WWE: Brock Lesnar and the 10 Best Shoot-Style Wrestlers Ever
At Extreme Rules, Brock Lesnar absolutely stole the show, bringing an element of realism to his match with John Cena that many WWE fans had never seen before. Mixing legitimate amateur wrestling and mixed martial arts moves with the theatrics of traditional pro wrestling, Lesnar showed how easily you can blur the lines between real and fake.
But Lesnar wasn't doing anything new—this was hardly reinventing the wheel. Japanese stars started this revolution in the 1980s, making their matches progressively more and more realistic. The suplexes had more amplitude. The submission holds actually worked in a competitive environment. The kicks landed a little harder. Then harder still. By the mid-1990s, they were coming at full force.
Eventually, the young guns of this shoot-style revolution took the logical leap into mixed martial arts. Before they left, the very best of them had mastered this new style of wrestling. They moved so smoothly, integrating real moves into their dramatic storytelling, that it was honestly hard to separate what was real and what was fiction.
Of these revolutionaries, these men were the best—the greatest shoot-style workers of all time.
Vader: The former WCW and WWE star was an incredible shoot-style wrestler. Brought in to headline against the UWFi's Nobuhiko Takada in the mid-1990s, Vader added some much-needed energy and flair to a lineup that had been mostly stagnant for several years. His matches with Takada were some of the most dramatic of their time. Though never the most realistic, Vader's complete disregard for his opponent's well being made his matches fun to watch in any style.
Alexander Otsuka: MMA fans might recognize this name. Otsuka was a perennial Pride Fighting Championship jobber. In the wrestling ring, however, he was fantastic. No one threw a better suplex than Otsuka, and his matches on the independent scene in BattleArts were truly works of (brutal) art.
Kazuo Yamazaki: Takada's main foil in the second UWF, Yamazaki went on to midcard success in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Never a dynamic presence in the ring, the understated Yamazaki understood how to put a match together in a way that made sense.
Daisuke Ikeda: There was little Ikeda wouldn't do for our entertainment. Often in front of just a few hundred fans, he would risk permanent brain damage, ever upping the danger quotient in his matches. The Mick Foley of shoot style, he is one of the most underrated wrestlers of the last decade. An Indy artist who never really made it big.
Antonio Inoki: The father of modern mixed martial arts in Japan, Inoki wasn't the smoothest worker in this style. But without his early forays into a more realistic style of wrestling, there wouldn't have been a shoot-style revolution.
10. Illoukhine Mikhail
A legitimate fighter who holds a win over Randy Couture,* Illoukhine was also a remarkable shoot-style wrestler. His matches with the best of the best in Rings stand up today as some of the greatest matches ever in the genre.
9. Naoki Sano
Sano is just a super wrestler, a genius on the mat in diverse styles. He was great in 1989 when he helped launch Jushin Lyger's career as New Japan's top cruiserweight, and he's just as great in the very different world of shoot style. Whether in with Minoru Suzuki in Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi or wrestling superstar Nobuhiko Takada in the UWFi, Sano always delivered.
8. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka
A former contender for the UFC heavyweight title, Kohsaka was also a wrestler with a special talent for making a wrestling match look incredibly real. His match with Kiyoshi Tamura in June of 1998 is the gold standard for realistic work.
In a 30-minute draw, the two did almost nothing to make you doubt you were watching a real contest. These were masters at work.
7. Yoshihisa Yamamoto
Yamamoto has been lost to history, but before Tamura joined Rings from the UWFi, he was the only man in the promotion who could really keep up with a full-speed Volk Han. Perhaps his legacy as a wrestler is haunted by his epic failure in the ring when venturing into real combat in MMA? If so, that's a real shame. He was a wonderful performer.
Watch his match with Han above, from December 1995, and marvel at the complex grappling, the lightning submissions and the flare for the dramatic. A beautiful dance.
6. Nobuhiko Takada
Many shoot-style purists don't care for Takada. Although undoubtedly one of the style's biggest historical stars, he incorporated so much pro style theatrics into his matches, they were often startlingly similar to matches in traditional Japanese wrestling.
But Takada, despite his lack of fluid groundwork, and despite his embarrassing foray into MMA, was a master storyteller and a dynamic ring presence.
5. Akira Maeda
Maeda made shoot style in Japan. Though Takada may have surpassed him as a star, he brought the "cool" factor to the events, drawing tens of thousands of Tokyo's hippest young men to the matches. By the time the style really took off, injuries had slowed Maeda. He couldn't match the youngsters on the mat.
What he could bring to the table was the kind of storytelling and emotional connection with the crowd only possible with a performer they care about with all their hearts. Japanese fans loved Maeda that strongly—and those emotions helped him create classic wrestling art.
4. Yuki Ishikawa
A student of Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Ishikawa kept shoot style alive with his BattleArts promotion. While Kiyoshi Tamura, Volk Han and Kazushi Sakuraba were innovating on the mat, Ishikawa took the style in a different direction. His matches were more bombastic, odes to violence more than grappling masterpieces. His feud with Daisuke Ikeda is one of pro wrestling's hidden gems.
3. Yoshiaki Fujiwara
Fujiwara was Karl Gotch's greatest student. An undercard wrestler for New Japan, Fujiwara was the guy they called on when a traditional martial artist knocked on the dojo's doors looking to prove wrestling was fake. Past his physical prime by the time the shoot-style revolution started, Fujiwara was still able to shine in a style he was born for.
2. Kiyoshi Tamura
Tamura could do it all. He could go hold for hold with Volk Han in a fast-paced masterpiece as easily as he could grind it out in an ultra-realistic mat battle with Tsuyoshi Kohsaka. And beyond the world of professional wrestling, he was a legitimate grappler, holding his own with a prime Frank Shamrock and beating UFC stars like Pat Miletich.
Tamura was so smooth that it was an absolute pleasure to watch him wrestle. We saw him grow as a performer, unlike many others on this list, exclusively in shoot-style matches. A legend.
1. Volk Han
For 10 years, Volk Han was quietly building the resume of a wrestling Hall of Famer. He was the top opponent for Akira Maeda when Rings was first born at the start of the 1990s. A decade later, he was still there, by then competing with the world's best mixed martial artists despite approaching 40 years of age.
No one has ever incorporated real submission technique into a worked match quite like Han. He did it in a way that made sense, didn't stretch the realm of the possible, but was somehow also incredibly exciting. With Han, unlike so many others, ground work wasn't a prelude to a high spot, usually a suplex or a strike. The ground work was the high spot.