MASAKATSU FUNAKI: VICTORIES, DEFEATS AND CRITICS
Highlight videos about mixed martial arts stars are all over the internet these days. This one starts in an arena as conversations stop, a hush goes over the crowd and then even the hush is drowned out by the ring announcer's guttural voice.
A Japanese man with a stubble, short curly hair and the v-shaped build of Superman emerges from backstage, then strides quickly down the aisle way towards the ring. Before he reaches it, the video cuts to him-- his hair now shoulder-length and his face clean shaven-- turning from his opponent and falling into a forward roll. In the blink of an eye, he's upside down scissoring some opponent's leg and twining his hands about his foot in a picture perfect toe-hold as it becomes clear the shocked opponent was not "some opponent" but mixed martial arts legend Guy Mezger. The pictures cut again to another legend falling to the grappler, and another&. And another. Jason Delucia falls. Bas Rutten& Then Frank Shamrock. The highlight video ends with a return to the older, stubble-chinned version of the warrior as he takes a bow in slow motion. The ring announcer cries out his name once again and the music fades.
The slow motion allows time to notice a hint of sadness on the grappler's face--still handsome, but maybe a bit wan. Perhaps that's appropriate, given that the video's music (credit for which goes to FryeGuy) was somber and nostalgic in tone, rather than triumphal.
But why? Funaki is a healthy, wealthy man admired by men who have seen it all as announcers and done it all in competition such as Bas Rutten; his brother is the clown prince of wrestling and Smackdown's number one announcer.
The reality is that the reasons as to why one might associate a melancholy tune with Masakatsu Funaki and Pancrase, the organization he helped to co-found are legion. Indeed, other mixed martial arts pundits have argued it is as a tragedy that the story of the Pancrase organization most easily reads--- not in the sense of terrible harm done as on the it-bleeds-it-leads news pages, but in the sense of opportunity lost.
Though based in Japan, Pancrase's very name stirred echoes of the Greek full contact ancient Olympics fiercest game and aimed at being a return to the days of legitimate professional wrestling competitions that would pit able competitors from across the globe against one another. However, because of the financial concerns of a budding promotion, it went without saying that they needed a Japanese star to appeal to their audience. Funaki, based on his looks, charisma and phenomenal catch-wrestling prowess was a natural choice to be the organization's flagship athlete. It fell to him, therefore, to anchor the local fan-base with a homegrown hero they could rally around as they once rallied about Rikidozan and Antonio Inoki in professional wrestling. Unfortunately, in Pancrase's inaugural show, the foreign talent held their own, refusing to roll over for the Japanese fighters.
Things started well enough--with Minoru Suzuki affirming the legitimacy of his submission expertise via a sleeper-hold about the windpipe of countryman Katsuomi Inagaki--but began to unravel when Dutch kick boxer Bas Rutten left Ryushi Yanagisawa unconscious on the mat in under a minute. Nevertheless, Taka Fuke scored a submission victory over the now-famous Vernon White in the semifinal bout, leaving it to Funaki to give a winning face to the Japanese catch-wrestlers.
His opponent was an American whom he had carefully handpicked for the occasion. He was someone Funaki had studied carefully, someone Funaki knew inside and out&because he was Funaki's student.
His name was Kenneth Wayne Shamrock and he was the only suitable foreign opponent for Pancrase's biggest star. Not because he was a pushover but rather because he was every bit as formidable an enemy as his 240 pounds of muscle, broken-nose and deep scowl indicated he was. As the man intended to be the face of the organization, no weak "jobber" would suffice as an opponent.
Thirty seconds into the bout the brawny American powered his mentor to the canvas. Funaki defended himself with a body-scissors, only to open himself up for the move that would later be synonymous with the name Shamrock; the ankle-lock submission. Yet even as Shamrock dug the edge of his forearm into the Achilles tendon of Funaki's captive leg (pinched as it was between Shamrock's own tree-trunk legs), Funaki managed to work his forearm beneath Shamrock's own ankle.
In spite of having less leverage than his Herculean adversary, Funaki made due well enough to turn the situation into a Mexican stand-off until the referee eventually broke the stalemate and called the men back to their feet. Funaki connected well with a spinning high-kick but soon found himself on his back yet again. Once more, he stemmed the American's ground assault with a body-scissors. Shamrock fought furiously to free himself and gain a meaningful advantage. In his eyes was the fury and desperation one might see in a young basketball player who found himself a single basket away from out-pointing Michael Jordan.
Ultimately, the curtain closed on the inaugural Pancrase production with Funaki himself being submitted in the evening's main event and left unconscious on the canvas by his soon to be world-famous protégé.
In subsequent shows, Funaki was able to show the public just how good he really was, making up for the losing debut with a 7-fight win streak that saw him dominate the opposition with beautiful technique and explosive energy. Nonetheless, the pattern of losing when the organization most needed him to come up with a win--while dominating the opposition at almost every other interval--seemed to play out for the extent of his fighting career.
When the organization desperately needed a domestic champion to lift the King of Pancrase title off Bas Rutten, it was again Funaki who was elected to the task. A combination of rule-changes that allowed for swifter stand-ups when the ground fighting stretched on and a great opponent rendered Funaki unable to repeat his earlier success against the Dutchman. After outclassing Rutten on the ground, the fight was brought to its feet by the referee, where Funaki was brutalized by his opponent's superior striking.
With the will of a true champion, Funaki repeatedly scored takedowns to bring the fight back into his preferred territory. However, Pancrase rules and poor luck joined against him once more. Each takedown took Rutten either into or in close vicinity of the ropes, whereupon Pancrase rules mandated immediate stand-ups. Finally, a tiring Funaki was left with but two options: surrender the bout or attempt to match the lethal Dutchman at his own game.
With a screaming crowd behind him, Funaki stormed forward, intent upon meeting the assault of expert knees, kicks and palm-strikes that awaited him blow-for-blow and somehow, some way, giving better than he got. And though he kicked and struck with the prowess of a truly well-rounded combatant, it was not long before he succumbed to a technical knock-out following five consecutive knockdowns and so many knees to the head that Rutten reportedly endured throbbing pain in them for days after the bout.
For many, these are the bouts--left conveniently out of the aforementioned highlight video--that, along with a career-ending loss to Rickson Gracie, define and shape Funaki's legacy.
At best, such critics will say, the man was an also-ran or worse, a failure. The harshest of them will point to Funaki's professional wrestling credentials and call him a fake. Some criticisms of Funaki go beyond his professional career; Japan's Wikipedia entry on the Pancrase fighter refers to him as a "bully" and "cold and heartless"; one who--citing Minoru Suzuki and Ken Shamrock as examples-- "cuts off relationships with his friends easily."
It is unclear how seriously we may take these allegations. However, to suspend skepticism for a moment, it is interesting to note that Funaki grew up in a single parent household, his father having himself broken off that most sacred of unions with Masakatsu's mother at an early stage in the wrestler's life. Sometimes, life does indeed move in a vicious circle.
Speaking statistically, in 50-fights, Funaki came up the winner 38 times. In the process, he gained arguably the most impressive win column in the history of the sport thus far. Then there are the details, such as that Funaki was far more dominant in his victory against Bas Rutten than El Guapo was in the return match&or that it was Funaki who halted self-confessed black arts practitioner Jason Delucia's march to the King of Pancrase laurels when Yuki Kondo and Minoru Suzuki failed to do so. What might also be recalled to memory is the weight deficit that Funaki overcame on the night where he took Ken Shamrock's back and forced him to submit.
Nevertheless, moments such as the masterful dual application of a reverse-hammerlock and triangle-choke to earn a submission over a fighter no less fabled than Yuki Kondo pale before the disappointments of his career.
You see, everyone expected him to defeat the likes of Mezger, Rutten, Kondo and the Shamrocks. What people didn't expect of Funaki, was for him to be of any less heroic proportion than Rikidozan, Tiger Mask and all the iconic Japanese professional wrestling heroes that came before him. And yet those men, for all their athleticism and legitimate catch-wrestling ability, were players on a stage. The dance they acted out--though admittedly dangerous, physical and demanding--was most often a predetermined one. It was their task to symbolize that lofty ideal of the national hero that Japan--and really, every nation--longs for.
That's no easy charge. But in Funaki's case, as a shoot-competitor, he had to quite literally strive towards that same ideal tooth and claw each and every time he stepped into the Pancrase ring. He couldn't simply act the part; rather he had to truly be the hero. And so it fell to the product of an Aomori broken home to be courageous, strong, honorable, and of course, victorious in battle.
Even so, Funaki was but a man, with all the manifold of failings that go along with it. In that way, his aspirations to become the incarnation of the mythic pro-wrestling hero were doomed from the beginning. And yet, simply because the project was destined to failure does not necessarily mean that it wasn't a noble one.
Of course, there's nothing noble about bullying other wrestlers or--as one of the more serious accusations leveled towards Funaki claims--flying into a violent rage because a sparring partner close to 40 pounds lighter than you was making you look bad. For those that have made a close study of Funaki's career, such stories must be quite jarring and surprising.
The Funaki highlight reel, as excellent an introduction as it is, left out more than just Funaki's defeats. In the author's opinion, at least, the most striking images of Funaki were those that followed his athletic performances. The way he held Bas Rutten's hand and consoled the Dutchman after submitting him, or the way he raised Semmy Schilt's hand after the giant gave his name over to Funaki's win column or how, after losing narrowly to a defensive Guy Mezger whom he'd twice beaten, he wasted no time in wrapping the Pancrase belt about the American's waist: these were the moments that defined and set apart Funaki for me. Here--or so it seemed--was a man who not only boasted incredible catch-as-catch-can talent, but was also a class act in victory or defeat.
Was it all an illusion? Was it simply part of an attempt by a money-hungry bully to put on the face of a "good guy" that former professional wrestling fans might rally behind him and buy more tickets? Only Funaki himself can grant a direct answer to those questions.
Instead then, let us turn to a quote from the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, who notes that man "is spiritual when he lives in the presence of an ideal" (The Life of Reason, p. 264) and that "life in the ideal&must be regarded&as&fundamental&of all life (The Life of Reason, p. 265)." Funaki exemplifies a fundamental principle in all striking arts, namely aiming beyond one's target to achieve maximum impact upon the target itself. In martial arts more generally considered and, for that matter, life itself, some might criticize such idealism as a matter of unreasonable expectations, the sort which crushes men who try to achieve it.
Funaki set out to be a savior--to be the one to revitalize Japan's tradition of full contact mixed martial arts--- and, it might be argued, he failed in that attempt. Nonetheless, the very tradition he attempted to revitalize, embodied in that principle-- must by the same token recognize the nobility that lied in the attempt to reach for that ever elusive ideal.
One may reasonably hold the opinion that Funaki attempted to be a savior and failed, or reasonably hold the opinion that he attempted to be a hero but was grounded by feet of clay or reasonably argue he otherwise fell short of the ideal he put it upon himself to embody. It is a matter of fact, not opinion that he trained himself to go from strength to strength in mixed martial arts, to have the strikes, the submissions and the wrestling, the physical power and the agility and have none of those areas be weaknesses. It is a matter of record, not belief, that he used those strengths to overcome the best opponents in the world again and again, time after time.
Hero? Perhaps, but then again, maybe not. Savior? Maybe, perhaps not. What cannot be argued is that in his attempt to reach perfection, he ended up being one of the greatest fighters and sportsmen to grace the ring and attained the only honor neither the favor of fans or promoters, nor time itself may remove--- that of champion.