Who can run the fastest? Who can jump the highest? Who can hold another man down or make him quit? These are the questions that plague any group of people and must be answered on the field of play—athletics at its most primal and pure.
It’s what makes wrestling one of the world’s oldest sports, a form of competition transcending culture, creed and even language, requiring little in the way of explanation. Wrestling is the sport of royalty and the common man—the desire to dominate knows no socio-economic boundaries. That’s why you see wrestling preserved for eternity on the vases of ancient Greece and Egypt.
Wrestling has survived the ages in various forms, from the gentle Glima of Scandinavia, where opponents through each other by their belts, to the rough and tumble grappling of the American frontier, where you could often pick out the grapplers by the scars covering their faces and even their missing eyeballs.
Pancrase lands somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, a brutal competition of potentially harmful techniques and holds that was also carefully regulated and controlled, both by the formal rules and an unwritten Gentleman’s Code.
The rules mimic those of traditional pro wrestling, only natural considering its origin as the offshoot of the enormously popular Universal Wrestling Federation, itself a descendent of Japan’s legendary New Japan Pro Wrestling promotion.
That’s a post for another day.
The rules of each bout were relatively simple. Submission holds were broken if a wrestler made it to the ropes (though it would cost them a point) and the referee would start a ten-count whenever a fighter was knocked down by a strike. Closed fist strikes to the head were illegal, both standing and on the ground. A concession in the middle of the ring or a knockout would end the match. Otherwise, the winner would be decided based on points scored.
The UWF worked in much the same way, as did its spinoffs like RINGS and UWFi, so in some ways, Pancrase was nothing new to hardcore wrestling fans. In others, it was almost impossibly different—while other promotions claimed to be legitimate contests, Pancrase really was.
It all began at Tokyo Bay NK Hall, an indoor arena at the Tokyo Disney Resort. It held 7000 people and 7000 souls were there, unsure what to expect but willing to pay upwards of $135 ($228.64 in 2017 money) to find out. The result surprised everyone, the fighters most of all.
Fans were used to shootstyle wrestling matches, bouts designed to look real but ultimately just more realistic works, last 30 minutes with fighters struggling valiantly to escape submission holds and surviving knockdown after knockdown. But when the competition was legitimate things looked a little different. The five matches lasted just a little more 13 minutes—total.
So began a journey that informed and helped create a combat sports revolution that continues to this day. For a time, from 1993-2000, Pancrase was something truly unique. That’s the Pancrase we loved and will cover here, in chronological order, exploring a promotion all but forgotten as its ethos yielded to the conventional nihilism UFC bred.
Enough introduction. Now let us join our friends in 1993, forgetting all we think we know and looking at the most influential promotion of its time through fresh eyes. Shall we begin?
Jonathan Snowden: The fighters gather in the ring and each man gives a brief speech. Though I can’t understand them, they are clearly heartfelt. Wayne (Ken) Shamrock is the only gaijin among them, though if he speaks it is not captured on this video. He had been prominently featured in a documentary special that aired the week before on Japanese TV, including clips of his wicked muscle car and Green Bay Packers helmet lamp.
It was the 1990s. We will forgive him.
Lee Casebolt: I have always loved the pre-show introductions Japanese shoot(ish) companies did. I don’t understand a word, obviously, but nonetheless I feel like they are communicating on a deep level and Takaku Fuke, in particular, gets all choked up.
Match 1: Katsuomi Inagaki vs Minoru Suzuki
Jonathan Snowden: Inagaki weighs 93 KG and stands 184 centimeters in height. He is a Libra and his blood type is AB. He has a foot that stretches 28 cm and a 46 cm neck. We know all this and more thanks to an exceptionally graphic video introduction that zooms in on specific body parts in a strange, nearly pornographic way.
Suzuki, in case you were wondering, is slightly smaller. And a Gemini.
Lee Casebolt: Early 90s Suzuki is the coolest looking motherfucker in the history of pro wrestling. World class badass sneer. I will never understand how he didn’t get hired to play the villain in martial arts movies starring Bart Vale and Don Frye. The movies would be terrible but they would have made a zillion dollars in the 90s.
Jonathan Snowden: Suzuki, wearing a black towel over his head like a small, Japanese Mike Tyson, is fearsome indeed. Inagaki, on the other hand, looks very nervous, a fact he’d later confirm in post-career interview.
“I felt a strong blood-thirsty feeling from my opponent, I thought it was kill or be killed,” he told a traveling martial artist last year. “In Mixed Martial Arts, one could get injured whilst potential deadly attacks are allowed. There is always a probability that one could kill or one could be killed. I believed that I had to be prepared to fight with those possibilities.”
Suzuki, a 1984 Olympic alternate, immediately secured a single leg. Perhaps that might explain the ease with which Inagaki found himself on the mat, but, as Pancrase is a promotion built by pro wrestlers, it is important to be cognizant of a work. I have my eyes on these two from the jump.
Lee Casebolt: Every shot of Suzuki’s face as he rides a more or less helpless Inagaki is amazing. He is having so much fun! Inagaki not so much. It’s the same difference in expression you could’ve seen when I was wrestling my cousins who were three to five years younger than me, except Suzuki’s mom probably isn’t going to yell at him if he really hurts Inagaki.
Jonathan Snowden: After a brief dueling leglock spot (one that would become a Pancrase staple) Suzuki snaps his head down and floats so smoothly to back control, that I wonder again about just how real this fight truly is. It’s hard, however, looking at this through 2017 eyes. Techniques that today would be easily countered may have slipped through in 1993, powered by athleticism and an opponent’s ignorance.
Whatever the case, there is nothing fake about the finish. Suzuki calls it a sleeper hold (裸絞め ). You might call it a rear naked choke. Either way, Inagaki’s eyes roll back into his head, leaving no doubt about the victor.
Lee Casebolt: Suzuki with the sleeper choke in about three and a half minutes. I have to wonder what fans coming over from other UWF derivatives thought about this. They’re used to shows that have curtain jerkers like Nakano and Anjoh going to a twenty minute time limit draw, and here Suzuki is strangling some kid in microwave time. Are they disappointed? Confused? Impressed with Minoru?
Winner: Minoru Suzuki (Sleeper Hold, 3:25)
Entertainment Value: B-
Match 2: Bas Rutten vs Ryushi Yanagisawa
Jonathan Snowden: Bas Rutten comes out in some fabulous purple skorts and white boots. Yanigasawa was rocking A.J. Styles’ haircut before it was in fashion. Yes, I know it’s a fight, not a fashion show—but isn’t life just a never ending fashion show until you either die or get married?
Lee Casebolt: Hey, I wonder if this Dutch baldie will ever amount to – OH MY GOD HE KILLED RYUSHI! (There isn’t a lot of technical analysis to be done on a 43 second KO. Apologies to the disappointed.)
Jonathan Snowden: Rutten drops him with a shotei and poor Yanagisawa just looks out of it. He checks his mouth for blood, confirms it is indeed there, and seems a bit done with the whole thing. Bas Rutten tends to do that to a man.
Lee Casebolt: Bas Rutten in Pancrase was just unfair. Everyone else in the promotion is throwing these wide slaps and he’s wondering if he can use the base of his palm to make your nose come out the back of your head.
Jonathan Snowden: Rutten goes to the body when the action resumes, then lands an awkward knee/kick to the head that leaves Yanagisawa insensate. It’s hard to see on tape, as the shot was captured at the worst possible angle, but the result speaks for itself. Yanagisawa gets to his feet, stumbles back to the mat and eventually he’s taken out on a stretcher.
Rutten celebrates by leaping high into the air and doing the splits, one leap for each corner of the ring. It would become his trademark—and he would win often enough to perfect it before his time in Japan was through.
“From that moment on,” Bas said in his own narration of the fight, “I had to make the Rutten jump every time I had a victory.”
Winner: Bas Rutten (Knockout, 0:43)
Entertainment Value: A
Match 3: Takaku Fuke vs Vernon “Tiger” White
Lee Casebolt: Vernon White comes out to “Fifteen Minutes of Fame” and I’m wondering what happened in poor Tiger’s life that he is listening to Damn Yankees. I mean, I like Damn Yankees, but I would have put the over/under on “22 year old black fans of Damn Yankees in 1993” at two. In the entire world.
Jonathan Snowden: White was one of Ken Shamrock’s first students at what was the very earliest incarnation of the famed Lions Den in Lodi, California. That made him one of the few American’s in the world studying catch wrestling. But under the pressure of an actual fight, he reverted to what he knew best—taekwondo.
In the parlance of our times, White was a proponent of “spinning shit,” bouncing around smoothly and looking very pretty. Unfortunately, it’s the kind of pretty technique that MMA would prove lands you squarely on the mat.
Lee Casebolt: It doesn’t take Fuke long to put Vernon in a headlock (if you want long Japanese names, you should be reading TK Scissors, which one presumes you already have), show off the Tiger’s shoulder flexibility with a leg-entangled arm lock, and then flow to an armbar.
Jonathan Snowden: Fuke, an undercard wrestler for Pro Wrestling Fujiwara-Gumi before joining the mutiny that led to Pancrase, grimaces theatrically as he applies the neck crank from side control. Maybe it is a grimace of exertion. But there is a showmanship here that is noticeable, perhaps too much so.
Lee Casebolt: White’s unconventional headstand defense to an armbar is surprisingly ineffectual. On the one hand, there is a stunning lack of defense on this show generally. On the other, we’re still a month and a half away from UFC 1, so it’s not like we’re looking at a highly developed genre here.
On yet a third hand… hey, Jon, how many of these matches were straight up worked vs real shoots vs some blend of the two?
Jonathan Snowden: I’ve confirmed multiple works with former Pancrase fighters. This isn’t one of them. Which, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t one. That’s one of the delightful mysteries that makes revisiting Pancrase so much fun.
Knowing so much more about submissions, grappling and fighting generally than we did in 1993 makes it much easier to sniff out the fights that don’t quite smell right. From White’s easy acquiescence to the takedown, to the very showy armbar sequence, I have a healthy skepticism about what we’re watching.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Pancrase revolution, one we’ve credited with changing pro wrestling and MMA forever, was partly a very intricate, realistic work?
Winner: Takuka Fuke (Armbar, 1:19)
Entertainment Value: A-
Match 4: George Weingroff vs. Yoshiki Takahashi
Lee Casebolt: I need to know if this is a legit semi-main event or a bathroom break fight? If the former…. Why? Was Takahashi supposed to be a big deal? The enduring memory of Takahashi in my head is a) him ripping out Wallid Ismael’s cup at UFC 12 and b) Heath Herring caving his head in at PRIDE. I never really conceived of him as a potential main eventer, but maybe things looked different in the halcyon days of Nineteen Hundred and Ninety Three.
Jonathan Snowden: Takahashi was an undercard wrestler for PWF-Gumi who lost every time he went up against top young stars like Ken Shamrock, Masakatsu Funaki and Suzuki but routinely beat opening match level guys.
He was, however, just 24 years old when Pancrase launched and considered someone with a ton of potential. Takahashi acquitted himself well in the dojo, had an amateur wrestling pedigree that included Nihon University and had beaten Thai boxer “Superman” Sattasaba in a shoot fight at the Tokyo Dome in 1992.
He was pretty firmly third in the native pecking order behind Funaki and Suzuki and seen as a very dangerous individual.
Weingroff, in his first and only Pancrase bout, was also a former amateur standout and a long time pro wrestler (his very 80’s mullet might give it away). If it looks like he’s squinting a lot, it’s worth noting Weingroff was legally blind, making wrestling one of the few athletic pursuits he could attempt without being at a distinct disadvantage.
He’d worked various territories in the states since 1975 and had worked Japan before for Giant Baba as the designated fall guy in undercard tag matches.
Lee Casebolt: Weingroff shooting for a takedown looks like me shooting for a takedown, and I am likely the worst wrestler in Iowa. This lets Takahashi look good on the counter, from the headlock and body punches to the quick knee to the dome to the sidestep that sees Weingroff nearly fling himself out of the ring, which ultimately leads to the final KO.
Jonathan Snowden: This was not an impressive showing for Weingroff. He charged in for his takedowns like a bull who’d just spotted red somewhere in the ring. At the first real contact from a kick, he went tumbling awkwardly for an eight count.
When he got up he was quickly overwhelmed again by a variety of strikes, then all but quits on the mat, despite a closeup showing he was clearly coherent. The only thing missing here was a J.O.B. Squad t-shirt.
Winner: Yoshiki Takahashi (Knockout, 1:23)
Entertainment Value: C
Match 5: Wayne (Ken) Shamrock vs Masakatsu Funaki
Jonathan Snowden: Shamrock walks out quickly, an angry stride well suited for an angry man. He wears a white Pancrase t-shirt and red speedos that leave very little to the imagination.
Funaki, his dance partner for many great wrestling matches in PWF-Gumi and UWF wore a peach robe, snazzy peach boots and a headband that pulled the whole outfit together.
Funaki has admitted he was a bit shell shocked at how quickly the evening had gone, surprised to be out for the main event after just a few brief minutes of action. He says a brief prayer and enters the ring, revealing shorts with the Japanese flag and a body ripped to shreds.
Though shootstyle wrestling tended to draw a very male audience of hardcore wrestling fans, it certainly seemed Pancrase was trying hard to draw some female eyeballs to their programming.
Lee Casebolt: These two are just light years ahead of everyone else. The rules of Pancrase would cause them problems when they would venture out into other rulesets, but it would be years before anyone outside the Pancrase organization put together the grappling/striking/transitions/ conditioning blend that Shamrock and Funaki have from day one.
Jonathan Snowden: Though Funaki was his trainer, Shamrock shows no hesitation kicking Funaki to the body, catching the return fire and eventually landing a hard knee in the clinch.
At one point Shamrock defends a low kick by leaping backwards. He’s not countering Funaki’s attacks. Instead, when Funaki gets close enough, he’s grabbing him into the clinch, eventually succeeding in taking him to the mat.
Funaki, as Lee points out, is already a submission master, trained by the great Karl Gotch in all manner of bone crunching submissions. Much of this knowledge, however, he’s passed on to Shamrock, who senses the kneebar Funaki has in mind and drops to his knees to stay out of harm’s way.
If this is a work, they are both great workers.
Lee Casebolt: Shamrock’s wrestling base really comes out here, from the little whizzer counter throw he hits to the endless series of crossfaces to “hey, can I get a full nelson here?” If you’ve only seen UFC Shamrock, young Pancrase Shamrock is a completely different animal. He’s not a flashy grappler in the mold of Rumina Sato or Carlos Newton, but he’s got a nice flow, and is always looking for something new and different to crank in unpleasant ways.
Jonathan Snowden: There’s a gentleman’s agreement to refrain from striking on the ground. Even if they eschewed it, punches to the head are barred. That means there is very little emphasis on holding position in these ground battles.
With no striking and no pinfalls, there’s little need to maintain control of the kind we’re used to seeing in modern MMA. The result is ground work that flows, with lots of movement and scrambles.
That’s not to say this is a battle of finesse. Shamrock is downright mean at times, grinding his forearm into Funaki’s face and trying to force a mistake. He takes a lot of time to think about what he’s going to do, even attempting a full nelson before finally committing to a leg attack that leads them, inevitably, into the dreaded dueling leg locks position, eventually forcing a break.
The aforementioned whizzer puts the two men back on the ground, Shamrock once again on top. Funaki tries to bait him into trying an armbar, but Shamrock wisely uses his weight and top position to try an arm triangle instead, a move he had been attempting to squirm his way into throughout the bout.
In a traditional shoot style match, this would be a false finish. Funaki would make the ropes and the bout would continue. But this was Pancrase and there would be no fairy tale ending for the leading man. Instead, Funaki taps out and just like that, a rival for Pancrase primacy was created.
Lee Casebolt: Look, I don’t pretend to know how much of this was on the up and up, but I am assuming he gave Shamrock a chance or two that was not completely earned in the ring. Funaki never became the national level star that Maeda or Takada did, but he was infinitely smarter than either of those two in building his business. UWFi, in particular, would run into problems because Nobuhiko Takada could not or would not build a rival star for himself. He went over everybody way too fast. Funaki was much, much better at identifying potential star talent – the Shamrocks, Rutten, Yuki Kondo – and building them into peers so the show never turned into “Masa Funaki and Pancrase.”
Jonathan Snowden: Shamrock goes slightly mad in celebration and a young boy in shiny red Asics wrestling shoes pours water over Funaki’s head to revive him. It’s quite a scene—and just three weeks later most of the main players would be back in the ring to do it again.
Lee Casebolt: At about an hour, this show flies by compared to a contemporary UFC, New Japan, or WWE show. I don’t know how the in-house crowd felt about that—again, there’s less in-ring time here total than UWF used to give random midcarders —but as a TV product, it’s a nice change.
Winner: Ken Shamrock (Arm Triangle, 6:15)
Entertainment Value: B
Meltzer Says (subscription required): Pancrase wrestling debuted on 9/21 before a sellout 7,000 at Tokyo Bay NK Hall with a very unique show. It sounds very markish to say Pancrase wrestling is real shooting, because groups that claim to be that all seem to be something less. But the reason Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki formed the new group and quit Pro Wrestling Fujiwara-Gumi at least publicly was because they didn’t want to have pre-planned winners. Anyway, the card itself was described to be as an amazing show, even though the five matches only lasted a total of 13 minutes of wrestling time which made it surprising and different from any other style in Japan. I’m not sure what else they did and some fans couldn’t have been happy paying $135 ringside for 13 minutes of wrestling. Main event saw Wayne Shamrock beat Masakatsu Funaki with a sleeper in 6:15.