The original Japanese-based Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) was a Japanese professional wrestling promotion from 1984 to 1986, formed by wrestlers who had left New Japan Pro Wrestling. It was a pioneer in the shoot-style of pro-wrestling, which emphasized realistic moves. It was revived as the Newborn UWF in 1988. Newborn UWF lasted until 1990. It was revived again in 1991 as UWF International (UWF International or UWFi), which in turn lasted until 1996.
The original roster included Rusher Kimura, Akira Maeda, Ryuma Go, Mach Hayato, and Gran Hamada. Soon, however, they were joined by Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Nobuhiko Takada, Satoru Sayama (the original Tiger Mask) and Kazuo Yamazaki, and this changed the orientation of the UWF's wrestling from the traditional style to a more martial arts oriented style. Maeda, Fujiwara, Takada, Sayama and Yamazaki had been martial artists before joining New Japan Pro Wrestling, and they began incorporating realistic moves, including submission holds and kickboxing-style kicks, which created a new form of wrestling called shoot-style. Kimura, Go, and Hamada, unable to cope with the new style, decided to leave and join All Japan Pro Wrestling instead.
In 1984 another former New Japan wrestler, Osamu Kido, who had trained under Karl Gotch, joined the UWF. But just as the promotion fledged, Maeda and Sayama, the top two stars, began bickering with each other over the shoot-style's essence. Maeda wanted to focus the matches on submissions, while Sayama, a former kickboxer, wanted to focus on kicks. This came to a head in a brutal match in late 1985 when Maeda did not pull a kick and instead kicked Sayama hard in the groin, causing a disqualification.
Sayama, embittered with wrestling after this match, left the UWF and was not heard from again in the wrestling world for 11 years. The promotion dissolved and the rest of the roster went back to New Japan where they formed a stable and feuded with New Japan's top stars of the era in an "invasion" angle, which later inspired WCW's nWo.
Most of the original UWF roster left New Japan yet again in 1988 to reform the UWF as the Newborn UWF. After Akira Maeda was suspended without pay and eventually dismissed from New Japan for intentionally shooting on Riki Chōshū, Takada, Yamazaki, Yoji Anjo, and rookie Tatsuo Nakano agreed to leave the promotion in February 1988. The Newborn UWF actually started in March, with a superb card that set the standard for shoot-style wrestling to follow. Because clean finishes (as in, submissions or knockouts in the middle of the ring) were used, so the fans could see clear-cut winners and losers, it was more accepted as "real fighting" than New Japan or All Japan, which at the time were still using the American-originated standard of countouts and disqualifications.
Shortly after the death of Japanese Emperor Hirohito in early 1989, Maeda held a meeting with New Japan promoter Antonio Inoki, in which they agreed that Fujiwara, who had remained in New Japan but now wanted out, would be allowed to rejoin the UWF and bring two of his disciples, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, with him. That year also saw the debut of Kiyoshi Tamura, who is still recognized as one of the eminent shoot-style pro-wrestlers in Japan.
1990 saw many ups and downs in the short story of the Universal Wrestling Federation. Future stars Masahito Kakihara and Yusuke Fuke debuted, and a new rulebook was devised in which the first person to score 5 knockdowns (in which the opponent could not get back up at once, similar to boxing knockout attempts) would win, giving the 5-knockdown situation the same weight as a submission. Shinji Jin, a non-wrestler who had taken over for Maeda as promotion president the previous year, wanted to co-promote with other federations and styles, particularly SWS and Hamada's Universal Lucha Libre, but Maeda, resenting other forms of professional wrestling from his New Japan days, decided to put the idea off. This, and the general Japanese economic downturn of the era, prompted UWF to close its doors with a farewell card on December 1, 1990, in Matsumoto, Nagano.
The UWF wrestlers thus went their separate ways. Most of the roster (Takada, Yamazaki, Anjo, Nakano, Tamura, Kakihara, and Shigeo Miyato) founded UWF International, while Fujiwara, Funaki, Suzuki and Fuke founded Fujiwara Gumi, which made Jin's co-promoting idea into reality. As for Maeda, he, some rookies from the former UWF dojo, and foreign fighters Chris Dolman and Dirk Vrij founded Fighting Network RINGS, which would dedicate itself to pure shoot-style wrestling without actually billing itself as wrestling.
As the only form of wrestling to actually originate in Japan, the UWF was a pioneer. Although its roots were Antonio Inoki's wrestling style (in fact, Maeda, Sayama and Takada credit Inoki as their inspiration to become wrestlers), UWF made wrestling realistic and forced other promotions to follow. In fact, All Japan starting in 1989 abandoned countout and disqualification finishes, which enabled its Triple Crown championship to arise.
The UWF's wrestling style has made inroads in its root promotion, New Japan, where natives Yuji Nagata, Koji Kanemoto, and Katsuyori Shibata use UWF-style kicks despite having never competed in a shoot-style promotion as their peers Minoru Tanaka, Masayuki Naruse, and Kakihara (who joined New Japan in the early 2000s) have. Other natives who turned to martial arts fighting such as Tadao Yasuda, Kazuyuki Fujita and Kendo Ka Shin also have UWF inspiration. Above all, however, UWF made it possible for mixed-martial arts circuits to exist and be viable.