Akira Shoji File Photo: Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.com
Annoyed at having his warm-up constantly interrupted by Sakuraba and Gracie’s extended fight, Coleman finally entered the ring against Shoji.
Hyams: Shoji, every time he had a fight, he would completely clean out his house, pack the whole thing up, and write out his will because he was prepared to die in there. When you watched the way the guy fought, it wasn’t just for show.
Akira Shoji: I knew I might not come back, so I wanted to clean house. I called my friends and loved ones.
Miletich: It did surprise me that Shoji was able to take him down.
Coleman: Stop right there. There was no takedown. He did hit a judo throw on me. I was stuck up against the ropes and he did have me in a little bit of an awkward position, but it wasn’t a takedown. If it was a wrestling match, no points would’ve been awarded for a takedown. As a wrestler, it was important to me at the time not to give up a takedown because you’re going to catch a lot of flak from your wrestling buddies: “You got taken down by Shoji.” That’s not cool.
Shoji: First of all, I knew I wasn’t going to win from strength. For a Japanese to win against an American, strength wasn’t going to work. I would need stamina. My idea was to tire him out, and hope that would open up some opportunities.
It did not. Coleman punished Shoji for 15 minutes, earning a decision and progressing to the semifinals.
Coleman: I walked to my corner after the round of that Shoji fight. And because of the Pedro Rizzo fight, where I felt like I had won -- once you lose a decision like that, it really changes your mental attitude big time. I walked to my corner and asked Miletich, “Did I win?”
Shoji: I got hit around the face and it showed because I’m pale and the bruises stand out. There was a problem with the bones in the ear drum. That affected my vision -- sometimes the ceiling would start moving, like in a cartoon. That lasted about two weeks.
Coleman: I’ve got chills going through my body hearing that. It’s not a good feeling. I’m a fighter, but I don’t like hurting people. That’s the first time I’ve heard this. I don’t like hearing it.
The last quarterfinal bout pit Kerr against Fujita.
Kazuyuki Fujita (top) vs. Mark Kerr: Susumu Nagao/en.susumug.com
Johnston: Fujita had no striking and no submission. What he had was being friggin’ tough. He didn’t have a whole lot of skill, and he’d have to take what Kerr gives and then eventually give it back. But in the beginning, he was probably going to take a beating. He knew that going in.
Rutten: Kerr was eating a lot of candy. His blood pressure was off the charts; it was very bad. He had a big bag of M&Ms and chocolates. He was eating chocolates all the time.
Kerr: My body was telling me I wasn’t eating enough calories for how much I was working out. Your body craves quick fuel sources: candy, alcohol, wine. It’s a real quick shot of sugar or whatever.
Rutten: I knew Mark didn’t train as hard as I wanted him to before this. I knew that there was a chance he would run out of gas. And if he put all of his efforts into somebody and drills him with knees to the face and the guy doesn’t even flinch, you’re going to get tired, but it’s a mental intimidation factor.
Kazuyuki Fujita: The knee to my head hurt me, but it pissed me off, too. I think that is one of the reasons I won the fight. He made me mad.
Kerr: I had torn my MCL a few weeks prior and kept injecting Lidocaine during the Sakuraba fight because I didn’t know when it was going to end. By the time I came out, I had deadened my senses all the way down to the ankle. I broke his nose -- I felt it pop under my knee -- but I got hypoglycemia.
Hyams: When that guy didn’t go down after those, I think that’s when the fight was over. Kerr and fighters would always say, the worst thing that can happen in a fight is that you give a guy your hardest shot and he takes it. Then you know you’re in for a long one. Knowing he was in for a long one, he didn’t have the conditioning or the will to take it.
Rutten: Mark was one of those guys that in training would explode up. I knew he was getting hurt, but you don’t know if he would do that again. One thing you don’t want to do is throw the towel and have him jump up and say, “What did you do that for?” As long as I see he’s OK, I’m not going to throw it.
Hyams: It went beyond that. Suddenly, a moment occurs, you knee a guy as hard as you can in the face, twice, and he’s not even flinching. Now you’re realizing that not only are you going to have to outlast this guy, right after that you’re going to have to get into the ring with Coleman. Even if you survive that, your night is not over. I’m not saying he willingly shut down. But subconsciously, his body might have shut down on him.
Fujita: As a kind of strategy, I figured that if I held him off for five minutes, then the match would start to move more at my pace … . I am not so great a puncher, not so great a kicker. I don't really have anything all that great, but in today's vale tudo, the strongest is the one that can take a beating.
Hyams: He wasn’t even really hurt. He was just gassed and covered up and Fujita was mostly giving him body blows.
Rutten: With everything, all the supplements, God knows what he took -- I was never impressed with that. When you gas out, people don’t realize that what really gasses are your abs. When your abs gas, they pop out and build up lactic acid. You can’t breathe anymore because your abs are pushing your lungs. That’s why you see those big, muscular guys get strong and then hit the wall after three minutes.
Kerr: It was my first real loss. The relief didn’t come until much later. Within a couple of hours, I went in the shower with my brother sitting next to me and just sat down and let it all out.
Miletich: I liked Kerr because he wrestled with me for a year in high school. He was a couple of years younger than I was. I think he was a sophomore when I was a senior, something like that. He was always a nice kid. I was hoping he and Mark would end up fighting each other in the tournament. Watching him come apart, I didn’t enjoy watching that.
Coleman: I’m a competitor. I was glad the fight was a war and those two were beating the crap out of each other. I was looking to win this thing. Just as bad as I felt for him, I felt good for me.
Fujita took a decision after hammering a turtled Kerr, but his knee may have paid the price; relieved that Kerr was no longer a possibility, Coleman prepared for Fujita.
Miletich: There was a discussion because Fujita was injured in his first fight. They were trying to talk Gary Goodridge into taking his place and coming back into the tournament.
Coleman: In between rounds, I was sitting with Goodridge. We were pretty good friends at the time. I had a pretty damaged knuckle from my first fight. It was all swollen up. I’m sitting here showing it to him and we’re talking about it. All of a sudden, the Japanese bosses come in and say, “Well, Fujita might be done. If he’s done, you’re going to be fighting Goodridge.” I was like, oh, sh-t! Well, my hand feels pretty good, Gary.
Johnston: His knee was so loose. He didn’t have pain, but it was loose. We were really worried. When he got in there to shoot that double and collapsed -- pro wrestling pays you a lot of money. It wasn’t worth it: ACL repair, torn meniscus.
Coleman: There were all kinds of whispers going around. I heard this, I heard that. But I’m not listening to sh-t. I’m getting ready to go out there and fight Fujita like he’d come out at me like a bull. This knee, that knee -- I’m not going to believe any of it. He got in the ring and he got paid.
Miletich: We weren’t sure, but I think the feeling was that he wasn’t going to follow through. I think Fujita wanted the second round money. I think Mark was going to win either way, whether it was Goodridge or Fujita, but Fujita wanted the money.
Coleman (right) and Fujita: Susumu Nagao/en.susumug.com
Fujita: It was bad since I'd been training, a chronic thing. It was really terrible for it to happen during a fight. If Coleman wins, of course I want to properly congratulate him, but I think to myself for it to end like that ... It's not over.
Johnston: He doesn’t usually get mad, but I think he might’ve gotten a little perturbed by that. The thing about the Japanese is, they always have a smile on their face, but inside they may be thinking, “You assh-le.”
Fujita managed only one feeble takedown attempt before Johnston threw in the towel. Coleman would have a full gas tank for his final bout; Vovchanchyn would have his hands full with Sakuraba -- incredibly, the fighter had elected to come out after his marathon with Gracie. But barely an hour after he delivered the first loss of Gracie’s career, Sakuraba suffered his first defeat in the Pride ring: Vovchanchyn was too much, and Sakuraba refused a second round. Vovchanchyn and Coleman were the two foreign finalists.
Miletich: The Vovchanchyn/Sakuraba fight helped our confidence quite a bit, knowing Vovchanchyn had just been through that war.
Hyams: I know Coleman going into that final fight was thinking, “I need to force him to quit,” and that’s not an easy thing to do.
Coleman: I knew I didn’t want to stand with Vovchanchyn. I knew there weren’t any headbutts. I knew it was going to be hard to get him in a position to finish him. This fight could’ve lasted a freakin’ hour. I knew this guy could take it for an hour. Can I give it for an hour? I hoped so, but I wasn’t positive.
Hyams: At that point, we’re not only covering Kerr but Coleman, too. Now Coleman is out there waiting to fight. Logistically, we’re running around. We’ve got one guy in one place, one guy in another.
Coleman: Ground and pounding him could take three hours because the guy can just take a beating. I hit him with 15 or 16 knees and the guy still stood up and shook it off when it was over.
Hyams: I thought it was poetic justice, that Kerr had somehow helped his road to victory.
Coleman: I mean, what’s it going to take? Finally, I changed angles with my knee. Until he tapped my belly, I was thinking, “I don’t know what to do.”
Coleman had done what most had given him very little chance of pulling off: navigating the most substantial tournament in MMA history. As confetti rained down and he was awarded with an oversized belt and trophy, the emotion was literally too much to contain.
Coleman: My first thought was, “I have to get to the fans and give them a hug.” For some crazy reason, I guess this was the moment I felt I could jump outside the freakin’ ropes. I thought I was Kevin Randleman for a second. When I got mid-air, I made a bad choice. I felt like the way I pulled out of it was pretty athletic. It could’ve been ugly. Out of embarrassment, I got up pretty quick.
Quadros: Vovchanchyn and Coleman, they weren’t getting as much play -- I’m talking about around the lobby, with the journalists and the fans and whatnot. They weren’t getting the kind of play the famous fighters were. I don’t know if that didn’t burn inside of Coleman.
Coleman: I knew I could do it, but until you do it, you don’t know. That belt was a mile away until I felt that guy tapping on my stomach.