When C.M. Punk was signed to the UFC fans considered it a slap in the face to the many, many fighters out there struggling to make it to the big show on their own ability. Punk was hired as a famous face who would bring a portion of his following from his professional wrestling days, a portion of fans who didn't care about pro wrestling or MMA but wanted to see him hurt, and the group of MMA fans who were originally offended who also relished the idea of watching him be humiliated. The UFC 203 card was headlined by headlined by Stipe Miocic and Alistair Overeem, but it is easy to believe that Punk's presence on the card led to 203 selling 450,000 pay-per-views in a run of events where every non-McGregor pay-per-view was struggling below the 300,000 buy mark.
The idea of seeing a celebrity fight is not new. In fact the non-fighting athlete trying his hand in the fight game is perhaps the best scenario in this type of promoting. A fact that many in the combat sports world would like to forget is that Akebono versus Bob Sapp stands as the most viewed live fight of all time, with over fifty million viewers for a bout which was objectively woeful. But perhaps the most successful use of a non-fighter in mixed martial arts came long before all of that, back in 1997.
Nobuhiko Takada was one of the founding members of the Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi), a revival of the defunct UWF, a wrestling promotion which focused on 'shoot style' matches—focusing on realistic holds and techniques. This style of wrestling was becoming more popular in Japan through the nineties due to the influence of legit catch wrestlers like Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch in training Japanese professional wrestlers. In turn it heavily influenced the development of mixed martial arts organizations there. Pancrase—one of Japan's most important early MMA organizations—was founded by some of the gifted wrestlers left over from the collapse of the original UWF. But Takada stuck to professional wrestling and with the UWFi he set to work creating rivalries with other promotions, disparaging their less realistic style of matches. Despite successful feuds and angles, and Takada's enormous popularity, the UWFi was forced to fold as the original UWF had and Takada was left looking for his next venture.
The theme through UWFi had been extending challenges to outsiders and other organizations. UWFi founding member and booker, Yoji Anjo most famously extended challenges to Rickson Gracie. Rickson, the champion of the Gracie jiu jitsu clan with an alleged (and highly dubious) record of 400-0 in real fights, turned down any opportunity to either work with or fight against Anjo as he felt appearing with a pro wrestler might undermine his actual fights. In 1994 Anjo flew to America and conducted an unsuccessful dojo storming on Rickson, being savagely beaten in the process. In December of 1996, Nobuhiko Takada signed with a new promotion called PRIDE and Rickson Gracie was convinced to fight him at PRIDE 1 on October 11 th 1997.
Almost fifty thousand people filled the Tokyo Dome to see the fight. Stephen Quadros likened the feeling of the match up in Japan to if Hulk Hogan were taking a professional fight. The first PRIDE event showcased MMA stalwarts like Oleg Taktarov, Renzo Gracie and Dan Severn, but it was the main event that brought in the crowds. Takada, who had for years declared his professional wrestling legit and other organizations fake, would have a chance to demonstrate his actual wrestling ability against the man who some believed to be the best fighter on the planet. The fight went as expected, with Gracie moving forward robotically behind a push kick. When Gracie finally got a hold of Takada's leg, Takada looped his arm over the top rope and clung for dear life until the referee broke them. Finally, Gracie awkwardly shot for Takada's legs. A scramble ensued and Gracie came up on a hard slam. Moments later Gracie mounted Takada, a fish out of water on his back, and Takada clung to Gracie's waist. After a minute or so of cross facing and attempting to make distance, Rickson swung into an armbar.
It is said that without Gracie – Takada, PRIDE could not have gone on to become the world leader in mixed martial arts. But Takada wasn't "one and done", and he continued through nine more fights. PRIDE's first concern was setting up the rematch with Gracie, so they booked Takada into a fight at PRIDE 2 with the debuting Kyle Sturgeon. This fight was painfully fake, as Sturgeon threw light kicks against Takada's arms and the pro wrestler threw himself across the ring, selling the strikes.
And Sturgeon eased his way through the world's slowest and least impactful double leg takedown.
Before giving Takada the easy heel hook at 2:17 of the first round.
Takada's only other victory came over the great Mark Coleman. Coleman had fallen on hard times, after running through his first tournament and easily beating Dan Severn for the UFC heavyweight title, he had suffered three defeats on the trot against Maurice Smith, Pete Williams, and Pedro Rizzo. Whether Takada knew it or not, it seemed that Mark Coleman was holding back and giving Takada opportunities to work. Rarely punching to the head and obviously pulling his punches when he did, Coleman spent most of the first round simply looking busy. Even in his losses, no one escaped a fight with Coleman without looking like they had been dragged down a city block on their front. Takada, with no defensive guard to speak of and outweighed by at least forty pounds, mysteriously escaped largely unscathed. The end came as Coleman easily threw Takada to the mat, before walking back into Takada's guard.
From there he seemed unable to advance or hit Takada, while waiting for Takada to realize that he was presenting the heel hook. When Takada finally attacked the leg Coleman went into full professional wrestling mode, rolling flat to the mat and showing the referee the 'no, never!' hand gesture before tapping. It was embarrassing—perhaps even more embarrassing because unlike the theatrical hamming of the Sturgeon fight, Takada didn't seem to be in on it.
The rest of Takada's career played out unimpressively. Mark Kerr submitted him with a kimura pretty easily. Takada was able to hold Igor Vovchanchyn down for much of the first round but was mounted and pounded into submission as soon as the second round started. PRIDE finally showed some mercy and tried to find Takada some opponents who weren't already at the peak of the MMA game, matching his against a 1-0 Mirko Cro Cop and a debuting Mike Bernardo, but Takada only succeeded in getting a pair of draws.
Takada's retirement fight came against Kiyoshi Tamura. Tamura was on a streak of losses since before joining PRIDE but was a criminally underrated fighter. Tamura was one of the young grapplers who wrestled in UWFi and later Kingdom, but he also held a sterling MMA record through his time with RINGS. Tamura handed the Gracie family just their second loss in the ring, beating the accomplished Renzo Gracie in February of 2000. Tamura's game, aside from his strong wrestling, was timing kicks and knees as opponents stepped in. After shellacking Takada's legs and body through the first round, Tamura caught the old pro wrestler with a check hook that left him stiff and wide eyed on the canvas. It was an upsetting way to go out.
It would be easy to remember Nobuhiko Takada as some kind of bum. Lots of MMA fans already do. But this might be doing a disservice to what Takada was able to accomplish in the ring despite inexperience, age and a lack of athletic prowess. For one thing, in legitimate fights Takada was able to scramble up from beneath Mark Kerr, take down Igor Vovchanchyn, and indeed take the latter's notoriously powerful punches.
Some thought that Ken Shamrock had improved immensely when he sat in Royce Gracie's guard, controlling Gracie's lapels or biceps and headbutting him into a swollen mess. When Nobuhiko Takada was handed to Royce in the opening round of the PRIDE 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix, Takada copied Shamrock's method of low posture and control of the collar grips. Royce was reduced to heel kicking the thighs and kidneys while the inexperienced and overmatched Takada was never in danger of being stopped, swept, or even pushed away by the three time UFC champion.
But Takada's finest showing as a fighter might have been his rematch with Rickson Gracie in just his third MMA fight. The record reads 'Rickson by armbar' but it was far from easy. It was Takada who initiated the clinch, and by keeping the underhooks he was able to prevent the legendary Rickson from achieving any kind of takedown. Midway through the round Takada scored a knee to the midsection which sat Gracie to his butt.
It could have been a wily attempt at a guard pull but when Gracie returned to the feet his grimace told the story of the knee. This kind of shot and Gracie's trouble in the clinch with Takada raise the question of what would have happened if Rickson had accepted Bas Rutten's 1998 challenge, or met any of the great wrestlers competing in PRIDE or the UFC at the time.
When Rickson did finally pull guard, Takada made the same error that cost Ken Shamrock his first match with Royce Gracie, falling back for a leg attack with nothing keeping Rickson from simply following him back.
Rickson mounted Takada again but was met with well-timed resistance at several points. Takada was able to reap the leg while escaping mount, and able to buck Rickson off several times. The finish came by armbar once again but it arrived at 9:30 of the ten minute round.
Nobuhiko Takada was never a great fighter, but his impact was significant. It was Takada who inspired so many of the young professional wrestlers who would go on to have fighting careers. Kazushi Sakuraba for a long time trained at Takada's dojo with Takada and Anjo, and cornered Takada in each of his fights. Sakuraba became the stand out star of PRIDE and became famous for handing the Gracie's their first defeat in MMA, as well as three others in the coming years. Takada became PRIDE's spokesperson and mascot, playing the taiko drum in many of PRIDE's flamboyant opening ceremonies.
Unfortunately, despite PRIDE having many of the greatest fighters in the world at the time—Mark Kerr, Mark Coleman, Igor Vovchanchyn, Kazushi Sakuraba—Rickson could never be tempted to meet any of them, instead retiring after his fight against the aged Masakatsu Funaki just three weeks after Coleman had won PRIDE's first open weight grand prix.
What remains the most important point is that PRIDE 2, 3 and 5 had between four and six thousand spectators. All of PRIDE's other events before the 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix managed around ten thousand. The two events headlined by Rickson Gracie and Nobuhiko Takada filled the Tokyo Dome to its almost fifty thousand person capacity. Whether you believe that Nobuhiko Takada was a bum, or a professional wrestler playing make believe, or you believe that Rickson Gracie deliberately avoided the best fighters in the world, the fights between the two were among the most significant in the history of mixed martial arts. Without them it is doubtful whether PRIDE could have achieved all the things that it went on to do.