“Judge! Judge! Judge! Readyyyyyyyyy… Go!”
Yuji Shimada needs no introduction to MMA fight fans. He’s worked inside a ring or a cage for more rounds than any other human on Earth. He’s had his share of controversy, but the general consensus is that he’s pound-for-pound the best referee in MMA. From the legendary days of PRIDE Fighting Championships, to gigs all over the world – Russia, India, China, Netherlands, and the US – Yuji-san now finds himself in the cage at Singapore-based ONE FC.
Yuji has refereed some of the highest profile fights in history. More than a dozen times he’s put himself in literally harm’s way to protect a downed fighter, and his “Give up? GIVE UP?!” when a fighter is in trouble is legendary. This most professional of all professional referees must have gotten his shots in somewhere to attain immortal status in the squared circle, yet there’s almost no information on him in English. The time has come to remedy the situation.
What was your first introduction to mixed martial arts, and how did you get involved in pro-wrestling?
The first sport I was involved with was submission wrestling, back then it was also called shoot fighting. And pro-wrestling is very famous in Japan. When I was a kid, I watched pro-wrestling on TV, and I liked it. Dream Stage Entertainment that was promoting PRIDE started a pro-wrestling show called Hustle. Then I joined Hustle with Nobuhiko Takada. Sometimes I wrestled there.
Something that doesn’t happen to you outside of Japan is that the audience boos you. People have debated the reason. Do you know why people BOO you when you enter the MMA ring?
I do not know, when the ring announcer called my name in PRIDE, everybody gave me a BOO, therefore I guess they recognized I was a bad guy (in pro-wrestling).
How did you get started in refereeing and did you have a teacher?
When I graduated university, I went to the US for shoot wrestling. There I met my teacher Masari Soranaka (student of Karl Gotch) who was a UWF referee and taught shoot wrestling to Ken Shamrock and Bart Vale (who developed “shootfighting”). He taught me how to ref.
Can you tell me about a couple of the most memorable matches you have refereed?
This is a hard question! Sakuraba versus Royce Gracie in PRIDE. Sakuraba versus Wanderlei Silva. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira versus Crocop. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira versus Fedor. There are lots of others, but I choose Nobuhiko Takada versus Rickson Gracie because it was the dream match up of the time.
Takada versus Rickson – the main event of PRIDE 1 when Takada basically had to defend Japanese pro-wrestling, and then the rematch Rickson granted him because he thought of Takada as a true warrior. You saw many Gracie rivalries over so many years! What was the feeling in the ring like between Sakuraba and Renzo during their rivalry?
I felt nothing; I was focused on just doing my job!
What about the legendary Fedor – you have refereed some of his greatest matches! Can you comment on the incredible Fedor versus Crocop fight back in 2005?
He is the greatest fighter in the world. He is still a hero to the Japanese MMA fans. That match was such a great fight that now it is difficult to say something.
You also refereed Fedor’s retirement fight. What did it feel like to be in the ring with Fedor, M-1’s Vadim Finkelstein and President Vladimir Putin in that historic moment?
I cannot believe it. I hope Fedor comes back to fight again in Japan. It is my DREAM.
What was your first time to referee outside of Japan? I know you came to Hong Kong for Fury and you were in Strikeforce as well. What was that like?
I do not remember my first time, maybe the Netherlands in RINGS. Strikeforce was good for me because the international MMA fans recognized me, and my skill is going up too.
What is the state of MMA in Japan now? Do you think MMA’s reputation as yakuza-backed will ever be changed, and broadcasting will come back?
Now it has fallen upon hard times, but Japanese fighters are still good. It is hard to explain that. But having no TV broadcast is a bad situation now. I think it will come back. In the near future, TV broadcasting will come back.
What do you think about the recent Pancrase and DEEP agreement to work together, and do you think Shooto is developing well?
The Pancrase decision is good, especially for the amateur fighters. Shooto is also good.
Do you think MMA in the rest of Asia is on the rise and what do you think the future will be like?
Yes, it is on the rise. Now some Asian countries watch MMA (like UFC) and people want to be fighters. It is good timing.
Now you are Head Referee for ONE FC, which combines a mixed ruleset from PRIDE and Unified. So I’m curious, did you help make the PRIDE rules?
How did you get involved with ONE FC, and what are your responsibilities?
Matt Hume, he booked me to work. I have known him a long time. He is my boss; I help him anytime he needs. For ONE FC, I educate on the MMA rules for the fighters. I try to get everyone to like MMA!
What do you think of the future of ONE FC?
It will get big, I think it will have a chance to be the PRIDE of Asia.
Do you enjoy refereeing?
Yes, I like MMA and my job.
Thank you, Yuji-san! See you next at ONE FC 5 in Manila!