Monday, November 7, 2016


Astral Step 3rd: Kamui
September 14, 1991 in Sapporo, Japan
Nakajima Sports Center drawing 4,900

That Akira Maeda entered his Astral Step 2nd: Aqua Heat (worked) shoot contest against literal Double Dragon under-boss Dirk Vrij hobbled if not incapacitated by a (shoot) worked knee injury is incontestable (worked, shoot) fact. But what drove him? And what must we consider to even begin to theorize such an instance? Was Meada a willing victim of his own self-imposed not-just-strong-but-indeed-shoot-style strictures? Can meaningful agency be ascribed before their exacting coercions (social, ideological)? Should we turn away from the earthly and towards the astral in search of understanding? Did perhaps the devil hold fast his eyes with the filth of pride, the lure of a strong house? It is perhaps neither our place to say or to know, but what we can say with all certainty is that Kamui (Ainu: カムィ‎, Japanese: 神威 or 神居, spirits and divinities of Ainu lore) follows Aqua Heat as night follows day, and so our Astral Step 3rd . . . has already begun.

I would be remiss were I not to again note (I have done so previously in this blog's first essay) the recent passing of Jean Gagné, better known to many as Frenchy Martin, who, in addition to delighting untold scores of travelers with his carousel-based airport-pratfall antics, "even came for the early days of the UWF promotion in 1984 as Pierre Martel, losing a singles match to top star Akira Maeda on July 24 in Korakuen Hall," in the words of græppling high-encomiumist Dave Meltzer in his solemn (yet not sombre) Observer remembrance. Let us dedicate the time we are about to spend together in consideration of this 3rd Astral Step to the memory of Jean Gagné; let us reflect on the astral step Jean has himself taken. 

Jean Gagné (Frenchy Martin) with his friend Léonce Cormier (Leo Burke)

A weirdly-trackinged moon and the synth bass of the RINGS theme we have quickly come to love welcome us as the fight card is laid bare before us. WATER BOUT: HERMAN RENTING vs. MITSUYA NAGAI! FIRE BOUT: WILLIE PETERS vs. BERT KOPS JR! UNIVERSE BOUT: DIRK VRIJ vs. TON VON MAURIK! EARTH BOUT: AKIRA MAEDA vs. WILL WILHELM! Please tell me if you know if these designations are indicative of anything but fancy!

A press conference! Akira Maeda in a suit! I don't know any of the words that he's saying, but he is clearly reading a prepared statement and ending it with polite words. The Sapporo crowd files in to the Nakajima sports centre as several (non-Maeda) men in suits sitting at a heavily-WOWOW-branded table presumably welcome us and I cannot but note that, unlike our previous Astral Step, there would appear to be talking this time, and I don't mind that in the least, but while Astral Step 2nd seemed enormously high level for really any number of reasons, its lack of/deliverance from comment did not rank least among them. These men of comment have in their possession visual aids that say atop them a kind of bout (Water, Fire, etc) and then offer several categories in which one might compare fighters, I believe, and then within those categories, each fighter is given a star rating? This is what I believe to the be the case but I must again emphasize that I cannot reliably read anything in Japanese except 柔道 (because it is judo). 

An Aqua Heat recap demonstrates that what we thought to be the case at the time has in the end proven true: Mitsuya Nagai did defeat Herman Renting with a thrilling lateral drop (yoko-otoshi) into a tidy juji-gatame; Chris Dolman got the best of the equally Dutch and curly Ton Von Muarik with his kata-ashi-hishigi from the position we have come to call recumbent lateral Boston crab; Willy Wilhem ably stuffed the game Pieter Smit into his belly; and Akira Meada was mauled quite genuinely upsettingly by Dirk Vrij, and I didn't come into this with any extraordinary interest in Akira Maeda (I mean, we all have some), but he is so effective at garnering the sympathy of the crowd (of which I am plainly part) that his powerful lure is immediately felt (by me). The highlights leave me slightly upset anew! The parade of fighters soon follows, and I do love a parade (of fighters). A youthful and downy-haired Masaaki Satake is here and he has brought for Maeda not an endless barrage of kickboxings but instead a nice bouquet of flowers.

RINGS rules are explained to the crowd and demonstrated by two largely indistinguishable shave-pated young boys in black t-shirts tucked into red tights. I believe I am following the explanation for the most part but this runs the same risk as reading Japanese judo books, wherein I am usually pretty sure I can tell which pictures show what you're supposed to do and which what you're not, but you never know, you could easily end up learning the opposite of judo from them, or inverse judo maybe. (Newer volumes often anticipate this problem and put huge red X's over sections the unlettered [me] might in their ignorance and enthusiasm mistake for the sickmost waza of all.)

The Water Bout is upon us, a straight-up rematch of Mitsuya Nagai and Herman Renting. You will perhaps recall that last time around, Renting carried much of the contest, only for Nagai to prove pretty sneaky for a minute at the end there! Renting takes the fight to the mat immediately, and takes Nagai's back as they both roll into the ropes and are stood. Kickboxing ensues, and Renting seems the better at this, but not as much the better as last time. Nagai is clinched and whipped to the ground by Renting (he is the only other guy there), but seems unfazed by this; he is, I think, growing as an artist. A moment later, when Nagai kicks Renting actually super hard in the arm, Renting insists Nagai give him another one in the exact same spot, and he doesn't really, but the crowd is like "hwaaaaaaiii" at the very idea. The first rope escape is charged to Renting, who, despite having Nagai's back and working towards a choke, has carelessly left his ankles in a manipulatable position and Nagai is like a-thank you

This isn't bad at all! The groundwork is not of the sort you would characterize as superior but it is spirited enough, and the striking will pretty much get you there, too. And Herman Renting's takedowns have been pretty pleasing, like for example the ashi-dori-ouchi-gari (leg-pick-inside-trip) he just hit after a satisfying bit of struggle. None of this looks effortless, which is key: do you remember earlier this year when Hirooki Goto was being spoken ill of for having to try a couple times to get, I don't know, let's say Kenny Omega (this Kenny Omega, by the way, my goodness) up for his big shouten kai, a fairly enormous vertical-suplex-to-side-slam finish? Like as though that was a problem? But isn't it absurd that wrestling matches have these huge lifts and throws that come off without the slightest hitch after twenty minutes of high-paced carrying on? Isn't that fake and dumb? So Goto takes a couple times to get--and again, I am just guessing here, I have New Japan World but this is not the time--Kenny Omega up, and people of the boards (the boards no longer exist) are like boooooo when they should be like "yeah that makes sense and is better, that's true it is hard to shoot toss people around when you're exhausted so it might as well be worked hard to do to," but no, they are prisoners of their own taste levels.

Pretty soft first knockdown in this our Water Bout as Nagai stays down after a little toss and a kick to the ribs but he makes up for this by flying across the ring and forcing a rope escape on a knee-bar at once, then reverse-enziguiring Renting for a knockdown, so on the whole this is an excellent ninety seconds for him, and indeed for art. Renting is going hard with the kubi-nage headlock take-overs, though, and forces a rope escape with a front choke. I would really like to see that lateral drop again, how about one of those, Nagai! But no quite the opposite is occurring as Renting forces Nagai's second rope escape with hadaka-jime, that most naked of strangles. Nagai is getting worked over pretty well here despite his youthful vigour and hopes and tracking problems (those are actually just on my copy of him probably) and yes Herman Renting has slung him to the mat and neck-cranked (osae-hishigi, a dangerous kubi-kansetsu-waza) him into submission at 12:23. After the bout, Renting explains to the assembled media in the locker room that if Nagai were from Holland, he would be the best guy he had ever fought in Holland. It is slightly muddled but a generous sentiment. 

This evening's FIRE BOUT pits Bert Kops Jr, of whom the word "sambo" was possibly spoken during the parade of fighters or perhaps even earlier when the placards were being discussed, against Willie Peeters, who has impressed tremendously thus far, hasn't he! Willy Wilhelm is coming out as Peeters' second just in case you didn't know he was as legit as could possibly be (but he is, and, what's more, you knew). Kops' warm-up seems to consist at least in part of Dirk Vrij laying into him with punches to the body, and I really very much prefer to just jog around a bit and do a bunch of squats and ukemi and things like that as opposed to say getting punched by Dirk Vrij even slightly. Kops is in simple black tights and boots; Peeters sticks with the black singlet with neon pink and green cutouts at the hips and thighs, and also piping. As well he should

Both fighters come out striking in such a way as to earn the immediate interest and enthusiasm of the Sapporo crowd. Kops takes Peeters over with a form of ura-nage, and I approve heartily of all forms of that rugged technique. Peeters backdoor-escapes an armbar in a fashion that borders on the cartoonish, so to reassert the vraisemblance of this entire endeavour he punches Kops super hard in the guts. Not long thereafter, Peeters shows that Kops is not the only one familiar with ura-nage and its many varieties. He follows up by again hitting Kops maybe too hard for what this is. Peeters is a gamer! 

As is Kops, who hits the biggest yet of the several ura-nages which have thus far been visited upon us! My goodness, the arching! Then Peeters hits him way too hard again! But another ura-nage from Kops! These are ura-nage nearly worthy of Galbadrakh Otgontsetseg herself, great Mongolian-turned-Kazakh of the women's 48kg division of international judo, bronze medalist at the Rio games of the XXXI Olympiad (enjoy several of her ura nage, and the ura nage of others as well, here). Oh man he did it again! This time with Peeters all sprawling forward and trying to get away! But in between these instances, it is important to note that Peeters is hitting Kops super hard, such that he has already been knocked down twice.   

This is a pretty crazy match, and nothing could slow its pace other than this knee problem that has Kops in the corner getting that spray sprayed on him, you know, that spray? A visiting judo club from China several years ago brought with them all kinds of this spray and gave it freely as gifts to those with whom they trained and I was one such player so blessed. I don't know that I ever used it, to be honest, or if I did, it left no impression (mind you, this was a number of years ago).  

Kops seems to be flagging slightly, and Peeters is hitting him so hard about his head with kicks and knees and clubbing palm-butt-strikes (you heard me) that yes that is in fact a knockout finish as Kops is unable to answer the referee's count of ten, and who could hold that against him. The slow-motion replay that again recalls nothing so much as the n64 wrestling game replays of yore reveals just a tonne of hitting, but also the dynamic throwing of Kops, and I hope to see him again! A disembodied woman's voice asks Peeters what he thinks the key to this victory was, and Peeters replies, "To this victory? I think the knee to the face." Yes; undoubtedly, yes. 

UNIVERSE BOUT sees Dirk Vrij and the curly Dutchman Ton Von Maurik get it on because they can't get along (there is no reason to think that is why, or that they can't; they both seem reasonable). Vrij kicks a door several times before he walks through the curtain, no doubt visualizing it as curlier, and more Dutch. To his credit Vrij is wearing a horizontal-striped shirt that calls to mind the open sea. This UNIVERSE BOUT is scheduled for seven three-minute rounds and while that is not a structure I am in favour of on the whole, it does allow the announcer to say "seconds out, seconds out" more times, and who could resist that instruction.

As I feared it might be, this bout is very heavy on (fake) kickboxing, and I don't even like real kickboxing, so this is not my favourite RINGS match so far. Dirk Vrij kind of hucks Von Muarik to the mat dismissively mid-way through the first round, but it all seems to be in the service of kicking, really. As the bell sounds, Von Maurik chops Vrij's leg out from under him with a Street Fighter II-esque leg-sweep (down and Heavy Kick would achieve a similar effect . . . and affect), then continues to punch him up after the bell sounds, and it is a complete failure: Von Maurik keeps fighting after the bell to convince us of his shoot seriousness here, but Vrij only looks slightly amused by it, rather than pretty furious about it, as he would be in real match, and so the whole thing comes off as goofy, and the Nakajima Sports Center crowd is rightly indifferent. The high point of round two, just now concluding, was when the fighters clinched against the ropes and Vrij ruffled Von Maurik's curly, curly hair, because you could totally identify with wanting to do that too; that felt like a shoot (it probably was). 

Yeah I would say that, thus far, this is certainly the RINGS match that is the least for me. I have never enjoyed the straight kickboxing this bout most closely resembles, because there is zero possibility of any judo breaking out at all; in contemporary mixed martial arts, debased spectacle though it may be/definitely is, there is always at least a chance something as noble as judo will reveal itself, if only briefly. But not in kickboxing, and probably not in RINGS bouts which aspire to that condition. Or perhaps I have been a fool once more: round three does include at least one instance of hucking (it is Vrij who hucks), and some straining towards ude-hishigi-juji-gatame. In my haste, I have hastened only to be hasty. 

Round four is a carnival of knock downs and counting. Bakhtin's four categories of the carnivalesque are familiar and free interaction between people, eccentric behaviour, carnivalistic misalliances, and sacrilege. As round five begins, Vrij gets kicked pretty squarely in the groin (eccentric behaviour? sacrilege?) and seeks his revenge through juji-gatame (I do not always preface it with ude-hishigi but it is always, I hope, implied). Von Maurik has been knocked down four times and has at least one rope escape to go along with it and seeks another that exceeds his grasp whilst fixed fast in a kata-ashi-hisigi leg-lock and is forced to concede at 2:07 of this the fifth round in a match that began by doing nothing at all for me but clearly picked up as it went along so who am I to judge. Virj and Von Maurik kick at each other from their dumb position on the ground a little after the bell but in the end embrace in mutual respect if not admiration NO TIME FOR THAT NOW THE EARTH BOUT IS UPON US.

WILL (no longer Willy) Wilhelm comes to the ring amidst mild strobe-lighting attired in the Dutch-crested Mizuno judogi of his people--his Dutch judo people--and the crowd has no problem with him at all and yet at the same time they cannot wait they simply cannot wait to start changing MA-E-DA MA-E-DA and despite my undying judo partisanship in literally all matters I am super excited for Maeda too! I can be excited for both Maeda's arrival and for Will(y) Wilhelm's certain victory by means of stuffing Meada in a large leathern sack to devour later in his fen-lair; that is no greater contradiction than the heart allows. For the first time so far I am attending to the "tale of the tape" with interest, because what a tale it tells: Wilhlem stands a Shreklike 200cm/6'5" and weighs 135kg/297lbs, Maeda a handsome 192cm/6'3" and 115kg/253lbs. At least Maeda is handsome to me: "No results found for 'akira maeda is handsome'" would seem to argue otherwise, but I feel pretty sure about who is handsome.

handsome? in my view yes
All handsomeness aside (though can it ever truly be?) I am intrigued to see Wilhelm come to the centre of the ring still wearing his judogi jacket! There is no way he is actually going to fight in it, though, is he? A few years ago, about the time Satoshi Ishii was transitioning from his 2008 Olympic Gold Medal for judoing to arguably the most poorly-plotted professional fighting career ever, Isao Okano, one of if not the greatest judo competitor ever (Olympic gold at Tokyo 1964, World Champion 1965 Rio, two-time All-Japan Open-Weight Champion despite being only like 80kg, retired at 25 to teach and write because sticking around longer to win all that stuff again and again would seem thirsty), said in an interview he hoped Ishii, and everyone else entering kakutogi from the world of judo, would not profane the judogi by wearing it whilst engaged in lesser pursuits (all other pursuits). Ah, yes, OK, Wilhelm removes the jacket before the bell sounds, so this is more akin to the (demonstrably sikk) time Don Frye, himself a judo nidan (second-degree black belt), wore the jacket into the ring to face the great champion Hidehiko Yoshida in PRIDE, and the crowd was like "Hwooooooooah" but then Frye wisely took the jacket off rather than be launched endlessly by it and then they were like "Hwaaaaaaah."

Wilhelm looks light on his bare feet topped with kickpads (again, not a look I like; though barefooted martial artistry speaks to me, they must be utterly bare [excepting tape]). Maeda catches a Maeda kick and pushes him down, again proving that my friend who did karate was wrong about kicks (not true), and ok I cannot endorse what happens very soon thereafter: Maeda ducks under Wilhlem, takes his back, and throws him with an ura nage (of the variety that is essentially a German suplex) that Wilhelm not only "went light" for but literally jumped for, then works a juji-gatame until Wilhelm escapes to the ropes. The throws in RINGS so far have been, on the whole, excellent, in that they seemed earned, whereas this was a "spot" that would have looked light in the context of, say, the better matches (not the light/flippy undercard ones) on the  New Japan show I watched this weekend (Power Struggle--it was good!).       

Knees from the clinch and a nice little harai-goshi hip sweep later, Wilhlem is on top working for a choke and then a juji-gatame to a rope escape as the crowd comes super alive the second Maeda is in any danger and the commentators keep saying "judo" even more than me. Maeda tries a harai-goshi of his own, but gets tossed around with what the commentator calls a sukui-nage but what was in truth more of a tawara-gaeshi ("rice-bale reversal"), and is then utterly buried by another harai-goshi. Wilhlem keeps the pressure on in ne-waza (ground techniques) but Maeda holds the advantage in one particular aspect of ground-fighting, to be sure, and so takes it to leg-lock city, or should we say . . . ashi-gatame prefecture? Wilhelm wisely escapes to the ropes. (Isn't it good that they changed the rule in judo that allowed you to escape ne-waza techniques by leaving the mat area? It was meant for safety but ended with people scooching shamefully and so that was it, no more schooching, no escape, no freedom, only suffering, and yet a freedom from the suffering of cowardice.) 

Wilhelm comes out aggressively clinching Maeda against the ropes, and Maeda kind of throws with a yoko-otoshi/lateral drop but Wilhelm totally throws with another big harai-goshi and this is really very good so far. Tangled in the ropes, they are stood again, and now Wilhelm is all of a sudden super fired-up and beseeches Maeda to kick him again and again in the very belly that will soon be his home! This is intense! Wilhelm forces Maeda to the mat with a waki-gatame or Fujiwara armbar (there is a fine blog by that name, by the way; perhaps you would enjoy it, particularly this exquisite piece by my friend Dan?) not unlike the one with with Shinya Aoki snapped Keith Wisniewski's arm in Shooto that one time, except Wilhlem, though a beast physically, is not one in his heart, and so he just kind of pushes Maeda down and forces the rope escape rather do the meanest thing you can do in the entire field of armlocking.

Maeda is kicking Wilhelm's legs so hard right now, but Wilhelm gets a hold of one of these kicks and turns it into a kata-ashi-hishigi Boston crab to force a hard-won Maeda rope-escape to the great concern of all Sapporo. These kicks my goodness these kicks they know no relent and unsurprisingly Wilhelm is felled by them, finding his feet only at eight. Spinning heel-kick! Maeda put him down again with a spinning heel-kick! Wilhelm rises but is clearly unwell; Maeda pushes him to a knee and attempts the hadaka-jime naked strangle but Wilhelm rolls him over the top in what Dave Meltzer calls "the Meisha Tate/Holly Holm spot" now even though it has been happening at least since Leo Burke vs. Rick Martel in the best two-of-three-falls for the AWA World Championship in the Halifax Forum July 3rd, 1984 (enjoy it in both its entirety and its subtlety here) and probably literally decades before that HOWEVER the dauntless Maeda literally drags the woozy Wilhelm to the centre of the ring and at precisely the ten-minute mark secures victory with a heel hook, the grossest ashi-gatame you can even do! *PWOOOOOF* here come all the confetti! MA-E-DA! MA-E-DA! MA-E-DA! That was really exciting! Maeda and Wilhlem treat each other with the respect due to fellow sportsmen after all is done because they understand, as did the ancients, that when we enter into a græppling we do so to give glory to another man or else win it for ourselves (so spake Sarpedon to Glaucus); think not on it as a given but as a gift, they say with their embrace. 

The busy chatter of the commentators yields to the deliberate candor of a betoweled Maeda before the reporters and photographers assembled in his locker room; a final comment that I do not understand from Masaaki Satake ends our time here together for today excepting of course our requisite examination of what Dave Meltzer said. My thanks to you all once again for your time!


AUGUST 21, 1991: "Akira Maeda's Rings moved its 9/3 card in Sapporo to 9/14 since Maeda's knee is still in bad shape and he wouldn't even be able to work in time for the card and he's the draw."

SEPTEMBER 6, 1991: "Rings already announced a January 25, 1992 show in Tokyo's NK Hall headlined by Akira Maeda vs. Dirk Leon-Vri."

SEPTEMBER 23, 1991: "Akira Maeda's latest RINGS card took place on 9/14 in Sapporo before 4,900 fans (a few hundred shy of a sellout) as Maeda beat Willie Wilhelm (former European champion in judo) via submission in 10:00, Dirk Leon-Vry beat Tom Von Maurick by submission, Willie Peters knocked out Bert Kopps Jr. and others."

Well that was pretty thin this time, Dave, gee. 

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