Competing for the first time since 2011, the all-time great lost in lopsided fashion to Shinya Aoki, wilting under a first-round assault from the ONE lightweight champion in the main event of Tuesday's debut in Saitama, Japan.
Sakuraba, 46, was never once in the fight. Aoki (39-6, 1 NC) secured an early takedown, moved swiftly into mount, then began raining down a relentless procession of punches upon the catch wrestler. Sakuraba (26-17-1, 2 NC) looked to survive as long as he could, giving up his back and continually attempting to buck Aoki off, but it was too much. Aoki never let up with his strikes, and the contest was ultimately called off late into its 10-minute opening round.
The seemingly unnecessary torching of a legend marred what was otherwise a tremendously entertaining debut event for former Pride FC boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara's new baby. And aside from the two headliners, the night's next most well-known competitor held up his end of the bargain, as Bellator contender Muhammed Lawal (17-4, 1 NC) rode a vintage performance to a victory over BAMMA's Brett McDermott (5-3), stopping the former Rugby player with a salvo of right hands late in the first round.
Wearing his old-school wrestling shoes, "King Mo" first softened McDermott up, scoring four takedowns including a monstrous slam, followed by a steady stream of hard punches from top position. Lawal then finished the Brit standing with four successive right hands to the temple, advancing into the Jan. 31 semifinals of Rizin's heavyweight tournament.
There Lawal will meet Teodoras Aukstuolis (8-2), a 24-year-old Lithuanian who ran through Bruno Cappelozza (7-4) in the opening round of his quarterfinal match-up. Aukstuolis briefly dropped Cappelozza with a left hand early, then finished him with a gorgeous sequence that saw Aukstuolis catch a body kick, then crush Cappelozza with a wicked right hand over the top, which instantly melted the Brazilian through the ropes.
On the other side of the bracket, Russia prospect Vadim Nemkov (5-0) sent a message loud and clear to the rest of the tourney field, destroying former UFC fighter Goran Reljic (15-6) with a highlight-reel knockout in the opening frame. Nemkov was never once in trouble, and he punched his ticket to the semifinals with a blistering left-right combination that sent Reljic tumbling into the ropes. A few follow-up shots, including a soccer kick, was all it took to secure the stoppage.
The Russian will have his work cut out for him on New Year's Eve, as he'll take on highly touted Czech prospect Jiri Prochazka (15-2-1), who put on a striking clinic in a one-round romp over gold-medalist judoka Satoshi Ishii (14-5-1). Prochazka's athleticism was clear from the get-go. The six-foot-four finisher swarmed Ishii with a dizzying array of strikes, ultimately sending his foe home with a head kick followed by a massive right hand, plus a grounded knee to the head for good measure.
In notable early action, M-1's Anatoly Tokov (22-1) proved once again why he is a major prospect to watch in the middleweight division, starching Bellator fighter A.J. Matthews (8-4) with a ferocious right straight early in the first round. The performance pushed Tokov's current win streak to 15 straight, 11 of which the 25-year-old Russian has ended via stoppage.
Fellow Bellator fighter Hideo Tokoro (33-28) survived the early onslaught of Kizaemon Saiga (2-1), taking the kickboxing convert to the mat, then drowning him under a chain grappling clinic to seize a first-round submission win. Saiga found some success on the feet early, but once the fight hit the canvas, it was all Tokoro. The end came with a textbook transition from back control to a slick armbar, giving Tokoro the victory late in the opening frame.
At the age of 45, old-school favorite Tsuyoshi Kohsaka (29-18-2) emerged from a near-decade layoff to earn a second-round standing TKO over Bellator heavyweight James Thompson (20-16, 1 NC) with a furious rally of rights and lefts. Kohsaka nearly ended the fight twice in the opening stanza with punches and knees from Thompson's back, then finished the job against his exhausted foe at 1:58 of the second, securing his first victory since Feb. 2006.
Kirill "Baby Fedor" Sidelnikov (8-4) continued the night's comeback theme, decimating Carlos Toyota (6-8-1) with a swarm of punches to pick up a win in his first fight since 2010. The Russian heavyweight put Toyota down with a powerful left hook along the ropes, then unloaded with strikes until Toyota was left defenseless on the mat. The official time of the finish came at 2:33 of the opening round.