Nakajima Sports Centre, Sapporo
11th June 1988
Before we kick-off allow me to alert you to the excellent Hybrid Shoot blog that is covering the birth and expansion of the deeply-influential proto-MMA company Pancrase. Lee & Jonathan have a nice back & forth dynamic - a kind of dialectic if you will! - already and I particularly like the emerging themes of eroticism that much wrestling reportage shies away from.
After the blackness representing Maeda's soul dying in New Japan and the UWF logo that birthed it anew we see an aeroplane...and...hang on a second! As a stray comment I remarked the the last show opening could be a reference to the 1983 Chris Marker classic Sans Soleil. It was meant as a slightly swotty joke. HOWEVER...is this opening a reference to the 1962 Chris Marker classic La Jetée which details a transformative event that occurs at an airport such as the one that is happening to the world of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts right here on our screens? Is UWF a lengthy exercise in honour of this reclusive director? This I feel is unmistakable.
But what could this visual mean for we shoot-style fans? Never let it be said that Maeda-san does not like a simple-to-understand metaphor. I think he is a student of Eisenstein and Kuleshov as much as he is one of Gotch and Coage. Following the decorous UWF logo we see the aeroplane taking off to represent not only the fact that this Tokyo-based company are visiting the northern island of Hokkaido but also to strongly indicate that UWF are at the beginning of their journey and are also increasing their standing in the world of wrestling that they insist is real until they are blue in the face.
The image of the aeroplane fades and inset images of the six fighters (five of whom look familiar, with one stranger) of tonight's show appear in a central box as if each one is the cover art for their very own seminal post-punk record:
|Yamazaki, Faded Dreams (1981, Factory)|
|Nakano, Eternal Midcard (ZTT, 1983)|
The now-customary and always anticipated parade of fighters takes place. There are seven UWF-shirted athletes in total meaning that one of these premier athletes will be sitting out despite being carted all the way to Sapporo. It is determined that Yoji Anjo is to receive this break from pain. I hope he was paid.
Maeda cuts a solemn promo thanking the crowd for coming before bowing deeply and just think how differently things might have turned out for XPW if Rob Black had solemnly-attired for an initial show of respect before making either his disgusting pornography or disgusting wrestling.
A healthy crowd is assembled, announced at - and preserved forever as - 5200 paid. An illuminating debate occurred on Twitter recently about the status of UWF: were they genuinely popular outside of a certain hip Tokyo bubble and critical cognoscenti? I am not equipped to answer this possessing neither the historical facts (read: subscription to Wrestling Observer) nor the barometers against which popular success can be defined. Kick Submission Suplex wishes to consider aesthetics first. Think of me, please, as the Cleanth Brooks of shoot-stylism, except for the bits when I make references to other things.
Tatsuo Nakano, a victor on the first show, opens tonight's card against Shigeo Miyato, who technically drew his exhibition bout but actually got folded like laundry by Nobuhiko Takada for ten glorious minutes. Miyato gives a brief pensive interview into a very stylish microphone:
|IF YOU'RE NOT DOWN WITH THAT I GOT FOUR KANJI SYMBOLS FOR YA|
Miyato exudes that spiritedness that seems to pass through all New Japan Young Lions: irrepressible, whether looking for kicks or submissions (or suplexes). He is beloved of the half-crab but also he is game for any other kind of hold or move he can do which seems to be a fair but not comprehensive amount. The size differential is not as pronounced for Miyato as it was against Takada, although one cannot help but notice that Nakano is much thicker of torso, a man perennially on the point of his physique all falling apart but never quite doing so.
Nakano is a little more methodical for the first half of this encounter. He loiters on the backfoot, looking for the counter, waiting for the misplaced kick that never comes. Nakano attempts what I think may be UWF 2's first 'low single'. Frequently the pair become entangled on the floor, grinding and grunting and searching for position, but no dominance can be established by either man.
The second half sees much more in the way of full-blooded action. The crowd rise along with the intensity. Miyato's kicks seem more energised: less pew-pew! and more sting-sting! For the second show running Nakano manages to dump his opponent out of the ring, this time with a suplex whose momentum sees both men briefly meet the concrete.
And while the first show seemed kick-heavy when it came to strikes, Nakano lets a bunch of wild open-palm shots go that are brutal and thrilling. Nakano also does really fun and quite dirty stuff like booting a man when he is struggling to defend in the corner like this:
The bell rings at 30:00 with neither man having truly established the upper hand. A draw is announced. If you were awarding the match on points there'd be a struggle to decisively call the match as both men took counts, both threw nice suplexes that the referee began to count pinfalls for (?????????), and both were trapped in submissions necessitating agonising dramatic rope breaks. If I had to select? Miyato. Much busier.
The crowd clap strongly but not wildly at this result. Nakano and Miyato both have their hands raised and then both shake hands and embrace before Nakano sinks to his knees to 'sell' tiredness. Nakano gestures to say either one 'one more minute and I'd have had you' (unlikely) or 'let's do this one more time' (likely).
|FIGHT FOREVER*! |
(*A LIMITED AMOUNT OF TIMES)
A thirty minute draw to open the show is quite something, isn't it? Is this part of our schooling? Part of our training in expecting the unexpected and taking nothing for granted? Or is this because there are still only three bouts on this card and the concept of pro-wrestling offering some kind of measured 'value for money' is overruling the 'true sport' aesthetic? Let us consider the opposite end of the spectrum briefly via the first event reviewed by Hybrid Shoot:
Fans were used to shootstyle wrestling matches, bouts designed to look real but ultimately just more realistic works, 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 13 minutes—total.
It is quite hilarious to consider just how wrong Maeda & co. have got it if what they are doing is retraining their audience going by the idea that "this is real and therefore 30 minutes might not be enough to separate them!" But of course there are famously long real shoot fights - Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Royce Gracie going 90 minutes as the most famous example. But UFC has taught us that 25 minutes is brutal enough and usually finishes with one or both competitors looking like they have dived head-first through a meat grinder. Maeda's later promotion RINGS, as explained so patiently by TK Scissors and Dave Meltzer, realised the march Pancrase had stolen on them by disregarding how long fans want a real scrap to take and just giving you a real scrap however long it takes. Other companies changed up their enterprise. But ultimately, this UWF style is emergent. It is completely imperfect and sui generis, which is why we (I) love it.
Match two pits the sharp-kicking Kazuo Yamazaki against UWF debutant Norman Smiley. Just the other week I had double cause to think about Smiley: The first was as I was on a slow train to London passing through the town of Northampton and was trying, in my idle daydream, to think who - aside from Alan Moore - was a famous Northamptonian. And such is my wrestling-addled brain all I could come up with was Norman Smiley (whose mother sensibly emigrated to Miami in Norman's youth).
|NORTHAMPTON: why leave?|
The second was an out-of-nowhere horror-struck reminiscence of Terry Funk vs. 'Screaming' Norman Smiley in a dreadful hardcore match on WCW Spring Stampede 2000 which had 14 matches and they all completely sucked (iirc all the titles were vacant). The gimmick Vince Russo had Smiley working on that sultry Chicago evening was a man scared to take part in hardcore contests where a man might be fake hit with a can of Diet Coke or a laptop. And yet here on this hot night in Sapporo we see quite manifestly that Smiley - yet to be the CMLL Heavyweight Champion for seven months, yet to be a respected regular trainer at WWE's Performance Centre - is more than delighted (he is skilled enough as an actor to convey this with his face and enthusiastic manner rather than resorting to the, ahem, 'Big Wiggle') to take on Yamazaki and his thunderous shoot kicks. How the years and to some extent poor character-writing change us.
Smiley, with no trace of any British accent, gets some camera time:
My name is Norman Smiley. I'm known as Black Magic. I come from the United States of America in the state of Florida. I'm 245lbs and 6'2". I've been wrestling professionally now for 5 years. The UWF asked me to come here, I've been training with the Malenko gym in America, with Joe Malenko and the father Larry Malenko. Also trained a little bit with Karl Gotch. I'm here tonight to fight Yamazaki and I'm going to try my best. I'm in good condition, I'm in good shape, and I think I can do very well tonight.
|GOOD SHAPE: CONFIRMED|
Yamazaki speaks briefly in a backstage area in the past whilst through the magic of editing he enters the ring in the present. Both men are introduced. Smiley receives polite applause, Yamazaki gets something louder.
Everything clicks nicely here. There's a sensible dramatic build and some pro-wrestling style callbacks and some long-form selling, but of the five UWF bouts so far this perhaps feels like the one closest to a shoot (though still a way off). Smiley looks to grapple, which he does gracefully and cleanly with silky transitions off catching Yamazaki's whipping kicks: one time he will whip the standing leg from underneath Yamazaki with his own leg, the second time he will perform a Dragon Screw (that Yamazaki rolls through into a predicament of his own), and another time he will attempt something gnarled and Volk Han-ish by way of a leg entanglement. Smiley does throw strikes but only at close range and with license to, catching Yamazaki defenceless in a corner and gut-punching him repeatedly. Minutes later Yamazaki is still coughing from the blow.
Yamazaki does have some grappling in him but the first few minutes gently impart that generic techniques will not work on the well-trained Smiley. I'm not quite sure what you'd call this thing that Yamazaki is doing with a sort of kimura-cum-facelock thing he applies at the halfway point but it sure makes Smiley panic.
Some of what I guess is the pre-planned stuff works well: a reversal of a half-crab into a half-crab by Smiley is met with cheers. If the plan behind this match was to keep the talented Yamazaki looking strong by having him beat a competent and impressive foreigner then this was a job done well.
For a match that was mostly cagey and even, the ending around the quarter-hour mark is swift and decisive. Here it is in four images:
|WINCE-INDUCING MIDDLE KICK...|
A stray thought between bouts: what did UWF workers do for money between shows? Regular-style workers do long tours to scrape together bread for their families. These guys, presumably to maintain the illusion of reality, worked once a month. Did you live in Tokyo in 1988 and see Shigeo Miyato working behind a bar? Please, answer below.
Our main event features - who else - President, Owner, CEO, and Chairman of the Board Akira Maeda. I've been watching some of Maeda's matches from his UK excursion and am beginning to think that this whole era combined with such a mighty personality could be a really great setting for a David Peace-style novel of grinding interior monologue clashing against the spirit of the age; Maeda, in his early 20s, sent to sad and colourless places like Hemel Hempstead, Croydon, Bolton, and Skegness, places suffering from the aftermath of Callahan and the early carnage of Thatcherism, to work his fundamentally-sound and real technique-informed method against unfit carnival-style cheeseballs such as Lucky Gordon, Ed Wensor, and Banger Walsh while football scores flicked up on the screen, obscuring his waza. Lonely nights trying to find food that has flavour or nutritional value. Don't tell me it doesn't have legs.
That Maeda was forced to masquerade as the brother of Sammy Lee aka Tiger Mask aka I-am-going-to-go-cement-on-you-and-ruin-the-original-UWF is such a delicious turn of events.
|I MEAN I AM FROM OSAKA FFS|
Tonight King Maeda will square off against the gently noble Nobuhiko Takada in a match that took place a mere five times in the original UWF with Maeda winning on every single occasion. Takada's star evidently rose in the brief return to New Japan, holding the IWGP Tag Team Championship alongside Maeda after a run as IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, perhaps accounting for the healthy crowd in attendance who all seem to believe that every time Takada sniffs an opening he has a chance of victory. Which bodes well.
Bren Patrick of the American Puro blog covered this match in May, writing:
The striking in this match is no joke, the takedowns and suplexes awesome, and mixed into the groundwork are some really neat moments. After a couple of love taps to warm up the fans, Takada goes in for a takedown and Maeda catches him with an "it's all in the reflexes" kick before taking him to school with the educated feet. Maeda's takedowns and counters are almost self-regulating, and he's able to slip out of a lot of Takada's submission attempts on the canvas. When Takada looks like he's in control, Maeda slaps on the cross armbreaker early on and Takada freaks his way to the ropes and retreats to the corner, only for Maeda to follow the trail of blood and get back in the hunt. http://americanpuro.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/nobuhiko-takada-vs-akira-maeda-uwf-61188.html
Which is to say, I think, that for long stretches Maeda bosses this one like the actual boss that he is. There is little in the way of the come-from-behind babyface routine of the first night, or indeed much of his RINGS run. Up until a moment of cavalier complacency and arrogance, it is mostly Maeda with tantalising spurts of Takada. The brief opening offered by Maeda does at least lead Takada to wreak serious havoc on Maeda's left leg, evening the contest along the way as Maeda staggers about in pain.
|Takada attacking Maeda's leg|
Whilst there's a lot of stiff striking and subtlety in the grappling, this match feels far closer to the emotional and dramatic content of the kinds of 'strong-style' matches of their recently-departed New Japan rather than being too strongly-based in any known fighting reality. Which, I think, is the right idea, given that the crowd have seen technical miniatures all evening and what they need to send them into meltdown is two stars crashing into each other. It works.
|Takada on the charge!|
If anyone out there is clear on the rules here could they make themselves known? I am sure that it is knockout or submission only but during this match there are three clearly-attempted and -counted pinfalls, two of which are by Maeda. These attempted falls only ever seem to come after bridging suplexes of some description. Is the referee counting to ten for a knockdown? Very rarely does he make it past one.
Takada makes people believe with a babyface-like display of diehard fighting spirit ahead of a final section that could have come out of New Japan 2017: firstly Takada hits a gorgeous Dragon Suplex...
...but Maeda powers up and gets Takada up for a German all of his own...
...and though he fails to get the pin, he sinks in a MILLION DOLLAR DREAM...
...which makes Takada tap instantly once all of the hooks are secured! Great match! Ignore all the baggage about shoot-style and the progression to MMA and realism et cetera: I think fans of good wrestling matches would find something in here to enjoy.
Going into this match with a brief analysis of the UWF roster: Nakano, Anjo, and Miyato are the bottom rung. Norman Smiley has been brought in but has already lost to the middle-ranked Yamazaki, who in turn has lost to Maeda. Which left Takada as the only unknown quantity after his gentle 'draw' with Miyato on opening night. Maeda's win leaves Maeda as the undisputed top dog. I hope he has a plan...
Maeda's hand is raised and the crowd surge to ringside, filling the gap between the front row and the apron completely in order to touch the hem of Maeda's thin garments. Maeda grabs the ring mic and makes a brief oration before collapsing to his knees, selling the gruelling nature of his bout.
|OH YOU DIDN'T KNOW? YOUR ASS BETTER CAAAAAAAAAAAAA...|
NEXT TIME: UWF The Professional Bout! Featuring SEVEN new faces!