Induction: Phil Silva’s Karate Wrestling – The world’s first MMA match

17 Submitted by on Thu, 26 September 2019, 20:10

Dallas wrestling, 1954

For this week’s induction, we take you back to the 1950s. World War II had ended, the economy was surging, and a new sensation was sweeping the United States, brought back by American GIs stationed abroad.

That, of course, was pizza.

But Japanese martial arts like judo and karate were also a major fascination.

For decades to come, karate carried with it an aura of power and mystery that struck awe into moviegoers and television viewers and struck fear into the hearts of ne’er-do-wells and no-goodniks.

Of course, once the UFC started running mixed martial arts tournaments, it soon became apparent that karate wasn’t all that useful in a real fight…

…but in its early years stateside, Americans knew precious little about karate, except that it was a deadly form of combat (and that it was pronounced, “kuh-roddy”).

Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of grifters like Phil Silva and the wrestling promoters of Dallas to hoodwink the gullible masses into thinking they’d seen the real deal.

In early 1954, Phil Silva, billed from the US territory of Hawaii, squared off against not one, not two…

…but four wrestlers! Not three, either.

How could one man overcome such impossible odds? Why, with the ancient, mystic art of Karate Wrestling!

And not only was Karate Wrestling ancient and mystic, it was also bewilderingly complicated!

So psyched out were Silva’s four opponents that they argued with the matchmaker before the opening bell about the rules, despite their four-on-one advantage. See, “anything goes” was not just the traditional rules for Karate Wrestling, it was also the agreed-upon stipulation for that evening’s main event.

The booker made just one concession to the quaking quartet – no eye stuff. And even that concession, Karate Wrestling master Silva wasn’t too happy about.

Most martial arts have a solemn and sacred ritual that precedes every match; Phil decided to forgo the traditional bow of the karateka in favor of this hambone routine. Mysterious are the ways of the Karate Wrestler.

If you thought Phil’s warm-up was wild, just check out his fighting technique.

You’re probably aware of the rigid discipline required of the karate practitioner, who practices repetitive exercises to perfect his form in preparation for one day engaging in real combat.

Phil dispensed with all that nonsense and just flailed at everything that moved.

Phineas Godwinn used to do a spot where he’d have one of his “fits” and go nuts, culminating in a mule kick to the air.

It was still more graceful than Phil’s chopping frenzies.

Frankly, I’ve seen better martial arts technique on Are You Being Served?

Not that it mattered whether his technique was off (or non-existent) – Phil could inflict pain even with the weakest-looking of strikes. See, Karate wrestlers would harden certain parts of their body (hands and feet, of course) so that their chops and kicks were as painful as “hatchet blows”.

You can spot a karate black belt by his high, lightning-fast kicks.

Phil, though, never kicked above his waist. But he still sent his opponents tumbling out of the ring…

…or stumbling around like a drunk caught in a washing machine, so score one for Karate Wrestling, a martial art of which Phil is one of just a dozen true masters.

Running low on ideas, three of Silva’s opponents tried to sneak up on him from… the front. I’m not sure what they were thinking exactly, but perhaps they hoped Silva had retinitis pigmentosa and lacked all peripheral vision.

Phil wasn’t having it, though, instead playing these fools like a bongo.

The MVPs of this match were the four heels, who went above and beyond in the selling department to try to make Phil look like a million bucks (that’s nine million, five hundred thirty-seven thousand, four hundred seventy-two bucks in today’s money).

It didn’t matter that Phil’s chops look like poorly-aimed spankings…

…he could still fell Terry Foster like an oak tree after taking one.

Kenta Kobashi can’t say that!

One by one, Silva eliminated his opponents by submission:

First Earl Fleming…

…then Terry Foster.

These first two men succumbed to the hold we now know as the abdominal stretch, but which the announcer had apparently never seen it before. All I know is that by the 1980s, Gorilla Monsoon was well-versed enough in Karate Wrestling to know that Silva should have hooked his foot around his opponent’s leg to apply it properly.

Before Silva could score his third and fourth falls, he made a detour, picking a fight with some of the heels at ringside.

This resulted in a huge schmozz that ended the match.

I said, a huge schmozz that ended the match.

No? Well I guess it just kept going then. They weren’t kidding about “anything goes.”

Think about this the next time WWE ends a no-DQ match due to interference.

In the old days of sports, they played through, dammit! Just look at Merkle’s Boner (it’s a baseball term, I swear).

After slugging it out with the likes of Nature Boy Tommy Phelps…

…Silva finally cleared the ring sufficiently to force submissions from Farmer Andrews…

…and Johnny Dobbs, for the victory.

In all, Silva would win five such handicap matches in January 1954 against teams of three or four men before eventually changing nationalities, wrestling for years under such names as Harou Yamamoto and Tokyo Joe.

One has to wonder how the twelve masters of Karate Wrestling would stack up against the “Oriental wizards of matdom”.

Written by

A wrestling fan ever since the days of Wrestlemania IX, Art graduated from college in the same building where Art Donovan called King of the Ring 1994. He also runs the "How Much Does This Guy Weigh?" blog, where he reviews New Generation-Era Monday Night Raws. Follow him on Twitter @Art0Donnell. Email at:
17 Responses to "Induction: Phil Silva’s Karate Wrestling – The world’s first MMA match"
  1. Autrach Sejanoz says:

    Nice induction, Art!
    Really nice to see “Frankly, I’ve seen better *insert whatever here* on Are You Being Served?”, becoming a running gag! Long may it continue!

  2. Chris V says:

    Personally, I was hoping for a Mr. Furley from Three’s Company reference.
    You better watch out. He knows karate too, you know?

  3. King Of Kings says:

    All throughout this induction all I could think of was Fred Flintstone and his “Judo Chop Chop Chop”

  4. Paul Rudoff says:

    I’m really surprised thete was not one reference to Phil Silvers or Sergeant Bilko. Am I really *that* old. T
    that *that’s* what pops instantly to mind when I read the name Phil Silva? — Paul

  5. djm says:

    Is this wrestlecrap…or karatecrap?

  6. CF says:

    All I can think of here is the 4-on-1 match from _TRON_.

    And “when is one of the Japanese promotions going to have a Kancho Match?” >:)

  7. Cameron A. says:

    As someone who’s familiar with Merkle’s Boner from Not-So-Great Moments in Sports, I’m surprised how easily it slides through this site’s backdoor.

  8. Big Bad Booty Stepdaddy says:

    decades later we would see the ultimate culmination of all of karate’s influence on the wrestling industry.

    The WWF’s Karate Fighters Tournament

  9. Doc 902714 says:

    “I’m turning Japanese, I’m turning Japanese….I really think so”

  10. Ray G says:

    I would like to thank you for doing the math to figure out how much a million is worth in today’s money. Saved me from having to find a calculator.

  11. diogenesNY says:

    “Frankly, I’ve seen better martial arts technique on Are You Being Served?”

    Art, you are my favorite person today.

leave a comment