In early 2003, New Japan Pro Wrestling decided to try putting on real fights. Driven by Japanese wrestling’s obsession with proving that its stars were legitimately good fighters—and likely spurred on by Pride Fighting Championships’ growing success at bringing pro wrestlers into no-holds-barred fighting—NJPW partnered with K-1 and launched the first MMA event under its own name on May 2, 2003.
NJPW “Ultimate Crush” packed a reported 55,000 spectators into the Tokyo Dome for a card featuring five MMA fights inserted into the middle of a loaded lineup of pro wrestling bouts. The wrestling portion of the card featured many of the organization’s biggest stars, as well as familiar MMA names such as Ken Shamrock and Enson Inoue. Similarly, the slate of mixed martial arts fights included Kazuyuki Fujita—a pro wrestling star and one of the most successful MMA crossovers ever—as well as two fighters in Josh Barnett and Tsuyoshi Kosaka whose parallel careers in sports entertainment were just beginning.
Barnett was matched up that night against Jimmy Ambriz, who cut an imposing figure as 300 pounds of circus strongman-esque muscle but was a man of limited skill or inclination for fighting. However, those latter facts were not common knowledge at the time; Ambriz had ridden questionable matchmaking to an 8-0 record going into the bout and was expected to give former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ Barnett a serious challenge. When Barnett thrashed Ambriz in three largely effortless minutes, it was startling enough that some fans saw the ease with which Barnett had won and the way in which Ambriz had wilted under punishment, and decided that the fight must have been a worked bout masquerading as a “real” mixed-rules fight. An incensed Barnett denied any chicanery, and history would appear to bear him out, as Ambriz would go 9-20-1 over the remainder of his career, with 15 of those losses coming by TKO and at least four involving him tapping to strikes.
Of special note on the “Ultimate Crush” card was the debut of a 24-year-old Brazilian karateka of partial Japanese descent who cruised to a decision win over Pancrase veteran Kengo Watanabe. Future UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida was a factor immediately, as he would go on to stop Stephan Bonnar and Rich Franklin in his next two fights and mint himself as one of the hottest prospects in the sport before English-language publications could even agree on how to spell his name. Whether Lyoto or Ryoto, “The Dragon” would go on to win his first 16 fights in a row and establish himself as one of the top fighters in the sport.
Unfortunately for NJPW, its MMA endeavors went in the Ambriz, rather than Machida, direction. The wrestling juggernaut would put on just three events with MMA bouts before returning to its core business, and the failure of the experiment likely contributed to the 2005 ouster of its founder, Antonio Inoki. However, the parting led to a largely happy ending: Inoki has remained a prominent figure in both MMA and professional wrestling, befitting his living-legend status as half of one of the first famous mixed-rules bouts in history, while the post-Inoki NJPW continues to be the predominant professional wrestling promotion in Japan.