Before most of the world's greatest fighters called the UFC home, there was Pride—a Japanese promotion that mixed the best of pro wrestling glitz with some of the most brutal fighting the world had ever seen.
And before both Pride and the UFC, there were Shooto and Pancrase—early fighting leagues that sprang from the innovative minds of professional wrestlers who wanted to see what wrestling would be like if the bouts weren't predetermined.
There have been dozens of valiant and courageous fighters from Japan over the years, but despite the sport's success there, just a handful of truly world class warriors emerged. For your consideration, I present the 10 best Japanese fighters to ever grace the cage or ring with their presence.
Much has been made of Frank Shamrock's departure from the Lion's Den to train with the great kickboxer Maurice Smith. I said my piece in my MMA history Total MMA. Smith taught Shamrock proper striking technique and introduced him to the training grind that is now a way of life for MMA fighters all over the world. Shamrock helped Smith learn to apply and defend submission holds. Both men became champions.
The third member of this illustrious trio, however, has mostly been forgotten. "TK," a Japanese judo player and professional wrestler for the Rings promotion in Japan, helped both men master the open guard. Smith, in particular, used this then innovative technique to batter—and ultimately—beat Mark Coleman for the UFC title.
Kohsaka was never himself a champion. He once fought Bas Rutten for an opportunity to compete for the UFC title but fell victim to brutal stand up technique from Rutten and brutal standups from referee John McCarthy.
Despite this lack of gold, Kohsaka was a respected competitor for more than a decade, beating some of the sport's top fighters including the legendary Fedor Emelianenko. He doubled as a professional wrestler for much of his time at the top of the sport—wrestling matches so realistic that Sherdog includes them in their "Fight Finder."
Before there was Shinya Aoki, wowing crowds with dynamic submissions from all angles and all positions, there was Rumina Sato. Ask any lightweight fighter from the early days of the sport—almost to a man they list Sato as their hero.
Sato was unyielding in his principles. He went for submission over position. Every time. Often against much larger men. Competing as a lightweight in an era that predated significant 145-lb. and 135-lb. weight classes, Sato sometimes paid the price for a wild and rash submission attempt, ending up trapped beneath a bigger grappler.
Sometimes though, when the planets aligned, he pulled off some of the most amazing finishes the sport has ever seen. Rumina Sato was an artist on the mat. And for that, he deserves a spot among his country's all-time best.
Since Urijah Faber became the WEC poster boy as featherweight champion, the best fighters in the division have slowly but inevitably been drawn into the Zuffa fold. One of the last holdouts was Hioki, the Japanese star who made every claim to being the world's best spurious.
A Shooto standout, Hioki burst onto the international scene with startling wins over Jeff Curran and Mark Hominick, two tough UFC veterans. A win over Marlon Sandro a few years later solidified his status as a top-10 contender.
Last year, Hioki finally made his UFC debut. No longer a wunderkind, the 28-year-old veteran fighter beat George Roop by split decision. Although a long shot, he remains as the last, best hope for a Japanese fighter to claim gold in the UFC.
Instead of just wrestling matches that looked real to the casual fan, what if professional wrestling was real? I mean really, really, real. That simple question made Pancrase founder Masakatsu Funaki a lot of money.
Funaki and his top opponents, Minoru Suzuki and Ken Shamrock, took shoot style professional wrestling to the next level. Using traditional pro wrestling rules (closed fists to the head were illegal and a referee separated fighters who made it to the ring ropes) Pancrase quickly blurred the lines between legitimate competition and fake hokum.
In some cases, Funaki would lose to fighters he might have otherwise beaten in an effort to build new stars. But when push came to shove, the Karl Gotch disciple was one of the best submission fighters on Earth in the mid 1990s and a true pioneer of mixed martial arts.
Caol Uno spent his evenings toiling as a waiter, even as he ran roughshod over the Shooto promotion in Japan. A win over the already legendary Rumina Sato in one of Japan's most amazing fights changed all that for the young fighter.
Soon Uno was in America, competing with the top fighters in the newly created UFC bantamweight (later lightweight) division. He fell to Jens Pulver in an attempt to become the first ever UFC champion in his weight class, but there was no one in the division he couldn't beat on the right night.
When Pulver left the UFC after a contract dispute, Uno again fell just short, this time taking B.J. Penn to a draw in a scrap for the vacated title. That's the story of Uno's career. Almost a great, he consistently fell just short of excellence.
Last year, UFC President Dana White made waves when he called Okami the best Japanese fighter of all time. While I obviously don't agree, you can certainly see White's point.
Other top stars from the land of the rising sun have come into the modern UFC. To a man, they have failed. Except Okami.
The grinding wrestler has secured a place at the top of the middleweight division. Although he may never surpass champion Anderson Silva or teammate Chael Sonnen, Okami should be a force to be reckoned with for years to come.
Before the rise of Zuffa's UFC, the top fighters in the world were spread out over a variety of promotions. In Japan, Pride was king for heavyweights and light heavyweights. But in smaller weight classes, less prestigious promoters still ruled the roost. Top among them was Shooto, home to Uno, Sato and the great Hayato Sakurai.
Sakurai started his career with a win over Uno and the winning just continued, including a huge victory over American wrestler Frank Trigg. It was a veritable landslide of winning—until Sakurai ran into Anderson Silva in 2001.
Even after his first loss, many still favored him over newly crowned UFC champion Matt Hughes at UFC 36. Hughes ended any discussion of Sakurai's place on the pound-for-pound best lists, but his place among Japan's very best in unquestioned.
Long considered Japan's top fighter, Shinya Aoki's place in the lightweight hierarchy is now in question after a decisive loss to Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez. Even seven consecutive wins—six of them by submission—have done little to change the perception that Aoki may have been overrated by the MMA cognoscenti.
Personally, I think Aoki is a brilliant fighter who ran into a stylistic nightmare in Melendez. Aoki's submission prowess is without equal in the sport and he's got the kind of mean streak that allows him to do permanent damage to his opponents—sometimes even breaking bones and shredding ligaments if need be.
When BJ Penn ate his way out of the lightweight class, Gomi became the top fighter in the division by default. But he showed his mettle with a string of explosive wins—finishing eight consecutive fights by knockout or submission in Pride's Bushido series. Gomi has power in both hands and the wrestling acumen to stay on his feet long enough to use it.
Today, he's fallen on hard times. It happens when you're 33 and have been through the wars Gomi's been through. Though he no longer ranks among the world's top fighters, when you rank the all time greats at 155 pounds, Gomi certainly has to be in the discussion.
The catch wrestling legend wrote his name into the history books with an epic feud with the Gracie family. Sakuraba defeated four members of MMA's first family, but even the most brutal trash talk couldn't get Rickson Gracie in the ring.
Although he eventually fell to much larger men and recent fights have verged on being snuff films, he'll always be remembered as the fighter who helped take MMA mainstream in Japan.