The framework

Last year I put into words one of the ways I view wrestling. The idea was inspired by a conversation with a friend of mine, a linguist who was fascinated by wrestling but as a non-fan did not really understand it. I tried to tell her how wrestling was, at its core, a simulated fight, a dance of sorts between two or more characters, shaped by their own histories, personalities and desires. That what made the story of the match was not necessarily the video packages, in-ring microphone segments or promos (though all of these things can underscore and add to the story) but the physical encounter itself. The wrestlers wrestled as their characters, and at the ideal skill level and understanding of themselves, everything they do within the ring should serve to portray that – every move, every reaction, every mistake and success.

Wrestling as language is not fact, it’s an interpretation of what I saw as a viewer; it’s a framework to view both wrestlers and wrestling matches in. Language is both shared and unique to the individual; how you speak is shaped by where you’ve lived, how your family spoke, and who you speak to on a daily basis in the present. Whether you swear, use formal language or slang, can depend on the context of the situation but also you as an individual, your values and understanding of the world. Similarly, wrestling as a physical endeavor has a vocabulary that is universally understood both by wrestlers and fans, but at the same time it depends on the individual, as well as the situation they find themselves in. Every wrestler should use the vocabulary in a way that tells the audience the story of who they are, through the way that they wrestle.

Within a wrestling match, the chain of reactions and counters to each other conveys to the audience the conflict between the two wrestlers, and the outcome is simply understood as the conclusion of these interactions. At its essence, wrestling just answers the question, “What would happen if these two people fought?” The outcome is important, but it’s only as interesting as how the wrestlers get there.

The stories need not be very complicated, because pro wrestling is typically very simple at its most effective. If there is a connection to the wrestlers, a desire to see whatever comes next for them, then a match doesn’t have to be more than a continuation of that story, of these two athletes and where their careers are headed next; who wins and how they do it. The medium has enough room for so many kinds of stories; from the simple, sports-influenced story-telling to the intricate, emotional that ropes in facets of real life, from pure silliness to serious.

When wrestling is seen as a language, where winning the match is the goal of every communication, moves become words, sequences become sentences, and certain phrases become so repeated they work as catchphrases – instantly recognizable and hopelessly crowd-pleasing. This is not to be understood literally, but more as a way to parse what is happening and what it means. A move on its own is just a move, but just as words in context gain different meanings, so does a move. Wrestling does sometimes get read as ‘text’, but even in academia these interpretations seem solely focused on everything but the physical language. When wrestling fans get inspired enough to analyse their favorite matches and talk about what a move or a sequence means in this particular match, what a character lives through in that moment, they sometimes get accused of reading too much into it. In fact, they are just reading – finding meaning as well as appreciating the aesthetic and the thrill of a good wrestling match.

In fact, I argue that fans ‘read’ wrestling all the time. We just don’t habitually talk about it in these terms, because of various factors. One is wrestling’s reputation as low brow entertainment that contains no deeper meanings, another is the business’ own insistence on protecting itself from wider fan discussion, and the often dismissive attitudes towards fans’ interpretations. But probably the most crucial factor is that we don’t have a culture of talking about wrestling in this manner. Literature has been studied and discussed for centuries, musical theory makes sense of music, and film studies analyse film. But wrestling as physical storytelling? After Roland Barthes’ lovingly analytical essay on wrestling, there’s not been much else.

What a wrestler intends to tell us through their wrestling, and how you and I read it may be three different, equally valid stories, all fascinating in their own right. I think in some aspects, wrestling fan culture has been very stuck on reading things the ”right way”, as intended by the booker and/or wrestlers themselves. We watch shoot interviews and read backstage news to hear how things were planned and meant to happen, trying to piece together whether the story as intended made its way in front of us. But actually, the author died a while ago. Instead, what fascinates me more is how viewers see meaning in these stories, how the stories resonate with us, and how they make us feel.

I am not sure whether my linguistics-minded friend still understands wrestling. But at least now, I have a framework to understand it, and to view wrestling with a more focused eye. It certainly helps that there seem to be a lot of wrestlers who think about their work similarly, trying to embody their character into their every move, to make sure that the text of their work is as coherent and interesting as possible.

In the final section of this essay, I intend to ‘read’ a series of matches; to describe what I see in them in such a way that others may understand why the story told in the physical language resonated with me so much.

The wrestlers

Universal Wrestling Federation or UWF was a promotion that influenced pro wrestling in Japan in general, as well as serving as a huge influence to early MMA. It was a promotion that died three times, brought back twice by the people who became synonymous with its legacy. With each rebirth, UWF was a little bit different. The core of what the promotion stood for, however, remained largely the same.

UWF was pro wrestling that aimed to look realistic, influenced by martial arts and focused on submissions, kicks and strikes. The style became known as shoot style, derived from the term shoot, everything real in pro wrestling.

The original UWF from 1984 to 1986 died ostensibly due to a scandal involving the yakuza and philosophical discord between two of their their biggest stars, Satoru Sayama (Tiger Mask I, Super Tiger) and Akira Maeda, turning into a physical altercation inside the ring. During a match in September of 1985, where plenty of their strikes had landed for real, Maeda kicked Sayama in the groin and was disqualified, suspended and finally fired as result.

Much of the roster left to rejoin New Japan Pro Wrestling.With its biggest stars having left the company or the business altogether in Sayama’s case, UWF closed its doors for the first time.

A hot feud resulted from this migration, where UWF wrestlers were matched up against the best of New Japan’s roster. Things took a quick turn, however, when a shoot kick by Maeda to Riki Choshu got him fired and blacklisted from New Japan.

The second UWF,  Shinsei (translated as ”newborn”, ”nascent” or ”rebirth”) UWF, was started by Maeda in 1988, with himself as president and promoter. However, the second incarnation of UWF did not last beyond a few years. Newborn folded in 1990 due to an economic downturn in Japan, as well as creative differences on whether the company should co-promote with other styles of wrestling, an idea that Maeda did not like due to his strong belief in his own way of doing things.

The third version, UWFi, or UWF International, was born with Nobuhiko Takada and other Newborn wrestlers at the helm, and sought to carry on the legacy of UWF. UWFi would also get involved in a second, record-drawing feud with NJPW in 1995.

Maeda, never much for compromise, went his own way with forming the promotion Fighting Network RINGS. Yoshiaki Fujiwara, a teacher to both men and a legend in his own right, started his own promotion, Fujiwara Gumi.

In terms of rules, UWF at first was very similar to traditional pro wrestling rules, but eventually did away with pinfalls altogether, and around autumn 1988 adopted a whole new rulebook. If a knockout or submission did not end the match, then five knock-downs would result in a TKO. Three rope breaks count as one knockdown.

The most charitable way to describe Akira Maeda would be as uncompromising, steadfast in his beliefs on how pro wrestling should be, and as an incredibly skilled and charismatic competitor. The least charitable way to describe Akira Maeda includes a word that may not be suited for print, even in Australia. He was abrasive, hot-tempered and prideful, and not shy about resorting to violent words or actions when he felt the stab of insult towards himself or towards pro wrestling. Thanks to his background in martial arts and wrestling, Maeda perhaps felt confident in making such threats. The list of people he has made enemies out of is longer than most people’s Christmas card list. There are even stories that he started a delinquent gang in his youth, or worked for the yakuza later on. The character portrait has another, more human side, too: rumors of Maeda being bullied, discriminated against or otherwise looked down upon due to his Korean heritage, throughout his life from childhood to his time in the New Japan dojo. The truth of these stories becomes hard to pinpoint without access to Japanese sources on the matter. They are a part of Maeda’s legacy and reputation, regardless of veracity.

In Newborn, Maeda was the standard to which all other wrestlers wanted to get to. If he was rivaled in popularity by Sayama in the original UWF, in Newborn he stood at the top of the heap, the undeniable top wrestler to beat in the company,. There were other stars among the roster, rising ones like Yamazaki and veterans like Fujiwara, but in terms of kayfabe, Maeda was a cut above the rest. However, not that far behind him in popularity and success was Takada.

Nobuhiko Takada would have been star material in any promotion in the world. He started out in the New Japan dojo, having such fired up matches as a young lion that they became televised, something virtually unheard of for young lion matches at the time. This earned him the nickname ”seishun no esperanza”, the youthful hope. During the original UWF vs NJPW feud one commentator took to calling him the James Dean of UWF, an apt comparison given Takada’s tall stature, handsome looks and popularity with female fans (Maeda, on the other hand, was referred to as Robespierre of UWF –  make of that what you will). Trained by Fujiwara, Takada showed technical prowess as well as powerful offense with stiff kicks. He would have been earmarked for greatness had he stayed in New Japan, such was his push and subsequent popularity during the original UWF vs NJPW feud. His popularity grew in UWFi until his reputation as a wrestler and star aura was significantly hurt by his lack of success in legitimate shoot fights.

Sometimes the conversation on Takada today seems dominated by this downfall, serving as a reminder for wrestlers not to step into real fights at the potential cost of their popularity. However, there is so much good in his catalogue of work before and even after dabbling in MMA. Takada’s overall career arc compasses everything pro wrestling has to offer from the stripped down shoot style of UWF to the outlandish and ridiculous characters he portrayed in HUSTLE. While his reputation as a fighter may have been a work all along, his popularity was undeniable.

Takada was always a less intense personality both in and out of the ring when compared to Maeda. The two came up together in the New Japan dojo, with Maeda serving as somewhat of a mentor to the younger Takada. Their early careers were inevitably linked by the formation of UWF, and the excellent, yet brief tag team run they had in NJPW. In Newborn, they were rivals once more, but the feud was always more about skill than malice. They seem to have been friends throughout the years, although the friendship grew cold after the folding of Newborn, and them starting their own promotions. They shared a philosophy in what pro wrestling should be, and even as they became more divided and eventually went their separate ways, their work over the years helped turn that philosophy into a popular and influential style that would be discussed and referenced for decades after Newborn folded.

The matches

In this essay I will focus on three matches between Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada in Newborn UWF, two taking place in 1988 and one in 1989. These weren’t the first matches between the two athletes, nor were they last ones, but they very much work together as a trilogy of bouts. They form a coherent story about the two wrestlers through the physical performance.

Akira Maeda def. Nobuhiko Takada
UWF Starting Over
June 11, 1988
Nakajima Sports Center

The first match took place in June of 1988 (before the five knockdown rule), at the second event for Newborn UWF, held in Sapporo. The match starts off with a kind of theme that continues throughout; Maeda goes for aggressive strikes and kicks, and really the best Takada can do it duck and try to avoid them the best he can. His brief takedown into a headlock yields him no results, Maeda rolling to pin his shoulders, and on the mat Maeda is once again superior, slowly trying to maneuver Takada into a hold. In a mirror image of what happens moments before, Takada manages to roll Maeda’s shoulders into the mat, but Maeda is already in the ropes, forcing a break. Takada kicks him multiple times in evident frustration.

When Maeda eventually applies the armbreaker successfully, the once-quiet audience gasps. Takada is in trouble, and everybody knows it. Takada struggles to the ropes, and for a moment, cowers near the corner. Maeda goes after him, but Takada manages to trip him mid-kick. Takada goes for another kick, but Maeda still manages to get one over on him with a leg whip and grounding him into an ashi-gatame This is the pattern for Takada – flashes of victory are in sight, but they are so brief, one barely notices them.

About fifteen minutes into the match something finally bubbles over in Takada, after numerous fruitless attempts at applying any truly dangerous holds or getting in enough kicks or strikes to be effective. He attacks Maeda with a new sense of energy and viciousness. He is annoyed and angry, maybe at himself. The audience can surely sense it. How frustrated would you be if you were brilliant, but still not brilliant enough? Maeda is down for the count of five, but gets up. Takada gets him into a knee bar, but somehow Maeda gets out of it, and into a deep, tight single leg Boston crab hold. Takada groans with pain.

Finally, a turn happens. Takada manages to apply a knee bar that torques the joint to such an extent that Maeda’s typically cool exterior cracks completely. His agony is clear on his face. Here, Takada does not hesitate. He kicks the knee, works the hold deeper, applies it time and time again, desperate rope break after rope break. Maeda gets on his feet, but staggers. This is the moment. Inevitably, the crowd is with him, even as Maeda wriggles out of a less tightly applied knee bar and puts Takada into one of his own. Takada’s moment came once again, more potent than last time certainly, but it passed almost as quickly as all the times prior.

It’s easy to see his weaknesses, when you pay close enough attention, and this is the type of wrestling that demands that you do. He’s been brought so low by the pain Maeda has put him through, the physical toll of the long fight and the overall frustration of it, that when momentum builds and he gets something going, he forgets himself and leaves that crucial opening. Yet each time he does it, the crowd paradoxically has more faith in him keeping that momentum.

Towards the end, Takada gets another big moment. He flies wildly at Maeda, bringing with him a flurry of kicks and strikes. It is a little unfocused at times, because he is tired and worn out by the fight, but it also gets results. Maeda is down for a brief moment, and looks shaken, in pain. Maybe this time, Takada can keep this going. We all believe he can. Even when Maeda delivers a bridging German, Takada transitions it into an armbar attempt. Things have clicked for him, somehow, during this grueling fight, and now he has an answer for Maeda.

But in this intense spam of offence, a heel kick does not find its mark on Maeda, and Maeda grabs the leg instead, transitioning into another German, and then a half-nelson sleeper that makes Takada tap, nearly instantly. It’s a shocking finish, and all the more devastating to Takada because of it.

Nobuhiko Takada defeats Akira Maeda by TKO
UWF Fighting Network Nagoya
November 10, 1988
Tsuyuhashi Sports Center

The next singles match they have is in November of that same year, in Nagoya. The match starts out electric. Takada nearly gets nailed with a boot to the head, and every dodge, every hit gets a reaction out of the crowd. They especially react to Takada’s moves. Takada himself seems to be a bit more aggressive in this encounter, but in the early goings it does not wield him much results. Maeda is still largely in control.

There are moments here that signal a chance, maybe something in Takada, but also very much in the way he is being cheered by the audience. A little bit of new-found confidence in his abilities, perhaps, or just a sense of calm. But then, there are also moments that indicate he still hasn’t overcome his weaknesses of not being focused enough, not allowing for any cracks in his work, any slip ups. In one particular illustrative instance, he has a knee bar attempted on Maeda, but Maeda transitions and is soon on his knees, then standing up. As opposed to wrenching on the hold, locking it in tighter, Takada moves to defend for any kicks or strikes Maeda might be able to hit when towering over him. Maeda does not strike. Instead, he gets up, walks out of the hold, and the moment passes. Takada bested once again, with no effort at all.

From this moment on the match enters its final half, where the new five knockdown system comes into play more significantly than before. Maeda goes after Takada, who tries to fight back but ends up slumped down onto the mat, down for the first time. He gets back up but Maeda soon enough takes him down again, this time trying to lock in an armbar. The crowd gets behind Takada, willing him to get to the ropes, even if a rope break counts towards a potential loss. Maeda stops kidding around, and Takada suffers two subsequent knockdowns, until he finally gets one vicious kick fired at Maeda, resulting in Maeda’s first down.

Takada attempts an armbreaker but Maeda manages to move into a kneebar, and force Takada into a rope break, which now counts towards his total of downs. He is four deep, and five means loss. The end seems very near, though he was on top mere moments ago. But, miraculously perhaps, he gets Maeda down with a combination of kicks and slaps to the head. He even manages a sleeper hold, forcing Maeda into his first rope break of the match. Maeda applies a sleeper of his own, and Takada somehow wriggles out of it, to gasps from the crowd. Now Takada has it all: focus, attention to detail, technique, confidence. The crowd is rightly in awe of him. Perhaps, this time his weaknesses won’t be his downfall, he can overcome them and claim victory. He forces Maeda to use up his two allotted rope breaks, until the third one counts as a down. The score is now even.

The final moments are a frenzy of strikes, and it’s a small moment, a small stumble, that ends up being the defining moment of the match. Maeda is a little loopy from Takada’s latest kick, and his step falters. He goes down on the mat, briefly, and rushes to get back up, but the ref calls it as a down. Takada was finally won.

The triumph becomes sweeter by its rareness, and because the crowd has willed Takada to his full potential. He did not fall to his weaknesses, his lack of focus or the gaps in his technique. He was brilliant, and more importantly, he was finally brilliant enough to beat Maeda, his strongest rival.

Akira Maeda def. Nobuhiko Takada
UWF Dynamism
January 10, 1989
Nippon Budokan

The following year they meet again on January 10th in the Nippon Budokan. The match starts out decidedly hesitant, neither man wanting to make a mistake early: Maeda knowing now that Takada, at his best, can beat him after all and Takada understanding his own weaknesses better. Takada manages to get Maeda onto the mat, but as he tries to find a hold, any submission to truly get Maeda down, he fails to find one. Maeda has himself protected. When they both stand up again, Takada goes for a kick, which Maeda easily avoids.

Action begins to pick up. Takada fires off a series of kicks, but Maeda catches his leg and trips him towards the ropes, now in turn kicking Takada as he’s down. Instead of being rattled by this, Takada gets up, manages to avoid a kick, and charges at Maeda to grab him into a hold. The crowd is in awe, even if Maeda eventually slips away from him. Takada is showing the tenacity and fight that brought him the victory last time.

Ten minutes into the fight, Maeda applies a wristlock at an angle the camera doesn’t even catch until Takada groans in agony, and is forced to use his first rope break. However, not very long after, he catches Maeda in a predicament; a viciously applied armbar that Maeda fails to get out of without using his own rope break. It seems to signal a change; the two men have never been more aware of each other’s tactics, strengths and weaknesses as they are now, and thus on an even playing field, Takada confident after his victory and Maeda slightly humbled by his own loss.

But Takada still leaves himself too open, and has to use up his last rope break when Maeda grabs him a kneebar. The momentum suddenly shifts wildly. Maeda kicks him in the head, so Takada goes down, and barely gets up by the count of nine. Maeda gets him in a sleeper, causing another rope break that now counts towards Takada’s count of knockdowns. Even as Takada manages to somewhat even the score, Maeda has him pick up two more knockdowns. A vicious back suplex has both of them down for the count – Maeda’s knockdown score standing at three, while Takada is at a dangerous four.

Takada successfully gets Maeda down into a sleeper, but just as the crowd gets swept up in the moment, Maeda has struggled out of it and is working on Takada’s leg and ankle. Takada nearly transitions into a successful armbar, but Maeda does not succumb to it. In a matter of seconds, Maeda has transitioned seamlessly into a single leg Boston crab, eventually grabbing the other leg as well and wrenching back on it, sitting deep into it. Takada hesitates, but after around ten seconds in the agonizing hold, he taps the mat. Maeda has won.

Takada is great enough to bring Maeda to his absolute limit, but it just never seems to be enough to best him. Takada can bring all his aggression, all his unrelenting striking, his stiffest kicks, his best cross armbreaker but at some most crucial moment he resorts to a move that leaves an opening for Maeda to quickly capitalize on. There’s a lot of similarities between these men, but their differences emerge when they are truly tested. Maeda may be the hotheaded one backstage (and, on occasion, in the ring) but he is rarely rattled by what Takada throws at him. Takada, on the other hand, is always rattled. Sometimes it works to his advantage, but more often it does not – what could become his strength inevitably turns into a weakness.

Newborn UWF was very much Maeda’s realm, both in kayfabe and in reality. He was the sun everybody else circled. As I watched these matches, however, Maeda’s skill and technical ability became secondary to the tenacity that Takada showed, and the crowd got more and more invested in him because of it. The point is not that he succumbs to his own weaknesses, but that he at times can not fall into them. That Maeda can do his best, persevere and when he does just that, victory is possible for him, even against his most technically superior opponent. He will carry his weaknesses, just as we all do, but they do not always have to impede him.

Another level to all of this is simple: the relationship between the two men.

The promotion saw its fair share of matches that seemed to have an added layer of viciousness, perhaps an inkling of the rumored backstage dysfunction (for an example of what a particularly vicious UWF match looked like, have a look at Tatsuo Nakano vs Masakatsu Funaki in 1989), but while there were slaps and flashes of ruthlessness, the fights between Maeda and Takada never had that extra layer of violence to them. They seemed to respect each other, first and foremost, and even after bitter losses, they shook each other’s hands and bowed to one another, Takada always taking the deeper bow to his senior.

The philosophy of shoot style is to make the audience believe that the fight is real, so that they invest themselves in it, no matter what happens. The physical language is all the wrestlers have to convey the story, but it’s also all they really need. Takada is a man shaped by his weaknesses, but the audience loves him despite that. Maeda is a man shaped by his strengths, and the fans admire him for it. When they meet in the ring, the drama is in all of their movements, all of their decisions and the outcomes of those decisions.

What is the story here? Let’s watch, and see as it plays out.