Nobuhiko Takada was not so much a prizefighter as a protector of Japan's pro-wrestling tradition, called forth to quiet the intensifying challenge of Gracie jiu-jitsu. Japan's pro-wrestlers were long revered as genuine tough guys, rooted in legitimate martial arts and steeped in a rougher, "realer" grappling mentality.
Challenge matches were certainly nothing new to the realm of puroresu, as Antonio Inoki had brought style-versus-style showdowns back in vogue in the 1970s with his landmark bouts with Muhammad Ali and Olympic judo gold medalist Willem Ruska among others. However, as word of Royce Gracie's early UFC domination spread internationally, the newly mystical Gracie jiu-jitsu seemed on a collision course with Japanese pro-wrestling.
Royce had teased that his older brother Rickson was really the alpha dog of the family, sparking demand for the Paul Bunyan-esque figure of Brazilian vale tudo. Rickson Gracie was introduced to the rest of the world in July 1994, when he ran roughshod over a woefully overmatched tournament field in the Vale Tudo Japan Open 1994. Eager to quickly nip Gracie jiu-jitsu in the bud, Takada, the superstar of shoot-style pro-wrestling organization UWF International, challenged Rickson, only for Gracie to snipe that he didn't fight "fake wrestlers."
Gracie's attack on pro-wrestling meant war. In December 1994, Takada's right-hand man, Yoji Anjo, arrived at Rickson Gracie's academy in Los Angeles to challenge the Brazilian.
"There's no need for Takada-san to go. If it's just Rickson, I'm 200-percent confident I can beat him," Anjo told the Japanese media before he left.
The doors of the academy were locked for the match. When they opened again less than 10 minutes later, Anjo was a battered and bloodied mess after a near-endless stream of mounted punches from Gracie. Word of the beatdown quickly spread, lifting Gracie to mythical status in Japan. Five months later he crossed the Pacific again and destroyed three Japanese fighters en route to winning the Vale Tudo Japan Open 1995. It was now up to Takada to defend Japanese pro-wrestling from absolute domination at the hands of Gracie jiu-jitsu.
Pride was born on Oct. 11, 1997, drawing 37,000 fans to the Tokyo Dome. After an undercard featuring the dubious (Koji Kitao-Nathan Jones), the lawless (Ralph White-Branko Cikatic) and the unforgettably painful (Kimo Leopoldo-Dan Severn,) Takada and Gracie took the ring for their highly anticipated landmark matchup.
It lasted less than five minutes. After Gracie finally tracked down the circling Takada, it was elementary: double-leg slam, full mount, armbar.
Gracie's star swelled in Japan. In the subsequent months, he was in demand for additional high-profile showdowns with other shoot-style stars in Japan. Rings' Akira Maeda was the opponent that fans wanted to take on Gracie. A Maeda-Gracie bout was the expected mega-fight until August 1998, when upstart company Dream Stage Entertainment took control of Pride from founding parent company KRS and promptly announced a rematch between Takada and Gracie for Oct. 11, 1998 -- the one-year anniversary of their first meeting.
Roughly 37,000 fans filled the Tokyo Dome again, and while a better undercard featuring Kazushi Sakuraba-Allan Goes and Igor Vovchanchyn-Gary Goodridge was a tad more inspirational than the Pride 1 bill, the main event was a foregone conclusion. Takada made it nearly 10 minutes, courtesy of an extended amount of body clinching, but was swept, mounted and armbarred again.
Now a decade passed, the clashes between Gracie and Takada, while hardly competitive, crystallized MMA's future in Japan by crushing the mythos of shoot-style pro-wrestling and providing the spectacle and intrigue to propel Pride into a cornerstone of MMA's brief history.