Jonathan Snowden is a long-time combat sports journalist. His books include Total MMA, Shooters and Shamrock: The World’s Most Dangerous Man. His work has appeared in USA Today, Bleacher Report, Fox Sports, The Ringer and, of course, Bloody Elbow. Subscribe to the Hybrid Shoot newsletter to keep up with his latest work.
Many assume modern MMA began with UFC 1, oh no it didn’t
Many people assume that modern MMA started with UFC 1 at the McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado, in November 1993. Only true hardcores and deviants know that a small troupe of maverick pro wrestlers had taken the wrestling business back to its roots months earlier, first with SHOOTO and more prominently with the launch of Pancrase, an event that took the combat sports world by storm in Japan.
What would a real fight contested under pro wrestling rules look like? It had been a question asked by many over the decades. On September 21, 1993, we finally got our answer—and it was glorious.
Wrestling is one of the world’s oldest sports, transcending culture and creed. It requires little in the way of explanation. Wrestling is the sport of royalty and the common man—the desire to dominate knows no socio-economic boundaries. That’s why you see wrestling preserved for eternity on the vases of ancient Greece and Egypt.
Wrestling has survived the ages in various forms, from the gentle Glima of Scandinavia to the rough and tumble grappling of the American frontier, where you could often pick out the grapplers by the scars covering their faces and even their missing eyeballs.
Pancrase landed somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, a brutal competition of potentially harmful techniques and holds that was also carefully regulated and controlled, both by the formal rules and an unwritten Gentleman’s Code not to strike a downed opponent to the head.
Pancrase was legit, really … mostly, probably
The rules mimic those of traditional pro wrestling, only natural considering its origin as the offshoot of the enormously popular Universal Wrestling Federation, itself a descendent of Japan’s legendary New Japan Pro Wrestling promotion. Submission holds were broken if a wrestler made it to the ropes (though it would cost them a point) and the referee would start a ten-count whenever a fighter was knocked down by a strike. Closed fist strikes to the head were illegal, both standing and on the ground. A concession in the middle of the ring or a knockout would end the match. Otherwise, the winner would be decided based on points scored.
The UWF worked in much the same way, as did its spinoffs like RINGS and UWFi, so in some ways, Pancrase was nothing new to hardcore wrestling fans. In others, it was almost impossibly different—while other promotions claimed to be legitimate contests, Pancrase really was.
It all began at Tokyo Bay NK Hall, an indoor arena at the Tokyo Disney Resort. It held 7000 people and 7000 souls were there, unsure what to expect but willing to pay upwards of $135 ($286.84 in 2023 money) to find out. The result surprised everyone, the fighters most of all.
Shamrock won the main event with startling ease
Fans were used to shootstyle wrestling matches, bouts designed to look real but ultimately just more realistic works. They’d last 30 minutes with fighters struggling valiantly to escape submission holds and surviving knockdown after knockdown. But when the competition was legitimate things looked a little different. The five matches lasted just a little more than 13 minutes—total.
In the main event Ken Shamrock defeated Masakatsu Funaki, the promotion’s top star, with startling ease. Funaki was a submission master, trained by the great Karl Gotch in all manner of bone crunching submissions. Much of this knowledge, however, he’d passed on to Shamrock, who didn’t hesitate to use it against his mentor.
Towards the end of the bout Funaki tried to bait Shamrock into trying an armbar, but Shamrock wisely used his weight and top position to try an arm triangle instead, a move he had been attempting to squirm his way into throughout the bout.
In a traditional shoot style match, this would be a false finish. Funaki would make the ropes and the bout would continue. But this was Pancrase—and there would be no fairy tale ending for the leading man. Instead, Funaki tapped out and just like that, a rival for Pancrase primacy was created.
Over time, the promotion’s star would fade. Pancrase was ahead of its time for just two months before NHB rewrote the rules yet again. Pride FC and the UFC proved to be more compelling to Japanese fans with their even more explicit violence. Pancrase sold tickets and drew a crowd for several years based on the star power of its leading men, including Minoru Suzuki and Bas Rutten. But ultimately, as we wrote in The MMA Encyclopedia, it was a new wave idea that quickly felt old fashioned:
The Pancrase game was maybe a little too refined, lacking the violence fans saw from the UFC and the newly created PRIDE organization in Japan. Funaki attempted to adjust course, going to more traditional Vale Tudo rules in 1998, including the legalization of punches to the head. But it was too little too late. Most of the top foreign talent had left for greener pastures in the UFC and PRIDE. To make matter worse, the established Japanese stars were wearing down. Years of grueling training sessions and a fight every single month had taken their toll on the Pancrase founders.
Pancrase remains a going concern, but one that has caved in to the bloodlust of the audience, presenting a more standard brand of mixed martial arts. The real Pancrase is dead, existing only on faded VHS tapes and YouTube videos. Once a unique and compelling artform in its own right, it’s become little more than a memory. Only the most diehard of fans can remember a time when the best fighters in the world wore the famous Pancrase banana hammock trunks and shinguard combination.
They call that progress, I guess. But me? I miss it so badly it hurts.
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