Editor’s Note from Rich: This article was written and submitted to us by Mark Pickering, who provides English language commentary for Pro Wrestling NOAH on Wrestle Universe. Voices of Wrestling has no previous or existing business relationship with Pro Wrestling NOAH, but I found Mark’s analysis compelling and believe our readers will enjoy the wide collection of perspectives from around the world of wrestling.
Masakatsu Funaki, 52, is a former Triple Crown champion and a legend in both pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. Funaki is aiming to capture his first championship in Pro Wrestling NOAH this Saturday after succumbing to Kenoh in his last title tilt at the Nippon Budokan last year.
I spoke to some of Funaki’s rivals and acquaintances to learn more about their first-hand experience of training and fighting against the M’s alliance member and to talk about his legacy as an icon of the combat sports world.
Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Bas Rutten faced Funaki on two occasions in Pancrase.
Funaki handed the Dutch great his first career loss in 1994, submitting El Guapo with a toe hold, before Rutten avenged that defeat by stopping his rival in 1996 with a merciless knee to the face.
“The first time I heard about Funaki was September 1, 1993 because I was fighting on the same Pancrase card. Funaki lost to Ken Shamrock but everyone was talking to me about Funaki and were telling me how good he was. I hadn’t seen footage of him before, but I watched his fight (because my fight was second and he was in the main event) which was cool,” said Rutten, who had a handful of pro wrestling matches in Japan in the early 2000s.
“In our first fight, Funaki simply got me. I didn’t know what a toe hold was, I always laugh when people go ‘toe hold’, how do you hold a toe? I saw somebody break his shin bone with a toe hold, it was John Lober who got caught by Ryushi Yanagisawa in Pancrase with a toe hold. It’s a crazy move,” said the three-time King of Pancrase.
“I didn’t know what the move was but afterward I knew it hurt! I tapped out. The second time I fought Funaki I was a completely different animal, my game plan was to wait for more than 15 minutes because Funaki had never fought longer than that at that stage of his career. There was an announcement after every 5 minutes of how long had gone and after 15 minutes was when I really started putting pressure on him. He made a move when I was sat on my knees around the 12-minute mark and he kicked me in the face which was an illegal move and I blocked the kick. I immediately got up and went in for the kill. Also, before our second fight, it was very out of character but he made a throat-slitting gesture with his thumb right in front of me in the ring. I had no clue why he did that. I think it was for the audience but it really pissed me off so I told my manager ‘I’m going to kill this dude now’. My manager said stay calm, I said I will but when I can do something I will. The moment presented itself after I dropped him the first time, I just kept going but he was so freaking amazing, every time he got back up and the audience started chanting for him louder and louder. I was getting really tired and it took everything I had to win. I heard he broke both cheekbones and his nose and my knees and palms literally had blue bruises on them from hitting him so hard. For what I believe, for what people say, that was my best fight in Pancrase but also it was Funaki’s best fight too. They made a whole comic out of it actually.”
Rutten sees Funaki as one of the greatest fighters Japan has ever produced.
“I am happy if people think I’m in the top 1000 fighters of all time, maybe some think the top 100, but for Funaki, he is such a legend, he was one of the first MMA stars coming from Japan, he deserves to be in the top 100 for sure. He’s right up there with (Kazushi) Sakuraba and the best fighters Japan has had. It was the wild wild west in those times. This was before the UFC. There was Shooto, RINGS and then Pancrase started. For me Funaki is one of the greatest, I’d put him in the top 100, I’d consider myself hopefully to be in the top 1000 because we have 7 billion people on the planet so I’m happy to be in the top 1000!”
Prior to switching to MMA and being a co-founder of Pancrase, Funaki honed his pro wrestling skills in Europe in the late 80s.
Famed British wrestler William Regal first met Funaki when the then Japanese starlet was on his UK excursion alongside the future Jushin Thunder Liger in 1989.
“I was 20 and had just arrived back in the UK after spending a month Wresting in South Africa,” said Regal.
“I already knew Liger when we both met in November 1986 and wrestled on the same shows for All Star Promotions in the UK for many months,” said four-time WCW Television Champion Regal.
“Now Liger had come back and Funaki had been sent with him. I wasn’t the 18-year-old Liger had known on his first visit but a 20-year-old with a lot more experience and, because of the training (dojo training) that I’d learnt mostly from Liger two years previously, I was a very well-conditioned heavyweight. The three of us met at a meeting place in Birkenhead, England where All Star was based and we traveled to a show that day with promoter Brian Dixon and trained together in their Young Lion style. They both stayed for I think it was for two to three months and I was on shows and traveled with them to and from shows and trained with them four to six nights a week. I never wrestled either of them. Their role was was to main event either in singles or as a tag team against Mark Rocco, Fit Finlay, Skull Murphy plus a few tag teams against assorted opponents.”
Regal has not seen Funaki in person since 1989 but still keeps in regular contact with Funaki through social media.
“Apart from the few months of doing shows and training in the UK with Funaki in ’89, we’ve never met since. We’ve somehow managed to keep in touch by telling mutual friends to say hello to each other through the years and because of Paul (Lazenby) telling me yearly when Funaki’s birthday is we have sent each other the odd Twitter message or DM which is how I stay in touch with all my Japanese friends. I used to see the odd Japanese magazine and hear the odd story about Funaki but I was a full-time wrestler so Funaki was my old friend who did well to me, not someone who I actually followed the career of as, and I know this is different now, but we were just pros who were friends for a short time and pros from the ’80s weren’t fans of each other as much because we didn’t have the ways people do now of watching film.”
The first thing that struck Regal about Funaki was his presence.
“I do remember the first day we met and I was in awe of his presence as he looked like a movie star. Watching him wrestle that first night (and every night for the next few months) was great as he was an incredibly talented and the British fans loved both Funaki and Liger. My few months with them were great times, they were young hard-working professionals with the same mindset and skill set of being proper professional wrestlers traveling and training together. I obviously spent a lot of time with Liger with my three years in NJPW in the mid 90’s and times in WCW but have never crossed paths with Funaki but we have said the next time I go to Japan the three of us are going to try to meet up.”
After negotiating the transition from pro wrestling to MMA with ease, Funaki reached stardom in Pancrase as the company’s King of Pancrase champion.
Funaki faced Paul Lazenby in 1997 at Pancrase Alive 3 and submitted the Canadian with a top wristlock.
“I was first introduced to the shoot world when I received VHS tapes from pro wrestler Dr. Luther whose one of my oldest friends in wrestling,” said Lazenby, a national MMA and Muay Thai champion. “He became very successful in Japan and started bringing back Japanese wrestling tapes which included UWFi, RINGS and a little bit of Pancrase in 1993.”
“I’d never seen anything like it before. This was before the UFC and I was just enthralled right away. I asked for more tapes and magazines and it was in magazines that I first saw Funaki,” said Lazenby. “His presence just came right off the magazine page and the more I learnt about him the more fascinated I was with him. I found a place in Toronto in the mid-90s that rented Pancrase tapes so I’d ride a bus for three hours each way to get more footage and then I’d copy them at home.”
While admiring the Hybrid Wrestler from afar, Lazenby never expected to share a ring with Funaki, “Funaki was a standout but at that point even making it to Japan, which was a goal of mine, seemed very slim and I was yet to start fighting. To one day face Funaki was a ridiculous concept that never crossed my mind.”
Funaki debuted in pro wrestling at 15 as a prodigy who wowed his instructors with his grappling ability and by how quickly he picked up new skills.
“I wasn’t aware of Funaki’s pro wrestling background back then. When I eventually connected with Pancrase my manager told me not to tell them that I was a pro wrestler because they don’t like pro wrestling and they’ll send you home if they find out,” said Lazenby. “It turned out that it was the exact opposite. When I went to the dojo to train in Japan they were all watching Inoki tapes and ECW tapes. It took me a while, as this was still early in the time of internet, to realize that Funaki started his career as a New Japan guy and that Pancrase had its roots in pro wrestling.”
When talking about their fight, Lazenby offered an honest assessment of his merits in facing Funaki.
“I had no business being in the ring with Funaki at all,” said the acclaimed author who is now an actor and stuntman. “I lied my way into Pancrase. My first fight in any combat sport at any level was in Pancrase against Ryushi Yanagisawa in February 1997. I had no gumshield, no groin cup and no idea what I was doing. I thought I was going to be one and done there but I got the call to train at the Pancrase dojo and to fight Funaki.”
Fighting Funaki, a man who always prides himself on being in impeccable condition, as he is even in 2022, can be a nerve-wracking prospect.
“I was absolutely terrified when I faced Funaki,” said Lazenby. “I was freaking out backstage. It was surreal for me. That was the night I met Bas Rutten. I was in the room with Semmy Schilt and Bas and they were on the undercard and I was in the main event. I came close to, if not winning, but putting Funaki in some danger. My only advantage over him was as far as raw strength was concerned. I attacked him from the get-go, mainly out of fear and I caught him with an uppercut as hard as I could, I thought his eyes glazed over but I wasn’t mature enough in the fight game to follow up. What impressed me was that he was a complete fighter and it was almost impossible to take him mentally out of his game. His technique was so smooth and he always had three counter moves lined up.”
“He was so composed. He had all the pieces to put together a legendary fighter,” said Lazenby.
Lazenby and Funaki, along with Rutten, have remained friends to this day.
“After our fight, I didn’t speak again to Funaki until 2000 when I was helping Bas with a seminar and we all got together to record a birthday message for Funaki. Somebody in Japan reached out to me and said that Funaki spotted me in this birthday message and then with Twitter took off I was able to speak online to the likes of Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. In 2016 I started doing yearly trips to watch pro wrestling in Japan. I was reconnecting with Pancrase fighters and in late 2019 and early 2020 I wanted to go to Osaka to visit Funaki. I had dinner with him and his family and we had a fantastic time. 23 years later he still remembered me and be brought up the uppercut I caught him with. He said ‘Paul you scared me with that shot’. He said he changed his game plan because of that. That’s a badge of honor, I shook up the champ a little bit in my second pro fight,” said the Pancrase veteran.
When asked about Funaki’s MMA legacy, Lazenby said: “I always think Funaki will be one of the most underrated foundation builders in the MMA world. Funaki had the majority of his impact in Japan. He had little exposure as an MMA fighter outside of Japan but without him leading the charge, with Suzuki, and making fighting sports so entertaining the sport would not be the same. They were a crucial bridge between pro wrestling and mixed martial arts.”
Lazenby also shared his thoughts on Saturday’s GHC National Championship showdown and Funaki’s potential keys to victory against Kenoh.
“Funaki is an excellent striker, when Funaki strikes you it’s like getting chopped with a sword. His striking is very precise and very damaging. I don’t know if he wants to go strike for strike with Kenoh though. Funaki might want to make it a mat battle and I’m sure his grappling still holds up amongst the best even in 2022. That could be where his advantage is as the challenger. Funaki will look for the takedown and then for whatever submission presents itself, just as he did to me. He might want to do it quickly as well because Kenoh is younger and is so dangerous.”
Funaki faces Kenoh this Saturday at Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Higher Ground 2022. The show airs live on Saturday, January 22 at 17.30 Japan time with English commentary provided on Wrestle Universe.