Before there was Khabib Nurmagomedov, before there was Connor McGregor, before there was George St-Pierre, before there were the Shamrocks, there was UWFi.
It was one of the pioneers of MMA and enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame thanks to having pro-wrestlers ballsy enough to try their hand at shootfighting. And today we’re looking at one of the best matches/fights in UWFi history.
It’s the tournament final singles “match” between Nobuhiko Takada and Super Vader from August 18, 1994.
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.
The Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi) was one of the first wrestling promotions in the world that specialized in the ‘shoot’ style. Like the first UWF, it was all about having wrestling matches that were as real as it got. By 1994, they had garnered so much interest that they were able to recruit big names from all over the place. One of those was Vader, who was signed to an eight-date contract with them between 1993 and 1995. But since New Japan owned the rights to the name ‘Big Van Vader’, he had to use a slightly different name, hence ‘Super Vader’. But it was still the same legendary super-heavyweight competing here.
But this wasn’t just a wrestling match; this was a shoot-style match. It was a match with full contact strikes, real (or at least realistic) submission holds, and a match structure centered on amateur grappling and a ‘real fight’ sort of atmosphere. So here was Vader, a guy noted for his stiff brawling style and power moves taking on Nobuhiko Takada, a legitimate mixed martial artist and pioneer of the shoot style. He was much faster and agile than Vader, a man known for his deceptive agility for a superheavyweight. Vader was also known as something of a world title collector (LONG before Kenny Omega tried his hands at that gimmick), and was as close to a real world champion as it got in pro-wrestling (he won at least one world title in Europe, one in North America, and one in Asia). People saw him as legit and believed he posed a credible threat to Takada in Takada’s home environment.
So who would win: the experienced shootfighter, or the 400-plus-pound beast of a hoss?
This match originally took place on August 18, 1994. It was never given any formal rating by the Wrestling Observer, so we can look at it without that hanging overhead. This is a UWFi rules match with the following rules. Both combatants start with 15 points each. Points can be lost for a knockout attempt, being at a disadvantage during a submission hold, or using the ropes on a hold or to escape one. The only way to win is by submission (give up), running out of points, or getting knocked out (which is determined by being unable to get up to one’s feet by the referee’s count of ten).
They shake hands and the match begins. After some teasing and standoffs, Takada gets a clean break on the ropes but Vader pushes forward. He tries to defend himself in a corner but Vader breaks through his guard and lands some huge punches. Vader hammers Takada and Takada drops to the mat. The ref starts counting and Takada gets up at three. Vader clobbers him some more and slams him down like a ragdoll. Takada gets up at seven and Vader slams him again. Takada gets up at three, takes a brutal shot to the side of the head, and then gets up at eight. Vader approaches but Takada makes an explosive comeback with stiff martial arts high and low kicks. Vader goes down and the crowd goes nuts. Takada goes for a cross armbreaker but Vader gets a ropebreak. Takada uses his speed to dodge Vader’s bear-like swings and land more martial arts kicks. Takada manages to land a Backdrop suplex on Vader and tries another cross armbreaker. Vader keeps his hands clinched together so Takada goes for a kimura/keylock. Vader grapples into a heel hold as Takada holds onto one of his arms. Then Vader transitions into what looks like a ‘shoot’ headlock but Takada gets a ropebreak.
Takada lands more kicks and then judo throws Vader to the mat. Vader hits hard to block a leglock so Takada stiffs him with a forearm and goes for yet another cross armbreaker but Vader touches the ropes. Both wrestlers get to their feet and Takada hits a flurry of strikes, only for Vader to down him with one forearm. Takada gets up at seven so Vader locks him in a front chancery. Vader switches into a keylock but Takada rolls through to save his arm. Takada escapes Vader’s control and kicks him hard. Vader fights back and they go at it. Vader drops Takada but he slumps against the ropes from Takada’s onslaught.
Takada gets up at six and hits some STIFF kicks and knees on Vader against the ropes. Vader goes down for the first time in the match. The crowd chants along as Vader gets up at seven. Vader blocks a heel hook with a headscissor and goes for a triangle choke but Takada escapes and attempts a rear naked choke. Another cross armbreaker attempt. Vader blocks with a stiff punch. Takada gets up at seven again and lays into Vader with more kicks. Vader blocks a judo hip throw and another keylock and starts hitting forearms to Takada’s head. He tries his own keylock but Takada gets to the ropes.
Vader hits a big slap and Takada responds with his own massive slap flurry. Vader asks for more and they trade more insanely hard strikes. Takada lands a stiff kneelifts. Vader no-sells and lands a deadlift overhead suplex. Takada gets up at six and walks into some punches from Vader. Takada goes down again but gets up at, you guessed it, seven. Vader responds with a lariat but Takada gets up again. A second lariat. Takada gets up again. And single legs Vader to the mat. Heel hook locked in. the fans are going nuts. Vader escapes but turns around and eats a high kick to the face. He staggers and then collapses. The fans count along for Vader’s count because they want to see Takada win. But Vader gets up at seven and starts trading more strikes with Takada. He locks in another front chancery. Takada gets a ropebreak. Vader blocks another onslaught and gets a forearm past Takada’s defensive guard and he goes down. Takada gets up at six. Vader lands a knee of his own followed by a shoot/deadlift powerbomb. Wow. The ref starts counting. Takada gets up at eight. Vader lands another hammer arm to Takada’s head but he still gets up. He staggers around, unable to keep his balance and needing the referee to stand up. Vader lands one more stiff lariat to the head. Takada goes down. The ref starts counting. Takada tries to use the ropes to pull himself up. But he can’t manage. Takada slumps back down. The referee calls for the bell. Vader wins via KO from a forearm to the head!
Winner and of the 1994 Best of the World Tournament and NEW Pro-Wrestling World Heavyweight Champion after 19:24 due to a knock-out: Super Vader
If you’re one of those fans that are tired of seeing ‘silly’ wrestling and want something serious and extremely realistic, boy do I have a match for you. This was twenty minutes of pro-wrestling as MMA. I can’t really call this a match; this was a fight. It was extremely tense from the opening bell and that atmosphere never died. There was no daredevil craziness or flashy and complex maneuvers here; everything was simplistic and grounded and realism. It was so well done that, even though it took place on a pro-wrestling show, this match was structured and presented like a real fight. It was terrific in so many ways.
There was this great David vs. Goliath dynamic here with Takada trying to defeat the monstrous Vader that wanted to murder him. At the same time, Vader was at a disadvantage because he was inexperienced in Takada’s style of fight. As a result, Vader relied on his raw power to manhandle Takada and hit him as hard as he could. And the fans believed it. Vader did so little yet he got so much mileage out of a few punches and forearms. He held his own on in submissions against Takada and just absorbed each (brutally) stiff strike Takada threw at him. Takada tried and tried and tried to find some kind of opening against Vader but nothing worked. He tried to break Vader’s arm with the cross armbreaker and the keylock/kimura but Vader managed to either escape, counter, or power out of each hold. That forced Takada into a corner and he tried to fight fire with fire. Vader hit so many stiff kicks and knees that I’m amazed Vader didn’t suffer a broken nose or jaw.
The match also benefitted from a great crowd that was both in love with Takada and terrified of Vader. Whenever Vader swung at Takada, people would scream. When Takada made his valiant efforts to get to his feet before the ten-count, they roared and applauded loudly. And when the inverse happened and Vader was down, they chanted with the ref’s count as loudly as possible because they were behind their hometown hero. They were just as big a part of this match’s atmosphere as the wrestlers’ actions. Even though it was structured like a fight, both Vader and Takada milked the crowd of their emotions and built up those tense ten-counts. They got so much out of them and established how important those counts were, which in turn made Vader’s few down moments mean a lot more since Takada was the one getting clobbered the most.
In the end, Takada’s determination was for naught as Vader managed to shoot powerbomb him (which was an amazing thing to pull off) and then knocked him out with some simplistic forearms and lariats. Takada had endured so much punishment that something that simple was too much for him to survive. With that match conclusion, Takada left the match looking like a valiant warrior that tried his best but just came up short. As for Vader, not only did he look like the monster of monsters for enduring so much of Takada’s offense, but he also showed his grappling capabilities as well. Vader showed that he could adapt to a completely different style of wrestling and still succeed in it. I cannot stress how awesome a pro-wrestler Vader was in his prime. He went into this match at a severe disadvantage; yet not only did he survive, he won the company’s world title.
The only real negative here was the sense of repetition from Takada with his strategy. This was a wrestling match disguised as an MMA fight, but it was a very convincing disguise. Yet there were moments where Takada kept going back to the same well and it wasn’t working. He was getting reactions, sure, but he wasn’t making inroads against Vader. He never once really managed to lock in the cross armbreaker or the keylock, so it seemed a bit nonsensical for him to try those moves over and over when Vader had him scouted. He got a lot more out of attacking Vader’s legs and nearly had the match won that way. So for him to abandon that strategy just seemed illogical given the framework of the match.
Final Rating: ****3/4
This is a special match. It’s like something straight out of pro-wrestling’s distant past. Long before cartoon characters came along and made pro-wrestling into a circus, the sport was treated as legitimate and the wrestlers fought that way. This was pro-wrestling in its almost purest form: an amateur-inspired grappling contest with logic and technical exchanges mixed with stiff martial arts strikes. No hulking up, no five moves of doom, no looking at the hard camera, none of that nonsense. It came across as a pure competition, which is rarely seen today.
You’re not likely to see matches like this in today’s wrestling world. This took place when MMA was in its infancy and companies acted like it was the Wild West, with each creating their own rules and regulations. UFC and other such companies have since formalized and changed the sport so that twenty-minute wars like this become next to impossible. And in the wrestling world, it seems that theatricality and ‘athleticism’ have become more important than realism and competitive spirit. That shift in mindset is what makes this match so unique and so great, even after over twenty-five years.
Thanks for reading.