"For years the rumors have circulated. Those with an ear to the ground have heard fantastic tales of an invisible organization, an organization that sponsors an international, no-holds-barred tournament pitting dedicated martial artists of all arts against each other in bare-knuckle kumite."
-John Stewart, Black Belt Magazine (November 1980).
April 4th, 2019. Jersey City, New Jersey.
Thunderous chants of "Kumite! Kumite!" rain down, the roar of the rabid fans reverberating throughout White Eagle Hall. The pre-first-war building possesses character, and all adulation within its walls falls upon former UFC Heavyweight Champion "The Warmaster" Josh Barnett and Minoru Suzuki as the combatants prepare to lock horns in the opening moments of their main event bout at Bloodsport. Real recognized real as the two legendary prizefighters stood across from one another in a sixteen-by-sixteen foot ring stripped of ropes—the ubiquitous standard bearer for all that is illegitimate and gratuitously theatrical in pro wrestling—in its place emphasizing sheer brutality and violence.
The gritty spectacle took place before a sold-out crowd of hundreds while thousands more watched live on pay-per-view to see the former King of Pancrase Openweight Champions engage in gladiatorial combat. Presented by Game Changer Wrestling, this is the professional wrestling-mixed martial arts hybrid known simply as Bloodsport. Except, this isn't a movie: it's real life and it's happening again live on September 14th; only it has traded the locale from the cult classic of cinema set in the labyrinthine backstreets of Hong Kong for the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Bloodsport has drawn a lot of buzz in both the worlds of mixed martial arts and professional wrestling, with its previous event featuring the debut of Frank Mir and the recent dazzling cinematic announcement of AEW star Jon Moxley (FKA WWE's Dean Ambrose) debut with the cutthroat brand (which has since been postponed due to a serious staph infection)—not to mention the boundary-breaking return to wrestling of judo champion Anthony Carelli (FKA WWE's Santino Marella). Now, let's take a step closer and do a deep dive to see what this unique, groundbreaking event is really all about.
"I've heard that it's unnecessarily brutal. Like a cockfight, except it's with people."
Its name a callback to the vehicle of Jean-Claude Van Damme's mainstream superstardom, in 1988 audiences around the world were first introduced to the kumite: the predecessor to the UFC and the inspiration behind the Mortal Kombat franchise, Bloodsport depicts a ruthless, multi-disciplined, no-holds-barred, full-contact fighting tournament of the world's deadliest combatants. Now, three decades later, we re-enter the kumite to experience Game Changer Wrestling's latest blockbuster hit. Welcome to Bloodsport.
With Josh Barnett at the helm to personally produce these events (and lending his namesake, not unlike the Bas Rutten Invitationals of the late nineties), he has handpicked these elite athletes to put their fighting spirit on the line. A happening takes place in the arena of the combative arts combining the dramatic narratives of pro wrestling with the brutality and strategic maneuvering of MMA: there is meaning to every movement and throw. It is a true phenomenon that needs to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
The fighting stage consists of a barebones, ropeless ring in imitation of the movie's fighting space, the runway. The crowd in attendance is consistently more appreciative of the action than the typical fanbase: absolutely electric, they are hanging off the edge of their seats with anticipation of every grapple's end and successful submission locked in, positively exploding with every strike landed and suplex thrown. The fights feel equally as raw as those depicted in the motion picture—more than just a name, it is clear that GCW took the atmosphere, as well, to heart.
Now, only one question remains: how did we get here?
"Time to separate the men from the boys."
As MMA rose from underground cult following to the mainstream in the mid-oughts with the success of reality TV series The Ultimate Fighter and the UFC's Japanese counterpart, Pride, it soon began borrowing business tips from the world of professional wrestling… and vice versa. Professional wrestling contests soon experienced the trend of becoming more reality-based, including the across-the-board legalization of closed fist strikes. Meanwhile, the UFC learned that the best way to promote a fight was by exploiting on-air rivalries between the fighters through heated interviews and dramatic encounters straight out of the pages of pro wrestling. With laxer rules regarding weight regulations, Pride became well-known in their heyday for promoting freakshow encounters between fighters with huge size discrepancies—including a series of fixed fights to build homegrown star and professional wrestler Nobuhiko Takada.
For the last several years, mixed martial artists have been leaving the cage and instead seeking the canvas of professional wrestling rings to ply their craft… or, in this case, their art. The mainstream popularity of MMA has propelled its competitors into widespread success in the entertainment field, be it movies or, in the case of fighters such as Ronda Rousey, Shayna Baszler, and Tom Lawlor, pro wrestling.
In 2018, one such crossover star, former UFC competitor-turned-WWE NXT standout Matt Riddle, signed on with the transcendent, cultural happening of a promotion that is Game Changer Wrestling to produce a unique concept: worked MMA bouts within the confines of a ropeless professional wrestling ring.
Now that Riddle has rode off into the sunset after signing a contract with WWE, Josh Barnett has taken over the mantle as the event's eponymous showrunner. GCW promoter Brett Lauderdale is more than satisfied with the partnership: "Josh is very passionate about the concept and the sport, it's a natural fit. Josh takes a very serious approach to the bouts and likes to keep it as realistic—or real—as possible."
Barnett tells me: "When Matt left to pursue his career up north, Brett reached out to me about not just wrestling, but becoming the title attraction. I was 100% in, but I only had one condition: that I was to be a part of producing, booking, and all other aspects of the event. If this was going to have my name on it, then it would have to be up to my standards, by my hands."
A veteran main eventer of Pancrase and Pride, Josh Barnett first entered professional wrestling as part of Antonio Inoki's endeavors to intermix the worlds of worked and shoot in Japan. He tells me of his time working under Inoki in New Japan Pro Wrestling and Inoki Genome Federation that his worked bouts had elements embedded within the shoot (legitimate) landscape: "Like the UWF of old [formed in Japan during the eighties and one of the first worked-shoot style promotions], there have been times where I have done 80-90% shoot work in the professional wrestling rings over there."
While Japan has historically held the reputation of blurring the lines between work and shoot—even at MMA events that were promoted as legitimate contests—Barnett had a different experience when it comes to thrown fights: "I know that kayfabe [pro wrestling parlance for stagecraft] was incredibly strong in the business in Japan, even into the 2000s, but I've never been asked in any shoot environment to work a match at all."
Speaking about his transition from MMA to pro wrestling, Barnett reveals: "It was easier than I expected and actually, more difficult in ways I hadn't. Moves are moves and I came into the sport with a full toolbox of techniques and moves and understanding; I already knew how to wrestle. But learning how to sell and tell a story was something that just comes with time."
Barnett continues: "People from the shoot side of things, and even the general layperson, have an idea that professional wrestling is 'fake,' hokey bulls--t that amounts to just choreography and athletically goofing around. This is a perception I try to change with all I do in professional wrestling, especially every time I step in the ring. It's also always funny to me to see some MMA fighters trying to get into wrestling and struggle so hard to look even remotely competent at times and learn firsthand how this is not nearly as easy as they thought it would be. This isn't as easy to do as people might think."
"Simply put, these are combat athletes going head to head and they will bring all the feeling of watching a contest at its highest levels. All killer and no filler and you're going to leave with guaranteed great matches."
-Josh Barnett, fighter and producer of Bloodsport.
To date, both Bloodsport events have featured an eclectic mix of skilled grapplers, notoriously hard-hitting or otherwise versatile professional wrestlers, and accomplished mixed martial artists. The roster has ranged from Big Japan Wrestling deathmatch star Masashi Takeda, who stepped out of his comfort zone with flying colors (as is accustomed to a deathmatch wrestler, his easily-broken scar-tissue led to a predictable bloodbath), to the ageless Dan "The Beast" Severn (with his signature warmup shirt and dadstache in tow), who took on Frank Mir in the latter's professional wrestling debut.
The young lion of the pack, Matt Makowski is entering the Bloodsport arena for the first time. However, he is no newcomer: a well-rounded mixed martial artist in the welterweight division with a professional record of 6-2, he joins the kumite by way of CHIKARA. A veteran of Bellator and EliteXC, Makowski is best known for his unusual victory over Nick Serra (brother of UFC Hall of Famer and former Welterweight Champion Matt Serra) on the first MMA event aired on network television, which the record books list as ending via "DQ (Wouldn't Get Up From Butt Scoot)." Makowski recalls, "people don't respect the leg kick as much as they should. Even some fighters who aren't classically trained in certain striking arts just don't understand the accumulation of damage that can happen when you're driving your shin into someone's quad muscle over and over as hard as you can."
This holds weight: after all, in the aftermath of the 1976 bout between Muhammad Ali and Antonio Inoki fight—which many point to as the first-ever mainstream mixed martial arts bout—Ali was nearly forced to have his legs amputated due to the damage caused by Inoki's devastating kicks.
When asked why he now pursues professional wrestling, Makowski reveals: "I wanted to be part of something special," pointing to mixed martial arts peers Matt Riddle and Tom Lawlor as inspiration to make the leap from the cage to the ring. He continues: "I am incredibly honored to be a part of the show. It was one of my goals and essentially one of the reasons I got into wrestling. I was over the moon when I got the call."
Makowski views Bloodsport as crafting a demo of the perfect MMA fight: "MMA, as exciting as it can be, can also be very boring. It can go either way. When you're getting these high-level athletes who are well trained, you have the potential for some awesome wrestling."
"The professional wrestlers selected for events of this kind are considered to be some of the top-level grapplers and strikers (oftentimes both) in the sport worldwide. These wrestlers, however, are still showmen and know what makes an entertaining fight and know how to work a crowd. Highly skilled professional wrestlers utilizing a more pure and competitive style of the sport while being entertaining showmen at the same time. That's what makes Bloodsport awesome."
-Emil Jay, professional wrestling announcer and producer.
"The Dirty Daddy" Chris Dickinson, who has competed in both events and will return for the upcoming third, was built for Bloodsport: "My whole life, my whole base of growth from childhood, early adulthood, and teen years was all martial arts. I didn't really play football or baseball. My whole life revolved around martial arts."
This abrasive-yet-astute Staten Islander lives off a steady diet of nineties All Japan and the early, lawless UFC which looked more like Mad Max than it does today's comparatively sterilized rule-scape. Seeking to replicate the high impact Japanese UWFi [the offspring of UWF] worked-shoot style that he was so fond of during the early stages of his career, this ambition initially proved impossible to achieve: "Not everyone wanted to wrestle like that. It was difficult to find other guys who do. I spent a period of time in my early twenties beating the s--t out of guys and almost getting a bad reputation for being too stiff and being crazy. It hurt me in the long run. It's something I had to always go against and fight off, because I wanted to be able to present a style that could be considered worked-shoot."
For Dickinson, Bloodsport now means a chance at not only redemption, but realizing a lifelong dream: everything he loves about the sports side and the artistic side of mixed martial arts and professional wrestling blended into one. Simply put, he was built for Bloodsport: "When the concept of Bloodsport was first put together, I said to myself, 'there's no reason I'm not going to be on this. I have to be. This is exactly what I got into wrestling to do.' It's a platform to present exactly what I was trying to do when I was young, hungry, and had a vision of the wrestler I ultimately wanted to be. I was trying to develop into that type of wrestler when I had a time in my life where I was so passionate about wrestling, so passionate about what I wanted to do, and so passionate about who I wanted to be. It wasn't about money, it wasn't about, 'I survive off of this.' It was about, 'this is my art. This is what I do.' The fact that we have that platform now and there are other guys into the same stuff... it's awesome."
Having grown out of his younger mindset and since becoming a staple of Bloodsport, Dickinson welcomes the challenge that the unique atmosphere provides: "It's a challenge. Listen, I know it seems very simple, but you take the ropes away, you have to think differently. You have to put a match together differently. Any time you're challenged and put in a situation where you have to rely on less, but also rely on more, it's awesome. You feel uncomfortable, you look uncomfortable. And when you're actually ready to go with some guy, you shouldn't look too comfortable. You have to think completely outside of the box and you've got to go into a different toolbox. It gives you an opportunity at my age, having been in wrestling as long as I have, to be able to pool all of my talent resources together that I have within me and be able to do it, but do it smarter. Do it better. Do it more effectively. Be more efficient about everything. I was so happy with how the match came out with Andy Williams at the last Bloodsport. That was a real good representation of what I thought Bloodsport can be."
"When you add the pro wrestling theatrics behind it, that's the beautiful part of pro wrestling: when you can walk that fine line between work and shoot. That's something I've always really been about and wanted to be. I love working people. I love people believing I can potentially lose my s--t. It's all part of the pro wrestling aspect."
-Chris Dickinson, fighter.
Another competitor who has taken part in both previous Bloodsport events and returning September 14th in Atlantic City is Timothy Thatcher. A throwback hooker (a traditional professional wrestling phrase for a wrestler trained in the legitimately deadly art of catch wrestling), Thatcher possesses a hard-hitting, no-frills-needed, kick-you-in-the-teeth style that is tailor-made for Bloodsport. For Thatcher, pedigree is important, modestly proclaiming: "I've gone to people who have the proper lineage."
A well-spoken, respectful shooter with unimaginable intensity, Thatcher is a catch-as-catch-can wrestling practitioner trained by Ricky Lazaro (assistant coach of the legendary British grappler Billy Robinson), Yuki Ishikawa (founder of Battlarts, student of the venerable Karl Gotch—known as the "God of Wrestling" in Japan and the man for which the German suplex is named—and his premier student and pro wrestling legend in his own right, Yoshiaki Fujiwara), and Josh Barnett (who, himself, studied under Billy Robinson and Karl Gotch). Thatcher also considers himself privileged to have received the opportunity to train directly under Robinson the month before he passed.
So far as catch-as-catch-can wrestling is concerned, there is no higher credential than coming from the Gotch-Robinson-Fujiwara bloodline. For Timothy Thatcher, Bloodsport is home: "Bloodsport is the way I think pro wrestling should be. It's done in that vein because that's how Mr. Barnett believes pro wrestling should be. For me, it's a very comfortable thing. It's a very inviting environment for me. That kind of wrestling is very rare nowadays. I'm a big fan of what that stuff is: hard-nosed struggle. Minimalist pro wrestling, but done with full intensity. That's how I always thought it should be. When it's celebrated, I'm very excited."
"Honestly, combat sports are the only ones I can watch. I find team sports to be boring. I don't enjoy the cultish nature of supporting a brand as opposed to supporting an individual. In combat sports, traditionally, there's always a team aspect, but it's always about personal achievement. How much can you do as an individual? You might be on a team, but you go into a tournament yourself. It's fascinating to see the degree to which a person can push themselves in that environment, because all sport is a metaphor for combat. Except for combat sports, which are exactly what they're supposed to be."
-Simon Grimm, fighter.
Simon Grimm (FKA WWE's Simon Gotch) shares Thatcher's sentiments. Trained under Daniel Bryan (FKA Bryan Danielson) and a man that is peerless in his status as a legendary pillar of this industry, Harley Race, Grimm is an experienced practitioner in a variety of martial arts, which he describes as prototypical MMA. These include judo, kung fu, and a form of kenpo karate that incorporated boxing and grappling.
Despite his extensive background in the combative arts, Bloodsport was his first time being on a competitive event of this magnitude: "There are a lot of events you do for fun. And there are some events you do for money. And there are some events you just do for personal pride. This is absolutely a pride event. This is absolutely something that the guys involved in it, from top to bottom, are there because they want to be there. Because they have an appreciation for this style of match. It's really refreshing to see someone bring something different to pro wrestling that hasn't really been seen in the US ever."
As such, the preparation these athletes undergo is unlike that of a typical pro wrestling bout: "For an event like Bloodsport, you really do need to treat it like you're training for a real fight. An actual competition. That's the way you have to approach it. One of the downsides of pro wrestling in the US is that it's very easy to treat it like a show and forget the nature of what you're doing. And I think that negatively affects the talent sometimes."
"One of the downsides of pro wrestling is that we are seven generations or so deep of wrestlers who grew up watching wrestlers who grew up watching wrestlers—but nobody who actually wrestled."
-Simon Grimm, fighter.
Grimm elaborates: "Because we're so far into wrestlers copying what they saw on TV, it's refreshing to work with guys who have actual wrestling experience and have used real technique. I only got a taste of this before. Every once in a while you get a guy like Chad Gable—who is an Olympic wrestler—and, when we got to work together, we would have the opportunity to just wrestle. It wasn't a matter of trying to recreate something you've seen somewhere else. It was an organic experience—and that's way more fun. For a lot of the guys, I think that's what really appeals to them: you get the feeling of doing something you're not normally going to do in a pro wrestling match.
"That's the idea of the event, you're supposed to be bringing a level of intensity that you wouldn't normally see at a pro wrestling show. I'm someone that most people would expect, 'you're going to go out there and do everything we saw you do on TV at WWE, right?' No, that's exactly what I'm not going to do, and it's very refreshing for an audience because I think they don't know what to expect. People don't necessarily know our background other than pro wrestling, and it's an opportunity to see both of those parts of their personalities come out."
So, what's next for Bloodsport? Personally, I'm hoping for an early UFC style "Superfight Championship" down the line. We already know that the first female competitors to enter the kumite, including professional wrestler and judoka Sumie Sakai (who once threw a dropkick in an MMA bout), make their debuts on September 14th.
In regards to potential match-ups, there is a certain fluidity allowed for in pro wrestling unseen in MMA since the openweight division of the pre-unified days. I ask Barnett if there are any performers from either side of the worked or shoot aisle he would like to see compete in Bloodsport: "Oh, absolutely, we have far more freedom to create that kind of environment and match-ups we would like to. I would love to continue bringing in those stars that are still active from the UWF, Fujiwara Gumi, Pancrase, and RINGS days like Masakatsu Funaki, Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, or Kiyoshi Tamura, to name a few.
"As for those from the MMA world, that's a bit trickier. But I think that, in time, we will be a place to see talent from MMA in a professional wrestling environment. I know I would personally love to have Yuji Nagata on the mats for a rematch, but I also like that with Bloodsport I can showcase new or lesser-known names and get them out to the public in a way they haven't been before. Plus you just never know who might show up in our ring.
"Case in point, Jon Moxley. Who knows how else we might surprise you in the future? There's nowhere else to get the hardest-hitting action in the world of professional wrestling than Josh Barnett's Bloodsport. Come see what all the noise has been about."
"The thing that makes Bloodsport so awesome is the fact that it can be the perfect blend of work and shoot. Bloodsport is what happens when you strip away the layers of grandiose pageantry and over the top 'entertainment' from professional wrestling and are left with a more pure form of the sport."
-Emil Jay, professional wrestling announcer and producer.
The marriage of mixed martial arts and professional wrestling is undoubtedly at its zenith currently and shows no signs of slowing down. So, who will survive when s--t gets real? "May the mightiest prevail."
Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, contributor for Ripley's Believe It or Not!, and everybody's favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.