Ad Santel and Catching Our History


With the resculpting that mixed martial arts has been subject to lately, I would think it a fair assessment to say that a good many are underwhelmed by World Victory Road's March 5 Sengoku debut. Although worthy of attention with several standouts on the bill, the downfall of the card is seemingly the lack of importance.

If you need an example, just look at the main event.

After the heady heavyweight happenings in the last year, the return of Josh Barnett (Pictures) was much-anticipated. And yet, that anticipation has been abated by his marquee matchup with Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures). The refrain is not an unfamiliar one, as fans lament over the peculiar predilections of the Japanese audience. Why must one of MMA's few highly skilled heavyweights be cast against a crossover star whose last two bouts have ended in alarmingly brutal losses?

I'll tell you: catch wrestling versus judo. No, really. Lancashire's scientific shooting and Japan's gentle way tell a tale of this sport's history, and it's one we all ought to observe.

The early 20th century was a pivotal and exciting time for judo. The new sport, synthesized from various styles of jujitsu by Jigoro Kano in the 1880s, had begun to grow in popularity and prestige.

In 1882, Kano founded the Kodokan, judo's official headquarters. After starting with less than a dozen students, he had produced more than a thousand black belts by 1911. The early 1900s saw judo not only accepted as a sport but also begin integration into the Japanese public school system. Kano also took on an even greater role as a sport-statesman by joining the International Olympic Committee in 1909.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, wrestling ruled. Before professional wrestlers became the carnival attractions in tights they are today, they were, strangely enough, carnival attractions in tights.

The early 1900s were the golden age of pro wrestling's legitimate lineage. Top grapplers made their bones on the carnival circuit, handling local toughs, and fought for higher stakes against other elite catch stylists known as "hookers." While the likes of Georg Hackenschmidt and Frank Gotch wrestled over heavyweight supremacy, judo diaspora was underway, as many of Kano's students traveled abroad to spread knowledge of "the gentle way."

One such traveler was Tokugoro Ito, a fifth dan black belt from the Kodokan. Ito left Japan in 1907 and embarked on Seattle, where he helped establish the Seattle Dojo. However, since wrestling paid better than teaching, Ito also plied his trade as a professional wrestler, which saw him tour up and down the Pacific coast and elsewhere.

One of his contemporaries on tours to Cuba and South America was none other than Mitsuyo "Conde Koma" Maeda, who would go on to influence Carlos and Helio Gracie.

After touring South America, Ito returned to the United States in January 1916. He settled in San Francisco and met Ad Santel a few short weeks later.

Born Adolph Ernst, Santel was a claimant to the world light heavyweight wrestling championship. When Santel and Ito met on Feb. 5, 1916, Santel emerged victorious after thumping Ito's head off the floor to take a TKO win. Based on his preeminence in prior wrestling bouts, Ito had been dubbed the "world judo champion." With his victory, Santel proclaimed himself the world's top judoka.

After learning of Ito's defeat, the Kodokan tried to save face. The institute opined that since Ito had left almost a decade ago, his judo skills had perhaps weakened, despite his considerable success in legitimate bouts in the nine years since his departure. Even though Ito dominated Santel and choked him out in their rematch four months later, Santel was determined to continue his siege on judo.

The following year he traveled to Seattle to challenge the transplanted judoka of the Seattle Dojo. On Oct. 20, he had a rematch against Taro Miyake, with whom he had drawn the previous year.

The Seattle Daily Times wrote that Santel half-nelson slammed Miyake "so hard that the Japanese had dizzy spells for half an hour after the fall." Two weeks later, Santel took fourth dan Daisuke Sakai out in two falls, submitting him both times with short-arm scissors, more contemporarily known as a bicep slicer.

Santel's feud with judo came to a head in March 1921, when he traveled to Japan and publicly challenged the Kodokan. While the Kodokan frowned on professional matchups involving its current students and ordered them not to participate, it didn't stop their judoka from accepting the challenge.

On March 5 at the Yasukuni Shrine, Santel took on fifth dan Reijiro Nagata, whom he slammed for a TKO. The following day, in a captivating hour-long battle, he grappled to a draw with another fifth dan, Hikoo Shoji.

Following the challenge matches in Japan, Santel's interest in the "world judo champion" gimmick waned. However, the Japanese were fascinated by the idea of catch wrestling, and that included Hikoo Shoji himself. Shoji traveled to California with Santel to learn the wrestling ropes and is now viewed as the father of freestyle wrestling in Japan.

Moreover, although Shoji, like another former Santel adversary-turned-wrestler Taro Miyake, was unsuccessful in promoting pro wrestling to the Japanese public, they laid a necessary foundation for the 1950s, when Rikidozan became the father of puroresu.

In the early 1970s, Rikidozan's star pupil Antonio Inoki broke away to form New Japan Pro Wrestling. In the first NJPW main event, Inoki took on Karl Gotch, a product of Billy Riley's famous catch-wrestling school, The Snake Pit. Gotch tutored Inoki and others in catch wrestling, which served as the impetus for Inoki's attempt at proto-MMA events such as his landmark bouts with Muhammad Ali, Olympic judo gold medalist Willem Ruska and kyokushin karate kingpin Willie Williams.

More importantly, some of Gotch's other students -- Akira Maeda (Pictures), Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Nobuhiko Takada (Pictures) and Satoru Sayama -- went on to become key players in the development of MMA. Sayama founded Shooto in 1986, and Akira Maeda (Pictures) formed the Rings Fighting Network in 1991. Yoshiaki Fujiwara's star students, Masakatsu Funaki (Pictures) and Minoru Suzuki (Pictures), founded Pancrase in 1993, and Nobuhiko Takada (Pictures) brought MMA to the forefront in Japan due to his battles with Rickson Gracie (Pictures) and his participation in Pride.

And now, here we are. When Barnett and Yoshida climb into the ring, it'll be 87 years to the date since Santel set foot in Japan to call out the Kodokan.

To be sure, Barnett-Yoshida is certainly not a matchup that diehard fans have been dreaming about, especially coming hot on the heels of Anderson Silva tangling with Dan Henderson (Pictures) and less than two weeks before Dream's debut with a loaded lightweight tournament. It is, however, a more than fitting tribute and an inspiration to break out the history book.

It's important to know how we got here. Tokugoro Ito's head might be the most important to ever bounce off the floor.

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