Perhaps best known for once winning a fight by flying armbar, Sato was famed for his aggressive grappling. Trained by Shooto founder Saturo Sayama (aka the original Tiger Mask) Sato's submission orientated was heavily influenced by catch-wrestling. Sato definitely did not follow the old grappling adage of position before submission; his eagerness to submit his opponent at any cost made him an instant fan-favourite in Japan.
Sato made his professional debut in 1994 and in doing so he became the first person that I am aware of to win a professional fight by submission due to a calf-slicer. Throughout the late 90s and early 00s Sato was written about regularly on internet discussion boards, such as this one. Back then the internet was a very different beast and obtaining footage of Sato’s exploits in Shooto was never easy. This meant a lot of the online discussion was based on hearsay. Still, Sato was widely regarded to be one of the best and most exciting 155lb fighters on the planet.
The rules of Shooto in the early years did not allow contestants to punch the head of their opponent whilst on the ground, and recognising the appetite for less restrictive rules throughout the rest of the world, Saturo Sayama, introduced a new annual-event named Vale Tudo Japan. The event was essentially a no-holds-barred of fighting and proved a big success, not least of all because of two tournament winning performances from the masterful Rickson Gracie. Thereafter Shooto relaxed its own rules, finally allowing punches to the head of a grounded opponent, but stopping short of full Vale Tudo rules. Strangely, it was not until 2009 that Shooto finally dropped its controversial standing eight count.
In 1996 the undefeated Rumina Sato, sporting a record of 6 wins and 0 losses, took part in a non-Shooto event for the first time. At Vale Tudo Japan 1996 Sato faced intimidating nightclub owner and Judo blackbelt John Lewis. After three rounds the fight came to an end and was declared a draw due to the absence of judges. The following year Sato would once again take a break from Shooto to compete in Vale Tudo Japan, and once again his opponent was John Lewis. This time Sato submitted Lewis with an armbar in the second round.
I will skip over what happened to Sato at the Vale Tudo Japan 1998, suffice to say it was not a good night for him. At the 1999 Vale Tudo Japan event Sato beat Chuteboxe Academy and Kings MMA founder, Rafael Cordeiro, by first round submission due to a kneebar. The kneebar came following a beautifully executed takedown. This fight showed Sato at the peak of his powers.
Sato twice competed for the Shooto welterweight title, the welterweight limit in Shooto being 155lb. On both occasions Sato would lose to another legend of Japanese MMA, Caol Uno. After Uno captured and successfully defended the Shooto welterweight title he joined the ranks of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Unfortunately for Uno he was less successful in the UFC, where he twice fought for the lightweight title and lost. As you can probably imagine, the internet discussion boards at the time were awash with claims that Japanese fighters were overrated when compared with their American counterparts.
Losing to Uno a second time had a detrimental effect on Sato’s confidence. He only managed to win 2 of his next 7 fights, whilst racking up 4 losses and 1 draw. During that terrible run Sato was again unsuccessful in his attempt to capture the Shooto welterweight title, this time losing to Japanese standout Takanori Gomi. It was beginning to look like Sato might never become a Shooto champion.
Sato only competed twice outside of Japan, and both those times he journeyed to Hawaii. Sato’s fast-paced proved too much for his overseas opponents, and he won both fights quickly, by first round submission. The first of those wins in Hawaii was a lightning quick 18 second rear-naked choke submission over veteran fighter Yves Edwards.
Sato would later make the drop to 145lb and in 2005 he finally became a Shooto champion, successfully capturing the Shooto lightweight title in a decision win over Makoto. At the time Ishikawa had an MMA record of 11 wins, 5 losses and 1 draw, he was definitely not considered a pushover. This was the first and only time Sato would win and hold a title in his fighting career. He would later relinquish the same due to inactivity caused by an injury. This marked a turning point for Sato, between relinquishing the Shooto lightweight title that he won in 2005 and retiring from competition in 2012, he would go on to win only 3 fights and whilst losing 9. Clearly all those years of fighting had started to take their toll.
Sadly Sato lost his retirement fight to experienced veteran Hideo Tokoro, at the relaunched Vale Tudo Japan. The fight ended quickly and violently in the first round. After Sato rushed in on Tokoro he was stunned by a hard throw to the ground. Tokoro then followed up with a brutal barrage of strikes until the referee called a halt, a mere 38 seconds after the fight started. The Sato who showed up that night looked like a shell of the man once considered amongst the top lightweight fighters in the world. Prime Sato would have given the crafty Tokoro a far tougher fight and most likely have overpowered him for the win.
Despite this unceremonious end to his 18 year fighting career Rumina Sato will be fondly remembered by MMA fans for his exciting a that saw him accumulate 26 wins, 23 of which came inside the distance. An incredible 18 of those 23 finishes were by submission. In an era where the importance of winning often trumps the desire to entertain we could use more fighters like Rumina Sato.