A Blood Called Shooto: Part 2

Picking Bones

By Jordan Breen May 9, 2009
No matter how momentous and sentimental its past, I can’t help but feel professional Shooto has come to a crossroads with its 20th Anniversary.

Over the last decade, Shooto Japan has, however wittingly, carved out its niche in the lighter weight classes. It was home to many of the top welterweights at the turn of the decade -- Anderson Silva, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Jutaro Nakao and Tetsuji Kato -- but with the rise of the UFC, the strength of its 168-pound division evaporated over time.

Eventually, the lightweight division was its calling card, due to the depth of the division and the fact that so few well-paying organizations had opportunities for these fighters. Rumina Sato, Caol Uno, Dokonjonosuke Mishima, Takanori Gomi, Joachim Hansen, Vitor Ribeiro, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Mitsuhiro Ishida and others all jump off the page on a list of Shooto’s top 154-pounders. However, when Dream Stage Entertainment retooled its Bushido program and launched its own lightweight division, and K-1 backer Fighting and Entertainment Group launched Hero’s, the fighters who had created the image of Shooto Japan as the factory of lightweights were gone.

Even with the rise of the promotions that picked the bones of its 168- and 154-pound divisions, Shooto Japan still remained the locus of flyweight, bantamweight and featherweight divisions. Shooto authorities and promoters never intended to define a role for Shooto in this way, but it was the only show in town, thus defining its role for the last five years.

Stephen Martinez/Sherdog.com

Will Shooto lose Kojima?
However, Shooto’s control over the sub-lightweight world is rapidly shrinking, domestically and internationally. This year has featured featherweight tournaments from both Dream and Sengoku -- each bracket replete with Shooto veterans -- and Sengoku plans a strong emphasis on the bantamweight division in the near future. Meanwhile, Zuffa’s World Extreme Cagefighting product has become the righteous delicacy of hardcore fans, controlling most of the world’s top fighters at 135 and 145 pounds, including many Shooto veterans who have crossed the pond to fight in the cage. With the anticipated forthcoming addition of the WEC’s flyweight division, which will likely include Shooto world champion Shinichi "BJ" Kojima, there’s a serious question as to whether or not professional Shooto can withstand another redefinition.

Promotions, Possibilities and the Art of Party Planning

Not too surprisingly, Taro Wakabayashi -- the man who arguably knows Shooto best -- is not concerned with the world outside of Shooto.

“We’re just going to continue on like we’ve always been, without really changing anything,” he says. “I think one of Shooto’s attractive points is just that it continues. There have been fighters who have been fighting for 20 years, and there are new fighters, too, but no one is going to remember the champions of a promotion that has disappeared.”

Hearing Wakabayashi’s answers, and having talked with Shooto bigwigs in the past, I’m always stunned by the honesty with which they assert that Shooto as a concept and ideology is what’s important, not Shooto as a powerhouse promotion. Wakabayashi’s analogy of Shooto as a school seems increasingly more apt; the emphasis is placed firmly on the pragmatic improvements of athletes -- as people and as prizefighters -- rather than any promotional niche on which Shooto brass can capitalize.

For the man who says Shooto is not his work but his life, the idea that Shooto would be impacted by the promotional strategy of big money MMA is simply folly.

“Money is important, but there’s more to life than just that: the experiences you have with your friends and things like that,” Wakabayashi says. “That’s Shooto.”

Part of it is that Wakabayashi, like his fellow Shooto officials, takes a sincere pride in seeing Shootors go on to high-profile, lucrative status in MMA. There’s a deep belief that Shooto is not the ring fighters stand inside but something inside of fighters when they’re in the ring. However, that’s not to say that fighters never return to that ring, since Shooto homecomings are prevalent for star Shootors and play a considerable role in Sunday’s 20th Anniversary card.

“I’m very much involved in matchmaking, so I actually thought a lot about these matches,” Wakabayashi says. “I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about them, but I think they’re fitting for the 20th anniversary.”

It is befitting simply in terms of the star power. Although it would be impossible to feature every active important fighter who once graced the Shooto mats, promotional group Sustain has put together a card featuring high-profile Japanese talent, including Gomi, Ishida, Sato, “Lion Takeshi” Takeshi Inoue and arguably the sport’s greatest female, Megumi Fujii, among others. However, the event simply isn’t a collage of talent, a homecoming hodgepodge of meaningless fights. Rather, these fighters face forks in the roads in the Shooto ring.

“This card doesn’t really represent all of Shooto’s weight classes, so it probably doesn’t convey the whole picture of what Shooto is,” Wakabayashi asserts. “But in terms of relevance, there are certain fighters on the card who can either win everything or lose everything.”

All-or-Nothing Anniversary

Wakabayashi’s assessment could not be much more accurate. To scan up and down the card, nearly all of the major matchups on the bill are built on the principles of make-or-break, do-or-die scenarios.
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