RondaRousey.com’s Real Shooters feature explores the good, the bad, and the weird of pro wrestling-MMA crossover moments in history.
Before he won the 2018 Men’s Royal Rumble match, before he was the NXT Champion, before he became the youngest IWGP Heavyweight Champion in history, and less than a year after his professional wrestling debut, Shinsuke Nakamura had his first MMA fight against a man with a renowned (adopted) last name and a string of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) accomplishments already behind him, Daniel Gracie. In this first Real Shooters column, we’ll take a look back at this fight and how it came to be, as well as its legacy after the fact.
According to his 2014 autobiography King of Strong Style, Nakamura—who had amateur wrestled in high school and college—thought his shoot fighting days were over when he started training as a pro wrestler. His pro career got off to a promising start in 2002, when his debut match was more prominently featured than that of most New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) trainees and he was quickly dubbed “The Super Rookie.”
Soon after, he was sent to train further at NJPW’s dojo in Los Angeles, where he learned both fighting and pro wrestling techniques and often worked closely with Antonio Inoki, the company’s founder and a legendary wrestler in his own right as well as an MMA pioneer. Inoki, who was promoting both pro wrestling and MMA at the time—sometimes on the same card—was so impressed with Nakamura that he booked him for his third Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye New Year’s Eve MMA event.
This decision further set Nakamura apart from the wrestlers he trained with, so much so that NJPW temporarily moved him out of the dojo and into a hotel because they thought his peers might sabotage him out of jealousy. Nakamura then worked to hone his MMA skills as much as he could before his first fight, which he first believed would be against Bob Sapp but ended up being against Daniel Gracie.
While this was only Gracie’s second MMA fight, he was already extremely accomplished in the world of martial arts. His achievements in BJJ in the late 1990s and earlier in the 2000s included becoming World Champion once and Brazilian National Champion three times. To skip ahead a little, he would retire from MMA in 2006 (only to return in 2010, to mixed results) but would ultimately have more of a career in that world than Nakamura.
Nakamura later said he was extremely nervous going into his MMA debut, but he worked not to let that show, even boasting that he was better looking than Gracie—an actual model—to the press before the fight. By the time Nakamura got to the ring though: “That had already turned into, ‘You wimp out here, and the doors to your future’ll slam shut!’” And indeed, if you were watching the fight, you would’ve never guessed that Nakamura was plagued by nerves.
In the first round, Gracie is consistently able to fend off Nakamura’s attacks, but a fired-up Nakamura does score a takedown. A punch to the Nakamura’s face fires up the pro wrestler and results in a gnarly cut over one of his eyes. The match is paused, but when it restarts Gracie is still able to dominate the rest of the round.
In the second round, Nakamura gets a much cleaner takedown but leaves an opening for Gracie to lock on an armbar. Gracie defeats Nakamura by submission at 2:14 and Nakamura starts his MMA career at 0-1.
According to Nakamura, this fight still helped his career, even though he lost. Directly afterward, Inoki told him, “That’s it then. Good experience though, right?” And people’s opinions of Nakamura “changed for the better.”
Nakamura also applied what he learned from the experience directly into his pro wrestling career. When he started wrestling in Japan again shortly after this fight, he changed his persona, thinking, “I’ll put on a savage aura for this match, like in an MMA fight. I’ll do the match like that.” His in-ring style also came to include more MMA-style maneuvers, as he had more fights and trained further in Vale Tudo.
Like significant moments in many wrestlers’ lives, this fight was later incorporated into a pro wrestling storyline. When Daniel and his cousin Rolles Gracie Jr. spent time in NJPW from 2013-2014, the former challenged Nakamura to a match for his IWGP Intercontinental Championship with the line, “Nakamura-san, you remember 10 years ago? I beat you up, and I want to beat you up again.”
The only one-on-one match of Gracie’s pro wrestling career had the opposite result of their MMA fight though, with Nakamura appropriately standing tall after a performance of the art form that had crowned him a King.