Real Shooters: Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama, Pride 21

Kimberly Schueler’s Real Shooters feature explores the good, the bad, and the weird of pro wrestling-MMA crossover moments in history.

This week, Real Shooters looks back at what is widely considered as one of the greatest fights of all time, fought by men who had careers in both MMA and pro wrestling. At Pride 21 in June 2002, Don Frye (a UFC legend who also had a wrestling career) took on Yoshihiro Takayama (a legendary wrestler who moonlighted in MMA). Their clash—which you can watch in its entirety on UFC Fight Pass—was an exciting and unforgettable display of toughness and one of the greatest meetings of the MMA and wrestling worlds.

Pride Fighting Championships was a Japanese MMA promotion active from 1997 through 2007 and one of the earliest MMA promotions in existence. Its only direct predecessors in Japan were Pancrase and shoot-style wrestling promotions like the UWFi. Though Pride was a legitimate fighting promotion, it booked pro wrestlers semi-frequently, including top UWFi star Nobuhiko Takada against jiu-jitsu master Rickson Gracie in the main event of their first show.

However, the fight at Pride 21 (on June 23, 2002) that became Frye vs. Takayama wasn’t originally meant to be MMA fighter vs. wrestler, but instead a battle of two former UFC veterans, Frye vs. Mark Coleman. But after Coleman pulled out due to injury, Takayama took his place only two weeks before the bout.

Takayama started wrestling in the shoot-style promotion UWFi, but he didn’t have a shoot fighting background. However, after almost a decade of becoming slowly but surely more successful in the wrestling world working first for the UWFi, then All Japan Pro Wrestling, then Pro Wrestling NOAH, he decided to give MMA a try. Inspired by some of his former coworkers, he became a free agent in wrestling in order to focus on fighting for Pride.

He made his MMA debut at Pride 14 against fellow wrestler Kazuyuki Fujita and lost. In his second fight at Pride 18, he was knocked out by Dutch kickboxer Semmy Schilt. He went into the main event of Pride 21 with an 0-2 record, while his opponent boasted one of 14-1.

While rugby and kendo were Takayama’s sports of choice as a teenager, Don Frye started amateur wrestling in high school. He competed on the Arizona State University wrestling team, where he was coached by Dan Severn, and participated in Olympic trials. He had one professional boxing match in 1989, started training in judo, and in the mid-’90s, got involved in the growing sport of MMA. He made his UFC debut in February 1996 and soon set a record for the fastest knockout in UFC history, becoming a fan favorite in the process.

Though his MMA success didn’t show signs of stopping, Frye soon retired from the sport and transitioned to professional wrestling. He made his debut for New Japan Pro Wrestling in August 1997 by defeating Kazuyuki Fujita, the same wrestler who beat Takayama in his MMA debut.

With a violent character worthy of his nickname “The Predator,” Frye quickly became one of New Japan’s top villains. He feuded with the likes of Kensuke Sasaki, Scott Norton, and Keiji Mutoh, and teamed up with classic “cool heel” Masahiro Chono. He was so valued as a performer that he won a tournament to face company founder Antonio Inoki in his retirement match in the Tokyo Dome, which drew the largest live gate of any pro wrestling event at the time.

When Frye returned to the MMA world in 2001, he didn’t return to the UFC but instead continued to perform in Japan, signing a multi-fight contract with Pride. After a brutal bout with Ken Shamrock at Pride 19 in February 2002 and that last-minute withdrawal by Coleman, one might guess Takayama seemed like a relatively easy win. But at Pride 21, though Takayama lost, he showed a level of toughness that would improve his reputation for the rest of his wrestling career and earn Frye’s undying respect.

After a standoff that previewed the intensity to come, both men started punching each other in the head at the same time, each holding the other within striking range. It was fast and violent and is still a crazy sequence of events to watch, one that’s often compared to a hockey fight. Takayama’s swelling face showed he had taken more damage than Frye, but he didn’t back down. After the action slowed for a moment, though the fighters held on to each other, the same type of punching started again, and the crowd freaked out. After more bear-hugging with the occasional strikes and knees, the referee separated Frye and Takayama.

There’s a trope in Japanese pro wrestling called “fighting spirit,” when the power of fighting itself gives a wrestler the strength to keep fighting and fight even harder. Similar to “Hulking up” in North American wrestling, it’s the performance of the ability to keep going past the point of exhaustion, and then further beyond that. Though the Pride 21 main event wasn’t pre-determined like a wrestling match, Takayama displayed the fighting spirit of a main event wrestling hero. After his team checked on him in the corner, his face was even worse off than it had been a few minutes earlier, but, to the audience’s delight, he still reentered the bout with no visible trepidation.

But as much as his heart was still in the fight, a mistake from Takayama soon led to its end. While holding Frye in the corner, he tried to spin him around to take him down to the mat. However, he couldn’t spin the UFC legend around all the way, and this ended with Frye on top of Takayama. Takayama tried to protect his head during the ensuing ground-and-pound, but the referee soon stopped the match. Frye had won by knockout in the first round after six minutes and 10 seconds.

The men shook hands and bowed to each other after the decision was declared and Takayama raised Frye’s hand. But the something that elevates this bout even further in retrospect is that respect between these fighters wasn’t confined to one moment of sportsmanship.

Takayama soon left the MMA world and became even more successful as a pro wrestler. He’s not widely known by wrestling fans in the United States, but he became one of the most acclaimed wrestlers of the 21st century in Japan. After he returned to wrestling full time with an even more credibly badass persona than before, he became one of only two men (along with Kensuke Sasaki) to win all three of Japanese wrestling’s major heavyweight championships—New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship, NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight Championship, and All Japan’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship.

In 2017, his career suddenly ended when an in-ring injury left him paralyzed from the neck down. Soon after the injury, before Takayama’s condition had even stabilized, Don Frye sent his old opponent a message that showed his respect hadn’t faded in the 15 years since their fight:

“Takayama-san, God gave me the greatest opponent anybody could ever ask for, you. You made the greatest fight the world has ever seen. You are the reason that our fight beat the World Cup of soccer head to head on TV. You are the image of Bushido and strength and triumph. You are the first person everyone asks about when they meet me. You are the warrior we all look to be. Takayama-san, if you are done with this life, in this adventure, and wish to move on, good luck. We are not ready to lose you, and let you go. Therefore, we will always remember you. But if you must go, sir, godspeed.”

When Frye traveled to Japan in 2019 to attend Abdullah the Butcher’s retirement ceremony, he visited Takayama in the hospital.

A bout between two fighters and wrestlers with all the drama of a wrestling match and the violence of an unforgettable fight, Frye vs. Takayama has the legacy of not only being one of the greatest MMA fights of all time but one of the greatest meetings of the pro wrestling and MMA worlds.

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