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How Kazushi Sakuraba drove an 11-year-old Neiman Gracie to MMA

Neiman Gracie
Jiu-jitsu expert Neiman Gracie holds a 9-1 record as a mixed martial artist.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Neiman Gracie was only 11 years old when his uncle Royce Gracie competed in the longest fight in modern MMA, a 90-minute clash with Kazushi Sakuraba two decades ago in PRIDE.

Watching “The Gracie Hunter” beat another member of his family added more fuel to his desire to put on some gloves and fight one day.

Gracie and Sakuraba were part of the 2000 PRIDE openweight grand prix, and were paired up after getting past Nobuhiko Takada and Guy Mezger, respectively, in the opening round.

For their quarterfinal clash, however, Gracie suggested it to go down in unlimited 15-minute rounds, which Sakuraba agreed.

“I remember that fight really well, man,” Neiman told MMA Fighting. “I was always a big fan of Royce and there was a lot of expectation around this fight because (Sakuraba) has just beaten Royler, he made some noise about challenging the family, and Royce managed to make this fight without time limit and the family thought it was a good move. We always liked this no-time limit, no-rules type of fight, so everybody was very confident for this fight.”

Sakuraba was unbeaten against Brazilians at the time, fighting to a draw with Allan Goes and defeating Conan Silveira, Vitor Belfort, Ebenezer Fontes Braga and Royler Gracie. Even though the Gracie family was “confident” about the modified ruleset, it could present extra challenges going forward in the GP.

“I remember people were a bit concerned because it was part of a tournament,” Gracie said. “If Royce had won that fight, he would have to still to fight Vovchanchyn and then Mark Coleman that night. He was very brave to enter that.”

Sakuraba improved to 2-0 against the Gracie clan after Royce’s corner threw in the towel before the seventh round, but ended up losing to Vovchanchyn later that night. Coleman captured the openweight grand prix trophy, but Sakuraba was the one in Neiman’s mind after watching the whole event.

“Sakuraba was a guy that really made me want to fight MMA,” he said. “My biggest dream was to fight him, but unfortunately it didn’t happen and never will. I even had a poster of him in my bedroom. I’d stay there staring at it, training, because I wanted to fight him.”

The preteen Gracie would only make his MMA debut 13 years later, but the poster remembered him of the man that ruined his uncle’s night in front of almost 40,000 fans in Japan.

“It was a poster with an X marked across his face,” Gracie said with a laugh. “He was my goal, fighting him (was my goal), but unfortunately it never happened. … People made fun at me at school, saying ‘the Japanese beat your uncle’ and stuff like that. I got pissed by it [laughs].”

Sakuraba ended up facing Gracies four more times in his MMA career, defeating Renzo Gracie and Ryan Gracie and losing to Royce — the failed a drug test but the result was not overturned — and Ralek Gracie.

“Fighting at PRIDE was my dream and I always imagined myself walking out to fight there,” Neiman Gracie said. “I picked a walkout song, drew myself with the belt on a notebook. Fighting MMA was always my dream, but I ended up starting competing in jiu-jitsu because it was a natural path.”

Neiman Gracie kicked off his mixed martial arts debut at WSOF 5, finishing his opponent with an armbar in the opening round. Gregor Gracie and Rolles Gracie Jr., but Neiman thought it was “pretty cool” to feel that family affair vibe.

The 31-year-old welterweight now fights under the Bellator banner and hopes to meet Michael Page or Yaroslav Amosov in his next bout. Royce’s openweight days inspire him, though.

A member of the new generation of the clan, Neiman would “absolutely” agree to a fight with time and weight limit — and looks at DREAM’s Super Hulk openweight, won by “Minowaman” Ikuhisa Minowa grand prix as inspiration.

“I was hearing some chatter about Bellator doing an openweight grand prix and, f*ck, I definitely want in,” he said. “They need a Gracie in it, and I’d love it. I think it would be really cool. … I think it’s tough, but everyone would be down for it if there’s good money on the line. There’s a lot of tough guys and everyone has a price. I think everyone would want in if there’s good money at stake.”

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