Kazushi Sakuraba (left) vs. Royce Gracie: Susumu Nagao/en.susumug.com
Mixed martial arts evolution forced the single-night elimination tournament to tap out in 2000 -- but not before Japan hosted a murderer’s row of elite fighters facing off for a chance at a quarter-million dollars and ring immortality. On the 10th anniversary of the first Pride Grand Prix, Sherdog has the complete no-holds-barred history of the eight-man open-weight rumble, from Mark Coleman’s comeback that nearly wasn’t to Kazushi Sakuraba’s record-breaking, legend-making (and diaper-wearing) 90-minute war with Royce Gracie. The tantrums, the fixes and the concussions: it's the story of one humid night in Tokyo that changed fighting sports forever.
The Tokyo Dome, a 1988 construct meant to host Japan’s longtime fixations for professional wrestling and baseball, is massive in a way that can only be understood by the people who have had to navigate it. There’s the shuttle bus, which doesn’t take people from the hotel to the arena but from one section of the building to another; instead of waiting for the doors to open, you can kill time in the neighboring theme park; because air pressure is required to keep the ceiling’s membrane inflated, it literally has its own atmosphere.
The 48,316 people who entered the Dome on Jan. 30, 2000 for the opening round of the Pride Grand Prix observed pressure of a different sort: the three-year-old organization, built on the premise of famous professional wrestlers fighting, had used its considerable -- and somewhat dubious -- resources to assemble 16 fighters of various disciplines for the most ambitious tournament ever attempted. Mark Kerr, the Brock Lesnar of his day, was a favorite in a field that ranged from the absurd (an unprepared sumo) to the alarming (Kazushi Sakuraba, no bigger than Georges St. Pierre) to the unlikely (Mark Coleman, who had bounced out of the UFC with a 0-3 run).
Rules were murky, weight classes were ignored, but the drama was unmatched: by the time it was over, Pride’s brand had been elevated, reputations had been tested, and the sport had sent the tournament format to rest in the most electric -- and expensive -- way possible. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the two-night classic, Sherdog has collected the memories of the athletes who participated and the eyewitnesses who were there. Organized crime, screw jobs, screaming matches and the beginning of the most dramatic comeback in MMA history -- and that was just round one.