Today, we’re reviewing the Vale Tudo Japan promotion. These events – also referred to as Japan Open Vale Tudo – were held annually from 1994 to 1999. The majority of them (5 of the 6) were held in the Tokyo NK Hall in Urayasu, Japan. In 2009 a reunion show took place and another was held in 2012. By 2013 the promotion committed to running multiple cards every year and they have held 8 more events in that time.

The competition was the creation of martial artist and professional wrestler Satoru Sayama. He is also the founder of SHOOTO (a MMA promotion that pre-dates the UFC by 7 years) as well as the wrestling promotion Real Japan Pro Wrestling and the martial art/sport called Seikendo (developed with MMA and pro wrestling referee Yuji Shimada).

Sayama has competed in kickboxing and performed MMA exhibitions but his real passion was for professional wrestling. Known as the masked character “Tiger Mask” (modelled after Ikki Kajiwara’s comic book hero), Sayama trained under Kotetsu “The Human Bomb” Yamamoto, Yoshiaki Fujiwara (Akira Maeda, Nobuhiko Takada and Ken Shamrock’s trainer), Antonio Inoki (fought Muhammed Ali, created New Japan Pro Wrestling) and Karl Gotch (known as the “Kamisama” or “God of Wrestling”).

The Vale Tudo Japan are available on DVD or for view over the internet.

Since Vale Tudo Japan’s origins are unlike the other promotions under the RIZIN FF banner – in that the original events were only held annually – I feel it’s best to simply review the 2 or 3 best bouts from each of the initial 8 fight cards and highlight the modern events.

Vale Tudo Japan 1994 FIGHTS YOU SHOULD SEE

This is a special event for me personally. It is the first time I saw NHB. I was working at a comic book store while going to college and a friend brought in a grainy bootleg VHS tape of what was labeled Japan Open Vale Tudo. I already had my black belt in tae kwon do but I had no idea what “vale tudo” was. And who was this Gracie guy? UFC 1 had taken place 9 months earlier in November of ’93 with Rickson’s brother, Royce, taking the tournament but I didn’t know anything about that event. Needless to say this tape changed my life.

The Japanese fighters were completely outsized in this event. The American and Dutch fighters were 6’2 or taller. Even Rickson is nearly 6’0 so with the average Japanese fighter in this competition standing 5’7, it was an up-hill battle from the opening bell.

Bud Smith vs. Chris Bass
This is the first fight on the tape and opening bout of the 8-man tournament. UKF Light Heavyweight Kickboxing Champion Bud Smith faced Oyama Karate Heavyweight Champion Chris Bass. This one was all Smith. He landed a hard right to the face that put Bass on the floor just 30 seconds into the match. The ref wouldn’t let them tangle on the ground and instead gave Bass a standing 8 count. Smith lands one more clean right to the face, dropping him hard and Bass gets counted out. Bass’ coach – the infamous Gerard Gordeau – doesn’t look happy.

Bud Smith vs. Rickson Gracie
Jan Lomulder broke his hand so Smith got a bye to the final. Gracie is announced as “Kurofune” or the “Black Battle Ship” by the MC. I’ve heard him referred to as “Urso” or “Bear” by his father, Helio Gracie, but this was a new nickname to me. Gracie had only spent a little over 5 minutes in the ring getting to the final so there was no reason to think this would go any differently. Smith throws a front kick to the chest and Gracie uses it to take him down to the mat. He easily mounts and blasts Smith with punches to the chest and face until the American fighter taps.

Vale Tudo Japan 1995 FIGHTS YOU SHOULD SEE
If you’ve ever seen or heard of the documentary film “Choke”, this is the event it was made about. Rickson Gracie returns to Japan 9 months after VTJ ‘94 – this time fighting in the significantly larger Nippon Budokan Hall in Tokyo – to repeat as tournament champion. I showed “Choke” as part of a martial arts film festival I held in Chicago in 2002 and I can tell you the house was rockin’.

Yuki Nakai vs. Gerard Gordeau
This fight is infamous for Gordeau’s brutally illegal tactics resulting in Nakai losing vision in one eye but he was known even before this event. In addition to being an 8-time Dutch Karate Champion, Gordeau participated in the very first fight at UFC 1. There he kicked out 3 teeth of Hawaiian Sumo wrestler Teila Tula – 2 of the teeth remained in Gordeau’s foot for the duration of the tournament – before losing to Royce Gracie in the final. It’s rumored Gordeau bit Royce’s ear so it’s likely his behavior in this fight came as no surprise to the Gracie family. Nakai, an athlete scouted by Satoru Sayama himself to train in shoot wrestling, eventually founded the Paraestra Shooto Gym in Japan and coaches MMA standout Shinja Aoki.

Gordeau was using the ropes to hold himself up in the very first minute of the fight and that’s when you can see him start to work on the eye of Nakai. He denies it of course but Nakai’s eye had already started to blow up. Nakai worked for a leg submission to start Rd 2 but Gordeau used the ropes for balance and pounded his head into the canvas early. Gordeau went back to eye gouging Nakai against the ropes in Rd 3. The final round was more of the same until Nakai dropped to the mat to apply a heel hook and twisted a tapping Gordeau to the mat for the win. He remains partially blind today from the match. It’s not the most entertaining fight bell-to-bell, but it definitely shows you how far we’ve come to create a sport.

Yoshihisa Yamamoto vs. Rickson Gracie
This was just Yamamoto’s third fight but he’d already experienced RINGS Holland so he knew he was in for a serious scrap. It was Rickson’s first fight in the tournament and turned out to be one of the most challenging of his fighting career. Some readers may have seen the classic clips of Gracie punching Yamamoto with uppercuts to the face while standing behind him. Yamamoto also did a number on Gracie’s neck, gripping it tight like it was the winning Mega Millions ticket. With 30 seconds left in the opener, Gracie threw Yamamoto over the top rope to the floor but he wasn’t going anywhere. His best chance at finishing Gracie came just one minute into the 2nd Rd with a fairly deep front choke. It was so surprising that even the Gracie family members surrounding the ring became a bit unraveled. But this was Rickson. The legend. He pulled his head out and went back to work on Yamamoto’s body. In Rd 3 – nearly 20 minutes into the fight – Yamamoto motions to the ref that Rickson poked him in the eye but they carried on. Gracie eventually took him down, worked from mount to seize his back and put Yamamoto to sleep with a rear naked choke. It was a strong performance for Yamamoto and showed the fans in attendance that Gracie’s ’94 tournament win was no fluke.

Vale Tudo Japan 1996 FIGHTS YOU SHOULD SEE
This fight card is my least favorite of the regular series of events. The video montage to open the tape was really good and showed how the more stylized intros we’d see for PRIDE FC events developed.

Mushtaq Abdullah vs. Sanae Kikuta
This is one of the pleasant surprises of the event. Kikuta is likely a familiar name to some readers. He fought five times in PRIDE FC and once in the UFC as well as most every other Japanese MMA show around at the time. A student of Satoru Sayama, Kikuta had a strong judo background and was destined for MMA. He won two Lumax Cup: Tournament of J events defeating some of Japan’s best fighters including Egan Inoue and Masanori Suda. Kikuta won the ’96 tournament winning 4 bouts by submission in the same day. These bouts were punching and kicking on the feet but only punching to the body on the ground and the goal was to win by submission. I’m sure some readers are saying “who the hell is this Abdullah guy?” I have to say I wonder myself. I’ve seen all 3 of his fights and he had a lot of potential but he just seemed to disappear after 1996. The Iraqi fighter gave a very Fedor-esque performance here, striking his way through submissions and even punching Kikuta’s mouthpiece out while standing in his guard.

Igor Zinoviev vs. Enson Inoue
Zinoviev was one of the Russian fighters whose career was cut short due to injury after just one fight in the UFC (a title fight against Frank Shamrock). He resurfaced years later to coach the Chicago Red Bears in the IFL and contemplated returning to fighting but another accident (I believe it involved a snowmobile) shelved his career permanently. Inoue was riding high, having won his bout in the previous year’s event and being ranked SHOOTO’s number one heavyweight.

Inoue rushed in for the takedown and right into a tight guillotine. He got the takedown but Zinoviev didn’t let go. The Russian fighter executed a sweep, landing on top. Once he released the choke, Zinoviev pounded Inoue with 10 straight right hands to finish him. Inoue, still in a daze, found out what happened as his brother helped him backstage.

Vale Tudo Japan 1997 FIGHTS YOU SHOULD SEE
This is the first of two fight cards where many of the bouts were excellent. It was difficult to limit it to 3 and if I had to pick one more it would’ve been the Rumina Sato/John Lewis rematch.

Carlos Newton vs. Erik Paulson
Try to catch the pre-fight interview with Newton. For a guy with one pro fight – a win on the controversial Battlecade: Extreme Fighting 2 card in Canada – he is most relaxed individual you’ll ever see. Paulson was the reigning SHOOTO Light Heavyweight Champion with a record of 7-1-2 in the Japanese SHOOTO promotion. I imagine this was viewed as a “let’s keep the champ busy” fight for Paulson but things don’t always work out as planned.

Paulson came out striking but Newton lands a double-leg and is in side control instantly. Newton easily passes to mount and seizes the arm. Paulson is tapping his foot on Newton’s head to signal it’s over in less than a minute.

Tom Erikson vs. Ed de Krujif
I’ve written about Erikson in other media outlets before. He is without a doubt the best heavyweight to never step in the UFC’s octagon. He was 5-0-1 at the time with a 4-man tournament victory and a draw in the final of an 8-man tournament. Dutch kickboxer Ed de Kruijf was supposed to fight someone else but he was a veteran of the promotion and 3-1 so naturally he took the fight.

Erikson walked across the ring and planted a right hand on de Krujif’s noggin that dropped the Dutchman, warranting a standing-eight count from the ref. Once unleashed again, Erikson picked up deKrujif, slammed him to the mat and punched him in the face until the ref stepped in. Watch the end of the fight as Erikson unwittingly sends the ref tumbling toward the ropes and nearly out of the ring.

Frank Shamrock vs. Enson Inoue
This is one of my top 5 favorite fights EVER. Shamrock was a 3-year veteran of NHB and the former Interim King of Pancrase. Inoue had just won the SHOOTO Light Heavyweight Championship the month prior. The winner of this fight knew they were going to the UFC to fight for the title. It had all the makings of a classic and it didn’t disappoint.
Though later ruled to be a disqualification as a result of Egan Inoue’s actions, Shamrock won the fight. He would enter the UFC 1 month later and capture the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship in just 16 seconds. The UFC bout would finish off a run where Frank fought 4 times in 4 months.

It was a bigger, more intense Enson Inoue that shot up through the floor of the Tokyo Bay NK Hall that night. From the bell he was a vessel of unbridled rage, ready to unleash hell on whatever stood before him. Shamrock knew it too. It took all of his effort just to control his opponent. The physical chess match played out on the mat and every stand up encounter had fight-ending potential. Shamrock controlled Rd 1 with superior positioning.

Inoue scored a takedown and jumped to mount early in Rd 2. Shamrock would cling to Inoue – absorbing big punches and ducking his head out of the way of something that might knock him out – for nearly 5 minutes. Once back on the feet, the most heated exchange of the entire fight took place with both fighters throwing everything they had for 30 seconds. Shamrock would eventually control Inoue in the corner and they traded strikes from the clinch. Inoue landed a knee to the body and Shamrock landed to the head. Shamrock landed a right-left-right combination punch followed by a knee to the face and Inoue dropped. The ref stepped in but Egan Inoue also entered the ring and dumped a defenseless and exhausted Shamrock on his head in the corner. Chaos ensued from Inoue’s crew and Shamrock can be heard to say “get off me”. Frank still says it was the toughest fight of his career.

Vale Tudo Japan 1998 FIGHTS YOU SHOULD SEE
This was hands-down the best overall event of the promotion. It featured great representation by American wrestlers, especially by the RAW Team (Matyushenko, Trigg and Couture). The Sakurai/Bytchkov fight could’ve also made this list.

Frank Trigg vs. Jean Jacques Machado
Trigg is a NCAA Division 1 Wrestling All-American and a 2nd Dan black belt in judo with a 5-0 NHB record including an 8-man tournament title (at USWF 7). Machado – one of 5 Machado brothers and a nephew of Master Carlos Gracie – is currently a 7th Dan red-and-black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and compiled an 8-3 record in Abu Dhabi submission grappling competition. He was born with Amniotic Band Syndrome, which left him without fingers on his left hand but it was never a factor in his combat sports aspirations. This was Machado’s only foray into Mixed Martial Arts.

Trigg dictated the forum of the fight early as Machado struggled to take him down. They fought the majority of the match from Machado’s guard with Trigg landing the only quality strikes from his feet. Trigg started Rd 2 with some well-placed knees but it was a much more competitive round and each fighter had instants of dominance over the other. Trigg’s excellent movement on the ground – and his sweat – nullified many of Machado’s submission attempts. In the final round Trigg caught Machado with a knee to the face as he shot in and his forehead exploded on impact. A towel came in from the corner and the ref stepped in as the overhead camera panned out to show a large red puddle on the mat.

Andre Pederneiras vs. Rumina Sato
Pederneiras is a black belt under Carlson Gracie Sr., a 6-time Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu National Champion and the co-founder of the Nova Uniao (means “new union”) academy. He has a record of 1-1-2 in MMA and this was his debut fight. Rumina “Moon Wolf” Sato is a shoot wrestler training under former SHOOTO lightweight and feather weight champion Noboru Asahi (who trained under Satoru Sayama) and Noriaki Kiguchi at the Kiguchi Dojo. Sato was 12-1-1 in MMA at the time and fought for the SHOOTO welterweight title 7 months later. He was also the best Japanese fighter of his day never to enter the UFC.

Sato had Pederneiras in serious armbar trouble in the first minute of the fight. They stayed in Sato’s guard until Pederneiras stood up 4 minutes into the match. Sato stayed grounded and the pair traded kicks. As Sato sat up on his right hip to hand fight, Pederneiras snuck a low left round kick around to Sato’s face, stunning him. A stunned Sato sat back and Pederneiras pounced, landing 4 hard right hands to the face to finish the fight.

Enson Inoue vs. Randy Couture
Inoue won 4 fights, made his UFC debut and won the SHOOTO Light Heavyweight Championship all in the period between his back-to-back losses at the annual VTJ events. After a year away from the ring he was ready to take on the reigning UFC Heavyweight Champion. Couture was a 3-time NCAA Division 1 Wrestling All-American, a 2-time NCAA Division 1 runner up and an Olympic Team alternate. He was 4-0 in NHB and won the UFC 13 four-man heavyweight tournament in addition to winning the UFC Heavyweight Championship. He did all of that in 1997.

Inoue came up through the floor of the arena like in ‘97 – this time to Queen’s “We Will Rock You”- and you could see he packed on even more muscle than in previous contests. He opened with a kick that Couture caught and they went down to the mat, fighting out of Inoue’s guard. Inoue trapped Couture’s left arm but Randy stood up and slammed Enson to the mat to free himself. Inoue kicked well from the guard, even leaping off the mat to land a round kick to the Couture’s ribs. Randy eat a kick and dropped a bomb on Enson’s face inside his guard. Inoue eventually got back to his feet and they exchange until Couture hit an inside trip knocking Inoue to the mat. They fought from Inoue’s guard and Couture left his arm on Inoue’s chest. Japan’s hero seized the arm, rotated his hips and spun to his stomach to tap out the UFC’s reigning champion.

Vale Tudo Japan 1999 FIGHTS YOU SHOULD SEE
The last in the regular series of events, the ’99 fight card had a “Japan versus Brazil” theme. The Japanese contingent won 4 of the 7 bouts either with strikes or by submission. The remaining 3 bouts all went to a draw.

Takanori Gomi vs. Johnny Eduardo
Gomi was a 4-time ALL-Japan Combat Wrestling Champion and 4-0 in the SHOOTO promotion going into this match. He would capture the SHOOTO Lightweight Championship in 2001 and would be the only man to hold the PRIDE FC Lightweight Championship in 2005. Johnny Eduardo had won two 8-man tournaments and lost in the final of a third tournament. He brought an impressive 11-3 record of competition in Brazil to the VTJ ’99 stage.

Eduardo had Gomi in an armbar 30 seconds into the fight and it turned out to be his best chance at winning. The pair fought from inside Eduardo’s guard for the majority of the opening round. Gomi turned up the striking in the last two minutes and tagged Eduardo with some solid shots but nothing that was game-changing. Rd 2 started with a heated striking exchange and Gomi was lighting Eduardo up. A right uppercut followed by a left-right straight combo sent Eduardo out through the ropes and on the floor. They went to the mat where Gomi continued to unloaded and repeatedly slammed Eduardo’s head into the canvas. Eduardo took a lot of abuse for the rest of the round, including stomps to the chest and knees to the head. He appeared exhausted and ate a barrage of Gomi’s knees to his face to finish the round.

Eduardo, surprisingly not looking the worse for wear, rushes Gomi to start the 3rd round but he’s met with knees to the head. The Brazilian goes on the offensive but Gomi brings him to the mat, continues to knee him in the head and eventually works his way to Eduardo’s back to sink the rear naked choke. Then in an exit that is pure Japan, Gomi brings a small child into the ring to do flips and Gomi throws kicks at the crowd’s extended hands as he runs up the ramp back to the locker room.

Hayato Sakurai vs. Haroldo Bunn
Sakurai a Kiguchi Dojo shootboxer with a 14-0-2 record in MMA and was the reigning SHOOTO Welterweight Champion. Though a Brazilian Jui-Jitsu black belt, Bunn had the least amount of fighting experience of all the main event fighters and only had a record of 2-2 in NHB at the time (finished 3-6-1). Ironically, Bunn held a submission victory over Jonny Eduardo who fought earlier the same night.

Bunn got tagged early but he took Sakurai down early into start the 1st Rd. Sakurai pulled off the sweep but Bunn countered, putting him right back on the mat. They stayed there for the rest of the round with Bunn landing several kicks to Sakurai’s head from the standing position. Sakurai got a takedown to start Rd 2. He dropped an elbow on Bunn’s face that open a cut on his brow. Bunn stayed grounded and beckoned Sakurai to join him. Sakurai jumped in but he’s nearly armlocked and backed out. They stayed in a one fighter standing/one fighter grounded scenario for the rest of the round. Late in the round, Sakurai was lured in and nearly leg locked but the scrum brought Bunn back to his feet. However he quickly flopped back to the mat to keep the fight where he was comfortable.

Sakurai came out striking for Rd 3 but Bunn brought it to the mat. He eventually got past Bunn’s guard and landed repeated right hands to the head. This forced Bunn to roll and Sakurai followed, tagging him in the back of the head and face. Once in the mount, Sakurai continued to punch Bunn as he was sliding under the ropes, even as his head was resting on the steps into the ring. This truly was Vale Tudo.

The event took place in December so in a final humorous moment at the end of the event, highlights of JVT participants from ’94 to ’99 run in black and white to the tune of John Lennon’s “So This Is Christmas”.

Vale Tudo Japan 2009 FIGHTS YOU SHOULD SEE
The reunion show 10 years later was a welcome surprise. It was great to see VTJ veterans Takanori Gomi, Rumina Sato and Alexandre Franca Nogueira (all champions) as well as the addition of SHOOTO champion Takeshi Inoue.

Rumina Sato vs. Corey Grant
Sato had been fighting consistently but he’d lost 6 of 7 going into this match. Grant was 3-0 in MMA. He had only been fighting professionally for a year and a half but this was his opportunity to face a legend.

Grant caught Sato’s kick and he dumped him on his head. He rushed in but Sato was already looking for an armlock. Grant missed a head stomp and Sato was back to his feet. Sato stayed busy and threw kicks from just inside their range. Grant grabbed another kick and dumped Sato but he was right back to his feet. Sato continued to land hard leg kicks and clipped Grant with an overhand right. A right leg kick followed by an overhand right sent Grant back peddling. A knee to the face from Sato dropped him and he followed Grant to the ground, finishing him with strikes from inside the guard.

Tony Hervey vs. Takanori Gomi
Hervey was 4-1 in King of the Cage leading up to this fight and had never fought outside the US before. PRIDE FC was over and Gomi had been fighting for Sengoku for the last year. This was his second fight back in the SHOOTO arena, having KO’d then reigning SHOOTO Lightweight Champion Takashi Nakamura.

It was a surprisingly entertaining and competitive fight. Gomi controlled the tempo throughout but Hervey had his moments. Gomi was likely kicking himself for not finishing the fight in Rd 3. He had Hervey reeling from strikes and had the armbar on late in the round (you can even see Hervey tap once) but it was not meant to be. A back-and-forth 4th Rd was the most exciting of the fight but it only led to a 5th round where both fighters were spent. Gomi wins a decision but it was an undeniably impressive showing for Hervey.

Vale Tudo Japan 2012 FIGHTS YOU SHOULD SEE
This was the first VTJ event to use a cage. It was also the first year that women fought in the Vale Tudo Japan promotion (Megumi Fujii vs. Mei Yamaguchi).

Keita “K Taro” Nakamura vs. Nobutatsu Suzuki
Nakamura, a recent addition to the UFC, is the former Sengoku Welterweight Champion and the current DEEP Welterweight Champion. Suzuki is a veteran of ZST and a former ONE FC Welterweight Champion (beat UFC veteran Brock Larson for the title, lost it to Bellator MMA Champion Ben Askren).

They trade in the center but nothing really has heat on it. Nakamura caught a kick and followed Suzuki to the mat. He sat outside Suzuki’s guard and worked his way around to seize his back and they never left that position. Suzuki taps from a rear naked choke.

Hideo Tokoro vs. Rumina Sato
Tokoro holds a victory over Royler Gracie, fought to a draw with Roce Gracie and won the 2011 DREAM Japanese Bantamweight Grand Prix Championship. Sato fought for the SHOOTO lightweight and welterweight titles.

It is a wonder they never met in the ring before, given these athletes have more than 100 professional MMA fights between them. Tokoro flew into Sato’s open guard and clocked him. He landed about 15 more unanswered blows until the ref pulled him off.

Vale Tudo Japan 2013 Highlights
This is the first year of more frequent events. Fight card in 2013 featured Megumi Fujii, Jessica Aguilar, Caol Uno, Daniel Romero, Hideo Tokoro, Mamoru Yamaguchi and Naoyuki Kotani

Vale Tudo Japan 2014 Highlights
2014 featured the most fight cards (3 events) of any year since the inception of VTJ. Hiroyuki Takaya, Yojiro Uchimura, Yoshihiro Koyama, Yoshiro Maeda, Hiromasa Ogikubo, Czar Sklavos, Takumi Nakayama and Kanna Asakura all took part in fights that year.

Vale Tudo Japan 2015 Highlights
Last year’s fight cards featured Justin Morton, Ikuhisa Minowa, Ryota Matsune, Daichi Takenaka, Takeshi Kasugai, Taison Naito and 17-year-old kickboxer Yukari Yamaguchi.

NOTE: these are just the fights I would recommend viewing. Do you have a Vale Tudo Japan fight you think everyone should see? Let me know at jhirthmma@yahoo.com and I’ll put together another Top 5 Vale Tudo Japan fights voted on by the readers.

NEXT UP: Poland’s KSW promotion

About The Author

James Hirth
Staff Writer

James Hirth has been covering combat sports in a variety of media formats (magazine, internet and radio) since the late 1990’s. He was first exposed to Mixed Martial Arts (then called No Holds Barred) when a training partner brought in a grainy VHS tape of an event called the Japan Open Vale Tudo ’94. James recalls “I’m the first person I‘m aware of who was familiar with Rickson Gracie’s fights before Royce. I saw a tape of UFC 1 a few weeks later and I was hooked”. Having done everything from in-house play-by-play and judging at live fights, ringside camera work and even cornering a fighter - in addition to previews and interviews - James has witnessed the growth of the sport. James has studied a variety of martial arts for more than 30 years. Growing up in Chicago and the youngest of 8 children, James’ oldest brother would take him Downtown to the theaters of The Loop on Saturday mornings in the late 1970’s to see martial arts films. Like many youth of that day, seeing Bruce Lee on the big screen changed his life. His brother would also introduce him to the arts of Tae Kwon Do and Hapkido where he spent 10 years training and teaching at the same academy. After receiving his Bachelors of Science in Business Operations he spent 5 years in the field of Marketing Research in The Loop. The 9-11 tragedy resulted in significant layoffs in the industry and he would return to teaching martial arts, this time for a non-for-profit organization. He spent more than a decade teaching and developing a variety of martial arts programming in multiple branches of the organization. He not only taught all ages and in more than a dozen Chicago Public Schools, but had the opportunity to train Cook County Juvenile Probation Officers and the children of local FBI agents. Now James is thrilled to bring his years of experience to The MMA Corner and Press Box Insider.