The first Ultimate Fighting Championship, which took place on Nov. 12, 1993, is commonly referred to as the dawn of mixed martial arts. Mixed-rules bouts had of course been taking place long before then; as early as the jiu-jitsu vs. vale tudo feuds of the 1980s, Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki in the 70s or all the way back to ancient Greek pankration if you like, but as an arbitrary milestone for the modern sport, UFC 1 is as good as any other. However, it’s worth noting that when he walked into the Octagon on that night in Broomfield, Colorado, Ken Shamrock already had a no-holds-barred fight record of 3-0. How is this possible? Pancrase, of course.
Pancrase held its first event, subtitled “Yes, We Are Hybrid Wrestlers,” on Sept. 21, 1993, two and a half months before UFC 1. The brainchild of Japanese professional wrestling star Masakatsu Funaki, Pancrase presented itself as “shoot wrestling”—i.e. real, unscripted wrestling—with limited striking allowed. Those limits, including no closed-fist striking to the face, would be abandoned in a few years in favor of a ruleset more like that of modern MMA, but even the first events were something fairly new in their conceit.
That inaugural event was loaded with future stars. In the main event, Funaki himself took on Shamrock, losing by arm-triangle choke in six minutes. While Funaki was Pancrase’s founder and biggest star, and Shamrock, Bas Rutten and Vernon White are the names that would be most familiar to the average UFC fan, that first Pancrase event also featured perhaps the promotion’s signature fighter, Minoru Suzuki. (To put Suzuki’s relationship with Pancrase into perspective, he is a 50-fight veteran and all but about three of those fights took place in the Pancrase ring.)
From that auspicious beginning, Pancrase embarked on a journey that continues to this day, 27 years later. Pancrase served as an important career stop for Western standouts such as Josh Barnett and Nate Marquardt, it survived a bitter rivalry with Shooto as well as the rise and fall of Pride Fighting Championships and is still going strong.