Biography: Yoshiaki Fujiwara (Circa 1984)
By Lee Casebolt
Today the name Yoshiaki Fujiwara is synonymous with shoot style wrestling. Fans and fellow wrestlers alike laud his brilliant technical ability and sublime storytelling. He is respected as an elite performer and outstanding coach, an ageless wonder who can be matched with any opponent and produce magic.
Back in 1984, Fujiwara was a thirty three year old wrestler going on his twelfth year as a professional. Calling him a midcarder would, for most of his career to that point, have been kind. (The April ’84 issue of the Observer refers to him as a “prelim wrestler,” and Dave’s not wrong here). His claim to fame was his legitimate skill on the mat. He was the dojo enforcer, the man they called when a martial artist challenged the professional wrestlers or when Inoki needed backup on a foreign tour to guard against a double cross.
As a tough guy, he was unmatched. As a professional, he was a wrestler destined to be forgotten.
He debuted in November of 1972, a former collegiate judo player and the first graduate of the nascent New Japan dojo, where he had learned from the likes of Karl Gotch, Antonio Inoki, and Tatsumi Fujinami. Separated by just a year of experience, Fujinami was perhaps his most common opponent those first couple of years. You couldn’t call it a feud. Fujinami, a brilliant wrestler in his own right, beat Fujiwara like a drum a couple times a week. (To this day, Fujiwara has never beaten Fujinami in a one on one match, though as both are still active hope yet lives).
Those early years laid the foundation for the wrestler we would come to know. Then as now, New Japan prided itself as an organization that brought in top talent from around the world. Fujiwara faced not only his fellow Japanese, but Americans, Koreans, Brits, and Indians. Wrestling in the 1970s was global, but travel and communications were slow enough that each region retained a unique style quite unlike the homogeneity of today’s wrestling. And wrestling in the 1970s was certainly theatrical, but many of those regional styles were still grounded in the science and art of “real” wrestling.
Fujiwara’s schedule gave him the opportunity to develop two traits essential to an elite wrestler – a defined style he could carry into any match, and the ability to adapt that style to any opponent without changing the essence of who he was.
That being said, one would be forgiven for looking at the 1984 Fujiwara and seeing a career journeyman. Over a decade into his career, the only thing of any consequence he had ever won was the 1975 Karl Gotch Cup tournament. At a similar point, Fujinami had had four junior and three heavyweight title reigns. Gran Hamada had been a tag champ alongside Riki Choshu in addition to an NWA Americas Heavyweight title and multiple lighter weight titles. Even Don Arakawa got a tag title run with WWC. So far as I’ve been able to determine, Yoshiaki Fujiwara not only hadn’t won a title at that point in his career, he’d never even challenged for one.
The most prestigious match he had ever been a part of was, tellingly, doing the job in Karl Gotch’s retirement match in 1982. Fujiwara is widely credited as Gotch’s best student, a list that includes Inoki, Fujinami, Seiji Sakaguchi, Hiro Matsuda, the Malenko brothers, and others. Arguably his biggest impact on professional wrestling even then was as a trainer, influencing the likes of Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada early in their careers.
But 1984 was a seminal year in Fujiwara’s career. That year saw his biggest push to date
from New Japan Pro Wrestling. Riki Choshu’s upstart Ishin-Gundan group ran wild over the promotion, and Fujiwara was abruptly pushed into the spotlight. He attacked Choshu and found himself defending New Japan honor alongside Antonio Inoki and Akira Maeda, as well as in singles bouts against Animal Hamaguchi and Choshu himself.
Just as that push began to fade in mid year the opportunity at a new life presented itself. If he was willing to risk it all, the toughest of the tough boys would have an opportunity to prove he was more than a midcard guy.
His first match ever with the UWF was a main event in the historic Sumo Hall discussed below. Over a decade into his career, the definitive Yoshiaki Fujiwara was only now being born.
Location: Sumo Hall
- El Texano drew Vinnie Valentino.
- Scott Casey beat Mach Hayato.
- Nobuhiko Takada & Mano Negra beat El Signo & Negro Navarro when Takada beat Navarro.
- Ryuma Go beat Dutch Mantel.
- Rusher Kimura beat Bob Sweetan.
- UWA Middleweight Champ Gran Hamada beat Perro Aguayo in two falls to win the WWF Light Heavyweight Title.
- Aguayo was DQed.
- Hamada pinned Aguayo.
- Yoshiaki Fujiwara DKO Akira Maeda in a “death” match.
The Main Event
Akira Maeda vs. Yoshiaki Fujiwara
By Dave Walsh
Upon watching the very first UWF show last week, it was almost impossible to miss that it was nothing at all like the style we came to love. That style was incredibly influential for a period and led to some of the hottest feuds in all of Japan in the 80’s and 90’s. That style also helped to make these wrestlers into more than that—into fighters, into larger-than- life heroes and into the toughest men in the world.
Now here we are, watching what is considered to be another first, this time the first match that was actually — somewhat — UWF style. Truthfully, it’s still a long way from the hybrid style that we were used to. In part it’s because it’s Yoshiaki Fujiwara (who somehow looks ancient here in 1984, even though he’s only 34-years- old) and Akira Maeda, before Maeda had really trained his striking and was almost purely a submission-based wrestler. There were a few strikes here, but they still reek of the traditional pro wrestling he’d help to spit on in the coming years.
Watching Maeda throw what I assume is an attempt at a round kick is hard to watch, especially considering the striker he would become. The kicks are sloppy and lack any sort of impact whatsoever. The same can be said for his Inoki-esque punches. Eventually he became known as a guy who not just kicked, but kicked hard and made it look like he was really hurting his opponents. He wasn’t there yet.
Fujiwara has never exactly been known for his striking, so it’s forgivable that he’s still doing the hand-on- the-head- headbutts here, while mostly focusing on the ground work. Considering his skillset and grappling background, that just makes sense.
Of course, what really sets this match apart and helps to plant those roots of the style is the groundwork portions of the match, where it goes far beyond the usual of one wrestler slaps on a hold, the other then writhes in pain before finding his way to the ropes or is able to break the hold. Instead there are moments where they are fighting the hold, not allowing a full extension to make it really hurt, or they are performing rudimentary ground sweeps. The focus is less on the traditional “work a limb” style of wrestling and instead “hurt this guy, bad.”
After a portion where they’re out of the ring and I presume counted out, the match is restarted and here is where things not just pick up, but where it more closely resembles a UWF match. Fujiwara hit a sick looking piledriver for a nearfall, only to lose control to Maeda, who’s flying heel kicks somehow still looked pretty good even if the rest didn’t. His belly-to- belly suplex was nearly flawless, as was his german suplex. The finish was Fujiwara hooking the leg while being taken up for another german suplex, only to land on his back, but also to land on Maeda’s head, leading to both men being counted down and it being labeled a draw.
The match proved to be a great way to ease into the style while also making sure that two of the bigger names in the promotion weren’t taking a loss in singles action just yet.
This was like discovering some sort of forbidden knowledge that was buried for hundreds of years. I really loved this match because its like the old master testing his student to see if he was really ready to lead the upcoming shoot style revolution and boy did he really put Maeda through the paces! It could be a factor of the grainy handheld footage but this match was brutal with the two really going hold for hold and strike for strike with an absolutely beautiful passing the test moment for Maeda at the end, even though it wasn’t really a decisive victory and we definitely hadn’t seen the last of these two. I particularly loved the spot early in the match with Maeda using the Fujiwara Armbar and Yoshiaki quickly countering and firing right back in rage.
You could sense the crowd was super into this kind of proto-Shoot Style match and ready for what is to come, even though they did work in a fair bit of outside the ring stuff and more traditional spots that we would later never see the likes of once shoot style became the norm.
This was kind of the middle ground between the first show as an IWE style promotion and their shoot future, we aren’t their yet, but we are approaching it. This is an all time legendary shootstyle feud and this is their first big main event against each other.
The opening matwork was great stuff and had moments that resembled the kind of shootstyle matwork we will be talking about throughout this project. After the matwork though we get a fun New Japan style main event. There was a knuckle lock and monkey flip exchange which shifted in some Tiger Mask style roll up counters. They spilled outside and brawled and got a double count. They get back into the ring and the locker room empties.
We get a cool restart with Fujiwara spike him with a piledriver and Maeda kicking the ref. It is some quality crazy main event stuff, with a hot crowd. No idea why this never showed up on a commercial tape it is pretty great stuff.
There are a lot of little character moments that make this special—my personal favorite was Fujiwara accepting the ceremonial flowers was a nice young lady and then simply tossing them away. This wasn’t done with bad intentions. It was simply his way of saying that flowers, pomp and dozens of streamers weren’t why he was there.
He was there to wrestle.
Some of the great things we’ll come to love about shootstyle wrestling were present here. There were slick holds, realistic looking takedowns and enough fighting spirit to fill even the hardest heart with joy.
But some of the things we’ll come to dread were here too—most notably a kind of meandering, listless leglock spot which will come to be the bane of everyone who follows along with the blog’s existence.
As good as Maeda would become, this was the Fujiwara show. As the guys noted, his headbutt was stellar throughout, especially one he delivered to the body that hurt me just to watch. He also breaks out what would become his signature hold, the Fujiwara armbar. But, instead of dropping into a submission, he used it to set up a hip toss.
The entire style, much like this blog, was a work in progress.
Style be damned, Fujiwara was a master of the craft. Here he constructs a very smart match. Little things matter. Fujiwara breaks clean every time they go to the ropes. When he finally decides to deliver a slap to the chest instead, it’s a sign that shit is on.
That’s just smart wrestling. And it works.
OK, here’s what we came to the UWF for! Fujiwara has hooked up with his boy Akira Maeda and they are going to do the thing.
Fujiwara’s entrance is the most I have been pumped to hear the Superman
theme since 1980. Your crowd? Likewise pumped. They are hot for everything from the word go.
The opening matwork here is still very pro wrestling. Fujiwara snatches a single leg in perfectly shooty fashion, and we’re trying for the waki-gatame, and locking on the crooked head scissors to go with our double wrist locks, but there’s also the old fashioned head scissor takeovers and roll up cradles on both sides. No complaints from me. If this isn’t exactly the type of work I expected, it’s still technically sound and engaging.
I’ll take it.
And move for move, that’s kind of the story of this match. Fujiwara rolls out of a waki-gatame and into a hammerlock in as realistic a fashion as you would want. Maeda spins into a juji-gatame to defend himself more or less the way you’re supposed to. But Maeda also points to the crowd before tossing a closed fist punch right to Fujiwara’s head. There’s rope running and a vertical suplex and monkey flips out of double knuckle locks… It’s an evolutionary step on the way to shoot style.
That said, you could get this match over in just about any arena in the world in 1984. These guys just know how to work. The crowd is into it from the jump, and that helps, but the wrestlers do a great job of building from “here’s a spirited sporting contest” to “you know what, fuck this guy”.
A couple more notes on moves – first, Akira Maeda’s German suplex is reason #124 shoot style should have kept pinfalls. Second, Fujiwara has a stellar piledriver. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him do it before, but it’s gorgeous. The kind of move you should only bust out when it’s going to be the finish because it looks wrong when someone gets up from it.
Naturally Maeda not only kicks out but is up and back on offense seconds later.
The lack of a real finish hurts this one, and the false terrible finish in the middle is just insult to injury. (Further insult – someone explain to me how Maeda isn’t DQ’d for trying to take out the referee).
The worst thing about 80s wrestling in general was the lack of clean finishes, and that was one of the key openings the UWF movement would ultimately exploit. But, like with the work itself, we’re not there yet. Baby steps.