Karl Gotch Week: Satoru Sayama, Shooto And The Style Of Japanese Catch Wrestling

Bloody Elbow has looked back at the history of Japanese MMA to varying degrees, and included in that history has been a brief glance…

By: KJ Gould | 11 years ago
Karl Gotch Week: Satoru Sayama, Shooto And The Style Of Japanese Catch Wrestling
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Bloody Elbow has looked back at the history of Japanese MMA to varying degrees, and included in that history has been a brief glance at Satoru Sayama and the formation of Shooto.

Sayama was an undersized pro wrestler that came out of the New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo in the 1970’s. Coincidentally Sayama made his professional wrestling debut in 1976, the same year his trainer Antonio Inoki — and one of Karl Gotch’s first Japanese students — would hold a short series of ‘shoot’ matches. T.P. Grant in his article MMA Origins: Catch Wrestling Travels To Japan elaborates:

Inoki was a natural athlete competing at karate and track and field from a young age. He started pro wrestling at the age of seventeen and worked hard developing his grappling.

Inoki took to Gotch’s wrestling style and combined it with his own personal style of karate, Kansuiryu. Inoki called his wrestling “strong style”. Inoki enjoyed matching his style against others in martial arts and while many of these were works, they were forerunners to Japanese MMA. In 1976 Inoki promoted an event in which he invited several martial artists to come compete in hook and shoot matches. This event included an Olympic Judo gold medalist, a Karate champion, and a boxer. This event is often pointed to as the start of “shootfighting” in Japan. While hardly the first shoot ever, it was the first event in Japan where the shoot was intended to be sport.

Weighing just 160lbs, many of the head honchos including trainer Antonio Inoki felt Sayama was too small to be put in any programs of significance, and between 1976 and 1981 he was relegated to cutting his teeth abroad, wrestling first in Britain and then in Mexico, where he would have picked up on the pro wrestling influences and styles of each market; British pro wrestling had a typically mat-based look due to its Lancashire Catch As Catch Can origins, while Mexican pro wrestling is renowned for its high flying Lucha LIbre style, because of the allegory of masked heroes in Mexican folklore — and their ability to do ‘super’ things — that was woven into it.

While in Mexico Sayama fell ill, and it would be around this time that he would meet Karl Gotch. Sayama ended up being Gotch’s only live-in student at his residence in America, and had his Professional Wrestling and legitimate Submission Wrestling skills refined and developed in his short time there.

Gotch and Sayama’s relationship soured later in life, with Gotch believing him to be conceited and a gym bully when it came to training his own fighters, but never the less Sayama’s time learning with Gotch was crucial as a preface to the birth of Mixed Martial Arts as we know it.

Sayama returned to Japan and found success as the iconic ‘Tiger Mask’ in NJPW, but still had issues working among the giants and clashing with other workers, leading to his retirement in 1985. T.P. Grant again elaborates in his MMA Origins: Catch Wrestling Travels To Japan piece:

Sayama clashed with many of his contemporaries. These clashes resulted in excellent fan reaction for grudge matches but left Sayama frustrated. He hated the back stage politics of picking starts and winners of worked matches.

In 1985 Sayama retired from Pro Wrestling, but his frustration hadn’t killed his love for competition.

In 1986, Sayama took matters into his own hands and decided to follow Inoki’s lead and form a sport out of shoot wrestling matches. He wanted to create a professional wrestling circuit with no works. The first event he held was an amateur event and he called the organization Shooto.

Originally there were no gloves, so only punches to the body were allowed but open had strikes could be directed to the head, and no strikes were allowed on the ground. Kicks and knees were allowed to any part of the body and all submission holds were legal. Fighters who were knocked down were given an eight count to recover.

In 1989, Shooto held its first professional event, and the sport began to grow quickly in Japan. Gloves were added and punches to the head became legal. A developmental system was put in place, where fighters could work their way up from being amateurs to top level professionals.

Grant goes on to discuss the rules and skill based classes Sayama formed for his Shooto promotion, which is deffinitely worth your time.

More interestingly Sayama developed his own Shooto syllabus for learning what could be considered the first put together MMA training of its kind, with a focus on striking from arts like Karate and Muay Thai, takedowns from wrestling and Judo and submissions from Catch Wrestling (via Gotch and Inoki)and Judo. The curriculum would help produce the first well rounded fighters of MMA at a time 4 years before the first UFC that focused on single disciplines squaring off against each other to promote the effectiveness of Gracie Jiu Jitsu ground fighting.

One of Sayama’s best students was Yorinaga Nakamura, who trained under Sayama at the Tiger Gym in 1984. Just a year and a half in, Nakamura became a fall time staff member at the gym, and he was also one of the first to take part in the amateur Shooto events of 1986.

Nakamura was a lifelong fan of the late Bruce Lee, and so in 1989 he would take this hybrid art of Shooto to America in order to spread the art, but to also train in Jeet Kune Do under Guru Dan Inosanto at the Inosanto Academy in California.

What struck Inosanto and his students immediately was the concept of submission lock flows that Shooto taught, and how seemingly endless the game of countering and re-countering could be.

One of the students at the Inosanto Academy who became fascinated by the Shooto style Nakamura was teaching, was none other than Erik Paulson. Paulson had traveled to learn under Inosanto form his native Minnesota, and possessing a background in Boxing, Judo and Taekwondo himself. Paulson had also been training with Rorian and Royce Gracie and later Rickson Gracie out of their garage in the late 1980’s.

Paulson wanted to compete, but was told if he entered UFC 1 he would be unable to continue his training with the Gracies if he did so because of Royce Gracie taking part. His desire to compete was actually what caused him to leave / get kicked out from learning under the Gracies as he entered a tournament Renzo Gracie was competing in, and eventually ended up with Rigan Machado.

Knowing he could not be a part of UFC 1 in November 1993, Paulson took to Japan to compete in Shooto thanks to his training and connections with Nakamura. And so on June 24th, 1993 Erik Paulson made his MMA debut against Shoot veteran Kazuhiro Kusayanagi. Paulson won by Inverted Triangle Choke, 16 years before Toby Imada made the move iconic against Jorge Masvidal at Bellator Fighting Championship 5.

Paulson would become the first American champion in Shooto, and became Nakamura’s official Shooto representative in America. Paulson finished his competitive career 11-4-2.

Paulson developed his own MMA system as a trainer he calls Combat Submission Wrestling, formed out of all the martial arts he has experience of and been exposed to, with the ground game having a heavy Shooto Catch Wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu focus.

Paulson has trained a who’s who of MMA, including Ken Shamrock, Josh Barnett and Brock Lesnar. He also trained close friend and fellow MMA coach Greg Nelson in his CSW system, who has coached Lesnar himself as well as Sean Sherk, Nick Thompson, Brock Larson, Nik Lentz and Jacob Volkmann.

So through the Satoru Sayama branch of the Karl Gotch ‘family tree’, the influence continues to extend into modern MMA training with current fighters. Shooto is still going as a moderate sized promotion in Japan, with shows also successfully being hosted in Brazil and Europe, and had been the proving ground for some of the top lighter weight fighters in the world including Shinya Aoki and Masakazu Imanari.

Without Karl Gotch, the sport of MMA could have looked remarkably different, and this is illustrated further with his influence on Pancrase, which I will look at in the next article.

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