THE HISTORY OF UWFI
written by Tabe
With the crash and burn of Akira Maeda's second UWF group at the end of 1990, the wrestlers in that group split up and went their own ways. A few, led by Maeda himself, formed RINGS. Others, including Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Masa Funaki, and Naoki Sano, formed Pro Wrestling Fujiwara-Gumi (PWFG). The rest, led by Nobuhiko Takada and Kazuo Yamazaki, formed Union of Professional Wrestling Force International - UWFI.
The various shoot-style groups each espoused a different vision of what shoot-style should be. RINGS sought out Eastern Europeans with legit fighting backgrounds to present a style that emphasized realism, to the point of including many legit shoots. PWFG sought to continue the lineage of the UWF. UWFI, on the other hand, sought to incorporate American amateur wrestling stars and present a style that focused a little more on entertainment than realism.
Before going any further, it's probably best if I give a brief explanation of what "shoot-style" is. Essentially, shoot-style is a genre of professional wrestling that involves matches designed to look real - to look like a shoot, that is. The techniques in them should be ones that would be seen in a real MMA fight, with legitimate submissions and legitimate strikes. Depending on the group presenting the matches, there may be little or no actual cooperation between the wrestlers and no "spots" worked out ahead of time - just a finish. The end result is a hard-hitting style that can be as thrilling as any legitimate competition.
UWFI ran their first show on May 10, 1991 before a sold-out Korakuen Hall in Tokyo. Included among the outstanding matches on the card was a demonstration of the scoring and rules in use by UWFI, namely: 15 points for each wrestler in a singles match, 21 for each team in a tag team match. A wrestler/team loses 1 point for using the ropes to break submission, loses 1 point for being suplexed (this rule seemed to be randomly enforced), and 3 points lost for a knockdown. A wrestler lost when he submitted, was knocked down for a 10-count, or lost all of his points. Late in UWFI's run, they would modify the rules to include pinfalls as well as counting submissions/KOs as 10 points lost rather than ending the match.
The action on the first show opened with Kiyoshi Tamura taking on Masahito Kakihara, two of the young stars upon whom UWFI hoped to rely in the coming years. They did not disappoint with their match as they tore the house down for 14 minutes before Tamura was able to submit Kakihara. The bar was set for the rest of the first show and all UWFI shows to come with wrestlers striving to put on excellent performances every time out.
The star of the first show, as he would be throughout the life of UWFI, was Nobuhiko Takada. He was positioned from the beginning as the top wrestler in the promotion and its "champion" long before UWFI officially had a champion. Accordingly, he was in the main event of the debut show, scoring a dominating win over Tatsuo Nakano.
Throughout the rest of the spring and summer of 1991, UWFI would establish their practice of running approximately one show per month while sorting out the pecking order of the wrestlers. Past nemesis Kazuo Yamazaki emerged as the top Japanese challenger to Takada's status as ace of the promotion while Yoji Anjoh would entrench himself as a leader among the next tier of performers, scoring a victory over Kiyoshi Tamura on July 3, 1991.
Making his debut on the August 24th show was Gary Albright. Albright, a monster of a man at roughly 6'5" and 330 lbs, was a former star NCAA wrestler with previous pro wrestling experience in the Stampede area of Canada. Albright would immediately make his presence known and would eventually become the top threat to Takada, scoring two wins over Takada - the only wrestler in UWFI to do so.
With the September 26, 1991 show, another past foe of Takada's would reappear in the person of Bob Backlund. Backlund, the former WWF World Heavyweight champion, had been semi-retired since 1985, but had worked a few shows for Maeda's UWF in 1988/89, including a classic match with Takada on December 22, 1988. Their rematch on September 26 would be the first in a series of infamous moments in the course of UWFI's history. Their match started out normally enough, but barely a minute into the contest, Takada landed a kick to Backlund's midsection, KO'ing the former champion after just 75 seconds. The normally respectful UWFI audience was incensed at this abbreviated main event and proceeded to protest, looking for all the world like they would riot. Word was sent to the locker room of the unrest and Kazuo Yamazaki was sent to the ring to calm things down, which he was successfully able to do. Backlund and Takada would hook up again on November 7, 1991 to complete their rivalry with an uneventful match that saw Takada once again emerge victorious.
Kazuo Yamazaki would get his first crack at Takada's "throne" in the main event of the November 6, 1991 show. Unfortunately for him, in what would become an oft-repeated-and-never-changing theme, Yamazaki would fail in his quest to unseat Takada. Yamazaki would never be granted a singles win over Takada during his entire run in UWFI, one of many booking mistakes that would eventually lead to UWFI's collapse (more on that later).
While UWFI was a worked promotion, they portrayed themselves as legitimate competition and sought ways to prove that, often incorporating legit Muay Thai kickboxing fights on their shows. They also would, on a couple of occasions, bring in boxers against whom the warriors of UWFI could prove their mettle. UWFI's first experiment with doing this, on the December 22, 1991 show, would go down in the annals of pro wrestling as a legendary incident of "things gone wrong".
Things started off quietly enough, with Billy Scott taking on boxer James Warring in a painfully boring mixed match. With little action, the fight would go the distance, doing nothing to prove the superiority of one side or another. That would quickly change...
For the main event, UWFI brought in former heavyweight champion Trevor Berbick. Berbick is perhaps best-known as the last man to fight Muhammad Ali, ending the career of "The Greatest" with a unanimous decision. The actual events surrounding this match are in some doubt but what is clear is this: early in their fight, Takada landed some kicks to Berbick's leg, drawing immediate protests from Berbick that the kicks were illegal. It is clear from his gestures that he believes only kicks above the waist to be allowed. From the video, it appears that the referee in the fight actually agrees with Berbick on this point but he continues to allow the kicks anyway. Berbick continues to protest, clearly believing he is being double-crossed and cheated. When Takada landed a glancing high-kick to Berbick's head, Berbick decided he'd had enough and walked out on the fight. The video seems to support Berbick's notion of a double-cross. However, Pat McCarthy, one of UWFI's main trainers and the man assigned to Berbick for the fight, disputes that notion. "The Berbick fight? No rules were ever changed -- that guy just never wanted to listen", McCarthy says. "The rules were always going to be UWFI rules --- it was one of our typical mixed bouts." Wherever the truth lies, the image of Berbick walking out on a main event to the derision of 11,000 fans is a powerful one and would serve as a huge boost for Takada in the eyes of the Japanese fans.
1992 started off quietly for UWFI. Their trend of putting on excellent shows continued through the early part of the year; however, there was nothing particularly remarkable about those shows. Gary Albright continued his move up the ranks, including a defeat of the "gateway to Takada", Kazuo Yamazaki, while Nobuhiko Takada defeated mid-card challengers. That would change with the May 8 show...
The May 8, 1992 shown, held in front of a sold-out crowd of 14,000 at Yokohama Arena, was UWFI's biggest to-date. It is also unquestionably one of the 3 or 4 best shows ever run by UWFI and is arguably the best one. The card opened with a pair of outstanding preliminary matches, highlighted by the longest match in UWFI's history - a 30-minute draw between Masahito Kakihara and Mark Silver. More excellent undercard action followed then a pair of legends took center stage.
Nick Bockwinkel and Billy Robinson are two of the greatest wrestlers of all-time. Both are regarded as in-ring masters with dozens - no, hundreds - of incredible matches on their resumes. Bockwinkel's career as AWA World Champion is well-documented. Billy Robinson was more-traveled than Bockwinkel but his near-equal in the ring, at least. By 1992, neither man was an active performer, though Bockwinkel was still in great shape and looked like he could still be AWA champ. Robinson was much heavier than his prime but was still sharp mentally and could work the psychological side of wrestling as well as ever.
UWFI brought in these two legends for an "exhibition" match. What followed was not a classic by any means nor was it shoot-style (not that it was meant to be). What the match was, however, was 10 minutes of two legends showing off their still-considerable skills highlighted by one "hey, this could get serious" moment. Bockwinkel landed a rather-innocent knee on Robinson, which Robinson did not like. Bockwinkel responded with a dismissive "It's a knee, Robinson." Billy, clearly pissed, shook his fist at Bockwinkel and threatened, "I'll give you one of these in the fucking jaw." Again, not a classic match by any means, but a fun demonstration of technique nonetheless.
The rest of the show saw the debut of Koji Kitao - a man who would play a huge role in yet another "infamous" UWFI moment - as he defeated Kazuo Yamazaki. Kiyoshi Tamura would end UWFI's short-lived experiment with wrestler vs boxer shoots, defeating Matthew Saad Muhammed in just 34 seconds. And, in the main event, Gary Albright continued his ascent to the top, handing Nobuhiko Takada his first defeat in a fabulous match, KO'ing Takada after 14:37.
The summer of 1992 saw UWFI again playing before sold-out arenas in a series of rather uneventful shows. They were designed to build to a rematch between Albright and Takada, this time for the newly-created UWFI World Heavyweight Championship on September 21. For the show, UWFI brought in Lou Thesz, as part of a long association with the legendary former champion that had begun several months earlier. Thesz brought with him his old NWA World title belt, to be presented to the new champion. Thesz's involvement with UWFI would be a controversial one, with Thesz falsely promoting UWFI as legitimate competition to US fans, criticizing UWFI for bringing in wrestlers like Vader, blasting UWFI for their use of moves like power bombs as not legitimate (even though Thesz himself used powerbombs in the '50s and they've been used numerous times in MMA competition), eventually ending in an acrimonious split over money. However, in 1992, none of that had yet come-to-pass, so Thesz was on-hand to present Nobuhiko Takada with the title after he defeated Gary Albright in a classic match that ran over 20 minutes.
UWFI followed up the success of the September 21 show by running an even bigger event the following month - their largest to-date, before 16,500 fans in a sold-out Budokan Hall in Tokyo on October 23. The fans present would be in for something special, seeing an outstanding semi-main event between Kazuo Yamazaki and Kiyoshi Tamura. That match, however, was just a prelude for the infamous main event to come.
Koji Kitao was a former sumo wrestler who had risen to the top ranking of yokozuna before being expelled from the Sumo Association in disgrace. In 1992, his name still carried a great deal of weight in Japan. His presence on UWFI shows lent an air of credibility and legitimacy to the proceedings. Having dispatched Yamazaki five months earlier, Kitao was primed and ready to challenge Takada. However, discussions between UWFI and Kitao over the outcome of the match were not smooth, leading eventually to a contentious agreement of a draw. Takada, however, had other ideas and, in a moment that would be immortalized on the cover of the video tape of the show, legitimately KO'ed Kitao with a kick to the head. Takada's risky double-cross paid off, propelling him even higher in the eyes of the fans as a legitimate fighter with real credibility. For Kitao, his short-lived association with UWFI was, understandably, finished.
During 1992, Lou Thesz, in a rehash of an angle from his time as commissioner of Southwest Championship Wrestling, issued a challenge to all the world champions of other wrestling federations throughout the world. These challenges attracted great attention, particularly when Masa Chono, the newly-crowned NWA World Champion, announced a challenge to all other champions as well. Thesz and UWFI leapt on this challenge as an acceptance of their own challenge and sought to have Takada take on Chono - and said that Takada would work for free. Other than creating enemies within New Japan, and generating notoriety for UWFI, nothing would come of these challenges as no champion would accept, except one - Vader.
In 1993, Vader was a three-time WCW World heavyweight champion with a (well-earned) reputation as a legitimately tough man whose hard-hitting style won him a following world-wide. Though purely a pro wrestler, that style would allow Vader to fit well into the shoot-style context of UWFI. Vader would debut for UWFI on May 6, 1993, decimating Tatsuo Nakano in 3:35, as part of a show that also Nobuhiko Takada defeat future UFC champion Dan Severn. Vader's victory was the beginning of a path of destruction through UWFI that would culminate in a year-end clash with Takada. Before that battle, however, would come UWFI's United States debut.
Sometime in the summer of 1993, UWFI signed an agreement for a series of Pay-Per-View broadcasts in the United States to be promoted as "real pro wrestling" under the name "Shootfighting". The first one, broadcast on October 5, 1993 and including matches from the October 4 show, was a success, drawing a 0.48 rating - phenomenal numbers for a promotion with little US presence and no TV whatsoever. As part of their commitment to presenting a legitimate product, UWFI kept Vader off of the broadcast, despite his having worked the October 4 show. To help hype the PPV, UWFI made their one-and-only foray onto US soil, running a pair of matches in Nashville as part of a boxing card, on September 18. No footage of these matches has ever surfaced and it is not known how well they were received. UWFI would eventually run two more Shootfighting PPVs, each faring worse than the previous, both in 1994.
Held December 5, 1993 before a sold-out crowd of over 46,000 fans at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium, the epic war between Vader and Takada would live up to all of the hype. UWFI treated the match as a grand spectacle, hyping it like a heavyweight boxing match, playing the national anthems of both contestants beforehand, as well as having dignitaries like Lou Thesz on-hand for pre-match speeches. Vader and Takada pulled out all the stops, throwing bombs at each other throughout in a now-legendary match. Takada once again rose to the occasion, proving the superiority of UWFI's "real pro wrestling", defeating the WCW champion to retain his own UWFI title. In the years since the match, rumors have circulated that Vader was legitimately injured during the match as well, though that has never been 100% confirmed and has been dismissed by a number of wrestling experts.
The success of the stadium show, combined with the excitement generated by the presence of Vader, propelled UWFI into 1994, UWFI's most-successful year ever, one that saw UWFI rise to the top of the pro wrestling world. Pro wrestling, in general, was riding a crest of popularity in Japan during 1993/94. All Japan, New Japan, FMW, All Japan Women, and many others were running big shows and drawing huge numbers of fans. None would draw more people per show than UWFI, however, as the group ran a series of sold-out Budokan Hall shows throughout 1994, highlighted by the Best of the World tournament.
Once in 1994, UWFI issued a call to champions around the world, challenging them to participate in a tournament to determine who really was the best pro wrestler on the planet. Held across a series of four shows from April to August of 1994, the tournament saw 16 of UWFI's top stars compete to be crowned champion. Among the contestants were Nobuhiko Takada, Vader, Gary Albright and a trio of Russian stars - Victor Zangiev, former IWGP champion Salman Hashimikov, and Vladimir Berkovich. The tournament would produce a number of outstanding matches and shows, including a match that some have called the greatest in the history of UWFI - a tag team battle between Gene Lydick & Steve Nelson on one side and Kazushi Sakuraba & Masahito Kakihara on the other.
Held June 10, 1994, the tag match was part of the undercard of the semi-finals of the tournament, including the third match between Nobuhiko Takada and Gary Albright. Given nearly 20 minutes to work with, the two teams fashioned a classic borne out of legitimate dislike. Kakihara's exuberance and penchant for treating his matches as actual shoots did not endear him to his American foes, while their status as outsiders did nothing to generate kind feelings from Kakihara & Sakuraba either. When Sakuraba was finally KO'ed by an overhead suplex that looked frighteningly close to a DDT, the battle was over but not to be forgotten.
Perhaps inevitably, the finals of the tournament, on August 18, 1994, ended up being a rematch between Nobuhiko Takada and Vader. This time held indoors, before a sold-out Budokan Hall, Takada & Vader would once again deliver a classic. Undoubtedly the most-famous match in UWFI's history, it is often used to introduce fans to the UWFI style. Its story, that of two warriors slugging it out for all their worth, transcends genres and is easily understood, even by non-fans. The outcome would be different from their previous encounter, however, as this time Vader would emerge victorious, becoming UWFI's second champion.
During 1994, as part of their challenges to other champions, UWFI issued a challenge to Rickson Gracie for a fight against Takada. Gracie, flying high in Japan after his dominating victory in the first Japan Vale Tudo Open, was intrigued and interested in doing the fight. That is, until he learned that UWFI wanted the fight to be worked - with Takada going over. Rickson refused the fight, stating he did not do worked fights. UWFI trumpeted his refusal to fight as an acknowledgement that Takada was the greatest fighter in the world. They sent Yoji Anjoh to the US to challenge Rickson face-to-face. What followed is the stuff of legend...
Yoji Anjoh showed up in the US in early December of 1994. He traveled to Rickson Gracie's dojo in Los Angeles, with a Japanese press corps in tow. Once there, he challenged Rickson to a dojo fight. Rickson agreed to the fight - but locked the press outside the room, letting them back in only when the fight was over. Gracie pounded Anjoh, bloodying him quickly, before banging Anjoh's head against a wall, then choking him out. Gracie claims to have told Anjoh, "If we fight for money, I stop hitting you when you tell me stop. If we fight for honor, I stop hitting you when I feel like it." Photos of the aftermath were published in several Japanese magazines. Duly humbled, Anjoh returned to the dojo a few days later with gifts for Rickson, apologizing for his behavior.
The momentum of 1994 for UWFI rolled into 1995 as their string of sellouts continued through the early part of 1995, but cracks were beginning to appear. UWFI again sold out Budokan Hall for a show on January 16, headlined by Vader successfully defending the UWFI title against fellow American monster Gary Albright. The match - and the overall show - were a disappointment, however, with Vader & Albright canceling out each other's strengths. The semi-main event lasted just 63 seconds, adding more fuel to the talk of a slowdown for UWFI.
Another sellout was drawn for the February 18, 1995 show, but this time the arena was Tokyo Bay Hall, which holds only 7000 - not the 16,500 that Budokan Hall holds. Those in attendance were treated to another disappointing show with the much-anticipated match between Kiyoshi Tamura and Masahito Kakihara going just 2 minutes. Nobuhiko Takada and Kazuo Yamazaki renewed their rivalry once more but this, too, proved a letdown as Yamazaki was injured early on and the match was cut short at only 4:36.
In early 1995, UWFI was invited to participate in the Weekly Pro Tokyo Dome show, which would feature matches from 13 different federations. Held on April 2, this "Super Bowl" (as Gene Lydick called it) show was historic, granting fans a rare opportunity to see stars from all the different feds in one place. UWFI was granted a top slot on the show and sent a 6-man match. The match - the only 6-man tag in UWFI history (excluding NJ/UWFI matches) - is one of the best on the show and does a nice job of showcasing the UWFI style. Unfortunately the owners of the video rights, New Japan Pro Wrestling, have for whatever reason refused to release the show, leaving fans to make do with only handhelds and lesser-quality raw footage versions.
The string of non-sellouts continued through the spring and summer of 1995, with UWFI drawing only 8100 - of which only 6000 was paid - for the third (and final) match between Nobuhiko Takada and Vader on April 20. Disputes over money had soured Vader on UWFI and he ended his tenure there with another excellent match against Takada, losing the UWFI title in a little over 15 minutes.
With Vader gone, the booking mistakes of UWFI became more apparent. Gary Albright was no longer a credible challenger, Vader was gone, Kazuo Yamazaki had no wins over top talent, and no young stars had been pushed to the top. This left the promotion with Takada on top and (essentially) a lot of midcard talent under him. The promotion brought in Joe Malenko as a challenger for Takada but their match flopped and did nothing to reverse the fortunes of UWFI. UWFI made a half-hearted attempt to push Kiyoshi Tamura and Masahito Kakihara but that would only lead to controversy...
On the May 17, 1995 card, Gary Albright was booked to lose to Masahito Kakihara. Kakihara hadn't been pushed much to that point, jobbing to all top wrestlers he faced as well as multiple times to fellow young gun Kiyoshi Tamura. Still, he was given a victory over Albright, with the booking designed to try and keep Albright strong by making the finish a "surprise" one meant to portray the victory as more of a fluke than anything. Still, because Kakihara was so far below him status-wise, Albright was not pleased with being asked to job and did so reluctantly.
On the June 18, 1995 show, Albright was asked for the second straight month to job to a young star, this time Kiyoshi Tamura. Even more galling, Tamura had just lost the previous month to midcarder Kazuo Yamazaki. Albright, who was also in a dispute over money with UWFI at this time, consented to do the job. However, he did so in what has become infamous as the "Break Gary, Break!" match. Albright, in an attempt to sabotage the match and Tamura's push, refused to cooperate with Tamura, laying on the mat, doing nothing. In addition, he refused to break holds several times, ignoring the referee's protests to "Break Gary, Break!" Albright eventually half-heartedly tapped out to a Tamura submission, leaving a crying Tamura emotionally crushed, his big win destroyed. Albright would return to UWFI for one more match, on August 18, an uneventful rematch with Tamura that saw Albright again job, this time cleanly. He was gone from the promotion immediately thereafter. The situation with Albright did nothing to help UWFI, their series of poorly-drawing shows having continued throughout the summer.
On August 24, 1995, UWFI made the controversial announcement that they had reached a co-promotional agreement with New Japan. A huge show was announced for the Tokyo Dome, to take place on October 9. UWFI saw this as an opportunity to reverse the financial fortunes of the company. To that end, they were willing to do whatever it took to work with New Japan, making the fatal error of allowing New Japan to book the matches. New Japan, which had been embarrassed the Thesz/Chono flap in 1992/93, saw an opportunity to destroy a rival federation that had mocked their style of wrestling. It worked - UWFI would never recover from their feud with New Japan...
Not all in the UWFI camp were in agreement with the decision to partner up with New Japan. Kazuo Yamazaki quit UWFI and went to work for New Japan as both a wrestler and trainer, even helping to train New Japan's wrestlers in the shoot-style of UWFI. Kiyoshi Tamura refused to work matches against New Japan wrestlers. He did not quit UWFI right away but the writing was on the wall.
The feud with New Japan got started with a bang on September 23 in the form of a tag match with Yoji Anjoh & Tatsuo Nakano vs Riki Choshu & Yuji Nagata. The match features what looks to be some non-cooperation between the participants and a number of stiff shots exchanged. Anjoh and Nagata would both end up with swollen faces and the feud was on!
The much-anticipated Tokyo Dome show drew a sellout crowd of 67,000 to see Keiji Mutoh defend his IWGP title against Nobuhiko Takada. The entire card featured matches with UWFI wrestlers squaring off against their counterparts from New Japan. On paper, the results don't look too bad for UWFI - 3 wins out of 8 matches. Once one looks deeper, however, the damage becomes apparent. Throughout nearly every match, the New Japan wrestlers do their best to be uncooperative - particularly Riki Choshu and Kensuke Sasaki - so that, even in victory, the UWFI guys looked weak and "beneath" the New Japan guys. The capper, of course, was the main event that saw Takada - hailed by UWFI as the "best fighter in the world" - losing to a "fake" wrestler like Keiji Mutoh in 16 minutes to a worked hold (the figure-four). Not at all a good day for UWFI and it only set the tone for the rest of the feud.
Through the rest of 1995, fans were treated to several more cards of UWFI vs New Japan matches. The crowds for these shows were good ones, including a couple sellouts, and they were heated. The action they saw was usually good, sometimes great - the November 25, 1995 being a particularly good one - but, again, close examination is very revealing. The UWFI guys are given very few victories over top talent, with only Yoji Anjoh being given anything that resembles a big singles win (a submission victory over Masa Chono on October 28). Kiyoshi Tamura is noticeably absent, having refused to work against New Japan wrestlers. And the spirit of non-cooperation still pervaded several matches.
UWFI worked their second Tokyo Dome show with New Japan on January 4, 1996. This time, the NJ/UWFI matches were only part of the show - the main event being Vader vs Antonio Inoki in a legendary match - and the matches UWFI was given didn't allow them to show much. The opening 6-man match had potential for greatness but was too short to live up to the potential. Yoji Anjoh squared off against Ricky Fuyuki from WAR in a match that was an embarrassment to the UWFI name. Anjoh was triple-teamed throughout the match and ended up getting his head wrapped in duct tape. That led into Masahito Kakihara taking on Riki Choshu. Kakihara, you'll recall, had defeated Choshu protege Kensuke Sasaki on the previous Tokyo Dome show. No such luck this time, with Choshu soundly defeating Kakihara and doing all he could to keep Kakihara from looking good as well. A measure of redemption for UWFI would be found in the form of Nobuhiko Takada as he defeated Keiji Mutoh in their rematch to win the IWGP Heavyweight title. Even in victory, however, there was defeat - Mutoh put in one of his infamous lazy performances, dragging the match down from the classic it should have been to the realm of "good but oh what could have been".
The early part of 1996 saw more UWFI vs New Japan cards but it quickly became apparent that UWFI was losing the feud. Even a successful IWGP title defense (against old rival Shiro Koshinaka) on a UWFI show did nothing to turn around the fortunes for UWFI. When Takada appeared on the April 29 Tokyo Dome show, losing his IWGP title to Shinya Hashimoto, the feud with New Japan was over - and, with it, the days of UWFI as a viable federation were as well.
The feud with New Japan had far-reaching consequences for UWFI. While there were short-term financial gains, the damage done to the credibility of UWFI as a shoot-style federation losing to a "fake" group like New Japan would prove fatal. The feud cost UWFI two of their more valuable members of the roster - Kazuo Yamazaki (who left in the summer of 1995) and Kiyoshi Tamura (who would leave UWFI for RINGS after the May 27, 1996 show). Additionally, UWFI had already lost two of their other top stars - Vader and Gary Albright. When it was all said done, they were left with a decimated roster, little credibility, and not a lot of hope for survival.
In order to try and hang on, UWFI reached more co-promotional agreements with federations in Japan. This time, however, instead of a top-flight promotion like New Japan, UWFI was left to work with WAR (a semi-traditional pro wrestling group with a lot of "entertainment" thrown in) and Tokyo Pro (a low-level indy group that featured garbage matches and wrestlers like Abdullah the Butcher). They coaxed Satoru Sayama (the original Tiger Mask) into working several matches and basically tried whatever they could to hang on. While the results were sometimes good - the June 26 show, for example, produced an outstanding main event tag match and a trio from UWFI won the WAR International 6-man tag titles in a tournament on July 20 - more often they were not. Playing before sparse crowds who displayed little enthusiasm, UWFI struggled to get by. They tried pushing some younger guys - giving Kazushi Sakuraba his first push, moving Yoshihiro Takayama up the card - but it was too little, too late.
The one bright spot for UWFI would be an outdoor show held on September 11, 1996. A crowd of over 40,000 came to see Takada take on WAR's Genichiro Tenryu, who had pounded Naoki Sano with legit punches to the face on a UWFI show the previous month. The match was an excellent one, with Takada defeating Tenryu, but the rest of the card would disappoint. Even All Japan's Toshiaki Kawada, who was brought in for the show in the hopes of sparking another inter-promotional feud, could do nothing to stop the downward spiral for UWFI.
The writing was on the wall for UWFI by the fall of 1996. They would run several more shows but none drew much interest. Rule changes, such as pinfalls and submissions counting as lost points instead of ending a match, were explored but failed to do anything to boost the fortunes of UWFI. UWFI would wrap up their amazing 5-1/2 year run on December 27, 1996 with a show that Nobuhiko Takada defeat one last challenger, Yoshihiro Takayama.
Many of the stars of UWFI - Sakuraba, Sano, Takayama, Anjoh, and Yamamoto - would join Kingdom. There, they would try to present a more-realistic version of shoot-style. Others, like Takada, would explore the world of mixed martial arts. Still others would simply fade away...
So, what is the legacy of UWFI? It's influence on both pro wrestling and mixed martial arts is widely-felt. For starters, a number of its stars would move on to other federations to become stars. Kiyoshi Tamura went to RINGS, where he would have a legendary series of matches with Volk Han and rise to the top of the card before embarking on a semi-successful career in MMA. Yoshihiro Takayama passed through Kingdom then left for All Japan where he received a strong push as a tag wrestler with Takao Omori. Takayama would then split off on his own, becoming a top singles star in 2001-2004 before being derailed by injuries. Kazushi Sakuraba, who made his pro debut with UWFI on August 13, 1993, would go on to a legendary career in MMA, defeating several members of the Gracie family and becoming arguably the most-popular MMA fighter ever. The dispersal of stars from UWFI into other groups, including Kazuo Yamazaki becoming a trainer for New Japan, caused those groups to incorporate some elements of shoot-style into their own style as well.
And Nobuhiko Takada? Takada once again challenged Rickson Gracie, this time to a legitimate fight - and this time it was accepted. Held October 11, 1997 at the Tokyo Dome, it was the first show for a new MMA group - Pride Fighting Championships. Takada was outclassed by Gracie and soundly defeated, but the show was a success for Pride, drawing 37,000 fans. Pride would go on to become the biggest MMA group in the world before running into financial difficulties in 2007 (eventually being bought by the UFC) but without Takada's name to draw a crowd, they would have never gotten off the ground. Takada would fight several more times for Pride, including a rematch with Rickson Gracie, but with no success outside of worked fights, before settling into retirement in his role as Pride's commissioner and a manager in Hustle.
Fortunately, the glory of UWFI lives on today thanks to the proliferation of their video tapes throughout the world. UWFI is also still seen on TV today in various places as part of their "Bushido" TV shows that were originally made for British TV in the mid-1990s.
UWFI is a case study in how poor booking and mismanagement can run even the best federations into the ground. In 1994, UWFI led the world in average attendance per show, was on PPV in the United States, and had one of the most-talented rosters around. By end the of 1996, they were gone....