In the end, shootstyle didn’t win the wrestling war.
Sure, when you watch contemporary wrestling, vestiges of the style have survived. The kicks have never been harder. The ground work occasionally nods towards actual combat.
But the ethos that informed the UWF revolution is dead.
There is very little wrestling in today’s wrestling. Legitimacy, toughness and warrior spirit barely exist at all in a world where success is defined by the number of t-shirts you have on the shelves at Hot Topic and how many synchronized flips you can do before someone else comes out to do all the same spots, over and over again until the sweet release of death.
Not that I’m bitter about how things turned out.
For 15 years, however, shootstyle mattered. Wrestling mattered. Inspired by Antonio Inoki’s foray into “legitimacy” and trained by a collection of grizzled men with a very particular set of skills, a generation of the world’s best wrestlers were on a quest to prove that professional wrestling was indeed strong.
It was a secret that they knew, a truth proven again and again as martial artists came to the dojo and attempted to embarrass the “fake” wrestlers. It was there, in these private battles, that the efficacy of techniques passed on by Karl Gotch, known to the Japanese as the “God of Wrestling,” was established, screams and frantic concessions the currency that purchased respect.
In the wider world, however, there was fear that they were seen as little more than showmen, a circus act, a con. They knew they were more than that. And, at some point, it became important that the world know too.
Dojo skirmishes and contests of will that had once been the domain of wrestlers alone, moved from the shadows into the light. A new style of wrestling emerged, one grounded in the past, a time when being able to actually wrestle and fight was an important ingredient in a man’s success or failure on the mat.
Toughness and budo became the main ways to gauge a wrestler’s standing among his peers. Yoshiaki Fujiwara, an opening act for years, was elevated into a main eventer in
this new era. Because he earned it on the mat. In an environment that rewarded the real, merit could carry a man a long way and the boldest of the bold loudly proclaimed their supremacy to the world and challenged the status quo publicly.
The UWF revolution was a repudiation of the increasingly Americanized wrestling that no longer resembled a contest. It began subtly, with strikes that carried a little more weight and submission holds that would really work in a real fight. By the time the art was dying, geniuses like Kiyoshi Tamura and Volk Han were simulating actual contest with a verve, speed and technical acumen unknown in wrestling history.
Like many wrestling fans of the 1990s, I was drawn into Japanese puroresu with an 8-hour tape featuring a wide collection of matches unlike anything I had ever seen. Jushin Liger, Mitsuharu Misawa and Manami Toyota all wowed. But it was Nobuhiko Takada who stole my heart. His match with Vader combined all the drama of wrestling with just enough martial arts realism to make it feel like something special and unique.
From there I found the wrestlers who would move me with their excellence, courage and
artistry—Akira Maeda, Tamura, Minoru Suzuki and so many others. Shootstyle, far from a monolith, contained multitudes, with each promotion taking the sport in slightly different directions, all forks on the same path.
The UWFi favored pro wrestling theatrics and strong standup. RINGS reinvented mat wrestling, setting a standard that will likely never be matched. And Pro Wrestling Fujiwara-Gumi moved closer and closer to an actual fight, before actually taking the leap with Pancrase. Pride Fighting Championship was simply the final derivation of an idea that transformed wrestling history forever.
Along the way the wrestlers of the UWF and its children entertained thousands, sold out the Tokyo Dome in mere minutes, and invigorated traditional wrestling companies with their energy and devotion to clean finishes and an athletic aesthetic.
In the end, wrestling went in another direction entirely. The war was lost. But sometimes the best stories are told about the losers, about the valiant struggle that comes up short. That’s the story of the UWF revolution—a brilliant failure.
The wrestlers of the UWF fought the good fight. And that’s a story worth telling.