Kakutogi Road: The Complete History of MMA Vol 1

1992 Shoot Wrestling Year in Review Continued…

Top Ten Shoot Wrestlers in 1992

Mike Lorefice:

  1. Kiyoshi Tamura [91: #1]. A blazing ball of ferocious energy, Tamura is the most explosive mover and probably the fastest fighter in the genre, though Kakihara gives him a run for his money, and has more striking speed. Tamura has the most speed in transitions, scrambles, anything that involves manipulating the position of his or the opponent’s body. He’s generally way more graceful and fluid than anyone but maybe Volk Han because he has the most amazing balance, at least of anyone who isn’t doing crazy high wire tricks on the ropes (for obvious reasons). He’s the second most creative behind Han, but while Han has a wider variety of submissions, no one executes their submissions the way Tamura does, he is a constrictor with this awesome mix of blistering speed & violence, engulfing around the opponent to tighten his vice grips at the same time he is jerking them into position at full force. It really feels like his submission application is multidimensional, he is able to go both down (either dropping or dragging the opponent with him) and around at the same time, while pretty much everyone else has to first position then tighten. He’s able to up the speed, pace, and intensity in a manner that is not only believable, but based on a sense of urgency that actually feels legitimate. His countering is so varied and amazing it truly feels like a disappointment when he actually takes a rope break. Though Tamura was all about speed in 1991, he is displaying more variety as he evolves, flooring the gas pedal when he’s exploding to seize a position, but now having more patience to allow the holds to play out. One reason Tamura is so exciting the opponent can gain an advantage on him, but keeping it is truly a different story. He has such a vast arsenal of counters that it must be intimidating for his opponents to even try anything on him, but luckily this is a style where no one hesitates.

2. Volk Han [91: #6]. Clearly the most unique, creative, innovative, unconventional, and experimental fighter in the worked shoot stratosphere. Han may not have received much help from his equally inexperienced opposition, but his matches always felt fresh, and to some extent you tuned in to see what crazy new sequences and holds he came up with this month. While none of his matches were the sort of amazing bouts he’d deliver in later years when he had top level opponents, each of his matches felt original and exciting, and most of them overachieved considerably, if anything involving such a tremendous individual talent can be said to be better than it should be. Though we think of him as a submission specialist, Han was much more well rounded than he gets credit for. His striking has been vastly underrated, and he actually incorporated footwork, movement, and feints into his matches better than almost any kickboxer we’ve seen enter the worked world. Han’s matches were always urgent, and even when his opponents weren’t great, he respected the threat coming from them and catered what he was doing to counteract their strengths when they were good enough for that, so we got a very good match against future Olympic wrestler Zaza where he tried to win with his standup, then a few months later, a match against imposing kickboxer Vrij where he did anything he could think of to avoid standup altogether. On the other hand, when his opponent wasn’t good enough for that, such as the Gigant match, Han was able to more than match the Russian champion in a judo oriented match to keep the debuting Gigant within the limited realm of what he knew how to do.

3. Hiromitsu Kanehara [91: NR]. Kanehara always tried to do a lightning paced, dramatic back and forth counter oriented match with endless transitions. His matches are always moving, even to the point of never wanting to get stuck in either striking or grappling for too long. Kanehara didn’t really care if you got him down because his ground skills are superior to all his opponents, so he’d quickly reverse and pressure with submissions. When better Maeda was there to keep up with him and fill in around him, it was amazing. What separates Kanehara & Maeda is they represent a new school of MMA rather than pro wrestling based training that’s focused on fighting all out for the positions, particularly in the grappling, and thus looks wholly different than what the old school New Japan guys do, with constant pressure and movement, and a very palpable sense of urgency to win by being first. Even though they always opened, their style of pro wrestling always feels like a lot is at stake. Kanehara is an interesting case because he not only had perhaps the best first 6 months of any rookie in history, with 4 great matches out of his first 6 including the two best shoot matches of the year, but you could even make a case for rating him #1 in all of shooting until better Maeda retired. However, with Miyato somehow refusing to understand what made Kanehara successful or that he was special, Kanehara was essentially without a capable opponent for the rest of the year, and added very little to his resume. Kanehara was one of the smartest rookies we have ever seen, just having a great feel for all aspects of the game, grasping the flow of the sequences, the drama of shifting between disciplines, and the concept of trying to stay one step ahead by constantly adjusting to the opponent’s adjustment. Perhaps even more than Tamura, he understood that speed and aggression were the keys to this style looking real, though he (and especially his opponents) were also clearly not as crisp and technically precise. It’s the constant pauses that expose pro wrestling, but Kanehara is one guy who will never allow anyone to get away with a moment of doing nothing. He was one of the most well rounded performers literally from the outset. While his grappling is clearly stronger than his striking, his matches are incredibly urgent, flowing back and forth, in and out, with great sequences and counters when he has an actual opponent. Giving 200% effort at all times was the main thing that made the Kanehara vs. Maeda matches so realistic, and while Takayama also went as hard as he was capable, it became obvious that the high speed of Maeda was also crucial. Against Takayama, most of what made his matches against Maeda so great didn’t work that well because Takayama can only do a few things very deliberately before gassing, so Kanehara had to really work to do all the moving and countering, basically doing his own thing when a capable opponent would be countering to keep the match moving briskly.

4. Masakazu Maeda [91: NR]. An all-or-nothing fighter with a constant barrage of movement and aggression, the pace at which Maeda improved was nothing short of amazing. He was reasonably not very confident in his debut match on 12/22/91, but already showed up as a new fighter for his second match on 1/9/92, and was just flowing more and more with each encounter. While somewhat imprecise initially, he quickly got to the point where the speed and consistency of his attacks wasn’t coming with an obvious decrease in accuracy. Pace is the aspect that separates Maeda from the rest of the pack, as Maeda is perhaps the most relentlessly aggressive performer we’ve seen in shootfighting, pushing as hard as he can the entire match, and simply not caring that he’s tiring himself out as much if not more than his opponent. He’s one of the most realistic competitors as well, largely because of the constant movement his style entails. He got into shoot wrestling thinking it was shooting, and although he sadly never got to do a real fight, which likely had a lot to do with him quitting so soon, he tried not to stray too far from what he was theoretically supposed to be doing. Maeda having the belief to be aggressive and let it rip in standup opened up all sorts of possibilities for his matches with Kanehara, as well as freeing up Kanehara to counter into his takedowns and submissions, making their matches very dynamic, back and forth sprints. His career was all too brief, but he truly fought every fight with a ton of heart and passion.

5. Kazuo Yamazaki [91: #7]. The most subtle performer in the promotion, Yamazaki is a crafty, dramatic tactician who incorporates a lot of nice little touches, setting things up and playing off everything the opponent did. When he was motivated and in charge, Yamazaki had the abiltiy to use his acting ability as much as his wrestling ability to craft an urgent and intense match where each of his actions was important because of the potential repercussions. A master of misdirection, Yamazaki is very unpredictable in his entries and lock ups, and probably utilizes feints better than anyone else. He has the most little nuances, and is most able to craft a match that was more than the sum of its parts. Despite being perpetually abused and misused, he was definitely a better performer in 1992 than in 1991, with a couple of magic acts against green performers, and the great match against Tamura. His ability to use his mind to get more out of opponents than he has the right to gave him a slight edge to push back ahead of Anjo in the rankings.

6. Yoji Anjo [91: #3]. UWF-I’s resident jack of all trades, Anjo never exactly awes you, but he can play any role, and there’s almost no situation he won’t more than hold his own in. He’s energetic, skilled, feisty, and hard working. He’s by far the best sort of heel in the genre, really able to add heat to the match by getting chippy without it feeling forced or turning things silly or cartoonish. He can excel against any reasonable opponent, and will always add to the match from multiple parameters. He dropped 3 spots this year through no fault of his own. The promotion just had a lot more depth, with young guys getting a lot better, which Anjo didn’t get to benefit from as much as I would have liked. On one hand, as Kanehara & Maeda only fought “rookie” matches, Anjo was the only one who got to have singles matches with each of the other four fighters that stood far above the rest of the pack. While Anjo is a wrestler you think of as having great stamina, and thus actually gaining a lot from having long matches, especially since he’s so diverse, outside of the draw with Tamura, his matches were all on the short side, with 9:02 vs. Miyato, 10:12 & 5:49 vs. Kakihara, and 10:01 vs. Yamazaki being among the reasons these matches not only weren’t among the best of the best, but actually felt somewhat disappointing. In constrast, Anjo only had one match under 11 minutes in each of the previous two years, and Albright and Wellington Wilkins Jr. aren’t workers that go long. Anjo also had the misfortune of being the only opponent of The Iron Sheik and one of two who faced Pez Whatley, laughing stocks that were presumably there to make fake American wrestling look even worse, but mostly just had that effect on their current employer. Anjo doesn’t make enough matches on his own to be a truly elite fighter, but certainly managed to have a wide variety of interesting matches that were less predictable than most. He quietly had the most appearances in the recommended match list with 8, with no misfires on resume, and matches against Dan Severn and Steve Day that clearly overacheived in making the list, so perhaps I’m underrating him.

7. Masahito Kakihara [91: NR]. Much of the high quality of the UWF-I was simply based upon the enthusiastic mentality of the best young fighters. Kakihara is another one of those guys that seems excited to be fighting, and appears to be giving his all. He may not be as great as a young Kenta Kobashi, but he’s also one of the first that come to mind when I think of the fighters I want to see because I know they’re not only going to go all out themselves, but also will probably do everything in their power to pull an entertaining fight out of the opponent. Kakihara, for me, is one of the only pro wrestlers who possessed genuine charisma, which I’ll define as the ability to get the audience further and more deeply invested in his matches through being energetic, exciting, and intense rather than killing the credibility of the contest by stopping to pander to the audience. The fastest hands in the east were on display early and often in 1992, as no one but better Maeda consistently applied the sort of non stop pressure that Kakihara did on his feet. Kakihara might not be the most realistic performer in the sense that his standup barrages are rather flashy, but at the same time, he maintains a greater sense of believability than most of the other competitors through approaching the fight as though it were life or death, not letting the pace or his reaction speed waver because he could get away with it in works. He improved tremendously in 1992, going from a guy who mostly just urgently blitzed the opponent in short, standup oriented sprints to a fairly well rounded performer who could do 30 minute draws with lesser fighters, and even had enough answers on the mat to keep things interesting with amateur wrestlers who were rather dull and lacking in diversity. He’s yet to really have a signature match, but it now feels like it could come at any time.

8. Yuko Miyato [91: #8]. After seeming rather dated at the start of '91, Miyato really stepped it up in the second half of that year, and was the most improved veteran overall. He continued that good work throughout '92. A fiesty and energetic competitor who always brings some moments of excitement even when he’s jobbing himself out to beef up Takada’s next meal, his quickness and explosiveness help him be one of the more impressive strikers, with surprisingly powerful kicks for an undersized fighter, and a very capable sequence worker on the mat, where he has good reactions even though he lacks the submissions to really make himself a threat. Though Miyato doesn’t really push himself, he’s ultimately one of the most consistent performers around. He isn’t going to carry the opponent to anything very far beyond their usual level, but he can have a top notch match with a top notch opponent, as well as work well with just about anyone and fit into any situation, which are among the reasons he fares so well in the random tags. While I certainly wouldn’t rank him ahead of Minoru Suzuki based on his actual talent, his top 5 matches were all better than Suzuki’s best.

9. Minoru Suzuki [91: #2]. You can really see the appeal of shooting to Minoru Suzuki, as it was theoretically a great opportunity to utilize his speed in order to humiliate the opponent in cruel and sadistic ways. Suzuki just loved to steal the opponent’s back or slap them around, and his matches were definitely different in 1992, as he bought into the more realistic hard gym sparring style, joining Funaki in the idea that the match should contain as little cooperation as possible. His great speed and reflexes were more important now, and he was a joy to watch in standup, as he’s so fluid and light on his feet, and was more than happy to exploit these advantages. Unfortunately, his matches were either really long bouts against the stars or short squashes against the youngsters, and with fewer free openings, they tended to contain less risks, free flowing gambles, and energetic bursts. He wasn’t showing less urgency or displaying less of his quick subtle movements per se, it’s more that there was simply less opportunity for these to be among his trademarks in a style where he basically had to create his openings and then consolidate them on his own. His matches weren’t as consistent or exciting as they were last year, but were more intense and thoughtful, with flashes of brilliance.

10. Masakatsu Funaki [91: #9]. Funaki was once again the wild card of PWFG, as he had so much natural talent, but you never knew how much of it you’d see from him from fight to fight, or even minute to minute. He was the most cerebral and nuanced fighter in PWFG, and while his focus was increasingly on realism, being the leader of the give each other as little as possible style that became even more prevalent in PWFG this year, as the year progressed he was able to do a better job of making these sparring contests fun, without sacrificing credibility. When he was willing to actually use it, he was easily the best technical striker in PWFG, a slick mover who was very light on his feet, with great reflexes, footwork, movement, and diversity. His combination of skill, speed, and athleticism was such that you felt like he could make just about any of his opponents look silly by ducking and dodging their strikes then smacking them back for as long as he felt like it. His takedown skills weren’t as good as some of the other notable fighters such as Takahashi or Shamrock, but he could often make up for that by being great in the scrambles, and having a better concept of how to gain, secure, and maintain control on the ground in more of a judo or BJJ manner. He was clearly the most thoughtful performer in PWFG, and most likely the best all around fighter if he were to shoot, but that wasn’t happening yet, and in the meantime, he was at best hesitant to let loose and be exciting, and at worst, totally unwilling. I liked him more this year than last, but to some extent that was by virtue of the majority of PWFG now being on board with his style, leaving little in the way of interesting alternatives.

Michael Betz:

1. Kiyoshi Tamura: This wasn’t a hard pick since no one in 1992 had the overall package that Tamura brought to the table. His incredible speed and reflexes allowed him to excel in both entertainment and realism, and his lighting quick takedowns, counters, and footwork were just as spellbinding to watch as they were effective in a real fight. In terms of gonzo submission creativity, he wasn’t on par with Volk Han, but he more than made up with it via his blistering athleticism. It was almost always a guarantee that you were in for a good time when Tamura hit the mat, especially in a one-on-one setting.

2. Volk Han: Another easy selection as the sheer amount of genius that Han brings to each and every encounter is unparalleled, even to this day. Han’s weaknesses, depending on your perspective, is that of always choosing flash over realism, but he is such a creative savant that it’s hard to criticize. Han was also highly adaptable and found ways to elevate even the weakest of opponents. 1993 will be interesting to see unfold to see if he can dethrone Kiyoshi Tamura in the number 1 slot.

3. Hiromitsu Kanehara: Kanehara may have been able to take the number two spot if he had been booked a lot differently but landing in the third slot when he only wrestled three different opponents is not a small feat. Outside of Tamura, he is the only native on the UWF-I roster that seems to scream out loads of potential in real shooting, which we will see come true later in his career. For now, he is an excellent addition to the roster, and hopefully we will see him breakout in 1993.

4. Masakazu Maeda: This selection was difficult since Maeda only wrestled six times, and all against the same opponent, but no one has given more in a short span of time than him. He was all heart, determination, and fire, and his passion was too good for the worked nature of the UWF-I. It’s a shame that he didn’t come up in Shooto, or at least move in that direction, but he did what every few people ever do, and that’s forever leave an indelible impression on his peers and profession for ages to come.

5.: Minoru Suzuki: There are a lot of acceptable ways one could go from the 5th slot on down, but Suzuki gets the nod here, as no matter who he was facing, you knew that he was going to be put heaps of edgy verve into whatever he did. He got to shoot some in 1992, but even when he was working, he was doing it with as little cooperation as he could get away with. However, unlike Funaki, who sometimes seem bored by how much better than he was than everyone else around him, Suzuki was always entertaining with his bullyish ways.

1992 Shoot-Wrestling Rookie of the Year

  1. Volk Han

  2. Hiromitsu Kanehara

  3. Masakazu Maeda

  4. Andrei Kopylov. Kopylov was a great counterpoint to Han, focusing on displaying the most realistic version of sambo we’ve seen so far. He was able to keep his ground oriented matches intense through developing active, back and forth matwork that had a more noticable attention to detail and normally didn’t get too outlandish. What Kopylov gave up in experience, he made up for by being quicker and better conditioned than in later years, being fresh off his days as a legitimate sambo standout. Kopylov may not have been a sprinter, but he had very quick reflexes on the mat for a man of his size, and was the second most creative roller in the promotion after Han. He displayed an excellent array of legs locks, which he was able to keep viable for lengthy periods through his ability to keep making small adjustments, and had an innate ability to create pro wrestling sequences by chaining counters without straying too far from reality.

  5. Yuki Ishikawa. Ishikawa & Yanagisawa were two excellent rookies, good athletes that immediately had a surprisingly good grasp of the real & fake game. A hard nosed fighter who enjoyed mixing it up and refused to back down, Ishikawa was one of the stronger kickers in the promotion, with some of the better takedown defense, though he often wasn’t able to make these two strengths support each other, as his desire to go on the offensive lead to him throwing a kick that got him taken down. He also had a decent takedown and submission game. While he was often outgunned due to his inexperience, he would gut out any beating in hopes of finding his moment.

Top Ten Shoot-Wrestling Matches of 1992

  1. UWF-I 3/17/92: Hiromitsu Kanehara vs. Masukazu Maeda

  2. UWF-I 2/15/92: Hiromitsu Kanehara vs. Masakazu Maeda

  3. UWF-I 8/28/92: Yoji Anjo vs. Kiyoshi Tamura

  4. UWF-I 5/8/92: Hiromitsu Kanehara vs. Masakazu Maeda

  5. UWF-I 10/23/92: Kazuo Yamazaki vs. Kiyoshi Tamura

  6. UWF-I 2/29/92: Hiromitsu Kanehara vs. Masakazu Maeda

  7. UWF-I 1/9/92: Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Yuko Miyato

  8. RINGS 5/16/92: Volk Han vs. Grom Zaza

  9. UWF-I 8/14/92: Yuko Miyato & Masahito Kakihara vs. Tatsuo Nakano & Tom Burton

  10. RINGS 4/3/92: Volk Han vs. Akira Maeda

Top 3 Shoot-Wrestling Promotions of 1992

Mike Lorefice:

  1. UWF-I. While they’ll never win an award for doing the most with the least, a lot of times it’s simply a matter of having so much more available to squander. RINGS and PWFG have much better main events featuring much better main eventers, but outside of the main event, this promotion is fire. They had 7 of the top 8 workers and 8 of the top 10 matches. There’s no place they are lacking beyond title challengers, but that’s only due to hysterical blindness. Obviously losing better Maeda after just 6 matches really hurts going forward, but even without him, the oldest of their 6 remaining standout workers is Yamazaki, who just turned 30, so they should all have several good years left in them if they don’t just give up due to the limited upward mobility.

  2. RINGS. Maeda did by far the best job of constructing something that resembled an actual MMA organization. Scouring the globe, he got experts from most disciplines, really doing a nice job of bringing in a diverse cast of European fighters. He didn’t have as many amateur wrestlers or any BJJ practitioners because he was the only one of the three promotions without any real North American connections, but RINGS fighters definitely had the most opportunity to learn from specialists in other styles. RINGS may not have had the best matches or provided the highest quality from top to bottom, but it was the only promotion where we saw good works, good shoots, and good kickboxing matches. Though RINGS suffers the same problem as UWF-I in that their entire box office is based on Maeda, and to a greater extent have things worse because Maeda is both older and far more broken down, they’ve done the most this year to set up a promotion that isn’t expendable by virtue of merely being a lesser version of what’s already available. Their efforts are really beginning to come to fruition, as they were the only promotion really trending in the right direction in the second half of the year, with 10 of their 17 recommended matches taking place after June.

  3. PWFG. PWFG came the closest any wrestling promotion has, at least since the days of Frank Gotch, to showing us what real mat wrestling looks like. While to some extent that allowed us to understand why pro wrestling switched from a legitimate sport to theatre in the first place, their matches were interesting at worst, and quite fascinating on the rare occasions when two fairly evenly skilled and experienced fighters were going at it. It wasn’t so much the style itself that was lacking, it’s more that the roster was so dinky that opportunities to really show us what makes their breed of fighting special became incredibly limited as soon as they decided not to really give each other any openings. That’s where, from a 21st century perspective, the lack of closed fist punching and MMA gloves really became a noticeable liability because grappling could answer wrestling, but their brand of palm striking was almost never going to produce a KO, so they never fully developed even a healthy specialist days MMA balance where the winner was determined by whether the fight was mostly standup or on the ground. For the most part, except in the situations where there was a high probability their own takedown could lead to them getting submitted either off the reversal or the bottom, the fighters really didn’t even have think about whether or not to employ certain tactics against a given opponent. If one fighter was both the better wrestler and the better submission artist, there was almost nothing the other fighter could legitimately do to win, and that was a real issue. In most cases, the foreigner was the better wrestler, so there was some balance in who was winning from minute to minute, but usually the strong wrestlers had few ways to actually finish, and thus would ultimately lose to their lack of submission knowledge.

Michael Betz:

1. RINGS: This decision was an incredibly difficult one, as both RINGS, and the UWF-I, had their share of problems and strengths, and it really comes down to what kind of criteria you wish to use. In this case it was a textbook example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. RINGS won due to actually feeling like an MMA promotion a large percentage of the time, with most of the cards this year mixing real fights in with the works. The also took a huge stride in putting true MMA on the map with their fortuitous relationship with the Sediokaikan karate organization. Both by putting on the first non-Shooto professional MMA event with their Battle-Sports Olympic and by taking fighters that were already established stars in their respective disciplines and throwing them into a format where most any hold/strategy was legal. They were far from perfect and far from reaching the high entertainment threshold that their rivals from the UWF-I did, but they made up for it by being the most compelling.

2. UWF-I: Josef Stalin once said that quantity has a quality all its own, and far be it for me to dispute the wisdom of one of the most evil men that ever lived. Despite all of the inane booking, nonsensical match lengths, Takada hero worship, and endless recycling: the sheer amount of pure talent that this outfit had in 1992 will probably never be replicated by another pro wrestling promotion again. So, by having an avalanche of talent, they were able to produce a high number of super entertaining matches, even if very few of them had any relevance in the big picture of their main event scene. They didn’t do much to push anything into true MMA, but their action-packed martial style was excellent fun. They have all the means to have a fantastic year in 1993; hopefully Takada won’t bring them down.

3. PWFG: One of the harder promotions to assess as they sort of drifted in an odd limbo outside of the spectrum that RINGS and the UWF-I were occupying. 1992 saw them trying to be as real as possible without actually being real, thus forcing a boring avant-garde experience. Yes, the PWFG was like trying to sit down with an early 90s Brian Eno tape. Somehow, you’ve convinced yourself that there is some incredible talent underneath it all, but you just can’t quite get engaged with most of it. They were starting to hit an interesting stride right towards the end of the year, with more shoots and an interesting posse of Eastern European men in singlets, but alas, it was too little too late. At least they’ve set the groundwork for Pancrase to be birthed, and we are excited to see how that plays out.

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