Monday, 31 July 2017


UWF Core The First Anniversary
Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
14th April 1989
att. 2400

The lord works in mysterious ways. You're trying to think of an opening to the newest entry in your blog of microscopic importance (avg. 100 readers, probably 65 too many, need to think of ways of shedding some of you) and then God herself hands you a doozie:

Why - yes - that IS UWF's very own Tatsuo Nakano coming out of the woodpile for a special charity shoot-style show. But what of these other names, you ask. I put on my trilby and take my katana (刀) down from its special holster on the wall and, with a satisfied smile, and monologue freely about the importance of the blockchain.

UWF's birthday is rapidly approaching and this show sort of celebrates that fact by taking the company back to the place where it all began, on the fifth floor of an office block in Suidobashi. However an opening graphic seems to not be sure what year the company began in:

After this light cock-up there are inset graphics of each of the sextet I have now come to brand the "shoot-style six": Yoji Anjo, Shigeo Miyato, Tatsuo Nakano, Kazuo Yamazaki, Nobuhiko Takada, and Akira Maeda. Then some fancy editing occurs as if to suggest that we now stride boldly into a new era (and not before time) by presenting the following images:

Takada and Maeda are interviewed after this announcement and both enunciate in a way that, after many years of studying the art of promo-cutting in Japanese, suggests that they have high hopes for these young guys but hope they can cut it in some of the best wrestling around. 

There is then a full parade to a great hand from the full house. The original six come out first and then Minoru Suzuki emerges to a solid cheer. After this, Masakatsu Funaki comes out and the places erupts just as when Maeda batters some half-smartened foreign proponent of a marginal martial art. Maeda speaks and then cedes the mic to the princely Funaki and my god they love him in a way that bodes well for UWF now and also illustrates why maybe too many egos killed this whole thing.

The show starts with one of our newcomers, Minoru Suzuki. This is a different Suzuki than some newer readers will be familiar with through his work in the 2010s as a freelance professional wrestler working chiefly for New Japan Pro Wrestling. This is Suzuki after being an alternate for the Japanese Olympic team in freestyle wrestling, but before the pioneering of MMA, before the reign as King of Pancrase, before kicking the crap of out a post-brain tumoured Jushin Liger, before "The Man With The Worst Personality In The World", before becoming AJPW's Triple Crown champion, or NOAH's GHC Champion, or having incredible pro-wrestling matches with the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazushi Sakuraba, Kazuchika Okada, or AJ Styles. In his latter career I'd rank him among my favourite wrestlers. But this is a long time ago!

This Suzuki has hair and wears nice blue trunks and blue kickpads over blue Asics Tigers. Opposite him stands Yoji Anjo. Riding a little hot streak, the exuberant "Mr. 200%" is unbeaten in 1989. It's an interesting match-up for keen fans of certain long-running personal stories, with this representing the commencement of a narrative arc of Japanese professional wrestling that would end at Anjo's retirement show in this very building, with Suzuki delivering Anjo's final professional fall.

For approximately ten minutes there is nothing particularly notable about the match the two are having. This is a feature of UWF cards since the commencement of the promotion: the opening shoot-wrestling bout lasts for at least 18 minutes, the first half of which is hushed groundwork and tentative striking and evenly-matched standing grappling.

Of course UWF could not know of a future where a person might attempt to consume all of its shows in a short space of time. And feel free to invoke the notion that people of 2017 have a lower threshold for boredom borne out of a society that allows them constant entertainment 24/7 (sounding like a particularly-shitty Arcade Fire record here). But research suggests that UWF's booking style of lengthy opening matches between relative novices or unknowns flew in the face of 1989 too. From the same month as this show (April 1989), here are a selection of opening matches and their timings:

Norio Honaga vs. Hirokazu Hata (11.21)
Young Lions Cup First Round, NJPW Battle Line Tokyo Dome

Dan Kroffat, Harley Race, and Joel Deaton vs. Giant Baba, Rusher Kimura, and Kenta Kobashi (11.27)
AJPW Champion Carnival Day 17

Mr. Perfect vs. The Blue Blazer (15.42)
WWF On Tele+2

Bucky Siegler & Dick Murdoch vs. Bob Orton Jr. & Butch Reed (4.53)
NWA World Championship Wrestling

Hercules vs. King Haku (6.57)
WWF Wrestlemania V

Fatu and Samu (The Samoan SWAT Team) vs. Bobby Eaton & Stan Lane (The Midnight Express) (20.32)
NWA Clash of the Champions 6: Ragin' Cajun!

A-ha, you might be thinking, what about that last bout? Or the Perfect-Blazer bout. Well sure they're on the long side. But Perfect was a star of the AWA and WWF. And The Blue Blazer was Owen Hart. And that tag bout from Clash of the Champions was the blow-off to a feud that had built on television amped up by hot air enthusiasts Paul Heyman and Jim Cornette.

"Also I am going to be a future star and run over a hero of yours YEAHHH"

Then things become a little uncanny. The only match that seems to generally correspond with this UWF approach (which I am not criticising per se!) is from an obscure independent show also held at Korakuen Hall by another small troupe of people exited from a major company to pursue a separate vision that in a way is kind of a Bizarro UWF. 

This was a two match show held under the name Pioneer Senshi, referred to in some places as Japan's first independent wrestling company. Pioneer Senshi's wrestlers had quit All Japan in the same way UWF's had left New Japan. The Cagematch database lists this company as running from 1988-1990 (same as UWF) and from wider research appears to have run more than the single show contained within that excellent website's records. I have just watched a match from a Pioneer Senshi show and the work appears to bear some relationship to UWF but is not shoot-style.

To sidebar further (please skip this if you're just looking for the UWF stuff) in a way that I never planned to start writing about but I've done it now and I cannot be bothered deleting it: it seems that around this era there are several start-ups/upstarts emerging in the Japanese wrestling industry. Pioneer Senshi's top draw? Atsushi Onita. He would create Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling (FMW) in 1989. Super World of Sports (SWS) would be created in 1990 by the freelancer Genichiro Tenryu and New Japan exile George Takano. Freelancer and lucha libre enthusiast Gran Hamada began Federacion Universal de Lucha Libra (FULL) in 1990 in front of a full Korakuen Hall. Wrestling International New Generations (W*ING) commenced in 1991 featuring ex-Pioneer Senshi talents not long after Takada's UWF-I would commence featuring ex-UWF talents. 

"What this country needs, lads, is more of this..."

From here until the middle of the decade we would see Akira Maeda commence RINGS, Funaki and Suzuki in Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi (PWFG), Takano try again in Kendo Nagasaki's Network of Wrestling (NOW), Tenryu try again with Wrestle Association-R (WAR), The Great Sasuke start up the evergreen Michinoku Pro, the creation of Independent Wrestling Alliance (IWA) by Pioneer Senshi worker Ryuma Go (who also created Ryuma Go Pro), Takano trying again with his brother Shunji in Pro Wrestling Crusaders (PWC), ex-AJPW and SWS alumni Yoshiaki Yatsu commencing Social Pro (SPWF), the creation of the Independent Wrestling Union by ex-SWS worker Kishin Kawabata, the birth of deathmatch company IWA Japan and finally, in 1995, the start of Big Japan Pro Wrestling. A number of regional companies were also formed, such as Tokyo Pro, who would feature workers responsible for the creation of Dragon Gate and Dramatic Dream Team (and its multiple sub-promotions). There are similar parallels in women's wrestling.

The point that I am bluffing my way through is this: that the original UWF's little upstart antics back in 1984 (as well as Riki Choshu's own Japan Pro, which runs between 1984 and 1987 and features workers who would later feature in Pioneer Senshi) haven't just unwittingly led to the shoot-style genre and the birth of MMA, but that they are something of the spirit germ of the independent rise/complete fragmentation (depends on your perspective) in the Japanese wrestling scene.

Geniuses? Suppressors?

Of course there are other factors in play. The absolute peak of the Japanese economy and the evolution of the television market are simultaneously occurring. The strict loyalty-based companies at the top of the pile would often refuse the return of workers, leading to independence and a different route becoming a necessity. And the narrative of an easy two-promotion stability that exploded is too smooth. Yes, Rikidozan's JWA ruled the roost from its inception in 1952 until the departure of its major stars Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki in 1972. But Rikidozan's death in 1963 created the opportunity for International Wrestling Enterprise (IWE) to find a place in the market in 1966 using JWA's other major domestic star Toyonobori. IWE ran until 1981, its influence waning as Baba's All Japan and Inoki's New Japan grew stronger and attracted the best foreign stars and trained the next cadre of superstar domestic workers.

(edit: I have since learned about a couple of other early promotions, post-JWA, pre-Inoki/Baba split, in particular the Masahiko Kimura-led International Pro Wrestling Force (IPWF) that was absorbed back into the JWA)

So it appears to be the case that from 1968 (when All Japan Women formed) up until the creation of both UWF 2 and Pioneer Senshi in 1988 that there had not been one year of wrestling activity where at least three, and sometimes four or five) companies had not been active. It seems natural that somebody would rush to fill that hole using the established method of Japanese wrestling culture at the time: jumping ship from a place and commencing a company based around the notion of a difference in style. But it does not explain why from 1989 to 1995 there is a continued breaking apart of the wrestling panorama; why a loose hegemony of three companies become 8, 10, 12 companies. And why these companies were suddenly being set up not by established stars but often younger workers seeking a new arena for their style. It's a topic worthy of serious inquiry.

However, to bring things back around a little: the Pioneer Senshi match in question pitted Apollo Sugawara against Masahiko Takagi and was recorded at 16 minutes in length. Sugawara would later make minor insider waves after it was reported that he was 'shot on' (beaten up for real after not co-operating) in a match in the ill-fated SWS promotion by...Minoru Suzuki. Watch from 7.30 onwards as shit really starts to fall apart:

What a neat sidebar and segue that was. Moral of the story: UWF's opening matches are longer than most, and also they seemed to kick off more madness than just shoot-style.

The second half of Anjo-Suzuki is much more interesting. It's interesting to see Suzuki fight as if he is a Young Lion of NJPW in 2017, with a slightly angsty earnestness to perform well and show his enthusiasm even in defeat. He's got nice suplexes and the dropkick that he throws to this day. He even sells like a babyface and it's cute to see given how the years have shaped him. Nonetheless the night is not his: the finish comes when Anjo hits a fairly pro-wrestling style inverted backbreaker and then cinches in a choke. Solid match and a good UWF debut.

Match four in the lopsided series between Shigeo Miyato and Tatsuo Nakano takes place, with those keeping score well aware that Miyato leads 2-0 with a tie that Nakano would never have won had the fight got on another hour. There are pre-match interviews where Nakano comes across monosyllabic and even in the seconds before the bell he looks deeply unimpressed with life:

Though the match goes the customary 20 minutes allotted to Miyato and Nakano, this feels like the match that their Fire Pro computer vs. computer simulation promised that they would have that led them to be booked against each other so often.

Nakano comes out hot and looking for vengeance, throwing little slaps and kicks. This is Nakano at his best. Nakano is not a grappler. He can grapple, but in grappling-style matches he shows little of the imagination that made a Backlund, a Suzuki, or a Yamazaki a fun shoot-style grappler. When he's waddling about and throwing heavy-legged kicks, he's as thrilling as anyone, and the joy is written all over his face.

Miyato grinds the match down on the floor in some control segments that border on the patience-testing. But Nakano is looking more to stand-up and let rip. The new dynamic leads to small gems such as this:


Nakano's eagerness to go on the attack brings out the beast in his opponent. After throwing a bunch of trademark spinkicks, Miyato wins after scoring a brutal knockdown and then charging his recuperating opponent, downing him with a kick and then securing a triangle.

Even if their series is even-more lopsided now, this was the best match of their lower card rivalry to date, filled with surprises and gnarly suplexes and interesting new twists on established patterns. The introduction of the five knockdown rule (and remembering to actually use it) really helps this match establish a heightening tension that was missing previously.

Nakano refuses the post-match handshake, rolling out of the ring and stomping off to the back. The feud continues? Surely not. No wait. Probably will.

The main event of this short show is the third entry in the annals of the rivalry between Akira Maeda and Kazuo Yamazaki. Maeda, 2-0 up in the series so far, has been restored to the top of the tree by bettering Nobuhiko Takada two months previously. Takada beat Yamazaki on the previous card, seemingly cementing Yamazaki as the enforcer of the upper midcard, the Arn Anderson, the guy who can give you a great match and generally seem like the real deal, but who isn't going anywhere beyond the place he's at right now.

Both are interviewed beforehand. Yamazaki does the earnest vlogger look, straight down the camera, whilst Maeda sits 3/4 on like a member of a late 80s shoegaze band, hunched over and affecting a distant disposition.

They start out having a good little match that kicks up into another gear on 8 minutes as a furious battery of kicks by Yamazaki to a kneeling Maeda is returned with interest. Yamazaki takes a down, cannily waiting up to 9 even though he is fine by 5, before roaring back into the contest.

Then just as the match is on its way to being a classic, the train leaps the track. Maeda catches Yamazaki's kick and hooks in for the trademark Capture Suplex. Yamazaki headbutts the attempt off and busts himself open royally.

You can tell he isn't faking it because he clutches his head, pouring with blood, almost instantly. For his troubles Maeda hits a German Suplex. Yamazaki tries to calm the match down by hitting what passes in UWF as a rest-hold. The referee spots the wound and asks the doctor to take a look.

It's grim. And even Maeda looks concerned. If it's an angle then it is brilliantly executed. But it doesn't feel like it.

The match is called. Yamazaki pumps his fists to indicate willingness to continue. But the referee, doctor, and Maeda want none of it, and a UWF ringboy has to hold Yamazaki back.

Eventually Maeda grabs a mic and makes a short oration and I think indicates a willingness to do this all over again. The crowd clap and Yamazaki bows to Maeda and the crowd and it feels like a classic no-fault no-contest. But the last laugh, as ever, goes to Maeda:

Winner by doctor stoppage. You bastard! An interesting short show all the same.

NEXT TIME: Funaki debuts, as do two more!


  1. The true extent of the 80s/90s Japanese indie proliferation was unknown to me; this is wild new terrain.

  2. Many weeks have passes since we last followed the adventures of maeda, would that the stars align and more stories of shoot styling be told unto us.