July 20, 1998 in Yokohama, Japan
Yokohama Arena drawing 17,800
"HOW MIGHT ONE FOLLOW THE GREATEST SHOOT-STYLE AND ALSO (LET'S JUST SAY IT) PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING MATCH EVER?" IS WHAT WE MUST ASK OURSELVES AS WE WONDER WHAT COULD BE SUFFICIENTLY MOMENTOUS TO EVEN SO MUCH AS APPROACH THE PHYSICAL EMOTIONAL AND ÆSTHETIC HEIGHTS REACHED BUT WEEKS AGO well nothing but I guess Akira Maeda's retirement match really is a pretty big deal. Even if we, now, here, know that this wasn't really it for Maeda, it really was almost it, and so it's not as egregious a sham of a thing as most retirement matches. AND HIS FOE SHALL BE: Yoshihisa Yamamoto, ok that's not great. We are shown highlights of their earlier encounters, first 12/16/94 in which a Maeda who was still totally capable of good matches defeated the young aspirant Yamamoto by kata-ashi-hishigi leg-lock, and next, 1/24/96 in which a slowing-but-not-yet-worrying Akira Maeda defeated Yamatoto at the worst depths of his post-Rickson Ricksonism with most of a heel hook (though not all). Yamamoto pulls up in a very nice red car and emerges from it golden-haired and weird-looking. What a huge crowd here at Yokohama Arena (横浜アリーナ Yokohama Arīna)! Over 17 000, which for sure means the biggest RINGS crowd ever, as the Budokan definitely doesn't hold that many. They are here for their hero! There is considerable evidence to suggest that Akira Maeda is a terrible guy but there is none to suggest he was not a hero to thousands! MA E DA MA E DA MA E DA MA E DA wait though, RINGS Official Rankings: 10. Kopilov 9. Zouev 8. Naruse 7. Nijman 6. Vrij 5. Kasteel 4. Han 3. Kohsaka 2. Ilioukhine 1. Tamura & CHAMPION: Tariel. Why have a Light Heavyweight Champion and then have him just ranked at number seven amidst some guys who are just guys? I do not know but I continue to reject it! It's a nice belt though so I can see why it is hard.
Our first bout sees the ever-dangerous (both because he is good and because he cheats) Gilbert Yvel against Orjal Bekov, a græppling Russian. Yeah ok there's a yellow card for Yvel for I think something to the back of the head when they were tied up along the ropes, that didn't even take a minute I don't think. Bekov's approach to throwing and to taking down is suggestive of Russian judo/sambo in that he wants hip throws but when they are not there he is like sure the major-inner-reap of ouchi-gari, why not *boop* (sound of a soft takedown). Yvel I am pretty sure just got away with a huge knee when they were supposed to break, and wins by knockout at 2:28 and then does a flip.
Christopher Haseman is getting much bigger and no less Australian and here sees action against the top-knotted and striped-singleted Boris Jeliazkov. This, like the last one, is surely a shoot. And not a bad one! Or maybe it isn't a shoot, I'm sorry, I could have paid way closer attention than I did, I totally wandered here. Haseman won by knockout at 8:30 though.
JOOP KASTEEL AND PAUL VARELANS and I can tell you for sure that these guys are "shoot" huge. Not a whole lot happening in the early minutes of this one, just a lot of circling and slow kicking (I don't kick at all so it is faster kicking than my non-existent kicking, I will give them both that). Joop Kasteel has been slowly kicked in the groin but that's all it takes sometimes:
Kasteel bounces back from this groinal onslaught to win by (standing) knockout at 7:27 and visit delight upon the great and wholly admirable Chris Dolman, his second.
HIROMITSU KANEHARA YESSSSSS ALSO CHRIST HAVE MERCY LOOK AT HIS SECOND'S EAR:
That's about as bad as it gets! Cauliflower ear is weird: you can have people who græpple their whole lives and have none, and people who have græppled for like a year and are pretty much ear-maimed. I used to think it was a function of style (in which a low, brawling style would produce ears more enflowered than an upright, classic style in which you did not use your head as an extra hand [I'll take every hand I can get, I am not knocking this approach]) but now I am completely convinced that some people are just predisposed to it and others not. I'm extremely lucky in this regard in that I have only had a couple of (painful, weirdly hot) flare-ups over the years, and although my ears are now (and have been for kind of a while) too misshapen for ear buds to stay in, ear buds stink anyway, headphones are way better, so this isn't really a loss. And you can only see the damage in my ears if you are specifically looking for damage in my ears--it's not that you need a map, exactly, but it doesn't "jump out" at people like it does in the case of Kanehara's deformed little buddy up there (I say this in all sympathy for his plight, I hope his condition is not too uncomfortable). Dick Vrij flexes his vast pectoral muscles at Kanehara more than he has at anyone (publicly) in several years at least. There's a great energy here between Kanehara's headlong ethos and Vrij's always fine work. JUJI-GATAME KANEHARAAAAAAAAAAA at 4:22, that's a big win for our friend Hiromitsu!
Volk Han vs. Kenichi Yamamoto has every reason to be very good and yes Volk Han immediately grabs a leg and pushes the supporting leg (which is to say, the other one) out in the mode of ashi-garami (leg-entanglement) as performed in katame-no-kata, just like this:
I support this every bit as much as you might expect. A few juji-gatame exchanges and a knockdown later, we are tied at two points each, and as I totally should have noted earlier, RINGS seems to be a five-point rather than ten-point game now. This had been the case previously when matches were inexplicably and I would argue incorrectly held in rounds, but there are no rounds here; this is pure. Han is up to three points lost when he sees no other way to escape omote-sankaku-jime (the triangle choke one most thinks of, unless they are of judo, in which case the triangle choke the most think of is probably yoko-sanakaku-jime, although who can truly say). Han is down to his last point! Because he was being juji-gatame'd! Yamamoto has thrown with a koshi-waza or hip technique! When he did so the commentator excitedly said nage-waza which means throwing technique and who could fault him! The crowd gets way into Yamamoto's extended struggle to escape yet another juji-gatame, and in turn to apply one of his own, but in the end Volk Han turns into shoot-style Bret Hart for the win at 8:24, it is uncanny:
Yes it is the single-leg-crush of kata-ashi-hishigi rather than the scorpion hold (or indeed sharpshooter) of sasori-gatame but the overall effect (to say nothing of the affect) is unmistakable.
I AM ENJOYING THIS SHOW IMMENSELY is the thought foremost in my mind as I ready myself for Kiyoshi Tamura's encounter with Wataru Sakata. You will recall, no doubt, that when last we saw him, Kiyoshi Tamura, in addition to being handsome, was having the best professional wrestling match ever? Oh you do recall that? And I can stop mentioning it? Because it becomes no more or less true the more I say it, but only more tedious to hear? Well ok. Sakata is really good and I like him. I must have seen his RIZIN New Year's Eve match where he fought the legitimately great Hayato Sakurai (and lost), like I must have, but I don't remember it at all, and it was only five months ago! But this has been an intense time of watching matches for me, this whole period since last November when I began to RINGSblog in merry earnest (whatever else one makes of this endeavour, please accept the merry earnestness of its spirit). This is a really good one! The græppling has been of a high-level of my interest throughout, despite no hold coming close enough to warrant a rope escape until Sakata's mae-hadaka-jime front choke compels Tamura to dangle his little toesies (he is not a huge man, his toesies would not be big) atop the bottom rope about six and a half minutes in; Sakata must reach for same when a hiza-juji knee-bar becomes an ashi-dori-garami figure-four toe hold, and just as I say this he again reaches for the ropes to escape juji-gatame. Also he was clobbered to the mat earlier (one of the better shoot-style "sells" of clobbering you are ever likely to see, I think) so he is down to his last point. GREAT FINISH as Sakata tries to escape juji-gatame by rolling out over the far shoulder, but he gets stalled out and has to tap. I identify with this finish completely, because my dry old shoulders hurt so much when I try to escape in this direction, like they hurt to such an extent that I really couldn't tell you the last time I have even tried to go this way; I roll in hard and try to get my elbow below the hips (in truth the pelvis but we never say pelvis in the context of græppling so as not to make it any weirder than it already is, is I guess the reason probably) or to stack. A great shoot-style finish should make you think about your own physical limitations and should ultimately serve as a kind of memento-mori, I guess.
BITSADZE TARIEL appears to possibly be defending his RINGS Heavyweight Championship (which I still say should not exist! heed me, Akira Maeda of the past! but he never does) against TSUYOSHI KOHSAKA and it will not surprise you to learn that my sympathies here are with Kohsaka, rather than Tariel, whom I do like, and who, in all fairness, looks very tidy with his new haircut. On the subject of Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and the RINGS championship that would never be his, briefly: I got a copy of the English-patch of the ROM for ファイナルファイヤープロレスリング～夢の団体運営 or Final Fire Pro Wrestling: Yume no Dantai Unei! or Final Fire Pro Wrestling: Organization of Dreams or Final Fire Pro Wrestling: Dream Organization Management (that's maybe less poetic but more accurate about what happens) because I thought it would be a good thing to have on my phone, maybe (it turns out yes), and in that game, when you (obviously, naturally, inevitably) choose to run RINGS (GONGS here, rather than ECLIPSE, as it is also sometimes Fire Pro-known, or Fire Prown) in the (celebrated, unequaled) Management of the Ring mode, you begin with Tsuyoshi Kohsaka as your champion, so you begin by thinking of what never was and never can be. (If this is something you would like to have on your phone, you can go here to get that process underway.) AH HA so in this match, there actually seem to be ten points aside, rather than five: is this perhaps because it is a championship match? Or perhaps because it is a thirty-minute bout, whereas the earlier ones were possibly fifteen? I cannot say, but Kohsaka has been down twice, so that's four points gone, and Tariel has lost two points, one I believe on a rope escape and the other one for punching Kohsaka in the very face of his head. When Kohsaka attacks with juji-gatame you really get a clear sense of the size difference, and it's quite striking:
And TK is like 100kg (220lbs). Tariel remains huge. Kohsaka turns him with a classic arm-lever and the heart soars.
Let's take stock: we're about seven minutes in, and Tariel has lost five points to Kohsaka's four; the græppling, unsurprisingly, favours TK, whereas the striking is all Tariel, and actually this is so much the case that Tariel has just knocked TK out with a knee for the win at 7:43 and the replay reveals that he absolutely totally "shoot" connected with that brutal knee to the jaw:
This is of course a matter of personal preference amongst those operating at the highest and most discerning of taste-levels, and so I understand and appreciate that there can be disagreements here amongst people of goodwill, but to me, one of the ways in which Tsuyoshi Kohsaka surpasses the work of Volk Han is in the realism with which he is felled by strikes (we have discussed this before); one of the ways in which he achieves this realism is by really diving into real strikes and, in so doing, being brutalized by them. It would be reasonable to argue, I think, that this runs in some sense counter to the art (or at least the artifice) of pretending to fight, in that you are not in that moment pretending so much as actually totally getting hit in the face for real, but that is not my view; my view is that Kohsaka is the best and that it is awesome when he does that.
BRING OUT THE DIGNITARIES IT IS TIME FOR AKIRA MAEDA TO RETIRE and let us see who we have on hand, this is actually really something:
Ah ok, I was going to post images of everybody, but it's just too many! So we've got Antonio Inoki, Genichiro Tenryu, Yoshiaki Fujiwara who gets a huge response despite (perhaps because of?) his refusal to dress up, Kotetsu Yamamoto, Junji Harata, Nobuhiko Takada, a name I cannot discern of a fellow I am afraid I do not recognize, Animal Hamaguchi, Takashi someone (forgive me), Don Nakaya Nielsen (huge ovation!), a lovely young woman whose first name I do not catch and her young daughter who are there together to represent the Baba family, I believe, so on the whole, quite a crowd! They are all greeted warmly. This is a pretty big deal! A first-rate video package of really a lot of Maeda's RINGS career runs next, and yeah actually they are going through the finish of every one of his matches since 1991, this is awesome. Maybe I will see the finish to the Fujiwara match that got cut off on my tape! YES HERE IT IS 11/22/96! It was . . . hadaka-jime! Ok at least now we know. It might sound excessive to show the finishes of probably fifty matches in the middle of the show but it is in fact remarkably correct to do so and I applaud it. His final RINGS record (or near-final, as he is about to græpple once more, and then he comes back once after that, but we can adjust for that later) is given as forty-seven wins against ten losses.
Yamamoto comes out first, obviously, and it really does seem to me like he is maybe kind of a weird choice for this? If this had happened two years ago, Yoshihisa Yamamoto would have made a lot of sense but so much, so very much has changed since then. The seventeen-thousand or so in Yokohama Arena are pretty seriously into going MA E DA MA E DA along with his extremely good entrance theme ("Captured") as Maeda has to fight his way through the crowd of young men with floor seats who are in his thrall:
We are nearly fourteen minutes in before our first rope escape, as Yamamoto drapes a toe across the ropes whilst I think kata-gatame'd or shoulder-held but it is unclear to me what the precise trouble was. There's the fifteen-minute announcement and the pace remains languid; they are in no rush. Maeda grabs a rope to escape juji-gatame and we are all tied up! Maeda neither moves nor strikes very well, it must be said. Yamamoto is doing a better job of both of those very important things. How about a CAPTURE SUPLEX or a big spinning heel kick or something like that, Maeda! Let's go! But it can be hard to, I get it. Yamamoto burns a rope escape just on position, really, so he's down by a point now. And he did it again? But why? Ah, because he would prefer to stand, and drive Maeda to the ground with pitiless strikes, so we are tied at three-points nineteen minutes in. The crowd is pretty into this! It's quite a good match considering Maeda's state! They are slapping each other an awful lot! Also some knees! And there's the bell as I guess this one had a twenty-minute time limit! I should have noticed that earlier! The kindly-looking grey-haired man in the red jacket who carries in his very mien the dignity of his office (I do not know exactly what that office is) announces that the winner by decision is Akira Maeda but Maeda waves his hand in disapproval of this outcome. He speaks to the crowd, presumably saying he is not thrilled about this turn of events? His hand is raised and still he protests; he addresses someone outside the ring, and it is raised again. At last, Maeda raises Yamamoto's hand, and I think I have failed to mention so far that Yamamoto's hair is died golden and looks weird? Maybe I did mention that near the beginning but even so I should have said it more. The lights are dimmed and the bell tolled as Maeda stands alone in the centre of the ring as people yell Maeda and, of course, Maedaaaaaaaa. It's quite a moment.
Kiyoshi Tamura holds the ropes open for him as he leaves the ring, and that's it for Akira Maeda! Except for when he comes back but I think we will all agree, when he does, that he had an unusually and perhaps uniquely excellent reason for doing so. More on that in due time!
WHAT DID DAVE MELTZER SAY:
July 27, 1998:
"In what was billed as the final career match for Akira Maeda, the wrestler who in many ways popularized the term shooting to mainstream Japanese wrestling fans, RINGS set its all-time record crowd on 7/20 by selling out the Yokohama Arena for the first time in its history with 17,800 fans.
If it turns out to be to end of the career of the 39-year-old Maeda, it would have to be considered not only anti-climactic, but outright disappointing in what by all accounts [not mine!--ed.] was a bad show. Maeda was heavily booed [was he, though?--ed.]after his match after being awarded the decision in a match against protege Yoshihisa Yamamoto, a wrestler who at one point was considered to be his heir apparent as the star of the promotion after making a name for himself in a Vale Tudo match by going 21:00 before losing to Rickson Gracie during the prehistoric era where the Gracies had been beating everyone in 2:00 and from that loss getting a huge push in this promotion before being knocked out in less than 1:00 in a Vale Tudo match against huge Brazilian Ricardo Morais. Due to injuries suffered from that knockout and other beatings, Yamamoto has not wrestled in a long time and his career as a major star is generally considered over.
Maeda and Yamamoto were tied, with each having three lost points after the 20:00 time limit expired, and it was announced that Maeda won the match via judges decision, which got a strong negative crowd reaction. Maeda, who weighed 262 pounds for the match, the second heaviest of his career, looked old, tired and sluggish, particularly in such a long match, and it was apparently clear Yamamoto was carrying the match and the fans booed heavily despite what would be expected to be a sympathetic reaction to a legend in his last match. Maeda reacted to the fans booing by saying over the house mic that he himself also thought Yamamoto should have been awarded the decision.
There was no elaborate retirement ceremony at the show, although they did ring the bell ten times with Maeda in the ring after the show was over. Many of the leading pro wrestling stars of this generation were at the show, including Antonio Inoki, Nobuhiko Takada, Genichiro Tenryu, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Junji Hirata, Kazuo Yamazaki, Animal Hamaguchi along with long-time New Japan front office official and television color commentator in Maeda's days with the company, Kotetsu Yamamoto. Also at the show was former World Karate Association cruiserweight champion kickboxer Don Nakaya Neilsen, who was the man in the ring with Maeda when he came the closest in his career to achieving what was almost a pre-ordained end result as being the top wrestling star of his era in Japan in probably Maeda's most famous match on October 9, 1986 at Tokyo Sumo Hall. None of Maeda's former in-ring rivals or legendary contemporaries were brought to the ring, but all sat in the second deck at the Arena watching the show and there was no post-match ceremony after his match. Even though the crowd turn-out indicates otherwise, within wrestling the Maeda retirement was somewhat subdued because of the hopes and perhaps plans of Maeda leaving with a bigger show against a bigger name opponent, with a lot of media talk of a Maeda vs. Takada match at the end of the year, which still may take place.
Maeda never quite reached the level he was being groomed for in the traditional world of wrestling, but made himself a legend by creating his own form of the product, which at times he didn't want to even be considered as pro wrestling because he was known for knocking pro wrestling as fake while portraying the product he was involved with promoting as real. The strange paths his career took him probably made him one of the five most influential pro wrestlers of the past 20 years and the style his popularity largely spawned was years ahead of its time. If Antonio Inoki is considered as the forefather of the popularizing of the shooting movement, even though Inoki himself truly only had maybe one high-level shooting match in his life (with Muhammad Ali), than Maeda, groomed to be his heir apparent as the top star in New Japan Pro Wrestling, would be the Crown Prince. Like the King, the Prince was more a top shooter based on hype and presentation rather than actually proving it in legitimate matches against top fighters, and like Inoki, will probably still go down in his country with the reputation as being one of the great true fighters in the world of his time. But his popularity led to the second, third and fourth generation of UWF-bred shooters, and Japanese pro wrestlers like Kazushi Sakuraba, Masakatsu Funaki and Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and foreigners spawned from the same system like Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock and Bas Rutten, all of whom are considered and have proven themselves in legitimate competition to be right at the top of any list of the best all-around fighters in the world based largely on a submission system introduced to Japan decades earlier by Karl Gotch, popularized by Maeda's charisma in the 80s and heavily refined in recent years based on what does and doesn't work in top level competition. It was Maeda's charisma that paved the way to pro wrestling matches to become more and more realistic, and for those training in them to train in actual shooting, to the point where today it is the descendants of Maeda in a sense that are some of the dominant fighters of any style in the world.
The 6-foot-3 Maeda, who grew up in Osaka, in his youth was considered very large for a Japanese teenager and with a lot of agility from his background as a karate fighter, was recruited by Hisashi Shinma into New Japan pro wrestling in the summer of 1977 and debuted on August 25, 1978. Shinma's plan was for Maeda, with his size, speed and legitimate fighting background, to be the successor for Inoki as the charismatic top star of New Japan Pro Wrestling who would also, in worked matches, of course, face and whip the top stars from other sports proving to a new generation that pro wrestlers were the toughest fighters in the wold. And for a while it seemed this would be the case, but the end result of all that planning, as is usually the case in pro wrestling, saw the winds take over and something entirely different evolved.
After a few years of learning his craft in prelims, Maeda was sent to England, where he worked under the ring name Kwik Kik Lee, billed as the larger cousin of Sammy Lee (Satoru Sayama), who had taken the country by storm a few years earlier. Maeda quickly captured England's version of the world heavyweight title, which he brought back to Japan and never lost, returning on a major show in April 1982 where he pinned Paul Orndorff to retain the title at Tokyo Sumo Hall. In the embezzlement scandals involving New Japan, Inoki and Shinma in 1983, the end result was that Shinma was booted out of the company and in early 1984, created his own new promotion called the Universal Wrestling Federation. When the original UWF was formed, the idea of it being a shoot promotion or a more serious version with less gimmickry than All Japan and New Japan was only a vague idea, as Shinma created the New Japan boom and was wanting to re-create what he already knew and did so successfully with Maeda as his young stud.
Shinma sent Maeda on tour to the World Wrestling Federation to make him a world wide star so he could come back and be his top star. Ironically, it was Maeda's one major tour of the United States, for the World Wrestling Federation, in 1984, that may have been the catalyst for the entire movement. Shinma was at the time the figurehead WWF President and sent Maeda to work for Vince McMahon Jr. where they would create a new version of the WWF International heavyweight title (the same name for the belt that had become so prominent in New Japan due to the Riki Choshu vs. Tatsumi Fujinami feud that Shinma was attempting to get the WWF to disavow and make Maeda the new champion). Maeda was given a win in Madison Square Garden over Montreal jobber Pierre Lefebrve to win the title, but while he was on tour of the United States, relations between Shinma and McMahon worsened as McMahon was caught having to choose his business relationship between the established group, New Japan, and the company figurehead President, Shinma, and chose New Japan, although that relationship didn't last much longer either. As part of the politics, Maeda wasn't given a push in the WWF and thus Shinma's top star was made into a jobber at the few arenas he was booked on, losing to the likes of George Steele and Rene Goulet and WWF chose to recognize the New Japan version of the International title, leaving Maeda's belt that he came to Japan with as having little credibility and it was dropped soon thereafter. Maeda returned, embittered against mainstream pro wrestling and in particular its unrealistic aspects and the idea of putting over a past-his-prime gimmick like Steele, and was the key figure in changing the UWF from what it was created to be, a more serious New Japan style, to the beginnings of a style that got more and more realistic, to the point that in recent years it has spawned a revolution that has become at times very real, although from a historical standpoint the ones who deserve the credit for making a form of pro wrestling into being real would be the ones who actually took the step when Pancrase was formed in 1993.
Shinma talked Maeda into leaving New Japan along with dojo submission expert Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Maeda's "little brother," the immensely talented Nobuhiko Takada. Maeda's long-term future was to eventually be the king, but instead his stardom was jump started by doing with Shinma and not waiting and gained an immediate position as the top wrestler, but in a smaller and newer promotion. Shinma didn't last long in his new UWF creation as he didn't approve of the new style the wrestlers wanted to do based on Maeda's urging, and then when business wasn't doing well and they wanted to bring Sayama into the company, Sayama hated Shinma, and the company had to choose between their creator and their biggest box office star and Shinma within a few months was completely out of the wrestling business. And with that the wrestlers, somewhat in the spirit of Karl Gotch, who trained most of them, changed the future course of pro wrestling with the UWF ring style.
Maeda himself was the most outspoken, mincing no words about traditional pro wrestling offices having worked matches, and insinuating that the UWF was the real thing. Many fans believed it, however, at that time, outside of Tokyo, where the matches would overflow Korakuen Hall to a scary degree, the first UWF never caught on as more than a cult thing. It had many strange chapters, but eventually folded in late 1984, and in January of 1985, Maeda returned to New Japan for a strange three-year run that changed the course of modern pro wrestling.
During 1985, there was probably no single match in the world in history that could have drawn the money an Inoki vs. Maeda singles match would have done at a stadium. However, Maeda at the beginning refused to lay down for Inoki, which was the finish the office wanted, so in the history of both mens career, there ended up being only one singles match, not legendary at the time but which later become historically significant with Inoki of course winning in 1983. One time an Inoki vs. Maeda match was announced for Sumo Hall and the building sold out to the tune of $280,000 in a few hours, but it had to be changed to a ten-man tag team main event. Maeda had great matches with Japanese wrestlers, in particular a noteworthy singles match against Tatsumi Fujinami, but didn't work well with Americans and Maeda was generally outspoken about many of the American wrestlers that were brought to New Japan lacking wrestling ability. One time, Maeda was booked at Korakuen Hall, the building the old UWF was its hottest and in the New Japan days was considered as something of Maeda's home court, in a singles match against big-name American wrestler Kerry Von Erich, with a large percentage of the fans expecting to see Maeda destroy the American bodybuilder type who those fans knew even though he had a big name, really couldn't wrestle. When the finish was a double count out, the fans stormed out of the building mad at the promotion. New Japan did huge business in 1985-86 with the drama of the UWF vs. New Japan feud with incredible heat from the hardcores, but the UWF style based on kicks, suplexes and submissions without much in the way of gimmickry and histrionics wasn't over to the mainstream and television ratings dropped to the point New Japan's weekly television show was moved from prime time. It's an interesting debatable point as to long-term wrestling if it was good or not. While New Japan, and Japanese wrestling in general, had periods of incredible record breaking revenues after losing prime time television, there is no question that it hurt and to this day continues to hurt mass audience appeal when the television airs in poor time slots. Maeda had the now famous weird semi-shoot with Andre the Giant in April of 1986, and later that year on October 9, 1986 defeated Neilsen with a half crab in a worked match in what may have been the single best mixed sports match in history on the undercard of Inoki's horrible win over boxer Leon Spinks which is the match that finalized Maeda as a true national hero since it drew a 28.9 rating in prime time. With such a huge audience watching, and Inoki's match being so poor and Maeda's so exciting, the forces behind Maeda and a lot of the younger fan base felt it was time to make the big move to Maeda as the top star in the company. But it never happened. And when Riki Choshu and Masa Saito jumped back to New Japan from All Japan largely to have Choshu's popularity attempt to reverse the New Japan TV ratings decline just a few months later, Maeda became one of many wrestlers in a muddled secondary position behind Inoki.
The frustrations grew in 1987, and in an incident that from a long-term wrestling historical standpoint when it came to repercussions, made the Bret Hart/Vince McMahon Survivor Series finish look like small potatoes, there was a shoot that drew so much money some people at the time thought it had to be a work. Actually there were rumors leading up to the incident, which again took place on UWF "home court" during a six-man tag with Maeda and Choshu as respective captains. As Choshu put the scorpion deathlock on Osamu Kido, Maeda came in for the save and delivered a real kick to the eye, breaking Choshu's orbital bone and it immediately swelled up and began bleeding. The match fell apart at that point, although Masa Saito, one of Choshu's partners kept it together long enough to get a finish before tempers flared even worse. Choshu, perhaps the top draw in the promotion at the time, was knocked out of action just a few days into the tag team tournament. New Japan had no choice but to suspend Maeda for the rest of the year but somehow in all of this Maeda came out of it as the hero. New Japan was willing to bring Maeda back, but only if he accepted a punishment which included several months of having to work Lucha Libre style in Mexico, which would be considered cruel and unusual punishment for a guy whose reputation was based on realistic wrestling, and then return and put Choshu over clean in a singles grudge match. Instead, some friends of Maeda's put together new backers and the second UWF was formed with Maeda, now a much bigger celebrity in 1988 than he was in 1984, and times had changed and the public was ready to understand a more realistic and serious version of fake pro wrestling.
When the second UWF started, it was like the start of no new promotion ever in the history of pro wrestling. Its first card in May of 1988 sold out in 15 minutes, unheard of at the time for pro wrestling which in those days was largely a walk-up buy, and for the remainder of 1988, every monthly show sold out including a card at the Osaka Baseball Stadium. Due to his influence in changing the business, Maeda become the first Japanese wrestler, and to this day remains the only wrestler from a company other than NWA/WCW, All Japan or New Japan to win the Observer's Wrestler of the Year award, in 1988, and certainly the only one to ever win it primarily based on influence as opposed to quality of matches.
Like Inoki before him, Maeda made his name as a shooter beating superstars from other combat sports such as Gerard Gordeau (karate) and Chris Dolman (sambo) in worked matches. The UWF peaked for a Tokyo Dome show on November 29, 1989 for the legendary U-Cosmos show, which set what is still an all-time record for pro wrestling selling 40,000 tickets the first day they went on sale, eventually selling out 60,000 seats in three days for a show headlined by Maeda beating Willie Wilhelm, a former European champion in judo which was the first pro wrestling event to ever sellout the Tokyo Dome, drawing $2.9 million live, at the time the biggest live gate in the history of the business. But due to mismanagement, the second UWF folded a few years later and the stars broke up into several groups. Maeda, with help of the WOWOW Channel, formed RINGS. It should also be noted that K-1 was formed in a sense from RINGS, as promoter Kazuyoshi Ishii learned a lot about the pro wrestling business working with the early RINGS office and Masaake Satake, still K-1's biggest Japanese star, worked doing a kickboxer gimmick as the semifinal to Maeda on many RINGS shows in 1992 before the two branched out and created K-1 the next year. Yoshiaki Fujiwara formed Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi, and in 1993, stemming from PWFG, three of its younger stars, Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki and Ken Shamrock (known as Wayne Shamrock in those days) formed Pancrase, which was the first true legitimate form of pro wrestling of the modern era. Nobuhiko Takada formed UWFI, which actually was the most popular of the groups for several years, but eventually went deeply into debt and its wrestlers had to sell their credibility as shooters by doing worked losses and a lot of gimmick matches on various pro wrestling groups both large and small, then spawned Kingdom, which also didn't last long.
In 1998, some 14 years after the first UWF was formed which was supposed to be real matches that of course were just a stiffer and more serious worked style, Maeda's RINGS promotion is generally running around 40% shoot matches, a percentage that is expected to grow with Maeda and some of the other older stars of the groups early years like Volk Han and Dick Vrij, fade from the main events. And it is RINGS that is back on top as the most popular of the so-called shoot style pro wrestling promotions, and has expanded with sellout events in Holland, Russia and Australia already this year. All the problems of testing top marketable stars in shoots became apparent this year when Tamura, the company's biggest draw, was soundly thrashed by unheralded Valentijn Overeem, and caused a noticeable drop in attendance at recent cards. The trend reversed itself this week, but that was due to Maeda, and doesn't bode well for the future. A lot of the popularity was of RINGS was due to Maeda's name, but Maeda's matches were usually disappointing as was his so-called final, as he didn't keep himself in top condition and was plagued by knee injuries from so many years of working such a stiff style, but the company was largely in the ring in recent years carried by younger Japanese stars who put on some classic matches. Among insiders for the past several years, and there was this sentiment dating back to the origination of RINGS, that Maeda never kept himself in good enough condition to believably headline since the group is supposed to be a shoot group, but he was able to draw particularly against a name opponent. Obviously his drawing power diminished as time went on since it was based on a big name from the past. There are a lot of thoughts that Maeda's career will have one last match, perhaps against former best friend Takada, and that perhaps even late this year after the Rickson Gracie match, that Takada and Sakuraba, with nowhere else to go and remain active full-time in the pro wrestling world, would join RINGS following former Kingdom stars Kenichi Yamamoto and Hiromitsu Kanehara. [This is almost too much to think about--ed.]
In a surprise in the semifinal of the show, Bitzsade Tariel retained his RINGS version of the world heavyweight title with a knockout victory over Kohsaka in 7:23. Kohsaka was knocked down twice during the match and couldn't answer the bell after the third knockdown. Tamura defeated Wataru Sakata in 9:48 with an armbar and former UFC fighter Paul Varelans made his RINGS Japan debut (he had won a match on a RINGS show in February in Holland) losing via knockout to Joop Kasteel in 7:27 after Kasteel scored a number of time with hard kicks.
7/20 Yokohama Arena (RINGS - 17,800 sellout): Gilbert Yvel b Aliyoul Verkov, Christopher Hazemann b Boris Jeliaskov, Joop Kasteel b Paul Varelans, Hiromitsu Kanehara b Dick Vrij, Volk Han b Kenichi Yamamoto, Kiyoshi Tamura b Wataru Sakata, RINGS world hwt title: Bitzsade Tariel b Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, Akira Maeda b Yoshihisa Yamamoto"
August 3, 1998:
"Tsuyoshi Kohsaka moves from Japan to Seattle on 8/1 and will train full-time in kickboxing under Maurice Smith. Kohsaka wants to do MMA fighting in the U.S. and will return every month or two for RINGS matches, with his next one being on 9/21 at Yokohama Bunka Gym against Ilioukhine Mikhail."
August 10, 1998:
On "Dr. Death" getting Bart Gunn'd:
"The biggest negative is not the obvious one, the inability to control and manipulate a shoot. In the case of Williams, you have a guy being groomed for a title shot with Steve Austin on a PPV getting put in a position that the office surely wouldn't have liked for viewers to see him in. This isn't to say Williams is dead, because that's stupid in this day and age when you can rehabilitate anyone with a few wins and most fans forget everything they've seen within a few weeks due to the sheer volume of television product. But has some of the luster been taken off him as "the toughest man" in wrestling, which probably was the key thing that he was going to be marketed as going against Austin? Absolutely no question. We've already seen in RINGS earlier this year a similar and even higher profile situation when Kiyoshi Tamura, being groomed for the top drawing spot in the promotion, was put into a shoot was an apparent safe opponent, who was much larger and much younger and a lot better than probably anyone in the company realized going in. It cost RINGS in attendance for the next few months, although Tamura may have rehabilitated himself somewhat or perhaps almost totally in putting on such a great performance in his worked match with Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and I guess we'll find out the answer to if he did or didn't over the next few months as he's now the top draw in the company."
"RINGS has a second show scheduled for 9/13 in Australia. The first show drew a sellout and was considered a major success." [Not by meeeee--ed.]
"K-1 announced that there is a possibility that one of the two main events (Maurice Smith vs. Ernesto Hoost and Andy Hug vs. Mike LaBree) may not air on the 8/7 PPV from Las Vegas if time runs out, which would be one hell of a way to make a debut. Former pro wrestler Mitsuya Nagai (RINGS) debuts for K-1 on 8/28 at Yoyogi Gym in Tokyo on a show that will also include pro wrestlers Yoji Anjoh and Naoya Ogawa. It is believed Nagai will face Masaake Satake. While not officially announced, it appears the top matches underneath the Rickson Gracie vs. Nobuhiko Takada match on Pride Four at the Tokyo Dome on 10/11 will have Mark Kerr (9-0) vs. Carlao Barreto (7-1), Roberto Traven (4-0) vs. Gary Goodridge (9-6) and Tom Erikson (6-0-1) vs. Igor Vovchanchin (22-1) and there is some talk of a Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Carlos Newton rematch"
August 17, 1998:
"The latest Japanese import on the American scene was the debut of K-1, a Japanese kickboxing promotion spawned from both Seido Kaikan karate and RINGS pro wrestling in 1993 that has become the combat sport in Japan with network prime-time coverage of its shows and is a phenomenal success in Switzerland where the drawing power of Andy Hug led to a Super Bowl-like 53.8 rating for a show this past June."
August 31, 1998:
"7/20 RINGS: This was the Captured show for Akira Maeda's final match, and thus was the biggest show in the history of the promotion. Unfortunately, while being viewed by a sellout 17,800 fans, the show couldn't come close to the quality of the two previous shows in smaller Tokyo area arenas. The first three match on the show were shoots and the final five were works. There appeared to be a rule change in that the number of points before the match ends was cut from ten to five. This probably signifies going to more shoots now that Maeda is out of the picture. The scoring system is two points for a knockdown and one for a rope break, so ten points is way too many allowable for a shoot, but in a work, it limits what you can do because you can only do four near fall situations before the match is going to end on points. Situations like the classic 9-9 score going into the last point with Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Bitzsade Tariel last year or even the 5-5 score for the Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka classic going the full 30:00 in June can no longer take place. The change is a major one which is better for shoots but really hurts the worked matches. 1. Gilbert Yvel, a Holland kickboxer, beat Orjal Beckov, a Russian wrestler type in 2:28. Beckov knew his wrestling but kept turning his head when getting hit. When Beckov got hit in the head with a knee, he basically just quit even though it didn't appear to be that devastating a blow. Pretty bad; 2. Christopher Hazemann of Australia beat Borislav Jeliazkov when Jeliazkov was knocked down three times and ran out of points in 8:20. Match was mainly standing and Hazemann, who is an all-around fighter, was better than Jeliazkov, who is an amateur wrestler. At one point Hazemann nailed Jeliazkov with a knee to the head opening a bad forehead cut, but Jeliazkov wanted to continue making it a gutsy showing. Good for a shoot; 3. Joop Kasteel beat former UFC fighter Paul Varelans in a battle of behemoths. Kasteel is 6-4, 265 and all juiced up. Varelans is 6-8 and 311 but was totally out of shape. Match was almost all standing and since Kasteel's background is kickboxing, he totally dominated, particularly with hard leg kicks. Varelans was too slow to get out of the way. There was one funny spot in the match where Varelans accidentally kicked Kasteel low and they stopped the fight to allow Kasteel to recover. Gilbert Yvel, in Kasteel's corner, started rubbing Kasteel's groin and the crowd started laughing. Kasteel kept scoring with knees and leg kicks to the left leg and as Varelans slowed, he started throwing the palm blows to the head and Varelans couldn't block anything and Varelans' face, particularly the lips, were swelling up. Varelans got one standing eight count, and after another series of palm blows and leg kicks, the ref gave Varelans a second standing eight count and he was done at 7:23. Kasteel himself then collapsed out of exhaustion. A really ugly fight; 4. Hiromitsu Kanehara beat Dick Vrij in 4:22 with an armbar submission. Kanehara did a hell of a job here and really got the crowd into it as he outgunned the larger man in kickboxing. Kanehara is a really underrated worker both in ability to heat a crowd and make a worked match look real. In fact, his match in Kingdom against Kazushi Sakuraba was as real looking and as stiff a worked match as is possible. **1/2; 5. Volk Han beat Kenichi Yamamoto with a half crab in 8:24. Both are good workers but this match, while good, was missing something special. Han scored two quick points on rope breaks from submissions. Yamamoto scored a knockdown to tie it up and then got two submissions of his own to go ahead 4-2, meaning Han was down to his last point. Han grabbed an armbar right in the middle for a long time with Yamamoto squirming. The spot got tremendous heat so I guess it was good but it was ridiculous for a shoot in that Yamamoto was caught with the hold far too long without tapping on a move applied by Han that you'd realistically have to tap out to almost immediately, so it looked exactly like a New Japan spot and totally killed any shoot credibility. After a few reversals, Han got the half crab and Yamamoto tapped out. Han didn't look like himself except in brief flashes but Yamamoto was good enough to make it exciting. **3/4; 6. Tamura beat Wataru Sakata in 9:44. This was similar to the Kohsaka classic in that the first 5:00 were totally technical on the mat to give the match the base to make it look like it was a shoot although it was nowhere near as exciting as the Kohsaka open. At 6:24 Sakata scored the first point with a front guillotine. At that point Tamura started doing his magic act, mainly standing and throwing in the palms, knees and high and low kicks and went ahead with a knockdown. The score was 3-1 after Tamura actually delivered a Northern Lights suplex and grabbed an ankle for a rope break and got another rope break to go up 4-1. With Sakata down to his last point, Tamura started throwing but Sakata got under him for a suplex and went for an armbar, but Tamura reversed the move into one of his own in the middle for the tap out in 9:44. ***1/4; 7. Tariel retained the world heavyweight title beating Kohsaka in 7:43. Tariel weighed 308 while Kohsaka trimmed down to 222. Kohsaka did a hell of a job carrying it to an average match. I guess since it was a title match the points allowed were increased to ten. Since I don't know Japanese it was hard to figure it all out. The story early is Tariel wanted to stay on his feet and Kohsaka would try and take him down, Tariel would sprawl and get up. Tariel delivered a knee to the head and a lot of hard kicks and the ref signalled Kohsaka for a standing eight. Tariel scored a second knockdown after a body shot. Kohsaka then made the comeback gaining five straight submissions after going to the ground to go up 5-4 before Tariel hit him with another knee in the corner for a knockout. The result of this match makes little sense. **; 8. Maeda was awarded a decision after he and Yoshihisa Yamamoto went the 20:00 time limit with a 3-3 score. Yamamoto did a great job in this match and even though Maeda was too slow and out of shape, he gave all he had in lasting that long and continually getting slapped around and for his willingness to take a lot of punishment at his age. It was a real good match except for a several minute segment in the middle where Maeda was just laying on Yamamoto to catch his breath so he could be strong for the finish. The decision was incredibly ridiculous because even though was a worked match that Maeda was supposed to win, not only did Yamamoto totally carry it from start to finish, but he had 85% of the offense in a match he was supposed to lose the decision in, which explains why the crowd hated the decision as well. Toward the end, Yamamoto was basically letting Maeda hit him with his slow blows to score points to make it appear close but Maeda was so slow even that didn't make it a close fight. A lot of good exchanges of kicks and slaps early although Yamamoto was too quick. When Maeda would blow up, they'd go to the ground and rest, and then get back up and do the thing. To give the match "credibility," and as far as looking like a shoot, they did a great job, except that Maeda looked like he'd be killed if it was a shoot and he kept hanging in there [except for that, though, great job making it look like a shoot, I guess?--ed]. For that same reason, they didn't start going to points until Yamamoto got an armbar at 15:33. Maeda came back with three straight points, two of which were weird because Yamamoto grabbed the ropes without even being in a submission to get stand ups. Yamamoto finally scored a knockdown at 18:47 to tie it up and build the heat up for the big finish of exchanging blows standing with the fans knowing the next point wins. Maeda's mouth was all bloody from taking so many blows. Yamamoto was taking him apart to build heat as the upset, but when he gave Maeda enough to make it "even" at the end, it was obvious he was giving it. The announcement of Maeda winning was so ridiculous that Maeda immediately waved it off even before the booing started and on the house mic said that Yamamoto should have won it. ***"
"RINGS on 8/28 in Niigata has Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Masayuki Naruse, Bitszade Tariel vs. Volk Han in a non-title match, Wataru Sakata vs. Kenichi Yamamoto, Nikolai Zouev vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto, Grom Zaza vs. Hiromitsu Kanehara and Yasuhito Namekawa vs. Daniel Higgins (who is pretty impressive both standing and on the ground). On 9/21 at Yokohama Bunka Gym will be Tamura vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Ilioukhine Mikhail and Naruse vs. Kanehara."
AND WITH THAT WE BIG GOODNIGHT TO THE MAEDA AKIRA 前田 日明 ERA except that we don't have to entirely because he will return when the time is right; he is not made of stone. Thank you for your time! Let us speak more on these matters soon!