(Excerpted from The MMA Encyclopedia by Jonathan Snowden and Kendall Shields)
Many people assume that modern MMA started with UFC 1 at the McNichols Arena in Denver, Colorado, in November 1993. In fact, the first mixed fights had taken place months earlier at the Tokyo NK Hall in Japan, where a small troupe of maverick pro wrestlers had taken the wrestling business back to its roots.
Maskatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki had tons of potential in traditional pro wrestling. Funaki had a real shot at succeeding Antonio Inoki as the biggest star on the Japanese circuit, and Suzuki had an amateur pedigree that could take him far. But the students of Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Karl Gotch weren’t looking to take pratfalls for giant American steroid machines like the Road Warriors. They wanted to take wrestling back to a simpler time, when the matches were real and the showmanship was in the context of actual competition.
The idea wasn’t exactly new. Inoki had wrestled a variety of martial artists in matches billed as the real deal back in the 1970’s. In the 1980’s the UWF and its offspring presented the public with “shootstyle” wrestling, predetermined matches using real techniques and real holds and designed to be realistic enough to pass for an actual fight.
It was Funaki and Suzuki who wanted to take it a step further. They wanted a match, contested under modified pro wrestling rules (break when you get into the ropes, no punches to the face), that was a legitimate shoot. The concept was unheard of, failure the predicted result. With straight matches up and down the card, the first event featured just 13 minutes and five seconds of action spread over six fights. Something would have to change.
The skill of the Japanese fighters and the exceptional American Ken Shamrock far exceeded their game, but untrained opponents. They had learned an important lesson, deciding from then on to make sure the crowd got a show before they disposed of their hapless foes.
“You didn’t want to go out there and just destroy them,” Shamrock said. “You want to go out there and maybe give some encouragement to try harder next time.”
Funaki realized quickly that the key to the promotion’s survival was the creation of new stars. As a pro wrestler, he understood that it took a star to make a star. With that philosophy is mind, Funaki and other stalwarts like Shamrock and Suzuki would sometimes (editor’s note: allegedly) intentionally lose matches to lesser opponents in an attempt to make them big time players.
Soon a new generation of fighters was catching up with the original trio of greats. Bas Rutten, a Dutch kickboxer who lost two early matches to Shamrock, was able to master the mat game and become the best fighter in the promotion, going on a 19 fight win streak, unheard of in Pancrase history.
“It was the loss to Ken. I really had it,” Rutten said. “I’m a very sore loser and I knew what the problem was. It was because I didn’t train any ground. That decided it for me…So I start concentrating on grappling twice a day, seven days a week. I really took it to the next level.”
Rutten’s match with Funaki in September 1996 was the promotion’s highpoint and its last grasp at relevance in a rapidly changing fight game. Rutten dismantled the legend standing, bloodying the man who had taken the time to teach him the submission game, creating the opponents for himself he couldn’t otherwise acquire.
The Pancrase game was maybe a little too refined, lacking the violence fans saw from the UFC and the newly created PRIDE organization in Japan. Funaki attempted to adjust course, going to more traditional Vale Tudo rules in 1998, including the legalization of punches to the head. But it was too little too late. Most of the top foreign talent had left for greener pastures in the UFC and PRIDE. To make matter worse, the established Japanese stars were wearing down. Years of grueling training sessions and a fight every single month had taken there toll on the Pancrase founders.
Today, the promotion continues to put on a monthly show. But it isn’t an important player, even on a diminished Japanese scene. Firmly an independent promotion, only the most diehard of fans can remember a time when the best fighters in the world wore the famous Pancrase banana hammock trunks and shinguard combination.