This is an MMA fight for long-time fans, die-hard fans, and historians of the sport.
This Sunday, a Rings card will feature a dream fight for fans of 1990's shoot-style pro wrestling and Pancrase. Magomedkhan Gamzatkhanov, known to most as Volk Han, will come out of a ten-year retirement to fight Masakatsu Funaki. It's billed as Han's retirement fight because it should be the last time the 51-year-old steps into the ring for a legit fight. The same could be said for the 43-year-old Funaki, who has made quite the transition from MMA to pro wrestling in the last few years. In fact, Funaki is currently All Japan Pro Wrestling's triple crown (world) champion.
The last time Funaki fought was his submission win in 52 seconds against Ikuhisa Minowa; this came after losses to Kazushi Sakuraba and Kiyoshi Tamura. Of course this was Funaki's second run in MMA as his first, and far more successful, run ended in 1999 due to accumulated injuries. Funaki did come out of retirement once in between his two runs to fight Rickson Gracie at the Tokyo Dome on May 26, 2000 in a very high-profile fight.
The last time Han fought was on a Rings Lithuania card in 2001 where he submitted Zaza Tkeshelashvili. His last taste of major MMA was making it to the final eight of Rings' 2000 King of Kings tournament. More on that in a little bit.
Funaki's legacy is one that is purely a mix of pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. Funaki was one of the top wrestlers in Japan, and definitely up there as far workers the world over, during the late-1980's and early-1990's when he debuted in New Japan Pro Wrestling, then moved to Uinversal Wrestling Federation (UWF), and finally had a stint in the short-lived Fujiwara-Gumi promotion. The final two were promotions that specialized in shoot-style pro wrestling. Shoot-style, for those unfamiliar, is a style of pro wrestling that focuses on moves seen in actual fights such as kicks and submissions while never using many aspects of regular pro wrestling such as moves off the top rope or bouncing off the ropes.
Funaki excelled in the ring, but it was apparent that his heart was more into fighting than wrestling. In 1993, Funaki formed Pancrase with another wrestler turned fighter, Minoru Suzuki. Funaki instantly was the top star of the promotion and ended up being the top Japanese star in MMA until his first retirement, compiling wins against Suzuki, Bas Rutten, Frank Shamrock, Ken Shamrock, Vernon White, Guy Mezger, Yuki Kondo, and Semmy Schilt along the way.
Han's legacy is more with die-hard Japanese wrestling fans than anyone else. In the 90's, Han was one of the best technical wrestlers on the planet due to his extremely good submission wrestling. Even today Han's technical & submission wrestling seems far and beyond what the majority of pro wrestlers can do on the mat. Simply amazing stuff. So much was his submission wrestling and then submission fighting praised that his loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in the quarterfinals of Rings' 2000 King of Kings tournament could be seen, historically speaking, as the passing of the torch from Han to the man who would fully extend submission wrestling from pro wrestling into MMA and use it as a key part of winning.
When Rings converted from shoot-style wrestling to MMA, Han came along, but didn't end up lasting long. Age and the wear & tear from his previous in-ring experience combined to help Han into retirement in 2001.
This fight is one that won't end up being much of anything as a fight. The sport has moved on from the days when these two were dominant forces. However, it is a fight that should peak the curiosity of plenty of MMA fans. It is the chance to see a dream fight from the old days actually take place, no matter the when or the circumstances. File this one along with the Kazushi Sakuraba/Kiyoshi Tamura main-event from K-1's 2008 New Year's Eve show.
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