Wrestling / Universal Wrestling Federation

"It didn't look like they were wrestling; it looked like they were fighting. [...] They were shooting for each other's legs, dumping each other on their backs, and wrenching on each other's limbs with submission holds. Everything they did was technical and precise. I thought it was real - and, in many ways, it was real."
Ken Shamrock recalling the first time he watched an UWF tape

"Pro wrestlers must be strong. [...] They would further develop in the future and would begin, not show-wrestling, but real fights."
Antonio Inoki giving Akira Maeda his first lesson

Universal Wrestling Federation (later called UWF Newborn) was a Japanese Professional Wrestling company founded in 1984. Established by former members of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, UWF was the first promotion in featuring the realistic "shoot-style", and though it featured mainly worked matches, it influence arguably gave birth to the modern Mixed Martial Arts in Japan and abroad.

The first incarnation was created by NJPW executive Hisashi Shinma after a monetary incident involving Antonio Inoki and him, expecting it to become the next promotion to relaunch Inoki's career after a possible ousting from his company. As this never had place, UWF started to operate by itself, and after disposing of Shinma, it gathered all the New Japan wrestlers who were discontent with the old company. The main ones were Yoshiaki Fujiwara and his young apprentices, who desired to take a new and exciting style based in the old real fighting doctrines inherited from Catch Wrestling master Karl Gotch. Under this premise, Akira Maeda and Satoru Sayama become the stars of UWF, until a falling out between them caused the promotion to collapse.

Maeda and the rest of UWF members returned to New Japan, where they formed an invasion stable against the native wrestlers, but their return met with backstage heat. Although Maeda was set to become the next big star, Inoki was not willing to give him his place and, after he shot on Riki Choshu, the UWF staff ended leaving again to continue his shoot-style adventures. The next incarnation, UWF Newborn, got insane amounts of success thanks to its refined real wrestling style and young wrestlers, and it even started to feature shoot fights with some regularity. However, Newborn lasted only two years and broke in various factions with its own ideas about how shoot-style should be done, a circuit nicknamed U-system. Among those were Pancrase, Fighting Network RINGS and UWF International, the latter getting considered the "official" or most successful one and being the detonating behind PRIDE Fighting Championships and the MMA boom in Japan and United States.

These are, in a nutshell, the promotions which composed U-system.

  • Shooto: The first of them was not formed after UWF Newborn, but after the original UWF. Created by Satoru Sayama and originally called "Shin-Kakutōgi" (New Martial Arts), then "Shooting" and finally to "Shooto" to avoid connection with shooting sports, it was the first MMA promotion in the world, thought it was not very known and remained as a cult feud until the peak of PRIDE. Shooto was essentially the Dragon Gate of MMA, featuring fighters from low weight classes and an emphasis in fighting techniques incredibly advanced for the time.
  • UWF International: The biggest promotion after the fall of Newborn and the nearest to a third UWF which the world saw. Short for "Union of Wrestling Forces International"", it was built by Nobuhiko Takada and most of the original UWF staff, though his style was actually a return to the theatrical puroresu, featuring big suplexes and wrestling monsters. Lou Thesz and other wrestling legends helped them for a time. After its folding, it gave birth to a hyper-realistic promotion called Kingdom and finally to PRIDE Fighting Championships.
  • Fighting Network RINGS: A promotion which started as pro wrestling and transitioned very gradually into MMA. It was created by Akira Maeda with the help of martial arts dojos from around the world, so its matches frequently oscillated between beautiful battles by grappling experts and showy brawls by legit fighters who were in turn unaccustomed to pro wrestling. After Maeda's retirement, it took a full transition to MMA and became a showcase for future legends of the sport, before being sucked away by PRIDE and gave birth to MMA promotions like ZST (sometimes called Fighting Network ZST) and HERO's which died and birthed DREAM, though RINGS Holland and Lithuania (as the Lithuania Bushido Federation) stayed in business and is still growing strong and RINGS in Japan was resurrected with RINGS: The Outsider and the brand even came back as Fighting Network RINGS: Battle Genesis: Vol. 9 in 2012 sanctioned by ZST.
  • Pro-Wrestling Fujiwara-Gumi: Yoshiaki Fujiwara’s short-lived personal fed. Originally called "New UWF Fujiwara-gumi," it focused in technical wrestling with a theatrical bit and some shootfights here and there, which later disrupted the promotion into two different directions with Pancrase and Battlarts.
  • Pancrase: The second MMA promotion ever, formed by Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki riding a wave of PWFG shooters who craved real fighting. It retained puroresu's style in spectacle and marketing, sometimes accomplished by punctual worked matches, which gave them a controversial vibe among Western fans of the sport. Nonetheless, although it never grew comparatively more than an indy fed, it was instrumental in shaping MMA as it is nowadays in United States.
  • Fighting Detectives Team Battlarts: The last pieces of PWFG gave birth to Battlarts, a small pro wrestling promotion with a weird flavour which mixed shoot-style with lucha libre and ECW-like craziness. Endowed with a cult fandom, it survived for more than a decade and produced some puroresu stars who are still active, along with some very minor offsprings promotions.
  • Futen: Daisuke Ikeda's offshoot of Battlarts, Futen is a small independent promotion that usually puts on events under the name “BATI-BATI”. They frequently work with Battlarts and feature participation from other promotions including K-DOJO and NOAH among others. They normally run one event a month at their home arena, Lazona Kawasaki Plaza Sol.
  • Kitao Dojo: Also called "Buko Dojo", it was Koji Kitao's attempt to rebuild his reputation as a top fighter after a double cross knockout by Nobuhiko Takada a year earlier in UWFI. Technically it wasn’t really part of the U-system, though Kitao did train with Lou Thesz and Mark Fleming, and appeared in UWFI for a few shows. Ran for only a handful of shows as it didn't have the quality or the star power of the other promotions.
  • Kingdom: Kingdom was formed by many of the top Japanese stars of UWFI after it closed. The in ring style was an even more realistic shoot style designed to look like MMA, complete with Fingerless Gloves, allowance of limited ground and pound and a lot of former UFC fighters in its roster. It did not draw the huge crowds UWFI did in its heyday as with the success of PRIDE, the Japanese fans found the era of shoot-style wrestling was invalid and it went out of business after a year with its founders going on to do better things. A former trainee of the Kingdom dojo, Hidetada Irie, formed a MMA promotion called Kingdom Ehrgeiz, but it remains quite obscure.
  • USWF: Short for "Unified Shoot Wrestling Federation", it was an attempt to popularise the shoot-style in America though it was not really considered part of the U-system. Formed by UWFI alumni Steve Nelson in his hometown of Amarillo, Texas in 1996, when MMA was still NHB, having a hard time getting off the ground, and facing difficulties due to not being recognised as a sport, its reputation of being "human cockfighting", and its almost anything goes ruleset. This organization was one of the most successful local promotions of its time was drawing large crowds of upwards of 4000 fans at its peak with shows limited to Amarillo and West Texas. Like Pancrase, the fights were all real and were held under the normal shootfighting rules, with only open hand strikes, all submissions allowed, as well as kicks and knees permitted, but with a modification being that no shoes were to be wore (Pancrase even used this modification for a while when trying to adapt to the popularity of the MMA style of Shooto and Pride). With the rise of MMA in America, it closed down officially in 2003. It is now remembered as a platform that started the careers of several future legends of the sport and is a small but important part of MMA's history in America.
  • U-STYLE: Kiyoshi Tamura's attempt to revive the shoot style movement. Financed by the MMA company DEEP and its owner Shigeru Saeki, it was seen as a Spiritual Successor to UWFI. It ran for about 2 years with most of its talent coming from Tamura's U-FILE Camp, with veterans of the U-system making appearances here and there.

Currently only Shooto, RINGS, and Pancrase remain as active parts of the U-system, and this concept itself has been pretty much forgotten, but it figures as an immortal part of puroresu and MMA history.

That Other Wiki has more info on UWF.

NOT related to the Universal Wrestling Federation promotion run by Bill Watts in the former NWA Mid-South territory in the 80's, nor to the promotion of the same name run by Herb Abrams in the 90's. It's also not to be confused with Gran Hamada's UWF, which is more popularly referred to as Universal Lucha Libre or abbreviated as FULL for distinction purposes.

Tropes associated with Universal Wrestling Federation and derivates:

  • Ambiguous Situation: Perhaps inevitable giving thaat the UWF's schtick was blurring the lines between work and shoot, but it goes down to some matches in which it isn't clear what in the heaven is happening.
    • The January 16 match between Satoru Sayama and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. It goes more or less as expected, until Sayama starts kicking Fujiwara's leg out and Yoshiaki answers submitting him with an armlock. Sayama is left clutching his arm in pain, a flood of ring crew comes to the ring to check on him, and Fujiwara limps out of the arena looking pissed and not letting the referee raise his hand. It's not known whether it was the planned ending (the bout is labelled as a "death match," whatever it means, in some records) or it turned somehow into a real fight. Anyway, if there was some real heat among Sayama and Fujiwara, it was gone for the time of their next match together in February.
    • The Mega Battle Tournament '92 match between Masaaki Satake and Mitsuya Nagai in RINGS. They start normally, trade some tentative strikes... and then Satake lands something (a camera switch prevents it from being clearly seen on the official video, but it looks like a random palm strike) and Nagai falls down flattened, losing the bout by KO at little more than one minute. It is completely unknown whether it was the planned ending, an accidental KO or a deliberate shoot by Satake, or even if the bout was a shootfight and not a worked match in first place.
    • In 1996, Wrestle Association R's resident karateka Koki Kitahara wrestled 150% Machine from the Golden Cups stable in an UWF-i event. However, after a regular worked match starting, Kitahara attacks Machine brutally and destroys him with kicks, making him literally leave the ring on a stretcher. The thing, if it was a shoot, never seemed to have any consequences, and nobody knows what was the reason behind it.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: Akira Maeda and all the UWF roster during the NJPW invasion.
  • Beat Them at Their Own Game: The UWF members often challenged karatekas, judokas, boxers and wrestlers to gym duels to prove they were superior, and they usually wiped the floor with them. In the second incarnation, they started to celebrate those fights in events, basically creating style vs style bouts. Some of them were worked, while some other did not.
    • This backfired one the UWF International's face when they sent Yoji Anjo to challenge Rickson Gracie. Anjo was a legit wrestler accustomed to shootfights, but the UWF management wasn't well acquainted to Brazilian vale tudo, and Yoji paid the consequences when he stepped forward to face a fighter from a style much better adapted to vale tudo than his. To put it less dramatically, he was pounded and choked out.
  • Boring, but Practical: The philosophy behind the shooters's moveset. The moves they used in their matches were things that you would expect in a stylized MMA match.
  • Cast Full of Pretty Boys: An alluring element to the young crowd (specifically the female one) was the attractiveness of the wrestlers. Nobuhiko Takada was the best example.
  • Cool People Rebel Against Authority: The main thing which made the UWF wrestlers so attractive to the Japanese young people was their bad boy attitude in contrast with the elder, conservative wrestlers from NJPW and AJPW. Teenage crowds loved how the UWF guys carved their own niche in the puroresu world with a wrestling style which was more direct, vicious and easy to master than the ceremonious established one.
  • Cosmopolitan Council: Fighting Network RINGS had one, thanks to its worldwide reach and multiple branches. It featured the representative of each branch: Akira Maeda from Japan, Chris Dolman from Holland, Vladimir Pakojin from Russia, Ramazi Buzariashvili from Georgia, Nikolas Zahariev from Bulgary, Chris Haseman from Australia, Lee Hasdell from England and some unspecified others.
  • Dueling Dojos: Shooto and Pancrase, matching their respectively eclectic and catch wrestling-only based views about MMA. Since Satoru Sayama's departure from the Shooto, the two promotions forbade their fighters to work in each other. It only ended when the MMA boom faded and they needed working agreements.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: As the promotion's theme was not established yet when the Original UWF formed, it featured several wrestlers who don't jive easily with what would later become shoot-style. Comedy wrestlers like Go, hardcore experts like Rusher Kimura and luchadores like Gran Hamada were part of the first generation before leaving for creative differences. Also the standard 3 count pin was still a valid way to win a match though this was used less often and was finally removed after UWF Newborn closed its door.
  • Five Moves of Doom: Due to their common martial arts style, all of the UWF wrestlers had roughly the same moveset, and the matches tended to end via head kick, cross armbar or some leglock variation. Eventually, RINGS would improve it with a much wider variety of technical finishes.
  • Foreign Wrestling Heel: Gary Albright and Big Van Vader fit the classic puroresu trope of the big, burly Western monster.
  • Kayfabe: Despite Japan being a place where people used to believe that pro wrestling was real to a point, its strong martial culture would cause that they probably knew how a real fight looked, so few people would think UWF was totally real fighting (albeit the second incarnation became genuinely convincing and fooled many people). However, the fact its wrestlers professed a realistic fighting style made them look actually prepared for real fighting, so the crowd always had the "but in a real fight, they would have rocked" impression to work around the pro wrestling irreality and believably consider them as tough guys. This shows how disappointing was to them that Takada lost so quickly to Rickson Gracie, as it revealed that the best guy of the UWF could not really back up his wrestling prowess in a real fight.
  • Licensed Game: Virtual Pro Wrestling is nominally a WCW series but the "World Of Universe" sections of the roster are made up of UWF wrestlers. UWF International, Fighting Network RINGS and Pancrase anyway.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg:
    • Shootboxing founder and UWF alumni Caesar Takeshi gets rarely mentioned in articles about the company, because he was not a pro wrestler and never oficially competed in UWF events beyond some shootboxing offer fights. He did train with them and worked in the UWF dojo for a time, however.
    • Hidetaka Aso is a worse example. A wrestling and sambo champion, also Gotch trainee and founder of Submission Arts Wrestling, he was brought to teach in the UWF-i Snakepit, but nowadays is never mentioned as a part of UWF.
    • The kickboxers of UWF-i.
  • My Kung-Fu Is Stronger Than Yours: UWF International members developed a feud with the Gracie family when Rickson Gracie defeated Yoji Anjo and caused the promotion's departure. After Takada's failure in beating him in PRIDE, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighters started to clean house against the pro wrestlers turned fighters during the first events. It took Kazushi Sakuraba to retake the mantle to avenge the company.
  • Non Indicative Name: As Battlarts's Japanese name was "Kakuto Tantei Dan Battlarts," which literally translates (and is always translated as such in the West) as "Fighting Detective Team Battlarts," you would be pardoned for thinking this promotion ran theatrical storylines about detectives and hardboiled guys in fedoras. Actually, a more accurate translation would be "Fighting Investigation Team Battlarts," refering to scientific yuxtapositions of wrestling styles on the ring instead of fighting detectives.
  • One-Hit Kill: Until Funaki and Suzuki created Pancrase, worked shoot matches used to be long and slow in order to maintain the crowd entertained. However, when the two implanted their real matches concept, proved when the first Pancrase event lasted only 28 minutes, the Japanese crowds loved it and coined the word "byosatsu" (秒殺, "instantly finished") to refer this kind of exciting battle. Even so, the two used to carry weaker opponents to avoid a too short fight.
  • Pro Wrestling Is Real: The company's members vowed for it, and eventually succeeded with Pancrase.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Wataru Sakata featured one in RINGS against Dutch kickboxer Willie Peeters, who had defeated him in an spirited shootfight in 1995. He faced him in two pro wrestling matches through the next year until he could fight him in another shoot, in which Sakata could submit him to a facelock - but unfortunately the bout had a Dutch referee who invalidated Sakata's win and gave the decision to Peeters. Finally, an infuriated Wataru had his revenge in 1998, defeating Willie by submission in mere seconds to put an end to the feud.
  • Start My Own: Hisahsi Shinma started the first UWF for Inoki, and Maeda started the second one for him and his pals.
  • Tournament Arc: The UWF-i staff tried to put together an all star tournament and sent letters to all the top wrestlers of the era: Mitsuharu Misawa from AJPW, Shinya Hashimoto from NJPW, Akira Maeda from RINGS, Genichiro Tenryu from WAR and Masakatsu Funaki from Pancrase, but none of them accepted; Funaki was not interested, Tenryu gave in but put an excuse, Maeda countered with an offer of a tournament of his own, and Hashimoto and Misawa talked harshly against the idea. They all probably deducted that the tournament might be a plan to attract them to UWF-i to allow its wrestlers to legit shoot on them and destroy their aura.
  • Unskilled, but Strong: RINGS's star Yoshihisa Yamamoto was known for doing almost no sparring. Most of his training was composed of running, lifting weights and eating the food female fans sent him.
  • Ur-Example: Many puroresu elements, so common nowadays, were actually innovated in the UWF.
    • The clean finishes of the matches were the main characteristic. Given its serious combat sport focus, UWF actively avoided the classic shenanigans of DQ's and interventions which were made to protect the wrestlers's aura from a clear defeat. In fact, it was what moved All Japan Pro Wrestling to adopt the clean finish doctrine which gave birth to the King's Road wrestling style.
    • The modern puroresu attire of underwear tights and cool latex kneeboots were created by the UWF, as opposed to the black tights and wrestling shoes used by strong-style wrestlers (though some shooters, most notably Yoshiaki Fujiwara, still adhered to this clothing).
    • The emphasis on young, attractive wrestlers was also derived from the company.
    • Traditional shoot-style favours barehanded striking, like the famous Pancrase palm strikes, but the modern MMA Fingerless Gloves were first used by Shooto.
  • Versus Title UWFi vs. WAR: Super Summer Wars
  • Weak, but Skilled: Hiromitsu Kanehara never was a top fighter, but he instead was a training maniac (to the point Sakuraba said of him "he trained like a machine") who spent every free hour in the dojo. The result is a career which is pretty impressive, with wins over the feared Valentijn Overeem, Dave Menne and even vale tudo veteran Cacareco Ferreira.
  • Worked Shoot: The matches in UWF progressively tilted towards realism, from regular matches featuring more groundwork and less aerial moves to intense bouts almost indistinguishable from MMA fights. For the second incarnation they were already publicizing themselves as real fighting, which they sometimes actually did in their different style fights. The UWF International was somewhat a step back, as they returned to fantasy elements like tag team matches and big suplexes, but they kept the spirit that you had to be a tough guy to wrestle like that.
  • Wrestler in All of Us: Perhaps natural in a MMA system founded by pro wrestlers, but some cases were particularly spectacular. Jeremy Horn, who was not even a part of the shoot-style circuit, tried a real diving chop on Randy Couture in their match in RINGS.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: The second company was called simply Shinsei UWF (UWF Newborn), with the UWF standing for nothing. Also the UWF International changed the meaning of the acronym from "Universal Wrestling Federation" to "Union of Wrestling Forces".

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