Japanese MMA Scene Primer: The Shooto Edition

In honor of the UFC’s impending return to Japan this weekend (UFC 144! Osu!), yesterday I took a snapshot of a small part of the Japanese MMA scene and showed it to you in the form of an imaginary slide projected onto the wall by an imaginary slide projector. Today: slides from my family vacation to Disney World. Also, Shooto.

Remember when every young buck MMA fan was tuning into the UFC but only a select few connoisseurs (such as ourselves) were watching “that other show” on the Versus channel? The one where the little guys fought like crazy and put on insane technical displays of martial prowess? That’s right, I’m talking about the WEC. Well, Shooto was the WEC before the WEC was even an itch in Scott Adams and Reed Harris’ collective pants.

Shooto existed in an early, not-quite-MMA incarnation back in the 1980s, but it morphed into something more like modern MMA in the mid-90s. If PRIDE was like the UFC on steroids and Pancrase was the long-running American minor league promotion King of the Cage, Shooto was like Golden Gloves boxing (if the Golden Gloves let pros compete). There were differences in the rules, like, if a fighter got knocked down in Shooto he received a standing eight-count, and amateur and pro fighters were divided into different classes based on their experience level. What really set Shooto apart, though, were the fighters, which were the lightest-weight fighters around. Back then, when the UFC was featuring physically big dudes like David “Tank” Abbott, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz, there were competitors out there that were so small, there was literally nowhere else they could fight. (A 123-pound fighter in 2002 could fight in Shooto or in his own backyard right next to the hibachi. That was about it.) But you know what? The nexus of “tiny fighters” that Shooto created made for some fierce competition, and eventually it made for some fierce competitors. When the UFC wanted to crown its first 155-pound champion, they matched Jens Pulver up with Shooto champ Caol Uno, and fans in the know labeled Pulver as the underdog in that matchup. That’s how good Shooto’s top fighters were.

One of Shooto’s earliest stars was Rumino Sato, who never could seal the deal and win a Shooto championship (Uno kept stymieing that), but damn could he pull off some slick submissions. In 1997, he heelhooked Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Ricardo Botelho – in an era when no one dreamed of being able to tap a BJJ black belt – and a couple years after that he snagged a six-second flying armbar submission on American Charlie Diaz.

As for champs, Shooto crowned quite a few future superstars, such as Takanori Gomi, Joachim Hansen, Hayato Sakurai, Anderson Silva (!), Jake Shields and Shinya Aoki. Like I said, if you managed to become one of Shooto’s cream of the crop, you were damn good at fighting.

Shooto’s still doing their thing today. Their events aren’t huge – some have taken place in gyms, or in venues about as big as high school gymnasiums – but as a fight league/sanctioning body, it’s managed to expand internationally. The franchise has never really taken hold here in the States; however, Brazil loves themselves some Shooto, and there are outposts everywhere from Australia to Bulgaria to Sweden. Compared to the UFC’s global empire, that may not sound like much, but it’s impressive. And to tell you the truth, if I had to fly to Japan and cover one fight show, I would want it to be a Shooto event above all others.

But hey, maybe that’s just me being a snobby MMA connoisseur.

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