DON FRYE VS YOSHIHIRO TAKAYAMA: FIGHTOGRAPHY
The greatest MMA fight of all time took place 19 years ago today.
THE SCENE: By 2002, just five years after its inception, the Japanese based PRIDE Fighting Championships was not only the biggest organization in mixed martial arts, but perhaps the world’s leading promoter of any combat sport.
By then, selling 20,000 tickets to one of Japan’s huge stadium arenas was an indication of a relatively small PRIDE event. In a country that had a population of 126 million in 2002 and with 98% of households owning a television, anything from 20 to 30% of those ‘TV homes’ watched live PRIDE fighting. Those are staggering numbers that are impossible to replicate in the modern era of 100s of channels and dozens of niche streaming services.
PRIDE events themselves were operatic in presentation – the 300ft ramps, the fireworks, that theme song – but the fighting was ferocious. Soccer kicks were legal. Stomping heel down upon an opponent’s face – and knees to the skull – of a downed opponent were kosher. Mismatches verging on attempted manslaughter were to be found on almost every card.
While the UFC was doing all it could to hide MMA’s symbiotic relationship with pro-wrestling, PRIDE was waving bricks of banknotes at wrestlers to come fight for real. While the UFC continues to burn through millions, PRIDE was awash with cash. While the UFC was desperate to earn credibility as a ‘real sport’, PRIDE couldn’t have care less.
It was at this wildly out of control peak that PRIDE presented arguably the greatest brawl in MMA history.
Entirely by accident.
THE EVENT: PRIDE Fighting Championships 21
THE DATE: June 23, 2002
THE VENUE: The Super Arena, Saitama, Japan
THE FIGHTER - DON FRYE: Just as Don Frye would never have fought in the UFC if not the inspiration of old college roommate Dan Severn’s success in the Octagon, “The Predator” would not have stepped foot in the PRIDE FC ring had Mark Coleman not won the Japanese MMA organization’s 2000 Heavyweight Grand Prix.
As surprising as it may be to newer fans who know Frye in the context of being a UFC Hall of Famer, he was only a UFC fighter between February and December 1996. In those short months he went 9-1 in the promotion, won two major eight-man tournaments and established himself as one of the post Gracie/Shamrock stars of the struggling sport.
Only, the UFC couldn’t afford to keep him. Not when the New Japan Pro-Wrestling group came calling with a US$40,000 per week contract.
“I loved pro-wrestling,” Frye said. “I got to be a bad ass like Terry Funk or Ric Flair in Japan. I was famous there but after the tour would fly home to Arizona and no-one would recognize me. It was the best of both words. I loved the comradely we had and was happy doing what I was doing.”
“And then,” Frye added, “I saw Mark Coleman in PRIDE.”
Mark “The Hammer” Coleman was the only man to beat Frye in the UFC. The July 1996 loss – painful and protracted over twelve long minutes – had sat in Frye’s guts like a rusting nail.
“That loss was like my first wife,” Frye joked, “couldn’t live with it. I was earning big money in New Japan, but I still thought about the rematch. Then Mark started to lose in the UFC. It didn’t make me feel any better about our fight, but it looked like Mark would be following me out the door (and quit MMA). Then Mark comes to Japan, to PRIDE, and wins the whole thing (2000 GP). It was inspirational. I thought if he can come back, so could I.”
Frye was 35 and the advantages he enjoyed in the mid-90s – being one of the few fighters to have genuine experience in boxing, NCAA Division 1 wrestling and submissions (judo) – had long since been superseded. Nevertheless, PRIDE was thrilled to offer huge money to a former UFC champion who was already a massive draw in Japan to boot.
PRIDE paid its fighters in cash, for reasons you can probably guess given the promotion’s open-secret relationship with organized crime. Frye recalls with understandable fondness “sports bags stuffed to the zipper with American dollars” waiting for him in his locker room.
He elaborated, wistfully: “When I got back home after my first fight for PRIDE I walked in my bank in Tucson, Arizona, like I owned the place and was about to fire the manager. I threw down the bag of money and told the blonde behind the desk ‘I am here to make a deposit and I’ll stand right here while you count it, darling.’”
PRIDE promised Frye the Coleman match would happen, but the Predator’s first PRIDE fight was the foul-invested PRIDE 16 tangle with eye-raking sociopath Gilbert Yvel in September 2001. It was followed by another huge grudge match, also years in the making, vs Ken Shamrock.
To note the build up to the PRIDE 19 showdown was marred by nasty personal insults would be to promote such antics to the level of respectability. Frye, in particular, and as he later admitted, machine gunned out deeply unprofessional invective in the direction of not only Shamrock, but the man’s family. By the time he shared a ring with Shamrock on February 24, 2002, it has become a fight Frye absolutely could not lose.
Frye remembers the fight for two things, the awful realization injuries he’d picked up in New Japan had diminished his punching power and the white-hot agony of Shamrock’s ankle lock.
“Most pain I’ve ever felt,” he said. “But I’d talked so much shit about Kenny… I couldn’t quit. Dammit, I’d just couldn’t tap after what I said. I could never live with it.”
Frye emerged with the win and crippling ankle injuries that never fully healed. Nevertheless, he readily accepted the fight he wanted most of all - the Coleman rematch - just weeks later.
“I’d been obsessed with a brunette or two in my life, but none as ugly as Mark before,” Frye joked. “Hurt or not, I wanted him bad.”
The clash of former UFC champions was set for PRIDE Fighting Championships 21, June 23, 2002, Super Arena, Saitama, Japan.
But history had other plans.
THE FIGHTER - YOSHIHIRO TAKAYAMA: A self-described nerd who continues to add to his prized Transformers collection to this day, Yoshihiro Takayama had little choice but to become a fighter of some sort.
Schoolyards in Japan can be as cruel as these elsewhere in the world. The young Takayama was teased mercilessly about his microtia – the congenital disorder that left him with an undeveloped outer left ear.
“In school I grew my hair long to cover it,” he remembered when we communicated in 2017 over email and Google Translate. “But that did no good; I was (then) teased for having girl hair. I wanted to be strong – of body and mind – so I signed up to play rugby when I went to high school.”
It was during his time as a rugby player that he hit a growth spurt; much more than a ‘spurt’, in fact.
“I became bigger and stronger than my peers,” he understated. “Then I shaved my hair. I didn’t care who saw (my ear) now. No-one had anything to say (about it) anymore.”
In the pro-wrestling lexicon, grapplers who can handle themselves in real fights are called a ‘shooters.’ When he joined the profession in 1992, it didn’t take the 6ft 6inch, 270lbs Takayama long to establish his shooter rep.
First, he worked the ultra-realistic style that was in vogue at the time and became noted for his ability to absorb pathological amounts of pain. Second, he earned a rep as the nice guy who loved to joke around after the matches but someone you absolutely did not take liberties with. Not in the ring, not backstage and certainly not in the bar after the show.
By the time MMA surged into the Japanese mainstream around the turn of the millennium, Takayama was an established pro-wrestling draw, appearing on big TV shows (including a Jackass like show where he would get hit with household objects), in newspapers, magazines and fifteen different video games.
So, of course, PRIDE bucketed money in his direction.
“It was the dream of (Japanese fans) to see professional wrestlers in the PRIDE ring,” he said, “PRIDE were paying professional money and I was ready to fight.”
PRIDE’s affection for freak-show fights was matched only by the promotion’s glacial indifference to even matchmaking. And so Takayama’s debut at PRIDE 14, May 21, 2001 in Japan’s second largest city Yokohama, was an insanely huge ask vs Kazuyuki Fujita.
Fujita was also a pro-wrestler, sure, but one who’s legit MMA credentials included wins over Mark Kerr, Ken Shamrock and Gilbert Yvel.
Takayama somehow survived a series of skull-rattling knees on the ground to make a good fight of it, so PRIDE then matched him with the 6ft 10inch world champ kickboxer Semmy Schilt.
Only – again – Takayama wildly exceeded expectations, largely by absorbing the sort of physical pain one usually would associate with a Satanic ritual. The giant’s over-sized courage and dogged determination captured the imagination of PRIDE’s fanbase, who were often moved by ‘fighting spirit’ more than won/loss records.
And that bring us to Takayama-san’s third PRIDE fight, the showdown with Don Frye.
THE BUILD UP: Expecting to meet nemesis Mark Coleman at PRIDE 21, Don Frye put his body, soul and bank account into the longest training camp of his career.
The Predator recalled: “After Shamrock, the only thing I wanted to accomplish in MMA was beating Coleman. I wasn’t what I was in the UFC, so I wanted to fight Mark before my injuries got worse.”
Frye tried to compensate for his faltering athleticism by spending $30,000 on a state-of-the-art training camp in the humidity of Hawaii.
“So you can guess how pissed off I was when Coleman pulled out of the fight injured.”
News broke on June 5 that Coleman had suffered a career-threatening neck injury while training. A botched Kevin Randleman takedown had left Coleman paralyzed on the mat, only regaining any feeling in his arms and legs while in an ambulance en route to hospital.
“When I learned how bad Mark was hurt all I thought about was him being okay,” Frye said. “I respected Mark a ton – he beat me. I was just happy that the news eventually came back he was going to be fine.”
PRIDE rebooked Frye to face off with Takayama, of course. What history doesn’t record is when each fighter was informed of the new main event. And no-one I asked, and I’ve asked plenty of folks who should know, could recall that info.
Let me explain. While it is true PRIDE officials didn’t finalize its cards until close to fight week, they had an unwritten policy of informing Japanese fighters before non-Japanese. Stated plainly - as Minotauro Nogueira told me - “PRIDE wanted Japanese fighters to win and were not embarrassed who knew it.”
“I cannot speak about contracts,” Takayama said when I asked exactly when he was informed he’d be fighting Frye. Which, y’know, is a little suss considering said contract was executed almost two decades ago with a company that went out of business in 2007.
For his part Frye, though, said the way he was going to fight on June 23 was set in stone the moment Coleman pulled out.
“I’d dropped a ton of money and killed myself, pushing through injuries, all for a Coleman fight I wasn’t getting,” he said. “I was always going to show up to Japan looking to take that anger out in the fight.”
Despite his huge advantage in terms of authentic MMA experience, Frye insists he didn’t underestimate his pro-wrestler opponent.
“He was a huge boy. And pro-wrestling Japan is like having a hard sparring session. For the big matches, it is a full-on sparring session. So I knew Takayama would be a tough bastard.”
Just how tough a bastard, the world was about to find out.
THE FIGHT: Takayama’s plan was simple: “I wanted to use my height and effective knee kick to the body to stun Frye, throw him with a suplex, then use my weight to pin him on the ground before making him give up by a joint lock.”
What the Japanese brawler left unsaid was that he’d been prepared to ship an ocean liner of punishment in order to get close enough to land that knee strike.
With the fighters in the ring Yuji Shimada, the referee for the fight and 169 of PRIDE’s 566 total bouts, stood back and let Frye and Takayama lock eyes in one of MMA’s great staredowns. The moments before the first round hung in the huge arena, static before a storm. Noise from the 22,586 fans rolled into a roar.
And then came unforgettable start to the fight.
Frye near ran across the ring, only to find the giant striding toward him at full speed.
Frye: “I hit him with a one-two combo on the chin – but like I said - my power wasn’t what it was in the UFC. I’d fucked my back and right shoulder in New Japan. I couldn’t twist my full weight into my shots.”
Takayama responded with booming punches of his own. And then it happened, the most exciting sequence in MMA history. The pair locked their left hands behind each other’s necks and hacked away with their right fists. Over and over and over they slammed knuckle into face. It was artless, it was violent and it remains utterly enthralling to witness two decades later.
Takayama said: “I was all right going punch for punch with Don. He hit hard, but not as hard as the stone fists of Semmy Schilt. Fans are kind to say they could not believe (how the fight started) but I say ‘I was there to have a fight, not to avoid a fight’.”
The pair continued the blast away at each other, locked together with cannons blazing like two galleons with entangled masts.
Frye said: “I always wanted to see what the other guy had. If he was tougher than me. If he could take my punch, if I could take his best punch. I did it with Tank Abbott when my corner begged me not to stand in front of him. No-one could talk me out of fighting like that if I got it in my head. Nothing any opponent could do would make me back down.”
The pair began to grapple for an advantage in a corner. As they wrestled, Frye stabbed away with short punches to the head while Takayama found space to fire his cannonball knees into the American’s guts.
Takayama: “I felt our physical strength was equal when we were wrestling. But I am bigger than Don and used my weight effectively. Also, my knees to the body were effective in weakening him, as I planned.”
When I relayed that sentiment to Frye, he shook his head. “Takayama-san is very polite. He was much stronger. He was so goddamn big and so goddamn strong. He’s telling the truth about those knees. Made me want to puke my guts out. I was winded. We were so close together, mouths next to ears. He had to hear I was winded.”
The knee strikes were a signature part of Takayama’s pro-wrestling act, and the Japanese crowd cheered their appreciation upon them used in a MMA setting.
Frye said: “His legs looked like two welterweights with their heads up his ass. The strength he had in those things was awful. His knees lifted me out of my shoes. I could feel the impact to my internal organs, right through my (ab) muscles.”
The Japanese fans exploded in to a roar when their man followed up a particularly sickening looking knee strike with another of his other Puroresu high spots: a belly to belly suplex.
Despite getting winded, Frye scrambled to all fours but Takayama towered in front of him and smashed a knee into the top of the Predator’s skull. The American got to his feet only to be met with another gut churning knee to the belly.
Takayama: “I was very confident after I threw him with the suplex and followed it up with a knee kick that was successful. The fight was going well for me.”
Frye recalls: “I had to do something to hurt this big boy. So I started swinging for the fences with everything I had.”
Takayama stood his ground. They hacked and tore at each other with wild hooks and crosses. Both their faces were bruised and bloodied. It was still only ninety seconds into a ten-minute opening round.
Then Takayama sent his opponent’s mouthpiece flying: “When I knocked his mouthpiece out, I knew I was getting to him and my attacks were effective. I expected a war. Nothing was surprising that was happening.”
Frye said: “In PRIDE the fans are so respectful and reserved you could usually hear a rat piss on cotton. So when I heard the them going nuts, I knew we must be having a special fight.”
In the 20minute long Shamrock match just months earlier, Frye set a PRIDE FC record for strikes from a clinch: 52. He surpassed that in the opening three minutes of the Takayama brawl. Both warriors began to gasp, desperate the drag air into their burning lungs. And it was at this point Frye’s $30,000 stay in Hawaii began to pay dividends.
“We were both tired after all those punches, but I still had some pop,” Frye said. “His left eye was closing fast, so I took advantage with right hooks and uppercuts he probably couldn’t see coming. I was sure I was hurting him – had to be – but he just kept on coming with those knees. I knew what he was about to do but I couldn’t block them.”
The pair continued like that – fighting over a piece of canvas too small to cover a coffee table – until they were utterly spent. Only then, with them clinching to each other and gasping for air, did the referee call ‘break’ and look to replace Frye’s mouthpiece.
The Predator shrugged: “That was PRIDE. They treated fighters with great respect, almost like modern day samurai, in terms of bowing to us and laying on meals and fine hotels. But ol’ Don Frye flying back to Arizona with all his teeth wasn’t a major concern for them.”
Referee Shimada then noticed the grotesque damage to his countryman’s eye. It had been welded shut by Frye’s uppercuts. The official took Takayama to a neutral corner and invited a doctor’s opinion. Frye stood, bloody and spent, on the other side of the ring.
Frye said: “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t say a silent prayer that the doctor stop the fight there and then. I remember wishing to god it would be stopped. But I knew they wouldn’t – this was PRIDE – so I got ready to go again.”
Sure enough, the referee signaled the re-start and – unbelievably - the two exhausted warriors threw themselves into a hockey fight almost as violent as the one that had started the fight.
“We were getting paid big money,” Takayama said. “So - let’s really fight was my thought. Just attack until one of us is destroyed!”
And so they scythed away at each other until, subtly at first and then more pronounced, Frye’s punches began to land with more authority.
He remembers: “We were both tired and beat up, but there’s a point in hard fights when size begins to matter a little less and technique and experience matters more.”
The five minute mark brought no reprieve, as PRIDE FC favored 10-minute opening rounds. So on they fought. Both warriors dragged up reserves from the pits of their souls. But then - in the first sign he’d reached down as far as he could - Takayama retreated to a corner.
For a few moments he tried to save energy by having the ropes and turnbuckles take a little weight off his exhausted legs. Frye realized what was in front of him and followed, fists blazing. A shattered Takayama attempted another belly-to-belly suplex but it was slow, robotic.
The Predator said: “I felt it coming. I wrapped my leg behind his knees and tripped him. I landed on top. He didn’t have a lot of skills on the ground. He was exhausted. I was tired, too, but I’d wrestled bigger guys in college. I knew I could finish it from there. For a second, I thought of taking his back and going for a choke, but I could see he couldn’t get me off and had no energy left.
“Ground and pound was the way to get him outta there.”
The most incredible fight in MMA history was waved off after six minutes and ten seconds of mayhem.
(Frye vs Takayama is relived via PRIDE’s PS2 game)
AFTERMATH: After insisting on walking out of the ring under his own steam, Takayama went to the hospital to treated for exhaustion along with the damage to his face.
With the sting of a drip in his veins, Takayama remembers one PRIDE official bursting into his hospital room to excitedly announce Frye was so messed up by the knees to the body he was still laying on the massage table in his locker room.
“So?” the giant answered, “He is still the winner.”
Determining Takayama’s final MMA record is difficult.
A 1996 brawl in UWFI vs Kimo Leopoldo looked legit, even if closed fist strikes were illegal, but few record-keepers list it as a MMA loss. Conversely, a 2013 meeting with Hikaru Sato in the U-SPIRITS organization is widely recorded as his lone MMA victory, but it was clearly a stiff pro-wrestling match.
But whether Takayama’s record is 0-4, 1-4 or 0-5, no-one can take away how he performed in one of the greatest brawls in combat sports history.
“Takayama-san is a great fighter,” Frye stated. “I’ll have words with anyone who tries to say different.”
Believing the Coleman rematch dead in the water, and now bitterly convinced his best days were too long gone, Frye had breathed out a rushed retirement speech in the minutes after the Takayama fight. He then needed almost three hours to leave his PRIDE 21 locker room.
Frye said: “The Takayama fight was the last time I felt like The Predator, like I had some of that guy left in me. I should have stayed retired after that, but then PRIDE kept offering me 350,000 reasons to change my mind. So I kept going back.”
He fought another 15 times after the Takayama classic, winning only five. He lost the eventual Coleman rematch on points. He finally stopped fighting, aged 46, in December 2011. His record stands at 20-9-1-1 but the true tally of his career, and that of his pro-wrestling career, is the woeful ill-heath he is in today, aged only 56.
“Towards the end I lost to people who should never be in the position to walk into a bar and tell the story of when they beat Don Frye in a fight,” he said. “But the last of my prime, I used it all up against Takayama. Every last drop.”
PRIDE FC’s own prime lasted a while longer. The wheels feel off in 2006 when one of Japan’s most-read weekly newspapers, Shukan Gendai, ran a series of articles connecting the promotion with organized crime. Everyone in MMA had heard that PRIDE was a virtual money lauding scheme for the Yakuza, and the reporting from Shukan Gendai – and soon other Japanese media - was well-scoured and devastating.
Fuji TV cancelled its contract with PRIDE, turning off the group’s cash-flow. Desperate, PRIDE jumped into the US Pay-Per-View market it had long ignored. The two Las Vegas shows were too little, too late.
The once mighty promotion ran its final event on April 8, 2007, in the same Saitama Super Arena that had hosted so many of its legendary nights, including Frye vs Takayama. PRIDE boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara had personally begged Don Frye to appear on the card. That he did, losing in one round to journeyman James Thompson.
It was the end of an era as a sore and dejected Frye reached his locker room. Only this time there was no sports bag filled to the zipper with American dollars.
Come by Sakakibara’s hotel suite tomorrow morning, Frye was told. He wants to give it to you personally.
When Frye was shown in the suite at the appointed time, Sakakibara was nowhere to be seen, only a desk with a landline phone that suddenly started to ring. When he put the handset to his ear, Frye recognized Sakakibara’s voice.
Don Frye is still owed money from his final PRIDE purse.
THE LEGACY: The ecstatic brutality of Don Frye vs Yoshihiro Takayama echoed deep into the Japanese national psyche and the memory of a generation of hardcore MMA fans. No two fighters had ever begun a prizefight like Frye and Takayama had; no two prizefighters may ever do so again.
The pair, fast friends in the aftermath, were invited perform reruns not only for the 2005 Japanese movie Nagurimono: Love & Kill (watch the fight scene here) but in several pro-wrestling bouts, the final one taking place as recently as March 17, 2013.
“I don’t think I should second guess why the fans remember the fight as they do,” Takayama began, “But it is a deep honor when they say it is legendary. All I can say is Don and I both had the same pride, the same mindset and will to win. When those two forces met we made an everlasting battle.”
He added: “To lose on such a stage is disappointing but my family and friends are proud of how I fought. It was an honor to share the ring with Don Frye, my brother forever.”
The fight transformed Takayama from a tag-team wrestler to one of the biggest draws in Japanese pro-wrestling. He went on to be known as the ‘Emperor’ of Puroresu and had runs with every major singles championship in the top three promotions. This is a man who truly lives and breathes professional wrestling, and I would love to end the story there.
But tragedy lay in waiting. Not long after I spoke with him in May 2017 Takayama, 50 at the time, suffered an appalling injury working a pro-wrestling match. The severity of his condition was kept private for some time, but then came the news he had been paralyzed from the neck down. All of Japanese pro-wrestling, and the by now middle-aged PRIDE fans, were heartbroken.
A recovery is beyond medical science. Four years on, he remains under 24-hour care in hospital. He will never go home, friends of his admit. His is always in the room nearest the nurses’ station. The Japanese pro-wrestling industry, led by Takayama’s close friend Minoru Suzuki (pro-wrestler and co-founder of Pancrase MMA), launched a charity to help with expenses. Every pro-wrestling promotion that operates in Japan – including WWE – has contributed.
You can learn more about the charity here: https://ameblo.jp/takayama-do/entry-12532731116.html
Despite serious health concerns of his own, Frye visited his friend in February 2019.
He said: “My heart broke for him but he told me to knock it off. He was in good spirits, better spirits than I could be if it were me in that bed. He’s still a joker. He still loves his wrestling.
“He wanted to talk about the fight we had, most of all. He thanked me for making him famous – I told him it was the other way around. No-one remembers what I did in the UFC. The UFC wasn’t big in the nineties. But everyone I meet who knows that I was a fighter, they always want to hear about the fight with Takayama-san.
“My health sucks and Takayama, god bless him for what he is living with, but in that fight we were the kings of the universe.
“That fight, man… that fight will live forever.”
(Keiji “The Great Muta” Mutoh joins Don Frye to visit with Takayama in hospital, 2019)
ULTIMATE INSIDER WILL RETURN IN A FEW DAYS WITH AN ACCOUNT OF A HEARTBREAKING BUT ULTIMATELY INSPIRING STORY THAT HAS BEEN ALL BUT IGNORED BY UFC HISTORIANS.
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