It only makes sense that Sakuraba got his start in professional wrestling, because in the muscle-bound world of sports entertainment, weight classes exist only in the imagination.
During his MMA career, Sakuraba refused to be restricted by the boundaries of weight, fibbing on his actual weight to gain entry into the UFC’s “Ultimate Japan” heavyweight tournament in 1997. Some 60 pounds lighter than his opponent, Marcus Silveira, Sakuraba’s first meeting with the Brazilian resulted in a premature stoppage by referee John McCarthy. In a rematch on the same night, Sakuraba submitted Silveira with an armbar.
As he became a star in Pride Fighting Championships, it became a recurring theme: the man who came to be known as “The Gracie Hunter” would consistently hold his own with opponents who were at least 20 pounds larger. Wins over the likes of Vernon White, Vitor Belfort and Ebenezer Fontes Braga were classified as open weight affairs, masking the discrepancy. An even more valiant effort came in 2000 at the Pride open weight grand prix, where Sakuraba returned to the ring following his 90-minute epic with Royce Gracie to square off with Igor Vovchanchyn, who had approximately 50 pounds on his exhausted opponent. Sakuraba nearly forced Vovchanchyn to tap to an armbar, but, eventually, the Japanese star’s corner threw in the towel.
As his career progressed, Sakuraba would notch several more notable victories over fighters a full weight class above him. His clash with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was credited with launching “Rampage” into superstardom, as Sakuraba survived several powerful slams before submitting the future UFC light heavyweight champion with a rear-naked choke.
Prior to the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s return to Japan on Feb. 25, UFC President Dana White called Sakuraba one of his “favorite fighters ever.” In the past, White has also questioned whether the open-weight spectacle proved detrimental to Sakuraba’s career. For many, Sakuraba was a favorite for that very reason.
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