The triumphant and tragic career of Kazushi Sakuraba will likely best be remembered for May 1, 2000, when he put on a performance that will almost surely never be duplicated in MMA competition. In one night, Sakuraba became a national sports hero in Japan and the catalyst for the heyday of MMA in that country.
Sakuraba only fought twice in the UFC, both fights on the same night and against the same opponent, in winning one of the stranger tournaments in company history. But for his success in building the sport in Japan — beating seven UFC champions, most much larger than he was — Sakuraba was announced on Saturday’s UFC 212 show as the latest inductee into the UFC Hall of Fame, in the Pioneer wing.
Sakuraba will be honored on July 6 as part of International Fight Week in Las Vegas, in a class that will include previously announced inductees Urijah Faber, Maurice Smith and long-time matchmaker Joe Silva. The class will also include the induction of a fight that took place at least five years ago, which will be announced at a later date.
Sakuraba competed 17 years ago in the Tokyo Dome in what was the single greatest one-night, eight-man tournament the sport had ever seen — and still, to this day, has ever seen — before a crowd of more than 38,000 fans.
While he normally fought between 183 and 190 pounds without weight cutting, circumstances saw him show up at 174 pounds, making him the lightest man in the openweight tournament that featured some of the most powerful heavyweights of the era, including eventual winner Mark Coleman, plus Gary Goodridge, Mark Kerr, Igor Vovchanchyn and Kazuyuki Fujita. In his first round fight, Sakuraba was to face Royce Gracie in what was a major grudge match.
Pride Fighting Championships, which along with the UFC was one of the two major MMA organizations in the world, was a struggling entity early on. The promotion formed in 1997 by putting on a show at the Tokyo Dome headlined by Rickson Gracie, the older brother of Royce, against Nobuhiko Takada, a huge pro wrestling star who helped get Sakuraba started in 1993 as a pro wrestler. Sakuraba was coached by Billy Robinson, a noted catch-wrestling submission expert from England, who was one of Britain’s best amateur wrestlers and considered its best submission fighter in the late 50s and into the 60s.
Gracie beat Takada, and then did it a second time in a rematch, to the surprise of almost nobody. Takada, while looking the part and able to act the part of a great real fighter on the pro wrestling stage, was not real in the true sense of the word. But he was Pride’s biggest star, and he couldn’t beat anyone of note in a real fight. The organization bought and paid for a few wins, but crowds fell greatly when the fans realized he was not who they thought he was.
However, his protégé was every bit that and more. Sakuraba was not a major star in pro wrestling, nor did he look the part. He didn’t have the movie star looks and striking physiques of the pro wrestlers who were supposed to be the real badasses at the time, like Takada, Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki.
But Sakuraba had the MMA wrestling skills of a prime Georges St-Pierre, had become the top submission student of Robinson, plus had the comedic charisma of Forrest Griffin and the heart of Don Frye. Those skills and some unique timing combined to make him a national hero from that day forward.
The story really started on November 21, 1999, when Sakuraba faced Royler Gracie, who weighed 151 pounds. Sakuraba had proven to be the pro wrestling star who had real fighting skills by this point, with a win over former Extreme Fighting heavyweight champion Marcus “Conan” Silveira — who outweighed him by 60 pounds — former UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton, and future UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort.
The fight garnered major sports press because the Gracie family demanded rule changes or Royler would not fight. They demanded that neither the referee, nor doctor, would have the power to stop the fight. The only way Royler could lose was if he submitted, or his corner man, Rickson, threw in the towel.
The fight would be two 15-minute rounds. There would be no judges, so it if went the time limit, it would be a draw. And the Gracies noted, with Royler being about 40 pounds lighter, that if it was a draw, Royler would really be the winner. While not exactly true, the history that the Gracies were touting at the time, and that the Japanese believed, was that no member of the Gracie family had lost a fight since Masahiko Kimura, the Japanese judo legend, used a double wristlock, later known as a Kimura, to defeat Helio Gracie at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil some 48 years earlier.
All of the media controversy led to the Japanese fans, who loved the Gracies a few years earlier, to hate them and want Sakuraba to beat them. Sakuraba kept the fight standing and destroyed Gracie. Gracie dropped to his back, where Sakuraba kicked his legs to death. But no matter how much punishment Gracie took, he was never close to quitting. Time was running out as the fight had passed the 28:00 mark. A draw, because of Sakuraba’s size edge, would be viewed universally as a failure.
Finally, Sakuraba went to the ground and locked on a Kimura, the very same move that Masahiko Kimura had used to submit Royler’s father. Sakuraba had him. Royler was not going to submit. The doctor implored Rickson to throw in the towel. He wouldn’t do so. Royler was screaming in pain, but still not submitting. Sakuraba cranked the move one more time, and the referee stopped the fight, which was the only humane thing to do. But it was against the agreed upon rules.
The Gracies protested, noting the stoppage was against the rules and that Royler only needed to last another 84 seconds for the draw. They claimed Sakuraba was not a real warrior. They claimed the fight proved Sakuraba had no knockout power and claimed he was afraid to fight Royler on the ground. That version ignored that Sakuraba was destroying Royler standing and Royler laid on his back, with no defense while his legs got kicked to death, rather than stand back up. And it also ignored that when Sakuraba finally did go to the ground, he instantly locked on the Kimura.
Royce Gracie, who had won three Ultimate Fighting tournaments, had come out of retirement and defeated Takada three months earlier. Royce was representing his family. Sakuraba was represented his dojo, and really the world of Japanese pro wrestling. Even though it was an eight-man tournament, the Gracies once again demanded, this time even stronger, that the fight could only end via submission or the corner throwing in the towel, and Royce insisted on no time limit.
The agreement was they would be 15-minute rounds until there was a finish. Until the demands, the belief was Sakuraba would win the fight. He was the better striker and the better wrestler. Really, by that time, his submission game had passed that of Royce as well. But no time limit changed the game, as Royce had never lost in MMA competition and was durable. Even though the tournament was to start on a Monday afternoon, which was part of a holiday week in Japan, because of the no time limit rules, the building and those working in the building were told that the show could last until 9 a.m. Tuesday morning. At that point it would have to be stopped because that was the latest they could clean up and get ready for a baseball game the next day.
Sakuraba came out with orange hair. The crowd that night hated Gracie. Sakuraba was better at striking, but Gracie was more aggressive as Sakuraba outplayed Gracie in his own game, letting him burn himself out. Sakuraba clowned around, including pulling down Gracie’s pants, pulling Gracie’s gi over his face like in a hockey fight, and using Mongolian chops, a pro wrestling maneuver that entertained the crowd but were of no real value in a legitimate fight. At one point, Sakuraba even teased doing a piledriver. Sakuraba nearly had a kneebar just as the first round ended.
The second and third rounds were slow, with Sakuraba again pulling Gracie’s pants down. Gracie worked for a choke at one point.
By today’s standard, the fight would have been considered boring, but given the names and stakes involved, the crowd was enthralled. After the third round, meaning the fight had gone 45 minutes, the crowd recognized that they were spectators at an event that would go down in history. Sakuraba opened up a cut above Gracie’s eye. Sakuraba used leg kicks throughout the fight. When the fifth round started, one hour into the battle, Sakuraba stopped conserving energy, sensing Gracie was tiring, and got more aggressive with his attack.
At the 67:00 mark, Sakuraba started landing a number of punches. At the 74:00 mark, for the first time, Gracie seemed to be in serious trouble, but survived until the end of the round.
In the sixth round, Sakuraba bloodied Gracie’s mouth and knocked Gracie down. He then scored another knockdown. At this point Gracie was just taking punishment and there was fear that all the leg kicks may have broken his leg. At the 87:00 mark, Rorion Gracie, Royce’s older brother, grabbed the towel to throw it in. But Helio Gracie, his father, refused to allow Rorion to throw in the towel, and Royce refused to quit. Finally, at the 90:00 mark, seeing the condition his son was in with the possible broken leg, Helio told Rorion to throw in the towel.
That alone would have made a career in one night. But in many ways, something more impressive was to come. Sakuraba had about 90 minutes to rest, and then would have to face Vovchanchyn, the tournament co-favorite, in the second round.
Vovchanchyn was 225 pounds, 51 pounds heavier than Sakuraba, if not more. Nobody knows how much weight Sakuraba lost in that 90-minute fight. Vovchanchyn had fought before Sakuraba, winning in ten minutes, and had well over three hours rest. He was 42-2 at the time, unbeaten in his last 38 fights over five years. At the time, the debate was whether Vovchanchyn or Mark Kerr, also in the tournament, was the No. 1 heavyweight in the world.
Few believed Sakuraba would come out for another fight. Not only did he, but he scored multiple takedowns and was clearly winning the first 11 minutes of the fight.
About 90 seconds later, Sakuraba was done. After 102 ½ minutes of fighting, his body shut down due to exhaustion. Still, he survived the last three-and-a-half minutes of taking a real beating and hanging on as the 15 minute round ended. Because he had dominated most of the fight, the judges ruled it a draw and ordered an overtime round. At that point, Sakuraba’s corner stopped the fight. While most remember the Gracie fight, it was the Vovchanchyn fight that was, in reality, the far more impressive performance.
Sakuraba and Pride became huge that night. Sakuraba followed with wins over Renzo Gracie (via Kimura, dislocating Gracie’s elbow) and Ryan Gracie via decision. After a loss to Wanderlei Silva, the rematch against Silva, with Sakuraba going for revenge and not getting it, was the first MMA sellout at the Tokyo Dome with 53,000 fans.
“When I was told about being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame, my first reaction was surprise,” said Sakuraba, who was just informed of his induction in the past few days. “I stepped into the Octagon 20 years ago at UFC’s Ultimate Japan tournament and I never could have dreamed at that time that one day I would be invited to join the other legends in the Hall of Fame. That was an important fight for me as it was my very first entry into MMA fighting. I continued to fight on a square battlefield — a white canvas mat supported by ropes — and you could say that is where I built my career. But it has always been my mission not only to become the best, but to show the world the excitement and glory of MMA.”
On August 28, 2002, Sakuraba, who by today’s standards would probably be a lightweight or small welterweight, fought Mirko Cro Cop, the most dangerous heavyweight striker of that era. That fight, held outdoors at Tokyo National Stadium, still holds the MMA attendance record with 71,000 fans. Sakuraba was able to take down Cro Cop, something the best heavyweight wrestlers in the sport couldn’t do. But Cro Cop, punching from his back, broke Sakuraba’s orbital bone and the fight was stopped after the second round.
The reality is that being the company’s flagship star led to destroying Sakuraba, who fought for another 13 years, ending his career with a 26-17-1 record with two no contests.
For most of his career, at between 180 and 190 pounds without any weight cutting, Sakuraba was mostly facing 220 pounders who cut to make 205. In some cases, he faced full-fledged heavyweight champions like Cro Cop, Ken Shamrock, Kevin Randleman and Silveira. He finished the latter three, Shamrock via knockout and Randleman and Silveira via submission.
He also submitted Newton and future UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, plus won a one-sided decision over Belfort.
His only fights inside the UFC were in a tournament on December 21, 1997, at the Yokohama Arena. He was a late replacement in a four-man heavyweight tournament. He claimed to be 203 pounds, but was really 20 pounds lighter. Because it was a heavyweight tournament and it was still in the early days of MMA, there was no need to weigh-in, so they didn’t actually conduct one. Silveira who weighed 243, was the first champion of the Extreme Fighting Championship, a group that was UFC’s biggest domestic rival a few years earlier that had gone out of business. The tournament was put together for a Conan vs. Tank Abbott finale.
Conan landed a punch that dropped Sakuraba, and John McCarthy, perhaps due to the ridiculous size difference, stopped the fight, even though Sakuraba was moving forward and attempting a takedown after being dropped. McCarthy on many occasions has said it was the worst call of his career, and he overruled himself later. When Abbott suffered a broken hand in a win, Sakuraba and Silveira were brought back for the tournament championship and Sakuraba won with a first-round armbar.
But he took some horrible beatings in three losses to Silva, a brutal loss to Ricardo Arona where he took far too many knees to the head on the ground and soccer kicks, and in a win over Kestutis Smirnovas, where he was knocked out at least twice and came back to win via armbar. The referee allowing Sakuraba to continue after being knocked out against Smirnovas was very controversial at the time, and today it would be viewed even worse.
In those days, while the officials treated the fighters like celebrities outside the ring, in the ring there was no compassion, particularly for favorites like Sakuraba and Frye. The officials and fans loved that those fighters would never give up, so the officials would allow them to take horrible beatings without stopping the fights, with the idea that they could possibly come back from those beatings and win. It was a short-sighted view.
In those days, the referees very much protected the star fighters and were there to give them every chance to win. But in doing so, they destroyed what they were there to protect.
Signs of Sakuraba fading were evident as early as 2003, when he was knocked out by Nino Schembri, who was not expected to be real competition for him. He was still beating name fighters as late as 2005, but fought another decade as a shell of himself.
Sakuraba as a college wrestler competed at 149 pounds. He did everything in his power to gain weight, because he was considered too small for pro wrestling when he first went into that world after college. The punishment he took in both his losses and his wins against far bigger opponents left him as a shot fighter within a few years. But as a major drawing card, the goal was to put him on the card whenever there was a big show. Then, as Japanese MMA started fading, he was brought back constantly to help stave off the death, and again in 2015, when Rizin debuted, to play a part in its attempted resurrection.
In high school wrestling, Sakuraba took second in nationals, and in college, he placed fourth in the nation as a senior and once beat Olympic bronze medalist Takuya Ota.
He started as a pro wrestler in 1993. By 1996, in a legitimate fight, he won a mixed rules match over Rene Rooze, one of the world’s beat heavyweight kickboxers, winning via submission.
“I gave everything I could in the gym, to perfect myself and my technique, so that I could give the fans a spectacle they deserved,” he said. “With that belief in my head, that it was my purpose in life, I’ve never stopped pushing the limits of what I can do. In the process, if I’ve somehow influenced the sport of MMA, it was never in my power to do it alone.
“I couldn’t have achieved anything without my esteemed opponents with whom I fought the fiercest of battles, without the staff who made the events happen, without the media who tell our stories, and most importantly, without the support of the amazing fans.
“It is my wish to share this honor with everyone in the Japanese martial arts world, that through Pride, helped establish a new era in fighting sport.”