Don Frye

While writing my recent post about the UFC’s Ultimate Ultimate 1996, I was sad when I realized that the event would mark the last UFC appearance of Don Frye.  In honor of his last ever UFC fight, this next edition of pro wrestling and MMA will be about Don Frye: good wrestler, great MMA fighter, best American ever.

Don Frye was one of the early MMA fighters with expertise in multiple fighting styles.  Frye wrestled collegiately at Arizona State and Oklahoma State Universities and spent time boxing professionally.  Don Frye utilized good wrestling, powerful striking, and a rock solid chin to become one of the biggest names in the UFC.

Frye went 9-1 in the UFC and 11-1 in MMA, the sole loss to Olympian and UFC star Mark Coleman.  Frye established himself as one of the top fighters in early MMA, but his gruff attitude and well groomed mustache truly turned Don Frye into a star.

At the Ultimate Ultimate 1996, Jeff Blatnick speculated that Frye would fight Dan Severn after winning his second UFC tournament.  However, Frye claimed in an interview with Sherdog that he was never offered this fight and left the UFC.  Frye surprisingly left active MMA competition in 1997.

Frye’s MMA stardom led to a contract offer from Antonio Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling organization.  As discussed in the previous article on Karl Gotch, Inoki was a martial artist in his own right who based his promotional style on realism.  Inoki heavily pushed the idea of his matches as worked shoots, or realistic competition with scripted outcomes.

If you’re trying to maintain a legitimate style of fighting in pro wrestling, there’s no better approach than hiring legitimate fighters.  NJPW was known for stars such as the Keiji Mutoh, Great Muta and Masahiro Chono, but Masayuki Naruse, Kendo Kashin, and Kazuyuki Fujita were three Japanese wrestlers with real martial arts and amateur wrestling experience.  Frye’s fighting pedigree couldn’t be matched and the American was almost immediately positioned as one of the biggest heels in NJPW.

Frye successful debuted against Fujita in August 1997 in a modified rules match resembling MMA.  Frye worked sporadically in 1997, defeating Kazuo Yamazaki and fellow UFC alum Cal Worsham in similar matches.  1998 would be Frye’s breakout year for the promotion, earning numerous accolades.

Frye defeated Igor Meindert and the legendary Naoya Ogawa in a single night and earned the opportunity to wrestle Antonio Inoki in his very last match.  Inoki, now a WWE Hall of Famer, is one of the most influential men in professional wrestling.  For the legend to choose Don Frye as his final opponent says quite a bit about the high esteem Inoki held for Frye.

Frye spent time teaming with another UFC veterans Brian Johnston and Dave Beneteau, but also had singles success against Kensuke Sasaki, Yuji Nagata, and another legend, Tatsumi Fujinami.  Frye even challenged for the IWGP Heavyweight Title on two separate occasions, failing to capture the prestigious title in fights against Muto and Sasake.

Frye’s most notable feud was perhaps against WCW wrestler and fellow gaijin star Scott “Flash” Norton.  The label “gaijin” essentially means “foreigner” in Japan and is often used to describe American wrestlers.  Hulk Hogan, Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, and Vader are all legendary gaijin wrestlers in Japan, but Norton and Frye were perhaps the most notable in NJPW at the turn of the century.

Frye’s full-time NJPW career would end in grand fashion by winning the G-1 World Grand Prix in 2001.  Frye defeated all opponents in this round robin style tournament, avenging his sole loss to Scott Norton in the finals.  Frye would make sporadic wrestling appearances through 2008, appearing in all-star tag team matches and even suffering a loss to fellow MMA competitor Josh Barnett.

Ultimately, Don Frye decided to capitalize on his professional wrestling fame by joining the Japanese MMA scene.  Frye made his MMA return to PRIDE in 2001, where he worked to rebuild his reputation as an MMA star.  During his time with the promotion, Frye was absolutely successful in cementing his legacy as one of the toughest and most exciting fighters MMA has ever known.

Frye managed to turn himself from a star into a legend in the span of two epic fights with PRIDE.  Frye would nearly face defeat at the hands of Ken Shamrock, an opponent he never faced in the UFC.  Frye was nearly successful knocking Shamrock out, but was also almost forced to submit to some nasty heel hooks (as seen above).

Frye would then face off against Yoshihiro Takayama in the following fight.  To that point, Takayama was mostly known as a professional wrestler in All Japan Pro Wrestling and NOAH.  Having spent time in the strong-style UWFi wrestling promotion, Takayama decided to try his hand in MMA.  The 6’5″ wrestler went 0-2 in his first two PRIDE fights, losing to Fujita and Dutch kickboxer Semmy Schilt.  Don Frye would be his third opponent in PRIDE, but nobody could foresee what would happen next.

Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama punched each other in the face.  A lot.  Until Takayama’s face looked like this.  This was an absolute war that is still considered by many to be one of the most brutal fights in MMA history.  In defeating Takayama in such incredible fashion, Don Frye has ensured that he will always be remembered in the annals of MMA.

Frye would never really recover from these two confrontations, going 5-7-1 with 1 no contest in his final 13 fights.  Frye would never record a substantial victory and was never able to recover his once lofty stature.  Frye’s time as a relevant MMA fighter ended not long after the Takayama fight, but he left behind an indelible mark on MMA.

Most American mixed martial arts fans might remember Don Frye his war with Takayama or his wonderfully funny “Dear Don” video series., but his contributions to both MMA and wrestling go so far beyond that.  He was truly one of the first fighters in America to utilize striking and wrestling in tandem, leading to great UFC success.

In professional wrestling, Don Frye became one of the most notable villains and feared competitors for New Japan Pro Wrestling in four short years.  Frye’s battles with Shamrock and Takayama, coming later in his MMA career, served to solidify Frye’s reputation as an all-time great.  What’s perhaps most astounding is the legendary status attained by such an unabashed American in the country of Japan, which speaks volumes about Frye’s achievements for NJPW and PRIDE.

While Frye has spent time recently doing commentary for Shark Fights and some occasional acting, he’ll always be an MMA fan favorite and the greatest American in the history of America.  Don Frye has never been fully appreciated for his contributions to MMA and wrestling over the span of more than a decade, but we all need to do our part in keeping the legacy of “The Predator” alive.  I keep a little bit of Don Frye with me every day and I know I’m a better man and a better American for that.  Now where did I put my mustache comb?

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Categories: Pro Wrestling and MMA
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