Last week two aging warriors resurrected their long forgotten careers. Relics from a bygone era of the martial arts; forgotten heroes of an important but relatively unknown period in the history of mixed martial arts. The names Magomedkhan Gamzatkhanov (better known as Volk Han) and Masakatsu Funaki mean very little to many modern MMA fans. To fans who have followed the sports evolution through the 1990’s, however, they conjure up images of a time when MMA was a very different sport. It is an era that many fighters and fans do not fully understand, but it has none the less played a crucial role in the development of the sport we know today. The match fittingly ended in a draw, but went unfortunately unnoticed by a majority of sports fans.
In Japan there has always been a profound respect for the martial arts. The country has produced many of the most important figures in the history of the combative arts, from pioneers such as Jigoro Kano, “Conde Koma” Mitsuyo Maeda and Masahiko Kimura to modern living legends such as Kazushi Sakuraba. Because of this love of realistic combat sports, the sport of Professional Wrestling found widespread popularity on the island nation, but with a much different style than in North America. The Japanese fans favored a much more technical style, focusing on smooth grappling transitions rather than steel chairs and over the top theatrics. This style bred many champions of pro wrestling who were also extremely talented fighters. The cry soon came for these athletes to prove their skill in matches without predetermined outcomes against skilled martial artists; both domestic and foreign.
Responding to this demand an entirely new genre of sport came to existence. It maintained the rules of pro wrestling including open-hand only strikes to the head, that a restart would occur if a fighter could reach the ropes and the mandatory wearing of pro wrestling boots with shin pads. It also used the ten-count from boxing to determine when a fighter was unable to continue. Fighters would lose points based on the number of times they had been knocked down or forced to grab the ropes to escape a choke or joint lock, and decisions were rendered based on who had lost fewer points instead of objectionable decisions. Though these rules were a far cry from the realistic fighting style of Vale Tudo, it made for extremely exciting matches. Rope escapes allowed fighters to fight a much more aggressive style on the ground, commonly described as “submission before position” rather than the more cautious style we see today where a single submission is the end of a match. This rule also allowed for strikers to escape back to a standing position, making for a smoother flow of action with less slow paced stalemates. The use of boots made securing leg locks much easier and led to many exciting back and forth scrambles, as leg locks are more easily escaped and countered than other more secure positions.
During this time two major promotions came to the forefront of Japanese culture: Pancrase and Fighting Network Rings. Rings was founded by Akira Maeda as a pro wrestling organization in 1991, and had made the change to a MMA promotion without predetermined outcomes by the mid 90’s. Pancrase started out as a legitimate promotion from it’s outset in 1993, and takes its name from the ancient Greek Olympic sport of Pankration. Both sports straddled the line between pro wrestling and combat sport, and accordingly some fans and journalists question whether or not every match was free of outside influence. This isn’t as important, though, as we may never know whether some fighters were made to look better than they were or not: what is important is appreciating the extremely entertaining contests between the great athletes. Athletes such as Volk Han and Masakatsu Funaki.
“Wolf” Han, Master of Sambo
Magomedkhan Gamzatkhanov, better known as Volk Han or “Wolf” Han, was a fan favorite among the Japanese during the mid-to-late 1990’s, during the early stages of the Kakatogi Boom that made MMA a profitable venture in Japan. Operating off of a background in Sambo, the Russian art of submission fighting which focuses mainly on leg locks and throws, Han was already a star as a pro wrestler in Japan long before his time as a competitive fighter. His Sambo was a slightly different take on grappling than the catch wrestling practiced by by Funaki, and his skill and diversity made him a very dangerous opponent in Rings. The Wolf feasted on his opponent’s booted legs using Achilles locks, heel hooks, and calf slicers, but he also brought a well rounded grappling skill set that included a deadly arm bar and a nasty kimura. He also adapted military restraints picked up during his time training in the USSR military and at the Moscow Police Academy, such as a half-hammerlock guillotine choke combination.
His great skill coupled with his extremely aggressive style made him one of the most entertaining and feared grapplers of all time. He enjoyed great success in Rings, winning the Mega-Battle tournament for 1996 and twice being a finalist in ’95 and ’97. This tournament was the predecessor to perhaps the greatest MMA tournaments of all time, the “King of Kings” tournaments of ’99 and ’00, which were won by Dan Henderson and Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira, respectively. Han participated in several dynamic back and forth rivalries in his storied career, including multiple matches with Pride fighter and Pancrase Super Heavyweight champion TK Kohsaka, Rings founder Akira Maeda, and legendary bouts with Takada dojo fighter Kiyoshi Tamura. He also competed for Team Russia in the Mega Battle tournament of 1998, alongside Fedor Emelianenko. The tournament was eventually won by a Dutch team which included Alistair and Valentijn Overeem alongside of Gilbert Yvel.
Han would fade away from the sport in ’01, having gone 8-1 in his previous 9 fights, with the only loss coming to Minotauro Nogueira by decision. His official retirement match would not happen until December 16th of this year, however, in the aforementioned draw with Funaki.
Funaki Masakatsu, the Hybrid Wrestler
And who would make a more fitting opponent for Han’s retirement match than Funaki? Masakatsu Funaki was a product of the prestigious New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo, graduating in the same class as fellow Japanese superstar Minoru Suzuki and WCW Champion Chris Benoit. Funaki would play a pivotal role in MMA history when he and Suzuki founded Pancrase in 1993 and Funaki battled one of his students, Ken Shamrock, in the main event of the first event. A few months later, he would corner Ken at the first UFC event. Funaki was also known for his mastery of leg locks, but evolved more as a striker as the sport shifted from one-dimensional fighters to well rounded athletes.
Funaki’s career in Pancrase could be described as nothing less than epic. During his time there, he defeated 4 former or future UFC Champions, including Ken Shamrock, Frank Shamrock, Bas Rutten and Guy Mezger. During this 38-10 run in Pancrase, he accomplished a feat that no one else could by capturing the title of King of Pancrase not only once, but twice. As his body was falling apart from years of competition in both Pancrase and pro wrestling, it was announced that his retirement match would be against none other than the Brazilian legend Rickson Gracie. In what would be Gracie’s final match as well as the crowning achievement of Gracie’s career, he put Funaki to sleep with rear naked choke after a viscous onslaught of ground and pound left Funaki badly bloody and beaten.
After seven long years of retirement, Funkai was feeling rejuvenated enough to re-enter the world of MMA. He did so against Kazushi Sakuraba in a match between the two greatest Japanese fighters of all time. Sakuraba scored his famous single leg takedown, only to have Funaki explode into a kneebar from guard. Saku managed to escape the hold, though, and countered with a Kimura lock, which coaxed Funaki into submission. His comeback tour seemed ill-fated, as he would lose a quick but exciting slug-fest with Kiyoshi Tamura. Funaki was not satisfied with this, and returned again to face Ikuhisa “The Punk” Minowa in 2008. The match seemed to be a poor one for Funaki, as the younger Minowa was younger, equally strong and specialized in leg locks, Funaki’s greatest strength. The sport had evolved so much that not many had faith that Funaki could beat a modern skilled fighter like Minowa. That didn’t stop Funkai from schooling Minowa in catch wrestling. He caught “The Punk” in a heel hook very early in the first round, and when Minowa escaped and countered with his own heel hook, Funaki applied a toe-hold variation which left Minowa no choice but to submit, or else see every ligament in his knee ripped asunder. Funaki would again retire, but returned to action for Han’s retirement match earlier this month.
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