By Sean Wheelock exclusive to F4WOnline.com
Editor’s Note: In this monthly series written exclusively for our website, combat sports television commentator and regulator Sean Wheelock takes an in-depth and analytical look at infamous matches from MMA, boxing, pro wrestling, kickboxing, and the long and confused history of mixed match fighting to determine whether the controversial and contentious bouts were shoots (real competition) or works (predetermined result).
If there a bout that you’d like Sean to give the “Shoot or Work?” treatment to, send him a tweet.
Aleksandr Karelin vs. Akira Maeda | Yokohama Arena, Yokohama, Japan | February 21, 1999 | RINGS
Aleksandr Karelin vs. Akira Maeda was the main event of the 27th MMA card held by the Japanese promotion Fighting Network Rings, which had pivoted from pro wrestling to mixed martial arts four years prior. Dubbed “RINGS: Final Capture”, the nationally televised show in Japan was comprised of seven total bouts, and included future PRIDE fighters Ricardo Morais, Yoshihisa Yamamoto, and Valentijn Overeem (Alistair’s older brother); Sean Alvarez, who went on to fight at UFC 42; and Nikolai Zouev, who became Sergei Kharitonov’s main grappling coach.
A sellout crowd of 17,048 produced a live gate of almost $2.5 million USD, widely reported as the largest monetary sum to that point for a fight card of any kind held at an indoor arena in Japan.
The bout, scheduled for two five-minute rounds, featured the MMA debut of Karelin, known as “The Experiment”, and (then and now) widely considered the greatest ever Greco-Roman wrestler, vs. Japanese puroresu superstar and promotion co-founder Maeda.
Competing in the 130 kg (286 lb) weight class, Karelin ultimately amassed a record of 887-2 in his truly remarkable wrestling career in which he won three straight Olympic gold medals as well as gold at nine World Championships and at 12 European Championships.
At the time of the Maeda match, Karelin was the reigning Olympic Gold Medalist from the 1996 Atlanta Games where he didn’t concede a single point in the entire competition, and where he was given the honor of carrying the flag for his native Russia at the Opening Ceremonies.
At 31, Karelin didn’t just seem unbeatable–he actually was unbeatable, having not lost a Greco-Roman wrestling match in 12 years, nor dropped a point in five years.
His opponent for this “Fight of the Decade” was truly a legend in Japanese pro wrestling. Although unable to achieve the popularity of Antonio Inoki at home and abroad, Maeda was still an outright star in his native Japan, and one who transcended sports into popular culture.
Having just turned 40 the month prior, and having retired from both pro wrestling and MMA the year before, Maeda was still viewed as the man who possessed both the fighting ability and the requisite fame to serve as a worthy opponent for the mighty Karelin. And with seven career MMA victories, coupled with a well earned reputation as a pro wrestler who could and would shoot on uncooperative and/or disliked opponents in worked matches, he was even seen by some in the Japanese public as the fighter who just might be able to actually defeat Karelin in this still new and rapidly evolving combat sport.
Maeda had begun his career 21 years earlier in New Japan Pro Wrestling, did a brief stint in the WWF in 1984, helped launch Newborn UWF in 1988, and then co-founded Fighting Network Rings in 1991. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter named Maeda Wrestler of the Year in 1988, and Promoter of the Year just a year later. In MMA, Maeda had fought 11 times entering the Karelin bout – all in RINGS – with his most notable win coming over future UFC heavyweight champion Maurice Smith on New Year’s Day 1997.
Like the other six fights on the card that night, Karelin vs. Maeda used the RINGS rule set which made closed fist punches and elbow strikes to the head illegal from all positions; closed fist punches to the body and knees to the head illegal on the ground; and which allowed for rope escapes to break submission holds. Ryogaku Wada, RINGS’ top referee, was assigned to the bout. Like virtually all Japanese mixed martial arts refs at that time (including Yuji Shimada), Wada had come from pro wrestling, in this case UWF International. He’d reffed alongside Shimada at the inaugural PRIDE event two years prior, and had helped write the RINGS MMA rule book.
Although the line was continually blurred between MMA and pro wrestling during this era across all Japanese promotions (PRIDE and Pancrase most definitely included), and although the bout was taking place in Fighting Network Rings, which had begun life as a unabashed puroresu promotion, Karelin vs. Maeda was sold as a completely legitimate MMA bout to be honestly contested by two hugely accomplished stars from very different disciplines.
Immediately after the opening bell, Maeda, attired in pro wrestling trunks and boots, comes forward and throws two solid low kicks with his right leg. Karelin, wearing a wrestling singlet and wrestling shoes, takes the strikes flush on the outside of his lead left leg, which causes him to circle out towards the ring ropes. Maeda then closes the distance, throws another right low kick which lands, re-sets and just misses with a right head kick, then turns over another right outside kick into Karelin’s left leg.
Maeda then shoots a double leg, on which Karelin sprawls, gains double underhooks, and takes Maeda to the ring mat. Karelin then quickly sits through from side control to take Maeda’s back. But instead of looking for a choke, Karelin goes for a wrist ride. Maeda then turns onto his own back, and drapes his right leg over the bottom rope, forcing the stand up. The absence of submission attempts and utter submission awareness by Karelin would quickly become the recurring theme of this bout.
From the center ring restart, Maeda throws another right low kick, followed by a fingers out slap to Karelin’s face with his lead left hand, and then two more right low kicks, which flows to a completely whiffed upon arm drag takedown. This miss allows Karelin to take Maeda’s back again, from where he goes to work with a chest hold, a head chancery, and a modified half nelson. Maeda is able to get open guard, which Karelin quickly turns into what seems like a perfect Boston crab set up.
But the lack of sub attempts continue as Maeda moves to the edge of the ring on all fours in a stalling position. Karelin locks an S-grip under Maeda’s chest, and starts to set up a reverse body lift (renamed the Karelin Lift as this was his signature and fearsome move in Greco-Roman). But Maeda’s position on the ring apron causes referee Ryogaku Wada to order the bout’s second stand up.
After the re-start, Maeda lands yet another hard right low kick. Karelin attempts to counter with a an illegal closed fist lead left jab, which misses Maeda’s head. Perhaps remembering the RINGS rules, Karelin then puts an open left palm in Maeda’s face, but with almost no force. After the trading of open hand slaps to the head, Karelin is able to then gain inside position. From there, he snatches what could have been a standing guillotine, but Karelin instead uses as a head chancery to hit a clean front head lock throw. This lands Karelin in side control, but Maeda is able to scramble out and then take down Karelin with a single leg.
Karelin quickly turns onto his stomach and starts to crawl towards the ropes as Maeda holds his opponent’s right leg, contemplating perhaps a reverse knee bar from a really odd angle, or a modified rolling ankle lock. But before Maeda can attempt any true leg lock submission, Karelin gains the automatic escape by clutching the bottom rope with his right hand.
Back in the stand up, Karelin actually checks his first kick of the match (and perhaps of his life), and takes Maeda down with a throw from a single underhook to again do nothing more than hold top position and awkwardly squeeze Maeda from various angles.
Maeda is able to get back to his feet only to be taken down once more, this time by a solid head and arm throw. Karelin elects to pop back up, rather than stay tight to his opponent on the ground, and methodically moves into the Karelin lift as Maeda is on all fours. Karelin then brings Maeda off the mat, and holds him almost completely vertical and upside down. Maeda takes the brunt of the impact on his left shoulder as he’s slammed to the mat. Karelin lands in side control, but Maeda is able to work back to his feet, where he connects with a series of punches and knees to Karelin’s body. Karelin answers with another takedown, where he applies a somewhat arm-in side headlock while using an S-grip. Maeda postures on to his left hip to alleviate the pressure, just before the bell sounds to end Round 1.
Lax officiating by Ryogaku Wada causes the one-minute break between rounds to run 75 seconds as he’s slow to hustle Karelin’s four cornermen out of the ring.
Upon the start of Round 2, Maeda comes out quickly with a barrage of low kicks, head slaps, and a knee to the body as he closes the distance. Karelin attempts an arm drag takedown, and just as Maeda did in the opening round, fails to execute. This error lands Maeda in top position, which he quickly uses to take Karelin’s back, and look for a rear naked choke. But with no hooks in, Maeda gets very high in the ride and goes over the top as he loses the submission attempt. Karelin seizes the opportunity to sit through and grabs a side headlock. Rather than attempting to defend, Maeda instead shoots his right foot over the bottom rope, forcing the automatic break.
With both fighters back on their feet center ring following the re-start, Maeda lands two more low kicks with his right leg to Karelin’s left leg, making Karelin look extremely awkward in the process. Karelin is able to work to the inside and tie up Maeda, who elects to take himself to the mat, roll to his back, and into open guard. Karelin bases up, gains full mount, and then mystifyingly proceeds to bend Maeda’s left arm in the anatomically correct direction. As an aside, arm and leg locks work on the basis of moving the limbs in the direction in which they are not anatomically designed to move. Karelin, however, bends Maeda’s left arm downward towards Maeda’s own chest, creating absolutely no pressure on the elbow joint; the reverse actually.
Hand fighting followers with Karelin still in top position until Maeda shrimps under the bottom rope whereupon Wada elects to stand up the two fighters. Back on their feet, Karelin absorbs more leg kicks until he clinches and hits another head and arm throw. From side control, Karelin turns a side head lock into an almost accidental neck crank. Maeda immediately drapes his right foot over the bottom rope for yet another rope escape.
This time from the center ring re-start, a suddenly weary looking Maeda fails to throw any of his outside kicks that have been so effective to this point, and allows Karelin to come back inside unabated. From the clinch, Maeda throws a left knee, which Karelin catches, and then transitions into a slick scoop body slam. Maeda turtles, Karelin locks on a chest hold, and then Maeda rolls to his back. Karelin goes back to the side head lock, which Maeda is able to escape, and then regains his feet.
From the ensuing tie-up, Maeda takes himself back down to the canvas, is lifted up by Karelin, and then drops down again while feebly and unsuccessfully trying to cradle Karelin’s left leg. From top position, Karelin again goes for the Karelin Lift, but this time is only able to elevate Maeda about 10 inches off of the ground, and horizontally rather than vertically. Karelin does however hit the throw, perhaps the least impressive Lift of his life, and then grabs a half nelson. Maeda turtles once more, then rolls to his back. Karelin breaks contact completely, and Wada orders both men to get up. Karelin now looks utterly exhausted, but not quite as exhausted as Maeda.
Back on their feet, Maeda shoots a fingers-fully-extended open hand jab towards Karelin’s face, but misses. Karelin comes inside, and maneuvers into prime belly to back suplex position. But Maeda grabs Karelin’s wrists as an effective counter, causing Karelin to instead force his opponent forward and down onto the mat. In the closing seconds of the bout, Karelin bypasses a guillotine to instead grab another head chancery as his left arm overhooks Maeda’s head. Before it can be fully applied, the bell rings, thus ending the second and final round.
Karelin immediately stands up while Maeda stays on the canvass, flat on his back. Exactly 13 seconds after the final bell, Karelin is announced as the winner, getting the decision victory.
The Case for a Shoot
In the book that I co-wrote with UFC founder and Hall of Famer Art Davie about his launching the UFC, we recounted Art’s unsuccessful attempt to recruit Karelin for UFC 1 due to the byzantine politics of post-Soviet Russia at that time. Art could never even get a contact of a contact of a representative of an associate of Karelin, let alone reach the great man himself. But even after the first UFC, Art persisted in his quest, which caused his business partner and fellow UFC co-owner of the time Rorion Gracie, genuine concern.
What is not in our book, but what Art has told me, is that Rorion confided in him that if Karelin did sign with the UFC, Rorion would replace Royce with the real family champion, Rickson. The respect was that great for Karelin within the Gracie Family.
Yet, for all of the talk before and after this match that Karelin was the real-life Ivan Drago of Rocky IV fame, it’s painfully clear that Karelin has absolutely no idea how to strike and doesn’t know a single submission. Being the greatest Greco-Roman wrestler of all time doesn’t automatically make him a great, or even a good, mixed martial artist. In the Maeda match, Karelin appears not like the most ferocious and unbeatable fighter on the planet, but instead looks like a lot of international level wrestlers who crossed over to MMA in the 1990s and early 2000s: quality takedowns, solid top control, positional dominance, and absolutely nothing else.
For their bout, both men were listed at 6’3″ (although numerous sources note Karelin was actually 6’4″), but Karelin had 38 pounds on Maeda, being announced at 295 to his opponent’s 257 on that night. Other than the takedowns and throws, Karelin did virtually nothing with his sizeable weight advantage.
Maeda, meanwhile, had an extensive and high level karate background from his youth, understood catch wrestling and elementary submissions from his long run in puroresu, and entered the Karelin match as a four-year veteran of MMA. He also had a well earned tough guy reputation from two decades of incidents in and out of the pro wrestling ring.
This all brings us to the main (and earliest) argument for Karelin vs. Maeda being a work. If it were a legit MMA match, Karelin would have absolutely trucked by Maeda. Yet, this is really based on the evidence of Karelin’s unparalleled Greco-Roman wrestling career, coupled with his massive athletic frame. Pawel Nastula won 312 straight matches, 2 World Championships, and an Olympic Gold Medal in judo, yet was TKO’d in the first round by Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (Big Nog) when Nastula made his MMA debut in PRIDE in 2005.
Karam Gaber and Istvan Majoros both won Gold in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2004 Summer Olympics and both were finished inside of one round in their lone MMA bouts. All three men were superstars in their respective sports but were unable to make an impact in MMA. Perhaps Karelin could have replicated his Greco-Roman dominance in mixed martial arts, but based on the Maeda fight, he had a very, very long way to go.
In the match itself, Maeda landed numerous hard outside kicks to Karelin’s lead leg, which visibly caused Karelin to move off of his striking line, and in some cases, even retreat. For his part, Karelin hit both throws and takedowns, including the Karelin Lift. To view this match properly, it’s important to be reminded of the RINGS MMA rule set, which greatly limited striking from what we see in the sport today. Karelin simply wasn’t allowed to legally throw punches and elbows to Maeda’s head from the top position that he continually gained throughout the 10 minute match. And Maeda wasn’t permitted to punch Karelin’s head in the stand up. Had the rules been more liberal, things could possibly have looked, and gone, much different.
And then there is, to a lesser extent, the reaction of the media towards this match. As I wrote in my column last month on Andre the Giant vs. Chuck Wepner, how the press views a bout (at the time and with historical perspective) doesn’t really mean anything, but it’s still worth noting.
In 1999 Japan, this match was covered as a straight up fight and the biggest in the country since Muhammad Ali vs, Antonio Inoki 23 years earlier. The Russian media treated it as legit, as did the mainstream US press, including The New York Times and Sports illustrated. A 2008 profile of Karelin, written by Jeff Wackerly for Bleacher Report stated, “Karelin threw him (Maeda) around for the duration of the match…imagine the potential.” Even now, Sherdog lists Karelin vs. Maeda in their MMA records database (although incorrectly as a three-round bout).
The Case for a Work
For starters, you have Karelin facing one of Japan’s most famous pro wrestlers in his own organization which started by promoting pro wrestling before it turned to mixed martial arts, and which is now widely accepted to have featured numerous worked MMA matches. Maeda wasn’t just a legendary figure in puroresu, he was one of the founding fathers of shoot style. And make no mistake, this match contains numerous markings of a shoot style pro wrestling bout.
Strikes are definitely landed, including those numerous Maeda right outside kicks to Karelin’s left leg, which Maeda really turns over. But the knees that Maeda lands to Karelin’s body clearly lack forceful impact. And while Karelin hits numerous throws and takedowns, including a really solid front headlock throw in the opening round, none of them are beyond what you would see daily between teammates in a quality wrestling room. In fact, they seem a bit more gentle.
Those who cling to the legitimacy of this fight often cite the fact that 18 months later at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, Karelin lost the Gold medal match to Rulon Gardner and then promptly retired. The implication is that Karelin was pretty much shot by the time that he faced Maeda, thus the reason for his lackluster (albeit victorious) performance in Yokohama vs. Maeda. What is omitted from this narrative is that Karelin won his other four matches of the 2000 Olympic competition by a combined score of 13-0 and fell to Gardner in the final 1-0 with the lone point being scored through Karelin’s loss of a grip.
Karelin may have been in his fourth Olympiad but was only 33, having had his birthday the week before the Gardner match. He was hardly old, and far from past his prime.
There are actually two smoking guns in this bout which expose this as an outright work: one big and one massive. The big one is the single leg takedown that Maeda hits on Karelin in round 1. Really? A single leg takedown on Karelin? Of course, in Greco-Roman wrestling, it is illegal to grab an opponent’s legs. But still, the guy who entered this fight without having conceded a single point in wrestling in five years, is taken down by a 40 year old who had never had a match in Greco-Roman, freestyle, or folkstyle wrestling in his life. And, this takedown occurs right after Maeda had been on the receiving end of a front head lock throw that dumped him on his back.
But the massive smoking gun comes in the form of a move that Karelin actually did hit: the Karelin Lift in round 1. Now, the round 2 Karelin lift was awful, but the poor form could be explained away by his presumed exhaustion. But in the opening round, Karelin looked completely fresh as he held Maeda, with his legs straight up, head straight down, above the mat. Karelin had done this with numerous world class Greco-Roman opponents before, many of whom weighed considerably more than Maeda’s 257.
To be clear, Karelin didn’t invent the reverse body lift. Rather, he became the only big weight category Greco-Roman wrestler to be able to accomplish it at the international level. And, of course, Karelin accomplished it so frequently and with such ferocity and perfection, that it now bares his name. During his wrestling career, Karelin would regularly and legally spike his opponent’s head into the mat from the Karelin Lift, viciously compressing their neck, spine, and shoulders.
The move was so feared that in the final round match of Pool A at the 1992 Summer Olympics, Ioan Grigoras elected to roll on to his back and concede the pin to Karelin in just 14 seconds, rather than risk severe injury via the Lift. Grigoras rationalized that he had a zero percent chance of defeating Karelin, but by losing quickly and relatively violence free, he could come back and capture the Bronze medal (which he did).
But against Maeda, Karelin dumped his opponent onto his left shoulder from the first round Karelin Lift rather than onto his head. The impact is so slight, and the sell is so minimal, that Maeda is actually back on his feet 15 seconds later. This moves from the realm of unthinkable to actually laughable. All that was missing was a Hulk Hogan style finger wag by Maeda after surviving the Lift to move into full blown kayfabe territory.
The result of the match is extremely telling as well. Karelin got his win, but Maeda went the distance against the unbeatable champion. Maeda was allowed to have his moments along the way: landing strikes, taking Karelin’s back, attempting subs, and even hitting that single leg takedown.
That Karelin had never had either a pro wrestling or MMA match when he faced Karelin speaks fairly well of his performance. Still, he’s far from fluid, and, at times, looks as though he’s moving at half speed compared to his Greco-Roman matches of the era.
For his part, Maeda did just enough to lose and put Karelin over while making the bout appear competitive. He did, however, seem unrealistically exhausted and/or injured at the conclusion of the match, and then carried the act out of the ring as the live broadcast cameras followed him backstage. Even had this been a shoot, it was only a ten minute match, and one in which Maeda never got hit. Oh well.
And what’s with the decision being announced just 13 seconds after the end of the match? How could it possibly have been legitimately determined so quickly that Karelin was the winner when Maeda was never in any serious jeopardy during the two rounds?
This is a work without question. It’s just not overly obvious due to the lack of theatrics and histrionics that no doubt would have been present had Karelin instead faced someone from Vince McMahon’s stable in a purported real fight under the WWF banner. Watch any high level shoot style wrestling match from Japan during this era and Karelin vs. Maeda suddenly doesn’t look that unique. This is just one of numerous matches from 1990s Japanese MMA that settles firmly into that gray area between real and imagined.
In the United States, MMA was partially inspired by the backroom Gracie Challenges that UFC creator Art Davie witnessed during his time as a student at the Gracie Academy in Torrance, California; real fights emanating from a Brazilian Jiu-jitsu base. Japanese MMA, meanwhile, evolved directly from pro wrestling, namely strong style and shoot style pro wrestling with puroresu icons such as Nobuhiko Takada, Masakatsu Funaki, Satoru Sayama, and of course Maeda, leading the way.
Aleksandr Karelin vs Akira Maeda serves as the prototypical example of a match from the time when professional wrestling and mixed martial arts in Japan were rapidly heading towards a clean split, yet were still intrinsically linked together. That it features two absolute legends meeting in the same ring, regardless of the circumstances, makes it something truly special.
Next month: Ken Shamrock vs. Kimbo Slice.
Sean Wheelock is an MMA, boxing, and combat sports television commentator, having broadcast over 3,00 bouts across 21 countries. He’s also the Chairman of the ABC’s MMA Rules and Regulations Committee, a Commission Member of the Kansas Athletic Commission, and a former licensed professional boxing referee. And despite his best efforts and years of diligent training, Wheelock remains a very mediocre grappler, and a less than mediocre striker.
Buy the book that Sean wrote with UFC creator and Hall of Famer Art Davie about the birth of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, enttiled Is This Legal? It’s also available in hard copy or Kindle ready at Amazon.