Kazushi Sakuraba was a UFC fighter for only one night, winning one of the weirdest tournaments in the history of the promotion.
Sakuraba will be honored during the 2017 International Fight Week in Las Vegas on July 6 with his induction into the UFC Hall of Fame. “The Gracie Killer” is arguably the most important figure in MMA history in Japan, and he scored his first-ever victory at the UFC 15.5 card at the Yokohama Arena on Dec. 21, 1997.
The four-man, one-night heavyweight tournament also included Tank Abbott, Conan Silveira and Yoji Anjo, and featured Sakuraba as a late-replacement addition. In the first semifinal, Abbott defeated Anjo via decision after 15 minutes. Sakuraba and Silveira entered the cage right after, and that’s when the weirdness started.
Silveira, a 3-1 heavyweight protege from Carlson Gracie’s team, outweighed the 0-1 Sakuraba by dozens of pounds. The Brazilian landed a punch that rocked Sakuraba early, and referee “Big" John McCarthy stopped the bout. McCarthy thought Sakuraba was out, even though it seemed that the he was already attempting a takedown.
Sakuraba refused to leave the cage. His team protested, and so did the Japanese crowd. Twenty years later, Silveira looks back at the chaos that went down at the Yokohama Arena.
"I won the first fight and was under pressure in the locker room,” Silveira tells MMA Fighting. "It was a delicate situation, even dangerous, I’d say. Since Anjo lost to ‘Tank' and since the Japanese involved with the UFC that night wanted a Japanese fighter to win no matter how, everything leads to believe that there was some manipulation.”
Abbott suffered a broken hand during his win over Anjo in the other semifinal, so the promotion decided to book Silveira vs. Sakuraba again, this time as the tournament final. The Brazilian wasn’t comfortable with the decision, though.
"I felt trapped after I won the fight,” says Silveira, who had his master Carlson Gracie, Ricardo Pires, Vitor Belfort, and his brother, Marcelo Silveira, with him in Japan. "I was celebrating when someone came in and said, ‘You have to fight him again, you have to fight him again. It’s a no contest now.’ The reality is that I was pretty much forced to fight."
"They were no longer insisting, but obligating me to fight again,” he continues. "I had no other way out, I had to fight him or fight him. The feeling I had was if I don’t fight him, something could happen. I don’t want to use other words, but I felt threatened by those people outside my locker room."
“Conan" doesn’t think McCarthy made a mistake that night, and thinks the UFC would never have booked him against Sakuraba in the final had Anjo defeated Abbott, since “they couldn’t have a UFC in Japan without a Japanese (fighter) winning a fight.”
"We didn’t debate, they just imposed that,” Silveira says. "I said I wouldn’t come back, but they pressured me. I had no other option. I couldn’t just not go back. I wasn’t afraid, but you’re in a different country and you don’t speak their language, you understand absolutely nothing, and it was logical that they were manipulating.
"You open the locker room door and there’s a bunch of guys in black suits, those mean faces… my friend, what do you think it’s going to happen? That’s how threatened I felt. I fight or something might happen, you know?"
Silveira’s teammate Belfort quickly tapped Joe Charles with an armbar that night, and it was time for “Conan" to return the cage and rematch the same foe he just fought.
"I wasn’t worried about winning or losing anymore,” he says. "I just wanted to get back to my hotel and pack my bags and leave. I wasn’t worried about the fight, I just wanted to leave. Not that I consider myself to have a weak head, but that affects you. I couldn’t believe that was actually happening.
"There are fights that you think the referee might have stopped it early, but coming back against the same opponent in the same night, even back then, was completely crazy and unusual. I felt that even if I had knocked him out cold in the first fight, I’d have to come back. They needed a Japanese winning a fight."
And the Japanese fighter won after all. In less than four minutes, Sakuraba shocked everyone in the arena by submitting the jiu-jitsu black belt with an armbar.
It took over a year for Silveira to fight again, and he ultimately went 2-2 over the next three years. For Sakuraba, though, his win over “Conan" led him to sign with Pride FC, where he became a superstar.
"I don’t have anything against Sakuraba, I’m a fan of his,” Silveira says. "After that controversy, he proved to be a great athlete. I’m happy that he’s being inducted to the Hall of Fame, but I know that I won the first fight between us despite what’s written in our record. What happened, happened. We can’t pretend it happened in a different way.
"MMA was a wild west, who draws first wins. There was no law. And literally being in enemy territory, there was no way out. You find yourself in a situation that the result is not what matters the most, you just have to protect yourself."
Silveira is now one of the leaders of American Top Team, and he often meets with McCarthy when he’s cornering ATT fighters at UFC events.
"We’re friends since,” Silveira says. "'Big' John would apologize many times (after when) we met [laughs]. I told him, 'my friend, there’s nothing to apologize for, it wasn’t his fault.' He interpreted the situation and did what he thought was right.”
"We see each other all the time, and I admire him,” Silveira adds. "He’s an excellent referee. He’s an old school referee but still improves and helps the sport to improve as well. I admire him not only as a referee, but also as a person. I’m a fan."
With Sakuraba living in Japan and Silveira running a successful team in the United States, it took years for the two to finally meet again.
Eighteen years, to be exact.
Silveira flew to Japan to corner "King Mo" Lawal for a RIZIN fight in Dec. 2015. Lawal was set to meet Brett McDemott that night (he won via first-round knockout), and as fate would have it, Sakuraba was entering what ended up being his retirement fight against Shinya Aoki.
"He didn’t believe it was me,” Silveira says, laughing. "I gave him a hug. No hard feelings. Life is too short to have hard feelings.”