Mixed martial arts became a sport in the 1990s. However, systems that combine several martial arts existed way before that. They are what we call hybrid martial art systems. One of those systems is called Shootfighting. It’s often thought of as a synonym with MMA, but there are key differences between them. So, what is Shootfighting?
Shootfighting is a hybrid martial art system that came from a grappling technique known as shoot wrestling. Shootfighting combines catch wrestling with other martial arts such as Kenpo, Jujutsu, Muay Thai, etc.
As you can see, it’s very similar to mixed martial arts, but there are distinct differences in the rules, techniques, equipment, and other aspects both as a martial art and as a combat sport. Here’s everything you need to know about Shootfighting.
What Is Shootfighting?
So, if it’s very similar to MMA, but it isn’t exactly MMA, what is Shootfighting then? Well, it’s a much more aggressive form of mixed martial arts with different rules and techniques implemented. The basis of Shootfighting lies in various grappling techniques, mostly catch and shoot wrestling, but also Judo, BJJ, etc.
On top of that, you learn how to implement striking techniques from Kenpo, Karate, Muay Thai, and Kickboxing to complete your game. Due to the lenient ruleset and methods of finishing the opponent, Shootfighting is designed to be a real, effective street fighting system.
The origins of Shootfighting stemmed from the 1970s, when the first form of Shootfighting appeared in Japan. Karl Gotch trained with a group of Japanese professional wrestlers (Japanese version of WWE) and taught them catch wrestling techniques called “shooting.”
One of the guys that learned from Gotch, Antonio Inoki, hosted mixed martial arts matches. They weren’t matches under the unified MMA rules but rather pairing up one martial art style against another. He even fought Muhammad Ali in a “wrestler vs. boxer” type of match.
He presented techniques that raised some eyebrows, and the interest for real, effective combat techniques appeared. Before you know it, shoot wrestling was a thing, and by the 1990s, you already had highly popular organizations like Pancrase hosting shoot-style mixed martial arts matches.
So, how did it become Shootfighting? Well, the term was coined and patented by Bart Vale. He lived in Japan for years and was a champion in PWFG (a Japanese professional wrestling organization).
When he returned to the United States, he developed a new hybrid fighting system that stemmed from everything he had learned about real martial arts. He called the hybrid style Shootfighting, and the term stayed to this day.
The early forms of the craft were a combination of shoot wrestling and the stuff Vale learned in Japan, mostly about Jujutsu, Kenpo, and Muay Thai). After a while, he founded the ISFA (International Shootfighting Association), making shootfighting a combat sport and a fighting style.
As I mentioned before, Shootfighting is similar to MMA, but not the same. Due to the rules being different, some techniques are different as well. In MMA, you can choose any martial art you prefer and use it in your game.
But, in Shootfighting, shoot wrestling techniques are always the driving force behind your game. Then, you build on that and use other techniques to complement the strong wrestling base you have.
Of course, elite Shootfighting fighters tend to implement more grappling techniques into their game from Judo, BJJ, catch wrestling, etc. As for the striking part of the system, you’ll mainly use Asian martial arts as a base, like Muay Thai, Kenpo, Karate, etc.
The thing that makes it different from MMA is how you use those techniques. What we know as ground-and-pound plays a big role in Shootfighting. But, you can elbow, knee, and kick your opponent anywhere but the groin, even when they’re downed. Also, slaps and open palm strikes are very common.
You can easily implement your shootfighting game into MMA, like the legendary UFC fighter Ken Shamrock showed. He used Shootfighting as the base for his MMA game and demolished people with shoot wrestling techniques. However, he had to change it a bit to fit MMA rules.
So, the Shootfighting technique is basically mixed martial arts. What made this hybrid system different from MMA is the rules. Unlike MMA, Shootfighting is fought in a classic professional wrestling ring with ropes instead of a cage.
Also, it only has one professional weight category, and that’s heavyweight (or open weight). There are lighter divisions in the amateur matches, though, but professionals have no weight classes.
The matches are set to one 30-minute round, and you can win only by submitting or finishing your opponent. Other ways to win are knockdowns. If you score five knockdowns in a match, you win.
One interesting rule is breaking submission holds. If you end up in a submission hold, you can grab the ring ropes to break the hold. However, that means you’ve conceded one-third of a knockdown, which means you can grab the rope fifteen times during a match before you lose the fight.
Just like in boxing, after a knockdown, you get a 10-second count. If you can’t continue after it, the match is over. The only way to win is by finishing. If the 30 minutes run out and nobody is finished, there’s no judge’s decision. The fight is instead declared a draw.
Any type of throw or takedown is allowed and any kind of submission, except the ones that involve the windpipe (throat holds). As for the striking, you can elbow, kick, knee, and headbutt the opponent anywhere you want.
However, punches are allowed only to the body because the fighters wear no gloves to incentivize wrestling. As I said, shoot wrestling is the game’s base, so they want to motivate fighters to use it as much as possible.
You can strike your opponent to the head with open palm techniques, especially slaps. Some fighters like Bas Rutten took them to perfection.
As for the gear, fighters can have wrist bandages and usually wear nothing but shorts. In the beginning, knee-high boots were also very common. Many organizations used Shootfighting-like rules like Shooto, Shoot Boxing, and most notably, Pancrase.
After a while, all these organizations adopted the unified MMA rules, so little-to-none promotions still conduct fights under the original Shootfighting rules.
Is Shootfighting Legit?
One of the things that baffled me when I first heard about the history of Shootfighting is that Bart Vale was a Japanese pro-wrestling champion for three years, and his hybrid fighting style stemmed from pro-wrestling. That made me wonder, how could that be an effective combat sport, let alone a street fighting style? Is Shootfighting even legit?
As it turns out, it really is. Vale did use some of the techniques in his scripted pro-wrestling matches. However, when he developed the particular fighting style, he used the same principles, refined them, and applied them effectively for real combat.
Even nowadays, some elite MMA fighters train Shootfighting techniques and implement them in their game because they can be quite useful in a cage. Ken Shamrock used it almost exclusively in his MMA days to beat his opponents.
Of course, no head punching is a downfall, but it’s not hard to add punches to your game, especially if we’re talking about a street fight, not a regulated MMA match.
Overall, Shootfighting is a full-contact sport that mixes numerous martial arts and fighting techniques. Therefore, it’s real, and it can get brutal. Of course, the original rules almost don’t exist anymore. Still, we’ve seen big fighting game stars compete under Shootfighting rules, including Bas Rutten, Semmy Schilt, Frank Shamrock, Guy Mezger, Josh Barnett, etc.
Shootfighting vs. MMA
Both Shootfighting and MMA have the same principles; they mix up several martial arts and use them in a specific ruleset. Those rules are what separate them. Although nowadays, even the most popular Shootfighting promotions like Pancrase adopted the unified MMA rules, there was a big difference before.
For starters, Shootfighting takes place in a roped ring while MMA bouts are held in a cage, most commonly an octagon. The round length is also different; Shootfighting has only one round, but it lasts for thirty minutes straight, while MMA fights have three to five rounds, lasting five minutes each.
MMA is divided into weight classes to give everybody a fair chance at winning. The categories go from atomweight to super heavyweight (the UFC has divisions from strawweight (women) and flyweight (men) to heavyweight. On the other hand, professional Shootfighting had only one division: heavyweight (or open weight).
Next, MMA fighters must wear fingerless gloves and fight barefoot (only ankle bandages are allowed). Opposingly, Shootfighters wore no gloves, and knee-high boots were a very common piece of attire.
As for the fighting rules, Shootfighting forbids punches to the head (both in stand-up and on the ground), groin shots, windpipe submission holds or punches, and eye gouges. Virtually everything else is allowed, even when the opponent is grounded. Knees, elbows, side-neck chokes, and even headbutts are allowed as well.
In MMA, the rules are lenient but not that much. Punches to the head are legal, but not to the back of the head. There are no headbutts or soccer kicks, and although elbows and knees are allowed, you need to be careful about illegal moves, such as 12-to-6 elbows, knees to the head on a downed opponent (or an opponent that has one knee on the ground), etc.
To win a Shootfighting match, you have to finish your opponent before the time runs out. There are no judges; hence there’s no decision. If the fight goes the distance, it’s declared a draw. Ways to win a fight are 10-second knockdowns, five knockdowns in a match, submissions, or the opponent grabbing the ring ropes 15 times in a match.
Opposed to that, MMA fights can finish with a knockout (clean KO of the opponent), technical knockout (referee stopping the match after repeated unanswered, undefended strikes), submission (opponent giving up due to holds or strikes), or a decision.
Every round in a fight is scored individually by three different judges. The winner of the round gets ten points, while the loser gets nine or eight, depending on how dominant the winner was in the round. Point deductions are also possible for passivity, groin shots, and other rule breaks.
The accumulated scores from all rounds for each referee turn into an official decision that declares the winner. It can be a unanimous/split/majority decision or draw.
You can implement techniques from Shootfighting into MMA and vice versa because they are quite similar, as they both stem from various other martial arts. That’s why some of Shootfighting’s top promotions adopted the unified MMA rules, although the fighting style of the fighters still has a strong base in shoot wrestling.
Shootfighting Promotion: Pancrase
Although many smaller independent Shootfighting promotions existed and still exist, Pancrase Hybrid Wrestling is by far the most popular and elite Shootfighting promotion globally. Although it became an MMA promotion nowadays, unifying its rules with mixed martial arts, it was a pure Shootfighting-style promotion in its early days.
It used all the rules I’ve mentioned under the Shootfighting Rules heading: the 0-minute rounds, no weight classes, no head punches, headbutts, slaps, shoot wrestling, etc. It was highly entertaining, and some of the biggest fight game stars (both MMA and other sports) competed there.
The promotion was founded in Japan in 1993 by Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki (both later competed and became champions in the promotion). They gave the name to the promotion after pankration, the first version of MMA dating back to ancient Greeks and their Olympic Games.
They started changing the rules to resemble other MMA promotions more around the year 2000. Although many people think that many Pancrase fights were fixed, guys who competed there like Guy Mezger claim that wasn’t the case at all.
Today Pancrase still holds the same name, but it completely adopted modern-day MMA rules, including gloves, weight categories, etc.
Best Shootfighting Competitors
So many great fighters learned Shootfighting, and so many others used those techniques in the MMA cage. But, before we begin with the guys that implemented Shootfighting into their MMA game, first we’ll mention fighters that actually competed under the original Shootfighting rules in Pancrase, Shooto, and other promotions.
As I mentioned, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki were the founders of Pancrase Hybrid Wrestling. They were also some of the best competitors in the sport, both becoming the Pancrase open weight champions.
The sport quickly became appealing to the fighters outside of Japan. Ken Shamrock was their first open weight champion in 1994, defending it once before transitioning to the UFC (where he used the same style to dominate).
That one title defense came against Bas Rutten, another fighting legend that was the Pancrase champion. He had two title defenses before vacating the belt due to family matters.
After him, another Shamrock claimed the title, only this time it was Frank. After he left for MMA as well, Masakatsu Funaki and Yuki Kondo dominated until Guy Mezger came and took the game by storm, defending the title twice as well.
Then Semmy Schilt came and became a champ in 1999 and defended the belt two times before he too left to fight in MMA and kickboxing. The end of that early era of elite Shootfighting ended after Josh Barnett’s reign as the champ because the rules quickly started changing to look more like modern MMA, so the old Shootfighting rules started disappearing.
Nowadays, many modern fighters learn Shootfighting techniques and use them in MMA. Alexander Gustafsson is known for his Shootfighting training, and Kazushi Sakuraba presented it in the UFC.
Other fantastic MMA fighters implementing Shootfighting into their game are Jake Shields, Kyoji Horiguchi, Takanori Gomi, etc.
However, Takanori Gomi competed in Shooto. I deliberately excluded the promotion from any talk about Shootfighting. Although it’s incredibly similar and stems from shoot wrestling, Shooto is a separate combat sport and organization with separate governing bodies (Shooto Association and International Shooto Commission).
All similarities aside, Shooto and Shootfighting aren’t the same things. Gomi did use Shootfighting techniques while competing in Shooto, but I just wanted to clarify the difference.
Where to Learn Shootfighting? (Shootfighting Schools)
There are schools here and there that still teach Shootfighting techniques, especially in Japan and the UK. Some teach shoot wrestling methods and principles, but if you want a real, official Shootfighting school, you’ll need to attend one from the official ISFA School directory.
Bart Vale still works as an instructor in one of the schools in Sunrise, Florida, so I guess it’s the best school you can go to if you want to learn the original, trademarked Shootfighting technique.
Several more schools are in Florida, namely in Bonita Springs and Miami (Tiger Dragon Miami). They also teach MMA, but you can pick up on some of the actual shoot wrestling there as well.
Other than Florida, there are Shootfighting schools in California, Maryland, New York, and Ohio, while outside of the US, the list states there are schools in Canada, Finland, and India.