Stephen Quadros (left) and Bas Rutten: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com
Intermission (February-April 2000)
A lackluster first round -- half the bouts went to a decision -- still resulted in Pride getting their star eight in the finals. To stir fan interest, they distributed ballots that would allow observers to vote on their preferred finals pairings, though it was more a series of leading questions than empty brackets. Naturally, Gracie would face Sakuraba despite Fujita lobbying hard for the Brazilian; Coleman and Kerr would be kept apart until the semifinals; Goodridge and Vovchanchyn would slug it out.
After a successful training camp with Rutten, Kerr stayed in Los Angeles only briefly to prepare for the finals, preferring to return to Phoenix -- and a toxic relationship with a girlfriend.
Rutten: You can call her “the bitch.” She was nuts. That was a problem. He would have two-hour conversations on the telephone. I said, “Mark, get off that phone, what are you doing?” I knew it was a bad decision and I told him that.
Hyams: He had some training partners, but didn’t have a real coach. When you don’t have Bas, or someone who’s going to force you to do things -- nobody is going to make Mark do anything he didn’t want to do.
Kerr: It was one of those situations where a simple decision can change everything. I wanted to go back to Arizona. I didn’t get as much training as I probably could have. I look back on it and yes, the outcome could have been different.
Rutten: He left me. He was not up to shape and I was kind of pissed about that. I knew that nobody would push him when he was back in Phoenix. Nobody is going to say to him, “One more round.” He’s going to decide. If he trained with me and I said, “One more round” and he said no, then it was two more rounds.
Kerr: I ended up going to the Abu Dhabi Combat Championships a month before the finals. It was stupid, but it was close to six figures in cash. In 2000, to do a grappling event and make almost six figures for one event? It doesn’t take much math to figure it out. But if I balanced it out -- being the Pride champ, which would’ve been $250,000 plus my appearance fee, I probably lost $200,000.
One of the first rounds biggest stars, anomalous Japanese heavyweight Kazuyuki Fujita, embarked on a world tour of training, with stops in Seattle, Texas and with trainer Brian Johnston at the behest of his mentor, famous pro wrestler Antonio Inoki.
Brian Johnston: He was very raw. No striking, no submission, but excellent positioning. One time he shot a double on me and I hit him with a knee by accident. It was hard, right on the button. It laid him out for like 20 seconds. I thought, “Oh, great. I’m going to lose my job.” But he just kind of woke up and kept training. That’s when I knew he was tough.
Don Frye: We got Fujita a fight in Fort Hood. Old Shannon Ritch had a show. We went there one night and the crowd went nuts for him. We put him in under the name “Saito” in honor of Masa Saito, the best f-cking pro wrestler to ever come out of Japan. He went in there and did so good they asked him if he wanted to fight again. He said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” Two fights in one night. The crowd embraced them as one of their own because he had f-cking balls. This was a month before Pride.
Coleman opted not to return to trainer Tim Catalfo in Atlanta, instead heading for the first of MMA’s big-name, big-reputation fight camps: Pat Miletich’s school in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Coleman: I cut ties with Catalfo. He just wasn’t a person I wanted to be around. The guy took my trophy from the Ricardo Morais fight. They found it in his gym when he cleared out. He’s not very well-liked at the moment.
Pat had been inviting me up there for a long time. He had been talking about the famous Hill in Iowa. I showed up to his place a couple weeks before we had to leave for Japan. He put me through a two-hour workout and when I thought the practice was over, he said, “So you wanna go run the Hill?” I’m not going to say no. And when I kicked eight to 10 of them with no problem, I think he was a little bit impressed from day one.
Pat Miletich: I remember some big guys that weren’t there one day. I had him spar with one of my heavyweights. Mark and this guy agreed to start out light. Then Mark clobbers the guy with a left hook and knocks him out.
Coleman: I hadn’t done much sparring up until this point. I was a ground and pounder. The night before, when he said we’re going to spar tomorrow, I admit I was a little bit worried. It was a surprise for him.
Miletich: I go, “Oh, sh-t,” because there was nobody else there to spar with him. At the time, Mark was friggin’ huge. I sparred with him and we rent really hard for five, six rounds. As big as he was then and as hard as he hit, I was better technically than him. But I just about survived the sh-t he was throwing at me, trying to kill me in a racquetball court. It was pretty comical, actually.
Coleman: He was a lot better boxer, but it was definitely fun to be the bigger guy in the room that day. You can ask him how it went. By the end of the second round, he was fighting with one hand because the left side of his body was paralyzed.
Miletich: Mark was very aggressive. He got frustrated at times. He screams and yells and raises hell, which is good. If somebody would do something to him where he’d get himself in trouble, he’d basically just start screaming, “F-ck” and “son of a bitch” and stomp around the room and then come back and start wrestling again or doing whatever. It was awesome. You’ve got to love that kind of intensity.
Coleman: I was very immature. I was extremely emotional in practice. I didn’t like doing things wrong, and when I wasn’t able to pick something up quickly, I would get frustrated. There probably were some F-bombs thrown out.
Miletich: He was a perfectionist back then and wanted to do well. He had a lot of energy, to put it lightly. It was fun. Those were really intense days. Everyone in my gym was really aggressive and in their primes and meaner than sh-t. Mark fit in pretty well.
While everyone worked for the possibility of facing opponents of various strengths, Gracie was occupying himself with demands for unprecedented rules changes: no time limit and no referee. While he eased up on the latter, the biggest match Japan could make at the time was in danger of being buried by his demands. Because Japan was both in awe of the Gracies and desperate to conquer them, no request was turned down -- though Sakuraba threatened to learn ventriloquism to make the referee believe Royce was verbally giving up.
Sakuraba: To ask for rule changes, you come all the way to Japan? Is that normal? Instead of going through all the trouble to hold a press conference, you could've just faxed it. If you have that much time, you should stay in Los Angeles and train!
Kerr: Everyone was going to walk away from the show. All of us were going to protest and say no, we’re not going to do unlimited rounds. They ended up compensating the fighters a little bit more money to just accept the rule.
Royce Gracie: I have my demands. It’s not exactly special treatment. My family, my father, created this fighting business. What he created in Brazil a long time ago, the challenge matches, it’s why we have Pride, the UFC, Strikeforce. I’m already giving the weight advantage, so give me something back. They know my name is going to be a draw on the show.
Rand: I know we were contractually obligated, so I know we wouldn’t have put something on the table and said we were withdrawing. We wouldn’t have done that on an ethical basis. We wouldn’t want to fight the legal fees.
Sakuraba: “Crazy” and “Gracie” sound more similar in Japanese, but they really are crazy. I can't even put into words my feelings for them. I'll take you on, with your own rules. Let me say that it is due to expressionless Royce and his relative Rorion that we have this no-rules fighting. But isn't it that this fire that they lit has gotten bigger than them and now they are running away from it?
Rorion: They really wanted Royce in there and they were willing to stretch the rules. If you’re in a position to ask for it and you have enough clout to ask for it and they respect it, it’s good.
Sakuraba: Unlimited rounds? Okay. Let's fight for about a week. We can hurt each other for six days and decide it on the seventh. I'll have to go to the bathroom, so I'm going to borrow a diaper from my son and head to the Dome. The audience should be prepared. Please bring at least three days' worth of change of clothes. Oh, and bedpans.
Quadros: The day before the tournament, they had a rule meeting, and the Royce Gracie camp had gotten the unlimited time limit. Royce didn’t show up to the rule meeting. And Sakuraba, very uncharacteristically, got up and started yelling, “Where’s Royce Gracie?” He’s usually this wisecracking, quiet-type guy, with almost a self-effacing sense of humor. He’s standing there livid.
Royce Gracie: I didn’t go to the rules meeting. I know the rules. It’s a waste of time. You just sit there and fighters go, “I want this, I want that.” The rules were set already in the contract we signed. They don’t even have them anymore. I guess I was ahead of my time.