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This month, April 8 to be exact, marks the 11-year anniversary of Pride 34: Kamikaze, the last event promoted by the legendary Pride Fighting Championships. Just two weeks before that event came the announcement that Ultimate Fighting Championship parent company Zuffa had made a deal to purchase Pride from Dream Stage Entertainment. UFC president Dana White briefly mooted the idea of running both promotions simultaneously, but nothing came of it. Pride’s Japan office closed for good, laying off its last 20 employees, less than six months after Pride 34.
While it featured a farewell to outgoing president Nobuyuki Sakakibara that was as ceremonious as it was awkward, Pride 34 was certainly not promoted as a send-off for the promotion itself. The writing, however, had been on the wall for several years. The first five years of Pride’s existence were a climate wherein the UFC frequently lost top fighters who flocked to Japan for big paydays, packed arenas and, in many cases, better competition. By 2007, that dynamic had been completely reversed. Not only was the UFC no longer losing stars to its rival, Pride standouts such as Anderson Silva, Mirko Filipovic and Quinton Jackson were jumping to the States, where in the wake of “The Ultimate Fighter,” interest in the sport was booming even as it gradually declined in Japan.
This column does not afford the space for a worthy treatment of the complex and multilayered backstory of the decline and fall of Pride FC, and in any event, it has already been written about by outstanding journalists who were there at the time. What I’ve actually been thinking about is the event itself. Thanks in part to a potential Wanderlei Silva appearance that never materialized, Pride 34 is a singularly mediocre lineup of fights by the organization’s usual standards; one upside of Pride’s house-of-cards existence and sudden dissolution was that, as far as the quality of the product was concerned, there was no slow decline. Even as things grew desperate internally, Pride put together loaded fight cards right up to… well, almost the end.
Nonetheless, Pride 34 is not without its own peculiar charm. In fact, this strange event by its very strangeness manages to exemplify much of what made Pride FC great, much of what made it awful, much of what made it successful and much of what made it unsustainable. I’m here neither to praise Pride nor to bury it, but if you’d care to take a winding walk down memory lane with me, please come along.
The disintegration of the expected main event of Pride 34 feels oddly pertinent today in light of the controversy around Frankie Edgar’s decision to fight, and the UFC’s decision to book him, so soon after his first knockout loss. Wanderlei Silva, who had been rumored to be fighting Igor Vovchanchyn at Pride 34, was not allowed to do so because of a 45-day medical suspension levied by the Nevada State Athletic Commission after his knockout loss to Dan Henderson at Pride 33. That Pride chose to honor the NSAC suspension, when they could presumably have ignored it, is mildly surprising in hindsight. That fighters 11 years later are still able to compete close on the heels of concussions, with fatal consequences at times, is disheartening.
The loss of “The Axe Murderer” left Pride 34 with the uninspired-sounding main event of Kazuyuki Fujita vs. Jeff Monson. However, the Fujita-Monson matchup actually distills much of Pride FC down to its essence. After all, the whole genesis of the promotion was a fight between Nobuhiko Takada and Rickson Gracie, which was a product and extension of the shoot-style wrestling that has always been more popular in Japan than in America and was especially so in the 90s. For as much as the WWE may like it when Brock Lesnar thrashes real mixed martial artists, or the Undertaker throws up gogoplatas, Japan was absolutely in love with the idea that its top wrasslers were legitimately the hardest dudes on the planet. For that reason, early Pride matchmaking in particular was a continual quest to find pro wrestlers who could learn to fight, and the results were frequently gruesome failures, punted into the 10th row by “Wand” or “Cro Cop.”
Fujita was an exception. In fact, with the exception of Kazushi Sakuraba, Fujita is probably the most successful crossover from pro wrestling in Pride history. In addition, the burly 240-pound “Ironhead” embodied the ideal of the “pro wrestler who was actually a really tough guy” in a way that even the beloved Saku could not. As such, Fujita was in hindsight an oddly fitting headliner for Pride’s last show. That his opponent was one of MMA’s most bluntly spoken proponents of another alleged Pride staple -- steroids -- is even better. It is worth noting that Monson’s post-Pride career has been a peripatetic campaign where he pops up quarterly to squeeze a new victim purple from North-South position… but almost always outside the U.S. Fujita-Monson may not be the greatest main event in Pride history, but it might be the most Pride-like main event.
On another essential element of Pride legacy and lore, “freak show fights,” this event does not disappoint. On that count Pride saved the best, or at least the biggest, for last. I have not broken out the calculator, but I’m willing to wager that the match between Eric Esch and Wagner da Conceicao Martins boasts the greatest combined weight in Pride history, as “Butterbean” and “Zuluzinho,” in a bizarre coincidence, each weighed in at precisely 408 pounds. The matchup seems to have been booked less as an athletic contest than as a structural test of Saitama Super Arena’s floor, but it passed with flying colors in both respects. The building survived and Esch wrapped up the right arm of “Zuluzinho” in a physically improbable-looking Americana.
Pride 34 featured “Mr. Pride” himself, Akira Shoji, who holds the unique distinction of having fought at Pride’s first and last events. Shoji was so inextricably entwined with the promotion that, except for one more or less ceremonial retirement fight several years after the fact, he retired from competition when Pride shut down. His opponent at Pride 34? Gilbert Yvel, who is the flipside to W. Silva’s absence from this card. While Silva was held out of this card because of an admirable decision to abide by the NSAC suspension after Pride 33, Yvel was supposed to fight at Pride 33, was denied a license due to a history of acting like a psychopath in the ring, and was thus bumped to Pride 34. Again, Shoji-Yvel is a quintessentially Pride matchup.
The event has more goods on offer. It includes a fighter in Yoshihiro Nakao whose signature career moment – kissing Heath Herring on the mouth and being chin-checked in return – happened before the opening bell. It features Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, who is, with all due respect to Houston Alexander, still the most sensational and shocking flash in the pan in the history of high-level MMA. His fight here against Ricardo Arona, the light heavyweight nobody in the world wanted to fight, features perhaps the most ridiculous fifteen-second display of physical agility and in-ring creativity in the sport’s history. His back-to-back thrashings of top-five opponents Arona and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at Pride 33 and Pride 34, as an unranked fighter, may never be equaled. “The African Assassin” is a suitable note to add to this card, as he was a surprising reversal of that Pride staple, the sacrificial lamb. His fights ended up being squash matches, just not in the way the matchmakers anticipated.
Last year marked the first time we could say Pride Fighting Championships had been gone for as long as it had been around. It was jarring to think then, and it still is now; even from the relatively late hour that I became a serious MMA fan, the “UFC vs. Pride” era felt like forever. Every April from now until I’m gone from this earth – or jaded about mixed martial arts beyond all caring – I’ll raise a glass to Pride. This year, I found myself enjoying Pride’s swan song as the silly, sad, snake-bitten and ultimately awesome event it was. If you haven’t watched it yet, or haven’t watched it in years, I hope you will too.