the match work in a way that you can’t achieve when Shamrock is facing someone that he outweighs by a huge margin like a Suzuki. Sano’s athleticism and raw energy could have seen him being one of the best, had he stuck around, but the fracturing of the working relationship between SWS and PWFG prevented what could have been lighting in a bottle.

5. Takaku Fuke. Fuke was probably the one that most surprised me out of this bunch. I never really gave him much thought before this project, and I’m now seeing the errors of my ways. Not only did he have the guts to have an actual shoot against a slicked up Thai kickboxing champion, but showed a surprising amount of shrewdness in how he dealt with him, as he would time his shots wonderfully, and showed a good understanding of distance. He would also take that same understanding and employ it into his works, and put those skills into a great match with Jerry Flynn, and somehow made a 30min match fly by like a breeze, which is not easy for anyone to do, quite frankly. He proved himself to have the skills to be a great go-to guy in the midcard, where you can kind of use him in different capacities.

1991 PWFG Rookie of the Year

ML: 1. Kazuo Takahashi. Takahashi was the best amateur wrestler among the natives, and although that was mostly all he did, he was a really tough guy who helped to modernize the transition game, getting PWFG away from the U.W.F. style of initiating grappling via suplex or throw.

MB: There isn’t much to say here other than “ditto.” Takahashi was awesome, and was really the only rookie outside of some of the westerners on loan from the Acme Jobber Academy.

Top 5 1991 Matches in PWFG

ML: 1. 7/26/91: Minoru Suzuki vs. Naoki Sano

2. 9/28/91: Wayne Shamrock vs. Minoru Suzuki

3. 3/4/91: Wayne Shamrock vs. Minoru Suzuki

4. 10/17/91: Yusuke Fuke vs. Jerry Flynn

5. 5/16/91: Naoki Sano vs. Wayne Shamrock

MB: This is an almost impossible task, as there were several great matches from this outfit, and several of them could easily be interchanged without blinking an eye. In fact, if you were to ask me tomorrow, or even 30min from now, I may have a different perspective, but for now, this is where I would put the top 5 matches.

1. 7/26/91: Minoru Suzuki vs Naoki Sano. This was a shoo-in as the combined energy and reckless abandon that both showed was the best thing to happen this year. Timeless classic.

2. 10/17/91: Yusuke Fuke vs Jerry Flynn. This may seem like a crazy choice to put in the number 2 slot, and maybe it is, but I can’t get over how impressive it was seeing Fuke unleash a torrent of energy for the entire 30mins, and winding up with a match that never felt like it was dragging. As good as the Shamrock/Suzuki matches were, they both had their share of dead spaces, but this felt like a nonstop blitz, and Fuke really showcased the nuances that are needed in simulating a wrestler vs striker match, like distance, and setting up your takedowns.

3. 3/4/91: Minoru Suzuki vs Wayne Shamrock. I could easily interchange this with the 9/28/91 battle, depending on what day you catch me, but for me I recall my first impression of both matches, and being more captivated by this one. This had more dead spaces, but perhaps the thing that moved the needle for me was the crescendo. Everything led to an explosive climax, much like reaching the top of a roller coaster, and then plunging downwards after the long ascent to the top, and while that isn’t the most realistic in terms of a real fight, it made for great drama.

4. 8/23/91: Masakatsu Funaki vs Wayne Shamrock. I know that Mike Lorefice doesn’t rate this as highly as I do, and maybe he’s right, but for me this match abounded in intensity. Both were utterly convincing in their portrayals of wanting to destroy the other, and even in the dead spaces, it seemed like they were jockeying for position, looking for an opening. This also saw a marked improvement in Ken’s striking, and Funaki didn’t slouch in the kicks that he was giving Ken either. Sometimes a match just hits you the right way, and for me this was a winner.

5. 5/16/91: Naoki Sano vs. Wayne Shamrock: Great match with tons of energy from both men. There were still some rough edges from both men, as Ken’s striking would improve in the following months, and Sano still has to rely on some puroresu tricks, but this was great, especially considering how early on this took place.

(If you would like to relive all of the 1991 PWFG moments with us, then you can! By heading over to www.patreon.com/KakutogiRoad and joining the shoot-revolution!)


Active Member
Jul 27, 2020
So Ken was doing this stuff before Pancrase huh? I had no idea.
Indeed. PWFG was basically the precursor to Pancrase. A lot of their roster left in mid 1993 to go start Pancrase as they wanted to have real fights on a full-time basis. There were some real fights in the PWFG, but most of it was worked (predetermined finishes) albeit very stiff compared to American pro-wrestling. The PWFG era is where Ken received the foundation of his MMA training via Masakatsu Fuanki, Karl Gotch, and others. He of course refined that over the years, but the leg-lock orientated submission style that Ken was famous for, all started in the PWFG.

William C

Active Member
Sep 6, 2015
That was in South Atlantic, and Ken is doing a heel hook there-

I'd say Ken was first shown the heel hook in the summer of 1990, and I think he stopped wrasslin' in the states for the most part in the spring of 1991. So this match was in that timeframe.


Active Member
Jul 27, 2020
Kakutogi Road Presents: 1991 Year in Review Part 3 FIGHTING NETWORK RINGS

*Editor’s note: Both Michael Betz’s and Mike Lorefice’s comments will be preceded by their initials. *

ML: RINGS didn't really run enough shows to warrant a year end list, but at the same time, it feels a bit silly doing UWF-I & PWFG but excluding them. While RINGS was largely just Akira Maeda at this point, and Maeda was largely just broken this year, they somehow, eventually managed to navigate their way from a one-man show to the best, and by far the longest lasting of these three shoot promotions. Their beginnings were incredibly humble, but in a sense having Maeda meant more than having a half a roster of good workers, as their 4 shows were all big events due to him, and based on the padded figures they drew 32,250 or an average of 8,063 per show, easily more total fans that PWFG drew in their 7 shows and only 5,800 less than UWF-I drew in their 11 shows.

RINGS didn't carry wrestlers over from U.W.F., and 5 months wasn't enough time to get trainees ready, but Maeda knew that bringing in the foreign martial artists was what differentiated the U.W.F. major events from the monthly Korakuen Hall shows. He exploited the contacts he already had with places such as the Netherlands, as well as establishing new ones in places such as the USSR. Obviously, professional fighters and gym owners having friends, students, and training partners, hence the Fighting Network was hastily hatched. This plan had several faults, most notably that the Netherlands leader, Chris Dolman, was already 46-year-old and moved like he had two knee and hip replacements and was fighting his way through quicksand.The value of RINGS this year was in introducing a number of new fighters. While results varied, in the end my rookie of the year list is almost identical to my top 5, and that bodes really well for their future.

RINGS future finally began to take shape with the arrival of the immortal Volk Han on the final show of the year. If I were ranking purely on skill rather than putting some merit into the quality and quantity of the overall output for the year, Han would already be #2 overall shoot stylist, which is remarkable given he had no pro wrestling matches, or probably really even training before facing Maeda in the year end main event. But that lack of training was likely a blessing, as he brought with him none of the bad habits the majority of shooters carried over from the New Japan dojo, and thus totally came at shooting like he would a real fight. That's not to say he ignored the entertainment aspects, if anything he might be too steeped in them, but he approached the fight from the basis of an actual active live opponent doing their best to resist his attacks rather than standing around doing their best to make them as easy for him as they could possibly get away with. There's a solid undercurrent of realistic positioning and movement to his fights that isn't present in many other bouts that aren't going for realism at the expense of all else, which allows his crazy inventive grappling to seem a lot more earned.

MB: It’s quite remarkable knowing that Rings would go on to become one of the most important MMA orgs in history when one looks at their 1991 output in isolation. In fact, if you were to only view their events from 91’ you couldn’t be blamed for thinking this promotion was doomed to last only another year or two treading water. Fortune favors the brave however, and that is something that Maeda in the courage to just brazenly go big in everything that he did, even if he didn’t have the talent to pull it off at first. He also benefited from a willingness to keep his ego in check (at least to some degree) for the good of his company. We saw this when he put Dick Vrij over in what was only the 2nd event, and we would see him continue this from time to time, as needed. Compare this to Takada, who couldn’t even find it in his heart to put over Yamazaki, who he had not only lost to before, but would have been an excellent move at that point in time, for the long term health of his promotion.

The year-end events of RINGS and the UWF-I were quite revealing in showing us that where one company was destined to be ablaze for the short-term, eventually the ancient maxim would hold true which states that those who live by Takada, are doomed to die by Takada, and that is eventually what happened when Anjo exposed the outfit by getting destroyed by Rickson Gracie, and Takada putting the final nail in shoot-style by losing to everyone that they couldn’t successfully bribe on his behalf. On the flipside, we saw that while RINGS was very raw and in need of refinement, the concept was strong enough that it could only get better and better in time once the talent pool was acquired.

RINGS Best Matches in 1991

5/11/91: Willie Peeters vs. Marcel Haarmans 10:51

Peeters was the most interesting of the original roster because he more or less really went at it, and his matches were extremely intense, out of control, and sometimes baffling because of that. None of his matches this year were straight up shoots, but they felt less planned than what most of his peers were doing. Peeters might not have been actively trying to knock Haarmans out, but he wasn't really pulling his strikes either, which made for an odd constrast given Haarmans was pulling his, and I kept waiting for Haarmans to complain about the way Peeters was laying into him. What's actually more interesting though, and makes the match look very much ahead of its time, is the lack of cooperation on the throws and various attempts to get each other down, resulting in a style where both guys exploded and whatever happened, happened. Seemingly Peeters would sort of cooperate by not specifically resisting the lockup or immediately trying to get back to his feet in the grappling, allowing Haarmans to toy around with crabs, but he wouldn't necessarily cooperate with the throws and transitions. There was a lot of flash though, mostly from Peeters, with spinning kicks and belly to belly suplexes since Haarmans was much more obliging, but they both made each other work for things & didn't sacrifice the essence of the fight for entertainment value. ***

MB: Peeters was a master of general jackassery for most of his career, but at least he was entertaining throughout it all. This match was bizarre, as Haarmans was trying to be a professional in the ring and put the appropriate amount of force behind his strikes, but Peeters seemed to be content in doing whatever he felt like. He wasn’t completely shooting, as he would allow Haarmans some time to work for a submission, but he was definitely taking liberties by laying into Harrmans with strikes that were certainly much stiffer than Haarmans was bargaining for. I wound up being supervised that Haarmans put up with this, as I was expecting him to either complain to the ref, or start shooting on Peeters, but he stayed level-headed throughout, which only further served to illustrate that Peeters was a jerk. Still, this served as an intriguing example of what could be achieved in this style, when there is a legitimate amount of non-cooperation, which would later be fully realized by some of the PWFG matches later in the year.


Mitsuya Nagai vs. Herman Renting 12:23

MB: We are now tasked with examining the first contest of the evening, a WATER BOUT rematch that no one was asking for. This is the exact same pairing seen a month ago at the Aqua Heat event, and while I found it to be a moderately entertaining excursion, it wasn’t exactly something that demanded a revisiting. This match started off in the vein of an open-handed-kickboxing-sparring-session kind of vibe, but thankfully it didn’t stay there long as we got to see plenty of fine judo from Renting throughout, including a nice ashi-dori-ouchi-gari (leg-pick-inside-trip). There was also a nice sequence from Nagai that saw him charging toward Renting with a flying knee, only to miss, and then rebound with a kneebar attempt that forced a rope escape. When the ref stood them back up afterwards, Nagai executed the very first somersault kicks in the kakutogi spectrum, which resulted in a knockdown, and was pleasant for all to behold.

The fight did not last much longer though, as the wrath of Renting was complete, and he turned a headlock takedown into a neck-crank for the submission win. While it wouldn’t be confused for match of the year by anyone, I was pleasantly surprised by all of this, and it did feel like they were starting to find a groove for this style by adding some more variety in their grappling and striking exchanges, which led to the match having more drama and a better flow when compared to their first bout from a month prior.

ML: While our second helping of Nagai vs. Renting isn't exactly producing the ecstasy of dining on honey dew and drinking the milk of paradise, it's a much more sufficient banquet than their initial brew. In fact, outside of Kiyoshi Tamura and Naoki Sano, these two are battling each other for the biggest improvement from one match to another we've seen so far, with the edge going to Renting. They really figured out how to blend their styles, and now had a clear course of action with Renting either being proactive & initiating the clinch or urging Nagai to kick so he could get the take down by grabbing him. Renting did a lot once he got the fight to the ground, showing a variety of submission attempts, but Nagai's ground game was solid as well, and he was able to both apply submission pressure from the bottom and get back to his feet. The urgency was high here, and they did a nice job of keeping the match moving by continuing to find different transitions & counters to the same basic sequence where Renting would get a takedown off a Greco body lock. Renting's striking was solid as well, but he wasn't going to duke it out with a stronger striker when he could put him on his back & get the first crack at finishing him. They kicked it into high gear after Renting got a down with a soccer kick, with Nagai charging the length of the ring at Renting, which was such a theatrical departure from the otherwise fairly U.W.F. credible action even though he missed the flying knee that had preceeded, that it kind of worked in showing he was fired up & didn't care about the risk. Nagai then managed to do an even more spectacular version of the leg catch enzuigiri spot where he instead flipped forward for a knockdown. Renting's takedown game eventually ruled the day though when he changed things up, rolling Nagai down in an arm in guillotine then releasing & reapplying the guillotine from side mount for the win, which was billed as a "reverse full nelson hold". ***

Bert Kops Jr. vs. Willie Peeters 12:37

MB: Kops is perhaps best known to modern MMA fans as one of the mentors to former Bellator middleweight champion, Gegard Mousasi, but he has been wrestling since the age of 6, and is active to this day in the MMA and wrestling scene within the Netherlands. The last time we saw Peeters, was when he was acting like a big fat jerk, at the very first Rings event, in which he “worked” a match in only the loosest of definitions, as he wouldn’t pull his punches while engaging his opponent, but saw it in his heart to allow a bit of cooperation in the grappling sequences kindly offering Marcel Haarmans an opportunity to work for a Boston Crab, or two.

This could prove to be remarkably interesting contest given Kops’s wrestling pedigree, and the unpredictability of Peeters. The fight starts and right away it seems that Peeters is being a bit more behaved than his last outing, and is cooperating with his opponent, although he is still a bit spazzy and his body shots are probably too stiff, for a work. Both fighters trade throws, strikes, and submissions, and the entire time Peeters manages to come off like a cartoon character. Kops starts throwing some surprisingly decent worked kicks at Peeters, at an appropriate genteel speed, before shooting in on Peeters to execute a backdrop slam. Peeters responds by charging forward and clocking Kops in the jaw, in a seemingly (shoot) jerk move, as it appears to be way too stiff. The rest of the fight saw Kops use several throws, including some beautiful examples of the Koshi-Guruma (Hip Wheel, or Headlock Throw in BJJ parlance) and some rather contrived gut-wrench suplexes. Watching Kops try and execute solid fakery, with an opponent that only seems to want to cooperate when he feels like it, led to an entertaining match, albeit for the wrong reason.

ML: There was a classic Peeters dick move when he didn't go with Kops head & arm throw, and soccer ball kicked Kops rather than letting him back up. That being said, he's one of my favorite fighters on these early RINGS because he's such an unpredictable wildman. Willie landed several of his signature hard closed fist punches to the body today, but Kops seemed to be on the same wavelength, or at least know what to expect from Peeters, and was actually responsible for escalating, if not starting, the violence right at the outset. Kops was very active & aggressive, enjoying displaying his power with a variety of rotational deadlift throws. There was a nice spot where he hit a rather low impact suisha otoshi only to have Peeters pop up & drop him with a running uppercut. This wasn't the most realistic match, but Kops showed a ton of potential as suplex machines whose credible strikes were in short supply in these days. He was probably more suited to UWF-I, but he seemed too good an athlete not to have made an impact somewhere. One of the great things about this match is Kops refused to take Peeters crap. He came right back dropping Peeters with a knee, and then when he was supposed to be disengaging, he gave the downed Peeters a little kick. Kops wasn't trying to hurt Peeters, but keeping him in check by letting him know that he could, and would consider it. These two seemed to be vying for who could be the bigger subtle heel at this point, as Peeters responded by threatening to cheap shot Kops on the rope break. Unfortunately, Kops seemingly tore his left knee midway through the match, and though he tried to proceed as normal, eventually the kneecap seemed to be moving around on him, and it appeared that they'd have to stop the match. Kops wasn't trying to quit though, he just had them spray it numb so he could finish as planned. The injury probably knocked 1/2* off the match, as it continued beyond the point where Kops was particularly productive, with Peeters eventually KO'ing him with a knee. Still, this is the best RINGS match we've seen through 3 shows. ***1/4


Akira Maeda vs. Volk Han 12:16.

MB: Now, for the moment that will forever change the course of Rings and have an incalculable effect on all things in the shoot-realms for many ages to come…. Yes, we are about to witness the professional debut of Volk Han (real name: Magomedkhan Amanulayevich Gamzatkhanov) who wound up being one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time by helping to cement the shoot-style’s status as being the very apex of what professional wrestling could achieve as an art form. Han had a background in collegiate wrestling before joining the Russian military, which is where he began learning sambo, and was even a three-time Russian sambo champion in the 80s. At some point in 1991 Akira Maeda discovered him, and in what was surely one of his shrewdest moves, he convinced him to come over and compete in his promotion. I have to wonder how that initial scouting session went down, as Han is right away thrust into a main event spot, despite this being only his first match, so surely Maeda saw something special in him, right from the get-go. An encyclopedia size volume of books could surely be written about him, so we will let it suffice to say that we will continue to talk more and more about him in the days to come.

Han’s arrival couldn’t have happened a moment too soon, either, as Maeda has been hurting for not only some depth in his roster, but other legitimate stars outside of himself, and while no one could have known to the extent that Han would be a great asset to this company in the years to come, looking back we can see that Rings may not have made it to its best years of 96-99 had he not shown up when he did. Here he is set to face Akira Maeda, who’s knee condition is still an open question, so this may have an effect on his performance. Han starts to come out to the Ring, and we can see that he was being groomed for greatness right away, as they gave him one of the best theme entrances of the era, with a grandiose synthesizer intro, that sounds like what would happen if you were to mix the Phantom of the Opera with something from Brad Fiedel’s work on The Terminator soundtrack. Maeda comes out next, and the crowd is absolutely in total rapture. Maeda could be wrestling a Yakisoba vendor tonight, and I don’t think it would affect how over he is with the crowd at the moment.

The fight has started, and the first minute is quiet, with some feeling out between the two men, before Han hits a tobi-juji-gatame (flying armbar) well before it become the cool thing for Carlson Gracie students to do. This breathtaking maneuver may not be the best opener for the purposes of realism, but it is done with such verve, that we must allow its indulgences. This leads to an instant rope break, and the fight is back on the feet. Maeda then throws some high kicks, forcing Han to distance himself a bit, before stalking his way up to Maeda and hitting the 2nd kani-basami of the evening, which is now banned from judo competitions for its perceived riskiness, and whenever I think of this, I can’t help but remember how Joey Styles would incessantly lie to the ECW audience every time Taz would show up, and say that the kata-ha-jime (Tazmission) was “Banned in judo, but legal in ECW!!!!!” Han attempts a heel-hook off of this, but Maeda was successful in rolling into the ropes, prompting a restart.

The next several mins sees Han attempt just about very leg attack one could think of (and perhaps many that no one has thought of) and also marked the debut of his infamous rolling kneebar, that we have all come to cherish. Maeda winds up pulling a win out of nowhere by securing a toe-hold while tangled up in a human leg-pretzel with Han, and serves to remind me why I gave up my Twister addiction a long time ago.

ML: In probably the greatest pro wrestling debut up until this point in time, and perhaps only since surpassed by the woman who would go on to be the top MMA fighter of her generation, Megumi Fujii, a once in a generation talent arrived from Russia and carried one of the handful of top stars in Japanese wrestling to his best match in quite some time. Han immediately proved himself to be one of the couple best performers in the genre, somehow seeming to understand how all the styles of actual MMA worked despite it barely existing at the time, and relying on a really flashy and innovative version of his sambo background rather than trying to assimilate to the accepted chicanery that passed for pro or even shoot wrestling. Han was super exciting, with a vast array of submission holds that relied on large and/or small joint manipulation. He was the forerunner of chaining of submissions, which perhaps never really caught in on pro wresting but would eventually form the basis of the Japanese MMA style in the no ground punching era. Though Han's background was in submission, we immediately see him putting his energy toward employing actual, legitimate kickboxing footwork and feints that are maybe not quite up to the level we saw earlier from karate legend Nobuaki Kakuda, but otherwise set him apart from the pack, even though this isn't what he's been doing all his life. While Maeda is theoretically the better standup fighter, he can at least knock you out if you are expecting him to be working with you rather than taking a cheap shot, the artist formerly known as Kwick-Kick Lee can't manage to touch the nimble Han, who is able to back away from his kicks with ease, as well as get in & out of range quickly enough to incite him with slaps to the face and his own low kicks without taking counterfire. Of course, Han's real plan is to grapple, and while it's true that hitting a flying armbar as the first move of a match may not be the most realistic, it certainly speaks to the self confidence, guts, and out of the box thinking of Han to go out there and do this not only as the start of the match, but of his pro career. I had never seen a flying armbar before this, it was a jaw dropping what is this, and more importantly who is this kind of moment. While it's important to focus on what Han is doing, what's actually more telling is how that was forcing Maeda to step up his game in so many ways, to use footwork himself, be quicker with his attacks, and to try to chain them together because Han wasn't just going to stand there for him like a doofus. Sure, the match was a work, but there's really varying levels of what the opponent is going to allow you to get away with, and Maeda not only saw that Han's standard is high, but just being a proud athlete who wants to win because he's better not because he's running the company, he was pushing himself to earn thing and get over on Han. Suddenly, we saw a great sequence from Maeda where he wasn't merely content to land a snap suplex, but was up like lightning trying to grab an appendage and drop into a submission, in this case an armbar, before Han couldn stabilize. This was the first time all year that Maeda looked good. Han's matches are built around the high spots, which are plentiful, but he is able to get away with that more than others because he doesn't half-ass the basics of fighting, the positions, or the execution of the moves. In addition to understanding spacing on his feet, he's already using the mount and the guard on the ground, and chaining his submissions to try to catch the opponent off guard or just beat their defenses by being proactive and reacting quicker. Han may be selling because he still reacts quickly when Maeda does something, but used to 5 minute sambo contests, he appeared completely out of gas down the stretch, holding his hands on his knees the way Mark Coleman would go on to make famous in his historic loss to Maurice Smith at UFC 14. This allowed Maeda to get a spinning wheel kick in for a knockdown. Han was able to answer with a suplex to set up one of his rolling cradle sort of leg locks, but Maeda was able to stop the roll and use his left leg to block Han's lock, thus getting the better position on the mat to crank on the ankle, with a desperate Han realizing he's left with nothing but to tap in disgust then cover his face with his hands in embarrassment and shame. ***1/2

RINGS’ Top 5 Wrestlers in 1991

ML: 1. Volk Han. An amazing one of a kind, once in a generation talent who was immediately head and shoulders above everyone but Kiyoshi Tamura despite having never competed in a worked or full rules shoot. Han really revolutionized the grappling game, popularizing the attacking, chain submission style that made people outside of hardcore practioners want to watch ground fighting and, perhaps indirectly, became the basis of the gambling, no risk no reward Japanese MMA ground style at a time when American MMA was all about lay & pray. No submission wrestler was ever flashier than Han, yet perhaps because he wasn't trained in the lazy ways of cooperative pro wrestling, he maintained most of the good habits he'd employed in competitive tournament fighting, and was able to build the sparking end game around a really solid, technically sound foundation. Han had amazing reflexes with the speed and anticipation to capitalize on them, moving constantly and correctly, adjusting, tweeking, eventually capitalizing on something that might otherwise be outlandish, and probably would just be too slow and deliberate if a lesser athlete and/or tactician attempted it. Han was never content to be a one man show, but rather someone who forced the opponent to step up their game to try to keep up with him. Han was going to work his hardest, and if you had any semblance of talent, he wasn't going to let you get away with getting anything over on him without earning it, which again added a level of urgency and intensity to his contests.

2. Willie Peeters. RINGS resident wild man Sneaky Peeters was a lot of things, but certainly never boring like his senpai Dullman. In fact, I'm not sure anyone tried harder to entertain than Willie, and managed to be the only repeat offender... on my RINGS top matches list. Sometimes Peeters undermined himself by being so out of control he was simply sloppy, but his matches had great energy, and he kept the crowd at the edge of their seats by being chaos incarnate. While most wrestlers bore me to death through the Ric Flair connect the same dots 24/7 repetitive style, you just never knew what insanity you were going to get from Peeters. Certainly, no one will ever accuse him of not being stiff enough... assuming he managed to connect. His heavy body punches were ahead of their time, and something it's baffling we never saw more of in the worked world given that even most of the marks would eventually know deep down that real head punches without gloves would get fighters nowhere but the emergency room to reset their shattered paws.

3. Herman Renting. Life would be better without most of these foreigners, but I'm surprisingly not calling for a moratorium on Renting. Renting may not be the most talented guy around, but he was figuring things out with each match. At first I thought he had little beyond a Greco Roman takedown, but he was actually able to display a lot of variance in his submission game out of that in his second match with Nagai. He may not be the best standup fighter offensively, but showed a good ability to work standing sequences around his takedown and submission game, and impressed me with his footwork in his subsequent match with karate champion Nobuaki Kakuda, which would be my #5 match if I absolutely had to pick from among the stuff I wouldn't quite call good.

4. Akira Maeda. I liked Maeda as a pro wrestler, and in the less evolved days of shooting, but now that he's done a good thing in surrounding himself with a bunch of legitimate martial artists, he needs to fight like one instead of still just being a pro wrestler. I will give him a pass for now because he was having enough trouble getting through his few matches on two feet, much less trying to learn whole new legitimate methods of combat in the interim. While his matches were all passable enough, and he was carried to the promotions match of the year, he largely seemed like a dinosaur, albeit one who was obviously not boring, lacking in gravitas, or without a certain brand of showy skill.

5. Mitsuya Nagai. Nagai was somewhat ahead of the curve for a rookie because he had been in various gyms since 1986, starting out with Satoru Sayama, but following his primary instructor there, Naoyuki Taira, to the Shootboxing promotion, where he was 5-2 as an amateur. He joined the U.W.F. in 1989, but a neck injury kept him from ever making his debut. His standup skills were better than his ground skills, but having participated in enough real and fake fighting training sessions, he was pretty well rounded. Nagai isn't a top shelf athlete though, so he needs that solid technique because he can't get away with things as easily or make up for them with speed and aggression the way a Kakihara can. It's hard to really gauge Nagai because he had two matches against fellow rookie Renting then a shoot against ultimate sleezebag Gordeau.

MB: 1. Volk Han: There is no way to argue against this choice, as even without the foresight of knowing what greatness Han would achieve in the future, his debut alone shows us that there is a lot of talent just waiting to be discovered. Even though we saw a lot of flashiness in his style when he fought Maeda, he did it with such a stylized sense of confidence, that he came off like a Russian super-hero who seemingly had loads of never before seen attacks at his disposal.

2. Willie Peeters: While it pains me to put him over due to his general jerky behavior (which would only get worse in the years to come) there is no denying the entertainment value of this man. He was truly all over the place, but that is where the fun was, as you never quite knew what you were going to get out of him. His antics aside, he did have talent, and could surely hold his own in a real shoot if he had to, although that opportunity hasn’t come up yet.

3. Koichiro Kimura: This is where I’ll deviate from Lorefice a bit and proffer the multiple time S.A.W. champion for everyone’s consideration. Granted he only had one televised match so far, and yes in that one match he wasn’t given a lot of opportunities to shine due to his opponents inexperience in working a match, but in that one match I saw a lot of potential in him, that exceeded what I saw in others, like Renting and Nagai. He showed nice fluid movement throughout that match, in both his footwork/striking, as well as smooth/explosive judo. Everyone that we have seen so far has usually one dynamic or skill that they are good at, but not often due we see people that blend all the different aspects together in a coherent fashion. While time may prove me wrong, from what I was able to see in his initial match, I’m going out on a limb and saying that he is in the upper tier of Rings talents right now.

4. Mitsuya Nagai: While I think it would be completely fair to swap out this slot with Herman Renting, I feel compelled to choose Nagai simply due to his well-roundedness. His Shootboxing background gave him a nice kickboxing foundation to build on, but he also has had enough pro wrestling/shoot training to round his skills out. While neither his striking or grappling are world class, they are both good enough that he will always be a skilled hand to have on board, even if he can never really rise above the mid-card ranks.

5. Akira Maeda: I fell odd for picking Maeda, but the fact is that he has a lot of gravitas as a performer, and every time he shows up, the crowds go into a complete state of rapture. That isn’t a quality that should be neglected when he asses these performers, as the ability to project yourself, and sell your act so to speak, is just as important as the actual work that you do in that ring. Furthermore, I actually like paired down Maeda more than the 80s version. Yes, he is a shell of his former self here, but less is oftentimes more, and when I watch a lot of his 80s matches I find about 5-6 mins of great action squished by a usual 15 mins of coma inducing or otherwise lazy matwork. By keeping things short and simple (even if it’s due to necessity) I am enjoying his matches more now, even though his current lack of physical ability hampers the realism that he is going for.

RINGS 1991 Rookie of the Year

ML: 1. Volk Han

2. Willie Peeters

3. Herman Renting

4. Mitsuya Nagai

5. Bert Kops Jr. Kops only had one fight, but it was the 2nd best of the year here even though the later stages were very compromised by a knee injury that he probably shouldn't have continued pushing through. He was impressive with his array of deadlifts & suplexes, as well as his willingness to not only stand up to the out of control bully Peeters, but actually even escalate the stiffness of their contest. I suspect he would be much higher had he managed to be more active, but at the same time, the guys ahead of him all had much better careers.

MB: 1. Volk Han

2. Willie Peeters

3. Koichiro Kimura

4. Mitsuya Nagai

5. Bert Kops Jr.

Best RINGS matches of 1991

ML: 1. 12/7/91: Akira Maeda vs. Volk Han

2. 9/14/91: Bert Kops Jr. vs. Willie Peeters

3. 5/11/91: Willie Peeters vs. Marcel Haarmans

4. 9/14/91: Mitsuya Nagai vs. Herman Renting

MB: 1. 12/7/91: Akira Maeda vs Volk Han

2. 12/7/91: Willie Peeters vs Dick Vrij --- When I think of this match, I’m reminded of a review that Roger Ebert did for Basic Instinct 2 where he opened up with this, “"Basic Instinct 2" resembles its heroine: It gets off by living dangerously. Here is a movie so outrageous and preposterous it is either (a) suicidal or (b) throbbing with a horrible fascination. I lean toward (b). It's a lot of things, but boring is not one of them. I cannot recommend the movie, but ... why the hell can't I? Just because it's godawful? What kind of reason is that for staying away from a movie? Godawful and boring, that would be a reason.”

This match may not be good in any conventional sense of the term, but it is FAR from boring. In fact, I would say it was one of the most entertaining matches of the year, despite everything that we know to be both good and right. Peeters was oscillating from not having his strikes connect at all, to having them connecting way too hard, and bounced around more than the Tasmanian Devil in a pinball machine, all while the Japanese crowed went bananas. The entire b-movie atheistic was further amplified by the evil henchman comic-book appearance of Dick Vrij, who’s icy cold demeanor and bodybuilders physique, only served to add to the experience.

3. 12/7/91 Gerard Gordeau vs Mitsuya Nagai: Again, when viewed in isolation, there is nothing particularly noteworthy here, but taken in the context of its time, I found this to be rather fascinating. It was the first full blown shoot in the RINGS promotion, and was an interesting matchup as you had a kickboxer with grappling experience in Nagai, against a savate champion who presumably had little to no grappling skills in Gordeau, but this played out in a fashion that I wouldn’t have expected. Nagai was able to get the takedowns, but couldn’t follow up on them, and couldn’t hang with the superior striking skills and reach of his opponent. Perhaps it’s because this was a nice change of pace being a shoot, when so far, we hadn’t seen any yet from RINGS, but I liked it when taking everything into consideration.

4. 9/14/91: Bert Kops Jr. vs. Willie Peeters

5. 9/14/91: Mitsuya Nagi vs Herman Renting: I found this rematch from their initial meeting on 5/11/91 to not only have been the better of their two matches, but an entertaining bout in its own right.

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