Earlier this week, professional mixed martial artist "King" Mo Lawal signed contracts allowing him to both compete in Bellator and wrestle for TNA. Many proclaimed this to be something new, a revolutionary pairing of two diverse sporting traditions.
But as we've learned over and over again, there's nothing new under the sun—or in the ring. The relationship between the two sports is much deeper (and older) than "King Mo" and Spike TV. Across the continental divides, the world over, professional wrestling and mixed martial arts are inexorably linked.
"I feel really proud of a professional wrestling lineage," Strikeforce fighter and pro wrestling star Josh Barnett said. "I feel pride in trying to connect those professional wrestling roots to the combat aspects of wrestling. But also the history and lineage of where professional wrestling came from. It's not fake...pro wrestlers used to be considered some of the toughest guys in the world back in the day. It didn't matter if they were out there working, their pedigree was otherwise. And anybody that wanted to step up to them learned the hard way."
The Roots of American MMA
In America, judo player Mitsuyo Maeda, who came to the country to spread Jigoru Kano's brilliant grappling art, found a thriving sub-culture of submission grappling (called catch wrestling) already in place. Professional wrestlers right up into the 1930s were almost all competent and incredibly dangerous grapplers. The popularity of carnival circuits and traveling shows meant many wrestlers came up accepting challenges from all comers. That bred a bevy of submission holds, techniques designed to quickly incapacitate even a skilled amateur opponent.
"They were doing submissions just like anybody (does in today's MMA). Submissions are not new to humanity. You can go look at Egyptian hieroglyphs, an ancient vase from Greece, and even carvings on Indian temples...(Old-time pro wrestling stars) all came from wrestling backgrounds, like myself," former UFC champion and catch wrestling enthusiast Josh Barnett said. "I think you've got to start with basics with anything. It starts with basic body positioning and you can go from there to adding all the submissions you want. As long as your foundation is strong. The foundation is simple movement, control, and leverage."
Soon, Maeda had joined the professional wrestling circuit, traveling worldwide to challenge the best grapplers anywhere and everywhere on the planet he set foot. England and Mexico were among his destinations, but his most productive pit stop was in Brazil, where he laid the building blocks for the modern submission game.
His combined knowledge, a product of years on the judo mat and in the professional ring, informed a young student of Maeda's in Brazil named Carlos Gracie. A generation later, Gracie's nephew, Rorion, created the Ultimate Fighting Championship, mixing the purity of his Gracie Jiu Jitsu with the over-the-top theatrics of professional wrestling. It was a tribute to his family—and to Maeda.
Wrestling on the Rise in the Land of the Rising Sun
It's in Japan, however, that the connection between pro wrestling and mixed martial arts is starkest. Wrestling legend Antonio Inoki, on the losing side of a promotional war with "Giant" Baba, needed something special to vault ahead of his nemesis. He could never compete in traditional wrestling with Baba, a literal giant who had the backing of American promoters. Instead, Inoki would focus of something different entirely—legitimate martial arts.
He imported Karl Gotch, a 1948 Olympian and legitimate tough guy, to help springboard a newer and more realistic style of wrestling. A product of the legendary Snake Pit in Wigan, England, Gotch trained Inoki in traditional catch wrestling holds and techniques. Inoki and a new generation of wrestling talent learned both how to wrestle for real, and how to incorporate these holds in their predetermined matches.
"It didn't have the histrionics and dramatics, as much as American pro wrestling had, in terms of promos," Barnett said. "But the fighting, if you can call it that, was so intense. I really dug it."
With Inoki leading the way as the "World Martial Arts Champion," including matches with Muhammad Ali and a host of martial arts experts, business boomed. Willie Williams, Everett Eddy and judo gold medalist Willem Ruska helped give Inoki, and by extension pro wrestling, some much-needed credibility.
Proteges like Yoshiaki Fujiwara became very dangerous men indeed, taking on all comers behind closed doors to prove wrestling was the best of all of Japan's diverse martial arts. The next generation, men who had grown up on Inoki's exploits, took the art of wrestling even further towards legitimacy.
"I remember all the stories from the old-school guys at New Japan about when they used to take out ads in the newspaper saying professional wrestling was the strongest of all martial arts," Barnett said. "And karate guys, judo guys would show up at their dojo saying 'we don't believe that. We think that's crap. And we're going to come in and beat you and show you otherwise.' Gotch or Inoki would go Osamu Kido, go wrestle that dude and just tear him apart. They never lost. They beat everybody up who showed up at their gym."
The next step was Pancrase, where Gotch and Fujiwara trained wrestlers like Masakatsu Funaki and Ken Shamrock and brought professional wrestling back to its roots—real competitive wrestling. Today, Barnett carries on the tradition, mixing fighting with traditional wrestling. Starting with his first match, a world title bout with Yuji Nagata, Barnett has made his mark in the world of Japanese wrestling.
"Not only was my first match against Yuji Nagata in front of 50,000 people, I was coming down with the chicken pox at the same time. I went out there and worked almost 12 minutes with that guy. I had only had two days of professional wrestling training in my entire life," Barnett said. "I'm out there taking Exploders on the head and wrist clutch Exploders, throwing Yuji around. I did my thing and I remember at the end of that 12 minutes I felt like I was on fire. A fever was and the lights were on me. It was an amazing experience. Watching the replay and thinking 'man it looks like I broke my neck on that move!' But no, we were all good."
When he meets Daniel Cormier in the finals of Strikeforce's Heavyweight Grand Prix, Barnett will once again look to marry the legitimacy of catch technique with the excitement and theatrics of pro wrestling. The two are poised on the brink of enormous opportunity, and Barnett is hoping to make the most of it.
"With MMA, watching us go out there, it's like a WrestleMania every time," Barnett said. " This is for all the marbles."
Barnett goes toe-to-toe with Olympian Daniel Cormier May 19, 2012, live on Showtime. Jonathan Snowden is the author of Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling. He's a regular contributor to Bleacher Report.
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