Twenty-five years ago this week, the MMA landscape changed forever when Pride FC held its inaugural event, Pride 1 in Tokyo on Oct. 11, 1997.
Conceived originally as a promotional outlet for professional wrestler Nobuhiko Takada to fight Rickson Gracie, Pride 1 brought 47,000 fans to the Tokyo Dome and became an instant success in Japan. More events quickly followed, with Pride launching their first Grand Prix event in 2000, which was won by former UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman. In no time, Pride established itself as one of the premier MMA organizations in the world.
For the next six years, Pride went head to head with the UFC for MMA supremacy, with many fans favoring the Japanese promotion — and it’s easy to see why. During its run, Pride was responsible for building some of the most iconic stars in the history of MMA while also playing host to some of its most unforgettable moments. So on this, the 25th anniversary of Pride’s debut, Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, Jed Meshew, and Shaheen Al-Shatti remember some of their favorite moments in the history of Pride FC.
Make sure to check out Part One, here.
Sep. 12, 1999 - Feb. 24, 2007: Wanderlei, Sandstorm, and “The Axe Murderer” staredown
Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh
Wanderlei Silva rises up through the stage. He’s getting loose.
Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh
The crowd goes nuts as “The Axe Murderer” and his crew march down to the ring, in rhythm with Sandstorm, a song that epitomized the peak of late 90s trance music. It is inextricable from memories of Silva’s run with Pride, which included an ungodly 18-fight undefeated streak. It is the sound of doom as interpreted by a Finnish DJ.
Duh nuh nuh nuh nuh Nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh
The crowd is in an absolute frenzy. Silva enters the ring and spins, in homage to the traditional Muay Thai wai khru ram muay, then he locks eyes with his opponent. His hands join together. His wrists roll in threatening fashion.
nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh Nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh nuh
Someone is about to get f***** up. - Lee
June 23, 2002: Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama go to war at Pride 21
What even needs to be said? Perhaps the most surreal, awe-inspiring, Hollywood-esque opening sequence to a fight ever, Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama will forever be inextricably linked for the performance art they gifted the world in 2002, a full-on sprint of battering blows from the clinch that continues to defy belief more than two decades later. Frye said in subsequent years that he should’ve retired after his dance with Takayama — “He stole my soul,” Frye admitted this past July, “I was never the same after that fight” — so irreversible was the damage he suffered. But the legacy of Frye vs. Takayama is destined to endure long after we’re all gone on the Mount Rushmore of all-time action fights. - Al-Shatti
It’s hard to imagine, but back in 2003, Fedor Emelianenko was not the Fedor we think of today. Yes, he’d won a RINGS tournament, had some good performances in Pride, and was considered to be a rising star, but heading into his first fight with Nogueira, it was “Minotauro” who ruled the roost. Big Nog was the Pride heavyweight champion, had a record of 19-1-1, with his lone loss being a questionable split decision in RINGS, and he was generally considered to be one of the very best fighters in the world, if not the best. In his seven Pride fights before Fedor, Nogueira had six submission victories, showcasing a lethal guard and a knack for pulling victory from the jaws of defeat.
And then he met Fedor.
Before the fight, Nogueira said that if he got to work his guard, he’d be able to catch Fedor. Not quite. For almost 20 minutes, Fedor sat in the vaunted guard of Nogueira (while Bas Rutten and Stephen Quadros questioned the wisdom of staying there) and battered him senseless, delivering some of the most punishing ground-and-pound you’ve ever seen. The performance redefined what heavyweight MMA could be, and announced the arrival of Emelianenko to the top of the sport, a place he would remain for the next seven years. - Meshew
Aug. 10, 2003: Mirko Cro Cop head kick KOs Igor Vovchanchyn at Pride Total Elimination 2003
Right kick, hospital. Left kick, cemetery. That’s a phrase that defined so much of Mirko Cro Cop’s career after the K-1 kickboxer transitioned into MMA and quickly built a resume around decimating his opponents with hellacious kicks that destroyed rib cages and decapitated heads. Cro Cop had a lightning quick trigger and a left high kick that seemed almost unavoidable when he launched it — something Igor Vovchanchyn found out the hard way. The fight didn’t last 90 seconds thanks to Cro Cop unleashing that signature kick that saw his foot collide with the Ukrainian’s head with such impact that Vovchanchyn just crumbled to the ground. Cro Cop picked up a lot more knockouts over the years but this was his first head kick finish in Pride and one that will never be forgotten. - Martin
There isn’t nearly enough Sakuraba love in this thing. Let’s fix that.
If you time travelled back to the early 2000s and asked your favorite fighter who their favorite fighter was, a healthy chunk of them would’ve thrown out Sakuraba’s name, and for good reason. Back when MMA was still figuring out what it was, Sakuraba embraced the anarchy like few others have, before or since. Though he was a welterweight by modern MMA standards, Sakuraba had no issues mixing it up with anyone and everyone; case in point, his fight with Kevin Randleman.
At the time, Randleman was the former UFC heavyweight champion, a hulking mass of muscle and wrestling power. Sakuraba, in contrast, had lost four of his last five fights and looked like a middle-aged dad about to play basketball at the YMCA, rocking knee sleeves and all. By the look of it, Sakuraba was being fed to Randleman, but as it turns out, Sakuraba didn’t just hunt Gracies, he hunted “Monsters,” too.
Randleman’s wrestling and power couldn’t crack the tricky grappling of Sakuraba, who ultimately was able to sink in a fight-ending submission, using his favorite kimura setup to transition into a super slick armbar. It was one more feather in the cap of a man who helped show the world exactly what MMA could be. - Meshew
April 25, 2004: Kevin Randleman KOs Mirko Cro Cop in 1st round of 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix
Kevin Randleman may have been a UFC Hall of Famer and UFC heavyweight champion, but his greatest highlight came under the Pride banner. The Pride 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix was designed with one goal in mind: To set the stage for a quarterfinal matchup between two of the most fearsome fighters alive, Mirko Cro Cop and Fedor Emelianenko. First, however, Cro Cop had to get past an opening round matchup against Randleman — and “The Monster” never minded an opportunity to play spoiler. A heavy underdog, Randleman feinted a takedown then came over the top with a left hook, knocking Cro Cop out cold in less than two minutes and locking up 2004 Knockout of the Year honors for virtually every major MMA outlet of the era. - Al-Shatti
June 20, 2004: Kevin Randleman dumps Fedor Emelianenko on his head at Pride Critical Countdown 2004
One look at the photo tells the tale. The Randleplex, as it was subsequently dubbed, is destined to forever join the Showtime Kick on the Mount Rushmore of impossible fight-ending sequences that didn’t actually finish their respective fights. Fedor Emelianenko was the most feared fighter on planet Earth when Kevin Randleman hurled him upside-down and slammed him onto his head, which to this day remains one of the greatest feats of athleticism these eyes have ever seen. That Emelianenko not only survived the maneuver, but somehow won mere seconds later simply added to the already towering legend of the indomitable titan from Stary Oskol. - Al-Shatti
Oct. 31, 2004: Wanderlei Silva KOs Quinton “Rampage” Jackson through the ropes at Pride 28
One of the most bitter rivalries in PRIDE history, Wanderlei Silva picked up his first win over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as part of the middleweight grand prix tournament where a controversial stand up led to the Brazilian landing a barrage of knee strikes to earn a first round finish. Unhappy with the result, Jackson worked his way to a rematch 11 months later. After some wild exchanges to start the fight, “Rampage” dominated the majority of the opening round on the ground but then capped it off with a stunning right hand that dropped Silva and nearly finished him. Silva survived and then turned the tables with a hard right of his own that caught Jackson as he was coming forward. Silva seized on the opening by grabbing the head and bashing Jackson with a series of knee strikes in succession. The sequence ended after the final knee blasted Jackson and fell unconscious through the ring ropes to bring the fight to an incredibly dramatic conclusion. - Martin
Feb 20, 2005 - Aug. 28, 2005: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua has one of the greatest years in MMA history, winning the 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix
In the pantheon of all-time MMA years, Mauricio Rua’s 2005 will forever stand tall. Over a ridiculous seven-month span, “Shogun” established his legend with one of the greatest runs the sport has ever seen, rattling off a 5-0 record with four knockouts and one Fight of the Year contender, all primarily as an underdog, and culminating in a victorious 2-in-1 night to win the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix. From his soccer kick demolition of Rampage Jackson to his jaw-dropping coronation over Ricardo Arona, Rua elevated himself from mere Chute Boxe prospect to the best 205-pound fighter in the world with a violent aplomb rarely matched in his breakout days. - Al-Shatti
Aug. 28, 2005: Fedor Emelianenko wins Fight of the Decade over Mirko Cro Cop at Pride Final Conflict 2005
There’s never been a better instance of the irresistible force meeting the immovable object than Fedor Emelianenko clashing with Mirko Cro Cop in what might still be the single greatest heavyweight fight in mixed martial arts history. Emelianenko, who hadn’t been touched in 19 straight fights, going up against a knockout artist in Cro Cop with arguably the most vicious kicks the sport had ever seen. Even more impressive than the buildup was the payoff as Emelianenko and Cro Cop battled back and forth for three hard-fought rounds — punch for punch, kick for kick in nearly every exchange. Emelianenko eventually gained the upper hand thanks to his wrestling and vicious ground-and-pound but it’s hard to argue that the seemingly unbeatable Russian came as close as he ever before to finally meeting his match that night. - Martin
Sep. 10, 2006: Mirko Cro Cop head kicking Wanderlei Silva at Pride Conflict Absolute
Kids these days, they just don’t know about Pride era Mirko Cro Cop. Let me tell you, that man was a problem. Just ask Wanderlei Silva.
Cro Cop and Silva had met once before, in a special rules bout at Pride 20 that isn’t worth remembering, but their rematch at Pride Conflict Absolute is one that’s etched in MMA history. At the time, Silva was the Pride middleweight champion (205 pounds) and Cro Cop was one of the most popular fighters in the organization, making this one of the biggest fights of the year. Add in the fact that both men hated each other and that the winner would move on to the finals of the Pride Openweight Grand Prix and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. And as he often did in the Pride days, Cro Cop delivered in a massive way.
Silva’s brand of chaotic pressure and violence couldn’t crack the power and precision of Cro Cop, who clipped Silva with straight punches and smashed his famed left leg into Silva’s body repeatedly. As things worsened for Silva, he grew more desperate and in turn, Cro Cop had even more success, dropping Silva with a left hand and continuing to thump his body with kicks. Finally, after Silva’s hands had dropped to cover his badly battered body, Cro Cop unleashed his famous high kick, clattering Silva to the ground instantly, in what would end up being the final head kick KO of Cro Cop’s storied career. - Meshew
Feb. 24, 2007: Dan Henderson becomes two division champion, KOing Wanderlei Silva at Pride 33
For a few months in 2007, Dan Henderson was the man. The Californian veteran had already authored several memorable moments in his first decade as a pro, including tournament wins in the UFC and Rings that saw him pick up wins over the likes of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Carlos Newton, and Renato Sobral, but his rematch with Wanderlei Silva would arguably result in the high point of his illustrious career. Henderson didn’t shy away from engaging on his opponent’s terms, embracing the inherent brutality that Silva brought to all of his fights and answering in kind. If Silva wanted to scrap, Henderson stood and traded with him; if Silva wanted to grapple, Henderson put his Olympic-level wrestling to work. Henderson ended Silva’s five-year reign as Pride’s 205-pound champion, and with the promotion’s 185-pound belt already to his name, he became a “champ champ” before that was even really a thing. Pride would soon be dissolved following the sale of the promotion to Zuffa, with Henderson transitioning to the UFC as a prized acquisition. - Lee
So that’s it. 25 of our favorite moments to remember 25 years of Pride. Let us know in the comments below if we missed any of your favorites. #PrideNeverDie
What’s your favorite Pride moment from this list?
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Wanderlei Silva, Sandstorm, and the staredom
Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayam go to war
Fedor Emelianenko beats down Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
Mirko Cro Cop KOs Igor Vovchanchyn
Kazushi Sakuraba armbars Kevin Randleman
Kevin Randleman KOs Mirko Cro Cop
Kevin Randleman delivers The Randleplex to Fedor Emelianenko
Wanderlei Silva KOs Rampage Jackson
Shogun Rua wins the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix
Fedor Emelianenko wins "Fight of the Decade" with Mirko Cro Cop
Mirko Cro Cop KOs Wanderlei Silva
Dan Henderson KOs Wanderlei Silva to win two belts