Before the first wrestler ever stepped into the ring for its debut show, things had already gone horribly wrong for the Universal Wrestling Federation.
Antonio Inoki, the presumptive top star, remained with New Japan Wrestling rather than journeying out once again into the unknown.
This was a bit of a shock to some. The company, which had sold out 90 percent of its shows in 1983, was seemingly ready to move ahead with Riki Choshu and Tatsumi Fujinami as headliners.
Not only was the aging Inoki a product of the previous generation, but he’d spent a year draining the promotion of what were record profits.
An investment in Anton Hisel, a bio-tech supplement company in Brazil, had gone horribly wrong—and Inoki had used the company to offset his losses.
But this financial scandal, one that led to him stepping down as company president and his partner Hisashi Shinma being fired from the company, was suddenly forgiven when TV-Asahi told the promotion they would no longer air wrestling without Inoki’s involvement.
His financial shenanigans, it turned out, were less important than retaining a television show that had been on the air since 1973. Inoki was safe thanks to his television overlords, reinstated as president, and empowered to hold off the next generation of superstars for another couple of years.
Absent Inoki, the lead act, by default, became Akira Maeda, a 25-year-old prodigy with plenty of potential, none of it proven. With no established ace, Fuji Television, expected to air the start-up group, decided to pass on the new wrestling promotion.
And so, before the first bell rang at the Omiya Skate Center, before the first tracksuit was donned or streamer thrown, the UWF was already on death’s door.
While its future as a financial enterprise was seemingly doomed from the start, its artistic impact on the sport of professional wrestling is undeniable. The UWF would eventually become famous for creating “shootstyle” a throwback promotion grounded in realistic catch wrestling holds and other legitimate martial arts techniques. Some of the biggest stars of the 1990s were launched into the collective consciousness of hardcore Japanese wrestling fans on these obscure, niche shows.
But the first shots of that artistic revolution were decidedly not fired at the promotion’s debut show. The UWF’s initial tour, with a rag tag collection of foreign talent booked by Terry Funk from the dregs of the Texas wrestling scene, was garden variety puroresu. Only the lack of star power betrayed the fact this wasn’t the New Japan promotion the native crew of Gran Hamada, Ryumo Go, Mach Hayato, Rusher Kimura and Akira Maeda had so recently departed.
The revolution was coming—but it wasn’t here yet.
- El Texano & El Signo beat Mano Negra & Mach Hayato when Texano beat Hayato.
- Bob Sweetan beat Umanosuke Ueda (Not Taped).
- Ryuma Go beat Vinnie Valentino with a backdrop suplex.
- Rusher Kimura beat Scott Casey with a lariat.
- Gran Hamada beat Perro Aguayo via DQ.
- Akira Maeda beat Dutch Mantel with a German Suplex.
The Main Event
Dutch Mantel v. Akira Maeda
I think there is a shootstlye version of this match in my mind, with Dutch working as smaller, harrier Gary Albright, to Maeda’s kicker. Dutch always threw a lot of suplexes for a southern heel. That wasn’t this match though, there wasn’t an ounce of shootstyle in this, it was Maeda working one of those slightly uninspired Inoki v. a Foreigner matches which were all over New Japan cards at the time. Dutch broke out a bunch of house show southern heel shtick, pulling hair, raking eyes, etc.
There almost seemed to be more rope whips in this match then a normal match, it was like a Helmsley match where neither guy could apply any offense unless it was off an Irish whip. Dutch has nice punches, and Maeda threw a good german suplex, but this was mostly forgettable stuff.
I mentioned earlier how I would have been excited to see what this IWEish version of UWF would have ended up looking like, but I am very happy to move on to a much more interesting version of Akira Maeda.
There were little moments here that I loved, like Maeda’s ode to Inoki with the Octopus Hold or his picture perfect German suplex. There was even a brief glimpse of what to come in the next decase plus, with Maeda sliding into an armbar, then inexplicably giving it up to return to traditional wrestling matwork.
Change was coming. But it hadn’t yet arrived.
Maeda clearly had the potential required of a Japanese pro wrestling superstar in the 1980s —in his case, the height, size, looks and sense of danger necessary to command attention. This was his first attempt to prove it. Luckily there would be other opportunities.
Maeda’s got a nice looking belt of some kind as he steps up to face noted shooter… Dutch
Mantell? Bill Dundee wasn’t available? I swear I do not understand the booking of this card in any way. This is the one match where I actually am familiar with both
participants, and in fact I’ve seen this one before, though truth be told I don’t remember a thing about it other than my enduring bafflement at the idea of Dutch Mantell in the UWF.
This is a pro wrestling match. It’s a good pro wrestling match—Maeda and Dutch are both in their primes and those two couldn’t give you a bad match under those circumstances if they wanted to.
It’s not a UWF match, though.
Match of the Night
Perro Aguyao v. Gran Hamada
This was dope. Hamada gets jumped pre bell by Perro and the Missionaries, but we get some nice matwork and exchanges when the bell rings. Most of the match was worked like a lucha title match although Aguayo would mix in some brawling,
Aguyao was pretty old by the time most US wrestling fans got a chance to see him as part of the AAA main events tape traders skipped to watch the Rey Mysterio and Psicosis under cards, but he was a hellacious asskicker and this match got violent pretty quickly. He throws some great looking chopping hooks. We get to see Hamada do his back drop counter, where he flips around in midair and lands on his feet which is still one of the most athletically impressive moves I have ever seen.
Aguayo eventually decides enough of the wrestling and cracks Hamada open with the edge of chair and starts stabbing him with a pencil for the DQ. There is a gang beatdown with the Missionaries and a pretty heated locker room brawl with the crowd tossing garbage as Perro mauls Hamada. Pretty great stuff, and you can see why Hamada used this as a showcase feud when he ran his own version of the UWF.
More luchadors! And another attack before the bell! The main thing I’ve learned from this show so far is that I really need to get more into 80s lucha libre, one of the major blind spots of my wrestling fandom. If this sampling is any indication, it’s got far more of the punching people right in the throat I crave and less of the random acrobatics I don’t care about as compared to the 90s-and-later product with which I am familiar.
On top of that, the lucha matwork is the closest thing we’ve seen so far to the shoot style grapplefest we all came here for. Some nonsense, sure – it’s professional wrestling – but there are armbars and leglocks and some genuine attempts to pin people on their backs en route to victory, and that’s ultimately all I’m looking for in the pro graps. If those come as part of a package with some dropkicks and dives, and one guy eating a chair right to the teeth, so be it.
Anyway, chaos reigns and blood flows and I don’t know who anyone is or why this is happening and that’s the high point of the show so far.
Gran Hamada would eventually leave this group to form his own promotion—also called the UWF. I collected tapes of this promotion religiously. It was the precursor to what is now Dragon’s Gate, a high flying, lucha-infused madcap style popularized in America by Hamada’s proteges in Michinoku Pro.
All you really need to know is that, in his own way, Hamada was also an innovator and one of the most underrated workers in modern wrestling history. It’s no surprise he had the best match of the night. He pulled that off, again and again, over the course of a legendary career.
El Signo/El Texano v. Mano Negra/Mach Hayato
Nifty chance to see prime Missionaries De La Muerte in action. They are an all time legendary team with very little taped footage of their prime. Signo and Texano are both tanks, and is amazing to watch guys built like that, bump and move like that. Especially loved all of their interactions with Negra, who also really moves smoothly. Enjoyed Negro Navarro cheapshotting from the outside, but bummed he was there and in street clothes, no reason not to double book Ryuma Go, put him under a mask and make this a trios.. This was a bit long and one sided and could have used multiple falls to break up the action.
El Texano and El Signo defeating Mach Hayato and Mano Negra will remain a footnote of some historical significance to wrestling fans, but the match was decidedly nothing like the UWF that became a Japanese sensation and a cult favorite in the future. Instead it was heavily-influenced by lucha libre. No, not the kind of stuff where the pacing is breakneck and the moves are daring, but instead the more methodical and calculated lucha libre. In fact, this match felt like it went on forever. Very little of what happened in this match would live up to the concept of KICK, SUBMISSION or SUPLEX. Instead it was plod, stomp, punch, plod.
In a world where I’ve found myself writing and rewriting opening sentences in short stories, novels or articles (including this one) to give that perfect first impression, UWF’s first card was simply a card to get the ball rolling before they really had time to explore and discover what, exactly, they were doing.
See, this is what later shoot style promotions were missing – luchadors! I am absolutely here for adding some lucha matwork to the shoot-and-hook stylings of the Gotch boys.
Oh. Oh, wait. No, we are not going to be doing the “trade tricked out submission holds” thing here. My bad. This is more a “jump those other assholes before the bell and hit someone with a set of stairs” type of match.
Opening fracas aside, once the bell actually rings everyone settles down a little and this is a pretty standard 80s lucha tag match. We’ve got dropkicks and clotheslines and maybe the worst “was that supposed to be a legdrop or a senton and does it matter because he didn’t hit either” I’ve ever seen.
It’s not bad. But it’s definitely not a thing you would point to and say “look, this is really real wrestling for real!” which to my mind makes it an odd choice for an opener, not just for a UWF show, but as the very first UWF match ever.
Ryuma Go v. Vinny Valentino
Valentino has an amazing Welcome Back Kotter perm fro and a nice cartwheel. This was very kick and punch. Both guys showed nice aggression and Valentino took a nasty (possible unintentional bump to the floor, not much to see here.
Vinnie Valentino is the most 80s man who ever lived. No lie. He looks like he should be fronting a Dokken cover band (probably called The Vinnie Valentino Vacation) in between wrestling gigs.
This gets way more time – and Valentino way more offense – than I would have expected, but it’s not the kind of thing that calls for in depth analysis. The crowd’s not really in to it. I’m not really in to it. Go’s gonna put this away with a suplex and I’m going to forget everything about it a few seconds later.
There was an extended hammerlock spot where it became abundantly clear that Valentino had no idea how a hammerlock is supposed to work. This was aggressively bad wrestling.
When the match is over, one sad streamer flies into the ring. That’s the perfect response to this kind of emotionless, soul-deadening art.
Rusher Kimura v. Scott Casey
Kimura was a big star in the IWE fed in the 70s and early 80s and this really felt more like an IWE show then any UWF show that followed it, while Casey was a sub Sam Houston level regional Texas babyface, who I remember mainly for getting a big time roid gut as a late 80s WWF competitive jobber.
This was pretty dull with Kimura mostly working a headlock or chinlock. They do sort of blow an irish whip and it seems to wake Kimura up and he stiffs him a couple of times. Kimura had a long career doing All Japan comedy matches after this, and it felt like he was on his way.
This is another competently wrestled professional wrestling match that utterly defies detailed analysis in the context of the UWF as we understand it in the modern day.
As a professional wrestling match, this is perfectly acceptable, and I’ll take it over 90% of what’s on the indies today or the first half of a modern NJPW show (I have never made it to the second half of a modern NJPW show). As a UWF match… what the hell is going on here?
Perhaps the only thing of interest is that this is the second consecutive match officiated by Bill Alphonso. Seems like this should have played into his later ECW role as manager of Taz in some way, but Heyman and crew dropped the ball.
Kimura, once the king of the cage match for the defunct IWE promotion, was 42 years old. Today, thanks to improvements in nutrition, training and less aggressive scheduling, that’s basically the prime of a wrestler’s career.
Back in 1984, however, every 42-year-old man looked like Kirk Douglas at the Golden Globes.
Kimura was no exception.
This is a debut show for a promotion that never ended up existing, so was a cool snapshot at what could have been. I would have been excited to see a fed built around Maeda as a traditional Inoki style top local star, with Hamada as your top junior, and a bunch of Texas based territorial workers and luchadores brought in as foils. We obviously got something very different and awesome, but I totally want all of the alternative universe tapes of this fed too.
Our culture has a strange obsession with the idea of “firsts” or “beginnings.” The art world in particular is obsessed with an artist or a project springing out of the gates with something so incredible that it blinds everyone with its greatness. Culturally, we (as in modern civilization, not just western or eastern) have a strange obsession with the ideals of youth and creativity.
Publications fawn over the very idea of youthfulness with their 30-under-30 lists for both artists and business people, all while young artists are assailed by such droll phrases as the “voice of a generation” or “the next big thing.”At times this flies in the face of history and that while we might see an amazing debut novel, album or film, there’s a reason why the phrase “sophomore slump” has permeated its way into our consciousness.
So with the rich history that UWF holds in the pro wrestling pantheon, the very idea that the first show was not just not great, but downright mediocre seems almost taboo. The show was one that opened with the promise of a bright future: wrestlers lining the ring wearing their logo-emblazoned jackets while the crowd looks on, Akira Maeda slyly remaining stoic without cracking a knowing smile that this was all going to be about him moving forward.
Yet that bright, blinding greatness wasn’t present in the first show. This card, was imperfect, showing that the promotion was looking to grow but wasn’t afraid to feel out what it should grow into. UWF did not grow into being a Japanese lucha libre promotion, nor did it grow into being an offshoot of western-style brawling that was featured heavily on the first few shows, but that doesn’t mean that these shows have no place in the UWF lore.
True artistic vision comes from failure, experimentation and exploration of one’s craft while unafraid of any and all of what might be uncovered. So while the pieces may have already been in place elsewhere of what UWF should become, it was this very experimentation, exploration and even failure that helped to flesh out a whole new style of pro wrestling that boomed, then crashed and has seen several false starts in mounting a comeback since then.
UWF! START UP! That logo announces itself as The World’s Greatest and my friends, that’s quite a thing to say in April of Nineteen Hundred and Eighty-Four.
Greater than the WWF of the fresh energy of Hulkamania? Greater than the NWA helmed by Ric Flair? World Class and the Von Erichs? The All Japan of Baba and Jumbo? Greater than New Japan, the home of Inoki and Fujinami and, if we’re being honest here, the birthplace of the UWF? On this very day, Florida had Andre the Giant and Mike Rotundo vs Kharma, One Man Gang, and Kevin Sullivan as the main event on top of a Ric Flair/Dusty Rhodes cage match. 1984 had some badass shit going down around the world, is what I’m trying to say here, and this little ragtag bunch of alleged shooters, luchadors with some spare time, and a few other randos to fill space on the card is claiming to be better than all of it.
Say what you will about Maeda and crew, they don’t lack for confidence.
Start Up has to be considered on two levels. As a professional wrestling show, it’s fine. Nobody is out-and-out bad. Some exhibitions are better than others, but every match here you could put on any card in a very crowded wrestling world and you wouldn’t be embarrassed. Main event Memphis with Dutch and Maeda and you could draw a house, no question.
That’s also the problem. The UWF isn’t the UWF yet. It’s just another promotion. Absolutely nothing differentiates it from anywhere else in the world. It’s got a mix of technical wrestling and brawling, but everything is standard pro wrestling. Hokey faux submissions, play-to-the-back-row forearm strikes, top rope dives, fighting outside the ring, and the use of foreign objects are all represented. And I like all these things! But they’re not what a wrestling fan turns on the UWF to see. Akira Maeda still hasn’t figured out exactly what he wants this thing to be, nor does he have the talent around him to make it so. Yoshiaki Fujiwara was wrestling Don Muraco for New Japan on this very night! So on that level, it’s disappointing.
Leaving aside the case study of the importance of expectations-management in enjoying media of all kinds, the most intriguing thing about this show is how different it is from what the UWF and its successors will become, and consequently the journey that implies. They’re a long way from The World’s Greatest, and what they show here doesn’t even really hint at what they will become.