The evolution of Kiyoshi Tamura is amazing. Nine months after having the best of the flashy, exciting style of worked shoots (9/26/97 vs. Volk Han), he's done just the opposite, the best of the realistic style of worked shoots. Tamura didn't totally reinvent himself for this match because this style is a lot more toward what Tamura prefers, with the flashy stuff being closer to him doing Han's style. Tamura was one of the keys to the style of RINGS changing from few shoots and a lot of glamorous looking works (or at least supposedly glamorous since you had a lot of striking by guys that were not too good) to a mix of realistic works and shoots to 100% shoots. While he'd done realistic matches before, none were close to this level. He did reinvent himself by going from a guy that had worked virtually every match for his first 9 years into one of the best shooters, and 10 months after this match against Kosaka, he held the great Frank Shamrock to a draw in one of the best shoots. I'm getting ahead of myself now though.
"The contrast between matches such as this one and Tamura's earlier matches with work (almost) only fighters like Han shows what a diverse performer he is, and that during 1998 he might well have been the best worker in the world. The number of overly realistic matches Tamura had done up to this point probably wasn't all that many due to the kind of people he had to work with, so it says a lot that he had classic matches in this style so quickly," wrote James.
Tamura certainly altered his style a lot in 1998, the thing is he remained true to what had made him so awesome in the first place. He stopped doing a lot of things that look amazing but weren't particularly believable, replacing them with things that look amazing and are believable. Tamura's speed and technique were his strength, he just found different ways of showing it off. In a way, it certainly doesn't stand out as much now, but that's because it's not supposed to. This is the kind of match where you could say that nothing happened or everything happened. There aren't highspots in the traditional sense of something that jumps out at you like 3-5 reversals or near submissions in the blink of an eye. Instead, the spots stay within the realm of possibility, Tamura's movement and quickness has never been better. His style "change" requires most viewers to alter their tastes to some extent because the beauty isn't quite as in your face anymore. It's still there, but you have to dig a little deeper, observe a little more intently, to pick it out.
"Two of the problems I have always had with 'vintage' RINGS was the way that people would often make overly fast comebacks after knockdowns and also sit in legit submissions without tapping out. Whilst the latter wasn't all that common except when the match involved workers who didn't really know what they were doing, the former did happen a fair bit and it was good to see it not occur during this match," wrote James.
The submissions bothered me a lot more because in a "real" fight, you don't have time to sell. When you get up from being knocked down your opponent is liable to put the pressure on, so you are forced to get well soon.
Any draw of 30 minutes or more is hard to pull off because the wrestlers have to do a lot more, dig a lot deeper into the gas tank, and deal with a crowd whose attention span is probably that much smaller than it was the last time they wrestled. That said, this has to be one of the hardest matches to pull off because of the realism factor. What makes it so tricky is the obvious clash between the style of shooting and working. The style of shooting they portrayed with the active, constant motion style of Frank Shamrock. This is the best style for keeping people interested because, in a sense, there's never a dull moment. The thing is, their method of working the match was to be patient and show restraint, which most people equate with dull moments.
"Again, it says a lot about the ability of the workers that they can have such a great long match while having to keep it realistic. I don't think attention spans were necessarily a big problem here because within the first ten minutes especially - about the length of a normal RINGS worked match - the crowd reacted loudly to any opening that looked like it might have ended with a submission and the heat didn't exactly die from that point onwards," wrote James.
They gave themselves 5 lost points each to work with, but that doesn't go very far when a knockdown is a two point deduction. By not allotting themselves many points, it was a conscious decision not to use them as the crutch all the excitement rested on. They made the fans wait "forever" for the first lost point, and even so the rest of the match only averaged about a lost point every two minutes. That's not ridiculously low, but it's minuscule in comparison to the 17 lost points in 10 minutes Han matches we love and "grew up on." The real challenge here was to constantly work to new positions to keep the audience watching intently without working into positions where one guy would be "trapped" and have to burn one of his points.
One thing about this match was that they didn't "just roll and crawl around on the mat." They would lift the level of excitement up through potential finishers. Sometimes the possibility of a finisher would appear and disappear within seconds due to a counter such as a spin out or roll through. Other times, a move would be half on so the excitement would be derived from one guy hanging on for dear life. On other occasions, the move would be applied, but not locked in totally so there was time to work for a counter. This was definitely a match that pushed rope breaks as the absolute last resort.
"Rope breaks as a 'last resort' is a step forward for the RINGS style. Over the years, far too many RINGS matches had a talented guy being stuck in there with a European kickboxer that had no clue about submissions, so he would just take a rope break every time he was on the mat. Burning through points that way was far more annoying than the way points were used up in Han's matches," wrote James.
I wouldn't call the Han mentality of point utilization annoying. To me, Han's style was exciting but sometimes excessive, while the style of the clueless gaijins like Sander Thonhauser was annoying and sometimes repulsive.
This is the kind of match that people will appreciate enough not to come out and say it was nothing special and bored them, but you either appreciate it for what it is and think it's one of the greatest ever or think it's really overrated because "not much happened." As usual, it depends how much of your own tastes you bring to the match. If you try plugging this match into your own set of tastes, you probably won't think it's that great. If you try judging it on what they are presenting and how they are presenting it, which is what you have to do if you want to give a fair critique of any art formt, it's tremendous.
"Show the match to a WWF mark who has been brainwashed into thinking that kicks and punches are technical wrestling and the Crippler crossface and sharpshooter are the be all and end all of submissions and I'm sure they would comment that the match was boring," wrote James.
What amazed me about this match is the intensity they sustained throughout the course of 30 minutes. Usually you can tell it's a work just from looking at the eyes and facial expressions of the performers, but these two were so intent and focused. They sweat buckets, not that you don't sweat in works or anything, but in a way it points out the kind of effort they put out.
The most valid criticism of this match would be that it's not a match that will fool an educated viewer into believing it was real. Normally the length would be a big factor in that, but this wasn't a match where 10 minutes were "real" and then they "blew it." It was more realistic than say 98% of the worked shoots, but from the get go, as hard as they tried, it still had the slight look of a work because everything was just a little too clean and easy. I don't think it's a big factor because the worked shoots that are more realistic usually are short and either they don't do much and then somebody taps or they get by on strikes that are to the body and/or only pulled to the extent that they won't injure the opponent. I don't think there's been a shoot where there was so much movement that looked more realistic, and the movement is really what made the match because first and foremost this is a technical masterpiece.
"A lot of 'long' shoots (especially in PRIDE) tend to have extended periods of laying around legitimately doing very little, which this match luckily didn't have. That could lead some people to believe that it was worked because it would take a lot of stamina to work an all action thirty minute shoot match," wrote James.
I think it's much more apt to make people think these guys are fun to watch because they are so well conditioned than it is to make them think the match is worked. Lay and pray is more a sign of the controlling fighters lack of overall ability than anything else. These guys, particularly Kosaka since he had the draw with Frank among other long shoots, were already known for their stamina anyway.
Clearly, this match was a defensive battle. The success rate was extremely low no matter what type of technique it was. There were a lot of little victories, but they were gone before you knew it. That's really where so much of the fun was derived from. There was nothing half hearted about any of the techniques that were countered, it was more like they challenged each other. They went out there and took it too each other for 30 minutes in a way that the other guy could avoid or capitalize on their attempts only if they had the focus and reflexes to see it coming in time and the technique to then do something with the opportunity. They mainly stuck to positions and situations where it didn't matter whether the other guy countered or not because a successful attempt put them 1-3 steps away from winning rather than 2-4. I've gone on about Tamura because it's really his match, but without a guy like Kosaka that's close enough to his equal, Tamura could never have pulled it off to this extent. It was a match where pushing each other happened to translate into pushing the limits and barriers as well.
As far as how the match played out, these two were pretty even in all regards. Tamura was a little better in striking because he put Kosaka down once, but trying to strike got him taken down. Kosaka's best strike was a high kick, but he was taken down when Tamura caught the subsequent one against his head. Kosaka was ahead on lost points more often than not, but Tamura came the closest to winning.
Tamura came back and put together a 2 point lead with 5 minutes left then wound up on top after Kosaka's judo throw, where he nearly locked in an udehishigigyakujujigatame. This was probably the most important point of the fight because Kosaka could have easily lost faith in himself and packed it in. Instead, he turned out of it and Tamura was the one forced to use a rope escape to avoid getting locked in the udehishigigyakujujigatame. Both men were weary, but Kosaka's famous stamina is probably what saved him because Tamura was "tired" to the point that he lost a good chance to knee after just one. This, in turn, gave Kosaka the opportunity to roll Tamura into a neck lock to force the rope break that tied the match.
The finish was so dramatic. Kosaka had been working a hizajujigatame, but tried so hard to get the leverage that he let Tamura get behind him and try to lock in a hadakajime. Tamura kept Kosaka just far enough away that he couldn't reach the ropes, but Kosaka had his arms in the lock so Tamura really wasn't able to choke him. Time was running out so Tamura couldn't be patient. He made a great last ditch effort where he took the main arm that was preventing the choke and got udehishigigyakujujigatame position except Kosaka clasped his hands. With 13 seconds remaining and Kosaka still a little too far to reach the ropes, it was down to whether Kosaka could keep his hands together until time expired. Tamura used all his might to try and separate them, but it was not to be. The finish put the final stamp on a match that exemplified just how much difference a centimeter and a second can make.
RINGS has rarely had matches that approached this length, but what always impresses me about this match was just how short it seemed. Time is consistent, but interpretation of it is so relative. Because I was so drawn into it, I'd be amazed at how much time had gone by since the last time I put the display up. It felt like I could have watched this match five times quicker than I could sit through one mass. There have been many great matches over the course of time, but when you look back, the ones that stand out the most are generally the ones where you feel like you saw a new and unique match. Such is the case with Tamura vs. Kosaka.
RINGS was different from other shootstyle "pro-wrestling" promotions in Japan. Even though the majority of their natives were agile, technically sound "small" guys, the company rarely focused on native vs. native matches. Instead, they brought in huge foreign heavyweights from places like Russia & Holland for the natives to battle. Tamura, who weighs in at less than 200 lbs, had to take a huge amount of punishment from people like Bitsadze Tariel, a huge Georgian whose main strength was his menacing frame. After watching Kiyoshi's match against Frank Shamrock, I wonder how good Tamura would have looked in Pancrase, where the focus was on agility and technique with smaller guys opposed to striking and heavyweights. I would have loved to see him against Bas Rutten, Minoru Suzuki, & Yoshiki Takahashi because I believe that would be an environment where his strengths would mean much more.
This was a fight where Tamura's strengths were used in the best way. Unlike his matches against the Tariel's of the world, his opponent was not only someone who didn't need to be carried, but the native that was as close as possible to Tamura's own ability. Kosaka was great in shoot matches (he showed this more than once in both RINGS and UFC) and very, very good in worked matches. Tamura was probably the best in worked matches. Some people would say it's Volk Han, but it's like picking between Kevin Spacey and Robert De Niro; you always end up with amazing stuff, even if different.
You knew even before this match started that it would be an exciting battle of two of the most technically gifted athletes in all of pro-wrestling. This match exemplifies why I love RINGS and shootstyle pro-wrestling. It's not a style for everybody because it requires something that is unnecessary in most styles, a great deal of attention to small details. It's not something that will give instant payoff, you just have to taste it slowly like a good whiskey. If you are ready to give attention to those details, to how smartly they reverse each other's position and advantage, RINGS should be something you enjoy and appreciate. If you think about it, highspots get old very fast, while matwork and stiffness (in this case good standup striking) never get old and are always exciting. There isn't the "can you top this" stigma to the product that plagues gimmick matches like TLC, where the workers take an incredible amount of punishment to please an audience that for the most part doesn't appreciate the effort and just "ooh"s and "ahh"s at the daredevil bumps and wants more like vampires want blood. I believe RINGS is an acquired taste, but something that you'll eventually "fall in love" with if you're open to trying to understand what lies beneath.
I hate to sound like Larry Zybyzko here, but this match was simply a game of chess where strategy becomes more important than flashy holds or impressive striking. One would make "his move" trying to go for, say, an udehishigigyakujujigatame, but the other would either keep his arms tied avoiding the extension or roll and get on top of the opponent again. The thing that I loved about RINGS was the point system, such a simple idea that became a helpful tool for psychology and helped the crowd and the viewers immerse themselves into the action. The way the points where distributed was really smart. Being that RINGS was a heavyweight company, there would be a lot of situations where you'd have KO's and lots of striking. However, given the ability of their natives (plus the usual suspects Han and co.) you'd have a totally different situation on the mat, with the agility and technique of people like Kosaka and Tamura being a threat to people like Joop Kasteel who were basically clueless in this particular style. All they needed was a simple udehishigigyakujujigatame, and the fight could be over. Two points were awarded (or should I say deducted from the 10 the fighter on the receiving end of the KO had at the start of the match) for a knockdown, while a rope break would cause a 1 point deduction. This was really smart because it put over the dangerous strikers without downplaying the fact that most of the same strikers would have to use a lot of rope escapes to avoid/get out of trouble on the mat. A lot of Volk Han matches were structured this way. He'd take a huge amount of punishment putting over often awful strikers and their ability to knock him down, then on the mat, in the flashiest, most technically incredible way, he'd come back forcing his opponents to use several rope breaks or tap out.
This was a different match. For the first 13 minutes, they did an amazing job of countering each others attempts to lock in a move, which is even more difficult and exciting than countering a move that has already been applied. Neither of the two was really in trouble because they were so good at reversing each other. It looked like a Rubik's Cube, where when you move one set of tiles all the other tiles move accordingly, so you have to think ahead or you won't be able to win the game.
The great thing about those first 13 minutes was that, like a Frank Shamrock fight, they were always active. They did little things to keep the crowd interested, and that's what made the match great even though it wasn't constant "excitement" like a Han match. At 13:38, the first point was lost, and the amazing thing was that time "stood still" for a while because I believed they were only up to the 6-7 minutes mark. Kosaka lost his first point at 18:23 thanks to an udehishigigyakujujigatame, but just two minutes later, Kosaka got the lead (3-1) with the same move. At this point, the score had yet to become the focus of the match; it was mainly about trying to make your opponent submit.
The strategy changed as the time limit approached, leaning more toward locking whatever they were going for near the ropes so they could up the score with a rope break. A rope break was very important at this point since it could have been the deciding point, so this really added to the drama. Obviusly they knew they were doing a draw because it was a work, but they made the match much more interesting for their audience who may have assumed draw, but clearly didn't know it for sure. Applying the submissions in the center of the ring, which is obviously what you'd try if it was real, leaves you two options. Either your opponent taps out or he escapes/reverses the move. Doing it near the ropes (close enough that your opponent can struggle to get the ropes, yet far enough that you can apply a submission without the guy extending his leg or arm and touching the ropes) gave them a third option, the rope escape. If they did this at the 15 minute mark, it would have been different. Since they did it so close to the 30 minute time limit, I really appreciated it in the sense of two guys trying to put together the most realistic worked shoot possible.
Tamura established his superiority in striking (at least this time) by putting Kosaka down with a flurry of palm strikes to tie the score at three. After some failed submission attempts, Kosaka scored his first important stand up "victory" when he hit very hard Tamura on the head with a kick. This victory was quickly forgotten (or wasted) because Tamura took him down when he tried for a second kick and forced him to escape a leg lock (5-3). The crowd heat at this point was getting very strong, and when Kosaka countered Tamura's udehishigigyakujujigatame with one of his own, the crowd erupted. Tamura had to escape (5-4) at 26:00.
These two had showed amazing stamina, but were now sweating heavily and began looking tired. The score was even after Kosaka had to escape Tamura's neck lock, and it became clear that it would end in a draw unless there was a late submission. This to me made the finish even better because Tamura had two important and dangerous holds on Kosaka just near the end, resulting in amazing crowd heat. It was down to this or nothing for Tamura, who tried first a sleeper then an udehishigigyakujujigatame. Tsuyoshi didn't let his hands go for the full extension, so the time limit expired and it was a draw.
I've always had trouble rating RINGS matches. At first, I didn't understand what was a work and what was a shoot. After watching more and more of the product, I finally realized how to figure out the difference, but there was still the problem of flashy worked matches vs. realistic worked matches. This was certainly one of the most realistic worked shoots I've ever seen, and there's another positive that doesn't happen that often with me. This match gets better and better every time I watch it. It's like one of those movies where, no matter how many times you watch it, you always pick up something new. That's why at the beginning I said this style doesn't get old. A lot of the matches I considered amazing upon first viewing didn't look as good after a few years (especially those that were focusing on highspots or gimmicks), but this is always a pleasure to re-watch.
If you accept the fact that RINGS mixed shoots and works (I know some of the hardcore MMA fans don't like RINGS for this reason), you'll appreciate this match a bit more. I actually think that RINGS lost some of its edge since they started the whole 100% shoot trend because, while you'll still have good and exciting fights, in my opinion there's nothing like a great worked shoot match. As for the rating itself, I have a really hard time rating anything *****. I've used this for probably less than 10 matches in my whole life as a wrestling fan. Those matches were such obvious ***** that there was no debate over them (such as Kawada v Misawa in 94, Han v Tamura in 97, Thunder Queen Battle, and so on). Usually that happens for matches like this that get better every time you watch them. I have a habit of overrating matches by at least 1/4* the first few times I watch them, that's why it's important, for a ***** match to please you every time you watch it. There's nothing wrong with this match. There's nothing that makes me want to lower the rating to a ****3/4 even after 10 months (last time I watched this before re-watching it today). It's revolutionary, it's amazing. It's *****.
Jerome's not really a review:
This is probably my favorite men's heavyweight match of all time, but it's definitely not a match for everybody. 30 minutes of the purest shootstyle wrestling with no concession to any kind of flashy sequence or spot cannot be appreciated if you're not a fan of the style to begin with. There's some kind of austerity to it because they decided they would take the most "realistic" approach and run with it the entire match. This match can seem very "dry" on the surface, but to me it's in fact the greatest pro-wrestling match (yes, I said "pro-wrestling") I've ever seen. The technical clinic put on during this half-hour is totally off the charts.
The criticism that I hear a lot about RINGS is the fact that the promotion used to mix works and shoots, putting the purist fan in the uncomfortable situation of always being forced to ask himself whether he was manipulated or not. It's interesting as it brings us back to the old dichotomy of the fake/real aspect of wrestling. "Smart" people don't want to feel manipulated by what they are watching, and a work in the middle of a several shoots bring them back to the ancient shame of watching, and enjoying, a fake competition. Kosaka vs. Tamura is a worked masterpiece in the middle of shoot matches (note: technically it wasn't in the middle since this match was the main event), therefore it's considered by certain people as a tricky "fake" shoot match. Saying that is just as wrong as saying that the match is not realistic enough to be perfect. What is realistic to begin with? In that case, realistic would be approaching what has been artificially defined as a "real" fight by a promotion. In the 80's, the U.W.F. was considered realistic. As was the second U.W.F. and then UWF-I in the mid-90's. Realism is nothing more than a standard accepted by a majority of people in a certain context. It should have been obvious to anybody that Vader using a powerbomb in UWF-I was not "realistic,." but that didn't stop the Japanese marks from believing the promotion was "the real deal." As a matter of fact, the realism of real fight is just as artificial, the rules defining what is acceptable and what is not. "Realism" and "real" are not the same thing, and a work is, by definition, not "real". So either you accept being manipulated and you open your heart to this masterpiece or you don't play the game and simply dismiss it as a "fake" shoot match. By doing the latter, you also dismiss all pro-wrestling because this match is indeed an awesome pro-wrestling match. Shoot-style wrestling is nothing more than the purest style of classic wrestling : people struggling for their holds, a lot of matwork, submissions, and a few stiff shots. All the flashiness of "traditional" pro-wrestling (and even the flashiness of a shoot style wrestler like Volk Han) has been cut out to rediscover the essence of the art.
The structure of the match is totally pro-wrestling: Kosaka and Tamura burn 15 minutes, executing the most breathtaking continuous matwork sequence I've seen in doing so, before an unbelievable work to the finish section that culminates with the most dramatics minutes (there goes the superlatives again) ever. It's a pro-wrestling lesson, as they had the ultimate match by doing, in fact, very few spots in 30 minutes (most of the holds were not applied since there were always countered and they only used very few points). THE masterpiece.
Special thanks to: Vanes Naldi, Jerome Denis, & James Phillips - Japanese Women's Wrestling