Sunday, October 30, 2016


Astral Step 1st: Spirit-U 
May 11, 1991 in Yokohama, Japan
Yokohama Arena drawing 11,000

Lovely white flowers blow in the breeze whilst a surprisingly hard "My Radio"-era Rick Rubinesque drum machine/bass synth beat incongruously pounds and "next program SPIRIT-U" appears below on this screen VHS-taped off of one can only assume WOWOW because this is it, this is Astral Step 1st: Spirit U, the first RINGS show of the one hundred twenty eight or so that I have discs of in my box containing all of the RINGS shows ever because the reach of several of my internet friends and me exceeds the grasp of several of my internet friends and me. The graphics that welcome us let us know immediately that Akira Maeda is not just going to be here but will indeed be the "central man"of RINGS' system in the Stevensian sense and, further, these graphics call to mind the WWF logo coming in hot over water of the same period in time (or perhaps slightly earlier?) that would end with Gene Okerlund (if I recall correctly) telling us it was what the wooooorld was watching as things turned stormy. That impressed me then; this impresses me now. 5.11 (SAT) YOKOHAMA ARENA is what we are told so I was twelve? There is no way at twelve I would have been anywhere near ready for this; my taste level had not yet ascended to the towering heights for which it is now famed, although surely there were earlier signs (there were none). FIRE BOUT: HERMAN RENTING vs PIETER SMIT is the first bout we learn of and then WATER BOUT: WILLIE PEETERS vs MARCELL HAARMANS followed by EARTH BOUT: BILL KAZMAIER (really?) vs CHRIS DOLMAN  and then just when you think you've got the whole situation scouted it turns out it is going to be a UNIVERSE BOUT: AKIRA MAEDA vs DIRK VRIJ. In split-screen form, Akira Maeda at once talks about things in a suit but intimately and gets a light workout in whilst wearing a tracksuit. The Yokohama Arena crowd (of 11 000) is shown filing in and I both love and respect them. Three men in suits and headsets discuss, I assume, what is to come. Please note that I speak no more Japanese than one learns from being interested in judo way more than the usual amount (everyone, I assume, is interested in judo at least a little because of its unchallenged status at the pinnacle of the martial arts nobility index) but not enough to ever learn more Japanese than what one picks up from judo yore-tomes (body parts, a couple of verbs, like three metaphors). Add to that how the splendid Dark Horse translations of Koike and Kojima's's 8300-page masterwork Lone Wolf and Cub preserves and glosses way more Japanese terms than you would expect, and that I have watched a lot of Yawara: A Fashionable Judo Girl and also New Japan Pro Wrestling, and there you go, that's my Japanese. So I don't know what they are saying except I can tell they are being very polite, and one of them is I think from Tokyo Sports. 

FLASHBACK to 4/12/91 where Maeda drew a crowd of 2000 to Korakuen Hall (isn't 1830 or so a sellout there?) chanting his name and also just totally shrieking to see nothing really other than Maeda speak wearing a Mizuno U.W.F. warm-up jacket I covet tremendously, introduce his roster, conduct an in-ring Special Talk Show (it appears to have been low key), and then enjoy a five-minute exhibition between Chris Dolman and Dirk Vrij while "Cold As Ice" (like by Foreigner) blares over the sound system (what on earth; this is dynamite). Maeda then gets some pad-work in with just I guess one of his little buddies until Vrij himself offers to hold the pads, to which the crowd is like woooooaaahhhhaaaaa, and then he does, and then they roll around in a little exhibition of their own, and the people seemed not only OK with this having been the show, they seem to have demanded this be the show. 

Back to 5/11/91 now, and to the parade of fighters, who arrive to not just the RINGS theme but in fact the rap version of the RINGS theme, which I know exists as a standalone thing on Youtube and it is a dynamic performance and I will find it for you. On commentary they are saying things about the fighting styles of the competitors sometimes and I will note here for you the things they are saying when I can make them out: Herman Renting (nothing I can discern, forgive me), Pieter Smit (Judo Champion), Willie Peeters (American Wrestling Champion), Marcell Haarmans (Sambo, Judo), Bill Kazmaier (Power Lifting, World's Strongest Man, Bench Press), Chris Dolman (Judo, Power Lifting, Sambo, Greco-Roman, Freestyle), Dirk Vrij (again I have failed you, but I know he is a kickboxer), Akira Maeda (Akira Maeda). Two things of note here beyond the glory of the theme song would be the quality of the RINGS Holland jackets (they are largely purple, the script neon green) and the extent to which Akira Maeda is a hero to those assembled in Yokohama Arena (as is meet and right).     

Herman Renting (who later loses to Akira Shoji by submission in Pride, which is dark) and Pieter Smit are shown backstage getting warm for their FIRE BOUT (get it) which gives me a moment to check in on Pieter Smit's Judo Inside page, which reveals him to be the 1998 -95kg and 1990 +95kg Dutch national champion and these are both achievements to be lauded (he medaled at a couple of international tournaments also).  The RINGS ring itself is the gorgeous sky blue you remember, but it does not yet say WOWOW around the the ring-hems, and so my assumption that this aired on WOWOW has to be at least slightly in doubt. Smit seems willing to kick and be kicked but is more willing than that to clinch up and grapple; it is Renting however who scores the first throw here and it is a sheer lift of the kind that cannot help but reveal the worked nature of this at once but I mean that was never really in doubt, was it? Please do not take that as a criticism but the merest statement of barest fact. I like this very much already: the groundwork is heavy and good. Pieter Smit has a nice harai-goshi! That is not shocking of a two-time Dutch national judo champion, but he should, and he totally does! Why not talk about their ring gear, for a moment: fairly low-key long tights, wrestling shoes, kick pads, bare hands, wrist bands of vibrant colour, dueling leg locks. That last bit is not part of their ring gear as such but might as well be because it seems no less a part of their physical reality.

So the superiority of this style over all other styles of pro wrestling is immediately apparent. This is just inherently better than the other things. Renting and Smit work into and out of holds and positions with dare I say (I do) a verisimilitude that is enormously more interesting and satisfying than even the tumblingmost tumbling (resist tumbling in the guise of fake fighting; please resist it). The striking (no head-punching please) is nice and stiff but it's not like these guys are killing each other, the throws clean but not too clean ("judoooo wazaaaaaa" is a good thing for a commentator to say), and the grappling is correct, with no nonsense like people resisting fully extended armbars (this happens even in KUSHIDA matches, and KUSHIDA is a truly excellent little guy [we probably weigh about the same and probably love armlocks about the same and we both have great affection for Canada so I identify pretty hard with KUSHIDA]). After lots of kicking, ground work that I enjoyed, and like a million throws, Pieter Smit wins with a reverse juji gatame (uke face down, tori face up) in 15:02, receives a plaque that has a ribbon on it and a nice medal from a man in a grey suit and a woman in a rich purple gown (Fire Pro calls Pancrase "High Class," but the highest class of all is RINGS, aka "ECLIPSE") and I am really very convinced that watching all of the RINGS shows in order is an excellent idea. Actually I wrote about TK/Tamura first, and you can find that here, but aside from that I will be strict, no jumping around (there is no jumping around in RINGS). 

Next up is our Peeters vs. Haarmans WATER BOUT and it is probably worth mentioning that these are all one-fall, thirty-minute bouts and that the ring announcing is very high level already; that is not something that eventually happened in RINGS, but rather was killer from the outset. One of the commentators says something about hansoku-make, disqualification, that I wish I understood but it's too late, and also I think I actually like Japanese to be something I only catch little bits of and the rest remains as mystery. Peeters is a deep bower before the bell, whereas Haarmans is super stern.

This match is awesome right away. KATA HIZA the commentator notes as Harmaans gets down on a single knee and wrenches in a side-headlock-choke that lots of people call "the bully choke" (think the beautiful and true Carlos Newton vs. the mastermindish Pat Miletich). Maybe ten seconds into the match the crowd believes this could be the finish, like you can hear them totally believing it for real, and this is such a good thing. Peeters spins out, ends up on top, and rains down vicious elbows to the body. As Haarmans starts to stand, Peeters kicks him super hard. This is intense! Oh my goodness these knees from the clinch! JUDO WAZAAAA the commentator says again to my approval as Peeters throws Haarmans over with a kubi-nage headlock takeover and  a mighty grunt directly into kesa-gatame and OUR FIRST ROPE ESCAPE IN THE HISTORY OF RINGS THERE IT IS and the crowd is way in (me too).  Huge gut-wrench suplex from Peeters and I defy you to not love this man in his black singlet accented by neon green and pink panels other side and piped by those same colours decorous with their epoch. He is also winning to spin kick! SOLE BUTTOOOO! I don't really know why it's called that! The man is a star already. And yet even the shiningest stars are not immune to the effects of kata-ashi-hishigi, the single-leg Boston crab, and so he too must grasp a rope to receive its mercies. 

Peeters is a real thrower! He ducks under and hoists Harmaans up and around and I am so delighted again just as I learn that  "sportsmanlike" is apparently an English loan-word in Japanese. Haarman stomp kicks Peeter's knee which is just a shitty shithead move but this guy has seemed like a real dick the whole time if I may be frank with you here on my RINGS blog. I would say that he is punished for this malfeasance almost at once by another beautiful throw but in truth it is a privilege to be involved in throws of such splendour on either end so that can't be right AND OK Willie Peeters wins by head-kick KO at 10:51 in a star-making performance! Haarmans, though a dick throughout, is decent in defeat and so we cannot but commend him for that. Oh ok people seem to get a medal whether they win or not but they only get the plaque if they win, got it.    

I kind of can't believe how good these first two matches have been! I have not watched any of this early RINGS stuff before at all, not a single match of it, so this is all new to me; this is not a false-innocence I am adopting for the sake of cræft.

EARTH BOUT is now upon us and Chris Dolman tells us that no one in the world of professional wrestling in the United States is willing to fight Mr. Kazmaier and can you blame him? For a minute there (more than a minute) I thought Kazmaier was the star of the short-lived Canadian sitcom Learning the Ropes that aired alongside Check it Out (a supermarket comedy with Don Adams from Get Smart!!) but lol no that was Lyle Alzado, forgive me. Dolman comes out in a full-length silk(ish) kimono and a hachimaki or "Karate Kid headband" and I had some scar tissue on my forehead that kept ripping open and bleeding profusely and it was a problem for me at judo for probably a year before I got it liquid nitrogened into submission but for that year I had to tape around my whole forehead and when it would bleed I would get a rising sun in the middle of it but never little rays of light coming out around it and so it was not implicitly offensive to the victims of Imperial Japan's many crimes (it was a dark time). 

This match, which I believe is going to be contested in seven, three-minute rounds (I kind of reject this aspect of it but also I understand it, Kazmaier is huge [seemingly] gassed up guy who needs his rest), begins tentatively. Dolman clinches and throws some knees, and the people love this, and soon thereafter throws Kazmaier with a tidy koshi-waza or hip technique, and the people love that too! I do not mean to speak ill of the dead but it doesn't really seem like Kazmaier can do anything here oh wait I have looked it up and he is still alive and it is instead Lyle Alzado who is dead, what am I doing. For real though Learning the Ropes was probably terrible but when I was nine I watched and enjoyed it. 

In round two Kazmaier mounts a little offense but it is all quite shitty. Dolman really is very good, though, as one would perhaps expect of a two-time Dutch national judo champion and known pal of Willem Ruska. I have just now learned that he is also a tenth-degree black belt in Kyokushin karate, widely acknowledged to be the illest karate. The crowd boos Kazmaier for being slow to get up off of the obviously-a-million-times-better Dolman at the end of the second round, but in Kazmaier's defense he is already exhausted from the demands exacted by all of his big dumb idiot muscles unsuited for fighting or even pretending to fight. And to think I enjoyed his work on Learning the Ropes.

Round three passes largely free of incident and Kazmaier comes out kicking, sort of, in round four. I say this with sympathy because I am laughably terrible at kicking, as noted by my wife's laughter on the rare occasions she has ever seen me throw kicks (she holds rank in two styles of karate, I in none, and, if anything, I hold unrank, anti-rank). This is not a good match in the way that the first two matches were good matches, but the crowd is reasonably into it, and it is working as a kind of oafish spectacle if nothing else, and so as long as Kazmaier does not win I will probably be ok. Dolman comes close with a juji-gatame in round five! Kazmaier tries to power up and out of it and that was actually pretty great! And now the tap! Dolman wins at 1:10 of the fifth round and I would like you to know I am not sitting here with a stopwatch so much as noting the information the people of RINGS are posting as on-screen graphics. The REPEAT slow-motion highlights set to soaring mid-tempo guitar heroics are as in an n64 or PS1 game.

UNIVERSE BOUT is fittingly our main even and here now is Dirk Vrij (they keep putting up Dirk even though other sources claim Dick but I am here to tell you about RINGS not other lesser modes or knowledges). In pre-taped interviews both speak calmly in tongues I do not understand. Maeda is shown kicking a young boy backstage to warm up and lol yeah that probably is a pretty standard Akira Maeda warm-up. Dirk Vrij jogs out first and let me tell you something about this Dirk Vrij: he is jacked in the mode of a VHS movie underboss of the decade that had just ended (or had it: the spring of 1991 almost certainly falls under The Long 1980s). Akira Maeda comes out to chants of his name that must be exciting to him because they are exciting to me and it isn't even close to my name. This really is super exciting! You never know what to expect when Akira Maeda is in there, man. Will he kick a guy in the eye like an unsuspecting Riki Chosu? (No good, Maeda.) Will things fall apart utterly until Antonio Inoki comes out and then not actually get much better as though he were in with a drunk and uncooperative André the Giant? (Oddly good, Maeda.) You just never know!

As becomes a UNIVERSE BOUT this match has a forty-five rather than the already standard thirty minute time limit because what bounds could contain it? You need an extra fifteen, or at least the potential of it, to truly Universe. A cold stare-down! And now the bell! Dirk really is moving around out there like he was at the end of a level in Double Dragon (or perhaps River City Ransom, greatest of such games, wherein one reads martial arts tomes to level-up their fighting, it's so real). He left his golden earring in! Maeda, for his part, is all black trunks and kickpads, obviously, and while he is no kid out there, he is still young enough to move well and also to be kind of enormous. Maeda takes him down fairly easily early and works for a figure-four/double-wrist/ude-garami grip rolling juji-gatame but Dirk Vrij proves wily enough to evade it, good on Dirk Vrij. These guys are hitting each other pretty hard! Maeda takes Dirk Vrij over with a sort of front suplex and I think one of the commentators noted how close it was to a DDT. Another juji-gatame attempt is for naught and we're back on our feet until Dirk Vrij kicks Maeda hard in the leg and Maeda topples. Pretty much whenever either man lands a kick the crowd is LIT WITH JOY and I join them then but I do not join them in apparently enjoying it when Maeda puts a hadaka-jime/rear naked choke grip just right across the face ("choke the face! choke the face!" you will sometimes here people yell in the context of grappling) but I do not support this (neither does judo, in a wild coincidence) because I find it gross. 

Dirk Vrij uses his first rope break to escape a troubling position but no particular hold just before the ring announcer informs us we're now five minutes in and this could end right now and I would be fine with it, this has been really good! I do worry that I am underselling the striking here but they are smacking each other pretty thoroughly whenever they're on their feet and each blow is noted by the Yokohama Arenans and the atmosphere is just about ideal. Dirk Vrij is down not just a rope escape but also a knock down after he gets slapped to the mat only to stand at nine and now we have entered the dueling leglocks section of the match (I mean no disrespect) except Dirk Vrij for his part is less into holds as such and more into elbowing the shit out of Maeda's legs. I think the commentator is explaining that a TKO is five knock downs? That's kind of a lot of knockdowns! Knowing what we do now about CTE I am sure everything here would have been handled differently (no differently). Maeda hits a lovely suplex but is unable to hold Dirk Vrij down, and Dirk Vrij, enraged, springs up and pummels Maeda to the mat for his first knockdown and oh ok wow he knees the heck out of him in the corner almost immediately thereafter for a second knockdown. Maeda comes out with a big spinning heel kick that misses badly and Dirk Vrij knees him pretty thoroughly up against the ropes. Meada's capture-suplex puts Dirk Vrij in a bad position on the mat and so he opts for another rope escape and things are heating up! I think Dirk Vrij's corner just yelled KICK HIM IN THE FACE but it's not that easy. Or maybe there is something you yell in Dutch that isn't even actually mean, it just sounds like KICK HIM IN THE FACE, I don't know any Dutch at all. Dirk Vrij and Maeda look pretty mad at each other as the referee tries to separate them against the ropes! AND HERE IS THE FINISH it is a Dirk Vrij kick caught by Maeda and transitioned into a kata-ashi-hishigi or single-leg-Boston-crab and it is all MA-ED-A MA-ED-A MA-ED-A at the Yokohama Arena! Maeda has defeated Dirk Vrij with one of the few finishing holds permitted young lions of the New Japan Pro Wrestling dojo system! A reminder that everyone says the New Japan dojo is relentlessly brutal except "Bad News" Allen Coage who says it was no problem at all because the training was lighter than he was used to for Judo Olympianism and also he was "Bad News" Allen Coage so who was going to go out of their way to give him a hard time! Dirk Vrij seems upset at the loss and I would even say "hot" about it all but once a plaque and several medals have been presented everyone seems to be friends. 


The commentators discuss, one assumes, what they have just seen, and one distinctly says "kumite" which is the right word to use I think. No voice-over or comment as Maeda is shown making his way to the dressing room and this is shot just like PRIDE would do it's backstage footage, which is pretty much all the PRIDE you can still see on Youtube now that the UFC or its emissaries enforced the rights they hold over all of that material however they have no right legal, moral, or otherwise over the contents of my RINGS box; eat shit, Fight Pass (I have never even tried Fight Pass, that was too much, forgive me). 

ASTRAL STEP 1st it says atop the screen as a couch-seated Akira Maeda chats backstage regarding the events that have eventuated in this, our enjoyment. RINGS 1991*8*1 AQUARIUS WARS is next on the schedule and I have every intention of being there; please join me, won't you? 

I would like to end each of these RINGS writings by noting what Dave Meltzer had to say at the time in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, because the online archives go all the way back to 1991, and run through 1999, adding a new issue each week, so there is every chance he will stay ahead of me and have literally everything up by the time I get to it (let us be realistic about the scope of this endeavour). I will call this section WHAT DID DAVE MELTZER SAY.  


APRIL 8, 1991: "Akira Maeda's 'Rings' Promotion debuts 5/12 at the Yokohama Arena (17,000 seats) with Maeda vs. Dick Leon Fry on top. It'll be interesting to see how well Maeda can draw all by himself, and this group is Maeda and nothing else."

APRIL 15, 1991: "Apparently Akira Maeda's group when it starts in May is going to be real shooting and that's the reason Nobuhiko Takada and Kazuo Yamazaki went their own way. Since the matches will be real, Maeda is only going to promote four shows per year, book big buildings, and charge high ticket prices. Well, we'll see if it's shooting or not when it opens in May." 

APRIL 22, 1991: "Akira Maeda's 'Rings' group which they are say will actual shooting starts on 5/11 at the Yokohama Arena. The card will air on television on both 5/12 and 5/18. He also has Osaka booked on 8/1 and Sapporo on 9/3. The group booked Korauken on 4/12 with 2,000 fans simply to see the announcement of the first show, an interview with Maeda and sparring. Maeda, Dick Leon-Fry (a bodybuilder/kick boxer who faces Maeda on 5/11) and Chris Dolman were there sparring. Maeda and Dolman sparred for five minutes trading legholds. The name "Rings" comes from the name of Dolman's promotion which is called Rings of Holland and this will be Rings of Japan. The line-up for the Yokohama Arena (17,000 seats) show has Maeda vs. Fry, Dolman vs. Bill Kazmaier (former world record holding powerlifter who did some wrestling in Calgary and Alabama and was terrible), Marcell Harmans (sambo wrestling) vs. Willie Peters (kick boxing) and Peter Smith (judo) vs. Herman Renting (kick boxing)."

MAY 18, 1991: "The next two weeks will be very interesting because all three versions of the formerly red-hot UWF promotion have cards. Nobuhiko Takada's UWFI debuts on Friday night in Korakuen Hall and all 2,000 tickets were sold out within 15 minutes of them going on sale weeks ago. Akira Maeda's 'Rings' debuts the next night at the 17,000-seat Yokohama Arena. I've heard tickets are selling for this show, but as of a few days ago, there were still ringside tickets remaining so this isn't the "hot" ticket Maeda once was. In addition, the PWF (Pro Wrestling Fujiwara-group) runs Korakuen Hall on 5/16."

MAY 20, 1991 (this gets to RINGS eventually but I trust the material that precedes it will be of interest also if you are even here at all which you plainly are): "The big news this week was the debut of Nobuhiko Takada and Akira Maeda's new promotions. Takada's group debuted before a sellout 2,300 fans at Korakuen Hall on 5/10, with all tickets sold out in something like 15 minutes the first day they went on sale. The group, called UWF International or UWFI for short, is the closest thing to the old UWF which had a two-year run as the hottest promotion in the world before fizzling out as shooting stars are wanton to do because of problems between Maeda and office boss Shinji Jin. The show wasn't really very good, but what remains of the legion of UWF fans were there and felt good about being there. Takada grabbed the house mic before the show and said the group was the only one left 'with the feeling of the UWF' which got a big pop. The card itself consisted of three matches, a prelim match between Masato Kakihara and Kiyoshi Tamura, won by Tamura. Then came a 'doubles' match (tag team) with Shigeo Miyato & Yoji Anjyo beating Kazuo Yamazaki & Tatsuo Nakano with the surprise finish of Yamazaki doing the job when he was knocked out by a series of kicks from both guys in 23 minutes. This was different from the old UWF, which didn't have any tag matches. The rule were that a guy couldn't tag out while in a submission hold unless he got to the ropes or was able to break the hold. It was different since Yamazaki is really the group's second biggest name and he did the job. The main event saw Takada beat Tom Burton (who worked as a Dirty White Boy in Memphis some months back) with a boston crab in 10:46. The match was disappointing to most because Burton really had no idea of the style and Takada was giving him lots of openings and trying to carry him for ten minutes but the fans saw it as Takada could unload on him and beat him at anytime. At the 10 minute call, Takada seemingly proved them right because he got a quick win at that point. After the match in the press conference Takada apologized and said 'my opponent was poor.' They also confused fans by instituting new rules. On the scoreboard, each man starts the match with 15 points. You lose three points every time you go to the ropes to break a hold, and lose one point every time you get suplexed. The match can end with a pinfall (which almost will never happen), a submission (usual finish), knockout, five knockdowns or if a man's point total goes down to zero. When the press asked Takada after the show what his goal a year from now was, he said honestly, "I'm only thinking about one card at a time." In the sense that they drew the full house so easily, the card was a financial success. But the truth is, it has been so long since there has been a "real" UWF show in Tokyo, which was the home base of the UWF, that the first house was easy. Whether this group, with only eight wrestlers and access to only no-name Americans can book shows that will draw over the long haul or be able to draw outside of Tokyo is another story. The next show is 6/6 at Korakuen Hall with Takada vs. J.T. Southern on top.

Two interesting notes were that Koji Kitao sent flowers to Takada's opening show, which gets an interesting rumor going, although he'd certainly be out of place. Even more interesting was the front page news in one of the newspapers this past week that this group is trying to put together a Takada vs. George Foreman match for the Tokyo Dome in January, but you can imagine how astronomical the odds would be of being able to pull that one off.

Speaking of Kitao, I got a chance to see the 4/1 'Wrestle Dream in Kobe' SWS-WWF show so I saw the match with Earthquake John Tenta. Anyway, aside from it being just about the worst match of the year (negative four stars), it did appear that it was Tenta who "started it." The first genuine shoot move was Tenta going behind Kitao and taking him down hard amateur style (Tenta was the teenage world superheavyweight champion back in the early 80s), but almost like a football lineman just throwing down a back. Tenta was riding Kitao, who got to the ropes. Kitao then got out of the ring and kicked over the press table and got a real po'd look in his eyes. When they got back in the ring, it seemed the communication was gone but Kitao put his hands up as to do a test of strength as if they were working. When they locked up, Kitao quickly tried to move for the Fujiwara armbar but Tenta just got out of the way. Don't know if Kitao was doing the move for shoot or not, but Tenta clearly wasn't going to try and find out. At that point, the match was over as both guys just glared at each other. Neither guy would make a move. It seemed as if, since every fan knew the match had gotten out of control, neither guy could back down but both were very happy that the other wasn't quick to make a move. They just stood there and glared for like four minutes and neither guy had a way out of it other than get in a real fight which neither seemed to really want to do even though they had to give the impression to the other that they did, so finally Kitao kicked the ref real hard for the DQ. The TV version of the match cut immediately, but at that point Kitao grabbed the house mic and made his comments about Tenta being fake and wrestling being fake. I was told it was funny to see how fast people stormed the ring and tried to get the mic away from him. Anyway, apparently Kitao's version that Tenta came after him first under the provocation from Kabuki has some substance. . . That was a really sad show, by the way. With the exception of Bret Hart vs. George Takano **3/4, nothing was better than **1/4. The real disappointment was Tenryu-Savage. Savage looked bad but Tenryu looked a lot worse. I don't know if it was a bad night or if a lot of us didn't realize just how valuable Sherri Martel has been to Savage over the past year because he didn't look like a good wrestler. Savage also tried to break the bump on the power bomb (since he probably had never taken one before) finisher and the crowd erupted in laughter. It was said Tenryu's performance was so bad because of all the problems underneath, but Tenryu has really looked bad of late a lot of nights. Hogan-Yatsu was interesting if only because Hogan tried to wrestle the entire match on the mat and did one take-down and ride on Yatsu after another. The match was dull since Hogan's mat wrestling isn't entertaining, but it was different and unlike the other Americans that worked SWS shows, Hogan at least tried to change his style. It seemed to hurt his feelings that the crowd took the match as comedy even though Hogan tried to wrestle seriously. Hogan didn't take any bumps except for one powerslam from Yatsu and basically took the entire match and made it one-sided.

Maeda's 'Rings' promotion debuted 5/11 at the Yokohama Arena before 11,000 fans. The crowd was impressive because there were very few freebies (by Maeda's own decision) and it was really Maeda alone as the drawing card. Maeda's main event against kick boxer/bodybuilder Dick Leon-Fry from the Netherlands turned out to be Maeda's best match in a long time. The matches were all worked, although the crowd seemed to be convinced otherwise and popped big when Maeda pulled out the win after giving Fry a lot of the match. The other matches involved Dutch guys trained by Chris Dolman (sambo) and Wilhelm Ruska (judo); however, the fans weaned on the UWF noticed the guys did judo and sambo submissions and not the Karl Gotch-UWF style submissions that the fans were used to. Dolman worked against many time world champion powerlifter Bill Kazmaeir, in a match said to be awful. Dolman won by submission in the fifth round. Maeda is also plagued by a front office that includes nobody that has ever worked previously within the pro wrestling business."

JUNE 3, 1991: "Satoru Sayama returned to pro wrestling, sort of. Sayama was the color commentator on the television broadcast of Akira Maeda's debut "Rings" show on the WOWWOW network (equivalent to HBO in the U.S., WOWWOW also airs SWS)."

JUNE 10, 1991: "If someone asks who the most influential wrestler of the past decade is, a few responses may come to mind. Certainly Hulk Hogan has been on a worldwide basis the game's biggest celebrity, and his popularity (and that of the Road Warriors maybe even more) based on physique over ability certainly sped up the inevitable process where steroid use is out of control. Dusty Rhodes has been influential, but more in his role as a booker, not in his role as a wrestler and certainly not in a way that has increased business. Ric Flair has been a great wrestler, but you really can't point out ways that he's changed the wrestling game. One wrestler who clearly changed the game as much as any other is Akira Maeda. In Japan, Maeda refocused attention on the word "shoot." Some would say the reality is Maeda is the greatest workers of them all, because he was able to convince the general public that he was real in a world and business where few believe (and with good reason). But clearly, one thing is a "shoot." In his prime, which was just two years ago, Maeda was the biggest box office attraction in the pro wrestling world. The biggest monument of his success came on November 29, 1989, when his match with Willie Wilhelm, a former European judo champ from the Netherlands, set what was then a pro wrestling gate record of $2.9 million. The most phenomenal record, which probably will stand for many years, is that the first day tickets went on sale, more than 40,000 of them were sold for a $2 million first day. For a comparison, no other first day of ticket sales in recorded wrestling history exceeded $520,000 and Maeda headlined that one as well. Maeda's story is a long and interesting one with many chapters. There was the "shoot match" with Andre the Giant in 1986, the greatest mixed match of all-time with Don Nakaya Neilsen in 1986, the "shoot kick" on Riki Choshu in 1987, the success of the UWF from 1988-90 when it sold out virtually every card it promoted and pioneered closed-circuit technology for major shows in Japan. At the peak of his popularity in 1989, he was considered more like a major rock star rather than a wrestler, but was also respected like one of the country's major athletic heroes. The books written about him weren't in the section with books on wrestlers like Antonio Inoki and Riki Choshu, but in the section with people like Madonna and Bruce Springsteen. The success of the UWF influenced other groups in Japan as well, with more emphasis being used on submission holds in All Japan and New Japan and also more emphasis on clean finishes. Maeda was also the key figure in the power play which killed the UWF, claiming group president Shinji Jin was mishandling company revenue. Last month, Maeda started "Rings" with a big show at the Yokohama Arena. With only one Japanese wrestler on the card and a crew of mainly anonymous guys from Holland, Maeda was still able to land a television contract with JSB (Japan's version of HBO) and sell 11,000 tickets to his debut show. The two-hour television special clearly showed that it wasn't the product that was the show, it was the person. Most of the show consisted of one interview after another with Maeda, with the three prelim matches simply there to pass time until Maeda did another interview. Finally, one of only a handful of wrestlers of this generation who truly transcended pro wrestling (Hogan and Antonio Inoki are really the only others), even for a brief time, came out for his first match in more than six months. The visual impression was strong and immediate. His opponent, Dirk Vrij, a bodybuilder/kick boxer, while not quite as big as Maeda, had that "bad" look on his face with the Dolph Lundgren type physique. Maeda looked like he hadn't trained at all in comparison. As the match went on, it was obvious his younger opponent was quicker, stronger and in better condition. Or was Maeda just working to make it look that way? But it worked to build the heat and excitement. After a few minutes, Maeda looked like he was really going to lose. Vrij even taunted and teased when Maeda's slower kicks would miss their mark by feet rather than inches. A story was being told. Maeda simply couldn't match up to his opponent's hand and foot speed, nor did it look like he could match his conditioning. Maeda had only one advantage. Wrestling. A few times during the match, when they would lock up and wrestle, Maeda's superior skill would give him the advantage and Vrij would have to quickly escape to the ropes. Mixed matches are notoriously awful, but this one, while not the level of the Neilsen match, was no typical mixed match. The suspension of disbelief was almost total in the eyes of the fans, particularly as the match went on. It wasn't as if the two men had instilled doubt about whether they were working, they had instilled no question about it. But what appeared to be real was simply just another work. About 11 minutes into the match, Maeda caught a kick that was being aimed for the side of his head, heel-tripped Vrij down with the other leg, and twisted him into a half boston crab for a submission. The reaction when it was over wasn't the Pavlov's Dog reaction of a babyface beating a heel. It was the relieved reaction of a group of fans sensing that their hero was about to be taken apart by a younger, faster and stronger man; that the inevitable equalizer of all great athletes, time passing on combined with too little time in the gym, was going to do in their hero who had spent too much time organizing his new company and spent too little time preparing for what made him famous. But it was all a work and none of those senses had anything to do with anything. It was just a story being told, and people reading it word-by-word."

Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS Fourth Fighting Integration, 6/27/98)

Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (RINGS Fourth Fighting Integration, 6/27/98)

To the extent to which it occurs at the point of intersection between legitimate grappling and the aesthetic, shoot style pro wrestling is literally crucial (this is obvious). If, in keeping with Shinsuke Nakamura's recent yet yore-wise suggestion that strong style (and, by extension, probably also Romanticism) is best understood as real techniques plus real emotion, what shoot style offers—indeed, insists upon—is a realer technique in the hopes of a realer emotion and a style stronger still. What is the history of shoot style if not the spontaneous overflow of strong style feelings until strong style is itself incapable of bounding them? What becomes of that excess? Akira Maeda kicking unsuspecting people in the eye for real, initially. And from thence the several iterations of this style we call shoot: UWF, UWFi, Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi, Pancrase, Kingdom, Fighting Network RINGS, BattlARTS, U-Style, in several instances Pride FC; who can say where it ends (it ends pretty much there). Whenever and wherever strong style, though worthy, is deemed insufficiently strong, and yet no one wants to actually fight for real, shoot style emerges, to be supplanted in time, perhaps inevitably so, by shooting proper. Shoot style—a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, but an ephemeron—cannot and perhaps must not last. Death is the mother of beauty, mystical, within whose burning bosom we devise our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly, Wallace Stevens writes in “Sunday Morning,” arguably composed the Sunday morning immediately following the Saturday night in which Kiyoshi Tamura and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka performed in the greatest professional wrestling match he had ever seen. In one corner, he saw Kiyoshi Tamura, beautiful would-be ace, highest-born of any boar-fierce prince, generous of holds and niggardly of cowardice, noble of mien. In the other, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, whom all name one who knows much well. There could be no greater contest.  
At least there could be none to the shoot style initiate. But is there a style of wrestling more divisive amongst the splintered wrestle-caring legions than that of the worked shoot? Each mode of pretending to fight, of course, creates its own conceptual plane and necessitates its own informed subjectivity. Shoot style, though, asks of even the most enthusiastic of professional wrestling enthusiasts—indeed, asks especially of the most enthusiastic of professional wrestling enthusiasts—to forsake much of what they know and value in the performance to which they are best accustomed. The three-second pin fall, that most fundamental form of professional wrestling victory, is nowhere to be seen (except in the earliest incarnations of the UWF, and intermittently thereafter, but let us here avoid such pedantry). No ropes will be run. The Irish will neither whip nor be whipped. Folding chairs will perform their principal duty alone. A high-risk maneuver does not involve the top turnbuckle or a dive to the floor so much as, say, a forward throw that, if missed, exposes the back, or a leg lock attempt against a foe equally conversant in that dark discourse. For the fan of, I don’t know, let’s say Memphis, or whatever, there is much, perhaps too much, to leave behind. At its best, shoot style asks comparatively little of the martial arts enthusiast, demanding 0nly I suppose that we see the smoothness of positional transitions as evidence of the athletes’ uncommon skill than as evidence of a cooperative and giving uke, and that we forgive the strikes that don’t seem quite as murderous as they potentially could be in a fantasy realm utterly (as opposed to reasonably) free of ethics. And that’s when we can even tell: there is no shortage of shoot style matches that appear in the (otherwise? supposedly?) legitimate fight records of mixed martial artists who competed in Japan in the 1990s. In the 1990s shoot-stylings of the Japanese promotions—particularly and especially in Fighting Network RINGS—the grey areas of the work-shoot spectrum attain apex intrigue.
To the extent to which I am a judoist, and probably the foremost judo partisan (in the most pejorative sense possible) currently living, I come by my interest in especially-real-looking dishonest grappling honestly, but in truth I doubt I would be a judoist at all were it not for the formative childhood influence of the scientific wrestling of local hero Leo Burke (Leonce Cormier), variously described in Bret Hart’s Hitman: My Real Life In the Cartoon World of Pro Wrestling (also known in some dark circles as Too Poor for Real Pants: The Bret Hart Story) as “a great French-Canadian wrestler out of the Maritimes,” “ruggedly handsome in a Burt Reynolds kind of way,” and “a really great pro.” Leo Burke is the wrestling forever-king of the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, bound up with the place for good, a true regional hero of the kind that will not come again. Everyone over thirty-five who grew up here—and I don’t only mean sports fans, but anyone who read the paper (Chronicle-Herald, Mail-Star, Times-Transcript, you name it)—knows his name. His picture was on the wall of the barbershop my father took us to in Moncton, alongside the other wrestlers and boxers and hockey players who either had a local connection or played for Montreal. My wife’s family, people (quite sensibly) without the merest shred of interest in wrestling, have stories about the Cormier brothers. And now I do, too: not long ago, at a Leo Burke appreciation night at a small show at the Lion’s Arena in Spryfield, Leo came up behind my dear friend Nick, grabbed him manfully about the shoulders, and initiated a completely spontaneous and organic conversation about home, family, mortality, and workouts (we are all three of us grapplers of great renown and prestige and so our workouts are vitally important).  Our talk held such great meaning for me that I told my mother about it. She asked if remembered my father driving my brother and I to Cocagne (if you get to Saint-Antoine, turn around, you have gone too far) to watch Leo Burke (wrestle Frenchy Martin; yes, I remember clearly). Only much later would I learn that during those same years he reigned over the Maritimes throughout the summer months Emile Duprée promoted Atlantic Grand-Prix Wrestling, Leo Burke worked in Japan when he was not working in Calgary for Stu Hart, most often for Giant Baba’s All-Japan Pro Wrestling, but also--and I am going to suggest to you now significantly--in the first incarnation of the UWF: July 1984, two shows at Korakuen Hall, a tag match teamed with Rocky Della Serra vs. Nobuhiko Takada and Yoshiaki Fujiwara (shoot-stylists of the highest order, both) and a singles match against Pierre Martel, also known as Frenchy Martin (R.I.P. Jean Gagné). This all seems uncanny to me now. I do not wish to belabour the point, although I plainly have already, but that I grew up watching Leo Burke’s really quite actual-seeming grappling I am quite sure led not-at-all-that indirectly to my interest in legit grappling, and so to the noblest art of judo, and so to an intimate appreciation of and respect for the holds and throws and positional grapplings that (plus a lot of kicking, in fairness) constitute the central elements of shoot style wrestling. And so to RINGS, and so to this, the greatest shoot style professional wrestling match ever contested or performed or pretend-fought.       

The RINGS Official Rankings that appear near the beginning of this high-end WOWOW production from the Tokyo Bay NK Hall inform us that, after his inglorious TKO loss a month earlier, Kiyoshi Tamura is at this moment the number one contender to Georgian Kyokushin karateman Tariel Bitsadze’s Open-Weight Championship rather than himself the holder of that esteemed title. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, for his part, is coming off a strange win over Volk Han (perhaps you know him best as Magomedkhan Amanulayevich Gamzatkhanov) that appeared to be a worked shoot ending in a legit injury, but who among us could ever truly know? Herein lies the intrigue and indeed the glory of our undertaking. Prefight pre-taped video reveals an affable Kohsaka utterly at ease in a low-key t-shirt in support of car stereos; Tamura, in his signature all-red everything, looks tense and severe; all of this is, I would argue, revealing.

First to walk the aisle is Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, high-school judo pal of Olympic and World Champion Hidehiko Yoshida, college judo player at Senshu University, pro player at Toray Industries before a knee injury rendered the judoings to which he was long accustomed untenable, and brought him to the Karl Gotch-trained Akira Maeda’s RINGS, where to TK’s high-level (yodan, fourth degree) Kodokan skills and attainments were added a heap of extra leg locks. The familiar blues rockery of The Stone Roses “Driving South” fills the air as Kohsaka’s slick blue-and-white Alliance track jacket calls our attention to the seminal mixed martial arts team he co-founded with Frank Shamrock and Maurice Smith, and also makes me wish someone, anyone had agreed with me any one of the many times I suggested our judo club get tracksuits that year. But no, although one time we did order hoodies, and I still have mine. Kohsaka closes his eyes, folds his hands humbly, and utters a quiet prayer before stepping through the ropes. And now Kiyoshi Tamura, Okayama University of Science High School sumoist (despite his lean musculature) turned brooding heir to the UWF(i) shoot style throne, student of the ineffable Nobuhiko Takada, whom he would later accidentally, and much to his own dismay, knock out in a PRIDE FC bout that was by all appearances shoot style gone terribly awry (or was it; and did it). Unlike Kohsaka’s entrance, which got him to the ring, certainly, Tamura’s has the crowd eagerly clapping along to “Duration,” a piece more Fire Pro than Fire Pro itself, and yelling their hero’s name beseechingly. His deep, long-held bows to all four sides of the ring are no doubt meant to convey humility, and yet by making so much a show of that supposed humility they reveal a deeper arrogance and indeed vanity that prove to be, in the fullness of time, when one considers his legacy once all has unfolded, Tamura's curse and undoing.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the RINGS ring announcer, whose name none of us have ever known, speaks the names, fight team, and weight (in kilogramu) of each competitor in a finer cadence than anyone else has ever managed for anything, and which reveals all Bufferisms, come they from Bruce or Michael, as sad trash. He does so again here. The fighters are called to the centre for the referee's final inspection and instruction, return to their corners, and the bell is sounded to begin this contest that appears on both men's mixed martial arts records wherever you look but let us see; let us just see.

As Tamura’s first tentative kick (Frank Shamrock would later say Tamura’s kicks were the hardest he had felt, but this is not like that) is checked, what better time to note that both athletes are attired in the kick pads that for reasons I cannot quite determine I can never think of as anything but “Pancrase boots” even though we all know they do not come from there and Pancrase, though very fine, holds no unique place in the history of kick pads. (Shall we note here also that, in time, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka would become the first and indeed only Super-Heavyweight King of Pancrase? Imagine it.) No gloves are worn here, as they impede grappling hideously and also allow us to lie to ourselves about the reliability of the fist as a blunt weapon in a prolonged fight (fists are great but are filled with little bones that break a lot if you hit heads with them). Closed-fist striking to the head is not allowed in this eminently civilized epoch of RINGS in any event, so none of that will matter.
Although this match technically opens with exploratory, uncommitted kickboxing as Akira Maeda looks on at ringside in his red sports coat, the bell of the heart truly sounds when Kohsaka grabs a Tamura body kick, the fighters clinch, and Tamura’s failed attempt at a forward throw allows Koshaka to take the back and set a hook as they come to the mat. Tamura rolls through--no, he is half-nelsoned over--and, soon, TK settles in between Tamura’s legs and into his guard (or do-jime, or, in keeping with the catch tradition that informs Tamura's work, shall we say bottom scissors, as you have perhaps heard Josh Barnett say one time? Upon closer inspection this is a butterfly guard, though, and so very little of this terminology actually applies here and I have been a fool). For the first of what will be in the end an infinity of times, Kohsaka drops back into an attempted leg lock (a figure-four toe hold/ankle lock here, ashi-dori-garami) at the cost of his advantageous position, which bestows upon us the gift of Kiyoshi Tamura working from the top, darting in and out of and around TK's legs with a nimbleness that borders on the sprightly. It is a thing of beauty to behold this man's hips, and I welcome any reading of that statement you wish. Kohsaka entangles a leg amidst all of this (ashi-garami, an old judo term that is now en vogue once more amongst the leading leglock exponents of our time, John Danaher and his disciples) and, this time, opts for a straight ankle/Achilles hold (kata-ashi-hishigi). This troubles Tamura, but only slightly, as he escapes to the relative safety of the guard. Kohsaka, who has twice already forsaken positional gains to make fairly wild attempts at leg submissions, this time appears to take the more staid route, passing his left arm under Tamura's right leg to attempt an over/under pass, but he telegraphs it to such an extent that he might as well be putting himself in Tamura's triangle choke (sankaku-jime). Isn't that odd? And Kohsaka's work is usually airtight, right? Oh wait though Kohsaka stands, and drags Tamura away from the ropes, which seems like exactly the wrong idea if he has any concerns about this triangle at all, but as Tamura begins to transition from the triangle to the juji-gatame arm bar, TK steps over and swings through for a knee bar (ashi hishigi juji gatame). Kohsaka baited Tamura, and indeed us all, with a telegraphed guard pass that made perfect sense as a change of approach from the early wild leglock attempts that have already cost him, in order to lure Tamura into the triangle/armbar, only for TK to make a wilder leglock attack still. 

This is subtle

"KOHSAKAAAAAA" a man yells as all of this unfolds, and I join him now as heartily as anyone could or can at this great remove of not just time and place but also culture and language however what unites us here is the extent to which grappling has revealed our common humanity . Kohsaka's position, following this sheer leglock abandon, is terrible, as Tamura slides from dominant position to dominant position, switching hips to and fro whilst maintaining top pressure. Until he doesn't: from beneath kesa-gatame, using a technique that, while not exactly the TK Scissors for which he is rightly renowned, certainly falls on the TK Scissors spectrum, Koshaka hits a backdoor juji-gatame that is so sudden and so tight it seems a rope break will be Tamura's only means of defense. Tamura turns in hard, though, pulling his trapped elbow to the mat, and sits up into TK's guard, but not the TK Guard (about which accounts differ; its true nature remains an enigma these many years later). 

When I say to you that dueling leglocks and guard-work dominate the next several minutes of the bout, please understand that I am not being the least bit dismissive of either of those things. The crowd certainly isn't, as each "catch" registers fully with this crowd that completely knows what's up. Tamura's kata-gatame/arm triangle sweep from the bottom and Kohsaka's attempt at the ude-garami/figure-four-grip juji-gatame roll (the variation that is most closely associated with Neil Adams, who stood me up on Skype twice but in the end it is for the best as I didn't really want to promote his products under the guise of sports journalism anyway, not in my heart I didn't) are the finest bits of grappling here but  believe me when I tell you this is all exhaustingly, impossibly real and right and good, every bit of it. There's a complaint that you have perhaps heard about several contemporary New Japan wrestlers who work not a shoot style as such, but shall we say a strong style that seeks the shootmost mode possible under the current, post-Inokism, Gedo-loves-old-Memphis-tapes era of New Japan (I mean no disrespect, NJPW is super good). I am thinking here principally of Kyle O'Reilly, Bobby Fish, KUSHIDA when he's on the mat, the thousand-year-old (brilliant, irreplaceable) Kazushi Sakuraba, and Katsuyori Shibata (though he seems to get a pass on this critique when he headbutts people for real and blood appears across his immaculate hairline--think here of his grappling, though, not his striking).  Bryan Alvarez and "Filthy" Tom Lawlor articulated this the most clearly not long ago when they pointed to Sakuraba's work on an episode of Figure (Filthy) Four Daily, and said that when he was in with either Fish or O'Reilly (both of whom, to my eye, were beside themselves with joy to be in the same ring as Saku) it just kind of looked like people rolling lightly at the gym, and neither Alvarez nor Lawlor saw the appeal at all. While I do see the appeal (it is neat), they're not wrong in the way the characterize that kind of shootesque, slightly-stronger-than-strong style we see sometimes in New Japan (and elsewhere). What I mean to say here is that whatever exactly that is, Tamura and Kohsaka are extremely not doing it; they are going like absolute hell here and it both looks and more importantly feels real. 

A standup! Of all things! And not one of the referee's doing: Tamura simply disengages and returns to his feet, where neither grappler has been for kind of a while now, given their fighting styles and also taste levels, which in the end are probably the same thing. Both men glisten as though covered by the dew of morn as the referee attends to Tamura's disheveled knee pad, which, until moments ago, ably concealed his pretty thoroughly wrapped and no doubt messed knee, but no more, and they are nearly set to fight anew. 

Thus ends the beginning, twelve minutes of the realest unreal grappling you or I will ever know, except for in grappling matches that are actually real, but they're not as good, so forget it. 

Once Tamura has slapped Kohsaka right in the damn ear and Kohsaka has push-kicked his way into conceding  a winding leglock takedown into yet another leg lock ("Ashi-gatame! Ashi-gatame!") we are back to the mat, which is where I deeply need this to be. Dueling leglocks resolve themselves into a seemingly dire situation for Tamura, caught in a heel hook (without question the grossest of all such holds, ask anybody) some distance from the ropes, and with the pain and worry visible in his aspect but never cartoonishly so the crowd takes all this enormously seriously. After much twisting and scooting Tamura makes the ropes at 13:35 for the bout's first rope break. Have we yet discussed the place rope breaks hold in this Fighting Network? Should one find oneself in straits as dire as those just described, the hold must be broken once uke (he on the business end of waza) grasps the ropes; the symbolic death of ippon is thus evaded as uke flees to the symbolic safety of the forest, finds refuge in its wood-hems and holt-eves. The cost of this is a point; a more exacting  toll of two points is charged the victim of open handed or kickpadded onslaught to the point of unfeeting. After each rope break or knockdown, an on-screen graphic with nine tiny boxes (ten is unnecessary, the bout would be stopped) under each fighter's name  informs the WOWOW audience of just where this tally stands (shade them a green-tinged highlighter yellow for rope escape, a red only slightly less vivid than Tamura's trunks for the fury of a knockdown, or so these colours appear preserved on iffy-trackinged VHS and then later subjected to the pitiless process of digitization). 

Now the kickboxing begins in earnest, with Tamura's kicks seeming the most dangerous weapon here--that, or his fairly heinous willingness to slap TK very hard in the face and ear for real. Under great pressure, Koshaka drops low for an ankle pick (kibusu-gaeshi) but the sprawling Tamura takes his back and sets to work. Once Kohsaka rolls through, and Tamura assumes a north/south position (kami-shiho-gatame), the stage is set for Kohsaka's first attempt this match at the scissors that bare his name, an inverted variation here, the kind he would in time hit on Randy Couture in a straight shoot (he would also throw him, and, I mean, think about that for a moment). But Tamura has seen these scissors, these TK Scissors, before, and is not so easily scissored, owing to his wiles and the designs of his wizardry. Tamura's hips quicken as he does not so much flow as teleport betwixt mount and side control but despite its suddenness this movement allows Kohsaka the room he needs to begin to roll, and of course what he rolls for is a leglock, this time a toe hold that he switches to a knee bar near enough the ropes that it's clear at once that this hold is no match-ender, but Tamura is forced into his second rope escape at 16:05. Kohsaka gets a "HWAAAIIII" of approval from the crowd as I think he holds two fingers briefly but low-key-assuredly towards them as he returns to his corner, emboldened.  

The halfway mark of this thirty-minute-time-limited affair now behind us, we return almost at once to the configuration we left behind only a a moment ago: TK underneath the dynamic Tamura, who this time hunts for armlocks. It takes Tamura no more than a minute to transition a gyaku-ude-garami (Kimura) grip into an inverted juji-gatame with Kohsaka rolling face down under the bottom rope, his first escape at 18:23. Every rope escape returns both men to their feet, which cannot help but favour the exceedingly kicky Tamura, can it, but here Tamura himself initiates the groundwork with a low double. Kohsaka does not remain in (TK?) guard long but sweeps with an ude-garami (Americana, or shall we say double-wrist lock; let us catch-wrestled; let us Fire Pro) and applies jugi-gatame with what I think you would have to call alacrity. After scooching, Tamura's third rope escape comes at 20:04. Such is the rising action of the piece that each catch elicits a greater response from the crowd regardless, now, of where the grapplers are positioned in the ring; the people are just super, super in. 

Kohsaka's reward for nearly ending the match with a tidy reversal of position and a classic application of juji-gatame is that now he must stand with a Kiyoshi Tamura down three points to one, all of them scored trough Kohsaka's mat superiority (thus far), and so a Kiyoshi Tamura who sensibly chooses to press his advantage striking, and so one who absolutely wails on TK, backing him up into his blue corner with hard kicks and open-hand strikes that drive him to the canvas. Tamura does not follow there and continue his barrage, as one would were one engaged in the putrid cretin spectacle of mixed martial arts, but instead returns to his corner; for this is RINGS. Koshaka beats the referee's ten count with little to spare, and the match, now tied at three following this two-point knockdown, resumes at 20:56 and the crowd is doing so much yelling.

Valiant Kohsaka comes forward boldly, and fares better than he had a moment ago, but one hard shot to the face is enough to remind him that when this match was on the ground, he was winning, and now that it is standing, he is totally not, and so he drops low for a double-leg takedown (morote-gari). Tamura sidesteps and ends up on top, but despite the styling he puts on Kohsaka here positionally (the commentator is especially excited by the kesa-gatame, and meeee tooooo), this is still where Kohsaka wants to be, given that, when standing, his ticket is being remorselessly cancelled. "Jujiiiiiii!" a voice cries from the crowd, not unwisely, and Tamura hears the call, but Kohsaka escapes through the back door, takes Tamura's back, and, hooks in, works towards hadaka-jime, the naked strangle (I was once misheard whilst saying "rear naked choke" and Sensei J. Comrie, 5th dan, 1976 Judo Olympian, said "bare naked choke, haha, that's a new one!" and I was mortified, even after I repeated myself more cleary and he said "ah ok" [he is a very nice man and a great teacher and to learn from him was a privilege and I am in his debt]). Here both men become tangled in the ropes, and so there is a rope break, but not a rope escape that gets charted to anyone, so they are merely restarted on their feet. 

The crowd approves so hard when, once Tamura slips and falls during the striking exchange that follows, Kohsaka, after the merest moment's hesitation, allows his opponent to stand again rather than leap atop him in the most mildly unsportsmanlike manner you could even come up with. "Such . . . decency," they say with their quick polite applause, and they are correct. Tamura, though appreciative, chops TK down with a low kick, sinks in a mounted front choke/guillotine/mae-hadaka-jime, and forces a rope escape to take his first lead at 24:04. These guys look spent, and yet they come out firing with just under six minutes to go: things get so heated that Kohsaka throws a high kick combination, of all things, and the crowd's position on that is "hahahaha what is even going on right now hahahah oh man" only there is no laughter in what they are doing. Spirited though it was, the TK High Kick Combo comes to a close with Tamura grabbing a leg and stepping over into knee bar that has everyone at Tokyo Bay NK Hall (and eighteen years and I don't know how many viewings later, me too, kind of) convinced that this is it: the not-even-that-tight camera shot from above reveals the grimacing pair adrift in a sea of blue canvas, the safe harbour of how it says WOWOW near the ropes nowhere to be seen. "GIVE UP? GIVE UP?" Fire Pro referee Panther Trottori inquires as the crowd's pitch continues to rise, but Kohsaka inches his way both towards the ropes and out of the hold. Tamura switches to a figure-four ankle lock, Koshaka lunges desperately, and the rope escape comes at 25:05.

Down by two points with less than five minutes to go, the exhausted Kohsaka needs to somehow push the pace standing against the superior striker, and to his immense credit does so by employing the throwing techniques of Kodokan judo: the only person more excited than me by the harai-goshi hip sweep TK hits out of the corner is the commentator, and we're both completely right, it really is tremendous. Tamura's ukemi is strong though, and he rolls through and and indeed on top, but cedes his position to apply juji-gatame, to which Kohsaka responds by posturing up, throwing his leg across Tamura's head, and attacking with his own juji-gatame to force the rope escape, and at this point this is just the greatest thing you will see, and actually has pretty much been that for some time. Tamura's lead is now but a point at 26:06.

Clinching worked out so well for Kohsaka last time that he is eager to get there and throw again (aren't we all), but this time Tamura fills him in nicely with a solid knee to the body. Undaunted (or maybe a little daunted; it was a very hard knee), TK traps the head and arm and rolls through for a hikkikomi-gaeshi sacrifice technique, maintains his grip, and forces the tying rope escape with an arm-in guillotine at 27:07. The rising action is rising so hard right now.

Tamura and Kohsaka now muster all of their considerable art into communicating their sheer exhaustion. That art, in addition to the very actual exhaustion they are no doubt very much totally for real feeling also, makes for quite a scene as Tamura braces an arm on the bottom rope whilst TK holds on one knee. Again they stand, again they clinch, and again Kohsaka looks to throw, but as he performs the tsukuri or entry for the harai-goshi hip sweep that earlier launched Tamura so thoroughly, Tamura, now wise to this scene, drops his weight to the rear. Koshaka loosens (indeed looses) his grip and attacks with a rolling kneebar in the most sambo of fashions, but seems too exhausted to finish it as Tamura slips out and assumes the mount. What better time than now for the TK Scissors, the least probable of all mount-escapes that actually kind of work? Not long ago my friend David brought to my attention Josh Barnett's character's mention of the TK Scissors in the surprisingly excellent (in a belated VHS-you-rent-from-the-corner-store idiom) Michael Jai White vehicle Never Back Down (3): No Surrender, which led me not only to the immediate delight I took in this knowledge, but also to consider once more Kohsaka's performance in the Lumax Cup: Tournament of J '95, where he hit the technique again and again against Egan Inoue en route to victory. I then taught the scissors the next time I had the chance at judo, and we all agreed that it was fairly absurd, and yet I hit the move in transition against someone consistently and demonstrably better than me that very same night, probably in no small part because I threw him off by exclaiming "TK SCISSOR TIME!"  just before attempting it. 

TK exclaims nothing here, and achieves only partial success: Tamura is badly unbalanced by the scissors, but remains unswept, and the juji-gatame Tamura fixes fast looks like the end until the knee bar with which Kohsaka counters looks even more that way. Although they are quite near the ropes, with so little time left in a tied match each catch threatens to be decisive regardless of ring position; the crowd recognizes this, and is bananas. Now the toe hold that inevitably follows the abandoned knee bar (it is like the seasons) does so, but rather than seem perfunctory it seems menacing and the crowd is shrieking as this time Kohsaka goes back to the knee bar after the toe hold only for Tamura to slip out of the whole mess and take the back with both hooks in and the choke nearly sunk but Tamura's left hook is in so deep Kohsaka can counter with a simple yet subtle hiza-tori-garami trapping the foot and extending it painfully causing Tamura to not only release the choke but look longingly towards the nearby bottom rope but it's far too late for a rope escape to bring anything but certain defeat and so he fights on and slides through to a juji-gatame screaming with exertion as he struggles to break Kohsaka's defensive grip as the bell sounds and the crowd bellows a low "WOOOOAAAAAAHHHHAAAAA" to end this the greatest bout ever as a time-limit draw. A time-limit draw! Who would have thought that the greatest professional wrestling match of all time would be a shoot style time-limit draw? And yet here we are, confronted with that incontestable fact. 

While the fighters lie still, exhausted, Akira Maeda, enormous at ringside, speaks with the referee and timekeeper to confirm that yes, the time did indeed expire in this the greatest match anyone has ever seen before Tamura was able to either see his hold through to completion or force Kohsaka to concede defeat by either rope escape or submitting for ippon. Koshsaka rises to his feet first, and bounds spiritedly to the crowd's deep and hearty approval. He is soon enough joined by Tamura, and the two embrace, smiling, and I am moved at their joy.

Here, please, watch the whole match yourself.

This was the not the first time Kohsaka and Tamura had met (4/27/97, Tamura by ashi-dori-garami in 13:57), nor would it be the last (1/23/99, Kohsaka by harai-goshi to juji-gatame in 9:42; U-Style 2/4/04, Tamura by juji-gatame in 15:51), and, although you may hear otherwise, each of their encounters occur at the absolute highest level of this style and indeed of style itself. Be deeply suspicious of the taste levels of those who would even hint to the contrary, and be particularly wary of those who argue the 1/23/99 bout is the black sheep among them (they betray their anti-judoism and thus themselves; that finish was flawless).  Kiyoshi Tamura is the finest shoot stylist we have seen--or will ever see, we may just as well say, given U-Style's death and unlikeliness ever to rise again--surpassing even the great Volk Han (may both find entry soon to the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame; I remain in a state of perpetual outrage until this is resolved), and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka his best opponent. 

It is no doubt self-defeating to begin a years-long essay (in the original sense of an attempt) into the Fighting Network we call RINGS by beginning with the greatest match it or any other promotion has ever staged; clearly everything else that follows will be lesser. But here we are; the RINGS are before us; there are certain things that can be said; let's say some of them.