The Continued Catch Wrestling Adventures of Minoru Suzuki

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Back in April we examined the fighting style of one of Pancrase's founding members, Minoru Suzuki. The first batch of classic Pancrase bouts had just been uploaded to the UFC's Fight Pass service and it was a darn good laugh going through the fight library and watching the fish-like flailing of many of the better grapplers. While Masakatsu Funaki stood out for his early adoption of the guard, and Ken Shamrock's beastly strength and horrifying leg locks caught the eye, it was Minoru Suzuki who stood out as something of a man out of time. Part 1950s carnival wrestler, part vision of the future, much of Suzuki's game wouldn't gel with the modern grappling game, but some of it is slowly coming back into vogue.

We left Suzuki on the end of a 7-0 winning streak through the early Pancrase events, noting that he suffered a hard loss to the powerful Bas Rutten, and a loss to Masakatsu Funaki which is one of the most obviously worked bouts you will ever see passed off as legitimate shortly afterwards. The Pancrase world was going to start to catch up with Suzuki as much, much larger men began to enter the ring and develop the takedown defense necessary to keep Suzuki from getting on top of them, and the striking to show up Suzuki's goofy, minimalist stand up. But for now, let's rejoin Suzuki as he neck cranks and toe holds his way through a few more victories.

One of the interesting considerations of Pancrase was the rope break. Ringcraft is necessary on the ground in the modern mixed martial arts game, as the wall walk and bridging off the fence are considerably more powerful than the basic set of escapes from the bottom, but a fighter can just as easily use the fence to crumple his opponent's posture and leave them with no way to avoid ground and pound. Suzuki had a different problem, he couldn't allow his opponents to touch the ropes or he would waste energy and show his hand in setting up a submission attempt which led nowhere.

For this reason, Suzuki's matches often contain moments of him dragging his opponent around the ring, attempting to keep them away from the ropes. Even from within guillotines.

Suzuki could barely shift the gigantic judoka, Remco Pardoel, from his turtle, offering him single legs, trying to drag him around, attempting to drop a knee in combined with a Billy Robinson style elbow digging into the spine.

Eventually Suzuki decided to surprise the puffing Pardoel with an overhand palm strike that awarded him one of his few knockout victories. But the difficulty Suzuki had with a much less skilled grappler purely because of his size foreshadowed what was to come.

Suzuki was an interesting character in the ring because he seemed to want to put on a show more than simply to win.

Even against overmatched opponents like Gregory Smit, Suzuki would give up top position and allow Smit to work from dominant positions before reversing and attacking. Any time Smit attempted a takedown it was clear that staying off the bottom was not an issue for Suzuki, and yet he would allow Smit top time anyway.

Smit, like every Suzuki opponent, found himself on the underside of the dreaded shin rides. Suzuki would use his hand to turn the opponent's head either towards him or away from him in side control, and then pop up to something like the traditional knee-on-belly, except it was shin-on-face-or-neck. If Suzuki was shin riding with the opponent's face pointing towards him, he would look for the far side underhook in order to attack the crooked head scissors which we examined in The Brutal Catch Wrestling of Minoru Suzuki or the kimura/double wrist lock grip.

If he shin rode with the opponent's face turned away, Suzuki expected them to turn to their knees and would attempt to take the back.

This is what happened to Gregory Smit. Each time Smit had a knee across his face the Japanese referee would go into the traditional shouting and pointing: “Give uppu? Give uppu?” and Smit, when his head popped free, would shout “No!” At one point Smith began to cough up a lung with Suzuki in his guard as the catch wrestler continued to torture him. Smit got so irritated that when he was on top of Suzuki he attempted to apply a shin ride, kneeing Suzuki in the face in the process and opening up a large, swollen cut around Suzuki's eye.

A modern practitioner of the shin on neck/face rides, and a friend of Minoru Suzuki is the great Josh Barnett. We all remember Barnett submitting Dean Lister with a chest compressor, but that isn't strictly true. Barnett submitted Lister with twenty minutes of grueling, torturous rides, culminating in a chest compressor—a very important distinction.

One of the prettier but less effective techniques which Suzuki went to a lot was a swing-over armbar from side control which rarely ever worked. He got his leg over the opponent's head swiftly and gracefully, before falling back and attempting to get his other knee across their stomach, but the technique was loose and rarely ever seemed to actually threaten anyone.

Suzuki's best armbar was usually the spinning armbar after getting the underhook on the far side. This was something which built off those brutal shin rides and paired well with the crooked head scissors. As an aside, Taka Fuke's Pancrase themed tights in this bout were glorious.

An interesting point often made about old school catch wrestling submissions, such as the many variations on Frank Gotch's famous toe hold, is that they only succeed in attacking the joint if the opponent sits still.

Often you will hear old school catch techniques decried as easy to roll out of. Tommy Heyes, a student of the great Billy Riley, pointed out that in all the documents he has collected on the history of catch-as-catch-can he couldn't find a case of a man winning by submission. One important theory to consider is that catch wrestling was focused on obtaining the pin. To submit someone with a joint lock you need to hold them in place or isolate the limb as you torque or extend the joint. To get someone to turn out of an attack and place their shoulders on the mat would seem to be far easier.  But turning your shoulders to the mat in a wrestling match is essentially submitting to being pinned. This was the point of the Gotch toe hold and might explain the focus on ankle attacks and neck cranks in catch wrestling—both of which can be hard to finish without a good control of the opponent, but can be used quickly to force movement. Here Suzuki demonstrates the traditional cross face neck crank to turn Smit's back and attempts to finish it from back control.

An interesting trait which was noticeable in almost everyone competing in Pancrase—spare the odd man with a bit of jiu jitsu experience—was the clasping of the hands when on the bottom of mount, side control, or north south. Fighters would adopt an S-grip and clamp their elbows down in order to deny any arm attacks—knowing that they needn't defend themselves from strikes in most matches because of the understood gentlemen's agreement not to hit the face while on the ground. When placed on the bottom of side control, Suzuki would grip his hands in an S-grip and place them down by his hips. From here he would hope to bridge his hips and use his underhooks to come up from underneath the opponent. This is something which will get you bread cutter choked in gi jiu jitsu, and there are certainly no-gi variants, but an interesting quirk of the times.

The point of examining Suzuki's game is not simply to heap praise on him. There was plenty of stuff that he did which is now considered obsolete. Certainly his guard passing was mediocre because the guard retention in Pancrase was largely terrible and many fighters would rather get to their knees. Suzuki would do all kinds of things which today just wouldn't be worth attempting or are considered poor form. He would cross his feet from back control, and as soon as the opponent attempted to use that cheesy cross over foot lock, he would go bananas trying to force the choke before the opponent could extend his ankles. That just seems unnecessarily risky.

He could threaten a kimura , which would probably be impossible to finish on the near side arm, and the opponent would just forget their guard and let him mount. It was clearly a simpler time.

But it goes both ways, one can't help but wonder what Suzuki could have done if the arm triangle game had been half as developed then as it is now. Suzuki regularly utilized front head locks which he set up from the clinch or caught off sprawls.

He would often use these to shuck to a go behind.

Or pick up a slick ankle pick.

But were Suzuki to have had knowledge of the myriad of attacks which have been developed from that position today—the D'arce, the anaconda, the Peruvian necktie, the Japanese neck tie, the crucifix position—we could have seen him submitting people from his favorite position rather than spending a good deal of time floating around on top trying to force an armbar.  Or even if Suzuki had developed a more effective guillotine—he submitted only two people with the guillotine but was repeatedly troubled by Bas Rutten utilizing the technique over their two bouts.

Here's a neat one handed neck crank / guillotine which Suzuki did achieve though:

Certainly Minoru Suzuki was more an excellent wrestler with a few slick submissions than a well-rounded grappler with excellent wrestling. It was Suzuki's bouts with Guy Mezger which marked the beginning of the end for Suzuki as a top-notch competitor. The opponents were getting bigger and learning more about the game. If they could stop his takedowns and snap downs, he was hopeless on the feet. The first bout with Mezger was rough on Suzuki, but was brought to an end by a kick which caught Suzuki in the groin and saw the contest waved off. In the second bout with Mezger, Suzuki was brutalized. Mezger stuffed Suzuki's shots, pushed him onto the ropes and pounded his body. Occasionally Suzuki would raise a knee to try to stop the continued punishment to the midsection and Mezger would kick his other leg out.

Mezger knocked Suzuki down out in the open and the exhausted catch wrestler got to his feet at the nine count.

In a last ditch effort, as Mezger pounded Suzuki's guts in the corner, Suzuki pushed forwards and attempted to jump closed guard on Mezger. Mezger gave ground and Suzuki crashed down on the back of his head, too beaten up to rise.

This was only 1996, and Suzuki would continue fighting until 2001, but he never had anywhere near the same success. The opponents were getting too big and too rounded. Suzuki lacked the skills that others were learning and Pancrase lacked the weight classes that Suzuki so desperately needed. In 1998, Pancrase even put Suzuki—a middleweight at most—in with the seven foot tall super heavyweight, Semmy Schilt.

Fighting can be a cyclical business. Tactics stop working either when something else makes them obsolete, or when opponents catch on and start training to deal with them. If the latter was the case, revisiting the tactics of old and combining them with a modern arsenal of techniques can add another string to a fighter's bow. For instance, Pancrase was a game of diving on leg locks rather than passing guard, and the Eddie Bravo Invitational is proving to be just that. The leg locking game in EBI is far more positionally sound and tight than that in Pancrase, but for a long time leg locking from the top was considered gimmicky and a poor alternative to passing in the grappling community. Certainly if you took Suzuki's game into a grappling or MMA bout in 2016 you would leave a lot of holes to be exploited, but I doubt there is a grappler today who couldn't learn a trick or two from the old Japanese catch wrestler.


Check out these related stories:

The Brutal Catch Wrestling of Minoru Suzuki

Wrestling Greats Remember Billy Robinson