Kazushi Sakuraba is a hero.
I first remember watching the UFC when I was in grade school. I was a pro wrestling fan but I’d heard about the UFC and “real life fights in a cage.” So I went to my local Hollywood Video and rented UFC 1 (Blockbuster didn’t have them). I wasn’t really that impressed. I was probably about 13 or so and assumed that real fights would look like pro wrestling, just maybe a little less acrobatic. Two guys squirming on the ground and then somehow a guy won out of nowhere? It made no sense to me.
A bit later, I watched UFC 5. This was another mistake. I knew Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie by name now, and I’d seen a few more fights that were more action packed and bloody, so I assumed that the “two greatest fighters on earth” would be awesome. If you haven’t seen their second fight, trust me, doing so will immediately make you wonder what in the fuck Bellator is thinking by having them rematch 20 years later. It was – and this is no exaggeration – Shamrock laying inside Gracie’s guard for over half an hour, barely moving, and landing the occasional weak shot to the face. Then the fight ended at the 36th minute because … I still don’t know. It was a draw. It was awful.
I kept with it because the other fights were fine enough and I’d already seen Keith Hackney punch Joe Son in the balls over and over again. Nothing – nothing – would ever make me think a sport where that was legal wouldn’t be awesome!
The UFC was gone! But: Sakuraba had arrived
Then there were the dark ages, when the UFC was booted off cable PPV because John McCain
had money tied up in boxing thought it was too violent and made a crusade to banish it. Now, I was really screwed. Not that I was ever able to order them on PPV to begin with, because my parents were civilized people who figured letting a kid (now in high school) who already spent his time beating up his little brother watch cage fighting wasn’t a good idea, but this would mean no going to someone’s house and I feared it meant no more rentals. But I found ways. The Internet was finally coming into shape.
I’ve never felt older than just now when I realized I remember the Internet’s evolution. Fuck, I recall learning on old Macintosh’s that had green text and then most exciting thing in the world was making it to like Tennessee in Oregon Trail. Anyways.
The Internet was finally coming into shape and that meant: tape traders. I could talk to people, send them money, and they would send me VHS copies of fights! In hindsight, I was lucky I didn’t get completely ripped off and/or raped. But it all worked out. I would get to see UFC’s, I just had to wait a few weeks. Then one day, the guy sent me PRIDE and on that show was Sakuraba. This changed everything.
I don’t remember which PRIDE it was, but my guess is PRIDE 3, with Sakuraba vs Carlos Newton. Now, even today, this is a fun fight to watch, because it’s a lot of exchanges of positions and submission attempts, but the sport has evolved so much that a lot of newer fans might not understand what the big deal was. But to me, it was finally everything I first thought MMA would be: Non-stop action, guys who were characters, and a badass finish.
Suddenly, I was stealing an extra $20 from my dad’s wallet so the guy would send me PRIDE as well as UFC. This only made things worse because Sakuraba only became better. He started to do flying stomps, cartwheels, suplexes, and mid-fight taunts. I saw him dismantle Vitor Belfort like it was child’s play – embarrassing a guy I’d previously seen blitz the shit out of everyone.
What I didn’t know was that this was all on purpose: Sakuraba was originally a pro wrestler. I’d seen a lot of Japanese pro wrestling but, and this is somewhat ironic, most of it isn’t as flashy as Sakuraba. Japanese wrestling is treated very seriously, and especially back then the big matches always came across like they were trying really, really hard to be real. Yes, it was obviously fake, but no one was wearing a mask to the ring, like Sakuraba; no one was pausing mid-match to wave to everyone, like Sakuraba; no one was literally increasing his chances of a grown man beating his ass just to entertain, like Sakuraba.
Enter The Gracies
It all peaked when Sakuraba went on his Gracie killing run. I’d gotten over thinking “squirming on the ground” was boring and even though deep down I *knew* the Gracies weren’t as good as the new breed of fighters, there was still that mystique. After all, not only had Royce never lost, none of the modern Gracies had ever lost. And so when Sakuraba ran through Royler, then Royce, then Renzo, and finally the late Ryan, I was in awe.
The Renzo fight, to me, is the peak of Sakuraba’s career. But it needs some context.
The fight with Royler ended in what is a semi-legitimate controversy. Being Gracies, they had to have their very own special rules when they fought, and one of them was the only way the fight could end was submission or your corner threw in the towel, otherwise it would be ruled a draw. It was immediately apparent that Royler’s plan was to play for the draw. Nonetheless, after toying with him for a while, Sakuraba locked in a Kimura and began to crank. And crank. Royler was in obvious, visible pain. Then the referee stopped the fight. There’d been no tap, there’d been no towel thrown in, but in a rarity for Japan: an official looked out for the fighter’s safety. (I’m sure it’s a coincidence it benefited the emerging Japanese star…)
The Gracies were pissed. And to compound it, it was a Masahiko Kimura that “broke the undefeated Gracies.” Kimura had been the famous Japanese Judoka that fought Helio Gracie decades prior and defeated the Gracie patriarch with a submission hold. Said hold was named the Kimura in his honor.
Sakuraba vs Royce Gracie: 90 Minutes of Awe
What followed the Royler fight was Royce vs Saku. For all the bad that Japanese MMA creates – permitted use of steroids in the contracts, fighters taking unnecessary punishment, size differences that are three figures – Royce vs Saku was one of the times that Japanese MMA worked.
Like with Royler, Royce agreed to fight Sakuraba with the rules being only submission or towel thrown in would end the fight. But this time there was a twist: no time limit. Instead, there would be unlimited 15 minute rounds. Despite being the first of what could’ve theoretically been three fights that night, Sakuraba agreed to the terms.
And so they fought. And fought. And fought. Sakuraba, in the middle of the biggest match of his life, having to plan for the possibility of fighting for who knows how long, still found time to screw around. He pulled Royce’s gi over his head like it was a hockey jersey, he did flying stomps, he smiled at the cameras – but he was always fighting, always thinking, earning one of his many nicknames “The IQ Fighter.”
Finally, after ninety minutes, Helio Gracie himself threw in the towel. Sakuraba had not only beaten the undefeated Royce Gracie, the legend of the UFC, the man seeking to avenge his kin’s loss, he’d done so via simply outlasting Royce – and by making the head of the family admit the defeat. The Gracie idea that they could win a fight if it just went on long enough was over. It took an hour and a half, but Sakuraba had beaten the Babe Ruth of the UFC.
(As an aside, he then went out and fought the best heavyweight on earth at the time, Igor Vovchanchyn, and for 10 minutes was actually winning until I guess the idea of fighting for 2 hours in a single night finally caught up to him and Sakuraba was done in between rounds. Oh, and he was giving up probably 40+ lbs at that point.)
Then there was Renzo
Renzo Gracie was always my favorite Gracie. He fought constantly, under a myriad of rules, in multiple competitions. He did straight jiu-jitsu, bare knuckle fights in Russia, and regular fights in Japan. He actually took time to learn the basics of boxing and was easily the most well-rounded Gracie of his era.
At this point, Sakuraba had been the first man to beat a Gracie and followed that with one of the most memorable performances in combat sports history with his victory over Royce. Because Rickson Gracie was unwilling to fight (he knew how to protect an image), Sakuraba had beaten the most famous and accomplished Gracie of all. A fight with Renzo was risky and without a ton of reward. Again: he was well-rounded, far more dangerous than either Royler or Royce, but didn’t have nearly their level of fame. If he’d been born Renzo Silva, no one in Japan would’ve cared. But Sakuraba took the fight because he always took a fight that was offered.
For almost twenty minutes, Renzo and Saku went back and forth. It was a display of well-rounded technique from both men, as they punched, kicked, and grappled at times. Of course, throughout it all, Saku still played to the crowd. He teased jumping stomps; he grabbed Renzo’s foot and spun him around while smiling; he simply entertained.
Finally, with the fight nearing its end, Sakuraba locked his hands, spun, tripped Renzo to the mat, and simultaneously broke his arm – with a Kimura. Another Gracie. Another Kimura.
And all credit to Renzo: he took the loss like a man. He grabbed the microphone and simply said that on that night, Sakuraba was the better fighter.
After that, Sakuraba cruised through a fight with Ryan Gracie, the highlight being his literal spanking of the “Gracie Bad Boy” before his career was essentially ended. He faced Wanderlei Silva.
All good things come to a brutal, violent end
It wasn’t just a beating, or a mauling, it was a near attempt at murder. My brain couldn’t really comprehend what I’d seen. I knew Silva was a good striker, but this was Sakuraba: he always took people down, toyed with them, and ended up winning. Silva was different. Saku’s shot didn’t work, Silva sprawled too well. And Silva wasn’t a traditional striker, looking for shots, he was a force of nature. He was a tornado of knees.
A brutal series of strikes saw Saku flail for a takedown but it was for naught. Silva proceeded to lay in one knee after another to the skull of Saku. Some to the top, some to the back of the head, some to the forehead. Those 90 seconds were more violent than the 90 minutes Saku put in against Royce.
Sakuraba was never the same. He rebounded by tapping out a then unknown Rampage Jackson but that simply lead to another beating at the hands of Silva. After that, Sakuraba’s masters had him fight Mirko CroCop, a fight Saku was winning until a single punch from the bottom shattered his orbital bone. Then a freak loss to Nino Schrembri, due in part of an errant headbutt. Then another beating from Silva. A random submission of Kevin Randleman only lead to him inexplicably facing Rogerio Nogueira. Amazingly, Saku held his own with Lil Nog for most of the fight but the size was too much. That and the fact that The Gracie Hunter’s knees were so shot he could barely bend them.
The last five years have seen Sakuraba as nothing but a punching bag. He isn’t just losing, he isn’t just not-competitive, he’s a symbol of everything wrong with Japanese MMA: taking a 46 year old legend who cannot really even walk and having him get beaten to a pulp because that’s the only way to get on TV. At least they mercifully shot Old Yeller – they didn’t force him to drag a rusty tractor for years on end.
A victory can come in many forms
Sakuraba did have one last win. As part of K1’s weird attempt to run the LA Coliseum (I’m sure a money laundering scam of some sort), Kazushi Sakuraba was rematched with Royce Gracie on June 2, 2007. In a stadium that could hold 90,000 for football, but which was basically empty save for a few busses of the local Korean population brought in for free, Royce and Saku fought one more time. As Sakuraba’s music played, I momentarily forgot I was a grown man and hopped and clapped along. No matter what the result, I would always be able to say I saw Sakuraba live!
It was a sad, pathetic fight. Neither could do anything and it eventually went to the judges. And the winner was … Royce Gracie. He and his family celebrated, proclaiming that the Gracie’s had finally gotten their win back from Sakuraba, feeling vindicated after years of being defined by one lone Japanese man who beat them all.
Then Royce tested positive for steroids.
The Great Royce Gracie, the man held up as the proof of jiu-jitsu’s power, that a small man needed nothing but technique and courage to win, who even espoused the “Gracie diet,” had been reduced to cheating. Not only cheating, but his failure was one of the highest recorded uses of steroids in California history. Whatever legacy of the Gracie’s remailed, Sakuraba had finally taken it all.
Today: Sakuraba is a Hero. Tomorrow: Sakuraba is a Hero.
I still love MMA to this day. I’m bored on Saturdays when there aren’t shows. The idea of “too many shows” never resonates with me. I’ll sit around and leave Fight Pass on as I fall asleep at night. I think the sport is as exciting and fun as ever. I love what it has become, how the technique has continued to evolve – there aren’t the right words to express how excited I was for Dillashaw vs Cruz. I’ve spent roughly half my life thinking about MMA for most of the day and I still haven’t had enough. But…
There will never be another Sakuraba. He fought basically every great fighter of his era, no matter their size, and won more than he lost. But it was the joy he did it with that mattered most. His goofy smile, his acknowledgment to all of us watching that he knew how crazy all this was, his dedication to making sure that, yes, he’d fight hard, but he wanted you to know he understood you enjoying him fighting was important too. He was the right guy at the right time in my life. During my most formative years, he was the greatest ever, doing things no one ever had and no one ever will.
Sakuraba was and always will be a hero.