MMA Origins: The First King of Pancrase

At the time, Pancrase was a proto-Mixed Martial Arts organization formed by Japanese pro wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. Both Funaki and Suzuki…

By: T.P. Grant | 11 years ago
MMA Origins: The First King of Pancrase
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

At the time, Pancrase was a proto-Mixed Martial Arts organization formed by Japanese pro wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. Both Funaki and Suzuki were more than just entertainers, they were trained in the grappling art of catch wrestling by Antonio Inoki. He in turned had learned catch wrestling from the great Karl Gotch, who was the first man to bring the art to Japan.

The rules in Pancrase at this time gave each fighter five escape points. If a fighter was knocked down, he was given a ten count to stand or be ruled knocked out. If the fighter beat the count a escape point was deducted and the fight was declared over is a fighter used all of his escape points. Similarly, if a fighter was in a submission and grabbed the ropes, an escape point was deducted and the fighters were reset on the feet. Fighters wore no gloves so while closed fist strikes to the body were legal only open hand strikes and kicks were allowed to the head.

Shamrock won a quick victory in his Pancrase return but then was out grappled Minoru Suzuki and finished with a gruesome heel hook to a kneebar. That combined with his loss to Royce convinced Shamrock that he needed to focus on his grappling. Shamrock began training for UFC 2 and preparing for Royce’s Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but a broken hand forced him to withdraw from the event.

During Shamrock’s recovery Pancrase began planning for a championship tournament of its own and started the Road to the Championship series. This was meant to pit the top fighters against each other to determine who should take part in the tournament. Young Dutch fighter Bas Rutten was invited to participate after his impressive 2-1 start in the promotion. While Rutten’s grappling was exposed against Pancrase founder Masakatsu Funaki, his potential was obvious and Rutten worked very hard at shoring up his ground work.

And that work paid off when Rutten was faced with Pancrase founder, Minori Suzuki, one of the top fighters in Japan at the time, with only a single loss coming by KO to Maurice Smith.

Recent MMA Origins
Birth of Japanese MMA | Brazilian Warfare | The Gracie Challenge | UFC 1 | The Gracie Era in the UFC

Rutten scored an early knockdown but Suzuki was able to secure a takedown. Rutten was able to scramble to his feet and, in the transition, land a nasty knee to the liver to win a huge upset.

Rutten’s reward was a match with Ken Shamrock.

While still a developing fighter Rutten had adapted to the pace of most Pancrase fights, full a wild scrambles and fast action. But Shamrock’s encounter with Royce Gracie and his resulting studies in how to counter Royce’s grappling had resulted in Shamrock seeing the advantage of a slower, more controlling style. He could still deliver an entertaining match if that was what was needed, but in matches with high stakes Shamrock paid much more attention to position and control to set up submissions.And it was this controlling approach that Shamrock used to defeat Rutten in a rout, pilling up points and then finally sinking a choke in a position where Rutten could not get a rope escape.

In his next fight, Shamrock faced his mentor and training partner Masakatsu Funaki. In that fight Shamrock was showing strong top position from inside the guard but dropped back for a heel hook, which Funaki easily escaped from into mount. That mistake cost Shamrock the fight as Funaki was able to finish a rear naked choke. After that fight Shamrock returned to the United States to take part in UFC 3.

More MMA Origins
Exploring Fight Sport’s Ancient Roots | Getting Medieval | Vale Tudo and the Original MMA Rivalry | Carlson Gracie Changes Jiu-Jitsu and Vale Tudo | Catch Wrestling Travels To Japan | American Experiments

While Ken was in the United States, he reconnected with a young man named Frank Juarez, a foster child, like Ken, taken to live at Bob Shamrock’s ranch. Ken had begun training Frank in grappling during his early UFC days and when Frank turned 21 he was adopted by Bob Shamrock and changed his name to Frank Shamrock.

After UFC 3, Frank went with Ken back to Japan to take part in Pancrase’s first official championship tournament.

The bracket featured sixteen fighters including the Shamrock bothers, Minoru Suzuki, Masaktasu Funaki, Bas Rutten, kickboxer and Pancrase veteran Maruice Smith and UFC veteran Jason DeLucia. The tournament would take place over two nights in December of 1994.

Frank Shamrock was faced with a serious challenge when he drew Bas Rutten in the first round. Not only was this Frank’s first Pancrase fight, it was his professional debut. In a sign of things to come, Shamrock rose to the occasion and took a decision victory from Rutten, knocking the Dutchman out of the tournament. In his second fight however Frank fell victim to Shooto veteran Manabu Yamada, who submitted Frank with a foot lock.

Ken Shamrock faired much better in his first two fights scoring quick submission victories over Alex Cook and then Maurice Smith.

Even against these completely overmatch opponents, Shamrock was very deliberate in setting up his submissions making sure to give them no way to escape. The Ken Shamrock that hastily dropped back for a heel hook against Patrick Smith was gone, now he used his position to set up high percentage submissions.

While this mindset was a mere precaution against Cook and Smith, in the next round it would be a necessity in his next fight. On the second night of the tournament, Ken would rematch with the last man to beat him, his former mentor Funaki.

With that submission victory Ken stamped his ticket to the final to face Manabu Yamada, who had defeated Minoru after dispatching Frank Sharmock. Ken won a grueling, half hour decision.

With this victory not only did Ken Shamrock become the first Pancrase Open Weight champion, earning the title the King on Pancrase, he also became the first foreign born fighter to win a major Japanese Mixed Martial Arts title. While this is certainly a huge achievement for Shamrock, he was still consumed with a desire to avenge his loss to Royce Gracie.

Share this story

About the author
Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories