MMA History XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto

It's been way too long since I talked about Japan in this here history of MMA. But one thing to keep in mind is…

By: Nate Wilcox | 15 years ago
MMA History XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

It’s been way too long since I talked about Japan in this here history of MMA. But one thing to keep in mind is that MMA was evolving so fast that I’ve only been covering 1996 (and a tiny bit of 1997) since Chapter IX. In earlier chapters I talked about the evolution of the proto-MMA organizations from the old UWFI wrestling org of Antoni Inoki in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s. I’ve talked about Pancrase a couple of times — the first UFC as a collision between Pancrase and BJJ/Vale Tudo and the rise of Dutch star Bas Rutten as King of Pancrase. I’ve also covered the 1994 and 1995 Vale Tudo Japan tournaments (put on by Shooto but featuring fighters from RINGS and the Lumax Cup events.) But what I haven’t done is talk about RINGS and Shooto much at all.

Which is a little bit of a disservice to our readers. Here’s a little more about the origin of Shooto in the 1980s and how it reacted to the first UFC.

Igor Zinoviev vs Enson Inoue, Summer 1996

William Lue Frymer has a good article on Shooto and its founder that’s worth a quote

This ground breaking “Vale Tudo Japan Open 94” at Tokyo Bay NK Hall was made possible by a man named Satoru Sayama, the founder of Shooto and the one and only promoter of “Japan Pro-Shooting,” an organization which no longer exists.

During the 80’s, Sayama was a hugely popular Pro-Wrestler known as “Tiger Mask,” he was as big as Michael Jackson, and was heavily influenced by the submission wrestling of Karl Gotch. He retired early from Pro-Wrestling and founded a shoot fighting organization called Japan Pro-Shooting. Sayama – also known as a supreme theoretician of the fight sport – who organized a professional “real fight” competition back in 1980 (more than a decade before the beginning of the UFC) is definitely one of the “originators” in the history of professional MMA.

There are three elements necessary for real-fight competition to be recognized as a sport- strike, suplex, and submission.” These three elements must flow like a ménage et trios, rotating like a perfect circle in order for MMA to be accepted by the public as a spectator sport. This was Satoru Sayama’s vision, and was undoubtedly the most advanced “MMA as a professional sport concept” in the world back in the 1980’s…

…However, the shell of a big egg named NHB was cracked open by the UFC, this US-based MMA competition started in 1993. Just as Bell and Edison battled for the title of inventor of the telephone – countries like Holland, Japan, Brazil, and the USA certainly had enough skills and foundation to be an inventor of NHB – but the Newton of this genre was an apple named the UFC. The UFC has taught Japan Pro-Shooting that there are two critical elements missing from Sayama’s concept of MMA in terms of fighting technique: positioning and striking on the ground. The other crucial factor was something the UFC had and Japan Pro-Shooting didn’t. National Television coverage.

With the emergence of the UFC into the major market, “tough-luck genius” Satoru Sayama immediately realized that he had fallen behind in the NHB world. History had surpassed him, Sayama, knew that he needed to catch up, and decided to take a charge. Half a year after the first UFC, Sayama signed Rickson Gracie and held Japan’s first Vale Tudo event, “Vale Tudo Japan Open 94.” However, this event ended up creating major obstacles for both Sayama and Shooto (used to be Japan Pro-Shooting at this point). Fans started to question the ability of Shooto’s fighters and its philosophy in terms of it being an effective fighting technique. It is simply because of Kenji Kawaguchi and Rickson Gracie. Kawaguchi was considered to be Shooto’s best fighter back then, but he did not even pass the first round of the tournament. It’s kind of like the French in the last World Cup. Rickson Gracie, the Brazilian super star who dominated the tournament, was simply too strong. It was quite ironic for Sayama that the result of hosting Japan’s first Vale Tudo event, would include losing Shooto’s credibility among its own fans, as an effective fighting technique in real combat situations.

I’ve already talked about how Yuki Nakai “saved the honor” of Shooto by making the finals of the 1995 tourny and lost an eye in the process. The 1996 Vale Tudo event wouldn’t be such a good one for Shooto fighters. In addition to Enson Inoue’s loss in the fight featured here, Shooto star Noboru Asahi got smoked by Royler Gracie in the headliner.

Though he’s pretty much remembered only for being the victim of a spectacular Frank Shamrock slam, from 1995 to 1998 Igor Zinoviev was no doubt one of the most highly regard fighters in all of MMA. Here’s one of the fights that won him his rep: a 44 second demolition of Shooto star Enson Inoue. Inoue’s reputation has suffered over the years as well but he went 10-3 in the 1990s with wins over Randy Couture, NCAA national wrestling champ Royce Alger, Olympian Mushtaq Abdullah, and became Frank Shamrock’s toughest opponent (according to Frank). It was only when Enson bloated up and tried to fight at heavyweight that he fell from the top of the game. As a bonus, I’ve included the first fight ever for Hayuto Sakurai and Caol Uno from Shooto’s October 1996 “Let’s Get Lost” event. That’s in the extended entry.

Bas Rutten vs Frank Shamrock Pancrase – Truth 5 5/16/1996

Pancrase didn’t hold any events under what we would consider MMA rules until the late 1990s, but never theless they made a big impact on the MMA world from the beginning. Mostly because Pancrase fighter Ken Shamrock was an early star of the UFC and recruited several UFC veterans like Jason DeLucia and Guy Mezger to fight in Pancrase. (Mezger even went on to hold the Pancrase championship or “King of Pancrase” title in the late 90’s.) But they also recruited early MMA pioneers like Matt Hume and Brazilian Alan Goes to participate. The later emergence of Kings of Pancrase Bas Rutten and Frank Shamrock (and even Pancrase underachiever Maurice Smith) as UFC Champions also speaks to the close relations between the two promotions. From the perspective of 2008, Pancrase’s early events have goofy rules — rope escapes, no closed fist punching, the big boots with padded shins — and worse, some of their fights were likely works with fixed outcomes. Nevertheless, Pancrase events were really fun to watch, had great lineups of fighters and definitely contributed to the evolution of MMA.

So in 1996, King of Pancrase Bas Rutten hurt his hand and they held a tournament to crown an interim champ. Frank Shamrock won that fight, setting up the fight on the vid here. Frank had beaten Bas in their first meeting in 1994 but the rematch was a much different affair. This vid has Bas’ commentary which is as priceless as you’d expect. But the fight itself is a friggin’ classic war complete with both fighters flying out of the ring and Bas using palm strikes (and wrist bone strikes) to beat the crap out of Frank. This fight, along with a KO loss to Yuki Kondo and his loss to John Lober in his No Hold Barred debut were part of a series of reversals for Shamrock that helped trigger his run to greatness from 1997 to 2000.

In the extended entry I’ll talk about RINGS’ founder Akira Maeda and his moves towards full on MMA in 1996. Plus a shit ton of fight videos.

Rings – Maelstrom 6 8/24/1996: Richardo Morais vs Yoshihisa Yamamoto

From Part 1 of Shu Hirata’s great series on Akira Maeda and RINGS.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Fedor Emelianenko, Dan Henderson, Ricardo Arona, “TK” Tsuyoshi Kosaka, Matt Hughes, Sanae Kikuta, Gilbert Yvel, Valentijn Overeem, Alistair Overeem, Alexander Otsuka, Peter Aerts, Genki Sudo, Mikhail Illoukhine, Renato Sobral, Bobby Hoffman, Andrei Kopylov, Hans Nijman, Hiromitsu Kanehara, Dave Menne, Ricardo Morais, Kiyoshi Tamura,…. they all fought in RINGS way before they stepped into PRIDE, UFC, or K-1.

In fact, RINGS is where everything began. I’m not just talking about how many of today’s stars were discovered by RINGS. Brazil may have planted a seed called Vale Tudo but RINGS definitely is the one who provided a variety of fertilizers to make this into a full-blown professional sport, and I believe, this makes RINGS undoubtedly a cornerstone of today’s MMA.

The first thing Maeda did, after the disruption of UWF, was forming RINGS Holland. Maeda probably kept a promise he made with Dolman and this was the result of it, in the very first RINGS event held in May of 1991, out of eight competing fighters, six of them were Dutch. Immediately after the first event, Maeda flew to Russia and by drinking vodka all night long and sparring with top Sambo fighters and Judo players during the day, Maeda obtained the credibility of the Russians and successfully formed RINGS Russia and RINGS Georgia. In fact, the timing was perfect for both Russians and Maeda back in 1991. It was the time of Perestroika and under Mikhail Gorbachev’s newly reformed political system, many top athletes in Russia lost a privilege of so-called “Sports Master Regime” where life long pensions were guaranteed.

The biggest haul from this Russian connection, I believe, was encountering “Commando Sambo” which ultimately ended up connecting RINGS with current PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko. This “Commando Sambo” was indeed new to even the most discerning Japanese fight fans. Volk Han, in his first Japanese appearance, was invited to fight in the main card of a RINGS event in December of 1991, and proved it all. Han displayed a series of moves, submissions and choking holds never before seen and overwhelmed Maeda, showing Japanese fight fans a taste of truly dangerous but graceful ground techniques. This was indeed a genuine grass rooted art with very complicated geometry. Well, at least that’s what I thought. Yes, I believe it was Han and his “Commando Sambo” which first made Japanese fans realized of a fact now known as a common knowledge; submission and choking holds can be just as lethal as kicks to the temple or punches to the chin.

The next year, Maeda did something very revolutionary. For the first time in history, he successfully brought in a fighter from Kyokushin Kaikan Karate into RINGS. Back then Kyokushin was very strict, forbidding fighters to participate in other competitions. Maeda however after meeting Tariel Bitsadze at RINGS Georgia, personally wrote a letter to Masutastu Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin, and got an authorization for Bitsadze to fight in RINGS. (Later, Bitsadze became the second RINGS Open-weight champion) Then in May of 1992, Peter Aerts came to Japan for the first time, and fought in a RINGS event. Maeda was finally back into this orbit of creating a real world-class MMA competition. Holland, Russia, France, South Africa, etc. By 1992, RINGS established this vast network of discovering and developing fighters, and it seems as though strong tailwinds are pushing them forward.

The article goes on to discuss how K-1 spun out of RINGS when Maeda was sidelined for a while. By 1996 Maeda and RINGS began inching closer and closer to full-blown MMA. I’ve talked about the early No-Holds-Barred tournaments in Russia which featured RINGS fighter Mikhail Ilioukhine. But I should also mention that RINGS fighter Tsuyoshi “TK” Kohsaka also participated in and won the 1995 Lumax Cup tournament. Several of the Holland RINGS events before 1996 are considered to have been MMA events, but the Japanese RINGS had too many rules and even more works than the early Pancrase. For some reason Sherdog considers the 1995 Battle Dimensions event as the first RINGS event to “count” but for fans at the time it was the 1996 Maelstrom 6 event that was the first RINGS event that mattered. In addition to featuring Ricardo Morais, who was rapidly becoming a legend on the bootleg VHS circuit for his terrifying wins in the 2nd IAFC event in Russia, the event also matched Ilioukhine against BJJer Adilson Lima (who got “judo chopped” by Igor Vovchanchyn at IAFC), and featured Maurice Smith vs Kiyoshi Tamura (see the vid here andhere). I also feel obligated to mention that Ilioukhine had lost to Carlson Gracie heavyweight Carlos Barreto a couple months earlier at the first UVF show. However good he was against his fellow Russians, he had no answer for BJJ and he wasn’t considered a top fighter in RINGS either. We’ll be hearing more about RINGS in upcoming chapters.

Shooto – Let’s Get Lost 10/4/1996 Hayato Sakurai vs Caol Uno
This wasn’t that big a deal at the time, but both fighters were making their debuts and both would go on to Hall of Fame careers that continue to this day.

Bas Rutten vs Masakatsu Funaki Pancrase – 1996 Anniversary Show 9/7/1996
Another classic Bas matchup from the early Pancrase days. Its too bad Funaki didn’t fight more straight MMA in his prime.

Also be sure and take a look at Bas Rutten vs Jason Delucia Pancrase – Truth 6

Shooto – Reconquista 3 8/27/1997 Rumina Sato vs Alan Fried
Sato was definitely considered one of the top talents to watch coming out of Shooto. He had a disappointing draw against John Lewis at the 1996 Vale Tudo event but we’ll talk about that rematch in a future installment.

More Rumina Sato videos from 1994-1997: vs Michael McAuliffe 11/7/94 vs Ali Mihoubi4/6/97, vs Maurice Coty 10/12/97

Mikhail Illoukhine vs Adilson “Bita” Lima Part 4 (Part 1, 2, 3)
Here’s the end of the Illioukhine vs Lima match.

Volk Han vs Tsuyoshi Kohsaka part 2, See (Part 1 here)
I threw this one in to give you a feeling for the early RINGS matches and also so you could see Volk Han. He’s another guy whose time came just a little too soon for MMA greatness.

Previous installments of MMA History:

XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba’s Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock

XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion’s Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie’s Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ

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About the author
Nate Wilcox
Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

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