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Long after his prime, Kazushi Sakuraba is in the position to save Japanese MMA

At 46 years old, Kazushi Sakuraba, Japan's all-time MMA legend, has no business in the ring. But the man who beat the Gracies and put the sport on the map in Japan is now fighting a much bigger fight, trying to save the sport he built a generation after he did so the first time.

Photo via Metamoris

It was 16 years ago next month, at the Ariake Colosseum in Tokyo, when Kazushi Sakuraba saved a declining Japanese MMA scene.

It led to a popularity peak, built on his brutalizing his body against killers that he never should have been in the ring with, that the sport has never quite seen anywhere.

Today, at the age of 46, long past the point anyone should even consider putting him back in the ring, he's being asked to save it once again.

Last week, Nobuyuki Sakakibara's Rizin Fighting Federation announced shows on Dec. 29 and Dec. 31 at the Saitama Super Arena. The main event on the first night pits Sakuraba against Shinya Aoki. It was 15 years earlier, to the month, that the newly-opened Saitama Super Arena housed its first major sports event. Pride 12 "Cold Fury" was a sold out event that saw Sakuraba beat Ryan Gracie in the main event before more than 26,000 fans.

Barely a year earlier, the Pride Fighting Championships were a money pit that seemed on the road to promotional extinction.

The UFC can do an annual show in Japan, but for fans in that fad-oriented country, MMA is remembered along with K-1 kickboxing for network prime time spectaculars that faded in popularity years ago. The only way it can be revived is with a Japanese super promotion that airs on network television with celebrity fighters. And with most of the top fighters in UFC, the odds of success aren't big.

But promoter Nobuyuki Sakakibara, who headed Pride during its heyday, when people like Sakuraba, Fedor Emelianenko, Hidehiko Yoshida and Mirko Cro Cop were the big stars, was able to get a network television deal for his first shows, something UFC has been unable to get in nearly a decade of trying.

He'll be using Japanese amateur wrestling champions, kickboxers, as well as use fighters from Bellator, BAMMA, KSW, Bushido, Jungle Fight, Desert Force, Deep, Shooto, Shoot Boxing, Pancrase and Zst. They will also have a unique eight-man heavyweight tournament for $500,000, with the first round on Dec. 29, and the semifinals and finals on New Year's Eve.

To understand Sakuraba and his role in all this, you could really trace the story back to World War II, and the Japanese losing the war. The country gained a measure of self-respect back in the strangest of ways. A former sumo named Rikidozan became a pro wrestling hero by chopping down larger Americans. But by the 80s, even though three different networks were airing pro wrestling in prime time and it was a flourishing business, people started to sense the exaggerated characters and bouncing off the ropes aren't things that could happen in a real fight.

A new form of pro wrestling was created, with the idea the "holes" in the game - the fake looking stuff - would be dropped. It was built around kicks, slaps and submission holds. For whatever reason, unlike the U.S., punches were not favored by Japanese in those days when it came to fighting, perhaps due to the popularity of kicks from karate and submissions and throws from judo. The matches were no less predetermined, but at least some of the public bought this new style as the real thing.

This style directly led to the birth of what would now be called Japanese MMA, with the formation of Pancrase in 1993, less than two months before UFC debuted in the U.S. Formed by three pro wrestling stars - Minoru Suzuki, Masakatsu Funaki and Wayne Shamrock (now known as Ken Shamrock -- he went by his middle name Wayne in those days in Japan), they decided to do pro wrestling matches that were real. Pins were eliminated, and it was based on submissions, and when importing a great striker, Holland's Bas Rutten, knockouts from kicks and slaps became popular as well.

Sakuraba was a pro wrestling fan from childhood. A few years later, he became a quick and nimble 152 pound college wrestler, finishing fourth in the national championships, and even once beat an Olympic bronze medalist.

After college, he decided to join a group called UWFI. It was one of the so-called "shoot" pro wrestling companies, in the sense they tried to make it look real, but it wasn't. UWFI had become the most popular promotion of that style, built around Nobuhiko Takada, a good-looking celebrity wrestler who was proficient with kicks and throws and was a great athlete, even though he was not a top-level fighter.

Quick and muscular, Takada was fed a steady diet of Russian and American real wrestlers, both national champions and Olympians, sumos and even a former heavyweight boxing champion, Trevor Berbick. He beat them all in predetermined matches. Many in Japan at the time thought he was one of the world's greatest fighters.

While the company was riding high, selling out Budokan Hall in Tokyo regularly, a new challenge came from the outside, in the form of Rickson Gracie. Gracie, the older brother of Royce, was the real star fighter of the family. Gracie won the Vale Tudo Open, held at Budokan Hall. That both created interest in a Takada vs. Gracie match, but also made people question why Gracie's fights looked so different from Takada's. Feelers were sent to Gracie, but he wasn't interested in losing a pre-planned fight.

In late-1994, Yoji Anjo, another pro wrestler in the troupe with Takada and Sakuraba, decided to make his own break. Anjo had some charisma, but was a mid-level star. Evidently he figured he could make himself into a superstar and formulated a plan, which in hindsight, was one of the worst ideas known to mankind.

Anjo went to Gracie's Dojo in Torrance, Calif. He brought several members of the Japanese media with him. When he showed up, Gracie wasn't there. Anjo started causing a commotion, challenging Gracie to a fight.

He figured probably one of two things would happen. Perhaps nothing would happen, and he'd go to Japan with the legend of making the challenge and it wasn't accepted. Or, if they fought, he figured since he was 35 pounds heavier and a trained fighter himself, with knowledge of the submission game taught by British catch legend Billy Robinson, that he'd do just fine, as the wrestlers of that era were taught that catch was more effective than jiu-jitsu.

Unfortunately for Anjo, he didn't count on option C. Gracie was at home when Anjo showed up. Gracie was called, drove to the gym, taping his fists while in the car. Sight unseen, identity unknown (Gracie thought it was Takada), Gracie not only fought but destroyed Anjo. Worse, Anjo had a face that bruised easily, and when Gracie was done, in seven minutes of prolonged agony for Anjo, as Gracie could have choked him out much earlier but decided to make an example out of him, he looked like the elephant man.

Fans expected Takada, the star fighter, to then take up for his stablemate and have a big match to defend the honor of his company. When that didn't happen, and Takada didn't force the issue, his fans were confused. Attendance dropped at his shows, and in less than a year, the company was in a steep financial decline. The fans couldn't answer the question as to why the real toughest fighter would allow his "little brother" to be beaten up and not avenge his honor. Less than two years later, they were out of business.

By 1997, with Takada's company no more, promoters tried to put together a Takada vs. Gracie match for the Tokyo Dome. The event, on October 11, 1997, 18 years ago this week, was called the Pride Fighting Championship. They drew 37,000 fans and did 100,000 buys on pay-per-view, which doesn't sound large, but when you consider only 1.5 million homes in Japan had pay-per-view at the time, it was enormous. When Takada walked to the ring for the match, the fans went crazy, but Takada looked like he was headed for the firing squad. Gracie won handily, finishing with an armbar.

With the big success of the first show, promoters wanted to follow up. Sakuraba debuted on the second Pride show, beating former Pancrase star Vernon "Tiger" White of the Shamrock Lion's Den team. But the show drew poorly. Another show was held, bringing back Takada to Budokan Hall, with Takada getting a bought-and-paid-for-win in the main event. It drew even worse.

With no other options to draw well, they booked Gracie vs. Takada a second time at the Tokyo Dome, which drew 30,000 fans. They got their big crowd, but now had damaged Takada even worse and there seemed to be nowhere left to go.

A Japanese product needed a native star fans felt was one of the best in the world to headline. Takada was not competitive in either fight. Pride still used Takada as its big star in 1999, but was having to heavily paper the shows, and they still had the problem that Takada couldn't beat a real fighter.

At the same time, Sakuraba, weighing 183 pounds, entered a four-man UFC heavyweight tournament in Japan. In the first round, he faced Marcus "Conan" Silveira, who outweighed him by 60 pounds. John McCarthy saw the size mismatch. In what McCarthy has since labeled the worst call of his career, Sakuraba was hit with a punch, went down, and shot for a takedown and was moving forward. But McCarthy stopped it. Protests followed, and for a time, Sakuraba refused to leave the cage.

Then, in what in hindsight was almost divine intervention, in the other side of the bracket, David "Tank" Abbott broke his hand on the face of the same Anjo from the Gracie Chainsaw Massacre. Abbott won a decision and couldn't continue. An alternate fighter, Tra Telligman, was also injured. The decision was made that Sakuraba and Silveira would fight a second time as the tournament championship match. Sakuraba won over the BJJ black belt who looked twice his size, via armbar. Nobody could quite believe it.

Sakuraba became a regular on Pride undercards. He beat Carlos Newton, who later became a UFC champion, via kneebar. He defeated Vitor Belfort via a one-sided decision, and submitted Brazilian black belt Ebenzer Fontes Braga.

The real heyday of Pride was built on matches that took place on November 21, 1999, at the Ariake Colosseum, and May 1, 2000, at the Tokyo Dome. Both involved Sakuraba and the Gracies.

One could argue that neither match had any business happening.

In the first, Sakuraba was pitted against Royler Gracie. By this point it was clear to fans that Takada, while still a big name, couldn't carry the promotion. Royler Gracie was 147 pounds, much smaller than Sakuraba. But no Gracie had ever lost a fight in Japan. With the success of Rickson, Royce and Renzo Gracie, with aging father Helio by their side, legend had it that this family had been fighting for 70 years and had only lost once.

While not exactly true, nobody in Japan knew better. Sakuraba was Japan's rising star. And in this case, the promotion gave Sakuraba a size mismatch in his favor, clearly designed to make a star and build to Sakuraba facing bigger and better known Gracie family members.

Pride was still very much a struggling enterprise. Tickets for the show were selling decently at best. Sakuraba didn't have much of a name to mainstream fans, but after several failures, Japanese fans had interest in the idea of a Japanese fighter beating a Gracie.

The Gracies came to town and tried to change the rules or Royler would refuse to fight. They demanded a 30-minute fight -- Pride fights in those days were 20 minutes -- with no judges, and with the referee having no power to stop the fight. If Sakuraba failed to win, Gracie, because he was giving up nearly 40 pounds, would be declared the winner. When word of this got out, the Japanese fans turned on the Gracies and even more so, saw this demanding of special rules as an acknowledgment that they themselves feared Sakuraba could win. In those days, there were no weight classes, and it was the Gracies who had claimed in earlier years that size didn't matter. Jiu-jitsu was all about a smaller man beating a bigger man through technique.

Eventually a compromise was reached. The Gracies got the 30-minute time limit, and no judges. But if it went the time limit, the match would be ruled a draw.

Tickets started selling quickly, and Pride had its first actual sellout. More importantly, the native draw was Sakuraba, a real fighter who had long-term value as opposed to the gimmick Takada.

Sakuraba was simply too big for Royler. Royler spent much of the fight laying on his back. Sakuraba wanted to keep it standing, where he knocked Royler down early with a high kick. Sakuraba continually kicked Royler's legs and daring him to stand. Royler dared Sakuraba to come to the ground. 

While Royler was taking a terrible beating, 27 minutes had expired and it looked like he was going to stall out a draw. Sakuraba went to the ground, and grabbed a Kimura, the same move Masahiko Kimura used in his famous 1951 fight in Brazil to beat Helio Gracie. Royler's face showed incredible pain. But it was clear he was not going to tap. The ringside doctor told Rickson to throw in the towel to save his brother. He didn't. An outside referee then ordered them match stopped, which was clearly against the agreed upon rules. But the Japanese fans celebrated, as finally someone had beaten one of the Gracies, and that someone was Japanese.

The Gracies felt double-crossed, which they were. Sakuraba was an instant superstar. He became famous for his quick sense of humor, his wearing pro wrestling masks to the ring, and his creative moves like cartwheel guard passing, Mongolian chops from pro wrestling, and pulling the gi over the head of Royce Gracie in their epic battle.

And Pride Fighting Championships suddenly became the "in thing."

The Royler fight has been somewhat forgotten historically after Sakuraba's bigger win over Royce Gracie on May 1, 2000. What's forgotten is that fight should have never happened either.

Pride did a 16-man open weight tournament. American wrestlers Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr, and a Russian kickboxer named Igor Vovchanchyn were the heavy favorites. But the biggest draws were Royce Gracie, Sakuraba and Takada, with the first round on January 30, 2000, at the Tokyo Dome.

Royce Gracie beat Takada via decision. Guy Mezger, a late replacement, faced Sakuraba. The agreement was that Mezger, coming in late, would fight 15 minutes, and it would then go to the judges, but there would be no overtime.

Stylistically at the time, Mezger was a tough match for Sakuraba. His wrestling was good enough to keep it standing. And he was more experienced in striking. The fight was somewhat close, but Mezger should have won. The judges instead ruled it a draw and ordered an overtime period. Ken Shamrock, furious about the double-cross, pulled Mezger out of the ring, a controversial move because even tired, Mezger had a good shot of winning in overtime.

When he left, the officials ruled Sakuraba as the winner due to Mezger refusing to continue.

This set the stage for Sakuraba vs. Royce Gracie, which, even more than Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama or Mirko Cro Cop vs. Fedor Emelianenko, is considered the classic historical MMA fight in Japan.

Once again the Gracies demanded special rules. In this case, it was no time limit, no judges, and neither the doctor nor the referee could stop the fight. After 90 minutes, Sakuraba destroyed Gracie's leg so badly with low kicks that Helio Gracie told son Rorion to throw in the towel. The moment of the old master and proud patriarch admitting defeat by telling his son to throw in the towel became one of the most remembered moments in Japanese MMA history. Once again, Sakuraba had beaten the Gracies with their own rules.

But that wasn't it. It was a one-night eight-man tournament, and Sakuraba came back after fighting for 90 minutes, to face Vovchanchyn, a 225-pound heavyweight. Sakuraba was 174 pounds entering the ring with Gracie, probably significantly less by the end of his first fight.

Still, Sakuraba was winning the first ten minutes of the right against a heavyweight that some at the time considered the best fighter in the world. He hit the wall, however, and took a bad beating over the next five minutes. They were headed to overtime when Sakuraba's corner stopped the fight.

He fought 105 minutes in one night. That's 21 rounds in MMA, or 35 rounds in boxing. Such a thing is unlikely to ever happen again, particularly in a sport that now has largely uniform rules. Pride flourished for the next several years, packing stadiums and larger arenas around Japan. After Sakuraba lost to Wanderlei Silva, a rematch legitimately sold out the Tokyo Dome. They were doing big numbers in prime time on network television. Watching the biggest fights of the year became a New Year's Eve tradition on network television.

And for a time, Sakuraba was a national hero.

But Sakuraba, who was mostly between 180 and 190 pounds, without cutting any water weight, and in his best shape, spent most of his career fighting 225 pound monsters who would cut to make the 203.6 pound weight limit of the Pride middleweight division.

He even beat some of them, like Rampage Jackson and Kevin Randleman. But mostly, he took a series of terrible beatings against the top fighters of his era, most notably against Ricardo Arona and in three fights with Wanderlei Silva. He even fought heavyweight Cro Cop at Tokyo National Stadium before 71,000 fans, and was faring pretty well with him until Cro Cop, from his back, threw a punch that broke Sakuraba's eye socket.

His last win over a true top opponent was in 2003. In 2005, he was in one of the most brutal matches in history, with an unheralded Russian fighter named Kestutis Smirnovas. Smirnovas gave him a savage beating, in a fight that was criminal that it wasn't stopped. But in Japan, popular favorites like Sakuraba or Frye would practically have to be lying in a heap before a referee would stop it, because Japanese fans thrived on fighting spirit, the ability to never mentally quit and come back.

Miraculously, Sakuraba actually came back to win that fighter with an armbar. While the win was amazing, the reaction afterwards was not so much about the incredible come-from-behind win, but more what a sad spectacle it was for the fight to have continued. Even Sakuraba supporters, noting he was probably knocked out more than once during the fight and it continued, were saying that this was not sport.

Sakuraba last fought in 2011, suffering his fourth loss in a row, choked out with an arm triangle. Until 2010, he fought the best submission guys in the world, and while he didn't always win, nobody could make him tap.

Pride went down in 2007. Before it did, in a monumental move, Sakuraba jumped to Hero's, an MMA group from the rival K-1 organization. They wanted him to pass the torch to Yoshihiro Akiyama at the new Japanese superstar on the December 31, 2006, show, its biggest of the year. Akiyama won, but it was later overturned when footage backstage showed Akiyama had greased his lower legs heavily. Sakuraba, when shooting for his trademark low single, slipped right off his legs and immediately complained. Nobody listened, and he took a beating. Because Akiyama tried to cheat to beat Sakuraba, even with all his charisma, the guy built up to be the next big star ended up being the most hated fighter in the country for the next several years.

Then Hero's died, and Sakuraba went to Dream. Then Dream died. Sakuraba never made the money people thought he did in his heyday. Then Sakuraba's gym closed down. In recent years, Sakuraba has returned to pro wrestling, where he's very much a mid-card attraction. His hero status has faded with time. The new generation of pro wrestling fans have no idea why some of the older fans hold him in such reverence. Sakuraba's wins over four Gracies didn't only carry MMA to its most popular period. For a generation of Japanese fans who grew up with the idea the star pro wrestlers they saw were real fighters, Sakuraba was the man who saved their childhood beliefs after Takada and other pro wrestling stars got humiliated in real fights.

When MMA died on Japanese network television, Aoki, a lightweight submission ace, was its biggest remaining star. Because of the names of Sakuraba and Emelianenko, the Fuji TV network in Japan is going to broadcast at least part of the two shows.

Aoki is physically smaller than Sakuraba, and he's not a hard hitter, but more a brilliant submission fighter. In that sense the new company is trying to somewhat physically protect Sakuraba, something Pride never did. His days of beating top fighters ended more than a decade ago. As sad as this looks from the outside, bringing Sakuraba back to fight was a key in getting network interest. The nimbleness, the sense of humor, the quick low single and the masterful submissions and cartwheel guard passes are likely buried deep in history.

But just as he was a generation ago, Sakuraba is once again the key soldier in a far bigger battle.

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