In December of 1984 Dave Meltzer, editor of the influential Wrestling Observer Newsletter, traveled to Japan to experience his favorite wrestling promotions in person. The connections he made there allowed Western fans a peak into a closely, carefully guarded world for years. The opaque became, if not clear, comprehensible.
More importantly, for our story at least, Meltzer discovered shootstyle wrestling. And, in those days just like today, where the Observer goes, its readers follow.
“The only way I can describe UWF wrestling is that it’s a culture shock,” he writes in the 1984 Wrestling Observer Yearbook. “This is the hardest wrestling style I’ve ever seen. I would guess most readers of this publication, as serious fans, would like UWF shows live better than any other group.”
With that glowing praise, the UWF VHS tapes became items worth seeking out and a promotion that might have otherwise faded quietly from memory found a small, but passionate Western fanbase.
Luckily for shootstyle wrestling fans, the show Meltzer attended at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo was a bonafide classic. The promotion packed more than 3,200 into a building meant to hold 2,800 at most. People were “jammed in every available space” with “no place to move for three hours.”
But the discomfort didn’t matter. Not when the wrestling was that good. Three matches that night earned at least four stars, the cutoff point when a good match becomes great. And, while the brutal main event between Tiger Mask and Yoshiaki Fujiwara might have made him a little uncomfortable at times, the co-main captured his heart.
Kazuo Yamazaki vs. Nobuhiko Takada was the perfect blend of the familiar and the future, a standard New Japan juniors match rejiggered to feature a new blend of highspots but otherwise completely recognizable in form and structure.
“This was definitely,” Meltzer writes, “the best match I’ve ever seen in my entire life.”
As endorsements go, they don’t come much stronger.
Complete Results (via ProWrestlingHistory.com; Star ratings by Dave Meltzer)
December 5, 1984 in Tokyo, Japan
Korakuen Hall drawing 3,351
- Scott McGhee beat Masami Soranaka (22:22) via submission.
- Mach Hayato beat Scotty Williams (14:28) via submission.
- Akira Maeda & Pete Roberts drew Osamu Kido & Keith Hayward (30:00) ****
- Kazuo Yamazaki pinned Nobuhiko Takada (23:57) *****
- Super Tiger KO Yoshiaki Fujiwara (27:19) in a “real death” match ****1/2
Super Tiger vs. Yoshiaki Fujiwara (Real Death Match)
Here is what we have been waiting for. This match was straight awesome shootstyle, no dropkicks or tombstones, or top rope headbutts, this was the pure uncut shit. Really interesting match which reminded me of a skilled boxer coming up against a power puncher who’s firepower eventually overwhelmed their craft.
Fujiwara was trying to grind down Tiger in the early parts of this match, he was throwing this brutal bodyshots (maybe the best bodywork in wrestling history? Not sure what the other contenders would be), and when he got Sayama on the mat he would press his forearm into his throat, not really trying to finish the match, just to sap some of the thunder out of Tiger.
But when that thunder struck though it was too much for Fujiwara to survive, the first brutal spin kick to the gut felled him, and when Fujiwara was on the ground Super Tiger was merciless, landing huge jumping knees to the back of Fujiwara’s head and vicious kicks to the stomach, head and ribs.
Once he got Fujiwara on the ground it was a matter of time, Fujiwara fought back as much as he could, but he was eventually just kicked into oblivion.
This is a great match, and even better as part of the Fujiwara and Super Tiger story, this was the low point, Fujiwara was beaten near to death, and his eventual retribution will be even sweeter. (CLASSIC)
My favourite moment of the project so far was getting to review the first Tiger/Fujiwara match so you better believe I was pumped up for this one, and it absolutely didn’t fail me. This hands down destroyed the first encounter and is easily the most brutal match we’ve reviewed so far!
Really loved the aspect of this match that each guy knew exactly what the other was going to do, learning from the previous confrontations and making a very tense atmosphere for match. They were a lot more even here in each others respective strengths but for the most part it was still pretty much Fujiwara torturing Tiger on the grappling exchanges and Tiger beating the bajeebus out of Gramps standing.
An early exchange that saw Fujiwara unload a 20 punch combo just for Tiger to savagely knee him in the face, and kick him while he was down as if to say “How dare you!” only to go for an armbar and have Fujiwara quickly reverse into a brutal shin lock as if to himself say “No, how dare you!” perfectly encompasses the mood of the match and needless to say that mood is phenomenally badass!
It’s not even so much big moments that made this great, like most Fujiwara matches its the little things that add so much. Like him slowing following a fleeing Tiger around the ring with a giant smirk on his face after choking him…Just brilliant! The last half of this match diving into just a slaughter of Fujiwara by what have to be the most stiff and savage strikes we’ve seen so far is beyond glorious!
This is true Super Tiger, no more weird out of place Moonsaults or Tombstones. The style has evolved passed that and he knows it. He’s all about kicking in skulls and honestly what more could you ever want? (CLASSIC)
As is customary, the two wrestler get their complementary pre-match bouquets. Fujiwara throws his out. Nothing like setting a tone early.
The bulk of the first half of the match is Fujiwara’s, and he puts on a full display of the little things that make him Yoshiaki Fujiwara – taking the hand instead of the wrist on a double wrist lock, throwing a low footsweep to knock Super Tiger off balance before shooting a double, driving a cradle into a head and arm pinning position and a lock flow series of arm and neck manipulations that’d make Erik Paulson jealous. He even shows off a little on the feet, throwing a twenty seven punch combo (all numbers approximate) to the head and body of Sayama that come from every conceivable angle and every single one of them looks like a million bucks. I don’t ever think of Fujiwara as a great puncher, but Fujiwara’s got great punches! I expect a six thousand word essay on them from Phil.
The second half is all Tiger and, I gotta be honest, before we get to the end it’s getting a little uncomfortable to watch. Wrestlingdata lists this as a “Real Death Match” and they ain’t kidding. 90% of Sayama’s offense is “kick and knee my opponent in the head until candy comes out”. Fujiwara is a great seller, but I don’t think you need to sell much when you’re actually getting your skull caved in.
Standing up? Kick to the head. Repeat til they fall down. Down? Soccer kicks to the head. Throw in some knee drops, just for variety. (The Super Tiger knee drop looks like attempted murder, even next to those soccer kicks.) By the end I was actively rooting for Fujiwara to stay down, for the love of God, just stay down. (GOOD)
There’s something interesting that happens when you toss Tiger and Fujiwara together where there’s almost an instant-click between the two. The tone in this match feels different than their last singles meeting with Sayama less worried about exchanging holds and instead using his strikes to set up his submission attempts. While Sayama’s kicks felt like set dressing before, they’re beginning to become the lion’s share of his effective offense in this match as most of his submission attempts are being eventually countered by Fujiwara.
Fujiwara is really not messing around, with Sayama being put in a choke and audibly coughing and gasping for air, even attempting the crossface chickenwing on Sayama — his own finishing hold. This was enough for Super Tiger to just kick the life out of Fujiwara multiple times before he couldn’t answer the count. (GOOD)
Nobuhiko Takada vs. Kazuo Yamazaki
In the wake of the brutal fight we just saw, this match, a Wrestling Observer five-star burner, seems like a backward step in our narrative, but taken on its own terms, it holds up. We’re still at young, “boots” Takada, dropping a rare fall to the man I always felt was his greatest native rival in UWFi. Did Yamazaki ever beat Takada again? It feels like these two have a great dojo-born chemistry that should have been explored much more deeply than it was.
The match is, in a way, a rough parallel of the one that preceded it. Yamazaki has superior strikes, and is not incompetent on the ground, but Takada is the mat technician. We also see at least one style of sequence that I recognize from later UWFi work — the oversell or heavy sell that tells your opponent “here, go on offense.”
In the GIF above, Takada takes the leg kick, gives a big sell, much as Vader would give Tamura or Takada himself later on, and through inactivity, feeds Yamazaki’s offensive rush. It’s an easy way to create dramatic ebb and flow.
Deep in the match, Takada finally engages in some meaningful striking, and even digs into his pro-style bag for a pair of piledrivers. Yamazaki grabs the same chickenwing facelock we saw repeatedly in the Fujiwara/Tiger match, but transitions to a fast German suplex hold for the win. Takada, often stoic and inscrutable, has a great “aw, shit” laughing reaction that feels very real-sports, and Yamazaki looks genuinely elated. Great emotion from both, and the crowd felt fully invested.
Jon tells me this is the first *****-rated shoot style match, and I wish I didn’t know that going in. For one thing, Meltzer has some truly horrendous taste in wrestling (though he’s better at older stuff than the current product), but more importantly I hate running through the what-if game about how knowing that affects my own appreciation. Am I swayed to go with consensus and overrate this match? Do I overcorrect and get too harsh with it? I don’t need this kind of confusion.
That said, this match is really fucking good. The highest compliment I can pay a worked match is when I start watching it like it’s legit. I watched this match like it was the Big 10 tournament. (Except with less disappointment.)
I turned my body with the moves as I watched, like you do when you’re trying to magically make your team’s field goal attempt move just a couple inches to the left. I mentally coached Yamazaki through escaping a jujigatame. I was actively annoyed at some of the camera angles because they wouldn’t show me particular grips or points of leverage.
The execution wasn’t as clean as some previous matches, but Yamazaki and Takada mastered the art of give and take. The real challenge to shoot style isn’t in mimicking the moves of a real fight. Any twelve year old can be taught to do that. It’s mimicking the cadence of a fight, its rhythm and pace. Knowing just how much resistance to give, when to let the other guy take a hold and when to fight it off. How long to maintain an advantage and when to give up a reversal. The same is true, in a broad sense, of any style of pro wrestling. What separates a great match from a tumbling exhibition is the communication of intent. Yamazaki and Takada do an outstanding job of looking for holds and counters in layers, so some moves work and others don’t, and they work (or fail) in degrees. A handful of things are 100% clean, and another 0% effective, but some are about 75% – they clearly work, but the wrestler doesn’t get all of it – or 25% – it sort of maybe works, but not enough to get an advantage – and so on. That level of nuance is rare and precious in any style of wrestling, but it’s absolutely essential to shoot style.
What really puts this over the top, though, is Yamazaki wins! I was smart or lazy enough to not look at results ahead of time, and it did not occur to me for one single second that Takada would not be going over. UWF has had a very clear hierarchy so far – Tiger, Takada, Maeda, and Fujiwara at the top, everyone else a step (or two, or twelve) below. Who doesn’t love an upset? (CLASSIC)
This didn’t do a ton for me. I can sort of see why Meltzer gave it five stars, it is a juniors shootstyle match, packed with lots of stuff, kind of a UWF version of a Seth Rollins main event and Meltzer has always been the kind of guy who rates a song by the length of the guitar solo.
Some of that stuff did look good, I thought this was a solid Yamazaki performance, he did a nice job selling Takada’s dodgy kicks, and he always had a flair for the dramatic. I thought Takada was stinko in this match.
His matwork is always weak spot for him, and here his mat transitions were terrible. Yamazaki would lock on a hold, and instead of applying a counter, Takada would just stand up so he could move to the next spot, no struggle, no sense of danger. It reminded me of Kurt Angle complaining to Eddie Guerrero about selling his suplexes instead of just popping up to do another spot.
The tombstones and crappy side suplex also really took me out of the match. I know we aren’t fully in shootstlye land yet, but those weren’t even cool meaningful pro style moves, they were just kind of time killers. I remembered hating this series when I first watched it for the DVDVR 80s sets, and it didn’t age any better the second time around.
I can see what Phil is saying here. There are times when Takada doesn’t even bother to pretend he’s trying to counter a hold. He just moves on to the next thing, like his checking spots off on a list he has in his head.
Thinking about it that way, there’s no wonder Meltzer liked the match as much as he did. There is stuff happening—and to a certain kind of fan, that is really important, no matter what that stuff is, how much sense it makes, or how well executed it is.
The stuff is the raison d’etre for some. In many ways, that’s the guiding force that drives the modern style of wrestling.
But, while it’s not always perfect, there are some really clever additions to the shootstyle lexicon here. In particular, there is a spot where Takada kicks away Yamazaki’s base when he’s trying to defend an armbar. It’s a small touch, almost immediately forgotten as the two scurried on to a thousand different things. But it was a brilliant moment. (GREAT)
Kazuo Yamazaki is everything good about the concept of shoot-style. While Takada went on to be the much bigger star, it’s hard to deny just how good Yamazaki was, especially in these burgeoning skinny-boy days. When the match starts heating up the crowd really buys into everything that happening, seeing Yamazaki as the underdog and going nuts for every rope break and submission attempt.
When he finally hits the big german suplex the crowd just goes insane while Takada sells it like he was caught off-guard. (GOOD)
Young Takada already approaching demi-god status here in terms of popularity and almost in the realm of ACES like Maeda and Tiger. I’ve said before that Yamazaki is one of the great U Style heroes and this match is a perfect example of why. He made this match great, with all his nifty escapes of Takada’s classic armbar spots and UNBELIEVABLE strikes, he was definitely trying to impress the Tiger Dad.
This match started out really slow with a whole lot of feeling out and typical exchanges you would expect with Yamazaki picking Takada up and carrying him across the ring and sitting him on the turnbuckle being the only real highlight.
Once Yamazaki started letting kicks go the intensity definitely knocked up a notch though, but still nothing I thought was really exceptional, outside of a really cool Yamazaki camel clutch to armbar. Maybe I was expecting more but I didn’t love this like I wanted to. Melty gave this one the old 5 stars and I don’t see why honestly.
A very good match without a doubt but nowhere near the Gramps/Tiger absolute classic. (GREAT)
Scott McGhee vs Masami Soranaka
Soranaka looks like the uncle in a bad 70s sitcom about a newly integrated neighborhood. I’m just saying. (McGhee looks like young Adrian Adonis if Adonis never got fat.) Fun as hell “little things” match. The opening matwork looks like a particularly energetic college wrestling scramble. Soranaka uses his free foot to counter a McGhee toe hold and spin into a counter hold in a sequence that looks like a shooted-up version of something you’d see in a good lucha match. McGhee’s got a bunch of traditional 80s pro-style throws he works in a really credible way – the double leg to atomic drop might be my favorite, but I like his shoulderbreaker a ton, too. (There are not enough shoulderbreakers in wrestling, if you ask me.)
This is more reminiscent of a 60s NWA title match to me than a shoot style match. Lots of amateur style wrestling exchanges and leverage turns early. Build to impact slams and strikes in the stretch run, but always go back to the mat for nearfalls and submission attempts. Everything is fought for and everything is earned. It’s the sort of thing you might have seen Finlay and Regal do in WCW if they got a bunch of time one Saturday night. This is going to sound ridiculous given the names involved, but I honestly think this is my favorite UWF match to date. Neither of these guys has the charisma of the Maeda-Takada-Sayama-Fujiwara tier, but hold for hold this is better than anything we’ve reviewed to this point. They clipped about ten minutes of this, and I want those ten minutes back. If I had a complaint, the finish is sort of abrupt – a top wrist lock by McGhee that comes out of nowhere. Could’ve used a little fight to get the hold. But that’s a minor quibble. This is the first hidden gem of the project for me, and a match I expect to go back to a lot in the future. (GREAT)
Conceptually, this is heading in the right direction. Soranaka would later train many of the Americans coming over to the UWF and McGhee was a solid wrestler, best known in Japan as a tag team partner for Andre the Giant on a tour in 1982, there to do any bumping required and to eat any pinfalls deemed necessary. The two were good workers and the rhythms were right for shootstyle here. They just hadn’t found the right highspots that worked for the style yet.
To Lee, it doesn’t move wrestling forwards—it’s a nostalgic look back at the style that dominated the 1960s. This makes sense, especially when you consider McGhee was a second generation wrestler, trained by his father Geoff Portz, a wrestling fixture since the 1950s.
But, in some ways, it reminded me more of a match between Young Lions in New Japan Pro Wrestling. The action is competitive and back-and-forth, without the flash that can either make or break a contemporary match. (GOOD)
There are a lot of contrasting opinions — both now and back in 1984 — as to what Shoot Style should be. This match is certainly a more mat-based style of wrestling between two guys that know what they’re doing. While I truly love the more jiu-jitsu-based ground work, the pure wrestling-based stuff is usually lost on me, which describes this match for me in a nutshell. This is sort of the one and while it was entertaining, it wasn’t what I was looking for, that’s for sure. (AVERAGE)
Akira Maeda & Pete Roberts vs Osamu Kido & Keith Haward
One of my longstanding regrets in wrestling is Regal and Finlay never finding their way into UWFi or RINGS in the mid 90s. It seems like a rugged British-style wrestler would be an ideal fit for a shoot style organization, providing a little spice in much the same way that Vader or any random Russian or anyone else who does something almost-but-not-quite shoot style would. This match vindicates that feeling entirely.
As I’ve said about a lot of matches so far, this isn’t really shoot style. It’s a rough but technical pro wrestling match that wouldn’t have been out of place in New Japan or Crockett in 1984. Kido and, especially, Maeda are the stars of this show, but Roberts and Haward are vital co-mains. The British style of the 70s and 80s has its own cadence and rhythm, and it gives this match a remix feel. When Kido and Maeda lock up, it’s basically a New Japan match. With Roberts and Hayward, you’ve clicked over to World of Sport. Kido/Roberts or Maeda/Haward blends the two. Maeda’s more adept at working with a Brit than Kido is, no doubt due to his tours of the UK as Kwik Kik Lee. (Hey, I didn’t pick the name.) Kido falls into some repetitive ruts.
I wanted to like this more than I actually liked it, though. The work is fine to very good, but I don’t really need three half hour matches back-to-back-to-back, even if they’re all good matches. Probably shouldn’t have saved this one til last, which is on me. A half hour draw is UWF’s fault, though. You’re telling me not one of these guys could eat a fall in a tag match? Come on. That seems like easy build to something down the road with any thought at all. Trim ten minutes off of this, give it a decent finish, and it’s twice the match it is. (AVERAGE)
For some reason, the commercial VHS tape that contained the 12/5/84 undercard also featured a random September match. As a completist, Phil Schneider insisted we review it here.
Mark Lewin vs. Akira Maeda (9/7/1984)
Oh yeah, we’re back with Lewin. The Takada match was based off of heat and aggression, while this match is a lot more deliberate, with Maeda not a plucky underdog taking it to the old guy, but instead a battle of equals.
The crowd clearly wasn’t here to see Lewin go hold-for-hold, they want to see the eye rakes, throat chops and stops and they respond accordingly when those start happening. This never even got started. (BAD)
A couple minutes in and I am questioning the wisdom of this match. Maeda’s hitting takedowns at will and slapping on a top wrist lock – the same hold that got the finish in McGhee/Soranaka – that Lewin doesn’t even attempt to defend, so Maeda just gives it up. Lewin’s just sort of a wrestling dummy, getting taken down and twisted.
He does go on offense before long – a wrestler’s guillotine into a chokehold into some very 70s heel brawler offense. It is… not compelling. Maeda doesn’t help as much as he could, either. Maeda is explosive and sudden on offense, but on defense he’s just kind of laying there and waiting for his turn to do stuff. So is Lewin, but I expect that out of Lewin.
I really get the impression they didn’t know what kind of match to have. Lewin wants to do his Florida bullshit (no dis – I love Florida bullshit), and Maeda isn’t having it. Maeda’s trying to do his proto-shooter stuff, and that doesn’t work with Lewin. It’s ending up as a disjointed more or less standard 80s pro style match without a lot of flow to it. It’s at its best when both guys just say “fuck it” and huck bombs at each other; Maeda’s obviously an excellent striker and Lewin has zero problem stiffing someone or getting stiffed. Plus Maeda will actually sell for Lewin’s strikes, which wasn’t the case with his holds. Wasn’t really feeling this one, especially after the unexpected gold that was McGhee/Soranaka. (AVERAGE)
This was slower paced which both helped and hurt it a bit. They had way more time to get in some mat work which featured a few really creative spots like Maeda doing a shin lock which Lewin reversed into almost a cobra twist pin but then just choking Maeda out of rage when he didn’t get it.
This really felt like a big time 70s heavyweight match for most of the early going with lots of simple spots and old style mat work used to maximum effect. The match really picked up half way through when Lewin said to hell with this and started chopping and stomping like crazy on poor Akira.
Then the crowd got into it and Maeda quickly scored the win with the Octopus Hold…Very anticlimactic but not a bad watch if you’re a fan of either guy. (GOOD)