Kazushi Sakuraba was the centerpiece in Japan’s MMA boom. | Daniel Herbertson/Sherdog.com
“The Gracie Hunter”
The boom in popularity of MMA in Japan is most attributable to a Japanese fighter with a mischievous smile and quirky sense of humor. Sakuraba became a national hero by defeating four members of the legendary Gracie family and doing it in his inimitable crowd-pleasing style. His 90-minute fight with Royce Gracie, in particular, was one of MMA’s most historic battles. From that point on, Sakuraba was one of Pride Fighting Championships’ most important gate and television attractions. A natural middleweight or welterweight, Sakuraba fought most of his career against bigger men and gave them tough challenges until his body broke down. The spectacle of a hobbled Sakuraba being brought out to take beatings well past his prime was a sad conclusion to his career but in no way diminished what he accomplished at his peak.
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