To many, this highly anticipated hybrid pro wrestling event kicks off the WrestleMania weekend, live from White Eagle Hall, New Jersey. This is the second iteration of Bloodsport; the first presented last year and being hosted by former UFC fighter and current NXT star Matt Riddle. Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Josh Barnett has picked up the moniker and has a sequel that he promises to be bigger and better than the original.
As it was last year, there is a wrestling ring but it is without ropes. The sponsors on the mat add to the sports presentation, even if they are brands like ‘Wrestling with Wregret’. The crowd does not look large in the beginning (though it will fill in) but they are very loud and enthusiastic. The code of conduct is explained before the show begins and is(roughly) as follows:
- Fights can only end by submission, knockout, forfeiture or disqualification. It is specified that matches cannot end in pinfall.
- If the fight goes too close to the edge of the ring or falls outside of it, the match will be restarted in the centre. The referee adds that there are also no rope breaks, which pops the crowd.
- There are no count outs but the contest must end inside the ring
- Targeted attacks to the eyes, ears, throat or groin are prohibited (this gets booed)
- Biting, scratching, hair-pulling, fish-hooking , small joint manipulation, holding the attire of an opponent, outside interference and weapons are all also prohibited (boos)
- Finally, attacking your opponent after the bell is also prohibited (more boos, because rules)
Our commentary partnership of Denver Colorado and Kevin Gill join the broadcast and introduce us to the first two fighters (not wrestlers). Phil Baroni of Long Island, New York, made his UFC debut in 2001 and has been an active fighter ever since. If the lack of reaction for his entrance wasn’t uncomfortable enough for you, he fakes out a handshake to one fan and then keeps trying with others, despite no one else falling for it. Finally giving in, he then opens his leather jacket and gyrates his little black trunks in the faces of fans.
Credit where it is due – Baroni has strongly established himself as the heel without even touching the ring yet. The fans begin heckling him and he aggressively responds as he straps on his MMA gloves but it is difficult to make out the words.
Dominick Garrini makes his return to Bloodsport after a successful outing last year and gets a much nicer reaction; though it is hard to tell whether it’s because he is Dominick Garrini or because he is simply not Phil Baroni. Garrini is in a full white gi with a purple belt, making this opening bout somewhat resemble and early UFC card.
Baroni’s body punches look good on offence and he stuffs a single-leg takedown well on defence. He turns his back and Garrini does the right thing, attacking right away rather than circling the ring like a pro wrestling match. Unfortunately it leads to a pro wrestling arm twist but Garrini works out of it quickly enough. Dom stays on the mat, where he is comfortable as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter and scoots toward Baroni, trying to trip him. There is another little moment of ‘fakeness’ when Baroni pretends he was tripped and takes a bump but they find some momentum and the contest finds its feet. Baroni throws big body shots while on top of Garrini but finds himself scrambling away from a submission attempt, retreating to the corner and even asking for a time out. A ‘Phil Jabroni’ chant breaks out and very clearly distracts the veteran. Garrini gets top position and tries to take an arm home but Baroni pokes him in the eye while the referee was behind him. They return to their feet and Baroni nails Garrini with a hard right hand and then mock pins him. Baroni abuses the referee as Dom recovers and then as Garrini stands up, he is met with an even better looking straight right that knocks him out for the count. Baroni will not leave the referee alone and gets disqualified anyway, so Garrini ends up getting his hand raised, to cheers from the audience.
Dominick Garrini def. Phil Baroni via disqualification
JR Kratos is a big bald bad looking guy that trains in wrestling under Josh Barnett himself. Simon Grimm, formerly Gotch, is pleasantly welcomed into this size mismatch by the crowd. They are both in normal pro wrestling gear. They begin tentatively striking before Grimm shoots from a long way out but manages to get the big man down, though they have to restart given they end up right on the edge of the ring. Like Garrini, Grimm beckons Kratos down into his guard but once again they move too wide. Now Grimm is asking for a slap and gets it, before responding with a leaping kick.
The grappling that follows is a more pro wrestling style but it is done tightly enough to not offend the style being attempted by this event. Grimm is mostly on defence but obviously landed a strike somewhere along the way because Kratos is noticeably bleeding from the nose. Then, in an unreal act of strength, Grimm powers out of the hold by lifting Kratos from the mat and slamming him back down. The ensuing scramble gives Grimm a chance at an armbar but Kratos responds in turn, lifting and powerbombing Grimm – before spectacularly diving at him with an elbow that knocks Grimm out. The crowd pops for the finish, though Kratos doesn’t stop. He tries picking Grimm up again but the referee mercifully stops it before he does.
JR Kratos def. Simon Gotch via knockout (flying elbow)
Killer Kross is a big athletic looking guy that comes out stoically and bows to each side of the ring like a martial artist. Davey Boy Smith Jr. is similarly built and well received by the crowd. Kross reportedly has a Muay Thai background and Davey of course has the catch wrestling background, so this is a classic clash of styles. They begin with leg kicks and funnily enough Davey appears to get the better of it and the commentary does a good job of explaining how dangerous these strikes are. Once Kross is taken down for the first time he becomes more interested in grappling with Smith even after they return to their feet, which may be defensively minded. He pays for that when Davey nearly secures a Sharpshooter in a respectably realistic way which pops the crowd. He loses it realistically too. The audience is knowledgeable in at least the basics of real grappling, as they applaud the escapes, passes and sweeps. The respect in the ring, however, is dwindling. This pair shook hands before the bout but the referee is having trouble separating their bulky frames when they reach the boundaries of the ring.
Kross has completely abandoned his striking game at this point and it does not appear to be a winning strategy. Smith comes very close to a kimura lock but once again the boundary interferes and the referee breaks it. Davey accuses Kross of tapping and is thrown on his head due to letting his guard down. Kross breaks a kneebar by thrusting his knees into Smith but upon gaining the advantage, loses it with some weak palm strikes. Now over 10 minutes in, these big bodies are slowing down. They test each other with slaps and Davey lands a belter but Kross returns it with a head kick and follows it up by lifting Smith’s dead weight and tossing him on to his head once again. The match comes full circle as the test turns to leg kicks and once again Davey is dominant. The head kick is attempted again but is telegraphed by Smith and this time Kross is thrown into his head. Smith locks in a crossface and Kross taps instantly. They bow to each other and shake hands after what was a terrific match. The fans chant the names of both competitors before they depart backstage.
Davey Boy Smith Jr. def. Killer Kross via submission (crossface)
Jon Gresham and Masashi Takeda are both welcomed passionately by the crowd for each of their entrances. Gresham is a broadly talented young American journeyman that will make a star of himself this weekend. Takeda brings with him both MMA experience and the psychotic edge it takes to be a deathmatch pro wrestler, visibly receipted all over his body. The match starts with a very convincingly aggressive scramble. Gresham’s second shot is more successful at first but he is soon overpowered by his larger opponent. The size difference isn’t too great for technique not to play a large factor and Gresham can certainly compete on that front. They tumble toward the edge of the ring, sending Jon’s head into the lens of the camera. Again they reach the edge and this time both fall to the unprotected floor head-first. They blame each other for the mishap and keep fighting. Gresham busts Takeda open with a strike, though that may not be difficult given Takeda is more scar-tissue than skin. Takeda grabs a chair in anger but the referee stops him and they return to the ring.
Gresham targets the wound with hammer-fists and Takeda’s blood begins to stain both his bleached hair and the mat. Takeda is no stranger to tasting his own blood, in fact in hindsight it may be what motivated what was to follow. Gresham’s quick feet cause damage and keep distance but Takeda is unrelenting. He moves forward swinging, unfazed as his attacks are ducked and countered. His persistence inevitably pays off – a big right hand lands on Gresham’s chin and drops him to a knee. Takeda shows no mercy. He swings his knee straight through the side of Gresham’s head, knocking him straight out. Still in fight-mode, Takeda does not stop, even as the referee puts his body between the pair. Once they are finally separated, they bump fists in respect and that respect is met by all in attendance. This match is exactly what Bloodsport is all about.
Masashi Takeda def. Jonathan Gresham via knockout (knee)
Andy Williams is a big guy with an even bigger moustache. The New York native is also a guitarist for the hardcore punk band Every Time I Die. Chris Dickinson returns from the original Bloodsport where he took a loss to Dan Severn. Tonight he fills in for Tom Lawlor who unfortunately pulled out from the event and wasted no time getting started. The crowd go wild as these two rams butt heads with no reserve. Williams uses his greater size to land a powerbomb and take top position. Dickinson holds little back in fighting back, landing some hard punches to Andy’s head. Once again the size difference plays its part as Williams lifts and throws Dickinson but this bulldog won’t stay down. Dickinson is inexorable and his experience proves to outweigh the advantage Williams owns in pounds. Dickinson becomes the backpack that won’t let go – he secures the neck of Williams and forces the submission for a very impressive victory.
Chris Dickinson def. Andy Williams via submission (rear naked choke)
The fans react with anticipation when they catch sight of Frank Mir for his pro wrestling debut. Not only is he one of the best heavyweight grapplers in MMA history but he is well known to wrestling fans as Brock Lesnar’s first MMA rival. Phil Baroni crashes the party to help Mir warm up, which does not assist Mir’s smiley babyface image, and in fairness it does not appear as if Mir authorized this particular cornerman.
Dan Severn takes a warm welcome upon entry as the third Bloodsport returnee on the card. Commentary actually make the point that Mir might take it easy on Severn, which would usually be an awful thing to say but in this instance brings some legitimacy to the contest. Mir is still a relatively highly ranked heavyweight in MMA (he is even wearing his Bellator MMA shorts) and Severn is long retired. It would make sense in this exhibition setting that Mir would revere Severn and that is a story adequately told on commentary. In addition to that, being they are both grapplers, no strikes are exchanged and thus in terms of psychology, this match is perfectly solid.
Mir allows his senior some space and goes with the flow at first as they feel each other out. Severn fights out of armbar and omoplata attempts but Mir continues to transition along with him and rather casually locks in the heel hook that ends the contest; seemingly the latest hold of what would have been a string of attacks from a grappler much nearer his prime. The short bout does not excite the crowd much, nor does Phil Baroni’s referee impersonation, as he raises Mir’s hand in victory. Frank is quick to respectfully acknowledge Severn, who raises the victor’s arm in turn.
Mir grabs the microphone and praises his legendary opponent. He says he will answer the question everyone has been asking and confirms that yes – he is getting into this so that he can face Brock again. Big pop. The audio is terrible and hard to make out but the sentiment seems to be, as Mir continues, that he was the first to make Lesnar tap in the octagon and now he wants to make him tap in a ring. The fans are clearly behind this idea and Frank walks out to ‘sign him Regal’ chants.
Frank Mir def. Dan Severn via submission (heel hook)
Timothy Thatcher is another alumnus of the original Bloodsport and is recognised by the crowd for what he brings to the ring. Last time out he faced deathmatch nutcase Nick Gage but this time Thatcher faces a man much more aligned with his strengths. Hideki Suzuki trained under the legendary Billy Robinson and is of a similar size. They walk straight at each other with the intention of tying up and are very much equal in the early stages. This match is very much mat-based but extremely competitive to the point of them cancelling each other out.
Suzuki eventually begins taking advantage of the relaxed rules, first with a headbutt and then again by manipulating Thatcher’s fingers to escape a submission hold. On neither occasion does the referee intervene and in fairness, Thatcher neither complains nor concedes position for long. They continue to trade holds on the mat in a fashion similar to the style of 1990’s New Japan. Suzuki steps things up with a stomp to the head of a grounded Thatcher but the American remains resilient and refuses to be drawn into a brawl. As the effects of such a physical match wear on, suplexes become more readily available. Though Thatcher lands the first, Suzuki lands the game-changer. A brutal backbreaker is followed by a full-nelson throw that renders Thatcher unconscious. The referee ends the match there.
Hideki Suzuki def. Timothy Thatcher via knockout (full-nelson throw)
Minoru Suzuki is the main event of Bloodsport for the second year running and receives a massive ovation, both when his music hits and when he appears through the curtain. ‘Kaze ni Nare’ reverberates around the arena as he steps foot on the mat and is followed by strong SU-ZU-KI chant. Barnett was always going to be hard-pressed to match such a reaction but the big-fight-feel is palpable as these two face off inside White Eagle Hall. Barnett clearly has the size advantage going into the initial test of strength. They scramble vigorously; back and forth, countering each other’s holds and attacks. The 20 minute time limit has been present all night but no one has threatened it like these two will, purely because of the experience and resilience on display, though that is certainly not to say the action is going wanting. Suzuki works his famous sleeper hold but the strength of Barnett means a backdrop is the escape. Suzuki bounces back with strikes that snap and echo throughout the building. They tie up and strike in the clinch and while Suzuki lands more shots, Barnett has more power and lands a front headlock suplex. The crowd ardently follows every transition with delight.
Suzuki sees an opening, hitting continuous knees before attempting his signature piledriver. Barnett is too big and his resistance is too strong. Eventually Barnett controls a single leg and manoeuvres into an STF. An unresponsive Suzuki has his arm lifted in typical pro wrestling fashion, finally answering on the third attempt. A spot that seemed out of place here but nonetheless gained a pop from the crowd. The former Pancrase champion is hurt and uses the opportunity to retreat from the ring. In almost systematic fashion, Suzuki attempts to grab a chair but struggles as commentary explains they are zip-tied together for this very reason. Suzuki is not to be outsmarted; he pulls Barnett over the edge of the ring and pushes the referee down, before taking the chair and smashing his opponent with it at closer range. It does not have the desired effect as Barnett does not go down. Instead he strikes back and returns the fight to the ring. After a few strong strikes to the top of Suzuki’s head, Barnett lands a gutwrench suplex.
They both rise to their knees and challenge each other to a striking battle, just as the announcer advises only 3 minutes remain. A couple of Barnett’s elbows stumble Suzuki but he just smiles at the crowd and returns to the center. The crowd ‘shhhh’ in order to hear each blow and Suzuki is happy to reward their attention. Those old hands go back and forth as the clock counts down and the crowd is going is loving every second of it. Once it concludes the competitors collapse but the crowd chant for 5 more minutes. Suzuki agrees to a massive roar of approval. The fight goes on and neither man backs down. Suzuki beckons Barnett on in English and Barnett responds in turn in Japanese. 2 minutes remain and Suzuki snatches an abdominal hold, channelling stablemate Zack Sabre Jr. They fight with their legs to secure a hold on one another as ‘fight forever’ chants bounce around the arena and the clock ticks closer to the end. As the time limit expires, neither man releases the hold and the fans at first are disappointed. The official announcement of a time limit draw is made and the fans change their mind, acknowledging the great match they had just witnessed, and begin cheering loudly. Suzuki and Barnett shake hands and embrace. The fans are chanting GCW but Suzuki corrects them, saying this is Bloodsport, and the fans respond in kind by amending their chant. This indeed was Bloodsport; and what an event it was.
Josh Barnett & Minoru Suzuki go to a time limit draw
At just over two hours, this event was the perfect length. No match went much longer than it needed to which allowed the show to roll on effortlessly. One thing it may have benefited from was short promos before each match. Not just to introduce each fighter but introducing a glimpse into their strategies for the upcoming bout. There were times during a grappling exchange where a strike would be obvious and legal but went absent. This could be explained if the competitors were looking to prove themselves as the better grappler, or perhaps had no ill-will toward each other.
All in all, the event was far more organised and thoroughly explained than the Bloodsport event that preceded it. The action was more realistic, the matches were better and there were bigger stars involved. This is a style of wrestling that has a lot of room to grow. It is a style not seen popularized since the days of UWFI a quarter century ago. If you are interested in the link between then and now, please also check out my article on the fall of the style.