Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
12th May 1988
We begin with black leader tape perhaps referencing the 1983 Chris Marker film Sans Soleil (but probably not) but more crucially reflecting darkness which itself represents not only actual darkness but the murky gloom in the pit of Akira Maeda's soul; trapped as it is in a false-but-reasonably-well-recompensed life and forced to tread boards in a world not solely-dedicated to shoot-style wrestling. The humanity! The despair!
But from that blackness emerges a familiar logo: Maeda's heimat made not flesh but rather a limited liability company licensed for the public performance of wrestling. And not just any old wrestling, the marketing cries. This UWF is a kind of wrestling never before considered quite so real, they boast. It will be considered as real as when it was in fact a real sport (without a governing body, unless shady thugs are a governing body, which I suppose in a way they are).
This is wrestling pre-Sammartino, pre-Londos, pre-Thesz, pre-Strangler and the "Gold Dust Trio", pre-Hackenschmidt leaving for America on being told his actually-being-good was bad-for-business (though I bet there were definitely wiseguys in Europe who were all 'hmmm I am not sure that if you did a cravat like that that you would sell it that way', this is a sham!, etc.). This is, contentions of what constitutes authenticity aside, real.
This is UWF:
The opening minutes show a full Korakuen Hall increasing in volume as six fighters emerge for the initial parade: a simple thing and by now rote if you are a follower of the way Japanese promotions operate. But by gum if it isn't a bit exciting to just see the guys ahead of seeing them again in a few minutes time.
Our combatants this evening, in order, are: Shigeo Miyato, Tatsuo Nakano, "Mr. 200%" Yoji Anjo, Kazuo Yamazaki, Nobuhiko Takada, and finally MA-EDA!-MA-EDA! himself. There's probably 40-45lbs separating the largest from the smallest at a guess, spanning either side of the notional pro-wrestling heavyweight limit of 220lbs.
All six are wearing identical t-shirts white t-shirts with UWF logo (track jackets a mere twinkle in the eye of Maeda, it seems) with many if-not-all opting to roll the already short sleeves up in the way a Brando-esque biker tough might in order to stow an illicit pack of cigarettes. On some of the guys it looks fine. On Nakano, who opts for something of a Yakuza-esque pompadour atop his puggish features, it looks incredible. Maeda cuts a brief introductory promo.
Also: if you have played the excellent Management Of The Ring part of Final Fire Pro Wrestling on the Game Boy Advance (or an emulator of said) then this kind of depleted roster aesthetic feels quite real. On one hand you're like 'cool, I can get to know all of these guys right away!' and on the other 'how can they keep this interesting?'
|early adventures in aesthetic excellence|
After the parade there is a short video package detailing the build-up to the start of the show. Several punters (most of whom are smartly-dressed) are press-ganged for their opinions. Not being at all competent in Japanese I can hazard only guesses. Basically one guy seems pleased that 'real wrestling' is back perhaps?
Then we witness a strange ceremony in which Tatsuo Nakano pours out (what looks like) sake into some plastic cups before he and a tie-wearing man hide (what looks like) a plate of rice underneath one of the ringposts. Whether for luck or amusement we are never to learn. Suffice to say a group of cameramen take sincere interest in this development.
There is a montage of wrestlers training, jumping rope, and moving in focused patterns between the ropes in the empty hall as various technicians loiter and weave their magic atop precariously perched ladders. The kind of music beloved of Maeda, part-inspirational entrance theme for a Star Lord, part-corporate video for a luxury toilet manufacturer, plays in a spirited fashion.
More fans are met. These two girls speak at length, with LEFT being a big fan of Maeda while I think RIGHT says TAKADA-DESU. Both are absolutely adorable.
The significance of this passed me by but it feels remiss to ignore it:
Prior to the first match there are individual announcements of several men who are all near to ringside, all of whom recieve warm applause, and all of whom I would guess are prominent men of other combat sports? If you know better - about anything - then please comment beneath! This is a learning exercise for all. The only two that I recognise are Yoshiaki Fujiwara who already looks rather old but quite dapper in a sort-of tweed, and Karl Gotch.
We see Gotch and some of these other men in the VT immediately before their introduction, all talking up how UWF is different. Only Gotch, in his strange Belgian-American accent, is understandable to me. He says this:
And naturally the idea, to work it out will be a long hard road like everything else. That it's new to the people. And you won't have no help from the outside world because nobody knows this style of wrestling. So people have to have a little patience, you'll have to produce young and good Japanese wrestlers, and you have to work it along the same lines as sumo and judo. Originate here where the seed is planted and from here spread it out. Remember when judo was only in Japan the interest was there and the people came to see it. Once sumo caught hold, sumo is all over the world. So I think the same can be done with professional wrestling shooting-style.
|AND THAT'S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE KARL GOTCH SAID SO|
So it seems that Maeda, through Gotch, is perhaps setting the bar for the evening at a modest and clearable height whilst on the other hand targeting international domination not just as a promotion but by becoming the entire version of an entire sport. These kinds of ambitions just did not fly in Inoki's New Japan, clearly.
UWF Newborn's first match is a 10-minute time limit exhibition match between Nobuhiko Takada and Shigeo Miyato that serves as hors d'oeuvre to the not-exactly extensive menu on offer. After the logo, the second iconic visual of UWF is apparent: that exact style of kneepad, branded kickpad, and sports shoe, worn in this particular manner and indicative forever that the wrestler you are about to see is a Class Act:
Takada has inches and kilograms on Miyato and the visual instantly spells an outclassing to the throng at ringside. Miyato throws peppy little kicks that make a light pew pew! sound off Takada's top-heavy frame. Takada throws less stylish kicks back that make a deeper clubbing sound - bumf bumf - and even if the style of wrestling here doesn't feel super real then at the very least the dynamic does.
SIDEBAR: To talk about this in terms of realness sort of feels both completely the point and also opposed to the point. Most people reading this will be in some way interested and knowledgeable about UWF. But maybe some of you won't. So I'll quickly iterate what UWF is trying to do and how it is trying to do it.
UWF are attempting to put on shows of wrestling that looks real (like a "shoot", wrestling jargon for 'real', the opposite of a "work", or 'fake') but indeed is still just as much phoney (as in pre-determined) as a match from WWF of the same era. To make it look real the workers use 'real' techniques such as strikes, throws, and groundwork as one might see in real fights or other combat sports and martial arts.
In addition the performers, who are often trained real fighters to some degree of proficiency, remove the showground antics that reveals professional wrestling to be fake: dramatic near-falls, running the ropes, allowing opponents to take grips and position, climbing the turnbuckle, posing ostentatiously, unrealistic physics. The ruleset of UWF omits victories by pinfall, opting for the cleanliness and 'realness' of wins by knockout or submission only.
For some, particularly western viewers, shoot-style can be dry to watch or counter-productive to entertainment in an era where an increasing awareness of wrestling as sham exists. Some people want and crave the carnival barker and the illusory strongman and the protracted backstage segment where tanned goons attempt to discover who ran over their friend. This is fine! Indeed, after a couple of shows of RINGS or BattleARTS, eI find it good to watch some southern wrasslin' or hyperantic contemporary New Japan. Drama is good. Variety is good.
|you are right, that stance will not block this kick|
But (and here is the rub and the idea behind this blog): UWF did not quite nail the realist aesthetic. No one truly ever does. To make a fake thing look real is very difficult to do when in fact what constitutes a shoot is in flux ("what is a shoot?" copyright in perpetuity TOM) and indeed the realism of every era, whatever the artistic medium (take a look at any realist cinema from the 1950s, for instance), changes. Which is mind-boggling if you think about it, so I urge you not to.
As TK Scissors clearly charts the movement from realistic fake to actual fight in the RINGS cycle, Kick Submission Suplex is interested in the earlier movement from a kind of more obvious fake to a less obvious one; the development of an art and the emergence of a kind of proto-punk version of wrestling and MMA. END SIDEBAR
Which neatly brings us back to Takada doing a leg scissors takedown after catching one of Miyato's zippy kicks in a way that seems smart and yet to the eyes of a person in 2017 seems like a pro-wrestling transition. The crowd is dead silent but, I aver, in a good way. Takada roughly pretzels Miyato, one of many ways in which the smaller and greener man will be ragdolled in here, and the referee says "give up?" that in a low voice that is nonetheless clearly audible.
What the crowd - and I - like here are the clever escapes and the parts where it seems like Miyato is sick of Takada's dominance in order to let rip with some high kicks and palm strikes. We can talk of holes in the reality game for all 31 episodes if we like - such as clear pro-wrestling 'selling' by Miyato, or when Miyato has a high kick blocked and he hits the mat. MMA has taught us the importance of these quicksilver opportunities to get the back, to ground and pound, to look for the choke.
Even further: the chances are you would not throw such kicks with such regularity lest your opponent take your other leg from under you. Here in the nascent splendour of UWF, Takada just lets Miyato get up and resume throwing kicks at will. Maybe this compromises the work for future generations but the vast majority of the 2300 in the house seem reasonably convinced by the action.
Miyato is hamstrung by not knowing what to do in dominant positions such as a prone opponent while standing, or, more likely now I think about it, knowing that he will get massacred if he is caught too deep in Takada's groundwork zone.
The exhibition is ruled a draw after ten minutes elapsed, but in reality Takada wins having made Miyato tap twice mid-fight. The first, an achilles hold after a failed leglock, caught Miyato yards from a rope break. The second, only 90 seconds later, felt a little more realistic as Takada shot Miyato's leg and worked through for the classic juji-gatame / perpendicular armbar using a clear size/strength advantage. After the break Miyato comes charging straight back with his little pew-pew! kicks and the crowd cheer uproariously.
I think because Miyato is just a little guy with like 1 year of NJPW experience, while Takada was approaching veteran worker level as well as being in the original UWF as a star, then just having Miyato stay alive and showing 'fighting spirit' until the end means that both guys look better as a result! Takada bows deeply to show respect to the man whose limbs he just manipulated like a clown making a dog from those long balloons.
|"good work li'l buddy" says Takada to Miyato|
The second fight pits Yoji Anjo, still many years from being forced by his great personal friend Takada to fly to California in order to dojo storm Rickson Gracie and eat the subsequent punishment and career decimation in front of his nation's assembled sports media (though Rickson, who has the tape, has never released it, and who could doubt his word?), against Tatsuo Nakano, whose only MMA defeat (and match) came at the hands of a 600lb man who simply lay on top of him.
While these instances do not speak of great fighters qua fighting, they do at least evoke the strange warrior-clown-poet position in society occupied by professional combat people. From a certain angle, wherever they lie on the skill spectrum, they are all the same once they step into the ring.
A previous bout in the original UWF between the two is long in the memory of the VHS generation without access to excellent resources such as Profightdb and Cagematch. Nakano won it. After a flurry of missed kicks, Anjo and Nakano settle into exchanges of muted grappling. For 12 minutes the crowd is silent - but rapt. And you can tell they're rapt rather than bored because there is a moment where Nakano catches Anjo a fraction of a leg extension from a full-blooded heel hook. If Anjo extends for the rope break, he could be toast before he makes it. The entirety of the crowd yelp and then sharply intake breath at the same time as Anjo scrambles to safety through a different door.
After this exchange the contest becomes less cerebral with feet in shoot-style and pro-wrestling. In the image above, Nakano breaks out Tatsumi Fujinami's Dragon Leg Screw (which feasibly feels like it could work but also seems so quintessentially pro-wrestling because Hiroshi Tanahashi uses it) while a minute or so later Anjo gets carried away so much after a flurry of violence he tries to roll through for a pin in a KO or submission-only promotion (see below).
|which is a shame because it was a very nice pinning predicament|
It really is quite an entertaining bout though. Nakano knees a semi-prone Anjo so hard that he flies out of the ring in a way that doesn't feel like a stunty 'spot'. There's also a growing sense that, as Gotch warned at the top of the show, the education is paying dividends. Submissions do not need 15 minutes of limb-work to help grease the wheels. When Anjo catches Nakano nearly perfectly in kind of reverse waki-gatame (Fujiwara armbar, please remember who is sat ringside) the cheers grow louder despite Nakano maybe receiving two kicks to that arm.
Accidentally the match exposes something in the rules that needed ironing out. Anjo kicks the piss out of Nakano for a couple of minutes and then starts stomping on him in a WRASSLIN' style until the referee lazily jumps in and starts a count. Nakano gets up and then sort of takes another count, implying that he could do that all day to avoid losing. It doesn't spoil the match. In fact the sight of Nakano staggering around and selling feels like an early influence of Tomohiro Ishii. Later UWF would implement the five knockdown rule.
There's also a cool spot that gets replayed at the end that is pure pro-wrestling and yet in context feels reasonable and semi-legitimate: after pounding Nakano in the corner with strikes, Anjo unleashes a pearler of a drop-kick. Highlight of the match also comes from a 'hole'. Nakano hits a lovely German suplex hold for the pin, again the match cannot be won this way. Anjo rolls his shoulders delicately and turns Nakano into juji-gatame.
In the end Nakano's raw brutishness and callous kicking wear Anjo down sufficiently for Nakano to sink in a deep triangle choke. The crowd love it. Both these guys! Both these guys!
The main event pits Our Lord and Saviour Akira Maeda against current NJPW commentator Kazuo Yamazaki. Until a recent spate of going deep with UWF and New Japan I had seen precisely one Yamazaki bout. The story of that experience goes thus: when first getting into all things Dave Meltzer, before realising he is prose-stylist and historian first (and all historians are prose stylists to some degree) and an accurate match-rater fifteenth, I sought out a bunch of Meltzer five star matches. In that period I watched a lot of good stuff featuring the likes of Steamboat, Flair, Dynamite Kid, Tiger Mask I, The Sheepherders, Tenryu, Kawada, Misawa, etc.
In the original UWF, Kazuo Yamazaki had a five-star match with Nobuhiko Takada. When I sat down to watch it at about age 20 I did not understand what the hell was going on. Why was Takada not mounting Yamazaki and barking like a dog in his face. Why did Yamazaki not repeatedly motion to his crotch in order to "break it down"? Would either of them dive through a pane of glass? There were some cool transitional sequences that even an idiot could enjoy but this did not feel like a classic to me (a classic to me at the time: an unbearded Jay Briscoe vs. an unbearded Mark Briscoe from Ring of Honor Invades Boston in 2002 in front 500 people at the Americal Civic Center in Wakefield, MA).
Here we see Yamazaki is training hard for the upcoming bout:
At this point I feel I should also mention that in UWF there is no championship to speak of. Maeda would eventually introduce tournaments and titles to RINGS, but UWF is pure-prizefighting. Having never watched the shows in sequence I am hoping to divine whether there is more than just nebulous honour and feeling of attainment at stake in the matchmaking. The "champion" henceforth is Maeda, who fulfils the criteria of being the corporeal and spiritual Akira Maeda.
Maeda makes some pre-match comments but is startled by a mouse:
These little shots of training earlier in the day with pre-recorded comments are so much better than 95% of in-ring promos and backstage live segments of modern wrestling, aren't they? Even when you can't tell what is being said, they do the job of making the match feel reasonably serious, especially when intercut with shots of the wrestlers in gym clothes doing calisthenics. Let us compare to a recent series of weak burns masquerading as promo from a leading brand of contemporary US wrestling:
Cass claimed that he was the where the money was at, but Enzo told him don't be surprised when the merchandise check comes at it reads zero dimes next quarter. That is, unless Cass starts wearing a shirt that reads "Casshole." Enzo dropped the microphone and his music started, but then he picked it up and started again. Enzo told Cass that they were brothers who were "ride or die." That part of him is dead because it rolled down his face with one gangster tear when Cass killed it. But then that Cass boot that touched his lips breathed new life into life. That's why he's wearing a Tupac bandana now because he's an army of one now, and it's all eyes on him.
I mean don't you just want to die inside?
On to the match! Yamazaki - with a great look that combines dark full length trousers with a star motif, kickpads over white Asics Tigers (I knew a guy who only wore Asics Tigers, would send off for rare colourways and editions, I do not like him but for different reasons), and a quite prominent widow's peak - is such a tidy grappler for one so rangy.
|as pulled off a cave wall|
The first five minutes of the match are just Yamazaki showing Maeda that he has better stuff: his kicks are snappier, his defence is sharper, and he can wriggle out of any bad position and into a better one. Maeda does some brutalist judo but Yamazaki falls safely and gets to ropes in an unhurried manner should he get caught in his opponent's wiles.
(I note at this point that the referee is wearing a blue shirt and bow-tie whereas the prior referees had been wearing a red and white polo shirt. A sure sign that Maeda's aesthetic iron fist was still firmly wrapped inside a velvet glove.)
The middle fifteen minutes or so are dynamic and fascinating, ranging from careful and tentative grappling to increasingly flustered strikes. Both men throw sick suplexes with little of the ceremony of professional wrestling. That said, at one point Maeda hits a gorgeous pinning suplex that he holds onto, forgetful of his own rules, and this time the ref starts the count!
|CAN WE PLEASE BE CONSISTENT WITH THE RULES, YAMAZAKI SEEMS TO SAY|
Into the final third Yamazaki burrows Maeda deep into the corner and hits him with little digs to get him to double over before smashing him in the head with a high kick. Maeda takes a count and then gets up to find Yamazaki ready to serve up Asics Tiger tartare.
Yamazaki keeps the barrage going but Maeda miraculously turns this into a cool waki-gatame that Yamazaki struggles to get out of.
The ending is really good. After a couple of tired missed strikes, both men back off for a second, weary with effort. Maeda comes forward first and eats a trip to the dentist.
Maeda takes a 9 count that Yamazaki sprints in to take advantage of. Yamazaki kicks Maeda down to his knees and then, at Maeda's most vulnerable, Yamazaki throws a kick that will haunt my nightmares and sicken my soul until the day I die. Maeda looks woozy and takes another long count.
There's another slightly messier high kick and count spot after Maeda gets up from this one, an unfair count from the refereee as Yamazaki was on the mat too after delivering his jumping high kick. In the manner of the classic pro-wrestling babyface, Maeda catches a second (more like fifth) wind to power through Yamazaki's defences. He hits a clumsy-but-effective rolling wheel kick that scatters Yamazaki sufficiently for Maeda to get his hooks in with what looks like a Chickenwing Facelock (CRUCIAL EDIT: KS of TK Scissors, an expert in waza nomenclature, writes: "I would call that the single-wing strangle of Kata-Ha-Jime 片羽絞") but I am not sufficiently versed in recognising moves to say for sure other than to say that Yamazaki grimaces in penance for that quite gnar kick he nearly murdered his boss with.
The crowd scream at all of this, even the slight messiness and out-of-nowhereness of Maeda's victory perhaps because they have received their full Gotchian education or perhaps just bcs Maeda.
We won't be doing star ratings over here at Kick Submission Suplex but this was a quality ending to a show that started with positive curiosity and got better as it went on.
|AND SO IT SHALL BE UNTIL THE END OF TIME|
UWF Starting Over 2nd
ft. Akira Maeda vs. Nobuhiko Takada!