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The history of mixed martial arts has always been intertwined with professional wrestling. This fact makes many MMA enthusiasts uncomfortable, but it shouldn't. Many of MMA's greatest fighters come from a professional wrestling background, and the entire fabric of MMA is so heavily influenced by pro-wrestling that it's impossible to imagine what MMA would look like (or if MMA would even exist) without pro-wrestling.
In this series "From Shows to Shoots", we'll take a look back at some of the most important ways in which professional wrestling has helped shape mixed martial arts. Appropriately, we'll start with the one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time and certainly the greatest fighter to ever come from a professional wrestling background, Kazushi Sakuraba.
Sakuraba began his athletic career, as so many wrestlers and MMA fighters do, as an amateur wrestler. After a successful amateur career at Chuo University, he joined the Japanese organization Union of Wrestling Forces International, or UWFi. Now, I can't pretend to be remarkably well versed in the history of Japanese wrestling. But it doesn't take an expert to realize that the UWFi and New Japan Pro Wrestling didn't think of one another as best friends.
The original UWF was formed in 1984 by a roster of former NJPW wrestlers who wanted to practice a more realistic, shoot-style of professional wrestling. Although the matches were still worked, the UWF created an entirely new style of wrestling in contrast with NJPW's more theatrical style. Unfortunately, the original UWF didn't have a long shelf life. Due to bickering among the promotion's stars, the UWF dissolved in 1986 and most of the roster slunk back to NJPW. In 1988, most of that same roster left NJPW once again to form the "Newborn UWF". Newborn UWF integrated legends of wrestling and MMA such as Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki, Kiyoshi Tamura and others into realistic shoot-style wrestling matches from 1988-1990. Unfortunately, despite a critically acclaimed product, Newborn UWF was also short lived. A combination of managerial bickering, economic downturn and waning fan interest forced the promotion to shutter it's doors once again in 1990.
It as at this point Kazushi Sakuraba enters the equation.
After Newborn UWF folded, in 1991 several of the fighters formed yet another incarnation of the UWF, this time called the UWFi. The UWFi included the majority of the UWF's roster, including top star, face, and champion Nobuhiko Takada. The promotion struggled just as previous versions had, but attained modest success. In 1993, Sakuraba joined the UWFi. Despite being thought of as a promising prospect, Sakuraba lost his first several matches and in fact went winless for the first year of his professional wrestling career.
Despite this setback, Sakuraba eventually began to win matches and worked his way up to mid-card status. Then, in 1995, a crucial event occurred that forever changed Sakuraba's career and thus MMA history.
Unfortunately, the UWFi once again began to struggle financially. In an effort to raise interest and save their company, the UWFi agreed to co-promote a series of events with 800-pound gorilla New Japan Pro Wrestling. NJPW agreed to the co-promotion on the condition that they be given total control over the matches, and the UWFi had little choice but to accept. NJPW viewed the events as a way to retaliate against the UWFi for their continued derision of the NJPW's style, and nearly all of the matches were won by NJPW wrestlers. Sakuraba even participated in a few of these matches, losing to Tokimitsu Ishizawa, Koji Kanemoto and Shinjiro Otani from 1995-1996. Below, you can view Sakuraba's losses to Ishizawa, Kanemoto, and Otani.
After these losses, UWFi's credibility with fans was irretrievably damaged. After all, the UWF and all of its incarnations were based on the perception that UWF wrestlers had legitimate fighting skills. The UWFi struggled along for another year before shutting down in 1996. Several of the wrestlers from UWFi, led by Takada, formed Kingdom Pro Wrestling after the demise of the UWFi. But the stink of the UWFi's inglorious defeat permeated Kingdom Pro Wrestling, and in a desperate attempt to regain credibility, Kingdom sent several wrestlers to compete in the UFC Ultimate Japan tournament.
The rest, as they say, is history. Sakuraba was a late substitute for teammate Hiromitsu Kanehara, and went on to win the tournament by submitting 240 pound Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blackbelt Marcus Silveira in the tournament finals. The win propelled him to stardom and main-card status for Kingdom Pro Wrestling, and then to superstar status once he joined the newly formed MMA juggernaut, PRIDE. More than a decade later, he nears retirement as one of the greatest MMA fighters to ever compete.
But were it not for the struggling Japanese promotion UWF and their feud with New Japan Pro Wrestling, his career may have never gotten off the ground in the first place. Without that feud and the subsequent humiliation, there's little chance that Sakuraba would have ended up fighting in MMA so early, or perhaps at all. The UWF formed and subsequently failed four different times under four different names. But despite their failures, the UWF contributioned enormously to the style of professional wrestling, and their feud with NJPW led to the career of one of the true greats of MMA.