In a few days, two legendary titans of combat sports will meet under the lights of the Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium for a once in a lifetime dream bout that has been over 20 years in the making.
Volk Han will return to grace the RINGS squared circle for one last time, taking on fellow trail blazer, Masakatsu Funaki in Han’s final bout. But before that, lets take a look back at how the careers of these two greats compared and often mirrored each other over a decade of excellence.
~ Volk Han would begin his legendary career in RINGS at the end of 1991 by facing off against one of, if not the most popular wrestler in Japan at the time, Akira Maeda. Volk became an instant hit with the fans, bringing dazzling Sambo submissions never before seen in a Japanese ring and high level catch-as-catch-can to compliment it. Though he lost, a star was born and Han would remain thee staple of RINGS for it’s entire existence, as would the feud between these two greats.
~ Volk would square off against Maeda once again just a few months after their original classic. This time it would be Han scoring a big upset at the time and turning himself into a mega star in the land of the rising sun.
http://youtu.be/OW0G8kegLIU (sorry embedding is disabled)
~ As 1992 drew to a close, Professional Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi would hold one of the most pivotal events in JMMA history, STACK OF ARMS. The event would see the Fujiwara wrestlers take on Martial Artists of various disciplines. Ken Shamrock, Minoru Suzuki & Kazuo Takahashi were all on the card, with the main event seeing Masakatsu take on Maurice Smith in a modified MMA rules bout. This event lead to Funaki and his gang leaving Pro Wrestling and forming Pancrase
~ 1993 was the busiest year for Volk he had had in his career yet. Volk started the year by beating both Andrei Kopilov and Andrei Ruminezei, in fact Volk would only lose one match the entire year. This fantastic first match with the gutsy Nagai served as a perfect showcase for just how many ways Han could turn a man into a pretzel.
~ Speaking of busy years, in ’93 Funaki was busy revolutionizing the fight game in Japan. Funaki and the top talent of Fujiwara Gumi had broken away from traditional worked pro wrestling matches to create a real pro wrestling organization, Pancrase. At the debut show, Funaki squared off against the monstrous man mountain, Ken Shamrock, in the first ever Pancrase main event. Funaki would come up just short but the fight stands as an all time classic fight and Funaki would win his 3 other fights in ’93 with a combined time of about 6 minutes.
~ 1994 was another very busy year for Volk as he racked up wins over the likes of Nagai & Hans Nyman during the year but he was bested in his two biggest matches of the year, a match with Akira Maeda and this phenomenal bout with Andrei Kopilov. This match is very similar to Funaki’s fight with Shamrock, the bigger and stronger Kopilov vs. the more technical Han.
~ Funaki’s 1994 was much like Volk’s as he scored some very impressive victory’s over Bas Rutten, Takaku Fuke, a revenge win over Shamrock and this amazing win over Minoru Suzuki in one of the fastest paced fights you’re likely to ever see. He did suffer two big setbacks though. An outright fluke loss to Jason DeLucia and he fell again at the hands of Ken Shamrock in their rubber match during the King Of Pancrase tournament.
~ Han started his year by winning the RINGS Mega Battle Tournament, beating his longest rival, Akira Maeda, in the finals. Volk was well and truly established as one of the biggest stars in, not only RINGS but all of Japan. He rode the wave of momentum, going unbeaten for over half a year before a hit and miss closing to ’95 that saw him once again lose to Maeda, he did get a big win over Kopilov however. This match see’s Han take on the up and coming Yoshihisa Yamamoto for the second time in 12 months. He took the young lad to the woodshed the first time around but it would be quite different this time out.
~ Funaki’s 1995 was a near perfect year. Not only was he the most popular fighter in Japan but he racked up 7 victory’s, all finishes. His only minor setbacks came via a loss at the hands of Manabu Yamada and a worked (on Funaki’s part) rematch loss against Frank Shamrock. Here we see Funaki’s first fight with Frank at the start of ’95. A true display of his brilliance.
~ What a year 1996 was for Volk Han. Han did lose a few bouts but that doesn’t matter this time because ’96 brought us Volk Han vs. Kiyoshi Tamura and Volk Han vs. Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, two of the greatest pairings of all time. Tamura & Kohsaka were both known well before making there way to RINGS in ’96 but their respective matches with each other would shoot them all to legend status and define Han’s legacy. Han would face and defeat Kohsaka three times in 1996 and best Tamura in their lone encounter.
~ Just like Han, 1996 was a career defining year for Masakatsu. He would lose one single fight, his iconic rematch with Bas Rutten. Funaki was beaten from pillar to post by Bas but he refused to stay down for a 10 count. Funkai lost due to his points running out of points but his incredible display of heart was a landmark moment in his career, as was his follow up fight. Funaki would finally become King of Pancrase in ’96, beating Yuki Kondo and demolishing Jason DeLucia to win the coveted title.
Much more after the jump.
~ Volk once again would win the RINGS Mega Battle Tournament, this time beating one of his new generation rivals, Kiyoshi Tamura, in another legendary match. The first half of ’97 would be very quiet for Han, he would face Maeda for the umpteenth time, beating his nemesis by Submission but that would be his only two major wins of the first half of the year. Han would fail to find success in matches with Yoshihisa Yamamoto & Tamura, later in the year. The Mega Battle Tournament would see a return to form, Han would pick up wins over Andrei Kopilov and Dick Vrij before being upset by Mikhail Ilioukhine.
~ Funaki would lose his King of Pancrase title to future legend Yuki Kondo at the start of the year when the young gun caught Masa in a surprise armbar. It would be the only loss he would suffer all year, as he would rack up four dominate wins after the loss and end with a 7-1 record for the year, including wins over Semmy Schilt and Guy Mezger. Funaki would finish his year with a history making victory, Funaki would submit Kondo in mere minutes to become the first ever two time King of Pancrase.
~ The landscape of Japan’s fight game was changing drastically by 1998, PRIDE had come along and revolutionized the industry and the generation who laid the ground work were beginning to slowly but surely fade out. Volk had missed his chance to become RINGS first Open-Weight Champion, an honor that would go to Tamura.
Volk would get the last laugh on Maeda however, beating him in five minutes just a few months before Maeda would retire (only to return for the Super Fight with Alexander Karelin). The oldest rivalry in RINGS was over and Han stood tall. It would be Han’s only major win of the year though, Kohsaka would finally get one over on Volk in what would be their final match. Han would fight for mother Russia in the first and only World Mega Battle Tournament, Han would beat Dick Vrij of the eventual winners, Team Netherlands, but fell at the hands of Joop Kasteel. His only other victory was this fight against the young Kenichi Yamamoto in front of 18,000 fans at Maeda’s retirement show.
~ It’s an old cliche but time waits for no man and it was rapidly catching up to Funaki by 1998. Funaki had 40 fights in 5 years along with pro wrestling since age 15, all without any considerable time off and it had extracted a heavy toll on Masa, seeing him lose his title to Guy Mezger, a man he had beaten with ease twice before.
Funaki would also lose back to back fights for the first time in his career. A very hard fought decision to Kiuma Kunioku and the savage body punch KO at the giant hands of Semmy Schilt that you see in the above video. It wasn’t all bad though as Funaki still picked up 4 wins during the year.
~ RINGS was rapidly changing heading into the new millennium, a massive influx of top fighters from around the globe were brought in. It was no longer Maeda and his wrestlers, it was becoming Mixed Martial Arts and Volk was pushing 40. Han would only have 4 matches in ’99, winning 3 and losing a decision to Grom Zaza. Volk would be more focused on mentoring and working with the new talent coming in. Here is Volk’s first bout of the year, a fantastic one with the legendary Hiromitsu Kanehara.
~ Just as RINGS was adapting to changing times, so would Pancrase. At the end of 1998, Pancrase said farewell to it’s trademark Hybrid Wrestling style and adopt Vale Tudo Rules, headbutts, one round, no rope escape, elbows and stomps, the whole 9 yards. This change would see a ton of top young fighters join the promotion, Nate Marquardt, Ricardo Almeida & Evan Tanner, to name a few.
Funaki’s time in this era would be short lived and he would retire at the end of 1999 after forcing Tony Petarra to tap to strikes. Here we see him squaring off in a wild brawl, that ended in a time limit draw, against Ebenezer Fontes Braga, who was fresh off choking out Jeremy Horn and would go on to face Kazushi Sakuraba in PRIDE.
~ Volk’s millennium year was nothing short of epic. RINGS was now in the MMA game and the grizzled 40 year old, Han would have 6 fights and win them all, making his way to the quarter finals of RINGS legendary King of Kings 2000 tournament. One of the fighters he had taken under his wing also made his RINGS debut in 2000, a guy called Fedor Emelianenko.
~ Despite his battle worn body, Funaki would be lured back to the ring in 2000 for one of the biggest fights in MMA history! Funaki was asked to fight the mythic Rickson Gracie, the supposedly unbeaten god of BJJ. The pre fight build up would be wild, with Funaki no showing press conferences and coloring his hair to try and throw Rickson off, the fight almost imploded several times when Gracie tried to make outlandish rule changes.
The fight did indeed happen though. The undercard had a number of RINGS fighters but no Han. Make no mistake though, the 40.5k fans packed in the Tokyo Dome and 30 million watching on Japanese TV wanted to see if Funaki could attain God-like status by beating Rickson.
Funaki entered the ring in Samurai getup, a symbol of how he felt about the fight perhaps, while Rickson made a bone chilling entrance of his own. The two would stall in the corner for several minutes before Masa made a choke attempt that forced Rickson to fall to his back. The two exchanged kicks in the up/down position and unfortunately, one of Rickson’s kicks blew out Funaki’s knee and he was soon after choked out by the Gracie but in one of the more manly moments MMA has ever seen, Funaki refused to tap to the choke and later said he wondered if he was going to die. Funaki left the Dome beaten but with his pride. He would go back into retirement for almost 8 years.
~ Han would face Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in the RINGS King of Kings tournament at the start of ’01, it would be the legends last match in RINGS Japan. Every MMA fan knows Big Nog now, he’s an all time great and one of the most loved fighters of all time but in ’01 he was only 11 fights deep and an underdog next to a legend like Han.
It was the grappler of the past vs the grappler of the future and over the course of the fight, they more or less canceled each other out, aside from a pretty close kneebar by Nog but if Volk knows one thing, it’s leg locks. The judges thought Antonio had done enough and gave him the nod, he would go on to win the King of Kings tournament and Han would have two more matches in RINGS Russia and Lithuania, even beating his old pal Kopylov one last time before stepping away from the ring.
PRIDE had already began picking RINGS apart and by 2002 there was nothing left and RINGS was closed down for 10 years until Akira Maeda revived the brand at the start of this year. It’s only right that Han gets a proper send off and on December 16th he will get it in a dream match with Funaki. The two icons paths could’ve crossed at any point during the 90′s but perhaps the two men who have walked such similar yet different roads are saving the best for last.