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Missed Fists Theater: A blow-by-blow account of Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama

Welcome to the latest edition of Missed Fists where we shine a light on fights from across the globe that may have been overlooked in these hectic times where it seems like there’s an MMA show every other day.

At least, that’s what we normally do. With fight promotions around the world finally taking the coronavirus pandemic seriously, there are simply no fists that have been missed recently. The good news is that has left us with plenty of leftover brain power to look over some all-time great fights (something we recently did with Matt Serra vs. Georges St-Pierre, so check that out) that demand review, with an emphasis on international and regional affairs.

Without further ado, welcome to the premiere edition of Missed Fists Theater.

Fortuitously, the UFC was generous enough to upload a fight that should be on the bucket list of anyone with even a passing interest in combat sports, the June 23, 2002, PRIDE 21 encounter between Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama.

If you’ve seen it, just the mention of those names is enough to get the hair standing on your arms; if you haven’t, then you are in for a treat and I envy you getting to witness this slugfest for the first time.

Before we proceed, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Ant Evans took a brilliant deep dive into this bout earlier this week, so make sure you check that out especially if you want a greater understanding of the context around the matchup.

As for us? We’re just going to focus on the face-punching.

Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama

AL: Before we get to the introductions, what’s your recollection of these two manliest of men heading into this fight?

JM: Well, let’s be clear, this fight happened before my time. I started watching MMA in 2004 with the Chuck-Tito fight. I didn’t watch it on PPV but a friend showed it to me sometime afterwards. And it wasn’t a defining moment for me or anything. I didn’t immediately become a hardcore fan. I grew into it.

The first I heard of PRIDE was when Fedor knocked out Zuluzhino. That’s when I started finding myself down internet wormholes and I remember pretty quickly coming across Frye-Takayama then because at the time it was one of those fights everyone viewed as the greatest fight of all time. Still is, now that I think about it.

AL: As an admitted late-comer to the MMA game myself, I also didn’t catch this when it happened. I actually recall seeing it as part of some “wacky world of sports” show or something and then immediately thinking to myself, “I must know more about how this human train wreck came together.” Like most folks, I’ve probably watched it about 100 times since the first viewing.

JM: As well you should. Before the fight even kicks off, just look at that staredown! Outside of prime Wanderlei, I’m not sure there’s a better staredown than these two bull elephants looking right through one another. Or maybe I’m just projecting because of what’s to come.

AL: Frye and Takayama look distinctly dangerous in their own way. “The Predator” was 14-1 heading into this matchup, but legend has it his mustache had a Rickson Gracie-like record of 300-0. On the other side, Takayama has that bleach blonde hair that would be easy pickings for mockery (even commentator Stephen Quadros calls it a “Rod Stewart hairdo”) were it not for the fact that he looks to be a legit six-and-a-half feet tall and has the gaze of a man who truly does not give a single F.

JM: Sometimes looks can be deceiving but not in this instance as evidence by the first 30 seconds of this.

Holy sh*t, dude.

Even knowing what’s coming it’s still incredible to see these two guys go full Rock’em Sock’em Robot IMMEDIATELY. No feeling out process whatsoever, just game the f*ck on.

AL: Quadros and the inimitable Bas Rutten are on the call and they do their best to prepare us for what’s to come, with Rutten noting, “Don Frye is not going to stick and move. He’s gonna fight. He’s not gonna go backwards. He can only go forward.”

If Frye had any thought of going against that prediction, it went out the window once he and Takayama got a hold of each other and just started wailing on each other’s face. We live in an age of hyperbole where anytime something cool happens you’ll hear some pundit exclaim, “I’ve never seen anything like this!”

But we’d never seen anything like this opening exchange and haven’t since.

JM: Well, we did like three minutes later when they do it again. But yes, it may well be the most thrilling 30 seconds in the history of the sport. It’s so spectacular that if this moment never happened and I saw it in a movie, I would probably laugh it off as being unbelievable.

AL: So true. The worst part about combat sports movies is the poorly choreographed, poorly thought-out fight scenes, and this would have been the worst example of it if I saw it on the big screen. Instead, it’s literally the best example of anything ever.

JM: I mean, they are absolutely rifling right hooks into one another to the point that even Bas Rutten is like (and I’m paraphrasing), “Dude, I have no idea what is happening.”

But a pace like that is physically unsustainable, so we get a few lulls where the two just hold each other like they’re both building up energy for the next salvo, and that to me is the truly incredible part of the fight. Yes, jackhammering punches into each other is ridiculous but when you’re in the thick of the firefight, that makes sense to me: you just react. But when you’re in a clinch up against the fence and have a moment to realize what’s happening, that’s when I’d be like: “Nah dude. Not doing that anymore.” Not these two glorious bastards though.

AL: They start firing little knees at each other in the clinch and it almost comes off as sarcastic.

Takayama’s face is already so messed up. It looks like he’s wearing a mask made out of human flesh like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Speaking of the good doctor, Takayama shows his sinister side with a knee to the head of a grounded Frye that would have ended most fights; instead, it leads to the next wave of ridiculous punching.

Two minutes in, I think we’ve seen a combined 80 significant strikes to the head landed.

JM: With many, many more to come.

This next round of face smashing is where Takayama really goes from looking like Javier Bardem in Skyfall to looking like Javier Bardem in Skyfall when he takes his teeth out and his entire face warps. And yet, there is zero quit in this man.

Frye is clearly getting the better of the exchanges but Takayama refuses to back down and starts having some moments, particularly with knees and a Thai clinch. Sure, he eats a couple of punches for each knee he lands but Frye seems to be slowing down through the exhaustion of seemingly finding himself in a brawl with a brick wall of a human being.

AL: At one point in minute three, it looks like the ref calls for action, which is just… seriously, bro?

It is amazing how into this fight the crowd is and you can really appreciate it when the fight is in its slower moments. Every shot draws a loud pop from the audience. They are hanging on every strike and can sense that another barrage is coming. Sure enough, minute four kicks off with more unprotected haymakers and the crowd erupts in applause.

JM: A low-key brilliant moment is when Bas says “He’s gonna feel his hands tonight” when talking about Frye smashing his hands into Takayama’s indestructible dome. If only Takayama had ever fought Fedor he might’ve beaten the GOAT purely by breaking the man’s brittle hands with his head.

Ready for things to get real wild? About five minutes in the referee finally calls for a doctor to examine Takayama’s eye which has essentially swollen shut. I won’t lie, I thought this was going to be the unsatisfactory (yet completely reasonable) end to an all-timer of a fight. Silly me though, just because the ringside doctors need a speculum to shine a light in Takayama’s eye doesn’t mean they’re going to let that hinder his trip to Valhalla.

Thank you, negligent ringside physician, for allowing this bout to continue because what happens next is perfection: THEY DO IT AGAIN.

AL: PRIDE doctors were really more doctors in theory than anything.

This final flurry, if you hadn’t been watching the whole fight, you’d have assumed this was the opening burst, not the closing one. What an effort from both men and it’s almost a relief when Frye ends up on top of Takayama in full mount (the commentators say Takayama made a mistake technique-wise, as if his brain could possibly have been considering technique at this point) because you know the end is near.

Then again, the end is accompanied by the sound of Frye’s downward strikes sounding like he’s smashing Takayama’s head with a cricket paddle, so it really wasn’t much of a relief at least not until the referee finally stepped in.

JM: Yeah the referee could’ve stopped this as soon as Takayama was mounted. This was like an old-school parking lot fight, first guy to go down is just gonna stay down. And there’s no shame in that. There’s no possible way to fault Takayama for anything in this fight. He’s the toughest man MMA had seen up to that point, and still may well be so.

Just think, this dude was a pro wrestler. He didn’t have any real combat experience and yet he came to Pride and gave five extremely legit opponents—Kimo, Kazuyuki Fujita, Semmy Schilt, Frye, and Bob Sapp—absolute hell. He’s the best winless fighter in MMA history and it’s not even close to being close.

AL: No wins, and yet he’s recognizable to almost any fan of combat sports.

This is also a reminder that while winning is always respectable and admirable, nothing resonates more with the hardcores than fighting spirit. Whether we’re talking about special attractions like Takayama and Kimbo Slice or world champions with unpadded records like Randy Couture and B.J. Penn or even current “BMF” champ Jorge Masvidal, what matters most is not necessarily the outcome but how we get there.

I joked on Twitter that this fight was from a more “civilized” era, but there really is a purity to it, an understanding between everyone involved—the fighters, the fans, the officials, the doctors—about what everyone came to see. Beyond that, there was a bond forged in this brutality that only Frye and Takayama will ever truly appreciate.

I’m not sure whether we should be sad or glad that this one never got run back, but what a privilege it is to be able to revisit it.

Sadly, Takayama suffered a major injury to his spine at a pro-wrestling show in May 2017 and has been dealing with health issues since. He is currently paralyzed from the shoulders down. Updates on his condition can be found on his website and if you’d like to make a donation to assist with his medical costs, click on the English link here.

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