Uncrowned Kings of MMA is a series where we take you through eight fighters – each one at a different weight class – who never achieved a belt in any major promotion. There are a few rules – they can still be competing but must be out of the title picture. Major promotions are the UFC, Pride, Bellator, Strikeforce, the WEC’s featherweight and bantamweight divisions, and RIZIN’s bantamweight division. Interim championships do not count unless the bearer is later promoted to undisputed champion. Today we will be looking at the lightweight and featherweight Rumina Sato – “The Moon Wolf”.
This is part four of an eight-part series. To read the previous article, on Alexander Gustafsson, click here.
Of all the myriad MMA promotions, one of the most enduring is Shooto. So enduring, in fact, that it has virtually become a sport in and of itself. It has also become JMMA’s greatest feeder league. The talent that has come through its square ring, to continue on to PRIDE, Hero’s and RIZIN would be some of the greatest in the world: Takanori Gomi. Kyoji Horiguchi. “KID” Norifumi Yamamoto.
But one of the greatest products to ever fight in Shooto would never leave it, except when dispatched to represent it. That man was one of MMA’s first great submission artists. The king of flying submissions. The Moon Wolf, Rumina Sato.
Brazilian Jiu-Jutsu stood foremost as the strongest martial art in the world. In 1994, in no-holds barred fighting its highest level of practitioners, Jiu-Jutsu black belts, stood undefeated.
At first Ricardo Botelho seemed to confirm the supremacy of his style. He clinched Sato and pulled him to the ground; when Sato sought to rise Botelho pounced on his back and fixed in a body triangle, before attacking a rear naked choke. For almost the entire first round Sato stood with Botelho clinging to his back, arms probing for the chokehold that would end it. But Sato fought the choke, and the round ended before Botelho could complete it.
In the second Sato proved to be more careful, keeping his distance while attacking Botelho with powerful kicks and uppercuts from the clinch. He even managed to nearly land an axe kick at one point. But in the third round it looked like Botelho had turned it around. Clinching again, he dragged Sato to the floor once more. But this time when Sato rose he stood just beyond Botelho’s guard and began looking for submissions. Finally, Sato spread Botelho’s legs and committed to a leglock. The Brazilian would not be submitted easily and his efforts to roll out of it left both dangling perilously over the edge of the ring. But Sato would not be denied. His heelhook took the victory.
As Catch Can
Catch wrestling is a form of wrestling that puts emphasis on submissions, and is therefore one of the earliest forms of no-gi grappling. The traditional nickname for Catch is “physical chess”. But in chess even the most skilled grandmaster cannot claim checkmate in a single move. Rumina Sato could. While Shooto might have acquired the mocking nickname of “the home of the draw” in the modern day, referring to its myriad of fights without conclusive wins, Sato was do or die, once winning six fights straight all by submission.
When he fell victim to Joel Gerson and was tapped out himself, he stalked his opponent to a Canadian grappling tournament and avenged himself. When André Pederneiras knocked him unconscious with a soccer kick, Sato would bounce back with an astonishing six second flying armbar submission in his next fight. Flying submissions would become Sato’s trademark, the ultimate sign of his victory over traditional grappling fundamentals.
Rumina Sato versus Caol Uno I: Coronation
So it seemed, when Sato went into his title match for the Shooto 154 lb belt against fellow Shooto fighter Caol Uno, it would not so much be a battle as a coronation. Sato was almost universally considered the greatest fighter of his weight on the planet. Uno was no slouch as a grappler himself but he had not proven himself nearly as adept as Sato – yet. Sato would later remark that he underestimated Uno’s chances.
Sato began the fight howling out of the gates, hungry like a wolf. He stalked Uno about the cage. Swiftly Sato got into the clinch and tore Uno from his feet. Immediately attacking the rear naked choke, it seemed the belt was his almost as soon as the fight had begun. Sato was relentless after trapping Uno in a body triangle. Every time Uno fended off his chokes Sato would strike at his head. When Uno responded to the punches, Sato would immediately attack the choke again.
But Uno weathered choke attempt after choke attempt. Finally, Uno broke free, spun around and started unleashing furious volleys of ground and pound. Not only had Uno withstood the attentions of the most dangerous submission artist in Japan, Sato had expended an incredible amount of energy in the process. Suddenly the fight, seen as a formality, was now up in the air.
In the second round, after an initial display of exchanges, Sato went for the takedown again. However, after a failed body triangle, it was Uno who was on top once more. Sato drove Uno away with upkicks, but soon Uno took Sato back down to the mat. Slowly but surely the underdog’s ground and pound ate away at Sato. Where before he hunted submissions out of habit, now it was looking imperative in order to achieve victory.
But Uno refused to overextend himself. He was always putting just enough pressure on Sato with ground and pound that the ref wouldn’t go for a standup. He was answering Sato’s risk-seeking with risk-adverseness. However, when he finally deigned to let Sato to the feet, the caution vanished. Sato took advantage of this momentary lapse, ducking under a high kick and forcing Uno to the ropes in a clinch. But the exhausted Sato had no more energy to take advantage of this opportunity. His explosive style and Uno’s relentless ground strikes had depleted his gas tank.
As soon as the fighters came out for the third round Uno smelt blood in the water. First taking Sato down, he passed his guard and went for the back himself. Sato tossed Uno off, and Uno returned to wearing Sato down, taking him down again and hammering away with more ground-and-pound. When Sato did at last see his opportunity for a submission and leapt for a guillotine, his grip gave way and he slipped to the ground. The king of swift victories had been caught in a battle of attrition he could not win. When “Moon Wolf” desperately dived for Uno’s ankles one last time Uno let loose once more and sunk in his own rear naked choke. The battle was over.
Rumina Sato versus Caol Uno II: Repeat or Revenge?
Sato was so confident in his victory that he had sworn that he would not leave Shooto’s auspices until he had taken a belt. However, like a mighty hero from a Greek myth, this promise would forever dictate the path of Sato’s career.
Sato would begin his second march to the belt by getting three straight first round submissions. It was clear that he and Uno were destined for a rematch, which would take place at Shooto: R.E.A.D. Final.
After a few early exchanges and some hard leg kicks, it seemed like Sato would try to engage Uno in striking this time. But when Uno’s back presented itself Sato grabbed a bodylock before going for a standing rear naked choke once more. But this time Uno would respond more decisively. He broke Sato’s grips and cast him to the canvas. When Sato rose to his feet Uno capitalised with a knee, followed by a hook that sent Sato down for good. Rather than another battle for the ages, Uno had crushed Sato decisively and left no doubt as to who the best lightweight in the world was.
But while Sato may have lost his chance at the belt, his oath to remain in Shooto remained. And so his career was forever intertwined with that of his promotion, like no fighter before or since.
Sato would become as well known for his impressive performances in defeat as his victories. He fought Takanori Gomi, the future lightweight great, a powerful wrestler with heavy hands. Sato was impressive, taking down Gomi and nearly submitting him three times in the early rounds. Even when Gomi was on top he found himself lost in a forest of legs and was nearly heelhooked and armbarred.
But the weakness of Sato’s style, first exposed by Uno, was that while his single minded dedication to getting the submission made him a decisive threat, it also drained his stamina quickly. In addition, much like Carlos Condit was with his strikes, Sato was willing to sacrifice position for offence. By navigating the minefield of his submission threat- hardly an easy task – Sato could be bombarded with ground and pound and worn down. While Sato was capable of creativity on the feet, he was nowhere near as dangerous as he was with his submissions.
Rumina Sato: The Baptist of Champions
Nevertheless, a victory over Sato still marked a fighter as having passed a baptism of fire. He was less a gatekeeper and more the herald of future greatness. At first those who held victories over him conjure up greats in the public imagination: Takanori Gomi, “Hellboy” Hansen, Gilbert Melendez. But as the years stretched by, and Sato’s record was stained red by defeat, the names grew less impressive.
Though Sato had briefly held the less prestigious Shooto Pacific Rim title, its world titles still eluded him. As the years passed so too did Sato’s physical prime. But even as it did his legend grew. His nickname of “Moon Wolf” began to be eclipsed by a new title: “The Charisma of Shooto”.
His tragic, larger than life tale of valiantly striving, but coming up short spoke to Shooto’s audience. Shooto was not just a promotion linked to bustling Tokyo. It was practically a sport in itself with a well-organised amateur scene. Such a figure head who fought exclusively within the promotion or on its behalf was vital to its continued success. Sato was a symbol to its small but passionate fanbase: regardless of Shooto’s niche appeal, the fights and the fighters still mattered. Rumina Sato was the ultimate company man, and for this, he was granted one final gift.
Rumina Sato – Final Chance
A final shot at a Shooto world title, this time at its 143 lb belt, held by Takashi Inoue. Sato was on a three fight losing streak, and few expected a miracle. But many hoped.
Sato’s spirit was willing but his flesh was tired from years of matches. But even with one leg bandaged, Sato gave a good account of himself. He used jabs interspersed with unusual attacks to keep Inoue at bay. The axe kick returned. He also made use of a spinning back kick, as well as a stutter step overhand. Then, suddenly, one of Sato’s wilder overhands found its mark. Inoue was on wobbly legs and the years seemed to melt off just for a moment as Sato pounced. Inoue dragged himself back to his feet through a hail of ground and pound.
Sato refused to let this final opportunity slip through his fingers. Grasping a double collar tie, he threw knee after knee. But Inoue would not go down and he responded by blasting Sato with hooks. Finally, Sato was sent reeling and Inoue followed up with relentless ground and pound for the finish.
Sato would battle on for five more fights, but after being knocked out three times in a row chose to call it a day for his MMA career. He would continue working with Shooto, helping their amateur league prosper, and even recently still competes in grappling events.
It’s a bittersweet career in many ways, but while Sato may never have won a world championship, the adoration and respect he inspired in the Shooto fanbase and that of the wider MMA world shines brighter than any belt could.
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