I wrote this a few years ago, didn't post it anywhere, and figure it could lead to some interesting discussion.
There are many aspects of professional wrestling that keep me locked in as a fan, even during the down times in the creative and business ends in the US, Mexico, and Japan. The addition of the WWE Network, NWA Classics, and the continued evolution of wrestling shows and compilations being readily available on DVD and for direct download have kept my fandom as strong as ever.
In 2015, there is a small group of fans who have coined the phrase grapplefuck, a term that tries to encapsulate modern day mat work that is performed by Timothy Thatcher, Drew Gulak, and a few others. Recent discussions on Twitter lead me to revisit what I like about the different stylings of mat work throughout pro wrestling history. The dilemma: modern day mat work, outside of lucha libre, is a dying art form.
In part one of this series, I am going to take a look at the different stylistic versions of mat work that are available on tape and give some examples of my favorite matches that incorporate this style.
Giant Baba vs. Destroyer (March 5, 1969 – JWA)
When you think about mat work, the first name that comes to your head isn’t usually Giant Baba. But Baba, especially during his physical prime, was a very competent mat worker and when put together with someone who was his equal or better on the mat, the results tended to be great.
This is the fairly infamous 59 minute match that first started circulating in 2001 amongst tape traders. Because they are working close to an hour draw, there is a lot of mat work to help fill the time in between the high spots of the era. Baba and Destroyer work masterful segments based around side headlock take overs, cross arm breakers, (yes, cross arm breakers in 1969!!) and leg scissor reversals that are played on and off again throughout the duration of the bout. Near the beginning of the match there is a five plus minute stretch where Baba keeps getting Destroyer into a head scissors on the ground. Destroyer comes up with multiple escapes, only to keep being put back in the hold. It’s a very simple but very effective way of killing time without laying around in rest holds.
The match is mostly very simple mat work done with a technical prowess that allows the work to be state of the art in 1969 and still hold up quite well today.
A side note on Baba working the mat:
When Stan Hansen arrives in All Japan in December 1981, his first feud is with Baba. Baba was declining pretty fast physically but was able to keep up with Hansen’s frenetic pace by using smart mat work, mostly limb based on Hansen’s lariat arm, to be able to keep pace during these 10-12 minute sprints. The February 4, 1982 and June 31, 1984 matches are worth going out of your way to see.
Other Matches in this style:
Billy Robinson vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (March 5, 1977 – AJPW)
Ric Flair vs. Ricky Steamboat (February 21, 1989 – NWA)
Ricky Steamboat vs. Steve Austin (March 12, 1994 – WCW)
Destroyer vs. Mil Mascaras (July 25, 1974 – AJPW)
With the cost of technology dropping, most people have access to smartphones and the requisite video capabilities. Since the mid-2000’s, Lucha Libre maestros matches have been making tape with more and more frequency. Black Terry Jr. (Jose Mares) has been a real pioneer in taping smaller, independent shows in Mexico and making them easily available to fans at a very reasonable cost.
But let’s travel back to 1974 when two wrestlers from two different countries were matched up in Japan. The Destroyer was always known as a very good worker, who was very adept at working the mat. The reputation of Mil Mascaras was much different. Mascaras was known as someone who wasn’t easy to deal with, both in and out of the ring. His reputation lead to many overlooking his matches during his prime, where as long as he was in with an opponent that he respected, a good to great match could be worked and really stand out, especially for the time period.
Destroyer and Mascaras work a competitive mat match, interspersed with some of Mil’s flying moves. Both guys wrestle in an almost non-cooperative way, not feeding each other holds like Baba and Destroyer would do, but looking for openings and taking them when they opened up. It wasn’t a shoot but it was also clear that both wrestlers were really doing some work in getting various holds and moves on. The result was a really high tech match, very much like the Baba/Destroyer match, that still holds up today.
Other Matches in this style:
Mil Mascaras vs. Jumbo Tsuruta (August 25, 1977 – AJPW)
Negro Navarro vs. El Dandy (November 8, 2001 – IWRG)
El Hijo del Santo vs. El Espanto Jr. (August 31, 1986 – UWA)
El Hijo del Santo vs. El Espanto Jr. (April 10, 1988 – UWA)
El Hijo del Santo vs. El Espanto Jr. (May 16, 1992 – UWA)
Lucha Libre mat work can be the most beautiful style of mat work on earth but the style can also be challenging for people to get into, especially if your background is strictly in mainstream US wrestling. But when you are able to understand the small subtleties of Lucha (working from the left side of the body instead of the right, the idea of a performance that is free flowing, and a different bumping style), a whole new world of mat work opens up.
Santo vs. Espanto is one of my favorite match up’s of all time, which is funny because we only got the first and third match on tape in the mid 2000’s, with the April 1988 match coming even later in 2008-2009. And the other but of footage we have with those two is a 1985 tag and some mid-90’s AAA matches, which don’t always feature strong mat work. There is little that needs to be said about Santo – he is a legend that was arguably as good as or better than his father. His high spots are still impressive today but he was also an underrated mat worker. Santo had many formula mat spots, such as his spinning head scissors with his back on the mat that takes his opponent down and his beautiful front face lock that he rolls through with to keep control of his opponent (see GIF).
But as with most mat work, you need two to tango and Espanto does exactly what a good rudo does. He’s there to make the mat work from the technico look amazing, in addition to getting himself over at the same time.
The main criticism that is often thrown at lucha is the mat work seems too cooperative. It’s not a completely invalid argument, but in most cases, it is a bias and something that a viewer can get used to and come to appreciate with watching a lot of matches over a period of time. When the Santo’s and Blue Panther’s and Solar’s of the world take it to the mat, you are usually in for a visual treat; something that hasn’t been incorporated into any other style of wrestling from around the world.
Other Matches in this style:
Atlantis vs. Blue Panther (December 5, 1997 – CMLL)
El Hijo del Santo vs. Blue Panther (April 9, 2000 – Monterrey)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. [insert opponent name] (numerous – RINGS)
Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter has repeatedly said that Tamura is the best mat worker he has ever seen, in being able to work on the mat in a way that looks as realistic as possible while still being a work.
In the late 90’s as Mixed Martial Arts was still evolving and far from the completely cross trained version that exists in 2015, the line between work and shoot was often unclear. The RINGS promotion in Japan, which opened in 1991 as a [Maeda not wanting pro wrestling anywhere near it], started running multiple shoot fights on the under cards in the late 90’s with the top of the card still being works.
Tamura, along with fellow mat wizard Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, could work the breathtaking version of lucha libre mat work in Japan, which was a style that was supposed to be able to hold water and look real to the general public. While Volk Han was the first non-native RINGS star, Tamura and Kohsaka surpassed him by late 1997 in working for realistic submissions on the mat, flowing through transitions in a seamless and convincing looking manner. In his January 1997 match against Volk Han, Tamura executes a kip up that works credibly during the opening minutes of the bout.
The sad thing about RINGS going into all shoots by late 1999 is it was the end of an era. The UWF movement, started in 1984 by Akira Meda, Nobuhiko Takada, Satoru Sayama, and Yoshiaki Fujiwara was based on having the fans believe their matches were shoots (or close to it). RINGS was the last UWF hold out and from 1997-1999, arguably the peak of the UWF style from an in ring perspective, and when it went to shoots, the style was dead. The official funeral was on November 24, 2002 when Kiyoshi Tamura knocked out Nobuhiko Takada at PRIDE 24. Tamura’s UWF restart couldn’t take off and only had one draw (Tamura) and subsequent groups such as Big Mouth Loud and the Inoki Genome Federation were business losers in addition to being in ring disappointments.
Rumina Sato, Shooto’s first major star (Yuki Nakai was the first star to the hardcores), often credits Volk Han’s submissions skills with leg bars and Sambo (Russian Combat Wrestling) as influencing what he did in real fights in the mid to late 90’s as MMA was evolving. Kohsaka, and to a lesser extent Tamura, were also able to bring their worked knowledge into their real fights. Kohsaka was a master at working the guard, as seen in his August 2000 fight versus PRIDE and UFC star Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera and against Noguiera’s younger brother in the DEEP promotion from September 2002. The DEEP 2002 fight features guard reversals that would look outstanding in worked wrestling and are *actually* doable in the real world of fighting.
Other Matches in this style:
Volk Han vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (June 17, 1995 – RINGS)
Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (April 29, 1996 – RINGS)
Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (April 4, 1997 – RINGS)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Volk Han (Sept 25, 1996; Jan 22, 1997; Sept 26, 1997 – RINGS)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (June 29, 1998 – RINGS)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Yoshihisa Yamamoto (June 24, 1999 – RINGS)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Hiroyuki Ito (August 18, 2004 – U-Style)
Bonus Legit Fights in this style:
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (April 22, 1997 – RINGS)
Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Frank Shamrock (September 26, 1997 – RINGS)
Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Vernon White (March 24, 1998 – PRIDE FC)
Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Carlos Newton (June 24, 1998 – PRIDE FC)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Frank Shamrock (April 23, 1999 – RINGS)
Rumina Sato vs. Caol Uno (May 29, 1999 – SHOOTO)
Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera (August 23, 2000 – RINGS)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera (October 16, 2000 – RINGS)
Volk Han vs. Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera (February 24, 2001 – RINGS)
Tsuyoshi Kohsaka vs. Antonio Rogerio Noguiera (September 7, 2002 – DEEP)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Ikuhisa Minowa (September 7, 2002 – DEEP)
Kiyoshi Tamura vs. Hidehiko Yoshida (August 10, 2003 – PRIDE FC)
Bryan Danielson vs. Low Ki (July 21, 2001 – ECWA / March 30, 2002 – ROH / June 7, 2002 – JAPW)
The US Indies came out of hibernation in 2001 after ECW and WCW closed their doors for good. Throughout the late 80’s and 1990’s, the US Indy scene was usually one of two things: a nostalgia show with wrestlers who were mid-level stars in the WWF in the 80’s or special cases such as the really fun January 1998 – January 1999 OMEGA run.
When Bryan Danielson and Low Ki first matched up in the ECWA Super 8 2001 finals, their match had some good BattlArts’esque mat work but stylistically was still worked as a New Japan juniors match. There is nothing inherently wrong with New Japan mat work but it is far down the list of mat work I want to see in match after match after match.
Danielson and Ki had their first great match in July 2001, they were quickly moving their mat work towards a more realistic looking, MMA influenced style. It wasn’t RINGS Tamura style per say, but it was based around jockeying for position, looking for catch style submissions, and selling the hell out of them. I’m not sure the US had ever seen anything like it. The March 2002 Ring of Honor match has the first 15 minutes almost exclusively dedicated to this mat work before moving to the stretch run with a little bit of flying and near falls. The June 2002 JAPW match is the closest to RINGS style, in that it is submissions only, so no pin falls which means they spend a lot of time on the mat and make it mean something. The style had a brief lifespan due to the ability of additional people to work it and Danielson and Ki transitioning into new facets of wrestling (Danielson spending the summer 2003 in England; Ki turning heel in July 2004 and incorporating brawling into his matches)
Other Matches in the style:
Kazuo Takahashi vs. Mark Rush (July 26, 1991 – Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi)
Samoa Joe vs. Low Ki (October 5, 2002 – Ring of Honor)
Carl Greco vs. Yuki Ishikawa (June 9, 2008 – BattlArts)
 Somewhere in Mexico, there has to be a vault full of 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s footage that is just gathering dust waiting to be found and released to the masses
 This was also a fairly common spot in England, where Billy Robinson used it (see GIF of Giant Baba match) and other World of Sport wrestlers incorporated it into their move arsenal
 As RINGS went down, so did he ditto Kiyoshi Tamura, who was exposed in a different way, even while proven to be a great fighter. RINGS was purported as a shoot. If it was, and it wasn't at the time, there was no more exciting fighter in the world than Tamura. He was magic on the ground, but mostly, because he was doing pro wrestling within what looked to be a shooting context. Like Sakuraba, he had a tremendous talent for being able to make a worked match look real. Quite frankly, as much as people romanticize about the greats of the old days of American pro and their ability to do such, I've never seen anyone any better than Tamura at this. And for his size, he was a real tough guy, and beat some very good shooters like Jeremy Horn, Maurice Smith, Pat Miletich and Renzo Gracie, and drew with Frank Shamrock. But his incredible submission ability in a worked sense, did not transfer over to shoot matches, just as Takada's magnificent kickboxing skill in worked matches that people thought were real suddenly vanished in real combat. April 8, 2002 WON