Walking the Line Part 2: Glory Days
Aside from the occasional acquisition of talent of the higher profile members of the roster, the UFC tends to try and distance itself from world of Pro Wrestling and its antics. As we’ve been discussing in this series though, it’s not found a way to completely distance itself from the world of entertainment.
In America, some of the earliest recordings of MMA (before that was a term) typically included a wrestler of some fashion vs. a boxer – only natural as they’re the two most prominent western martial arts – the most famous example probably being “Judo” Gene LeBell vs. Milo Savage. (LeBell, despite his nickname, was also a Professional Wrestler and had experience in Catch-as-catch-can Wrestling as well as Judo.) Similarly, in Japan, the popularity of the sport of Mixed Martial Arts can be traced back to the shoot style Pro organisations of UWFi and Fighting Network Rings. It was the star of one of these organisations, Nobuhiko Takada of UWFi, that main evented the founding show of Pride, which would become Japan’s largest MMA organisation.
The final match of the first Pride Fighting Championships’ show was a bout between Takada and the champion of the world famous Gracie family, Rickson Gracie. Despite Takada’s losses in both the initial clash and rematch, Pride FC established itself as a success and began running regular shows.
Perhaps because a large stable of the Japanese fighters were Professional Wrestlers, or perhaps because it was a template that the Japanese audience simply enjoyed, Pride stuck much closer to the entertainment first format established over the years in the squared circle. Weight classes were more of a suggestion than anything, large characters were encouraged and promoted more than perhaps the skilled fighters, drug tests didn’t exist, and more than a handful of matches looked suspicious – they had learned a lot about creating a watchable product.
That’s not what we’re going to focus on now. We’re here to talk about when walkouts used to be entrances. Pride understood pomp and pageantry, and no better was it displayed than in its top star, Kazushi Sakuraba.
Sakuraba was a professional wrestler produced at the UWFi dojo. Inspired by the original Tiger Mask to pursue professional wrestling, he would eventually come to be known for his entertaining fighting style, his defeat of multiple members of the Gracie Family, and his showmanship.
Because of the nature of weekly shows, wrestling replies a lot upon repetition and routine. Aside from the simple answer that this makes producing a regular television product easier, as they don’t have to reliably come up with entirely new material each and every episode, it also breeds familiarity. People enjoy the familiar. Repetition has had its hooks in us since birth. Children are the best examples of this – whether it is games of peek-a-boo or the incredibly formulaic shows produced for them. But this does not mean adults are immune to it either. Just go to the cinema and see how many sequels, reboots, and crossovers are big at the box office compared to new and original ideas.
It’s not that we as a people dislike the unfamiliar completely, but often it has to be grounded or tied to something that we already know or understand for it to be comfortable.
Sakuraba utilised entrance music. No matter the opponent the music remained the same. His attire and colour scheme was uniform as well – always prominently featuring orange and white. These were the familiar things that tied us to his person. The unfamiliar was always, well, unique.
Unlike in the world of professional wrestling, Pride was not doing a new show every week, nor was it producing PPVs at the end of each month – even at its most successful. This, whether it was a deliberate not, created the feel that every show was a big show. As wrestling fans, we know that there are some shows that are just … well, just that, shows. Not every night is Wrestlemania. But when those nights do roll around, the anticipation is not just for the matches alone, but the show as a production. A Sakuraba fight was like this.
We knew a few things about a Sakuraba entrance before it happened: he was going to enter to the same music, he was prominently going to be wearing orange, and he was more than likely going to be in a costume and mask. Aside from that we awaited with bated breath to see what happened.
It’s something that’s been lost in modern mixed martial arts. There are the odd occasions in which someone – Jason “Mayhem” Miller as an example – goes that extra mile to put on a show, but those are few and far between. Although I sang the praises of how interesting and personal a Walkout can be, there’s truly nothing that beats an Entrance. Perhaps it simply is too gimmicky to be accepted by a sports audience. Perhaps it’s just a little too Pro Wrestling.