Of all the stories that have come out during this worldwide pandemic, the news that UFC boss Dana White had reportedly secured a private island in order to stage cage fights might be the most “on brand.”
When an April 18 bout between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson was cancelled due to travel bans preventing Nurmagomedov from leaving Russia, White hastily tried to reschedule a new fight between Ferguson and Justin Gaethje on tribal land in California. When that was nixed as well, White told ESPN that he had acquired a private island to stage UFC events, particularly ones involving fighters from outside the United States.
Plans for Fight Island forged ahead, with White assuring ESPN that he really is “putting an octagon on the beach,” but would not reveal where the island was due to his well-documented distrust of the media that even led to the company demanding media members sign non-disparagement clauses before reporting on events. Then, this week, it was revealed that “Fight Island” will actually just be Yas Island, a human constructed island in Abu Dhabi, where past UFC events have been held. In the meantime, the UFC has followed the lead of pro wrestling and staged three events in Florida, before moving to its own home base of UFC Apex, just as WWE has done with its Performance Center.
But that’s not the only thing the UFC is borrowing from pro wrestling here. More than three decades ago, New Japan Pro Wrestling had its own Fight Island, producing one of the longest and most bizarre wrestling matches in history: The October 4, 1987 Ganryujima Island Deathmatch between Antonio Inoki and Masa Saito.
Mixed martial arts has deep historical ties to professional wrestling in Japan, many connecting through Inoki himself, who once famously “fought” Muhammad Ali in a bout that has been dubbed the inspiration for MMA. Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972; in addition to running the company, he was also its top star.
“He's like the Beatles. The more you read about Inoki, the more you realize how little you know about him. He's one of the most influential wrestlers of the 20th century. But for today's audience, Antonio Inoki is your grandpa's age, so they don't go back and watch him,” said Fumi Saito, wrestling historian, author, and co-host of the Pacific Rim podcast.
One hallmark of Inoki’s booking of himself is that he consistently placed himself in matches against opponents with legitimate fighting backgrounds. Since he almost always won these matches, it served to build up his reputation, while also maintaining the illusion that professional wrestling might be a real fight.
In Masa Saito, Inoki couldn’t have found a scarier opponent. A former representative of Japan in Olympic wrestling, Saito transitioned to professional wrestling and quickly became a star in North America working for the WWF and American Wrestling Association (AWA).
His career came to a temporary halt in 1984 after he beat up some cops. After an event in Wisconsin, Saito and fellow performer Ken Patera ventured to a nearby McDonald’s, and when Patera was refused service, Patera threw a 30-pound rock through the window. When officers came to the room Patera and Saito were sharing looking for Patera, Saito was uncooperative, and the two pummelled a pair of cops in a scene the judge described as “a tag-team wresting match, with the officers completely overmatched by the stature of Patera and Saito.”
A year after serving his jail sentence, Saito was back in New Japan Pro Wrestling, and with fans’ knowledge of the circumstances of his arrest, was an even more imposing heel than before. The man known for beating up the police returning home to challenge the actual authority of New Japan Pro Wrestling is exactly the kind of realism-laced feud Inoki craved.
The two engaged in six matches in 1987 alone, including the finals of the IWGP League, in which Inoki defeated Saito to become the first IWGP Heavyweight champion (a previous version of the belt was first awarded to Hulk Hogan in 1983). This was initially the “blow off” of the feud, as a number of prominent wrestlers from rival promotions had jumped ship, including Riki Choshu, one of Japan’s biggest stars, and Akira Maeda, a rising star with legit fighting credentials. This started a storyline billed as “New vs. Now,” wherein a group of “invading” younger performers challenged the establishment of Inoki and other veteran performers. Suddenly, Saito was his tag-team partner, helping defend the company and maintain the leadership of the veterans. These tropes—fighting the establishment, faux invasions—were innovative at the time, and 10 years later, would be used in North America in the Steve Austin vs. Vince McMahon and NWO vs. WCW storylines that created the biggest boom period the industry has ever seen.
As successful as the angle was, NJPW was still facing stiff competition from rival All Japan Pro Wrestling in television ratings, and a new TV season in Japan was set to begin in the fall. New Japan’s broadcaster, TV Asahi, wanted something big for the prime-time premiere, and Inoki had a wacky idea: Reignite his feud with Saito one last time and fight him on an uninhabited island.
“Fans were hoping that Maeda would face Inoki. He was the guy people wanted to beat Inoki for real, which never happened,” said Saito, who was a part of the TV production of Ganryujima Island Death Match. “Overnight, Inoki single handedly killed four months of storyline and switched it back to him versus Saito.”
Inoki vs. Saito was, for the time, a marvel of television production. Cameras were placed on platforms distant from the ring, and an aerial shot was captured by a helicopter which floated overheard—visibly and audibly—throughout the entire match. Each wrestler had a dramatic entrance on a boat, and were then housed in respective tents until the match began. The bout itself was a reference to the 1612 duel on the same island between legendary samurais Kojiro Sasaki and Musashi Miyamoto. Elements of the match were nods to the historical tale, including Inoki not coming out of his tent for 30 minutes, alluding to Musashi arriving late for the battle with Sasaki.
Current day outside-the-box cinematic matches are full-on collaborative efforts between the performers and the staff. The recent Stadium Stampede match on AEW’s “Double or Nothing” pay-per-view, filmed inside an empty Jacksonville Jaguars stadium, was reportedly an all-day production that was filmed in segments over eight hours. By contrast, Inoki and Saito wrestled for two hours and four minutes (30 of those minutes were Inoki sitting in his tent or peering out momentarily), and didn’t clue anyone on the production staff into what was going on.
“The No. 1 people that Inoki wanted to kayfabe was TV people. It's the the old keep your friends close, but keep your enemies closer thing. You don't tell TV producers anything,” said Saito. “Therefore they have to be there to just film everything. Inoki told them this was a real fight. He didn't tell the producers the result, the outcomes of the angles, the storylines, nothing. He made sure TV people didn't know anything, so they had to film it like a documentary.
“I was pretty much camping out at the studio all night long editing it. They had to be there the whole day to film the entire thing. But that footage looked good!”
Although Inoki wanted the production staff to think it was a real fight, cameras naturally picked up clues to the contrary that had to be edited out, such as both wrestlers blading at different points in the match.
In working a match that was both intended to look like a real fight and go for a very long time, Inoki and Saito leaned heavily on their grappling credentials to pace themselves. There are many stretches of five to 10 minutes in which either wrestler is caught in a hold and doing nothing but grimacing. The first “high spot” in the match comes more than 30 minutes in, when Inoki and Saito finally tumble out of the ring onto the grass. Twenty minutes later, the torches on the island were lit and Inoki tried to push Saito into the fire. After another 20 minutes, Saito attacks Inoki with firewood. After two hours, Inoki finally chokes Saito unconscious and slowly stumbles and crawls off the island for the victory.
It remains the longest match in Japanese wrestling history, and despite the absence of fans, it was not without a gate. Inoki cleverly decided to sell flags for advertising to media outlets. Companies had to buy one Inoki and one Saito flag for roughly $1,000 each. Purely in flag revenue alone, the match brought in $100,000.
On the tape-trading market, the match made plenty more. Once international audiences caught word of this bizarre match, and photos started appearing in popular wrestling magazines, demand for a copy of the match skyrocketed. Only three known versions of the match exist. There is the commercial tape version that circulated in the late 80s and 90s, with a runtime just short of one hour, which is presented with no commentary. There is a version uploaded to New Japan’s streaming service in March, which has a runtime of an hour and 43 minutes and TV Asahi commentary.
However, notorious tape collector Roy Lucier provided VICE with a third, incredibly rare version of the match. While the New Japan World version begins with Inoki peeking out of his tent, the recently unearthed version begins with Saito arriving at Narita Airport, then running and doing calisthenics in an empty industrial neighboruhood, before Inoki gives an interview sitting cross-legged on the shore of the beach. Viewers then see both men make their epic entrances on their respective boats.
Interest in the match has increased of late (likely prompting New Japan to upload the match), since current wrestling is forced into empty and sometimes unusual locations due to social distancing.
“You can have a match without an audience. Masa and Inoki can do this without an audience. I always use this as an example: The Miz and John Morrison couldn't do this. They would look silly without an audience. They're the type of wrestlers who need an audience, they do a move, they wait for the reaction,” said Saito. “Inoki and Masa can do this like they're dancing. It's about either controlling the audience or being controlled by the audience.”
Today on Ganryujima Island, which is accessible via ferry for tourists, there is an inscription commemorating the match on the statue of Sasaki and Miyamoto, the very samurais they paid tribute to.
“They really carved ‘Antonio Inoki and Masa Saito had a wrestling match here in 1987’ as if it was something historical and real,” said Saito. “I didn’t know how big of a deal it was until recently. At the time, I didn't think it was going to be this important. But 30 years later, it's historical.”
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