With rumors that Vader is set to be inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame for 2016 along with other WCW mainstays as the Man Called Sting and possibly the Freebirds, it is interesting to follow the careers of certain wrestlers outside of their WWE-approved narrative. In particular, Vader's foray into the world of shoot-style wrestling while under WCW contract brings to mind so many things that don't seem to exist in the WWE controlled environment anymore: Cross-promotion matches, shoot-style pro wrestling (which admittedly is dead just about everywhere else) and in general, building a reputation outside of one organization without the need to be in said organization, because so many options for pro wrestling existed. As Joey Styles noted in a Twitter session a few weeks ago, none of the organizations that actually do something different from the E (Lucha Underground on El Ray, NJPW on AXS TV) actually reach enough people to change the view of what true
pro wrestling sports entertainment is supposed to look like. Vader's career, in particular his UWFi stint, is a testament to how differently people viewed styles of wrestling back then, and how someone's reputation as being tough could cross promotional and geographic boundaries.
The UWFi, or Union of Wrestling Forces International, was an offshoot of the original UWF, not Bill Watt's Mid-South Wrestling, but a Japanese organization that placed an emphasis on creating a more realistic approach to wrestling, eschewing running the ropes, Irish Whips, and other overly showy moves in favor of striking and grappling more in tune with the original roots of catch-as-catch can wrestling.
This all seems rudimentary today, but in the late 80's/early 90's prior to the dawn of the UFC, this was considered revolutionary. Unfortunately, the original UWF dissolved due to a lot of infighting on how the organization was supposed to go, which culminated in two of UWF's top stars, Satoru Sayama and Akira Maeda, shooting on each other in a match that ended with Maeda kicking Sayama in the testicles, earning himself a DQ and the confusion of the audience. The second UWF, AKA the Newborn UWF, despite its popularity, also fell victim to infighting and how cross-promotion would affect the wrestlers when the 'shooters' worked with wrestlers outside of the shoot style.
And so the various stars went their separate ways, forming a variety of organizations that are as varied as they were influential. Sayama, having grown sick of pro wrestling, founded SHOOTO, the world's first MMA league, predating even the UFC. Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki initially went with their mentor Fujiwari as part of the Pro Wrestling Fujiwari-Gumi, but soon left to form Pancrase, keeping the UWF's ruleset and throwing out the script. And then Nobuhiko Takada, with a legion of trainees from the UWF's dojo, the UWF Snakepit (many of which were trained in catch wrestling by the late Billy Robinson, one of the most respected shooters of the day, and the God of Pro Wrestling himself in Japan, Karl Gotch) went and formed the UWFi, which became one of the biggest of the UWF spinoffs. Its reputation as being "real" despite being worked actually led it to be marketed to English speaking countries as such, both under the Shootwrestling banner on PPV and then as a syndicated television series called Bushido - Way of the Warrior.
Now what does this all have to do with Vader?
The UWFi, for all its success, did not have the deepest roster of credible challengers to face Takada, their top star. The first top heel, Gary Albright, an amateur standout known for his impressive array of suplexes, had done a series with Takada culminating in a submission loss crowning Takada the first UWFi champion (endorsed by Lou Thesz no less as the best wrestler on the planet). Following that, the UWFi did a series of legitimate shootfights against boxers, culminating in an absolutely bizarre match where Takada fought Trevor Berbick, better known to many as the man Mike Tyson knocked out to win his first heavyweight title. Berbick, unaware of the fact that leg kicks were legal, complained when he was kicked to the legs about four seconds in and ultimately walked out of the ring in frustration. Finally, disgraced sumotori Koji Kitao (of Wrestlemania VII fame) fought Takada in a shoot-style vs. karate contest that ended with Takada legitimately going into business for himself and kicking Kitao in the head, knocking him out cold.
Meanwhile, in the US, in 1993, pro wrestling, in sharp contrast to the booming Japanese market and its legion of styles, was in the midst of the biggest recession of popularity until the Attitude Era ended, thanks to the Vince McMahon steroid trial and many of the stars of the 80's making themselves scarce till the heat died down. Vader had just reclaimed the WCW title from Ron Simmons and was positioned as top heel of the company, but with WCW not exactly doing gangbuster business, Vader decided to go elsewhere for a payday, made possible by WCW's fairly relaxed rules concerning foreign co-promotion, distinctly unlike the WWF.
Vader's gimmick (after a laughable stint as a jobber in the AWA) was actually created in Japan by famed manga-ka Go Nagai, who is also responsible for Jushin Liger's gimmick as well as a bevy of genres in manga, many of which deserve their own article. (Uncle Go, as he's nicknamed sometimes, and his effect on pro wrestling might make a good fanpost for another day). The UWFi, aware of Vader's reputation, signed him on for an eight fight deal as the organization's top gaijin heel, supplanting Albright. The in-universe story was that Takada had challenged world champions from other organizations including New Japan, All Japan, WWF, etc, and only Vader was man enough to answer the call to battle the UWFi's shooters.
Nakano would soon realize that it was Vader Time.
Vader, with the WCW Championship in hand (not the Big Gold Belt, long, long story) made his debut for the promotion on May 6, 1993 under the name of Super Vader (Not Big Van Vader, to avoid legal issues with New Japan) where he ran over UWFi midcarder Tatsuo Nakano. Vader utterly decimating Nakano put the entire UWFi on notice, instantly established himself as a top heel...and immediately caused problems for Western distributors which were carrying UWFi shows. This ended up being due to the same thing that caused such intrigue with Vader in Japan, as well as something that doesn't really exist anymore, a clash of styles.
In the modern WWE, everyone
wrestles sports entertains with the same style. Candidates are sent through NXT to learn how to work the WWE way and to unlearn any habits picked up in the indies that may not gel with the WWE way of doing things. Once they get to the main roster, they're using the same tools to tell stories, it's just a matter of what Creative saddles them with that week, whether it's to work a mid-card feud or job to Roman Reigns. Everything, from motivation, to promo, to style, is very tightly controlled to work with the given narrative.
The UWFI style, based on their training with legitimate shooters like Billy Robinson and with the endorsement of Lou Thesz, was based around strikes, slams, and submissions. The most complicated slam you'd see was a suplex of some sort, and rarely did you see moves that were clear works, as men like Gotch and Robinson made it a point to emphasize the more realistic style.
Vader however, threw all that out the window. Nowhere is that more notable than his match with future RINGS and PRIDE FC mainstay Kiyoshi Tamura.
Tamura, who would eventually use his shoot-style skills to become a legitimate MMA fighter, wrestled the match with strikes, kicking Vader's legs, simple takedowns such as a low sweep single, and submission attempts. Then the match climaxes with Vader throwing that out the window and powerbombing Tamura, leaving him splayed out in agony on the mat. A clearly worked move that sharply clashed with the proto-MMA aesthetic the UWFi was going for.
While I am unable to find the exact reason, broadcasts of Bushido never showed Vader matches, despite the fact that he was a mainstay in the main event. It wasn't a case of just not showing the events after he showed up either, the broadcasts would show matches from those cards, unless they involved Vader, which became harder when he challenged and eventually won the Real-Pro Wrestling title in December of 1993, less than a month before Starrcade 93 where he dropped the WCW title back to Ric Flair. It didn't hurt that Vader vs. Takada drew a then-record 46,148 screaming puro fans to Tokyo's Jingu Stadium, some of the biggest business the organization had ever done.
From what I've gathered, and feel free to correct me if you know the exact reason, there are one of two reasons Vader matches were not in Bushido broadcasts. The first was that WCW still had the rights to Vader matches in markets where they distributed, and, busy building Vader up for Starrcade 93 against Sid Vicious and later Ric Flair, didn't want UWFi matches interfering in the build and blowing holes in kayfabe with the shoot style vs. Southern style questions. The second was that Vader's presence alone, defeating the vaunted shooters while being a fake Southern wrassler, damaged the credibility of the Bushido product and made it imperative to hide Vader from Western viewers.
It's worth noting that Lou Thesz, while he had nothing bad to say about Vader as a person, cited Vader's winning the UWFi title as the reason for his ultimately distancing from the promotion and revoking his endorsement of the champion, as noted in a quote from the Wrestling Classics forum circa 2000. The full revocation, however, didn't occur until the UWFI's later cross-promotion with New Japan Pro Wrestling.
"UWFI started with a great ides and good talent, but eventually gave in to the stupidity of performance (which incidentally was their undoing). I have no idea as to the ratio of performance and cometition in the matches. I did lots of coaching and was a spokesperson for hte new sport as well as lending the old championship belt to the equation. When the side show started, I dropped out with the belt. AS nice a guy as Vader is, I just couldn't tolerate him in the belt."
So you have a major champion that's drawing huge crowds despite foreign distributors and some of their own endorsers not liking it, in many ways, kind of the opposite problem of what the WWE is facing right now. Still, like the WWE, the solution was to double down. 1994 saw Vader lose the belt back to Takada to build a feud with Gary Albright, including a tag team match where Vader teamed with the Quake Muffin (Thanks OSW Review) John Tenta against Albright and UWFi native Kazuo Yamasaki.
So what bought this experiment Vader's involvement to an end? The same thing that ended a lot of the diversity of styles and many pro wrestling organizations. Money. Vader had a financial dispute over his contract and went back to WCW, where he spent most of 1995 jobbing to Hulk Hogan, who was still in full "Bury any native stars in WCW" mode. Soon after, he made tracks for the WWF, which in 1996 was starting to rebuild from the worst year of business that it had ever had.
Meanwhile, the UWFi began to see the popularity of shoot-style pro wrestling wane after an incident where in an attempt to get another foreign heel for Takada to defeat, challenged Rickson Gracie of the Gracie clan (and winner of the Vale Tudo 94 tournament). Rickson had no interest in pro wrestling or jobbing to Takada, so Takada sent Yoji Anjoh to Rickson's California gym to convince him, questioning the Jiu Jitsu master and his honor. Budovideos.com has an excellent writeup of the incident here, but long story short, a closed door fight took place, and Anjoh left Rickson's gym with a brutalized face,
The incident caused major shame to the UWFi, which was now without a top heel and took a serious blow to the credibility of their athletes. Soon after, the UWFi entered into an interpromotional feud with New Japan Pro Wrestling, where Eric Bischoff would get an idea for a feud of his own over in WCW.
With the rise of mixed martial arts, shoot-style pro wrestling was soon confined to the dustbin of history, at least as a major force in pro wrestling promotions. But for about two years, Vader had done something that it seems the WWE has struggled mightily to prevent, become a bigger star than the promotions he worked for. And viewers got to see styles clash (no, not that one) in a way that simply doesn't exist anymore. It was truly a different time for wrestling and how people got over, one that won't come back.