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Long before Rorion Gracie created the UFC, the Shooto organisation was created by Japanese wrestler Satoru Sayama in 1985. Sayama wanted all the action of pro-wrestling but with a real result. Shooto staged the 1st pro MMA show in 1989. It remains the only MMA promotion to stage shows in all 47 of Japans prefectures.
Shooto has been a nursery for many of Japan’s leading fighters such as Shinya Aoki, Rumina Sato, Yuki Nakai, Enson Inoue, Takanori Gomi and some foreign fighters too like Erik Paulson, Anderson Silva and Joachim Hansen.
Following the success of Shooto, Pancrase was formed by more wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki in 1993.
The rules were broadly similar to Shooto but they centred on the lucrative Tokyo market and attracted more international talent, most notably Ken Shamrock, who was invited to take part in UFC 1 as the “submission fighter” having already fought 3 times in Pancrase.
Ken brought his brother Frank to the organisation, who subsequently went on to hold the King of Pancrase title. Bas Rutten started his MMA career in Pancrase also and enjoyed a rivalry with the Shamrock brothers.
Eventually bowing to promotional peer pressure, Pancrase introduced closed fist strikes in 1998. Though not as relevant anymore, some current fighters still have proud associations with Pancrase.
Moving with the times, Shooto created the Vale Tudo Japan promotion in 1994. Closed fist strikes and strikes to a downed opponent were now legal. Rickson Gracie, who won the ‘94 and ‘95 tournaments. Royce’s exploits in UFC’s 1, 2 and 4 further cemented that. Rickson had long been considered the family champion and finally had a stage to prove his skill and toughness.
The Pride Fighting Championships in 1997 showed the world how big MMA could be. Originally created as the staging ground for a match between Rickson Gracie and popular Japanese pro-wrestler Nobuhiko Takada, Pride events became the zenith of MMA at the time.
Many of the biggest fighters launched or cemented their careers in the Pride FC ring – Wanderlai Silva, the Rua brothers, the Nogeuira brothers, Quinton Jackson, Fedor Emelianenko, Dan Henderson, Mirko Filipovic, Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, Alastair Overeem not to mention the countless local fighters like Sakuraba, Takanori Gomi, Fujita.
Prior to defeating Royce Gracie, Kazushi Sakuraba had won the original UFC Japan tournament and defeated some prominent names of the day. Having already defeated Royler Gracie his defeat of Royce saw Sakuraba christened the ‘Gracie Hunter’ and he would go on to defeat Ryan Gracie and Renzo Gracie from Brazil’s first family of fighting. Sakuraba became synonymous with the Pride brand.
In the end, the decline in Pride was swift, as financial problems, links to the Japanese mafia (the Yakuza) and a talent drain to a resurgent UFC all resulted in the sale of Pride to the UFC. In 2003, Pride president Naoto Morishita was found dead hanging by his neck in his hotel room and one of the story's goes to say that Fedor Emelianenko was held at gunpoint to resign with Pride.