The Debut of Pancrase: When people thought shootfighting couldn't draw
by Jeremy Wall
"It sounds very markish to say Pancrase wrestling is real shooting, because groups that claim to be that all seem to be something less," wrote Dave Meltzer in a brief recap of the first Pancrase show, published in the October 4th, 1993 edition of the Observer. "[T]he five matches only lasted a total of 13 minutes ... and some fans couldn't have been happy paying $135 ringside for 13 minutes of wrestling."
If I tell you that times have changed since 1993, I think you'll believe me. But on September 21st of '93, the day of the first Pancrase show, few people had an inkling how wrestling would change over the next two decades. And without actually watching the fights many would have been skeptical about whether they were real, and even many of those who did watch the show would have had a limited understanding of how a real shoot looked, and may have remained unconvinced about Pancrase's legitimacy. The show's title, "Yes, We Are Hybrid Wrestlers", wasn't as informative as it seemed.
Pancrase was built around a troika of young wrestlers, two Japanese and one American: Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki, and Ken Shamrock. The three had been trained in catch wrestling, an old style of submission wrestling, in Japan by Karl Gotch. Shamrock and Suzuki had participated in shoots before. For instance, Shamrock submitted kickboxer Don Nakaya Nielsen with an ankle lock in 45 seconds on October 4th, 1992, at the Tokyo Dome. Suzuki fought Maurice Smith on November 29th, 1989, also at the Tokyo Dome. Smith, another early Pancrase star who would win the UFC Heavyweight title a few years later, knocked Suzuki out. But examples of legit fights on worked shoot-style wrestling cards were rare.
There was a good reason they were rare, or what was thought at the time to be a good reason. The theory back then was that people wouldn't pay money to see shoot fights. The rationale made this theory seem sensible. In a worked match, the promoter could control the match's storytelling. In other words, it was nearly guaranteed that those who paid $135 for ringside seats got their money's worth if they were paying to see a work. The promoter could also control finishes. Controlling finishes gave the promotion control over the storytelling outside the match, which in turned influenced whether fans would return to watch the next show.
In a shoot, the promoter has control over none of that. Theoretically, the match's storytelling can't be controlled because the match is real and anything can happen in a real fight. The finish can't be controlled, which not only means the promoter can't control who wins, but also can't control how someone wins or loses. Often times a good loss is better than a bad win when it comes to getting a wrestler over with the audience. All a shoot promoter can really do is match fighters based on fighting style, and hope for the expected outcome. But that was problematic back then because not many people understood what would happen in mixed fights involving wrestlers, kickboxers, judoka, or anyone else crazy enough to want to enter the ring during MMA's early days.
So, it seemed like a promoter would be foolish to want to stage a shootfighting event. Funaki, Suzuki, and Shamrock were all trained shooters and Pancrase's top stars, so it made sense for them to want to do real fights. Why would they want to lose on the undercard in a fixed wrestling match for another promotion when they believed they could beat the snot out of anyone else, and do so as the stars in a new promotion? From their perspective, it wasn't so foolish, as Pancrase gave them the opportunity to not only be real fighters, but to fulfill the natural human desire to show their natural talent to the world.
Promotions similar to Pancrase had been tried in the past in Japan, but they had featured mostly worked matches. Hisashi Shinma, an ousted New Japan executive, formed UWF in April 1984 with Akira Maeda as its top star. The promotion initially featured wrestling similar to what New Japan was doing at the time. After Shinma was forced out, however, it moved towards doing worked shoot-style matches. The UWF's stars included Satoru Sayama and Nobuhiko Takada, among others. The group was a cult hit in Tokyo but, after a scandal involving the mob, it closed in September 1985.
Strangely, UWF left a bigger mark on wrestling history by shuttering its doors than it did by opening them. When it closed, its cadre of wrestlers returned to New Japan in 1986 for a hot feud with the wrestlers who had stayed behind when UWF opened. The returning group included Maeda, Takada, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Kazuo Yamazaki, and Osamu Kido. The feud's popularity brought wide public attention to shoot-style wrestling maneuvers, such as armbars, achilles holds, kneelocks, etc, that are all familiar to today's MMA fans.
Maeda ended up in trouble with New Japan and left again, this time putting together a new version of the UWF in May 1988. This second version was succesful, even though pro wrestling's popularity in Japan was decreasing at the time of its debut. Many attributed at least part of wrestling's decline in popularity to the integration of shoot-style wrestling into the major promotions. The success of the second UWF proved that theory untrue, but the attitude in wrestling that shoot promotions could not succeed, or could cause a traditional promotion to lose business, pervaded.
That version of UWF eventually closed, too. Over the next few years the promotion's roster fractured into a smattering of new companies, namely RINGS, Fujiwara-Gumi, and UWFI. RINGS was, initially, another shoot-style promotion that migrated to MMA fights as mixed martial arts replaced shoot-style in Japan. Fujiwara-Gumi, with namesake Yoshiaki Fujiwara as its star, was yet another shoot-style promotion. It also held the occassional legit shoot, including the aforementioned Shamrock fight against Nielsen. Takada went on to form UWFI, a third shot at doing the UWF style. It was a major success for a time and even promoted pay per views in America before eventually folding like its predecessors.
Yet, the success of shoot-style promotions still did not prove that a company promoting legit shoots would be successful. After all, shoot-style promotions were just that: a style of worked wrestling. They weren't legitimate fights, even though they frequently incorporated bone crushing violence into their matches. Promotions still controlled the match storytelling and the finishes, just like any other style of worked pro wrestling. The only difference between shoot-style wrestling and any other style was that shoot-style was made to look real based on what people thought a real 'mixed' fight would look like at the time. No one knew if a shoot promotion would catch on with fans, and all logic pointed to the answer being no.
Of the promotions that eventually splintered from the UWF, Pancrase was the first to feature nearly all legit fights. The shoot-style promotions may have marketed themselves as legit, but they were almost always anything but. Pancrase, however, was real, with a few exceptions.
One famous exception was Shamrock's loss to Suzuki on May 13th, 1995. Ken was asked by Pancrase to drop the King of Pancrase title to Suzuki since Ken was going to fight Dan Severn a couple of months later at UFC 6. The problem Pancrase had with Shamrock fighting Severn was that Severn was also the NWA World Heavyweight champion at the time and Pancrase didn't want Ken fighting the champion of a traditional pro wrestling group (or a "fake" wrestling group, which would be how Pancrase viewed NWA then). It was ironic that Pancrase would fix a fight where their champion loses in their own promotion rather than have their champion have a real fight with a fake wrestling champion in another promotion. It was migraine inducing, but Pancrase was trying to protect their image as a legit shoot promotion and that was how things worked back then. When I wrote my book about the UFC a decade ago, I interviewed Ken about Pancrase, and he refused to answer any questions relating to fixed fights. Bas Rutten has said he was never in a fixed fight in Pancrase, although the way fights are fixed means that the winner frequently doesn't know. Fixed fights existed in Pancrase, as did instances where one fighter carried in a real fight to give fans a show, but, opposite of UWFI, Fujiwara-Gumi, or early RINGS, fixes were the exception rather than the rule.
The first Pancrase, however, featured all legit shoots. It took place in Urayasu, a small Japanese city situated near Tokyo Bay. When it came to competitors, the fights were a mixed bag. An example would be George Weingeroff, a former amateur wrestler with poor eyesight who had been a prelim pro wrestler in the American south. He was the son of long-time wrestling manager Saul Weingeroff. George fought Yoshiki Takahashi, losing to him in just over a minute, getting in no offense and succumbing to a number of painful kicks before the ref stopped the fight (Sherdog's database has the fight listed with Takahashi winning with palm strikes, but watching the video I saw no palm strikes with Takahashi finishing with a kick to the mid-section). It was Weingeroff's only legit shoot, and probably the most notable wrestling match of his career.
Others were more successful than poor George. Bas Rutten debuted fighting Ryushi Yanagisawa, defeating him via knockout in 43 seconds. Rutten at the time was one of countless world champions in kickboxing. With his bald head, billowy purple shorts, and post-fight backflip, the charismatic Rutten would become a star and improve his ground game over subsequent years, eventually holding world championships in both Pancrase and briefly UFC.
Yanagisawa was a young wrestler who, like many Japanese fighters that fought on early Pancrase cards, came over from Fujiwara-Gumi. Just over a month after losing to Bas, he would fight Vitali Klitschko in a kickboxing match in Japan. Klitschko won a one-sided unanimous decision, but for a pro wrestler to go the distance with a future WBC Heavyweight champ is impressive, even if it was in a style of fight Klitschko likely would have been infamiliar with.
Another kickboxer also debuted on Pancrase's first night. Vernon "Tiger" White's debut, however, was unsuccessful. Tiger found himself trapped in an armbar from Takaku Fuke just over a minute into their fight. Both fighters would go on to long careers, Fuke in Japan and White in both Japan and America.
Shamrock, Funaki, and Suzuki were the star attractions of the first show, however. Suzuki opened the event with a submission victory over Katsuomi Inagaki. These days, Suzuki is working as a talented heel for New Japan. Evidence of his skill as a heel goes back to at least this fight, and certainly further back than that. Against Inagaki, however, Suzuki flashes evil grins and nasty stink eyes towards both his opponent and the camera before finishing Inagaki in just over three minutes with a rear naked choke. Watching the fight one gets the impression Suzuki could have finished him earlier.
Shamrock and Funaki fought in the main event. Shamrock, born Ken Kilpatrick, had started his wrestling career in America, working originally under the name Vince Torrelli on indie shows before Dean Malenko introduced him to Masami Soranaka, a talent scout for the second incarnation of the UWF. Ken went to Japan and learned catch wrestling, becoming a star foreigner for UWF and later Fujiwara-Gumi under the name Wayne Shamrock. He adopted the Shamrock surname after Bob Shamrock, who raised Ken on a ranch for troubled boys (Shamrock also being possibly the only surname more Irish than Kilpatrick).
His bought against Funaki was the longest of the night, clocking in at six minutes and fifteen seconds. Funaki had debuted as a prelim wrestler for New Japan in the '80s. He followed Maeda out the door and into the second incarnation of UWF, where he made a name as one of the company's bigger stars. When that promotion ended, he joined Fujiwara-Gumi.
The length of the fight was mostly due to Shamrock's fighting style, as he prefers to wait and react to his opponent rather than making a first move, thus drawing his fights out. Shamrock defeated Funaki with a triangle choke. The finish was actually amusing, as Shamrock had a side mount and was slowly locking the choke in. The crowd didn't react with anticipation at all, maybe because the triangle choke looked like a pro wrestling rest hold. A rest hold was something that crowds wouldn't be too accustomed to reacting to back then, even after exposure to shoot-style wrestling. Also, crowds in those days weren't familiar with the intricacies of submissions wrestling strategy. Nevertheless, Funaki suddenly tapped, surprising both the crowd and Shamrock, who jumped to his feet cheering, clearly shocking himself with the outcome.
Was the show worth it for those who paid $135 ringside? You'd have to ask them, whoever they are. What I know is that mixed martial arts would go on to draw extraordinary money worldwide over the two decades following this show, proving wrong the argument that a shoot promotion can't draw money. Shoot promotions could indeed draw money. Pancrase may have eventually been a money loser after its initial hype wore down, but it helped to open the door just a little bit more for others to have success promoting shoots in Japan. A shoot promotion may not be able to control its finishes or how a fight plays out, but it can control the presentation of a fight and let storylines unfold naturally. It can also control how personalities are presented on television. It is not worked matches, but the combination of personality and story, that draws money.
I can be contacted at jeremydalew at gmail dot com. I have my old MMA and wrestling articles archived at thelapsedwrestlingfan.com