Kakutogi Road Presents: A Path Less Traveled… An Interview with Mark Fleming

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mbetz1981

Active Member
Jul 27, 2020
73
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Welcome to the 2nd interview in our ongoing quest to fully shed some light on the history of MMA. This humble scribe recently had the pleasure of traveling to Virginia to meet with an incredibly gracious man, and wrestling legend, in the form of Mark Fleming. Mark is a unique person in the scope of our project, as he was the first, and practically the only, westerner to enter the UWF-I with a considerable wealth of wrestling experience, both from the professional standpoint (having traveled all over the United States within the NWA from 1983-1986 and having a run in NJPW in 1989) as well as having the benefit of being under the watchful tutelage of one of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time in the legendary, Lou Thesz. One of the refreshing things about him was that he always his own man and prided himself on showcasing professional wrestling in the best possible light, as a worthy endeavor with the focus being on wrestling instead of silly gimmicks and nonsense. He was kind enough to give me over 5 hours of his time, so this will be the first part of a multi-part series. We cover a lot of ground in this interview, and this should appeal to both fans of pro wrestling and MMA history.

Fleming putting Kiyoshi Tamura in a STF




MB: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I think that one of the interesting things about talking to you is that you went into this (the UWF-I) having the most actual wrestling experience up to that point, especially on the professional side. Some of the guys before you, like Tom Burton and JT Southern, had a little bit of pro wrestling experience, but nowhere near the level that you did. You went into the UWF-I with considerable experience, especially as a protegé of Lou Thesz.

Of course, Billy Scott came in later with Billy Robinson about a year and a half after you debuted, but you were the first person to arrive to the UWF-I with some real and serious wrestling experience. Although, Pez Whatley was there for like a min..

MF: Yeah, for a couple of matches. Two or three.

MB: But he didn't look very good in there. *both laugh*.

MF: I'll tell you the truth, just the way I explained it to Lou (Thesz) it was like I had to learn how to wrestle all over again. It was a new style to me. I used to work out with Anjo (Yoji) in the dojo over there because it was new. Also, I didn't approve of the kicks either, and you know, Lou didn’t either. Also, they made me wear those shin guards and I told Lou that I didn’t want to wear these damn things, they don’t feel comfortable… but Lou said “Look. Let’s just play by their rules.” My first match over there I wrestled Takada at the Korakuen Hall, and I was going for pinfalls…and there was no pinfalls!! (Both laugh)

They sent me tapes before I went over there to watch, and I told Lou “Man this isn’t wrestling, this is kicking.” And he said, “I know it’s bullshit, but just go along with it.”

MB: Ok. We’ll get back to that, but no doubt, that’s some good stuff. I suppose that the first thing that I should ask you is what was your first exposure to wrestling as a kid, or what was your first memory of wrestling where you saw it and knew that it was something that you wanted to do?

MF: Professional wrestling, or amateur?

MB: Either way. Let’s go with professional wrestling.

MF: I saw it on tv when I was a kid, and I went to this school, I think it was in 6th grade and some of the other boys in my class were trading wrestling magazines, but I didn’t know what it was because my family were not wrestling fans, and they were saying stuff like, “Yeah man, this stuff is on TV…blah blah blah, and that I should watch it on Saturday” and I did. I started watching it, and I started to become interested in it, but I was interested in it for a different reason. Even back then, when I was in 6thgrade, I don’t know what it is, but me and my dad are really close and he was always with me during all the sports I did, and he told me that I was looking at this thing (pro wrestling) differently than others. At that young age I was looking at the holds, and how they were applied, and I was interested more in that, and how it was all done, rather than the angles that they were doing.

MB: So you were less interested in the theatrical side of it?

MF: Yeah, the kids would talk about who was going to beat up who, and all that, but I didn’t have much interest in all that. I was more interested in the bumps they were taking and the holds that they were doing, as that just fascinated me, and that’s weird, but it’s just the way it was for me. My brother’s best friend wrestled in high school, and I would talk to him, and he would tell me that I would have to try out for high school wrestling. By that time, I was in 7th grade, and I think I was 13 years old. He told me where to go to the high school and talk to the coach, his name and what he looked like. However, when I went there, I couldn’t get inside as the school was locked. Later on, I happened to be at a high school football game and one of my sister’s best friends brother wrestled. He was a state champion, and his sister would tell me, “Hey my brother wrestles, he’s a state champion, and his coach is right over there. Just go on over there, and I’ll introduce you to him. Just go up to him and tell him that you want to wrestle!”

So here I was, a snotty nosed 7th grader, I went up to the high school coach and told him who I was, and he shook my hand. I told him who I was and what I wanted to do, and that I wanted to try out for the team. I didn’t know JV or varsity, or anything like that, and of course he asked me how old I was, so I told him that I was 13. He then told me that I was a year too young, and that I had to be at least in the 8th grade. I think that he could tell that I was disappointed, so he told me, “I tell you what, if you show up for our practice, I’ll see how well you can handle our practice.” And let me tell you, those kids were tough, and this coach was tough. He was a Virginia Tech national champion and an All-American football linebacker for Virginia Tech, so he was a tough dude who took his wrestling seriously.

So, I go out there, and I got my ass whooped every day! *Both Laugh*. I was just a piece of meat for those guys, but I guess that he noticed that I kept coming back…

MB: You had heart.

MF: I guess… I just kept coming back. I’d keep showing up and the coach would ask me if I was going to practice that day, and I’d say, “Yes sir!” At that time, I weighed 145 pounds which was pretty big for a kid in the 7th grade, so he put me with that weight class with varsity guys, and high school guys, and I was only just starting jr. high. I would wrestle them every day, and by me getting my butt kicked every day it helped me, because I was learning the hard way. I couldn’t handle them, but I was learning because it wasn’t easy. I had gone out to the intramural wrestling team at the school that I was going to, and I beat all those guys easily. I beat all my fellow 7th graders like there was nothing to it. It wasn’t that I really knew what to do, I was just imitating what I had learned. I knew a half-nelson, I knew a switch, but it wasn’t any fun beating everyone on that intramural team, because there wasn’t any competition for me.

Mark in his young wrestling days…




I addressed this with that coach, and he told me to stop going to the intermural thing, and to keep coming to him and working out with his boys, and he would see if I would stick with it. Well… I stuck with it. *Laughs*

MB: Awesome. Who were some of the professional wrestlers that really stood out to you as a kid? Who in the professional realm really made an impression on you?

MF: I remember watching Johnny Valentine. He was the first guy that I remember watching wrestle on TV. Oh gosh… *thinks for a moment* Wahoo McDaniel, who I later traveled with and wrestled. Paul Jones, who I later wrestled. Some of these guys were still there (in the NWA) when I broke in. I remember Ole & Gene Anderson, who ended up breaking me into the business.

MB: That must have been surreal, the people that you saw on TV are now your colleagues! *Laughs*

MF: Yeah! It was fascinating, because here I was, right out of high school as I had never gone to college, and I’m invited to this NWA tryout. Crockett Promotions had a try out every year to look for new talent, whether they kept the new talent or not, or sent them to Georgia, they always looked for new talent, and that was basically due to Gene Anderson. I guess you could say that he was a talent scout for Crockett back then. He was always looking for new talent, and he liked young guys that could really wrestle, or at least be tough as nails. However, they really liked guys that could show their wrestling ability. And just because you were a football player, or boxer, or bodybuilder, or a bouncer, none of that impressed them. I didn’t know that at first.

MB: That’s interesting that you say that, because when I think about what a Vince McMahon or someone similar to him in that era, I would imagine that it was probably the opposite. I mean they probably appreciated if you knew how to work, but I would think that he was more interested in somebody’s physique, something that would lead him to think that he could market it, or make toys out of it, etc. So it’s interesting to me that they (Crockett) was looking for people with actual wrestling ability.

MF: Maybe if it was somebody else with a different attitude that worked for Crockett was doing the tryouts, then I probably wouldn’t have been picked. But since it was Gene Anderson, who believe it or not was tough as nails, I mean, he didn’t look like much, but a lot of guys were scared of him, and he could wrestle, and he knew some hooks. He came from the old school and was actually trained by Verne Gagne. He even trained guys for Verne Gagne for a little while when he came to Carolina. So, he still had that Verne Gagne mentality, and so did Ole Anderson. They just wanted guys in the business that took it seriously, had a lot of heart, and they didn’t care what you did in the past. They were not impressed with football players. In fact, I saw Ole Anderson beat the crap out of football players that came from the University of South Carolina. I remember one time, there were four of them, and you could tell that they were on the juice. He beat them so bad, that he chased them out of there, and they were bigger than him!

MB: *Laughs*

Ole and Gene Anderson, who were the ones that initiated Mark into the wrestling business.





MF: Ole would say that just because you were a football player, that it didn’t mean that you could wrestle. I was the 2ndsmallest guy on the roster. They had something like 27 of us that were invited to this tryout, and it was an all-day affair. We all gathered at the old Charlotte Coliseum, and Gene Anderson was in charge.

MB: Ok. Let’s pause there for a second. When you were going to this tryout, what was your perception of professional wrestling? Obviously, you are a smart guy, you know it’s not completely real for lack of a better word, but did you think that maybe some of it is real and some of it is not, or what was your perception of it going into this tryout?

MF: As being an amateur wrestler, I knew that some of the holds were worked holds, though I didn’t know the word “work” at the time, but I knew that they weren’t…

MB: You knew that there was some cooperation?

MF: Yeah, I knew that there had to be some cooperation. That didn’t matter to me though, as I respected the guys. I don’t care if a guy helps you…. When you hit that mat, it is no joke! That that is what used to kill me, you would hear guys say, “Oh. That wrestling mat is a trampoline!” Well, I found out that it wasn’t any trampoline!

MB: *Laughs*

MF: And anyone that has ever taken a bump will tell you that it isn’t a trampoline. A ring consists of a wrestling mat cut to the sides of the ring and it’s on top of boards and you have a piece of canvass pulled tight over it. That’s all it is. Now I’ve heard that Vince McMahon has springs under his rings, but I don’t know I never wrestled for him. I can tell you that Crockett’s rings were solid. I mean, they weren’t as solid as a boxing ring…

MB: Did the rings in Japan feel the same?

MF: The rings in Japan were excellent! Golly, they had great rings. But they were similar to Crockett’s.

MB: Ok, so you are at this talent scout event, and from what I recall from reading your book, it was you and three others that showed enough heart to proceed? The others couldn’t handle it?

MF: At the end of the day, it was me and two other guys. One guy was an amateur wrestler who lived in Winston, Salem. He had gotten into bodybuilding, so he had a hell of a body, and he was clearly on the juice. The other guy was Ken Starnes (Spelling?) He was a Pepsi-Cola delivery guy, and a bouncer at night. He played college football somewhere and was a huge guy. He was around 6’6 and 275 pounds without any fat on him. He also had a big scar on his face where he had gotten into a fight, and he just looked the part. Ole Anderson made us all go round-robin, where one guy stays in the ring and they would send somebody in to wrestle them until someone is pinned, and then they would send in the next guy. It was now down to us three and I only weighed 200 pounds, Starnes weighed 275-280, and the other guy weighed around 235. Well, we went round-robin and I pinned both of them at 200 pounds, just by using my amateur wrestling, which Starnes knew nothing of, in fact I’m surprised they picked him, but they did. Probably because he was tough as nails. The bodybuilder guy was good, and he could wrestle.

My dad was also there, and he had seen all of my amateur wrestling matches, but he had never seen me wrestle the way I did here. I was just pumped and ready to go.

MB: You wanted it!

MF: Yeah, I wanted it. After the tryout was over with my dad went up to Ole Anderson and asked him if I had a chance, and Ole told him that I was a tough kid with a lot of heart, and if I sticked with it, and worked really hard, then I could make it in this business. He did tell me that he wanted me to gain 20 pounds before he saw me again. So they sent us, the three chosen ones away, by telling us, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” And I thought “Oh, shit! That means they aren’t calling us back!”

MB: *Laughs*

MF: Well, Gene wound up calling me. He said that he wanted me in Charlotte in two weeks from this date and hung up. He didn’t even ask me if that was ok. It was either their way, or no way. And everything was like that, they were very ugh…

MB: I believe it, because even now if you go to YouTube and check out an interview with Ole Anderson, he must be the world’s grumpiest man. *Laughs*

MF: Yeah, they take no shit.

MB: *Laughing* Yeah, I don’t know if you know the story of how he got into a lawsuit against Vince McMahon and told him off in the courtroom. HE didn’t take any grief from McMahon, either!

MF: Gene would bring in different guys for us to work out with and Don Kernodle, who was a good amateur wrestler from Elon College, he had been wrestling pro for years, I wound up working with him a lot. I also worked with Mike Rotondo who wrestled in Syracuse.

MB: Yeah, we’re going to get to him a little later. That poor guy… some of those gimmicks that he was strapped with.

MF: Oh… They killed him! They killed him!

MB: Now you send something interesting. They told you that you need to gain 20 pounds. Now what year was this again?

MF: This was in 1981.

MB: Ok. So here is my question. Now not anymore obviously, at least since 1990 or 1991, but at that particular point in time steroids were legal, and they were cheap. Had you given the use of them any consideration? What were your thoughts on steroids at that time?

MF: I had never been exposed to them. I played football all through high school and I was never exposed to them.

MB: But when you heard that they wanted you to gain weight, did you feel that you needed more of a bodybuilding physique, or that you needed steroids? Were those kind of thoughts crossing your mind?

MF: Well, yeah. When I walked into that coliseum and I look around to all the guys that were trying out and I was the 2ndsmallest guy… They weighed us in. Gene weighed everybody in, and I was like damn….. I told my dad “I don’t know…” but he told me just to go in there and wrestle and do the best I can. They never interested me (steroids)wrestling is what interested me. It didn’t matter to me how I looked, it interested me to learn how to wrestle.

MB: Ok. But did you ever feel any pressure. Something like, you didn’t want to necessarily do this, but felt like you would have to? I don’t think that most people take steroids because they just want to take steroids, but they probably feel it a necessity because they are afraid that they won’t look they way they need to look.

MF: I always looked at steroids as cheating. I always thought that I could do it on my own, and if I couldn’t do it on my own, then I don’t want it. I always adopted that attitude. I didn’t want to kiss anybody’s ass because my dad always told me to never be an ass kisser because he’s not, and he told me that if I couldn’t get it on my own ability, then don’t do it, and just accept it. I had steroids offered to me once I turned pro, though I won’t name names.

MB: Sure, I imagine that you were surrounded by it.

MF: Oh yeah, all sorts of guys were doing it, and I was around it, I saw it, and it was offered to me.

MB: Steorids have been around America (in bodybuilding at least) since the 50s, so I’m sure that in any sport, especially wrestling or a similar kind of entertainment venue, there comes a time where that is either offered to you, or thoughts of taking them cross your mind.

MF: Yeah, it crossed my mind, and it was offered to me, but I just always had that mentality that if I can’t do this on my own, then I don’t want it. I don’t want it to be handed to me, or I don’t want it to be fake. I just thought it was cheating, I really did. In later years me and Lou Thesz used to talk about this a lot. I was training guys at his school and there was this guy that told Lou, “Damn! Fleming is big naturally, and has a hell of a body, so if you could get him on a cycle of juice, he would be great.” Lou wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Lou used to look at steroid guys that would come down to his gym and work out with me and watch me stretch them. He used to tell guys that were obviously on steroids, “Hey! You could be the next Hulk Hogan!”

MB: *Laughs*

MF: Well, Lou was trying to get their money from them, by getting them to join the school, and I would get down there, and I didn’t like it because just because they were steroid guys, that didn’t mean that they could wrestle, so I would go down there and stretch them, and Lou would get mad at me! Because they wouldn’t come back! *Both Laugh* He would say, “Don’t do that anymore!”

MB: At least get the money from them first!

MF: Yes, he would say, “Get the money first!” But I dunno…I would get carried away. *Laughs*

MB: Get the money and then stretch them.

Lou Thesz and Mark Fleming Together..

 

mbetz1981

Active Member
Jul 27, 2020
73
55
Kakutogi Road Presents: A Path Less Traveled… An Interview with Mark Fleming Part 2


Welcome back to the 2nd installment of our incredible interview with UWF-I/NWA legend, Mark Fleming. Here we continue right were we left off in part one, and we will cover more ground on how he broke into the business, met Lou Thesz, and some of his time in the NWA. Nothing was handed or made easy for Fleming, who prided himself on his work ethic and honesty.

Fleming with the Legendary Lou Thesz (Circa 1988)




MB: OK, so you’re basically told that you need to go home, and put on some weight, and you were thinking that they were for sure not going to call you back?

MF: Yeah.

MB: So, you must have been shocked when you got that call (from Ole Anderson) to come back on such and such a date?

MF: Yes, and then I went to Charlotte and trained for a couple of weeks, and they sent me home again. In the meantime, that guy from Winston-Salem, the bodybuilder, he quit. He just said that he wasn’t going to do it anymore. I never found out why, Gene wouldn’t tell us, I was just told that he quit and wasn’t coming back, and I never saw him again. Me and the big dude, Ken Starnes, would work out together until about a week or two later we got called back, and then there was a long period where Gene Anderson didn’t call. So, I called Gene, and that pissed him off. He said, “Look kid, don’t call me, I’ll call you.” After a while he called me back and told me to be in Charlotte on a certain date. So, me and Starnes worked out for about another week together, and one time after our workout Gene went to Starnes and told him that after 6 weeks of working out, he still wasn’t catching on, and that he was clumsy. That guy would fall over his own feet. He was big and he looked good, but he was incredibly clumsy. He would also blow up, whereas I was in shape, and had gotten myself up to 220. I could also do Hindu squats, 500 at a time. This guy looked better than me, but he didn’t have the stamina, and he didn’t have the wrestling knowledge. After that I was wondering who I could work out with, so Gene brought in Don Kernodle, Mike Rotondo, Jack & Jerry Brisco, and I got to work and wrestle with Gene, also. Then Gene came to me one day after a workout in which they just kicked my ass and asked me if I was ready. I thought that he meant if I was ready to leave, but he was talking about if I was ready to go out on the road, and I was like, “Really?” I didn’t think that I was ready, but he told me that I had the stamina, and I knew some holds, and the best way to keep learning was to get out on the road and work with the guys. And that’s what I did.

MB: And that seems to be the big difference, or at least one of the big differences, between todays wrestling landscape and the one in your era. You guys had a territory system, you had the ability to learn on the job, and that doesn’t exist anymore. You have this monopoly in the WWE, and I guess that they have NXT and things like that, but there really is no good way for a guy to come up and learn that craft anymore.

MF: Right.

MB: So, it seems like wrestling as we knew it, is now becoming more and more of a lost art.

MF: Oh, yeah! I agree.

MB: Being able to learn how to read a crowd and listen to the crowd. Now everything has to be 1500 moonsaults and highspots, etc.

MF: I was fortunate enough to be broken in and a time where some of the old timers were still around. They were on their last hurrah, and they wouldn’t be in the main event, but they would be working with the younger guys, and I was fortunate enough to be able to wrestle some of those guys and I learned a lot. I remember they booked me with a guy named Larry Lane, who was from Colorado and was trained by the Funks out of Amarillo. In fact, both of his sons are national champions right now in college, or at least they were a couple of years ago. Anyways, I think that they put me in with him for a reason, as he would beat me to death for two or three weeks in a row, every night! Every freaking night! And one night… *laughs* and I think that this is what they were looking for… I lost my temper in there. I cursed at him and hit this guy so damn hard that… *both laugh* We were in the Greensborough Coliseum, which was a big show for Crockett Promotions, and I knocked the shit out of that guy, and he got back in the ring, grabbed his jaw, and said, “Damn kid!” I had hit him with my forearm, and after that I never had anymore trouble with him. And that’s what they were looking for, to see what I was made of.

Because back then, the old guys looked at new guys like meat, and they looked at you as a threat, because you could take their bookings.

MB: Was Dusty Rhodes the head booker during this time, or did that happen later?

MF: No, that happened later.

MB: Who was booking at that time?

MF: Dory Funk Jr, Ernie Ladd.

MB: Well did they ever talk to you about a long-term program, or were they just like, “Be happy you’re here, and be happy to do what we tell you!” Or were they like, “Hey kid, stick with it, and we got some ideas for you down the road.”?

MF: No, Gene Anderson wanted me to go to Florida, and that’s where Dusty Rhodes was. Also, Eddie Graham was down there, and Gene wanted to send me down to Eddie Graham, but I didn’t want to go, not knowing why I didn’t want to go. In my mind, I didn’t want to go, was because Crockett Promotions was the shit then! Know what I mean?

MB: You couldn’t see at the time, that the wheels were about to fall off?

MF: Right, I didn’t know… I just thought that they were trying to get rid of me.

MB: But really, it may have been Gene Anderson trying to look out for you?

MF: That’s right! But I didn’t understand that. See, I was 20 years old when I had my first match. Anyways, Jack Brisco had a piece of the action down there in Florida, and he asked me if I really wanted to go down to Florida, and I said that I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I told him that Gene was harassing me about going down to Florida, but I would like to stay here because this is the mega of pro wrestling, and I would like to stay here. He then said, “Well, I think that’s the right decision.” So Brisco goes to Gene Anderson and tells him to quit harassing me about going to Florida. Well, I found out later why Brisco did that. Because Dusty Rhodes didn’t like my type, he did not like guys that knew amateur wrestling.

So anyways, it wasn’t but a year or so later, that they got rid of Dory Funk Jr., whom I liked, as he was a good booker. Wahoo McDaniel booked a little bit too, and he really liked me. Why he liked me, I have no idea, but he liked me for some reason, and would book be favorably.

MB: Now what year are we in now?

MF: 82, or 83

MB: So, are you doing the Mid-Atlantic TV tapings at this time?

MF: Yes, I was doing jobs for the Crocketts.

MB: You know what’s interesting? Recently, I’ve been watching Mid-Atlantic from that time period, and at least from my perspective it’s kind of neat, because even though you could always tell who was going to win, they would still allow the job guys to have a bit of a match, at least compared to the 90s where they would just be total squash matches. Something where Hulk Hogan would beat on someone for 5min and they would get zero offense in.

MF: Well… I’ll tell you… That started in Georgia, and once Georgia started doing that on WTBS, squashing guys, Crockett started it. They thought that was the way to get their guys over, and it’s not! Lou Thesz used to say that it was the dumbest shit that he had ever seen in his life, because it doesn’t look like a contest.

MB: No, it doesn’t look good for anybody.

MF: And some of the guys understood that. Ivan Koloff understood that, Wahoo understood that, Paul Jones understood it, but the new guys like Sting, and the Road Warriors, they didn’t understand that. I worked with Sting all sorts of times, and I had to carry him through the entire match. In those days he didn’t know a headlock from a hammerlock. He was getting put over, and I made him look like a million dollars, and I didn’t get anything for it. I’ve had to have back surgery, and neck surgery, and I’ve got all these things wrong with me now, from having to take bumps for all these guys.

MB: Well, was there a point where you were like, “I’ve got to do something about this.”? Maybe, go find a booker, and say, “Hey what do I have to do get a break?”

MF: Well, once Dory, Wahoo, and Ernie Ladd left, then Dusty Rhodes came in. Dusty had done Eddie Graham dirty down in Florida. He had left him with nothing, and brought all his boys in with him, while pushing all of Crockett’s guys out, like Ricky Steamboat. This was also when Vince McMahon was snatching all sorts of guys up. Crockett let Dusty run the entire show, and he wound up ruining a promotion that was 50+ years old. It’s because he put himself on top, and involved himself in every angle there was, and he shouldn’t have been. Dory Funk didn’t do that when he was the booker.

MB: Was Bill Watts, and Mid-South on your radar during this time, or any of these other promotions that were still around during this time?

MF: I had never talked to Bill Watts.

MB: Or the Von Erichs? The WCCW promotion?

MF: No, they had never mentioned Texas. They never mentioned Paul Bosch…

MB: Or the AWA? Did that ever become an option?

MF: *Pauses* Well…. That came up. I knew a couple of guys that went to him and starved, so I didn’t want to go that route.

MB: *Laughs* Yeah, you can’t do that.

MF: Yeah, when Dusty came in, my bookings became less and less, and I wasn’t sure what was going on. Then some of the guys would tell me, “Damn Fleming, you have to start kissing his ass, you have to start laughing at his jokes.” I didn’t respect him though, I was taking the business too damn seriously, I felt that a wrestler should look and act like a wrestler, even at that young age and stage of the game. I respected Dory, and I respected the guys that could wrestle, like Mike Rotondo, the Briscos, etc.

MB: What about Stu Hart and Calgary?

MF: I had never heard of Stu Hart, they never mentioned him, and I didn’t know anything about all that. Anyways, Dusty brought in some of his boys, and some of them were good. Like Barry Windham, hell of an athlete, and of course Mike Davis, who helped me out a little bit. Also, Kevin Sullivan, and Mark Lewin… all those guys were good. Dusty would put his guys on top and involve himself in every angle. He shitcanned everyone…In fact I was one of the only guys left. Keith Larson, he shitcanned him, along with Vinne Valentino, John Bonello, and Gene Ligon. So, the guys that were still around, like me and George South, he just kind of put on the back burner. He would just use us for little shows, or squash jobs, stuff like that. Dusty used say, *proceeds to do a hilarious Dusty Rhodes impersonation* “Fleming is a young Nick Bockwinkel!” as he thought I looked like Nick Bockwinkel, and Bockwinkel could wrestle.

MB: Yeah, Bockwinkel was a great wrestler.

MF: His dad was also a good wrestler, and I wrestled their style, that older style. So, Crockett used to do everything that Dusty said, I mean every damn thing, he would let him run the show. So, he would start buying out all these territories, that were willing to sell or work with Crockett, when the fight with Vince was escalating. What it wound up happening was the AWA, Eddie Graham, and Cockett all went in together to try and fight Vince.

MB: That’s when they started Pro Wrestling USA?

MF: Yes, and I worked a few shows for them.

Promtional Poster from the Ill-Fated Pro Wrestling USA.




MB: Now, did you think that this was doomed from the beginning, because there is just no way that you can get three wrestling promoters on the same page?

MF: That’s exactly right. Eddie Graham, Verne Gagne, and Jim Crockett.

MB: I bet the egos were just too big.

MF: Now right after that, I don’t know the whole story, but Lou Thesz told me a little bit about it, Eddie Graham killed himself, so that was the end of his involvement. Verne Gagne said to heck with it, as he felt that if he couldn’t run the show he was gone, and he was promotion out in Las Vegas at the Showboat.

MB: Yeah, that’s a whole other story, as he was a hard headed guy.

MF: Yeah, so anyway Dusty bought Kansas City from Bob Geigel, and he called it Charlotte #2. His plan was to send all the young guys to Kansas City (to get rid of us really) so we’d go out there and work for Bob Geigel and we wound up starving to death! Bob Geigel was not a promoter or a booker. He had been in the business for a long time, but that doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing.

MB: Now when Dusty shows up, is that when you knew the writing was on the wall, and that it’s time to get out?

MF: Yeah, once my bookings started drying up! When he sent us to Kansas City, I jumped at the chance, just to get away from him. That’s how bad it was, I just wanted to get away from him. Now Florida was gone at this time, so I went to Kansas City, worked for Bob Geigel, and it was horrible! I mean, I enjoyed the experience, I got to meet and wrestle a lot of nice guys, but we couldn’t afford to live out there, they had killed the towns. The best towns were Kansas City, Des Moines, and St Louis, but the rest of the towns were…oofff!

MB: Was Tennessee/Jerry Jerrett an option? Did that ever come into the picture?

MF: I didn’t like their style. They were too cartoony for me.

MB: Even though you didn’t like it, did the WWF show any interest?

MF: Well….. Earl Hebner was a good friend of mine. He was a referee for Crockett, and him and I were really good friends, and had travelled together. He got offered to go to Vince, and he told me to get some 8x10 pictures made up of myself, and that he would get them over to Pat Patterson, who was the talent scout at that time.

MB: At that time though, obviously you didn’t want to go the cartoon route, but you don’t want to starve either, so would you have been willing to say “Whatever, I’ll wear some stupid outfit, just so I can wrestle and make a living.”?

MF: Nope.

MB: You would have rather just walked away completely?

MF: I would just walk away. Because if you look back, everyone that went to the WWF, guys like Dory Funk, Dusty, Mike Rotondo, they made clowns out of all of them. And a lot of guys said that they would do it on purpose, to show the NWA guys that Vince is in charge. All the NWA stars, all the NWA champions, he made them look like clowns. He called Dory Funk Jr, hoss. He made him go out there with a big cowboy hat, and it made me cringe.

Lou Thesz In His Glory Days:




MB: Yeah, about the only two that were spared his wrath were Ric Flair, and Arn Anderson/Tully Blanchard. So, moving on for a moment, how did you meet Lou Thesz?

MF: I was wrestling at the Scope Coliseum, which is a big coliseum here in town, and it always drew well. I don’t remember who I was wrestling, but Lou Thesz was there. He would stop by and say hi to the guys from time to time. He was really good friends with Wahoo McDaniel, and the Murnicks, who promoted in this area. He would come by sometimes and watch the matches. He would also go to the back and speak to some of the guys. One night he had come back to the locker room, and I had already wrestled, and I was getting ready to get in the shower when he walked in, and I knew who he was, shit I knew him since I was a kid! But I had never seen him in person. So, he came in and the guys that knew him, and the older guys like Wahoo all went up to him and shook his hand, and so did Ric Flair, and Jim Crockett, they shook his hand too. Lou went around and shook the hand of everyone in that dressing room. I was putting my boots on, and I just knew that he wasn’t going to come over to me, because I was just a job boy…

MB: *Laughs*

MB: So, he came over to me and offered his hand, so I stood up, took his hand, and said, “How are you doing, sir?” and he said, “What’s your name?” and after I told him he said, “I watched your match, you can wrestle a little bit, can’t you?” I said, “I don’t know, I guess I can do enough to get myself in trouble.” He then told me, “I can tell, just by the way you carry yourself, and the way you execute your moves. I can tell that you know how to wrestle on the mat, just by the little bit that I saw.” So, he asked me where I wrestled and I told him that I didn’t go to college, and that I got into this business right out of high school, and I had always wanted to get into wrestling (professional) and that I had made it. He then told me that he lived in Norfolk and had noticed that they had announced that I was from Norfolk, and I told him that my parents live here (Norfolk) and that I stay here a lot. I worked all over, but I was booked a lot in these Virginia towns. So, I told him that I stayed here a lot, even though some weeks I was gone, and that’s when he told me that if I was ever interested in working out or having coffee, then we should meet up sometime. He then gave me his card and told me to give him a call sometime. He told me if I want to that’s fine, and if I didn’t want to that was fine too, and maybe we could meet up and talk, and possibly get in a workout together.

After he said that, I was like shitting in my drawers, you know.

MB: *Laughs* You’re like, I can’t believe Lou Thesz is talking to me!

MF: Yes, I’m like What?!? This can’t be true! So, when he left, after going around and talking to the rest of the boys, Wahoo McDaniel said, “Guys… The man who just left this room is the best World Champion that we’ve ever had in this business!” and Lex Luger was in there, and he said, “Who is that guy?” and…oh boy… that pissed Wahoo off!

MB: *Both Laugh*

MF: Yeah, Wahoo really respected Thesz. I guess that Wahoo saw Lou give me the card, or maybe overheard the conversation, and he told me, “Kid, you better listen to him. If he wants to talk to you, then you better talk to him.” Now at this point, I was still being booked, places like Charleston, and Bluefield, West Virginia, and then have to go to South Carolina the next day, and I’m driving everywhere! I was all over the place. We drove all over the Mid-Atlantic, I mean there were times that I would wrestle in Philadelphia one night, and the next night I’d be in Myrtle Beach. Imagine that you have to wrestle, get in the car, and be all the way over to that next town by the following night, that’s the way we were booked. So, it took…*thinks*this was when Dusty took over, so I had more time off… I was home one night, so I decided that I’m going to call this guy (Lou Thesz). I was thinking that he might not remember who I am, or that I might make an ass of myself, and embarrass myself by calling him..

MB: But you had to give it a shot!

MF: So, I called him, and told him who I was, and he remembered talking to me, and he told me that we should get together. He lived by the beach, over there by Ocean View (a costal community within Norfolk, VA). He invited me to his house, and said that we could have coffee, shoot the shit, drink a beer, or whatever I wanted to do. He had a friend here, who was a policeman that used to walk us to the ring. In those days the police would act as security and escort us back and forth from the ring, and one time Thesz asked me if I knew Bob McCabe (a former Sheriff of Norfolk, VA) I responded that “I know of him, sometimes he walks me to the ring, but I don’t really know him personally.” So he tells me that he is going to invite him over too, and we all get there and have dinner, and while this is going on, he really pumps me, he is asking me if I drink, smoke, take drugs, how long did I wrestle amateur, what titles did I win, how did I get into professional wrestling, so I told him everything, and it made me wonder why he was asking me all these questions. He then asked me if I got into a lot of fights, or got into any trouble outside of the ring, or if I had ever been arrested. Now I had been wrestling 5 years by this point.

MB: This is 86, or 87?

MF: This is 87. I started in 82, although I had started training in 81.

MB: Ok, so from 82-87 there was never any glimpse of getting a push or get put into a hot angle, or something to work with?

MF: No, because 5 years in this business is nothing! Any top guy can tell you that. The first five years are nothing. Ric Flair started out in Minnesota.

MB: Sure, with Verne Gagne.

MF: I mean, some guys get a push, and some guys don’t, but I was doing what I wanted to do. I was living the dream. I figured that you had to earn it. I just didn’t think that I was good enough to earn it, so I just kept doing what I was told to do. I kept going to every match… I wrestled hurt, I wrestled sick, I did everything..

MB: Now looking back on it, do you think that you should have been more aggressive? Like get in their face and be like, “Hey, use me, do something with me!”

MF: Well, finally after Kansas City, let me tell you what happened. In Kansas City, Crockett bought a territory over there, and we had a big meeting. And he told us that he was going to send a bunch of guys to Kansas City. So we are in Crockett’s office, and they are going over everybody, and when it came to me, they said, “Fleming, we are going to put the Jr. Heavyweight Title on you, out there. Give us a few weeks, and we are going to switch it to you, because you and Denny Brown are going to go broadway ever night (a term for wrestling to a draw). Well, I’m excited, and all the guys are like, “Damn, Fleming! They’re going to give you the Jr. Heavyweight Title!” So, I was pumped! I weighed 230, so I was over the weight, which I think was 220.

MB: *Laughs* Somehow, I don’t think the were paying attention to that.

MF: But they had a guy that was Dusty’s friend, Denny Brown, who was a drunk, and didn’t respect the business, who was their champion. I mean, he was a good worker, a good wrestler, but he didn’t respect the business. He dressed sloppy, despite being the Jr. Heavyweight champion, and I knew that guys like Gerald Brisco, and Danny Hodge were also Jr. Heavyweight Champions, so this should have been a prestigious thing, but Dusty just shit on that title, he didn’t push it. Anyways, they were going to put that title on me, in Kansas City. So, I’m out there in Kansas City for a month wrestling broadways with Denny Brown, and I never got the title. So, finally I went over to Bob Giegel, and asked him what was going on. I told him that Dusty and Crockett had said that they were going to switch the title over to me, and I’m not sure what happened but I think that somebody went back to Dusty and told him that when all the guys would urge me to laugh at his jokes, and kiss his ass, and I wouldn’t. I didn’t think that he was funny, and I’m not an ass kisser! I think that this got back to him. I really do, because it wasn’t that I was incapable in the ring…

MB: It was the politics.

MF: Yes, the politics! It was all politics. Denny Brown was his buddy, and Brown didn’t like me, because he knew that was going to happen. I think that a lot of shit went on behind my back, and I was too naïve back then. I’m an honest guy, and I’m not going to lie to you, and if I tell you that I’m going to do something, then I’m going to do it.

MB: It seems like it’s a cutthroat business.

MF: Yes, it is a cutthroat business. At that time, the way I was looking at it, was it was about ability, and Lou Thesz and I became really close, we were together almost every day, and he once told me, “Your mindset of this business is the same mindset that we all had when I broke in, when I was young.” He also told me that I would have fit in perfectly with Tom Packs in St. Louis years ago when he was breaking in, because I thought the way they thought about the business back then. That’s why back then it was considered to be a sport! (Tom Packs was a professional wrestling promoter out of St. Louis who helped Lou Thesz into the wrestling business.)

*Thanks for reading. In our next installment we will start talking about how Mark got into Japan, and what it was like over there, as well as his continuing relationship with Lou Thesz. Don’t miss it! *

 

mbetz1981

Active Member
Jul 27, 2020
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Kakutogi Road Presents: A Path Less Traveled… An Interview with Mark Fleming Part 3 "We Found Each Other"

Fleming with Lou Thesz, BIlly Robinson, and Danny Hodge.
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Welcome back to part three of our interview with UWF-I/NWA veteran, Mark Fleming. Here we cover his transition from the NWA to a run in New Japan, and how Lou Thesz always saw potential for him to find a home in Japan, especially within the fledgling UWF group.

MF: Yes, it is a cutthroat business. (Pro Wrestling)At that time, the way I was looking at it, was it was about ability, and Lou Thesz and I became really close, we were together almost every day, and he once told me, “Your mindset of this business is the same mindset that we all had when I broke in, when I was young.” He also told me that I would have fit in perfectly with Tom Packs in St. Louis years ago when he was breaking in, because I thought the way they thought about the business back then. That’s why back then it was considered to be a sport! (Tom Packs was a professional wrestling promoter out of St. Louis who helped Lou Thesz into the wrestling business.)

MB: Ok. Let’s hold it right there, because I think that is a great segue to your Japan run. You’re right, because I think that honestly, pro wrestling has always wanted to be seen as credible, and it had that credibility leading up to the 30s or so..

MF: Up to the 50s! Early 60s!

MB: And even when it was in the heyday of steroids, goofy outfits, and all that stuff, I think that deep down, the people doing it wanted to have that credibility. Kind of like, “Hey I work hard at this, and I really sacrifice for this!” So when I see people like Thesz, Danny Hodge, and Karl Gotch, I see an era where they were like, “This is our lives, this is our sport, this is what we do.” So, to me I see an era of not only what wrestling used to be, but the way it wants to be, and then we started to see that again in Japan in the early 90s.

MF: Right.

MB: So, holding that thought… You’re with Thesz for a while, since 87. When did Thesz first become aware of the UWF? Not the UWF-I, but the UWF in general?

MF: I don’t have any idea. When I first met Thesz and started working out with him I was still with Crockett promotions. When I got his invite and started seeing him, he didn’t have a wrestling school then, we were going to a place called Wareing's Gym down in Virginia Beach. We were using the ring and lifting weights there. It started out as him showing me different techniques. Lou had just had a hip replacement, so he didn’t really roll much. He would roll around with me at a half-assed speed, and he would get holds on me, and then show me how to reverse them. He saw my style, and he liked it, but he told me that I wasn’t able to show my style by working for Crockett, because they weren’t going to use me that way, due to me having to put guys over.

He asked me (he never told me anything, he always asked me) “Would you like me to work with you, because I like your style, and I’m interested in helping you?” so I was like, “Shit, yeah!” So, I started making time to go to the gym with him. So, it was just him and I, at Wareing’s Gym, and we did that for almost a year. Then in 88 he said, “Let’s start to get really serious in training. I want to train you, and I want to show you a lot of stuff that I know, if you’re interested? Because I know a place, that you would fit into.” At that time, I didn’t know what he was talking about, I knew that they wrestled in Japan, but I didn’t know that was what he was referring to.

MB: Had you watched any Japanese wrestling up to this point?

MF: No.

MB: Did you would talk to some of the other boys that had worked out there?

MF: All I ever heard about Japan was when you go over there that you had better know what you’re doing, because they are going to hurt you! That’s all I ever heard. I remember when I was first getting booked in Japan, I was just getting out of Crockett, and one day Rick Steiner came up to me in the locker room and said to me, “Hey, I heard that you got booked in Japan against Inoki! Shit man, you had better watch out over there!” Also, I had always heard from other guys that went over there, guys like Ric Flair, and Ricky Steamboat, that if you go to Japan, that you had better be in shape, know how to handle yourself, and know what you’re doing. They also told me to watch out, because they would try to shoot with you, and try to hurt you. That’s what they did. They would try you. So, that’s all I ever heard about Japan.

MB: So, no one was ever like, “Hey Fleming! Your style would go great in Japan?”

MF: Nope, they never did. Never. It was always Lou Thesz that told me that. Thesz wouldn’t even say the word Japan. He would just tell me that he knew a place where I would fit in. He would tell me to just listen to what he had to tell me, and work hard, and if I did what he told me, that “We’ll see what happens.” He never promised me anything. So, I did what he told me, and I spent a lot of time with him. He would drill me over and over. He would show me something, and make me do it again, and again. Then one day he told me that he knew someone in Japan that was an amateur kickboxer and was trying to get into professional wrestling, so Antonio Inoki’s dojo contacted Lou, and told him that this prospect had worked under Tiger Mask. (Satoru Sayama) I’m assuming that Tiger Mask had a dojo at this time, because he had been training under Tiger Mask.

MB: Do you remember this guys name?

MF: Yeah, Yuki Watanabe.

Watanabe with Lou Thesz and Mark Fleming
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MB: I don’t know if you’ve watched any Shooto, which was the organization that Sayama (Tiger Mask) started, but in a nutshell Sayama was in New Japan, then he went to the UWF where he worked alongside Akira Maeda, Yoshiaki Fujiwara and all those guys. Back in 1984 when the UWF first started they looked more like a typical pro wrestling organization, but over time they started shifting more towards a realistic style, and as this progressed, I think that Sayama really wanted to push more of the kickboxing element in the brand’s style whereas Maeda wanted more grappling. Anyways, Sayama and Maeda eventually came to blows in a literal shoot on 9-2-85. They weren’t planning on it, but as I understand it, they had been bickering about the direction of the company behind the scenes, so long story short, they eventually get into an actual fight in the ring. It started out as something of a kickboxing bout, then winds up on the mat, where it looks like things are starting to cool down, maybe their heads are starting to get back into the game and things are going to return to normal, when the ref stands them back up after a rope break.

Picture Featuring Karl Gotch and the Original UWF Roster.
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After the break Maeda just kicks Sayama in the balls. The fight ends, Sayama quits pro wrestling in disgust, and Maeda gets fired and goes back to New Japan. From there Sayama starts Shooto, which was the first MMA organization. He started it with the attitude that he was done with working, done with pro wrestling, and that it was time to “do it for real.” He had also started a school that was training people in all ranges of a fight, submissions, ground fighting, kickboxing, etc, and he actually brought in coaches from other countries. I mean this guy was so far ahead of his time…. Anyways, Shooto starts to take off around 88 or so, but no one in the United States had really heard of it, so it wasn’t really something that was on anyone’s radar for a while. But Sayama was such a groundbreaking figure, I mean he actually discovered Akira Maeda. At the time he was a sediokaikan karate practitioner, and I think he found him practicing in a park, and he introduced him to pro wrestling.

MF: With Inoki’s group.

MB: Yeah, Maeda became Kwik-Kik-Lee for a while, and went over to England to wrestle, but yeah, I’m getting off into the weeds. Anyways, Sayama was responsible for a lot of what we have today in MMA, and even from a pro wrestling standpoint, if you watch his matches with the Dynamite Kid, they were on a different level.

An Early Magazine Excerpt for Kwik-Kik-Lee (Akira Maeda)
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MF: Yeah. So, this kid was trying to get on with New Japan, while working under the dojo with Tiger Mask. So, someone in Inoki’s office, a man called Tokyo Joe, who was a talent scout for New Japan and lived in Calgary. He also worked for Stu Hart for years… Anyways, him and Hiro Matsuda were talent scouts for New Japan, and I think that Tokyo Joe was the one that called Lou Thesz and told him about this kid and offered to pay him to train him. Lou later talked to me and said that he wanted to train this Japanese guy, and that he also wanted to use him as a training partner for myself. This would be a good benefit to me, as Lou wasn’t able to wrestle me at full speed. Now, I knew more wrestling than this guy did since he was a kickboxer. He was in great shape, had huge legs, not a great upper body, but he was tall, around 6’1 or 6’2. He was an athlete, and he was in shape, and while he knew a little bit about wrestling, it wasn’t much. So, it wound up that Lou would be teaching us both at the same time, but Lou knew that I was more advanced than he was, so while no words were ever spoken it got to the point that I was the one that was training this guy, while Lou would stand off to the sidelines and tell us what to do, but I would go 100% full speed with him, every day. As this was going on, I was getting trained too, as while I was helping this guy, it was also helping me. As we were training in the way that Lou wrestled, the shoot-style, the catch style, not the professional style, as we didn’t do any professional style training, we were doing catch-as-catch-can wrestling. Just like Lou did, if that’s what you want to call it, because Lou could wrestle in a professional style. When you see him wrestle guys like Hans Schmidt, he was working, but he could also wrestle for real.

MB: I’m sure you had to be able to really wrestle as a champion in those days.

MF: Yes! You had to. So, the three of us worked together for nine months. Now at the time, I was still working for Crockett, and making sporadic appearances for them. My bookings were getting sparse, but I was making what they call “shots” for them. Lou came up to me and talked to me, as he couldn’t believe how fast I was catching on with the things that he was showing me. He told me, “Damn, you’re catching on to this shit like a sponge. Now, I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I will tell you this…” Keep in mind that he would come with me sometimes to my Crockett shows, and watch. He saw me wrestle Sting one night in Raleigh in a dark arena. They were building Sting up for Ric Flair, and everyone was putting him over. Anyways, I was calling the match, and Lou knew that. Lou could watch a match, and he knew what was going on, and he knew that I was guiding him in every way. Now after the match, he told me, “That guy sucks! He’s horrible, and you’ve probably forgotten more about the business than he has ever learned.” Which was probably true. Lou felt that it was ridiculous that I was putting him over, and that anyone with any sense could see that I was better than he was. Now, he did look good, he was a bodybuilder from California, and he was a nice guy, and I liked Sting, we both got along.

MB: He had a good attitude about the business and learning.

MF: Oh he had a great attitude! He was very nice, and I liked the guy, because I wrestled him a lot.

Early Promotional Picture Featuring the Bladerunners (Sting and the Ultimate Warrior)
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MB: Now him and the Ultimate Warrior broke into the business at the same time, and I think that the big difference between the two was that Sting was willing to learn, and the Warrior was just in his own world.

MF: Yeah, I never met the Warrior, but Sting was a nice guy, and everybody liked him, and I’m just going off of what Lou told me, because he could tell what was happening. He told me that, “First of all, you have a booker that refuses to book you, as he doesn’t like wrestlers. He wants showmen, and he wants steroid physiques, and gimmick guys, and you’re none of those. You’re not fitting the bill, for what their wanting, and the route their going.” He told me that they weren’t going to give me a chance to show my talent. Now I had gone to JJ Dillion one day in Kansas City, and I asked him what was going on, but JJ was under Dusty and he couldn’t do anything without Dusty telling him to. So, Lou told me that the best thing that I could do was to get away from the Crockett Promotions, because it wasn’t helping me, at all.

So then Dusty calls me at home one day and told me that he had me booked for Greenwood, South Carolina, and I told him that I wasn’t going to be there. *Goes into another hilarious Dusty Rhodes accent* He said, “Whaadddaaa Mean Whaadddaaa mean?” I then told him that he was putting me on all these TV shots, and not giving me any big bookings, so I was done, and that I had other things planned. I then hung up the phone on him and told Lou what I did. After explaining this to Lou, he said to me, “I told you a long time ago, I know where you could fit in, and I think that you’re ready. I’m going to send you to New Japan…”

MB: Now leading up to this, you have not really watched any New Japan tapes?

MF: No, I didn’t have access to anything like that, and on top of that, I was busy!

MB: So it wasn’t like Thesz had a secret VHS collection that he could show you? *Laughs*

MF: No, Lou had a little black and white TV.

MB: Now as I’m having this conversation with you, the entire time I’m thinking to myself that you should have been in Japan from the get-go.

MF: Well, let me tell you something. There was a guy named Koji Miyamoto who wrote a lot of books, he is a pro wrestling historian, and he was working for Gong Magazine at the time. He was a photographer, and we also wrote articles for them. He was friends with Lou Thesz. Now I didn’t know this, but Lou had called and told him that he was training me and would appreciate it if he would come over here and watch me train, to see if I would fit into the Japanese scene. This was before I had made a trip to New Japan. He agreed and jumped at the chance. He did a big article on Lou, and his home, and while he was here, he took a look at me. Now he felt that I would fit right in. Now at that time Lou was planning on sending me over to the UWF with Maeda, not New Japan.

MB: Ok, so what year was this, 88?

MF: Yes, 88. Now Maeda had a guy over there named Norman Smiley, and Lou felt that I was just as good as he was, so Lou wanted to ask Miyamoto if I would be a good fit for the UWF with my style.

MB: Yes, you would have!

MF: And Miyamoto watched me, for like 2-3 days. We trained every day, and when I say that we trained, we were training for 4-5 hours every day in the ring, and there was no playing around, as Lou was very stern. So, after interviewing me Miyamoto went back to Japan and wrote a two-page article about me in the UWF magazine. And I wasn’t even booked there!

MB: *Laughs*

MF: And Maeda and some of the other guys liked me, they were wondering who I was, and were told that I was a protégé of Lou Thesz. That’s when I started becoming known as a Lou Thesz’ protégé, which I was. I was becoming his protégé.

MB: Well, that’s like the best cred you could have over there. It’s not going to get any better than being a protégé of Lou Thesz!

MF: Now let me think for a min….. I might be getting ahead of myself… *Thinks for a moment* Gosh, it’s been so long.. OK! Miyamoto said that I would fit into the UWF with Maeda. Now this is in 1988, when I’m told this. But he told Lou Thesz that it wasn’t a good idea to send me over to the UWF, because they weren’t making any money. He told Lou that they were ready to go under, and that it wouldn’t be the correct promotion to go with. He then told Lou that New Japan was the promotion that was making all the money, as they were really hot from having Stan Hansen, Steve Williams, Brusier Brody, they were hot brother! Now, of course, Lou knew Inoki, Sakaguchi, and all those guys, as those guys worshipped Lou. So, Miyamoto stressed to Lou that the UWF didn’t have their act together within their promotion, and it wouldn’t be the place to send me. So what you were telling me makes sense, with all their fighting…

MB: Yeah, the 2nd time around from 1988-1990, they had all the talent, they had Maeda, Fujiwara, Anjo, etc, but they just had too many egos involved.

MF: Takada was there!

MB: Yeah, Takada, and Yamazaki, and as far as the Americans, they had Norman Smiley, Bart Vale, Chris Dolman. So what wound up happening, I think came down to a couple of things. There was an economic downturn in Japan at the time, as well as a bunch of behind the scenes problems, and the promotion wound up folding. After this, several of them wound up going their separate directions. Maeda wound up forming a working relationship with Chris Dolman and started RINGS, and he was smart, he wound up pulling a bunch of martial artists from Holland, Russia, and different places. Also, Fujiwara started up the PWFG group, where he took Ken Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki, and Minoru Suzuki. Basically, in March of 1991, out of the ashes of the NEWBORN UWF, came the three main shoot-style promotions, UWF-I, RINGS, and PWFG. All of them formed around a particular personality. This was especially true in the UWF-I’s case with Takada.

Guys like Fujiwara were a little smarter about how they were booked. He was still the star, but he would allow himself to be in the mid-card on some events, so some of the younger talent cold have a chance to shine. To his credit, he didn’t try and make the entire promotion revolve around him.

MF: Right. So, Miyamoto explained the situation to Thesz, and Thesz used to read the dirt sheets, so he knew a little bit about what was going on, but he didn’t know what kind of trouble the UWF was in, so this guy was giving him the inside scoop. So, after hearing this, Lou agreed that I should go to New Japan. Now in February of 1989 Lou told me that Toyko Joe was going to scout me for New Japan, so he came down from Calgary, and stayed with Lou for about a week, and he would come down to practice every day. We would go to the beach and run every morning, and then go to the gym for a couple of hours, and then we would go to the dojo to wrestle, while Lou watched us. Now, while this is happening, Toyko Joe was not interested in Yuki Watanabe, not at all. I thought he would be, but he wasn’t. Rather, he was interested in me. Lou had brought in an entourage of training partners to work out with me in a round-robin style, and while this is going on, Tokyo Joe and Lou would sit at ringside, and Joe would call out, “Double wrist-lock takeover!” and other holds, and I would do everyone of them. I would do this at perfect speed, with no fumbling around, and he liked that. So, he told me that he was going to book me on the next tour with New Japan, which was only a couple of weeks later. He then explained to Lou that he had some Soviet guys from one of their wrestling teams going over on the same tour, along with a couple of guys from Puerto Rico, Ron Starr was one of them, and Sid Vicious was going to go as well, and he was as green as grass.

Tokyo Joe along with Stu Hart and Kendo Nagasaki
[IMG]


MB: That’s hilarious. They’re like, “We really want this guy who knows how to wrestle…and Sid Vicious!” Of course, he looked amazing.

MF: Yeah, but you have to remember that even with their working, pro wrestling in Japan is a whole other ballgame, compared to America. With Japan, a lot of the American guys were scared to go over there, because you had to earn their respect. Even if you were working a match, they would try and hurt you. Rick Steiner was right, they even tried to hurt me. They wanted to test you, and see what you were made of, and Lou knew that, because Rikidozan did it to Lou! At first, he didn’t respect Lou, until Lou kicked his ass. But that’s how those guys operated. So, I went over there for New Japan, and I was over there for an entire month. We would drive all over the country in a bus.

Still Image of a Classic Bout between Lou Thesz and Rikidozan
[IMG]


MB: Now, was any of this televised? The reason I ask, is becuase I have a large video collection, and I have some connections that have a vast archive of New Japan material, so when I was preparing for this interview, I tried to track down some of your matches, and I looked high and low, but I couldn’t find video footage of you in New Japan. Were these dark matches, or do you know if there are any recordings with you in New Japan?

MF: With New Japan? I don’t know. We were considered a “Young Tour.” They had young guys, and they had three Russians from a big wrestling team over there, and the Japanese were just breaking them in. Masa Saito was training them with Brad Rheingans over at Inoki’s dojo, and then they would do shows with us, but to answer your question, I don’t know.

MB: From what I can tell, they either recorded it and didn’t release it or….

MF: They had cameras, and guys at ringside, but I don’t know. Now, I worked for New Japan for a month with Sakaguchi, who was a judo guy and wrestler. Before I went, Lou just told me to go out here and wrestle like I know how to, and I did. I did ok. They liked me. The fans liked me, but I think that there was some heat between Sakaguchi and Thesz, from way back. I’m not sure, Lou never said, and I didn’t ask, as it wasn’t any of my business. Anyways, they treated me good, and paid me well. After the tour, I went back and Koji Miyamoto took pictures of me wrestling in New Japan and called me a “mat wrestler.” From all the pictures he took of me, I was either on the mat, or doing wrestling holds, I wasn’t doing any silly shit. Now, I remember that later I heard Sakaguchi say something to the effect that I wasn’t flashy enough, and did too much wrestling, but I think that it was really something between him and Lou. So, Miyamoto had done a two-page story on me for UWF’s magazine, even though I had never been there, yet, and the pictures that he used were from my trip with New Japan. So, he sends Lou a copy of the magazine, and Lou said, “Look at this. You’re in the magazine, and you’ve never been there!” Lou then told me that the UWF was the promotion that he wanted me to go to, because he was told that they were now getting their act together, and Maeda was gone, since I think that Lou thought Maeda was an asshole.

MB: That actually leads me to my next question. When did Lou Thesz first learn about the UWF-I? Now the first time that he made an appearance was the December event in 1991. That was the first time that he went out there and made an announcement to the crowd. Do you know if he only became aware of them around this time, or was he always keeping tabs on what was going on?

MF: The only way that Lou would have been in the know was by reading the sheets, like Dave Meltzer.

MB: So, maybe by reading from Meltzer? Because Meltzer was reporting the UWF-I at the time.

MF: Yeah, he was reporting some of the UWF stuff, but somehow Lou knew about the UWF, because that is where he wanted to send me, until he found out that they were in an uproar, but once he heard that things had stabilized (now that they have splintered off into the UWF-I) he was onboard with it.

Now, after this magazine article was published, Shinji Sasazaki contacted Lou and told him that he was going to personally come out to Virginia to try me out. At the time we were working out at a boxing gym, called the “East Side Boxing Gym” in a bad area of Norfolk.

MB: That makes sense, because Billy Scott had a falling out with them right before you came, over an outfit that they forced him to wear, and made him pay for it, so he bailed on them. Not that he wanted to, but his attitude was that they had to makes things right with him, before he would come back, so he was out of the picture, just as you were getting into it. So, I’m wondering if it was a moment where they felt like they needed to replace him…

MF: I don’t know, but somehow Shinji caught wind that Lou was interested in sending me there and made arrangements with Lou to come out and see if I was everything that Lou bragged about. So, he comes here, and by this point our normal gym had already flooded, which forced us into an old, dingy boxing gym with a boxing ring, which didn’t have a mat, unlike a wrestling ring. So, Shinji came down, and I was still using my training partners, and he would watch us train, and roll around at full speed, and he was supposed to roll with me when he arrived, but after watching me, and being prompted by Lou to go ahead and test me for himself, he backed out, and told Thesz that he had a bad knee, and that he had seen enough to know that I was ready. Two weeks later they call Lou, and send over Yoji Anjo, and he was a good shooter. So they sent him over, to the same boxing gym, and we did the same thing, and after wrestling with me, Anjo told Lou that he was ready to sign me. Anjo asked him, “Where did you find this guy?” and Lou told him, “We found each other.”

I hope everyone is enjoying this so far. If you enjoy our work, then please consider becoming a patron over at www.patreon.com/KakutogiRoad . Not only will you get a warm fuzzy feeling for helping flesh out the history of our great sport, but there is a lot of rare bonus content to be found, and you will help support future endeavours, as we continue to try and bring you great content!
 

mbetz1981

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Jul 27, 2020
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Kakutogi Road Presents: A Path Less Traveled… An Interview with Mark Fleming Part 4

Welcome back to the 4th installment of our interview with UWF-I/NJPW/NWA veteran, Mark Fleming. Here we cover more of his time with the UWF-I, along with some interesting details as to how they started falling apart.





So, Anjo said that he wanted to sign me right then and there and pulled out a contract out of his warm-up gear. He then asked how soon he could have me.

MB: Ok, so was this a per-match contract? Did you have to sign a new contract for every match?

MF: Yeah. They offered you one every match. If they didn’t offer you one, then they didn’t like you.

MB: So, this contract is only for one match?

MF: Yeah, just one match. Now Anjo was talking to Lou and asked when he could start using me, and I was standing up, looking down on them, overhearing every word. Lou told Anjo that he could have me anytime he wants, as I was ready to go, so Anjo tells him that he needs me, starting next month. Lou was ok with it, so I signed it (the contract). Of course, Lou got a percentage of it because he was my manager. He was my trainer and my manager, and he got me booked, so he should have gotten a percentage.

MB: Sure, he’s opening doors for you.

MF: I don’t know how much, but they paid him to use me.

MB: Ok. How much did you get per match?

MF: At the beginning, I got a thousand.

MB: A thousand a match? And then they bumped that up?

MF: Yes. I went over in February and wrestled Takada in the main event at the Korakuen Hall.




MB: Let’s talk about your debut. Now they had done this before with guys, who in my opinion, really shouldn’t have been there, like your JT Southern’s and whatnot, and they would put them in against Takada, but I liked your debut. Although I could tell that it wasn’t a style that you were used to, I could see that you were catching on quickly. I mean, Takada’s kicking you, and the first one or two go through, and by the time that the third one came around, you caught that leg and were like, “I’m done with this!” You could tell that you were credible and that you had the wrestling experience, even if you didn’t have the submission or striking experience. You also had intensity, so I felt that you were a good fit. My take on your debut was that you were good and with some refinement, and some more submission training, you could really be a good hand in this.

MF: That’s right, and that’s what I told Lou after that match, that I had to learn how to wrestle all over again.

MB: Yes, but now, we’ve arrived, for a lack of a better word, to more of an MMA sphere.

MF: Yeah, but we didn’t know what MMA was.

MB: Sure, no one knew that then, but looking at it from our standpoint today, looking back, even though it was worked, you’re now getting into MMA territory, because you now have to deal with all ranges of the fight. The takedown, submissions, striking, basically everything that goes into a fight, so as you said, you’re learning it all over again. And you’re really strong in this area of wrestling, but it’s like “Wow, I have these other things to learn now!”

MF: Yeah.

MB: Now, did you get to meet Takada before this match, or how exactly did they set this all up? Did they have to talk to you beforehand? I ask because he was basically like a rock star, so did they pull you aside and ask you to be careful with him?

MF: I had never heard of him, and I didn’t know who he was. All that I heard from everybody was that he was a badass and that he kicked hard. In fact, when I first met Gary Albright, and he knew that I was going to be working with him, he told me, “This guy is a badass, don’t let him kick you in the face!”

MB: Now when you were actually in the ring with Takada, were you thinking, “Wait a min, this guy isn’t a badass?”

MF: *Smiles* Yeah, when I got him on the mat, I could tell that he didn’t know as much about wrestling as I did. He did know submissions, but not that great. His main thing was kicking. That was his gimmick. Now I don’t know what Billy Scott has to say about this, but the only Japanese guy over there, that I would say was a great mat wrestler was Kiyoshi Tamura and Yuko Miyato. Oh, and Anjo! Anjo was good at submissions.

MB: I got the impression from Billy Scott when I was talking to him, that he felt that the two best he had worked with were Tamura, and Sakuraba, although he would probably give the nod to Tamura for his quick transitions.

MF: Yeah, Lou thought so, too. Lou told me, that in his opinion, that Tamura was the best person that they had. (The UWF-I)

One of the all-time greats…Kiyoshi Tamura




MF: Yeah, but we didn’t know what MMA was.

MB: Sure, no one knew that then, but looking at it from our standpoint today, looking back, even though it was worked, you’re now getting into MMA territory, because you now have to deal with all ranges of the fight. The takedown, submissions, striking, basically everything that goes into a fight, so as you said, you’re learning it all over again. And you’re really strong in this area of wrestling, but it’s like “Wow, I have these other things to learn now!”

MF: Yeah.

MB: Now, did you get to meet Takada before this match, or how exactly did they set this all up? Did they have to talk to you beforehand? I ask because he was basically like a rock star, so did they pull you aside and ask you to be careful with him?

MF: I had never heard of him, and I didn’t know who he was. All that I heard from everybody was that he was a badass and that he kicked hard. In fact, when I first met Gary Albright, and he knew that I was going to be working with him, he told me, “This guy is a badass, don’t let him kick you in the face!”

MB: Now when you were actually in the ring with Takada, were you thinking, “Wait a min, this guy isn’t a badass?”

MB: Yeah, in my opinion too. I have nothing but respect for Sakuraba….

MF: Yeah, he was just a young boy! He used to have to carry luggage and stuff like that. He had just gotten to the dojo when I was there. They used to beat the shit out of that kid. They treated him terribly. And do you remember Takayama? I once saw Miyato beat his ass.

MB: So, in your opinion was Tamura the best?

MF: I’m looking at it as a wrestler, so as a wrestler, I would say yes. If we look at everything, the speed, kicking, everything, yes.

MB: For me, he was someone that excelled in both the worked realm, and the actual shoot realm as well.

MF: He worked HARD in that dojo. Another person that I would say that doesn’t get enough credit was Kanehara.

MB: Yes, we will get to him in a min, first, your debut with Takada. Before this happened, did anyone approach you, and try and go over how they wanted this to do down?

MF: No, they just fed you to the wolves, you just had to go in there and fight, it was a surprise to me because they had sent me some VHS cassettes, and when I watched them, to me it wasn’t really wrestling, but I was just thinking about the money. I wanted to go, and learn it, and I was also thinking about the money.

MB: So, you didn’t get to meet Takada beforehand?

MF: Nope.

MB: Since he was their golden boy, that’s why I was wondering if maybe they had a concern that you wouldn’t beat the crap out of him.

MF: When we went to the dojo, they would pick us up, and their referee at the time, he worked at Gold’s Gym, and was their strength trainer, in addition to being a referee. Anyways, he would pick us up every morning to go to the dojo, for what would be a 4–5-hour session. The young boys would cook for us there.

MB: Did they have any agents there, though? I would have to look, but I think that Takada won your debut match via a heel-hook around the 8min mark, so was there someone that told you beforehand that Takada was going to go over via heel-hook?

MF: No. They didn’t go over shit. Not with me, they didn’t.

MB: Did they give you a time, or any kind of structure at all?

MF: No, no structure, and they couldn’t speak English, so you couldn’t communicate with them.

MB: Because it’s interesting, I watched Steve Day’s debut, and he’s just schooling Takada in every way.

MF: He was a good wrestler.

MB: Yes! A great Greco-Roman wrestler. What I was noticing was that he was giving Takada all these openings, and Takada just looked like a deer in some headlights, and at any point, Steve Day could have just destroyed him, so when you’re out there doing it, is it just like, “Ok. Here’s my leg, you got me!”

MF: Over there, you just had to kind of go with the flow. We used to call it a half-work, half-shoot.

MB: Of course, if you have to get into the ring with a guy like Kakihara, who’s slapping you a hundred miles per hour

MF: Oh my gosh! That guy slapped me so hard, he knocked me out! He slapped me so hard, it knocked me out, and later on, me and Lou were outside waiting for a taxi, and I was still out! *Both laugh* That dude slapped the shit out of me! Fast as lightning!

Masahito Kakihara:Fastest Hands In the East




MB: It even happened with JT Southern, who I’m sure is a nice guy, but was a horrible wrestler, he’s there and has no idea what he’s doing, but he managed to get an almost halfway decent match with Kakihara, because right off the bat, Kakihara is slapping him relentlessly, and he just franticly responds with push kicks, and because he is no longer able to think about what he’s doing, but instead he’s fighting for his life, so he’s simply reacting, and that’s causing him to start to look ok in the ring.

Anyways, it sounds like you didn’t have a lot of information going into your matches.

MF: No. But if you want to talk about structure, New Japan was the same way. You didn’t go over there and do things the way you do them here. They didn’t walk you through everything. They didn’t go over a finish with you, and that’s why a lot of American guys were afraid to go over there, and Stan Hansen will tell you the same thing. Lou Thesz helped train Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen, and one time right after they were first booked in Japan, they called Lou, scared to death. They were petrified, but Lou told them the same thing he told me, just to use your weight, throw them as hard as you can, throw them on their head, or whatever you have to do. Lou emphasized that we were stronger than them. I was stronger than all of them.

MB: Now in your 2nd match you were in a tag match, I think that it was you and Anjo vs Tamura and Miyato, and it was interesting because when Tamura and Anjo were in there, all the action was lighting fast and when it was your turn, you really used your wrestling to your advantage.

MF: I didn’t know how to defend against the kicks or the slaps because it was all new to me, but Lou told me “Who would be? You’re not used to that.” It was unfair. I wasn’t a boxer or a kickboxer, I had never done any of that, I had only wrestled.

MB: But you were stronger than them.

MF: Yes, and they knew that.

MB: And one thing that impressed me, was that for a guy your size, you had a very quick double-leg takedown. You were able to blast somebody down quite quickly for your size.

MF: I was around 265, I was a little overweight. Now, me and Gary Albright were very close. He only wanted to work out with me, and no one else. He didn’t like working out in the dojo he was just a guy that hated to work out. *Both Laugh* He worked harder at trying to get out of something, than the actual thing in the first place! *Laughs* I could tell you some stories about him.


Mark Fleming (Right) With the Original “Human Suplex Machine” Gary Albright




MB: Let’s talk about the training. I’m not sure how it was for you, but when I was talking to Billy Scott, he said that when he arrived in Japan, he usually had about a three-day turnaround, and the first day was used to get over jetlag, and after the three days it was back to America. Was it the same way for you?

MF: Yep. The next day after the match, they sent you home.

MB: So, you didn’t get a lot of time to train with these guys?

MF: Noooo!

MB: Did you get any time to train with them?

MF: Yeah, I got to train with Anjo. When I was in the Dojo, he and Miyato were always there, but we had to train when the Japanese weren’t there. Guys like Takada and Yamazaki were never there when we trained. I think that they would usually come in after us, in the evening. We would get there in the morning, and the young boys would be working out, and when they finished, it would be our turn. We did weightlifting, wrestling, and then we would have to go out and run. When we got back we did more wrestling, and while we were doing that, the young boys, who had already worked out, would shower and start cooking for everyone. They had a little kitchenette there, and they would feed us. They only had one shower, and everyone would have to take a turn, and after you did all that, half your day was gone. I remember one day, Gary asked if he could go sightseeing one day…

MB: *Laughs* Yes, I remember this story from your book…

MF: And Anjo and Miyato were like, “Look dammit! We pay you to train and wrestle, not go sightseeing!” And they were paying us well, better than the United States, and it was all $100 bills, brand new. There weren’t any checks or any of that shit. New Japan was the same way. I enjoyed it, although it was frustrating to me because I couldn’t wrestle the way I was most comfortable.

MB: But I’m sure that you had to respect what they were doing?

MF: Oh yeah! I respected what they were doing because at least they were putting wrestling over as a sport, and I respected the guys and their talent.

MB: Now would you have wished that they were actually shooting?

MF: I would have preferred no kicking. I didn’t mind the slaps as much as I did the kicks.

MB: But if you had to choose between what they were doing, and a full-blown shoot…

MF: I would have preferred a shoot. I would have felt more comfortable, personally. I wouldn’t have looked like I was lost out there, which I know that sometimes I looked that way.

MB: Now I had an extensive conversation with Billy Scott about this, and maybe you can shed some more light on it. Scott told me that at one point the UWF-I had serious aspirations to get into the American market, and even went as far as to check out renting Madison Square Garden, and they had a press conference in New York, before the Takada Berbick fight, but the rise of the UFC probably killed that. When did you first become aware of the UFC?

MF: I think that me and Lou watched the very first one. When I first saw it, I thought to myself that they just stole what we were trying to do in Japan! And they put it in an octagon to make it look more like a pro wrestling cage match. To me, the octagon is a gimmick. It’s just there to make it look vicious. Just like a cage match in professional wrestling. That’s where they got that idea, I don’t care if they deny that or not.

MB: Sure, because when it was first promoted in this country, it was presented as a barely legal blood sport. And now it’s become some ingrained, that they probably can’t do anything about it. That was their whole shtick in the beginning, as they probably felt that they had to promote as a no-rules spectacle to get over in this country, at that time. I noticed that when Dan Severn started at UFC IV he was two years older than you were, and was 36 years of age, and he wound up having a very long career in MMA, even though he started at such a late age. And he was pretty much a pure wrestler. He never learned how to strike, but he was a great wrestler and did great for the first few years. So, did you see this, and think, “What the hell? I can do this!” Did you have any thoughts about getting into MMA? Did that opportunity ever come your way, and what did Thesz think about that?

MF: Well, Thesz and I had separated temporarily over our argument about the UWF-I (Note: Fleming left the UWF-I over disagreements about a finish that he felt to be dangerous to his neck, and had a brief falling out with Lou Thesz over it.) But I knew Dan Severn, and I used to work out with him in the dojo over there, and he was a heck of a wrestler, better than I was, as he had done a lot more in the amateurs, he had been everywhere.

MB: He was an NCAA champion, and an Olympic alternate at one point, wasn’t he?

MF: Oh yeah, and he had done some sambo and a lot of other stuff. Anyways, I had worked out with him several times over there. I also knew Ken Shamrock, from when he was known as Vince Torelli. But when I saw Dan Severn in MMA, I thought it was perfect, and I thought that I could do that, but at the time I was diagnosed with four herniated discs in my lower back and one in my neck, and I was wrestling in independent groups at the time. After me and Lou had a bit of a falling out, I was working in the independents.

Mark Fleming, Dan Severn, Steve Day, and Gary Albright



MB: Did you ever think of calling Severn, and saying, “Hey, could you get me into this MMA thing?”

MF: No, because when I went to get my Virginia wrestling license, I had to get my physical, and they wouldn’t give it to me, based on my MRI results. I had to beg the doctor to give it to me. I was 44 at that time.

MB: Ok. But looking at it. Dan Severn entered into the UFC in 1994, and you had already wrapped up your stint in the UWF-I at the time, so was the burgeoning scene of MMA here, in America, on your radar? Because Severn had just won that tournament, and he’s flying high for wrestling, and a little while later Mark Coleman shows up, and wipes the floor with everyone, just with wrestling….

MF: I had thought about it. But with my injuries, I knew that realistically, it wasn’t in the cards. Just recently I had back surgery, and it didn’t do that well. They tell me that there isn’t one vertebra in my back that isn’t affected. The doctor even asked me if I had been in a major car accident, and when my wife explained to them that I had wrestled professionally for over 20 years, and the doctor said that the human body wasn’t designed to do that.

MB: So you knew that with your injuries even at the age of 34 that it wasn’t in the cards? Because, if my math is correct that would have been your age when Dan Severn won UFC IV?

MF: No, not at that age….wait… *Thinks for a moment* You know, I remember now, I had injured my back over in New Japan, wrestling Riki Chosu. After the match, they took me to the back, and Ron Starr popped my hip back into place. New Japan wanted me to go to a doctor, but I wasn’t having any of that, because that would cause me to miss some nights of working. I had a hard time getting around for about a week, or week ½, and that was at the final leg of the tour. I think that is when I knew about some problems, but I put it off for years. Over the years, people would tell me that I needed to stop wrestling, but I didn’t. Then, later one, when I’m wrestling in the independents, I’m in the locker room, and looking around, and noticing that everything has changed, the guys were different. They didn’t understand where I was coming from, and I sure as hell didn’t understand where they were going with it. At that point, I decided that it was time to hang it up. Also, there just came a point where I knew that I couldn’t do things the way that I wanted to do them, so that’s why I didn’t pursue MMA.

MB: Now when you were with the UWF-I, and of course no one could completely know what was going on, but were you aware that you were part of something special?

MF: No, we didn’t know anything about MMA.

MB: But did it feel like you were doing something groundbreaking?

MF: Oh yeah, because we were considered to be a shoot, to the public. And we knew that we were doing more shooting, and more legitimate stuff than All Japan, for sure!

MB: And even then, there were your occasional shoots. That match between Billy Scott and James Warring was a shoot, and the Takada/Berbick match, would have been a shoot, had Trevor not walked out of the ring. *Laughs*

MF: Yes! Tamura vs Mathew Saad Muhammed was a shoot.

MB: Yes. Even at this early stage in time, there are a few shoots going on, not a lot, but a few. Fujiwara’s group (PWFG) is having a few, and Maeda’s group (RINGS) is starting to a have a few on each card, so even then, it was moving more and more towards what we now know as MMA. So while you surely wouldn’t have thought about it in terms of it being called “MMA” at the time, you had to know that you are doing something different?

MF: Oh yeah. And even back then, I remember them talking about bringing it here to America. I remember me and Albright talking about it.

MB: And from what I recall, Dave Meltzer reported in those early days that Thesz was trying to work something out with some American promoters to have it brought to the United States.

MF: Yeah, for some reason it never panned out.

MB: Now what was the reason for the falling out between Thesz and the UWF-I? Was it strictly over pushing Vader?

MF: Yeah, Vader. They were starting to do some of the bullshit stuff that New Japan was doing, and Lou just thought he was a gimmick guy. He wasn’t a wrestler; he was a football player. Now I can’t say for sure, but I think that Lou went along with it for a while, firstly for money, and secondly…

MB: For your benefit?

MF: Maybe. Now you read my book?

MB: Yes, I did, but just for the record, we’ll talk about it here. Now before I read your book, I had just assumed that when Thesz left, that you left too. I was very surprised to read that it was due to you and Albright not being comfortable with a dragon suplex finish that they wanted you to do.

MF: Yes, in the magazines, this Koji Miyamoto that I told you about, told me this directly. According to the magazines that covered the UWF-I, Gary was ranked number 1, and I was ranked number 2, why that was, I have no idea, and it didn’t really mean anything, it was all political anyway. I mean, being ranked number 1 in a magazine, can’t buy you a cup of coffee at a 7-11.

MB: *Laughs*

MF: But he told me that, and I thought it was cool because it put me over. So It surprised me when one day we were at the Hard Rock Café in Osaka, Japan, and after the matches, they would always offer you a contract, if they didn’t offer you a contract, then they just didn’t like your style, like Steve Day. They had offered him a few, and that was it because they didn’t like his style. They didn’t really like him.

MB: But he was good! Maybe too good…

MF: Yes, he was good, we used to work out together, and I liked Steve Day, although he and Gary didn’t get along, they had gotten into a big fight. One night he had climbed through the window of my room, wanting me to protect him from Gary…

MB: Yeah, I read that in your book. *Laughs*

MF: Yeah, Gary was a monster…

MB: Let’s pause there for a second, because the UWF-I really frustrates me in this time period, because in some ways they were so ahead of their time, and they had so much talent, with guys like Tamura and Kanehara, and while it was still a work, they were doing a lot in those days they were adding so much of the shooting element to pro wrestling. It had the entertainment value and had a lot of good things going on, but they kept insisting on pushing Takada, and Gary. Gary seemed like a nice guy, but by doing that they were creating this monster that no one could survive his suplexes…

MF: That’s what Japan likes, monsters. We used to say, “That’s the reason why God invented Godzilla, to give Japan a monster.”

MB: I think that the UWF-I could have possibly been around, even today if they had smarter booking. Also, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the Anjo/Rickson Gracie story, but the common narrative of how the UWF-I died, was that Anjo goes down to Rickson’s dojo in the Los Angeles area, and gets his ass kicked, and probably helped shatter the myth that they were perpetuating, that they were super tough guys. I don’t know how much of that really had to do with the downfall of the UWF-I, though. I asked Billy Scott about this, and he wasn’t sure, as he wondered if there may have been some financial mismanagement as well.

MF: That’s what I was getting ready to tell you. According to what I heard Lou say, they overspent. A lot of their guys were driving the best cars, and Takada had around 3-4. He also used money to open up a restaurant, so they blew the money, and they also spent a ton of money on Vader, because they were trying too hard to fight against New Japan. And Lou tried to explain to them, that they were an entirely different entity than New Japan, so don’t try and compete with them on that level.

MB: Yeah, no sense in even trying to play that game.

MF: Exactly! And that’s what they were doing by bringing Vader over. They hated Sakaguchi, and they hated Inoki and were trying to do everything that they could to destroy them, and Lou said that if they had stuck with guys like us, and not worry about fat big-name guys, that lacked credibility, who the Japanese public could see right through. So yeah, Lou said that they overspent.

*I hope that you have been enjoying our work so far! If you have, then please consider support our efforts by becoming a patron over at www.patreon.com/KakutogiRoad We have several more installments of this interview to come, but this may be the last free version that I'll post on the UG. The rest will be posted on patreon in the days to come.