The Pioneer Spirit true pioneer of Mixed Martial Arts in North America, Minnesotan Erik Paulson first fought in Shooto in June 1993, five months before the UFC debuted in November. At a time when you could count the number of people in the US training in grappling, submissions and striking on one hand,
Erik was taking the light to the Japanese on their home turf. Shooto was founded in 1989 by a former pro-wrestler Satoru Sayama and shootwrestling came to the United States in the form of coach Yorinaga Nakamura, who started teaching at the Inosanto Academy in California, where the art caught the eye of Erik Paulson.
Erik moved to California from Minnesota to pursue a career in acting and modelling. His martial arts training led him into stunt work but the vanity and superficiality of the movie business did not sit well with Erik and when the opportunity-came to go tojapan and fight professionally, he turned to combat full-time. Erik became the first American to hold the Shooto Light-Heavyweight World title when he beat
Kenji Kawaguchi and after seven years in the ring Erik retired with a record of 10-4-1, closing his career by beating Ronald Jhun at Superbrawl 17. Since then, Erik has become one of the USA’s most sought after trainers and instructors and has worked with Ken Shamrock, Vernon White and
Josh Barnett to name but three. Fighters caught up with Erik while he was on a seminar tour of the UK.
When did you start martial arts? 1974. I began in judo. I was in 4th grade. My mother started me in judo. I was playing all these different sports and she thought it would be good if 1 did an individual sport.
How long did you stay with judo? I stuck with it for two years and I got in a street light and I tried to use it and I couldn’t because I wasn’t at a very high level. I got my hair pulled and my head stuffed in a snow bank. Then I saw my first Bruce Lee movie, Game of Death and I said ‘I’ve got to learn how to strike’. I started taek-wondo, but it was sport taekwondo. My dad got me into boxing in the 8th grade, the Golden Gloves. 1 resumed judo in the 10th grade. 1 met up with an Olympic level coach in Minnesota and trained with him for a couple of years. My brother was a wrestler, so I used to wrestle every single day. It was always a controversy who would win in a fight, a striker or a grappler. I would argue with him because I’d say ‘I’m not really hitting you all out’, so we got into a real right and I broke his fingers. I kicked him as hard as I could.
When did you start training in shootwrestling with Yorinaga Nakamura? He came to the Inosanto Academy to learn about Bruce Lee. He’s a huge Bruce Lee freak. Him and his wife, that’s how they met, at a Bruce Lee convention. He’s more interested in promotingJun Fan Jeet Kune Do in Japan than he is in promoting Shooto in America.
How did you begin competing in Japan? After I saw the first fight tape, I said ‘I could do that. I want to do that.’ I kept telling him Yorinaga I want to do it and he waited two or three years after that. I actually submitted a tape to Sayama with all my training footage and I never got a response. One of mv classmates I was training with was a really good kickboxer. Yori said ‘Oh, you’re going to go there with Chad Stahelski’. They put me in as an underdog and Chad as a main event.
What was your experience as an American fighting in Japan? They were scared at first. I didn’t smile, I was all business. It was a challenge, American versus Japan. It was their sport and they wanted to debunk Yori Nakamura as not being a good coach.
I didn’t have sex for four months before my fight. I was abstinent for four months so no matter who was in front of me I still would have won.
I was ready to tear someone’s head off. My friend, on the other hand, was going out gallivanting with his girlfriend. He didn’t have to cut weight, he could cat whatever, so for him there was really no sacrifice. I was a bartender, working ‘til four in the morning, going to bed and getting 3 to 5 hours sleep, having to work my butt off so I could barely gel by and pay rent. This guy was supported by his parents and went to college, had everything handed to him, so I truly believe that’s the reason why I won.
What were the rules in Shooto at the time? Five 3 minute rounds. Punching and kicking, throwing and submission, no punching on the ground, you could only knee the body. If you held your partner on the ground they would break you and stand you back up. It was a faster paced fight, more dynamic for striking. You weren’t really allowed to grab and hold a guy. When you stalled on the ground they go ‘Break! Stand!’ They changed the Shooto rules because there were a lot of people who wanted to try to enter into Shooto and they couldn’t do it because the guys didn’t have enough stand-up skill. The guys that had good stand-up didn’t have good ground skill.
There wasn’t anybody at that time who was really well versed in the three areas, striking, clinching and the ground. So Sayama changed the rules, ‘okay, once we hit the ground, we’re gonna stay on the ground.’ At first it was a slower paced fight, it was actually more boring but the crowd got into it and learned the rules and they respected it a lot more. In America, when I first started, everyone was booing. I fought in Oklahoma, in Iowa, I got booed. We’re on the ground and everyone was like, ‘Boo! Stand up! Cut him! Punch him!’ They want to see a guy get elbowed and bleed all over the place.
How was the training in Japan? At the time I was training it was very disciplined and very secretive. If I was in the ring they used to peek through the window and watch me.
They used to look at me when I walked out, look at my elbows and knees, see if I had any tape or pads around my legs or any cuts on my face.
One day I forgot I had a knee brace on my left knee. As soon as I walked out everyone looked at my left knee, it was a target. So the next day
I was smart and I put it on the right knee. Then they scratched their heads. What did you think of the first UFC?
I was at the first UFC. I was training with Rorion and Royce. Rorion told me that they were starting this new fighting tournament that would change the outlook of martial arts forever, and he was 100 percent correct. A lot of people today don’t give him the respect that he deserves because of the fact that he said that almost as a visionary, that he was going to change the way martial artists thought and he really did. Now the other guys are reaping the benefits of it. Rorion should be a multi-millionaire. I don’t know, maybe he is. Thank you, Rorion Grade.
What was your toughest fight? Ben Spijkers was one of the tougher fights I had because his friend who was ajudoka invited me over his house for dinner the night before my fight. I didn’t plan on drinking, I was training really hard, but the guy said, ‘we’re having pizza and beer.’ I said, ‘No, no beer.’ The next thing you know, five beers later, I’m staggering back to my room. The next day I fought and it was 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity and my fight went five rounds. I know that if I hadn’t gone out the night before the fight would have finished in two rounds.
Why did you call your system Combat Submission Wrestling, not Shooto? I did CSW because guru Dan Inosanto) and Paula, his wife, said ‘Erik, if Yori’s not going to let you promote what you’re doing, what are you really teaching? Are you just teaching Shooto?’ And I wasn’t because I was mixing in a lot of wrestling, a lot of STX kickboxing – that’s Savate/Thai cross training. It was more in-depth than just the Shooto I had learned, although there are elements of that in there, but there are also elements of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Greco, Freestyle, judo, sambo and catch wrestling.
How did you start working with Ken Shamrock? I had met Ken one time when he was going to fight Don Frye and I held the pads for him once. Then I got a phone call from Ken after his Tito fight and he said ‘I want to have a meeting with you.’ I went down and he goes, ‘Listen, I have a few more fights left and I know you’re retired from fighting and you’re training people. I’d be really interested to have you train me. The game has changed and I want to get back and make sure I’m on top of everything.’ So I trained him for seven months. Seven months for a fight! He was way, way more than ready. I changed his whole game, got his striking up to a pretty high-class kickboxer level. I got his boxing real fast, got him moving. His conditioning, his technical ability with his clinch and his knees, I worked heavy on that. Didn’t do much on the ground, mostly just getting out of things, how to get back to the standing game to strike.
The last fight versus Rich Franklin we worked striking but we did more grappling stuff. I think the intent wasn’t quite there because the name he was fighting was a new guy. I think the fact that he just moved to Susanville from San Diego played a big portion of his mental game in the fight. Also I believe if you have too many coaches, that’s not good. There needs to be one guy in charge who assigns possiblv a boxing coach and possibly a conditioning coach, but when you take it upon yourself to go out and get all your other guys that are going to train you, you’re formulating your own schedule. The bottom line is you need one guy who’s in charge of all that.
Now you have your own group of fighters, Team Archangel.
I’m just starting a professional fight team, with fight practice five days a week. All the guys get together at four o’clock. We have practice for two hours. Lots of sparring, conditioning.
Who are some names we should look out for? Some of the guys
are already fighting, but I’m trying to get them bigger fights. James Wilkes, from Bournemouth, Jay Martinez from California, Danny Suarez, possibly Ben Jones, ex-CFL player, played for the Argonauts.
How has the sport changed since you started fighting? A lot of the guys don’t have that good stand-up skill. I don’t think the kickboxing is really substantial. It’s adequate. Matt Hume and I sat down and he said ‘What do you think is lacking from the game today?’ I go, ‘Stand-up skill.’ He goes ‘Exactly! They’re punchers and their wrestling is good and their ground and pound game is very good. A lot of guys are just ground and pounders. I would like to see more submissions instead of the old ground and pound and I would like to see guys stand-up skills get a lot better.