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Ten years after Pride FC’s final show, Nobuyuki Sakakibara looks back on what was, what is, and what could have been

Susumu Nagao

For fans who go back to MMA’s so-called Dark Ages, Pride FC was a life raft in which to keep the spirit of the sport afloat. Pride was doing big shows in Japan for a decade, creating myths, turning regional figures into folklores, importing the biggest names from around the globe to its stages and exacerbating the spectator experience. Pride was pyrotechnics and million-watt bombast. It was anticipation and Lenne Hardt’s blood-curdling shrieks. There was Wanderlei Silva and Fedor Emelianenko and Cro Cop and Sakuraba, soccer kicks and brutality, the quiet awe of the Japanese fan base.

At its peak, Pride felt like it would go on forever. And yet, as of this Saturday it will have been 10 years since the final Pride show, which took place on April 8, 2007. For the 10 years that Pride flourished, we are now equidistant to its demise.

Still, to this day, the promotion lives on with a kind of cult status. To what extent were there scripts, drugs, and organized crime ties? Who knows, it all goes into the promotion’s rock & roll lore — but in the pre-Zuffa days of the UFC it’s undeniable that Pride did its part in ushering MMA into the 21st century. And because it is remembered so fondly, for all its quirks and nuttiness and overblown production, Pride’s founder Nobuyuki Sakakibara — the man who dreamed up the theatrical productions back when MMA was largely illegal in the United States — says it’s bittersweet to look back on.

“Now that I look back to the past 10 years, there’s definitely a lot of mixed emotions,” he told MMA Fighting. “There are a lot of mixed feelings. When you think about it, yes it was a long 10 years. But then again, it was a short 10 years. When you look back, there’s so much to go through and so many emotions.”

The last show, which happened at the Saitama Super Arena and was called Pride 34: Kamikaze, wasn’t the high note Sakakibara hoped to go out on. In the year leading up to the sale, Sakakibara had maintained hope that the promotion would continue on under its new ownership. The air of uncertainty hung over the festivities, yet the show played out the only way it could.

Of Pride 34’s eight bouts, five were heavyweight battles. None of the fights lasted more than 10 minutes; all were finishes. It was the show that Sokoudjou defeated Ricardo Arona, and James Thompson got his swings in against the rickety Don Frye.

“I knew that this event was going to be my last event as a producer,” Sakakibara says. “It was the 10-year anniversary for Pride FC and Dream Stage Entertainment. So I knew that was going to be the last show under the Dream Stage Entertainment banner, the last I’d produce. However, the lightweight grand prix was already confirmed for the next month in Pride, and I was pretty confident that Frank and Lorenzo and Dana would take it from there.

“For me, it was more like I accepted the fact and it felt like sending off my daughter to a new family.”

Susumu Nagao

Reflecting back on Pride’s impact in the MMA world, Sakakibara is astonished at how far it traveled overseas and into the diehard psyche. He said in 1997, he began Pride FC with modest hopes that he could appeal to the international audience, yet with tapered expectations.

“The intent of the event was definitely to reach out to the international audience,” he says. “However, at the time I had no idea that the product would influence so many people all over the world and be loved by so many — loved and accepted by so many people in the world. 

“And hearing so many fans say they miss Pride, it makes myself, the fighters involved, the staff members, everyone involved, it makes us proud. However, it also means at this point there is nothing that compares with what Pride used to be. So, I believe that I’m obligated to create something where people won’t have the nostalgia of Pride anymore, and they can live it currently. I feel like I have to create something that would live up to Pride.”

That creation is still in it infancy. Sakakibara is now the CEO of the Japan-based Rizin Fighting Federation, which began in October 2015 and will put on its next show April 16. The reception has been slow for Rizin, though it is gradually picking up steam — just like Pride did back in the day. Sakakibara says Rizin is further along heading into its seventh show than where Pride was when it was at that point.

It’s all a development. Sakakibara says he couldn’t have foreseen his involvement with Rizin — or any MMA promotion — back when he let Pride go. He thought he was done with MMA.

“I had absolutely no intention of coming back,” he says. “Obviously I had a non-compete, but it was very disheartening to see Pride just collapse. So at the time I had no plans on coming back. It was devastating for me to watch Pride fall apart.”

The enduring nostalgia for Pride is manifold. The legendary production of the shows — which cast its fighters as mythological superstars making their way to a confrontation in the squared circle — went into the cult.

“The whole big production extravaganza, it was a concept from the very beginning,” Sakakibara says. “My concept was to create a new type of live entertainment with fight content. The concept wasn’t TV first, it wasn’t a TV show — it wasn’t where the people at the live venue had to wait for TV breaks. It was a live event first, and the whole concept was how to inspire the spectators from the beginning. How to inspire the live audience from beginning to end. So the concept was closer to a play or concerts. It was live entertainment.”

Yet it was the fighters that ultimately carried Pride through the troublesome times of MMA, into the 2000s, right up to the moment it sold. Pride FC had some of the most amazing fight cards in the sport’s history, even if they took place at a time when the niche was pushing at the seams.

Pride 25: Body Blow in 2003 featured a heavyweight title fight between Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, along with Japan’s adopted son Quinton Jackson against Kevin Randleman, appearances by Sakuraba and Dan Henderson, and Anderson Silva’s flying knee to Carlos Newton. The Grand Prix 2000 was a murderers row, featuring Royce Gracie, Gary Goodridge, Mark Kerr, Igor Vovchanchyn and Mark Coleman. Pride Total Elimination 2003 featured the UFC’s Chuck Liddell, when he came over to fight Wanderlei Silva but ended up getting beaten by Jackson en-route.

So many legends of MMA spent their vital years fighting under the Pride banner, competing in tournaments, and fueling fan interest for the MMA boom in the mid-aughts.

“There’s a lot of favorite moments, and it’s hard to determine a specific one,” Sakakibara says, trying to pinpoint the highlight of that decade. “But for me, if I were to pick the most memorable moment, it would be Pride 1. It was the first mixed martial arts event to be held at the Toyko Dome, which has a huge capacity — it’s a huge baseball stadium. It was the first fight held at the Toyko Dome. Me myself, I had no experience. The team had no experience, and there was no team structure — it was the hardest event to put on for sure.”

By 2006, Sakakibara was in talks with Zuffa and other interested parties to sell Pride FC. The end was drawing near by 2007. Pride 33, featuring the big fight between Henderson and Wanderlei Silva, was held in February of that year in Las Vegas, where Zuffa was headquartered.

“I still remember the day we started negotiating with Lorenzo, it was in 2006, that’s when we started talking,” Sakakibara says. “At the time I wasn’t set to sell to Zuffa. We just started talking, and there were many other candidates who were approaching us, domestically within Japan, other international partners who wanted to continue Pride with us. It was a one-year process, but it wasn’t just with Zuffa.

“For me, that one year was a process of making the right choice. I didn’t want to kill Pride. I had no intention of killing Pride. I wanted it to go on after the sale. So it was a process of choosing the right person to inherit Pride, and figuring out what the best choice was for Pride.”

In the end, it was Zuffa that purchased Pride FC, integrated the rosters, and made the UFC the epicenter of MMA.

“Obviously I can’t disclose the specific numbers of what it sold for,” Sakakibara laughs. “But I can tell you Lorenzo valued my product enough for me to let it go. Let’s put it that way. It was enough for me to let go of my product.”

A decade later, the sport has graduated from being niche, made its way to broadcast television, into mainstream media, and into New York. It is now sanctioned in every state. The Octagon has traveled all over the globe, to new markets, and to old. It has even revisited the old stomping ground in Japan.

Sakakibara says he has stood back in awe at what the Fertittas and White have been able to accomplish in the decade since the transaction.

“It was very unfortunate that Pride didn’t continue, but what Lorenzo and Dana did — they truly love MMA,” he says. “And what they’ve done to the sport is absolutely amazing. They’ve been very good to the sport. Their contribution to the sport is massive, just how they built this sport into the sport business is amazing, and you’ve got to give them credit for that. MMA has been the biggest growing sport over the last 10 years, and I have nothing but respect for that.”

So where would MMA be if Pride had never existed? It’s a question that gives Sakakibara a sense of his old promotion’s namesake.

“Obviously there’s no accurate assumption, but the facts are when Pride was still growing, MMA was still illegal in the U.S.,” he says. “Promoters could not put on official fights in the U.S. Back in 2001, we were lobbying in California with the old company, SEG, to legalize the sport.

“So, the fact is, when the U.S. market was still illegal and dormant, Japan grew MMA. If there was no Pride, maybe the MMA in Japan couldn’t have handed the torch over to the U.S. market, because the MMA industry itself wouldn’t have been as active.”

Susumu Nagao

Ten years later, the ‘Pride Never Die’ shirts themselves have become relics of a bygone day. The Conor McGregors and Ronda Rouseys have realized the full potential of what MMA stardom can be. The Aronas and Hendersons and Cro Crops are slowing dying out. The original stars of Pride are on their last legs.

Yet there are still traces. When Emelianenko fights on June 24 at Madison Square Garden, and Bellator does its big entrance for him, the homage won’t be just for the legend himself. It’ll be for the promotion that built him, and gave him his near mythological status as the greatest heavyweight of all time.

It all goes back to that faraway, violent playground that captivated the imagination of so many. It goes back to Pride FC.

“You sit back and look at Pride, I look at it as a miraculous 10 years,” Sakakibara says. “I’m not sure how many events I put together, I think 64, I’m not quite sure, but the events I produced, over 600 fights, I believe every single one of them were amazing. That atmosphere at those events happened was because everybody had passion. The fighters had passion. They were eager to put on a show, they wanted to put on an exciting event. Everyone involved, the staff members, everyone wanted to create an amazing atmosphere.

“I believe that with everybody’s help, the passion of everybody involved, we were able to create that content and atmosphere, which I believe was a miracle. When I look back, it was a very exciting 10 years of my life. I’m very grateful that I was able to live those 10 years that Pride provided to me.”

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