For a time, among pro wrestling stars in Japan, Akira Maeda stood alone. A young karate star with the size to match all but the biggest Americans, Maeda was groomed for the top, expected to replace top star Antonio Inoki in New Japan Pro Wrestling. Maeda's path, however, took him another direction.
He split from Inoki's group to form promotions of his own, helping popularize the "shoot style" movement. His matches were designed to look real. The slaps and kicks hit a little harder, the submission holds pulled from actual martial arts like judo and catch wrestling instead of merely from the imagination. He made fans want to believe a Boston Crab was a finishing hold somewhere other than a Gene LeBell book. That a rolling kick worked in something other than a Bruce Lee movie. Because his opponents were willing to let him land his strikes at nearly full force, and because he was willing to do the same, shootstyle flourished, especially among college age males in Tokyo.
His fans believed Maeda to be the real deal. He was, in the estimation of the Tokyo hardcores, the baddest man on the planet. Tens of thousands flocked to see him complete in the Tokyo Dome for the famed UWF. When he split from that group, he was able to headline shows around Japan with his Rings promotion for the better part of the 1990's.
Maeda wasn't a mere cog in the system for Rings - he was the whole damn show. Rings television contract famously didn't pay the promotion a red cent unless Maeda was on the card. It's the kind of pressure that wears on a man. Maeda fought through injuries, pushed himself to places the human body was never meant to go. He battled injury like a true samurai, forced to for his company to survive. He had employees, dozens of them, relying on his presence in the building every night to make a living.
But in the end, it all proved too much. Nagging injuries to his knees and back prevented training. Never gifted genetically, his weight ballooned. His kicks slowed down. Believing he could be beating a new generation of wrestlers became a little harder, the suspension of disbelief remaining an integral part of even the most ludicrous of wrestling promotions. Eventually it all proved too much - in 1999 he retired after a match with Olympic legend Alexander Karelin.
Maeda's absence left Rings in limbo. Already mixing some legitimate bouts in with its realistic pro wrestling matches, the promotion took a leap of faith - all shoots, all the time. Maeda made the new direction clear with a tournament the likes of which the MMA world had never seen. For five months, 32 athletes from around the world, from all different disciplines and backgrounds did battle for the title of "King of Kings."
At stake was more than just pride. A $200,000 prize would be awarded to the winner, attracting big time players like former UFC champion Maurice Smith and Renzo Gracie, future stars like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Alistair Overeem, pro wrestlers like Kiyoshi Tamura and Tsuyoshi Kosaka, and a collection of European sambo specialists and kickboxers. Overlooked on the talent rich roster? A former Olympian named Dan Henderson.
Henderson, already a UFC veteran, was focused on Olympic wrestling, still looking for a place on the medal stand that had eluded him. MMA, in a sense, was less a passion play and more a call to duty. He, simply put, needed the money to fund his wrestling dreams and put food on the table for a young family.
"I was still dreaming of the Olympics," Henderson said. "But there's no money in wrestling. The Japanese offered me a certain amount just to show up. The UFC was going through their struggles at the time and just not offering very much. It was an easy decision. "
With his mind on his money, Henderson entered the tournament with a fury. "I wouldn't be here if I was planning on losing," Henderson said in a prefight interview. "...I think I'm the one to beat."
Bakouri Gogitidze was his first victim. The Georgian wrestler, himself a 1996 Olympian despite inexplicably being listed by Rings as a karate specialist, had 37 pounds on his American opponent. Gogitidze was the aggressor, initiating the clinch and tossing Henderson down. As would become custom in his MMA career, the American wrestler seemed more inclined to stand up and trade. With Randy Couture in his corner screaming "knee, knee, knee," Henderson finally delivered one, a booming blow to the body that dropped Gogitidze, who couldn't answer the call to continue fighting.
"He was probably the biggest wuss of anyone I ever fought," Henderson said. "He was a great wrestler, but not much of a fighter. Some guys just don't like getting hit. He was one of them."
In the round of 16, later that same night in Tokyo, a stiffer test awaited. Hiromitsu Kanehara, a scrappy pro wrestler, had already upset Jeremy Horn, a ground specialist who many expected to compete for the tournament crown. The two men were of equal size and, just as importantly, an equal scrappiness quotient. The met in the middle and exchanged furious blows to start the fight. Despite being penalized a point early for an illegal punch on the ground (Rings rules didn't allow punches to the head on the ground) Henderson dominated the first round, but Kanehara keopt things interesting.
Eventually, Kanehara's energy waned. Henderson dominated round two with effortless takedowns and tried a variety of submissions he couldn't quite finish. "Hendo" walked away with a majority decision and, more importantly, a ticket to Osaka and the quarterfinals.
It was there the real cream of the crop met to decide who would compete for the tournament crown. At the famed Budokan Hall in Tokyo, one of Japan's most iconic wrestling arenas, Henderson along with fearsome Dutch kickboxer Gilbert Yvel, Japanese wrestling whiz Kiyoshi Tamura, two Russian sambo experts, the great Renzo Gracie, and Brazilian rising stars Nogueira and Renata "Babalu" Sobral, drew the biggest crowd to a Rings event since Maeda's retirement the year before.
Henderson dominated Yvel on the ground to win his first match, taking the kickboxer down six times in the first round and five more times in the second on his way to a decision win. In the semi-finals against Nogueira, Henderson survived a submission onslaught and somehow won a split decision. The Brazilian Jiu Jitsu specialist had the wrestler reeling from the beginning, but top position and an advantage striking allowed Henderson to sneak into the finals.
Waiting for him was Sobral, an undefeated Brazilian and one of the sport's true rising stars.
"It was the toughest night of fighting I ever had in the sport," Henderson remembered. "I fought Yvel, Nogueira, and Babalu in one night. There was about a half hour between the Nogueira fight and the Babalu fight and I was pretty beat up. I tweaked my knee when Nogueira had jumped for guard. But there was a lot of money on the line just for that final match."
It was a razor close matchup. Henderson, utilizing the same dirty boxing that had taken his cornerman Randy Couture to the UFC championship, brutalized Sobral in the clinch. But the Brazilian surprised many by taking the wrestler down, once even bouncing Henderson's head hard off the mat. Because of the rules preventing ground and pound, Henderson, who no longer includes submissions in his arsenal, was scrambling for a variety of holds on the mat.
It was an entertaining display, but ultimately fruitless. Sobral survived every guillotine and Kimura attempt and lasted until the final bell. In the end, Henderson's hand was raised. The part-time neophyte fighter had just won his second major tournament in as many years.
"It was important because it allowed me to train for wrestling full time," Henderson said. "I didn't expect to win, I was just looking to bring back some appearance money for my wrestling training. I did almost no MMA training going into RINGS. I knew the basics and had trained to avoid submissions. But my focus was definitely still wrestling."
Henderson would go on to lose to Quincey Clark in the 2000 U.S. Nationals, missing out on a spot on the Olympic team. He continued his wrestling career, coming up short again in 2001 against teammate Matt Lindland before turning to mixed martial arts full time.
Like Henderson's wrestling career, Rings was also on its last legs. Henderson, along with Nogueira and Yvel, would soon make the jump to Pride. The new promotion's more typical MMA rules resonated better with Japanese fans. Rings rules, while important for traditionalists, hampered the promotion's growth.
"The style in RINGS on the ground was very entertaining. Because you can't hit anybody it was very dynamic. A lot of motion and a lot of submission attempts. A lot of fun to watch," Jeremy Horn said. "But when you throw in a mix of guys who are just murderers on their feet but kind of basic on the ground, or you get guys who won't play on the ground - they are just scrambling back to their feet or tying people up - they make it a boring fight on the ground so they can get back up and hurt somebody. That kind of took away from the entertainment value a little bit. That's why it didn't stick around I think."