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How Japanese Pro Wrestling Merged With Martial Arts: Strong Style & Shoot Style

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

As a general rule, strong style refers to ‘stiff’ offense in wrestling. Meaning that while an American wrestler like Stone Cold Steve Austin, would throw an open fisted punch while stamping his feet in an attempt to simulate a punch – a strong style wrestler like Katsuyori Shibata, would instead throw a legitimate forearm into your neck.

by Andrew Bryan

strong style Japanese wrestling

Copyright – New Japan Pro Wrestling

In my article, ‘The Life and Times of Antonio Inoki’ I referenced his approach to Japanese pro wrestling, Strong Style. What actually is strong style? Today that is a question that is harder and harder to define, as professional wrestling has developed and cross pollinated significantly in the last 20 years.

Strong Style can be a controversial topic. Some claim that it is needlessly dangerous. One particularly amusing take on strong style is the notion that it is only effective as a style if you acknowledge that the match is ‘fake’. The novelty comes from two people legitimately hitting each other as hard as they can despite the outcome of the match being pre-determined. For fans of hard hitting wrestling however, strong style is a purer expression of what pro wrestling is intended to be, and despite worries of injury strong style wrestlers simply don’t get injured at the same rates as more acrobatic, or WWE style wrestlers do.

Today we will be discussing the history of strong style and shoot style wrestling in Japan, and how legitimate martial arts and performance merged to birth not only a new style of pro wrestling, but also MMA as a sport.

The Beginnings of Shoot Style

We have to begin with Shoot-Style Wrestling – which both as a sport and an artistic movement, is probably the most influential thing to happen to martial arts in the last century. For those who are still unsure as to why they are reading about professional wrestling on black belt magazine – professional wrestling has its roots in the British martial art Catch-As-Catch-Can or Catch Wrestling.

While Catch Wrestling is a very real and very brutal grappling art – the nature of wrestling as a carnival attraction meant that over time wrestlers soon realised that there wasn’t much point in legitimately fighting each other every week, while also touring the country. The risk of injury and general wear and tear on the body made it a far smarter idea to simply ‘work’ the match. Two wrestlers would agree to a winner and would then essentially spar a match leading to that pre-determined outcome. At one point or another, one wrestler had the bright idea to hit his partner with a chair and from then on pro wrestling became far more about showmanship, and defeated the purpose of taking it easy on the body.

One pioneer of wrestling in Japan was the German wrestler, Karl Gotch, a legend of wrestling with more moves named after him than you can shake a stick at. Professional wrestling and Japanese athletes is a match made in heaven. Many of the wrestlers that Gotch would train already came from martial arts backgrounds such as judo, sumo or karate. Those who are familiar with Rikidozan will know well that the sumo to pro wrestler pipeline is long and prosperous. This merging of skills was already resulting in something quite different from wrestling in the West. British wrestlers were known largely for their technical brilliance and submission moves – whereas American wrestlers were known for their variety of ‘moves’ such as powerslams, fireman’s carry drops etc. What was emerging in Japan, was the beginnings of what we know today as shoot style.

There was still of course, a very strong influence from American style wrestling in Japan. With the JWA, as founded by Rikidozan, being a real melting pot of skills. The two main players in the JWA towards the end of its life were Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. Two great wrestlers, with very different ideas, neither of whom particularly got along.

strong style Japanese wrestling giants

The Founding of New Japan Pro Wrestling and the UWF

It’s fair to say that Antonio Inoki was the trouble maker when compared to the far more diplomatic and political Giant Baba. Their ideological differences essentially came down to Baba believing that wrestling was more about telling a story, and Inoki believed wrestling should be a fight.

While the wrestling in Giant Baba’s AJPW was certainly hard hitting – early New Japan was known far more for its punch. While the matches did tell story – there was less focus on ring psychology and narrative than what you would see in AJPW, and in truth, NJPW was considered the B promotion, possibly for that reason.

Submissions were tight, strikes were hard and there were several instances of real life fights breaking out in the middle of what were supposed to be worked matches. Several of them involving the companies founder, Antonio Inoki, who was more than happy to slap someone if they were getting out of line or on his nerves.

Karl Gotch vs Antonio Inoki at NJPW’s Debut Show. Copyright – New Japan Pro Wrestling

Karl Gotch vs Antonio Inoki at NJPW’s Debut Show. Copyright – New Japan Pro Wrestling

New Japan was a breeding round for great shoot wrestlers such as Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Akira Maeda who were renowned for their excellent grappling skills. Yet New Japan was also a breeding ground for backstage drama that would make a cheerleading locker room proud. This caused a split from NJPW – and saw the founding of the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) which took shoot style even further.

Whereas you can tell old NJPW matches are in fact wrestling matches, matches in the UWF are sometimes down right hard to distinguish from legitimate fights.

The UWF would produce several great pro wrestlers such as Minoru Suzuki, Masakatsu Funaki and Bart Vale. The more hardcore MMA fans will probably recognize all three of those names, for good reason. The UWF was created to be a more realistic alternative to AJPW and even NJPW. The wrestling looked real, the strikes were hard and it ended up being the progenitor of MMA as a sport.

The UWF’s Successors and the Birth of MMA

Unlike AJPW and NJPW which are active promotions to this very day, the UWF didn’t last long. It would ultimately splinter off into two main promotions. The UWFI, which was another short lived but very important shoot style promotion, and RINGS, which should be ringing a bell again for hardcore MMA fans.

Headed by professional wrestler Nobuhiko Takada, the UWFI had a unique training program. Not only did it have professional wrestling training, with legitimate catch wrestling being taught by Billy Robinson himself, but it also had it’s own Muay Thai coach. It should come as no surprise that some of the wrestlers who were trained by the UWFI would go on to become mixed martial artists, the most notable example being the great Kazushi Sakuraba.

Meanwhile there were two more shoot style promotions, RINGS, and Pancrase, which was founded by the aforementioned Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki. Pancrase served as the first major mixed martial arts promotion, not only did it predate the UFC but had far more ‘complete’ fighters for the time. While the UFC was set up essentially to promote BJJ and featured single discipline fighters competing against each other in style vs style match ups – Pancrase was showcasing athletes trained in the art of Shooto.

Shooto being the martial art created by Satoru Sayama (the original Tiger Mask) based off the pro wrestling teachings of Antonio Inoki and Karl Gotch. RINGS would itself eventually transform into an MMA promotion and would feature numerous shooto athletes.

Early Japanese MMA is a sight to behold, not only because you can actually see fighters who were capable of both striking and grappling, something that the UFC didn’t really have in abundance until the 2000s – but because it also has some of the dumbest rules you can imagine.

Rope breaks are about the worst part of professional wrestling – yet here they are in a legitimate sport. In Pancrase if you could reach the rope, the fighter putting on a submission had to let go. Also, because of its pro wrestling ancestry fights were contested without gloves and you weren’t allowed to strike with a closed fist. The most famous outcome of this was Bas Rutten working out how to palm strike his opponents as hard as possible.

And It All Comes Full Circle

Nobuhiko Takada, who headed the UWF would eventually dive in head first into MMA, playing a key role Pride Fighting Championships. Pride is probably the most influential MMA organization in the sports history. At its peak it was the top promotion, with the UFC being a distant second – with the likes of Cro Cop, Fedor Emelianenko, Anderson Silva and the Noguiera Brothers competing there. Eventually Pride would merge with the UFC.

Meanwhile the wrestling of New Japan and its ‘strong style’ would end up proving problematic. With the abundance of real mixed martial arts, Antonio Inoki sought to prove that his wrestlers were every bit as tough as MMA fighters. He started sending his fighters into MMA promotions to compete and more often than not they would lose. Not because they were lacking legitimate skills, but because they simply didn’t have the same level of experience in real fights than their opponents.

This dangerously hurt the reputation of NJPW and ironically it was the influence of American wrestling, with larger-than-life characters and costumes that would ultimately bring NJPW back to the top. The likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada have kept NJPW at the top of the wrestling world today – yet they are quite different from Inoki’s ideals.

So where does this leave strong style? It’s my belief that strong style as an art form proved to be very influential, but ultimately found its footing as another expression of pro wrestling. Whereas it used to be more about simulating a fight, in doing so it revitalized shoot style and eventually led to mixed martial arts. When these became more prominent, shoot style in a round about way became more like the rest of pro wrestling. It became more focused on telling a story, more focused on the psychological aspects of wrestling – but got their via the use of hard hitting, stiff offence. It became less about which fighter would win and more about which character was the toughest and who would prevail.

There is a true irony that professional wrestling, an artform and sport built to save wrestlers from having to legitimately fight night after night – would eventually come full circle and lead to the founding of mixed martial arts, which has in turn injected new life into professional wrestling – and the cycle will continue forever.

New Japan Pro Wrestling

Copyright – New Japan Pro Wrestling

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