Yoshiaki Fujiwara is a name familiar to fans who have explored the deep, rich history of puroresu.

However, Yoshiaki Fujiwara’s career and resume remain relatively unknown for most people. Fujiwara started his career in 1972 with NJPW and has remained active through five decades, including the current year of 2023. Through those five decades, Fujiwara has left an indelible mark on the industry, becoming a key player for NJPW in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before splitting off with several rebellious figures in 1984 who started the UWF and shoot-style movement, which changed how professional wrestling operated in Japan through the rest of the decade and into the 1990s. At one point during that stretch, Fujiwara held an important position in the New Japan dojo and oversaw the training of several future stars, including Hall of Famers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. Even after the UWF movement became overshadowed by Japanese MMA, Fujiwara would continue to be a frequent player into the 2000s and even 2010s. Fujiwara could work several styles, including shoot-style and traditional “strong-style,” and would even find a niche as a comedy and deathmatch wrestler in his later years. Fujiwara also ran his Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi (PWFG) promotion for five years, from 1991-1996.

This will be the seventh year Fujiwara is on the ballot in the Japan category, and it may be time someone makes a strong case for his candidacy. I will approach Fujiwara’s candidacy by looking at the criteria listed on every Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame ballot and analyzing how Fujiwara qualifies under each one.

Longevity

Yoshiaki Fujiwara has been wrestling for five decades straight, with very few breaks in between, as one would expect during such a long career. He has been an active wrestler for 50 years, only skipping one year (1999) entirely. The list of promotions he has wrestled for throughout that timeframe is probably too long to list, but key ones include NJPW, UWF (1984-1985), UWF (1988-1990), PWFG, AJPW, WAR, FMW, BattlArts, Zero-1, DDT, and NOAH. By any reasonable measurement, Fujiwara meets this criterion easily, and then some. One could even make the argument that Fujiwara is the best example of this category, at least in terms of other Japanese wrestlers. Tatsumi Fujinami, who was Fujiwara’s opponent in his debut match in 1972, is another example.

Positive Influence/Historical Significance

This is another category that Yoshiaki Fujiwara has little problem with. However, admittedly, this point of view requires familiarity with “shoot-style” and the UWF movement, and the reverberations still felt from that development today. Before going into too much detail, I should note that I use the phrase “UWF movement” to cover the wide-ranging development in Japanese professional wrestling and combat sports, which started with the foundation of the first UWF in 1984-1985 and continued into the 2000s with major players like PRIDE, and smaller off-shoots like U-Style or Fu-Ten. It would be impossible to cover everything here, especially for this article, but you could trace the beginnings of almost the entire swath of Kakutogi (Japanese term for “fighting arts”) in Japan to the foundation of the first UWF, which would eventually lead to things like splinter promotions from the collapse of the second UWF in 1990, including Fujiwara’s PWFG, UWFi, RINGS, and even shootfighting promotions like Pancrase and K-1. Shooto, which Satoru Sayama (the first Tiger Mask) founded in 1985 after the first UWF folded, was the first modern MMA organization in Japan.

With all that said, let’s dive into Fujiwara’s influence in Japan with these basics explained and in mind.

Yoshiaki Fujiwara left NJPW in 1984 along with Satoru Sayama, Akira Maeda, Nobuhiko Takada, Osamu Kido, Kazuo Yamazaki, and several others after a scandal involving Antonio Inoki’s business affairs. The details aren’t entirely important for our purposes, but the group established the first UWF, which wasn’t strictly a shoot-style promotion at first.

Eventually, UWF adopted the focus on realism and legitimate moves and holds that shoot-style would become known for. Yoshiaki Fujiwara played a significant role in this turn, and in 1984, he had a series of matches with Satoru Sayama (wrestling under the moniker “Super Tiger”) that were revolutionary for the time. The two had incredibly realistic matches, which captivated a small, but hardcore audience in Tokyo. Throughout 1985, UWF would continue to be a trendsetter in Japan and establish shoot-style as a credible stylistic alternative to NJPW and AJPW. Fujiwara, along with Sayama and Maeda, were the primary figures in the early years of UWF. Due to disagreements between Sayama and Maeda, UWF would fold later in 1985, but Yoshiaki Fujiwara walked back to NJPW with more credibility and a hardcore fan base under his belt.

From 1986-1988, Fujiwara became a key player in NJPW and took up a senior role in the NJPW Noge dojo, where he oversaw the training of several NJPW young lions, including Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. Both were considered to be possible future stars and under Fujiwara’s tutelage, they developed into very proficient technical wrestlers. During this period, Antonio Inoki also capitalized on the popularity of the UWF stars and oversaw an invasion angle that pitted Team UWF against NJPW over the next two years. Fujiwara often found himself involved in the key matches, and his opponents ranged from Antonio Inoki to Riki Choshu. The UWF fanbase ensured that NJPW kept drawing huge numbers to their big events, and the clash between UWF’s top guys and NJPW’s elite made for incredible atmospheres. Eventually, the egos involved couldn’t keep working with each other forever, and the original UWF group split off again in 1988 to establish the second UWF. Fujiwara followed them a year later with a young Suzuki and Funaki in tow.

At this point, Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada were incredibly popular and were the top two guys in the new UWF. While the new promotion had no problem constantly selling out venues in its early months, the arrival of Fujiwara was like a second wind in a lot of aspects. Fujiwara became a credible opponent for the likes of Maeda, Takada, and Yamazaki. The introduction of Suzuki and Funaki added more depth to the new UWF’s undercards and kept eyes on the product. With new faces, UWF was able to avoid burning itself out and kept momentum going into 1990 before more in-fighting forced UWF to close its doors again.

While this may have seemed like a massive loss for the UWF movement at the time, the second UWF’s collapse was a blessing in disguise. The collapse planted the seeds for a thriving shoot-style and Kakutogi scene in the 1990s, and one of these seeds was Fujiwara’s promotion, PWFG.

Suzuki and Funaki followed Fujiwara to his new promotion, along with other UWF young lions like Yusuke Fuke and Ken Shamrock. From 1991-1992, Fujiwara’s students would experiment with the concepts that would later be the foundation for Pancrase, and their matches started to include more shoot-oriented elements (less cooperation), even more than the average shoot-style match at the time. Suzuki and Funaki advocated for pure shootfighting contests in PWFG, which Fujiwara was reluctant to allow for a variety of reasons that revolved around protecting himself and his promotion.

By 1993, the founding members of Pancrase would leave PWFG to establish the next revolutionary development in the UWF movement. Fujiwara was left to deal with the aftermath, but he adapted and brought in more of his students to fill the gaps, including Yuki Ishikawa, Daisuke Ikeda, Alexander Otsuka, Minoru Tanaka, and Takeshi Ono. PWFG would not experience the same heights reached in 1991-1992, but the new crop of talent would keep eyes on the product and, like their peers before them, would begin to develop another strand of shoot-style that would eventually split off and form its unique brand – Bati-Bati, or better known as BattlArts. The Bati-Bati style would incorporate many of the same elements Fujiwara used in his matches, including more traditional pro-style spots, a good dosage of headbutts, and other forms of stiff striking.

PWFG was not the most popular branch of the UWF movement, but it was incredibly influential in how it served as an incubator for two further developments in Kakutogi and shoot-style (Pancrase and BattlArts). Fujiwara, despite the disagreements he had with his students, was critical in letting them develop into the stars they would later become, and the earliest PWFG matches from 1991-1992 were a preview of the epic battles Suzuki, Funaki, and Shamrock would have with each other later on in the 1990s. As a trainer, Fujiwara has a long and important lineage that has carried on his legacy. Fujiwara has also helped train several Joshi stars, including Shinobu Kandori and Kana (Asuka).

One might ask if shoot-style and the UWF movement are still relevant today. The common argument against shoot-style-oriented candidates for the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame is that it is a dead style. This isn’t entirely true. Shoot-style continues to leave a mark on the industry through GLEAT’s UWF brand (not to be confused with GLEAT MMA), smaller promotions such as Hard Hit, and people who still carry the flag of the UWF movement, such as Minoru Suzuki, Josh Barnett, Masakatsu Funaki, Kazushi Sakuraba, and several others.

Wrestlers such as Jon Moxley and Bryan Danielson continue to be influenced by various elements of the UWF movement. There aren’t any major shoot-style promotions, but that shouldn’t be a knock against shoot-style. Are there any major deathmatch promotions like FMW still around? Another promotion, NOAH, uses shoot-style rules for certain matches. As this is being typed in October 2023, a recent match between Takuya Nomura and Fuminori Abe has received wide acclaim for its embrace of the Bati-Bati style, and those elements also continue to influence a variety of wrestlers today.

Minoru Suzuki and Masakatsu Funaki are both in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, primarily due to their accomplishments in Pancrase. I think we would be collectively amiss if we did not give very strong consideration to the man responsible for their development, and probably the third most important figure in the UWF movement. Yoshiaki Fujiwara was widely influential in this regard, and his historical impact shouldn’t be in doubt. Besides, how many times do we still hear or say “Fujiwara Armbar?” That was a move widely popularized by Yoshiaki Fujiwara himself. Of course, that’s just one item under his belt.

Drawing Power

Perhaps the main criticism of Yoshiaki Fujiwara is that he wasn’t a draw. I think this is a common misconception, and there is strong evidence that his drawing power has been severely understated. This section will consider Fujiwara’s peak years, 1986-1992, but for argument’s sake, let’s also look at Fujiwara’s role in the first UWF. All of the data presented here is sourced from Cagematch’s database and the Internet Wrestling Database.

In 1984, UWF’s top three drawing events were 4/17/84 Sumo Hall (9,100), 10/22/84 Hiroshima Prefectural Gymnasium (5,200), and 10/10/84 Hakata Starlanes (3,700). Fujiwara was in the main event in all three shows.

In 1985, UWF’s top three drawing events were 7/25/85 Ota Ward Gym (4,457), 1/16/85 Osaka Rinkai Sports Center (4,000), and 4/14/85 Osaka Expo Festival (3,837). Fujiwara was in the main event for the first two and in the semi-main event for the Osaka Festival show.

Of course, the first UWF operated in an era where attendance figures were often inflated by almost every promotion. We know for a fact that Korakuen Hall shows, which had a reported attendance of 3,000+, were inflated due to the physical limitations of Korakuen Hall in terms of actual capacity. It’s difficult to say how many people these shows exactly had, but even if they are less than reported, which is likely, it is fair to assume that those events were still UWF’s top drawing shows for that year. Fujiwara also appeared on several other shows (main event or semi-main) in 1984 and 1985, with a reported attendance of 2,000+. In any case, Fujiwara headlined 34 of the 86 shows he was in for the first UWF (40%).

From 1986-1992, Fujiwara appeared on several NJPW and UWF shows in either a main event or semi-main capacity that drew significant numbers and gates. For NJPW in particular, let’s look at 1986. Fujiwara wrestled Antonio Inoki in the main event on 2/6/86 for NJPW’s New Year Dash show at Ryogoku Kokugikan. This show had a reported attendance of 11,190. For comparison, in 1985, NJPW ran three shows at the Ryogoku Kokugikan, and two of them included Antonio Inoki facing Bruiser Brody in the main event. The Fujiwara/Inoki main event outdrew both (4/18/85 – 11,066 and 8/1/1985 – 11,140). In 1986, the Fujiwara/Inoki event outdrew five of the other six Ryogoku Kokugikan shows NJPW held that year, with the 10/9/86 show outdrawing 2/6/86 with 11,520. That show featured Antonio Inoki vs Leon Spinks in the main event. In 1987, only one Ryogoku show from the nine NJPW held outdrew the 2/6/86 show, with 8/20/87 drawing 11,570. That show also featured Yoshiaki Fujiwara in the top half of the card against Kengo Kimura.

Other notable NJPW shows Fujiwara main evented in 1986-1988 include 8/19/87 (Ryogoku – 11,070) and 6/9/87 (Osaka Gymnasium – 6,798). To compare the Osaka show, 6/9/87 outdrew the single 1985 show in the same venue (2/6/85 – 5,841) and outdrew one of the other 1987 shows (12/7/87 – 6,120). Fujiwara main evented on 9/17/87, the other show that was held in the same venue, which drew a larger crowd of 6,880. That show featured a ten-man elimination tag team match with other UWF stars like Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada, as well as NJPW mainstays such as Antonio Inoki and Masa Saito.

Fujiwara continued his role as a steady main event presence with the second UWF. After Fujiwara joined the company in 1989, he headlined UWF’s first show at the newly opened Yokohama Arena on 8/13/89 against Akira Maeda. The show had a reported sellout attendance of 17,000, outdrawing the only other wrestling event held at the new arena that year, which was AJW’s Wrestlemarinepiad on 5/6/1989, which drew a reported crowd of 12,500. The 8/13/89 show also outdrew SWS’ two Yokohama Arena shows in 1990 (14,850 for each). UWF would hold another Yokohama Arena show in 1990 as well, which on 8/13/90 featured Fujiwara in the semi-main event against Dutch kickboxer Dick Vrij. That show also drew a reported crowd of 17,000. Other notable UWF 1989 events that included Fujiwara in the main event or semi-main include 7/24/89 (Hakata Starlanes – 4,000), 9/7/89 (Nagano City Gymnasium – 4,500), and 10/25/89 (Nakajima Sports Center – 5,600). UWF U-Cosmos, which was held on 11/29/89 at the Tokyo Dome, drew 60,000 fans and was the first professional wrestling event to sell out the Tokyo Dome. Fujiwara featured in the upper half of the card in another match against Dick Vrij. In 1990, Fujiwara headlined 2/9/90 (Osaka Gymnasium – 7,000), 2/27/90 (Minamiashigara Sports Center – 4,500), 4/15/90 (Hakata Starlanes – 4,000), 5/4/90 (Nippon Budokan – 14,130), and 9/13/90 (Aichi Gymnasium – 8,500). Fujiwara was in the semi-main for 5/28/90 (Miyagi Sports Center – 5,500) and 10/25/890 (Osaka-Jo Hall – 15,000). For the Nippon Budokan show, the attendance outdrew the only NJPW show held at the same venue in 1990, which was 11/1/90 (14,014). The Osaka-Jo Hall show was the only event held at that venue in 1990 and outdrew both NJPW shows held there in 1989 (5/25/89 – 12,350 and 9/20/1989 – 8,180). Fujiwara headlined 9 of the 19 shows he was on in the second UWF (47%).

In 1991, Fujiwara headlined two PWFG events, seemingly giving his talent opportunities to stand on their own two feet. On 7/26/91 at Tokyo Bay NK Hall, PWFG drew a reported attendance of 6,000. For comparison, other events held at Tokyo Bay Hall in 1991 include SWS’ 1/4/91 show (5,909), NJPW’s 5/25/91 show (6,150), and FMW’s 12/9/91 show (6,815). The attendance figures for PWFG’s 11/3/91 show don’t seem to be available publicly. In 1992, Fujiwara headlined 5/15/92 (Osaka Gymnasium – 4,520), and 6/25/92 (Korakuen Hall – 2,200). PWFG also held an event on 10/4/92 at the Tokyo Dome, which drew a reported attendance of 40,000, but that figure was heavily papered and was closer to ~20,000 in reality. PWFG’s attendance figures are probably not as accurate as the second UWF’s or NJPW’s figures from 1986-1990, but in terms of reported numbers for shows outside the Tokyo Dome, there isn’t any indication that Fujiwara had any major drop-offs when he headlined shows.

Hopefully, by this point, there is enough evidence to convince the reader that from 1986-1992, Fujiwara had a solid six-year run as a high-level draw, or at the very least, a high-level draw when paired as a credible opponent to other major wrestlers at the time. The fact that Fujiwara was able to outdraw several shows within a close timeframe should speak volumes to the presence he held with Japanese fans and how they saw him as a credible wrestler and charismatic star.

In another example, Fujiwara headlined Fighting Network RINGS’ 11/22/96 show at Osaka Jo-Hall, which also featured Akira Maeda in the main event. That event drew a reported attendance of 7,880, far surpassing any other show RINGS held in Osaka in 1995 and 1997. The closest competition would be RINGS’ 4/16/98 show held at Furitsu Gym in Osaka, which drew a reported attendance figure of 7,600.

In-Ring Performance

This is where the subjectivity of professional wrestling comes in. One man’s top-caliber in-ring performer is another man’s clown show. However, anyone who appreciates technical wrestling will likely appreciate Yoshiaki Fujiwara’s in-ring work in some form, particularly from the 1980s and 1990s. For your consideration, here are five of Fujiwara’s best matches which have widely drawn praise. It should be noted that there is a lack of Fujiwara footage pre-1980, but there is plenty to demonstrate his proficiency from the 1980s and into the 2000s and 2010s.

Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Super Tiger (12/5/1984)

Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Akira Maeda (2/5/1986)

Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Kazuo Yamazaki (7/24/1989)

Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Nobuhiko Takada (10/25/1990)

Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Genichiro Tenryu (11/24/1997)

Conclusion

Yoshiaki Fujiwara’s career over five decades was influential in terms of impact and production, and there is no doubt that Fujiwara was a top-level wrestler widely respected by both a paying audience and others who worked with him. The impact he has had on the industry as a wrestler and a trainer is echoed through his students and a style of wrestling that continues to live on. Outside of wrestling, his impact is similar to Suzuki or Funaki where the contributions he made in the 1980s and early 1990s made the development and popularity of Pancrase possible, along with other aspects of Kakutogi that enjoyed success and popularity into the 2000s, like PRIDE. By all possible measurements, it is clear that Yoshiaki Fujiwara deserves to be in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. If you consider his entire career in terms of impact and longevity, he is perhaps the strongest individual candidate on the Japanese ballot this year. His drawing power, especially over six years from 1986-1992, is solid.

There should be no doubts about his credentials in that category. Ultimately, how people vote in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame is up to them as individual voters. I hope this article will help convince enough of them to induct Yoshiaki Fujiwara.