Before the Swag: Chronicling Shinsuke Nakamura’s MMA History

He might be the God of Swag, the Wrestler of the Year, and a music video superstar, but Shinsuke Nakamura used to just be a regular-ass Japanese heavyweight wrestler, with a non-fantastic haircut. As a Japanese heavyweight wrestler during the early 2000s, it was basically an edict from the Emperor of Japan that he also try his hand at mixed martial arts. Here’s a history of the King of Strong Style’s shoot fighting past life. Luckily, it was a brief run, so there won’t be a ton to cover. I want to give a quick shout out to my friend, Dash, who not only inspired this post, but gave some thoughts on which of Nakamura’s fights were legit or not since that’s been an issue in MMA for a long time.

Match One – vs Daniel Gracie, Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye 2002

It’s always tough for me to suss out which Gracies were good at fighting in the early 2000s (Now it’s easy, none of them are any good at MMA). Daniel’s certainly no Renzo or Ryan, but that’s because he’s not a real Gracie. Despite it being his first fight, Nakamura’s got a really good double leg takedown, but part of me wonders how much Gracie cared to defend those shots.

Round two has another Nakamura blast double, but he leaves his arm hanging out, Gracie does what a Gracie does and snatches it, locking in an armbar and forcing the tap.

Ultimately, Shinsuke tried hard, and though he’s got a solid double leg, at this point in his fledgling MMA career, he was learning submission grappling in between Kazushi Sakuraba’s cigarette breaks.

Dash sez: I’d guess the Gracie fight was a shoot

Match Two – vs Jan “The Giant” Nortje, NJPW Ultimate Crush

In true Japanese MMA fashion, Nakamura faces a guy twice his size with half the skill because Japan is bonkers. My favorite thing about Nortje is that as he went into combat sports that allowed more techniques, he got worse. He’s 11-0 as a boxer, 9-15 as a kickboxer and 2-6 as a mixed martial artist (Uh, spoilers, I guess?).

I love that Nortje, a white South African, has a dude dressed exactly like Akeem the African Dream in his entourage while Jan’s wearing a zebra that he might have skinned himself.

The first round is all Shinsuke, as other than a brief sprawl of the initial takedown attempt, Jan spends most of opening five minutes on his back. Nakamura works his way past Nortje’s nonexistent guard and lands some good punches before angling for an armbar. Nortje’s defense is to hurl Shinsuke out of the ring, and the referee calls for a break. The restart doesn’t last for long on the feet as Nakamura gets another takedown and finishes the round punching Jan in the head.

The second round begins with another Nakamura take down, and this time he’s pretty much looking to improve position instead of dropping bombs on Jan’s oversized head. The referee stops the action to drag the two to the center of the ring so they don’t go through the ropes, and Nakamura goes back to inching his way up Nortje’s body. The official result says Shinsuke submitted Jan with a guillotine choke, but it looked way more like an Ezekial to my semi-knowledgeable eyes. At worst, it’s a straight up forearm choke, but it’s actually the rarely seen any more “Fuck this, I’m done, get me outta here, I’ll tap to anything” choke that pretty much just works on Bobb Sapp these days.

Side note – this is the same show that Lyoto Machida, after taking a decision win over Kengo Watanabe, got Spirit Slapped by Antonio Inoki, which is pretty rad

Dash sez: The Nortje fight is a toss-up, because Jan Nortje has been involved in some J Pro Wrestling, but he is also just horrible at grappling so it could easily be work or shoot.

Match Three – vs Shane Eitner, Jungle Fight 1


Now with a win under his belt, Nakamura took a trip down south to Jungle Fight, the Brazilian organization founded by Wallid “Olhos Loucos” Ismail, who is delightfully insane. His opponent here is Shane Eitner, who I have no information other than “he fought Nakamura” and he got starched pretty spectacularly in what might be his only other MMA bout (the video above).

Like the first two fights, Nakamura looks for a takedown early, and gets it easily. Eitner’s kinda decent off his back, though, and the fight gets scrambly. Eitner gets back to his feet, but Shinsuke is quick to dump him back down with another good blast double. Eitner threatens very briefly with a kimura, but Nakamura escapes, moves from mount to side control and cranks on a key lock until Eitner taps.

There’s a weird bit of business surrounding this fight, since the other Eitner fight takes place after his contest with Nakamura, but that one makes it look like Shane is still an amateur, since he’s wearing shin guards and the fight is only two four-minute rounds.

Dash sez: The Eitner fight is probably a work. That was the same show where they fucked Mark Schultz Inoki style by promising a worked fight and then having his opponent put on a locked triangle. Also Kazunari Murakami fought on that card, so works were in the air.

Match Four – vs Alexey Ignashov, K-1 Premium 2003 Dynamite!!

Ignashov is a heavyweight kickboxer, but instead of being giant and fat and terrible like Jan Nortje, he’s in fairly decent shape and he’s actually good, sporting a record of 84-21, with 41 knockouts. but he’s never been a K-1 World Grand Prix champion because he’s from Belarus and not Holland.

Anyway, I’ve been trying to track down the full fight, but sometimes it’s tough to locate Japanese kickboxing and MMA co-promoted events from over ten years ago. From the highlight videos, Nakamura landed multiple takedowns but couldn’t do a lot with them. In the third, Shinsuke shoots in and eats a huge knee from Ignashov, sending him to the canvas. The referee calls for the bell and the fight is over, even though Nakamura is back on his feet shortly afterwards. The K-1 Premium 2003 Dynamite!! entry on Wikipedia lists it as a TKO win for Alexey, but both men’s individual pages and Sherdog all say the fight was a no contest. I’m guessing that knees like that weren’t allowed for some strange reason (Spoiler alert, that reason is, as always, BECAUSE JAPAN)

Dash sez: Basically Shinsuke shooting sloppy pro wres doubles and Ignashov flailing and falling like a kickboxer, then throwing arm punches from his back while his legs move like a baby. Finish is Nak eating a very legit, very legal knee and getting knocked the fuck down/out for a second. Then getting back up ready to shoot. So the no contest is a bullshit result. Both knees were off the floor when he got hit square in the jaw. No Contest (Japanese Business)

Match Five – vs Alexey Ignashov, K-1 Romanex

After the no-contest, Nakamura rematches Ignashov at another K-1 MMA show.

Nakamura, as always, looks for the takedown early in round one, but Alexey defends well and manages to shuck Shinsuke to the side. I’ve got a feeling that Shinsuke doesn’t want to shoot for anything below the waist to avoid getting his face smashed in with a knee again. Nakamura gets a takedown off a single leg. There’s not much for the rest of the round. Some limited ground and pound and a half-hearted Ezekial choke attempt from Nakamura, but he mostly hangs out in full guard, avoiding Ignashov’s upkicks.

Round two is like every other second of a Nakamura fight that’s on the feet, Shinsuke is looking for a takedown. He gets one with a single leg, there’s a bit of a scramble as Alexey flops his long legs, but Nakamura ends up in side control This time it’s a definite forearm choke and Ignasov taps out.

Side note – If you are a cruel monster and thought the Brawl For All wasn’t that bad, you can watch Ignashov kneeing Dr. Death Steve Williams’ brains out in under 30 seconds right here


Since his MMA career ended in 2004, Shinsuke Nakamura has undergone a drastic change in appearance and personality, becoming the King of Strong Style and the Swagsuke we all know and love. However, there have been a few moments in his current New Japan career that have more than their fair share of MMA influence.

The Beginning – Shinsuke Nakamura vs Brock Lesnar

This match takes place during an interesting slice of time where Nakamura is done with MMA and Brock hasn’t yet decided to jump headfirst into the world of punching dudes for realsies. There’s still a bit of grappling, and Shinsuke somehow lands a German suplex on Brock. Lesnar’s big comeback starts with a huge powerbomb counter to a triangle choke that’s basically a wink and a nudge to Rampage Jackson obliterating Ricardo Arona with the same.

Tag Match – Shinsuke Nakamura and Kazushi Sakuraba vs Daniel and Rolles Gracie

This is a gi-exclusive match, and I think Nakamura has the best pair of fight-pajamas out of the whole group, mostly for the Cobra Kai patch on his pants. Also, it’s really neat to see Nakamura do some of his taunt-based moves while wearing a gi.

It’s a decent match, and it probably features the only time a backdrop has been performed and taken by men wearing gis. The evil Gracies cheat, and the giant Rolles taps out Sakuraba. I will say that if you want to watch tag team MMA, check out ZST, but that’s a story for another time.

Side note – Check out the greatest pro wrestling moment of Rolles Gracie’s life right here

Rematch – vs Daniel Gracie

Nakamura has a chance to avenge his first loss as he defends his IWGP Intercontinental title against Daniel “Not Really A” Gracie. Despite neither man being involved directly in the finish of the previous match, Daniel is granted a title shot after Rolles chokes out Sakuraba.

Nakamura gets his trademark quick double leg, but Gracie is clearly better on the ground. Shinsuke has to rely on several rope breaks to avoid getting submitted, and Gracie keeps mounting him.

Nakamura finally escapes out the back door, buys some time with a DDT and then just starts throwing knees at Gracie’s head and body. Daniel’s had enough and the gi jacket is off! They both start throwing palm strikes, and Gracie catches Shinsuke in a tight standing guillotine. Unfortunately for Daniel, a standing guillotine is also a pretty good set up for a northern lights suplex, which is what Nakamura uses to escape.

The comeback is short-lived, as Gracie manages to lock on a rear naked choke through the ropes. Dazed, Shinsuke collapses to his knees, allowing Daniel to land a Boma Ye to the back of his head. OH SNAP, SON! Gracie could probably pin Shinsuke right there, but he wants to finish the fight with the Mata Leon, the rear naked choke. Nakamura hand fights out of the choke, drops a big knee, but gets caught in a choke during his own pin attempt.

Shinsuke gets to the ropes, stands up, and slams Gracie to the canvas to escape the hold. Gracie is disoriented and a disoriented foe means it is time for a BOMA YE! Nakamura makes the cover and retains the IWGP Intercontinental belt. It’s a good match, especially considering Gracie isn’t really a pro wrestler.

The Extended Reference – vs Kazushi Sakuraba

This match is interesting since I saw snippets of it before I knew much about Nakamura, being a big fan of Kazushi Sakuraba. There are moments throughout the contest that feel like nods to MMA history, like Nakamura giving up his back, only to threaten with a kimura, a classic Saku move, and then this furious exchange from both men. It’s basically what Frye versus Takayama would have looked like in early Pancrase or RINGS.

Later in the match, Sakuraba throws the biggest knockout blow of his career, nailing Shinsuke with a knee as Nakamura shoots in for a take down. This was the first thing I saw of this match several years ago, and I thought it might have been an homage to either Hansen versus Imanari or Jienotsu versus Aoki. Of course, it turns out now that those fights were simply paying respects to Nakamura’s first bout with Ignashov. There’s even a moment when Sakuraba goes too hard for a kimura and Shinsuke counters with an armbar, which is exactly how the first fight between Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre played out. Nakamura finishes Sakuraba off with a BOMA YE, and that makes me sad, since I never like seeing Sakuraba even fake knocked unconscious.