Changes Come to Shooto, Fighters React

By Jordan Breen Jun 6, 2008
Although Shooto's premier event series of 2008 is called "Tradition," the world of Shooto is set to change.

In a move that will assuredly garner praise from the MMA world, the International Shooto Commission has announced that in the coming months all Shooto events worldwide will abandon two of its most contentious rules: strikes to the back of the head and the much-maligned knockdown count.

Because of Shooto's ongoing rookie tournament series already having its rules defined at the year's onset, the knockdown rule will be abolished officially on Jan. 1, 2009. However, strikes to the back of the head will be outlawed as of Sept. 1, due to a more pressing medical necessity.

According to ISC secretary general Toshiharu Suzuki, the European Shooto Commission asked the ISC in March to consider revising the two provisions, which have long been critiqued.

Initially the ISC was skeptical of the proposal, especially in relation to the knockdown rule. Shooto's authorities have long held the idea that the potential for unconscious fighters to be pounded after they were knocked down was enough of a risk to oppose changing the rule. However, Suzuki explained that the vision of pro-wrestling legend and Shooto founder Satoru "Tiger Mask" Sayama in Shooto's conception was the synthesis of striking, throwing and submitting. In accordance with that vision, the ISC considered the rule alteration suitable.

Also playing a prominent role in the ISC's decision to revamp its knockdown rule and strikes to the back of the head were the obvious medical issues. The prevailing wisdom surrounding mixed martial arts is the idea that unlike other prizefighting venues such as boxing and muay Thai, MMA fighters who are knocked down and in jeopardy are typically finished. In regards to other combat sports, the dominant belief is that fighters are given a count to recover that results in prolonged fights, more strikes and more damage -- and thus a greater risk of injury.

"With an eight count in Shooto, we thought it favored the ground fighter, as it gave them a second chance," explains Martijn de Jong, former Shooto competitor, Shooto Holland promoter and current European Shooto president. "[But] the most important reason to abolish was that Shooto's main concern has always been safety for the fighters."

While the abolition of Shooto's knockdown rule may seem long overdue, even more curious is the fact that until now professional Shooto has allowed strikes to the back of the head. Given the sensitivity to strikes to the back of the head exhibited in North America under the unified rules of MMA, it seems almost astonishing that the technique has been permissible.

The rules were largely held in place by Shooto's strong sense of tradition and strange brand of solipsism.

Conceived in 1985, the first amateur Shooto event was held in 1986 and the first professional Shooto event in 1989. With the longest clear lineage in the entire sport, Shooto authorities view Shooto not as an organization but as an international sport unto itself, with its own unique class system, weight divisions and in-ring rules. As a result of this self-contained and self-sustained ideology, the world of Shooto has been slow to embrace change, even as MMA has globalized, forcing many large Japanese promotions such as Pancrase, GCM and Deep to adopt certain provisions of the unified rules.

Despite the fact that many fighters have spent the vast majority of their pro MMA careers under these rules, the changes have already been met with universal support.

"Currently, MMA has been spreading throughout the world, but rules are not completely well-established," says Rumina Sato (Pictures), the iconic Shooto legend who has fought his entire 13-year career under Shooto rules. "I would hope that at the end, MMA will be held under one rule throughout the world. I think that it is Shooto's destiny as a long-established competitive sport to continue to make a safe and highly competitive rule by continuing the process of trial and error."

Shooto world title challenger and current WEC signee Kenji Osawa (Pictures) notes that no other organization besides Shooto has a knockdown rule.

"Plus it's difficult to judge if someone is 'down,' so I think it's good they got rid of the rule," Osawa says. "Making punches to the back of the head illegal is a very good thing. There have been cases where certain fighters would get hit to the back of the head a lot and feel nauseous afterwards, so he'd have to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. It's better to be safe."

Premier flyweight Yasuhiro Urushitani (Pictures) is quick to add his support: "Fights get dragged out when a [knocked down] fighter recovers. … The audience might lose interest."

"Personally, I agree with [banning strikes to the back of the head]," says former Shooto 143-pound world champ Akitoshi Tamura (Pictures). "Even if it is a light punch, it gets to me in a weird way. Even if the fighter can take a back mount, there is a technique to punch the side of the head or to the face. Allowing striking to the back of the head of a downed opponent is not an approved rule worldwide."

Even those with some measure of advantage under the old rules acknowledge the necessity for change.

"The head strike rule is bad for me because I like taking the back," explains Tetsu Suzuki (Pictures). "[But] maybe it's best if all rules are unified."

One of the other major difficulties with such an awkward rule set is that many international competitors have struggled to adapt to the often-aggravating rules that differ so radically from other international promotions. None too surprisingly, many international regulars of the Shooto ring are thankful for the changes.

"The rule change eliminating the eight count brings us closer to a real fight, which is what I have always looked for in MMA," offers Shooto Europe's 168-pound champion David Baron (Pictures), who upset Hayato "Mach" Sakurai in Japan last month.

"This is one rule that I never liked," says featherweight standout Antonio Carvalho (Pictures) on the eight count. "It broke the natural flow of the fight, in my opinion. Also the referees were inconsistent with what was considered a knockdown. I'm happy they will get rid of it."

In fact, the rules were awkward and unthinkable to a point where some of Shooto's most notable competitors didn't even know they existed.

"Really? All this time, I didn't know that it was allowable," says former Shooto world champion Joachim Hansen (Pictures) with a laugh upon learning that pro Shooto rules allowed striking to the back of the head.

However, the rule alterations have repercussions outside of Japan. Although Shooto has internationalized with events under the Shooto banner all over the globe, the ability for Shooto events to be held in North America has been limited by the existing restrictions of the unified rules, which make no concessions for knockdowns and explicitly prohibit strikes to the back of the head. With these reformed rules, Shooto will now have a chance to grow in North America.

"The new Shooto ruling will impact the growth of Shooto in the U.S. tremendously, particularly in California, where progress had been stalled due to the inability to promote events under the Shooto rules," explains Jason Manly, who, with the help of leading Shooto promoter Sustain, staged a slightly modified Shooto event in Irvine last August.

"Now we have the ability to promote events in the state I believe is most critical to Shooto's growth and long-term success. Previously I was stuck between what the Shooto Commission wanted and what the California State Athletic Commission would allow, and unfortunately that wasn't allowing me to organize events. But now, given the pliable approach of the ISC in dealing with this obstacle, I am very excited about the immediate possibilities for Shooto in California."

Shooto's tradition has long been one of sporting sophistication, and these long overdue amendments should serve to strengthen Shooto's ideology internationally.
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