“Pro wrestling is fake.”
Those are four words I’m sure every wrestling fan has heard more times than they care to count. Every wrestling fan learns this lesson sooner or later, and some of us keep watching in spite of that lesson. But not everyone is fully on board with this statement. In Japan, pro-wrestling never really had that big moment where pro-wrestling was revealed to be scripted. Over there, it’s still treated by and large as a combat sport, and people respect the athleticism and intensity the wrestlers bring to their matches. It also helps that most Japanese wrestlers tend to stiff the ever-loving s**t out of each other.
The match we’re looking at today is a perfect example of pro-wrestling as a combat sport. It took place almost forty years ago yet it holds up as one of the most interesting ‘wrestling matches’ to ever take place. And the reason I used quotation marks in that last sentence is because this match has very little with pro-wrestling as we know it from the North American perspective.
Today we revisit the singles match from UWF between Kazuo Yamazaki and Nobuhiko Takada from 1984.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
This match originally took place on December 5th, 1984. There is no backstory going into this match. It’s a simple athletic competition between two skilled wrestlers. It was hosted by the Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF), a pioneer in the ‘shoot style’ of pro-wrestling, which would become a major influence on MMA in the following years and decades.
Yamazaki is the one in long tights and Takada is in short trunks. They shake hands and the bell rings. Yamazaki lands a quick kick and after a long tease, Takada quickly escapes a headlock. Takada does some amateur grappling into an armbar and then to a rear waistlock. That leads to more amateur-style grappling that turns into a cross armbreaker attempt from Takada. Yamazaki counters into a grounded guard/armlock and gets to the ropes, breaking all holds. Back on their feet, Takada dodges a kick from Yamazaki and after another long tease we get more technical grappling.
They trade control in a grounded position, both escaping each other’s potential submission holds. This goes on for quite a bit with quick transitions and long periods of one wrestler trying to apply some hold or another in its entirety. After a ropebreak, both men get to their feet again. They do some more technical grappling and Takada goes for a grounded sleeper hold with bodyscissors. Yamazaki fights out with a leglock attempt into a single leg crab. After a ropebreak from Takada, they lock up again and Yamazaki fireman’s carries Takada to a corner and then backs off. Yet again they do more amateur stuff that leads to a standoff, and then Takada lands a light kick to the calf that gets a surprisingly big reaction.
They lock up once more and Takada powers his way down to an armbar into a near pin until Yamazaki reaches the ropes. Yamazaki fires back with a few kicks of his own and lands snapmare into a chickenwing hold, much to the crowd’s delight. Yamazaki goes for one kick too many as Takada counters into an armbar that has Yamazaki almost completely off guard. Yamazaki holds on for dear life and does whatever he can to try and escape. He counters into a legbar, but Takada teaches the ropes. Takada slaps Yamazaki and the two lock up again. Yamazaki manages to wrestle into an armbreaker attempt of his own, but Takada manages to hold on and then counter into a controlling grappling position. Takada then transitions into a head-and-arm submission hold but Yamazaki reaches the ropes.
Takada goes for a leg take down and tries for another leg submission hold but Yamazaki counters him into a guard of sorts. Yamazaki manages to transition into a triangle hold, but Takada reverses into a Boston crab but Yamazaki reaches the ropes almost instantly. Takada tries some light kicks but on the third one Yamazaki catches his foot and goes back to the mat with some holds. Yamazaki looks for an opportunity to pin or apply a hold, but Takada bridges out, only to eat a kick to the ribs for his efforts. They both get up and Yamazaki lands some stiff kicks that drop Takada.
Yamazaki lands some knees to the gut and applies a leg submission hold, then transitions into a camel clutch. He tries for a cross armbreaker but Takada resists and counters into his own. Takada lands some hard kicks of his own and lands a Tombstone Piledriver out of nowhere for a two-count. He goes for a Kimura lock but Yamazaki reaches the ropes. Takada lands more stiff strikes followed by a running Tombstone Piledriver for another close two-count. Another cross armbreaker attempt and another ropebreak. Takada applies a crossface chickenwing but Yamazaki reaches the ropes again. More karate kicks from Takada followed by a backdrop suplex. They grapple some more and Yamazaki lands a desperation kick of his own followed by many more. Belly-to-belly suplex by Yamazaki. He pins but Takada kicks out. Another cross armbreaker attempt by Yamazaki. Then he transitions into a crossface chickenwing of his own. And then into a bridging German suplex. One, two, three. The ref fast counts to end the match.
Winner after: 23:57: Kazuo Yamazaki
That was one of the weirdest wrestling matches I have ever seen. It seemed less like ‘professional wrestling’ as we know it here in North America and more like a precursor to MMA. The match was 95% amazing amateur-style technical wrestling, 4% stiff martial arts strikes, and 1% wrestling moves. And I think the actual ‘wrestling moves’ seemed completely out of place in a match like this.
Both wrestlers spent 95% of the match establishing a logic and narrative framework for viewers to follow. They wrestled quite possibly the best pure technical wrestling match I have ever seen. Seriously, if you’re a fan of amateur grappling or in-ring technical masters like Kurt Angle, Bryan Danielson or Bret Hart, you’ll love this match. These guys spent the first twenty minutes of a twenty-four-minute match going hold-for-hold in the closest thing to ‘real wrestling’ that there has ever been in pro wrestling. And because they focused so much on amateur grappling, submission holds, and technical reversals, the introduction of ‘worked’ wrestling ‘moves’ like the Tombstone felt almost wrong from a stylistic point of view.
Imagine a dream match between Kurt Angle and Bret Hart. That match is hyped up as a pure wrestling match and both men vow to have a straight up wrestling match without any shenanigans. So they wrestle and wrestle and they put on their style of match. Then out of nowhere Kurt Angle pulls out brass knuckles and then grabs a chair and uses both to beat up Hart. If that happened, you’d think that Angle’s sudden shift in direction were a cheap cop-out or at the very least an unnecessary misdirection in the flow and story of the match. Well that’s how it came across with these two in this match. Takada in particular kept going for a cross armbreaker but Yamazaki kept wrestling his way out of it. And Yamazaki fought back with martial arts kicks, likely in the hopes of getting a knockout or finding an opening in Takada’s defensive guard. From the way both men were wrestling, it seemed that the match would end via submission or some kind of knock-out strike. Except at the very end they introduced something entirely new and…it just didn’t fit.
That’s not to say that the match was bad; in fact, the match was exceptional. I won’t bore you with tired clichés about it being ‘revolutionary’ or ‘ahead of its time’, because those discussions have happened already. But it was really exciting, especially once the crowd really woke up during its second half. That whole stereotype of ‘quiet and studious Japanese fans’ was on full display during the first half of the match. The arena was so quiet you could hear both wrestlers breathing in the ring as they struggled out-grapple one another. But once Yamazaki landed his first flurry of kicks, those same fans got extremely loud. They were applauding and cheering wildly, and a select few of them were screeching like they were witnessing a real fight. And that was because, up to that point, these two wrestlers were putting on an athletic display that might as well have been one. The electric crowd gave this match a big fight feel and they reacted to the transitions and big moves towards the end like they were potential match-enders. And of course, there was the ending. The ref counted too fast and Takada was visibly confused at the decision. It put a further damper on what was otherwise a solid and well-fought match.
Final Rating: ****1/4
If you want to see what MMA looked like before it really got refined, this is the match for you. It’s the closest thing to pure wrestling as both a sport and as entertainment. This match has almost nothing but amateur grappling and martial arts strikes, and that blend makes it feel like a real fight to the death. But at the very end, the wrestlers throw a curve ball at you that, while unexpected, wasn’t necessarily justified. I think the match would’ve been much better if it ended via actual submission. Or, if both wrestler intended on using moves like the Tombstone or the German suplex, then they should’ve teased something like that earlier on to establish that the match could go in that direction.
I’m sure a lot of people used to North American-style wrestling will find this to be a novelty of a match; but it still has some interesting moving parts that make it worth watching all the same.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.