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Observing the Great Kazushi Sakuraba (and other stories)

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James Law, Metamoris

At the Hyatt in Long Beach this past weekend, the legends were everywhere. When on Saturday night a bellhop at the hotel fell into a discussion with an itinerant pack of Metamoris types, all heading to the Hooters across the street to watch the UFC card, he mentioned that he heard that Renzo Gracie had been around earlier in the day. One of the gang, which included a man known as "Nick the Tooth" and another they called "Vinny," stopped in his tracks.

"Renzo Gracie? He’s good, but do you know who this is?" the man said, pointing to a figure in the entourage. "This is Renato Laranja…" The figure in question, Laranja, lifted an eyebrow dramatically. "He’s the greatest jiu-jitsu player the world has known."

"Really," the bellhop said, looking over Laranja a little suspiciously. "Like, better than B.J. Penn?"

"Better than B.J. Penn? This man is a 27-time world champion, the most decorated jiu-jitsu practitioner in the world. He’s better than Penn, he’s way better than Penn. He’s better than the Gracies, better than anybody. He’s jiu-jitsu royalty. Look it up."

"Wow, I will," the bellhop said. "What’s his name again?"

"Laranja," the man said, feigning incredulity at the bellhop’s innocence. "Renato Laranja."

Just as quick, the group was gone. What the bellhop couldn’t have known was that there were actual legends in his peripheral vision, if only he had an ability to see, the kind that don’t just exist in the imagination. Renzo, who would be buying shots for anybody who wanted them later on, was just inside. Ralek and Rorion were around -- John Danaher, Firas Zahabi, Eddie Bravo and Rory MacDonald.

Over yon was Jake Shields.

And off to the side, between the Long Beach Convention Center and the hotel, there was a tiny orange glow that would appear out of the dark ever so often. No sound came from that direction; just a perfect stillness. And the orange glow. That was Sakuraba. He was having a cigarette.

With his matinee grappling match against Renzo at Metamoris 5 in the books, he was grabbing one last smoke before heading back to LAX to board a plane for Japan, back to the land where he is an icon, back to the land from which he rarely (almost never) emerges.

Sakuraba. Now, you want to talk about legends.


Up close

I got my first good glimpse of the Great Kazushi Sakuraba in the flesh the day before at the rules meeting. Sage and Ralek Gracie were running down the basics, encouraging aggression, and Saku sat in the front row with his training partner Sasaki. His English is a shambles, of course; there was no way he understood what he was hearing. But his friend, Mak Takano, the actor/trainer who lives in Los Angeles, would occasionally translate the vital bits.

From my seat in the back of the room, Sakuraba -- the man who stood in against every headhunting rope-veined sacrilegious monstrosity to ever work the Pride circuit, looked completely unimposing. One might even say dainty by fight standards. He took in what he could of the calls for maximized aggression. He nodded at one point when Ralek casually brushed by the issue of weight as a total non-factor. Weigh what you want, but the important thing was to work for those submissions.

Sakuraba knows all about those submissions. He not only submitted Renzo 14 years ago via Kimura, but he broke Renzo’s arm in the process. That’s why we’re all gathered in a room at the Hotel Maya on a sunny Friday afternoon…because Renzo refused to tap and Sakuraba for a long time was clearing the earth of Gracies. And not just Gracies. Sakuraba choked out Rampage Jackson, scored a kneebar on Carlos Newton and almost took home Kevin Randleman’s arm as a souvenir. That was before Wanderlei Silva happened.

Then he got old. He started getting punched a hell of a lot more. Sometimes he would get back up. Sometimes he wouldn’t.

Now Sakuraba’s 45. He left a lot of neurons in the Pride ring. Just how many of his golden years were swept up by a push broom nobody can know for sure. But that sort of gallantry, teetering between amazing and wince-worthy, is the hallmark of the original "Gracie Killer."

In his last victory in mixed martial arts, five years ago against Zelg Galesic in Dream, the two great truths of Sakuraba -- the things that made him a legend in Japan -- came colliding across the TV screen all at once. Sakuraba, the wrestler of both the fictitious and amateur realms, shot for a single leg. Galesic hit him once, twice, something like a thousand times. He boxed his ears, by then so plagued by cauliflower that one of them would sometimes fall off.

Sakuraba was getting hit with seismic rights, and the inclination to turtle up didn’t belong to him alone, but to everyone watching. Bludgeoning hammerfists, soul-splitting shots to the temple, on the ears, all about the head…he was getting smashed into a trail of broken remains. The referee reluctantly moved in for a mercy stoppage. Sakuraba’s head, the thing of so much abuse and wonder, was bouncing off the canvas.

For God’s sake, Sakuraba, no more.

Yet all of a sudden he grabbed a foot, rolled and torqued the Croatian’s knee all at once, and in a split moment he was victorious. Boom.

Sakuraba, a dead man walking. No. Sakuraba, with his arm raised. These things mesh together so easily. It was like the fights in Japan themselves. Hard to separate fact from fiction, the Yakuza from the ordinary people with tattoos. Sakuraba, the pro wrestler, the man of masks and grand entrance who sold Japan on MMA, to Sakuraba, the man who hung around too long, the man who lost four straight bouts to close out his MMA career. One of them came against Ralek.

The very same Ralek who is now telling the assembled about being disqualified if you intentionally throw somebody off the Metamoris apron. "Unless it’s like a ninja roll or something," he says.

Sakuraba nods. He has no idea what Ralek is talking about.

Man and Myth

Sakuraba’s cauliflower ear is mostly a clump of Silly Putty. When the rules meeting finishes, he bolts outside for a quick smoke. When he comes back I get to see those ears up close. You can’t tell that the left one has been reconnected after the unfortunate Marius Zaromskis encounter, when the ear came off its moorings and left a blood stem. He’s all put back together. And at last I get to speak to the Great Sakuraba, who has only competed once in the States, and that was back in 2007 when he rematched Royce Gracie.

Otherwise he’s spent his entire career, nearly 50 pro MMA fights, in Japan. In 2014, he remains a novelty in the western world.

The first thing I ask him about is spanking the late Ryan Gracie back at Pride 12 in Saitama. Even for Sakuraba, one of MMA’s original entertainers, that seemed extra playful -- like the time Jason Miller gave C.B. Dollaway a noogie.

"I didn’t do it for fun," Sakuraba says through his translator, Takano. "It was actually a technical thing. I was hitting a nerve on the butt cheek so I could numb the leg."

He doesn’t laugh at this. He was genuinely spanking Ryan Gracie to take the feeling out of Carlos Gracie’s grandson’s leg, or he is the world’s hardest to detect troll. This sets up a series of questions that he ponders through the translation, only to give rapid answers.

Is there an allure to competing against Renzo again, for the chance to break his other arm?

"I don’t have any real reason that I am fighting Renzo again," he says.

This is your first time coming back to the States, what’s that like?

"I am happy about coming back," he says.

I know that Metamoris -- which is Gracie-run -- has been trying to get you to compete for a long time. Why now?

"They had a person before, but the timing was bad," he says, after a long introspective search within himself for that particular answer. "This time it worked out well."

On being the so-called "Gracie Killer," and whether that handle is still apt.

"After that, I have lost to them, so it is a give and take situation."

Just when it seems certain that Sakuraba -- who wasn’t above depantsing competitors or smiling after a volley of punches to his face during his heyday -- has become a man of few syllables, he opens up. When recalling his epic 90-minute match with Royce Gracie in the Pride 2000 Grand Prix, he smiles fondly at the memory. His face brightens up. Sakuraba was a gamer, boy. Back then he’d fight whoever, whenever, and under any set of reasonable rules you could dream up.

With Royce, it was under a special set of rules that called for unlimited rounds and no referee stoppages…just people battling to the death, the Gracie way. This thought warmed Sakuraba to remember, on the eve of taking on yet another Gracie under a different set of restrictions.

"I’m not concerned about the fact that Metamoris is associated with any organization, in this case the Gracies, because of the fact that it is an event where there are rules -- whether it is jiu-jitsu, or wrestling, whatever it may be -- there are certain rules and certain aspects of the fighting," he says, now making eye contact. "That is what I am here for. That is what I have done in the past for them. I don’t think that in depth; I just try to go out there and do the best that I can do."

Sakuraba is smiling now. It could be that the nicotine is finally reporting, or it could be that the memory of doing an hour-and-a-half of battle with a legend like Royce (back when Royce was Royce) still thrums the heartstrings.

That same night in 2000, after Royce’s corner threw in the towel, Sakuraba somehow gathered his legs under him and walked back out to face Igor Vovchanchyn, a Ukranian anvil who needed only ten minutes and change to dispose of Gary Goodridge in the opening round.

Here, remembering the situation, Sakuraba shows a little bit of his trademark stoicism.

"I knew it was a tournament," he says. "That’s what I signed up for. I meant to be ready to go out there and do my best. As you saw, I knew I didn’t have anymore left in me. So that’s why I told my corner guys, look, this is it for me. I am done. I knew I was at my limit."

Every man has to know his limits, and for Sakuraba it took a measly 105 minutes of cage time to find his breaking point. Four full title fights by UFC standards, plus a round. That was the only loss Sakuraba suffered in a five-year stretch, which included a TKO of Guy Mezger, a dominant unanimous decision over Vitor Belfort, plus the beginning of his Gracie casualty count.

He used the Japanese Kimura to beat the Brazilian Royler Gracie in Tokyo, and he did it again to Renzo. And of all those fights the toughest he remembers wasn’t a Gracie at all, but old Allan Goes, who battled him to a draw at Pride 4 in fall 1998.

"Allen Goes was very, very tough," he says. "It was right in the beginning when we fought. It was really hard for me to get him off his game."

Through it all, Sakuraba was an entertainer. The fans loved him. He walked out in masks to grand entrances, and seemed to delight in getting smashed in the nose. There was nothing he couldn’t do, and his name soon became a verb in the Urban Dictionary: "To beat the snot out of a respected athlete, with pizzazz. This may also be used for defeating anyone who was considered to be unbeatable, and doing so with an unorthodox style."

Entertaining the Japanese fans, and making Pride into a destination for MMA throughout the aughts, was what Sakuraba did. He was like Elvis, Rocky and Yojimbo rolled into one and stuffed in tight orange shorts. 

"I wanted to entertain people," he says. "Because that is what it is all about. Coming up from pro-wrestling to MMA… that’s why they used to do it in pro-wrestling.. to entertain people. So I wanted to bring that element to MMA for the fans. Because they are the ones who paying for tickets to watch the fights."

'[My father] had cancer that was spreading throughout his body. He was lying down in bed in the ICU and he had a button to call the nurse if he needed anything or if he was in pain. But I remember that he never pushed that button once.' - Sakuraba


Though the thought of it may have you making a crucifix with your fingers, Sakuraba -- who still works in pro wrestling -- says he’s not necessarily done competing in MMA, either. If an offer came to him, he’d consider it. The problem is that not many people covet a 45-year old fighter with a pack-a-day habit and an ability to put away some booze, and he knows it. He mentions all of this casually.

But even as nears the half-century mark in years, Sakuraba is still freaking willing. He says there is chronic pain from the beatings, from the training, from the performances. He knows his head's taken some beatings, too, but he doesn't stutter. I ask him where he gets his toughness. If it’s a trait that he can trace back to his family.

"I didn’t really see any traits as far as toughness from my family or anything like that," he says. "One thing I really noticed as I aged was… two years ago my father died of cancer. When he was in the hospital, because he had cancer that was spreading throughout his body, he was lying down in bed in the ICU and he had a button to call the nurse if he needed anything or if he was in pain.

"But I remember that my father never pushed that button once. I felt that, wow, that is toughness from inside. Those are some of the things I started to notice from my father which I never did in the past when I was younger. But I think that is another aspect of toughness as a person."

For some reason, it hadn’t registered that Sakuraba had come from something as ordinary as a family. It feels like he one day just materialized and took Japan by storm -- just part of the omnipresent Kami range. Now he’s talking about his dying father.

I asked him if his dad liked the idea of him being a fighter.

"I never talked to him about that, so I don’t know," he says.

That hangs in the air. But not for long.

"I am tough," he says. "I work all the time. I have a pro-wrestling tour when I get back. I do watch some fights. I was recently watching K-1, Mark Hunt versus [Jerome] Le Banner and it was just really exciting because they are hitting the hell out of each other and Le Banner was sticking his chin out to kind of make fun of Hunt and Hunt just knocked him out. So that was an interesting fight to watch."

Here he laughs. A good forward-leaning gut laugh, because now he’s having fun.

"Recently I watched this one guy on the pro-wrestling circuit in Japan who does a flying head butt. I took to watching that on YouTube because that is so funny. He gets all the way on the top row and dives at the opponent. It’s not diving into the ring, it’s diving with the opposing guy outside of the ring. It’s quite a distance. That’s amazing."

He laughs and laughs.

"I like to drink, so I will probably drink after this," he says, making a tilting pint motion. "Once in awhile I like to drink beer and watch my old fights and see what I did technically."

Sakuraba may be an aging rock star, but he remains just that -- a rock star.

Myth and Man

Twenty minutes is a long time to go without a cigarette break, but that’s what Sakuraba does at the Long Beach Convention Center on a warm Saturday afternoon. He and Renzo cancel each other out for 20 long minutes of grappling at Metamoris 5 -- the last half of which Sakuraba spends pivoting on his back, keeping his limbs close. Neither man can be submitted.

It’s not the most glorious spectacle, but it’s a lot of history being run through those rash guards. There’s Renzo, who some within the new generation believe his last name to be "Academy," defying odds at 47 years old. Then there’s Sakuraba, the man who broke his arm over a decade ago, who for a few great years personally competing with the UFC by holding Japan rapt with his ability to fight and his antics.

The Japanese icon holds his own.

At some point during the bout, a masked Sakuraba superfan, sitting in the front row since the opening bout three hours earlier and decked out in orange, a Saku championship belt draped over his shoulder, shouts out in the cathedral quiet, "Sakuraba!" And later on, "Sakuraba, the Gracie Killer!" He then looks at Rorion Gracie (who is a Gracie), and Josh Barnett (who idolizes Sakuraba), and Ed O’Neill (who keeps asking Rorion who in the hell the masked man is), all of whom are sitting nearby, and bows repeatedly as if to say he meant it with the utmost respect.

There’s a chuckle. Laranja, the 27-time world champion who is sitting right next to him, stands up and gives the Saku fan the business. It’s all in fun. Sakuraba inspires a bit of fun. He’s always been good at combining serious business with light-heartedness, fact and fiction, the amazing and the wince-worthy. Even when you know this to be true, it’s a hell of a thing to observe up close.