A look at one of the first great small fighters - Japan's Rumina Sato

By Tim Cooke

When Rumina Sato faces Hideo Tokoro on 12/24 at Shooto’s Vale Tudo Open Japan show, it will be two of Japan’s best welterweight grapplers meeting in a fight which would have been amazing in 2005 but could be the end of the road for Rumina Sato.  Sato hasn’t fought since his November 5, 2011 loss to Nico Verresen and Tokoro has been out of action since December 31, 2011 after suffering a dangerous slam in a loss to Yusup Saadulaev.  Even with both men past their fighting primes, the tremendous grappling skills of both men, combined with each man’s willingness to go for submissions could make for an exciting fight.  Styles make fights and you would be hard pressed to find two more exciting grapplers in MMA history.
Rumina Sato made his professional debut on November 7, 1994 against Michael McAuliffe for the Shooto organization, with a calf slicer submission win.  He would win all three of his fights in 1995, the first by knockout and the latter two by submission (arm bar and reverse triangle choke respectivly).  
These were the early days of MMA, even in Japan, as Pancrase had only been established in September 1993 and didn’t allow closed punching in any circumstance.  RINGS has shoot matches on the undercard in the early 90’s, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1999 that is became an all shoot company.  
Shooto was the first promotion in Japan to allow closed fist punching both standing and on the ground.  In 1995, the company experiemented with an octagon ring, with knetting to keep the fighters from falling out of the ring, similiar to how fights were held in Brazil in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  
Sato’s fast paced, all action style was a welcome change in early MMA, where heavyweight fights often involved getting into a dominant position and waiting out a victory.  While Sato’s 1995 fights aren’t as good as his overall fights from 1997-1999, they are still worth seeing due to Sato’s ahead of its time submission technique.
Sato began 1996 with wins over Masato Suzuki on January 20 and Kyuhei Ueno on March 5, both at Shooto shows at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo.  Both fights featured trademark Sato fighting style, which consisted of no fear of losing the dominant position, constant submission attempts, and showmanship.  In the January 20 fight vs. Suzuki, Sato reversed out of the guard position into a mount with a triangle choke and before reigning down punches, looked to the crowd and raised his hand to cheers from the relatively small but hardcore Shooto fanbase at Korakuen Hall.
In an era where maintaining the dominant position was such a important strategic element to many fighters, fights would often be less than compelling for the casual fan.  Sato, and later Kazushi Sakuraba, were forefathers in not letting the dominant position control a fight.  In the early UFC, there was a fear of giving up your back, especially to Royce Gracie, who would make all of his early opponents pay for the mistake.  The mentality of staying in the dominant position, even if it doesn’t lead to action or advancement in the fight, was the last thing on Sato’s mind.  Against both Suzuki and Ueno, he constantly had a dominant position and traded it in order to try for a submission victory.  Even if he wasn’t able to get the submission, he wasn’t afraid to be underneath his opponent.  This almost reckless abandon for positioning would haunt him in the future but in the infancy of MMA, it was a refreshing change of pace from the lay and pray fight style.
Sato’s third and final fight of 1996 was against American John Lewis at the 1996 Vale Tudo Open Japan show.  The early Japan Vale Tudo Open shows had different rules from regular Shooto shows, specifically no judging, no standing eight counts for knockdowns, and eight minute rounds (as opposed to the normal five for Shooto fights).  
Coming into the fight with Lewis, Sato was 6-0, with five of the wins coming via submission.  Sato and Lewis went to a 24:00 minute draw, which was his most lackluster fight from an entertainement aspect since his professional debut.
1997 was a career year for Sato, going 5-0 and continuing to be the most exciting lightweight figher in the world.  On January 18, he fought Ricardo Botelho at Korakuen Hall.  The crowd heat for Sato’s fights began to accelerate at this show.  Shooto wasn’t drawing RINGS or Pancrase type numbers in its infancy, so it mainly stuck to running the 2100 capacity Korakuen Hall.  But in the early years, shows were far from sold out and while the crowd buzzed for Sato’s submissions and their favorite fighters, the big fight atmosphere wasn’t there.  The fight against the Brazilian Botelho began to change that and saw Sato’s tranformation from excellent prospect to potential superstar.  
Botelho took Sato’s back early in the first round and tried to choke him out while clinging to his back in the standing position.  Sato, never fearing the submission, took his time to make sure Botelho couldn’t lock in the choke and waited the round out.  Round two saw Sato deliver an awesome high kick that grazed Botelho’s face and made an amazing sound.  
Sato continued his unconventional tactics, trying an Andy Hug like axe kick that missed.  When the fight finally went to the ground in the third round, Sato tried for numerous leg submissions before securing the heel hook at 1:24 for the win.  Korakuen Hall went crazy for the sixth submission victory in eight fights for Sato.
April 6 saw Sato take on Ali Mihoubi, a Japanese figher who resembled what a middle weight Giant Baba would have looked like.  Mihoubi had no boxing technique but wouldn’t go down easily, with Sato having to grapple with the taller man before finally getting the take down.  Mihoubi held close Sato close in his guard.  Sato would proceed to complete four mini slams, lifting Mihoubi slightly in the air while still in the closed guard and dropping him on the mat.  A minute later, Sato had his finisher, the heel hook, locked in, and Mihoubi was done at 2:21 in the first round.
August 27 saw Sato take on Mark Coleman student Alan Fried.  Sato hit two low leg kicks early and took Fried down to the mat with a flying bodylock into the guard.  While looking to secure a triangle choke from the bottom, Fried lifted Sato, trying to get out of the choke but was only able to place him on the top rope, in a similiar move that Quinton Jackson did to Kazushi Sakuraba during their July 29, 2001 Pride fight.  The refereee moved the rope out of the way and Sato held on to Fried and went back to the mat, with the situation remaining unchanged.  Coleman was yelling at Fried to get out of the predicament and when Fried made his move, Sato changed from a triangle choke to catch him with a straight arm bar in :59 seconds for the first round submission win.  
Maurice Corty was Sato’s next victim, with Sato grappling in standup early.  Once Corty was on the ground, Sato locked in a kimura at 2:01 for another quick submission victory.  
November 29 brought Sato redemption from the blemish on his record with a rematch against John Lewis at the 1997 Japan Vale Tudo Open show, which is famous for the standing war finish between Frank Shamrock and Enson Inoue.  In the second round, Lewis took Sato down but this time, Sato was able to secure a straight cross armbreaker at 1:21 for his 11th win.
1998 began with Sato taking on Canadian Joel Gerson, who was making his MMA debut but was a well accomplished Jiu-Jitsu artist.  The exciting, three minute fight consisted of Sato and Gerson grappling for position and control, including a great throw from Gerson.  The unknown Canadian got a cross armbreaker extended at 3:40 and while Sato tried to escape, the submission was ultimately locked in too tightly and he tapped out at 3:53 for his first professional defeat.  Sato would avenge the loss later in the year.  As has happened with Royce Gracie, Kazushi Sakuraba, Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, and Fedor Emelianenko, no one is unbeatable in a sport that is as constantly evolving as MMA.  
A quick turn around fight on April 26 saw Sato get an extremely fast win, beating Michael Buell in :31 after a quick takedown into side control into the mount. For most fighters, :31 seconds would be a career record.  For Sato, :31 seconds was a lifetime when compared what he would do in January 1999 at Korakuen Hall.  When Buell tried to escape out of Sato’s mount, Sato locked on a picture perfect cross armbreaker for the win and did a one-two punch in the air at his downed opponent.
Sato went to Canada in October 1998 to particpate in the Canadian Jui-Jitsu Championships in Ontario Hills, Canada.  The key to his participation was Joel Gerson competing in the same weight class.  Sato breezed through his first four matches,, including hitting a flying armbar for a win earlier in the tournament.  Gerson and Sato went longer than Sato’s first four matches combined and featured intricate grappling and throws reminiscent of their March 1 Shooto bout.  Sato was able to reverse his fortune and catch Gerson with a cross armbreaker to secure the win and move on to win the tournament for his weight class.  
On the heels of revenge against Gerson, Sato came back to Japan to take on Andre Pederneiras at the October 25 Japan Vale Tudo Open.  Pederneiras took Sato down, who went right to work on a heel hook and quickly transitioned to an arm bar, which the Brazalian was able to flip out of.  The minute long opening scramble produced all the excitement that a trademark Sato brings.  Sato pulled guard and worked from the bottom with some punches while Pederneiras stayed close, not wanting to face another submission attempt.  At 4:10 in round one, with no stand up rules at Japan Vale Tudo Open shows, Pederneiras finally broke Sato’s guard and stood up.  While Sato stayed on his back, trying to upkick at Pederneiras, Pederneiras landed a standing soccer kick to the face that probably knocked out Sato on impact.  To make sure, Pederneiras landed two more punches and the referee stopped the fight at 4:20, with Sato suffering his first loss via knockout.  
As he did with his first submission loss, Sato was quick to avenge his first knock out loss.
To open up 1999, arguably Sato’s greatest year in terms of finishes and exciting fights, Frank Shamrock student Charles Taylor took on Rumina at the January 15 show at Korakuen Hall.  It took Sato :06 seconds to climb up Taylor’s body and lock in a flying armbar for the immediate tap out.  Korakuen Hall exploded as Sato climbed to the top turnbuckle to celebrate the victory.  
In the January 25, 1999 Wrestling Observer Newsletter, Dave Meltzer wrote, “Just saw a tape of the 1/15 Shooto show from Korakuen Hall and the Rumina Sato vs. Charles Taylor finish of their six second match has got to be the finish of the year.  He actually climbed up Taylor's body with his legs and secured a reverse arm bar on him."
Sato was now set to headline the 10th anniversary show for Shooto on May 29 against Caol Uno, a relativly unknown figher at the time, who had grown up a professional wrestling fan and was a big fan of Rumina Sato when he made his Shooto professional debut on October 4, 1996.  
The anniversary show was run at a sold out Yokohama Bunka Gym, with the sell out being attributed to the fans wanting to see Sato finally win a title in Shooto.  The fight, for the vacant Shooto welterweight title, would also be the companies first event on Skyperfect Pay-Per-View (PPV), then a brand new concept in Japan.
Uno charged out of his corner with a flying karate kick, a pro wrestling spot and one that he would repeat on at the beginning of their December 17, 2000 rematch.  (Uno would go on to wrestle professionally on December 31, 2000 in a tag match opposite the Great Sasuke at the Inoki Bom-Bom-Ye show and in a few matches for All Japan Pro Wrestling in 2003.)
The two stood and traded punches and leg kicks early, with Sato trying a superkick that missed but popped the crowd.  Sato took Uno down and got his back, working for a choke.  Uno’s defense was really good, as Sato was close to locking in the choke two or three times, which got a lot of heat from the crowd.  Uno was able to eventually fend off the choke long enough to reverse Sato’s triangle body lock and turn over, beginning his offensive run.  The crowd heat intensified even more, with loud chants of “Uno, Uno.”  Round One closed with Uno kicking at a downed Sato’s legs from a standing position, ala Sakuraba vs. Belfort at Pride 5.
Round Two began with punches and kicks.  Uno tried for a high kick but missed.  Sato was able to get Uno’s back again standing and took him down.  What took Uno a few minutes in Round One to reverse took him mere seconds here, as Uno got into Sato’s guard and once again punches from the guard.  Sato got the fight back to its feet but the momentum had swung completely into Uno’s favor with another takedown.  Sato got back to his feet once again and Uno missed a high kick, with his leg temporarily landing on the top rope.  Sato pounced on Uno, grabbing his back again but the bell sounded before he could take advantage.
Round Three saw Uno shoot for a single leg and get it with relative ease.  Uno went for a position change and Sato was quick enough to get back to his feet.  Uno got a take down off a Sato leg kick.  Uno was bleeding from the eye at this point.  Sato tried for his own take down but Uno stuffed him.  Sato tried to fly on to Uno and pull guard.  He quickly attempted to go for a heel hook but Uno was able to avoid and keep the fight standing.  Both men clinched, with Sato looking to take down Uno, but neither man had any luck.  At 2:50, after seperating because of the clinching stalemate, Sato bent over and was breathing heavy from exhaustion.  Both proceeded to throw punches and leg kicks.  At this point, Uno took over completely, landing more than Sato was able to in stand up.  Uno stuffed another Sato take down attempt.  Sato’s last effort was a big knock out punch that missed.  He shot in again, was stuffed, and Uno took his back and locked in the choke for the win at 4:02 in Round Three.
While Sato vs. Uno I wasn’t the most important fight in Japan in 1999 (that honor goes to Sakuraba’s first win against Royler Gracie), it was the most spectacular from an all action, excitement standpoint.  
There were a number of good fights in Japan in 1999, including Kiyoshi Tamura drawing Frank Shamrock in an exciting RINGS fight on April 23; Gilbert Yvel knocking out Tsuyoshi Kohsaka in RINGS, also on April 23; Kazushi Sakuraba submitting Ebenezer Franca Braga in Pride on July 4; Alexandre Pequeno Noguiera defeating Noboru Asahi in an exciting scrap in Shooto on September 5; Kazushi Sakuraba submitting Anthony Macias on September 12; and both of Sato’s two fights of 1999, featuring awesome finishes.  But none of these could come close to Uno vs. Sato, which even when viewed in 2012 would still be considered a fight of the year candidate.
Frank Shamrock’s win over Tito Ortiz was the fight of the year in the US, but for pure action and heat minute by minute, Sato vs. Uno is in a class by itself.
Uno’s win made him a star and Sato went back to work, beating Phil Johns on October 29 in :54 with a toe hold.  At the 1999 Japan Vale Tudo Open, Sato was put in the opening fight, as he had to work his way back to the top, a tradition in Japanese competition.  The fight, which was the shows most important from a drawing standpoint, saw Sato take on Rafael Cordeiro.  Sato and Cordeiro scrambled for control standing, until Sato was able to hit a beautiful suplex, which he was able to transition from into a knee bar for the victory in :58.
1999 was the year of Rumina Sato, with the finish of the year flying arm bar (and one of the most amazing of all time), the all time classic fight against Caol Uno, and two under one minute submission victories late in the year.  
2000 saw Sato looking to get back to the top of the Shooto ranks.  On April 15, at Superbrawl 17, a show co-promoted with Shooto in Hawaii, Sato defeated Yves Edward with a choke in :18 seconds.  On August 27, Sato took on Shooto journeyman fighter Takuya Kuwabara.  The fight, lackluster compared to some of Sato’s earlier fights, saw Sato win a decision.  
It was now time for Sato to seek redemption against Uno at the Shooto year end show.  The Japan Vale Tudo Open was usually Shooto’s biggest show of the year but wasn’t held in 2000.  Instead, the company was able to run a rematch of its best fight on December 16 before a sell out crowd of 6,900 at Tokyo Bay NK Hall.
Sato and Uno started fast and furious, just like the first fight.  Sato went for a choke but Uno was able to fight him off.  Against the ropes, Uno hit a knee and then two punches, the second of which sent Sato down for the 8 count.  At 2:21, Sato didn’t answer the 8-count and Uno had beaten Sato for the second time.  
UFC matchmaker, Joe Silva, a long time fan of Sato’s from the early days of Shooto, had wanted to bring Sato over for the UFC lightweight division.  Silva had even named his cat Rumina, after the Shooto star.  A win against Uno would have probably earned the promotion to the UFC.  Instead, Uno was signed and fought in the initial UFC lightweight division until he returned to Japan in March 2004 to work for Shooto and then help anchor K-1’s Hero’s promotion.
The fight game began to undergo major changes in 2001, both in Japan and around the world.  Cross training, the stupidity of Japanese promotions matching up fighters outside of weight classes, and more traditional atheletes getting involved in MMA lead to a changing of the guard.  
Kazushi Sakuraba, the biggest drawing “junior”/middleweight in MMA history, lost to a bigger Wanderlei Silva in March to begin his downfall from the best middleweight in the world.  
Mark Coleman, having won the Pride Gran Prix in May 2000, was submitted by Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, having never tapped out before.
While Sato would beat Marcio Barbosa on August 26, 2011 via decision, the end of the highly competitive Rumina Sato had already arrived.  On December 16, at the now annual year end show, Sato took on up and comer Takanori Gomi for the Shooto Welterweight Title, vacated by Caol Uno when he left the promotion for UFC.  Sato tried to scramble for the submission early, getting close a few times until his almost reckless style lead to early exhaustion.  Gomi was able to control the rest of the fight and win an easy decision.  
Sato would lose a decision to Javier Vasquez on June 27, 2002, in a fun fight that is a good match to watch with the October 14, 2004 Contenders match between Caol Uno and Javier Vasquez to see high level grappling in an MMA environment.  While Sato was falling in the overall world rankings at his weight class, he was still capable of producing exciting fights.  On November 15, Sato and Takumi Nakayama went to a three round draw in a fight of the year candidate, with great action and awesome heat from the loud crowd at Korakuen Hall.  
2003 opened with a March 18 loss to Joachim Hansen (who would have the 2005 Fight of the Year against Caol Uno in Hero’s).  Sato would get his only win on July 27 against Ryan Ackerman before closing out the year with a loss to Alexandre Noguiera at the annual year end show. 
Sato’s last blast of brilliance on a competitive level started with a win over Erikas Petraitis on May 3, via triangle choke in 2:20 of the second round.  Sato would travel to Hawaii for his July 9 fight against Bao Quach, winning via arm bar in 3:04 of the first round.  This lead to a heated fight at the year end show on December 14 against Katsuya Toida.  Neither fighter was fond of the other and Sato was able to knock out Toida in 1:21 of the second round.  
This win allowed Sato to head to his home away from home, Korakuen Hall, to face Makato Ishikawa to decide the first Shooto Pacific Rim Lightweight Championship.  
On March 11, 2005, a sold out Korakuen Hall witnessed the last great Sato fight, with Sato and Ishikawa going head to head in a stand up and ground war.  Sato was able to knock Ishikawa down twice and his near submission attempts were more than enough to earn him the three round decision.  After being announced the winner, the crowd went nuts and Sato broke down crying, finally having won a championship after 12 years as a professional.  
The fight was of such quality that it would normally be an easy fight of the year contender.  But with 2005 producing the Hansen/Uno classic, along with Takanori Gomi’s rise to stardom with Pride, it is a hidden gem that all Sato fans should seek out.  It would also mark the last great fight of a tremendous career.
Sato continued to fight against higher level competition in Japan, losing via a cut stoppage to Gilbert Melendez in August 2005, as well as current UFC title contender Hatsu Hokoi in 2008 and Lion Takeshi in 2009.  Despite his age and lack of a chin, Sato always comes into a fighe with a chance to win because of his submission skills.  He redeveloped his stand up game in 2007-2008, but age and the toll of punishment on a body negated his attempts to reclaim his earlier form.
Throughout his career, Sato has said he would never leave Shooto, vowing to one day win a title that had eluded him for so long.  In 2003, when Pride created Bushido, Sato was on the list of people the company wanted to fight its new brand.  While Gomi, Kawajiri, Sakurai, and other Shooto fighers would fight for Pride Bushido and other organizations, Sato has remained loyal to the company that he was an integral part of developing.

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