They broke the mold when they made Kazushi Sakuraba.
An MMA royal in every sense of the word, Sakuraba was willing to meet any challenge, anywhere, any time. No other fighter in Japan has had more of an impact on the sport of mixed martial arts than “The Gracie Hunter,” a man who paired immense physical talent with once-in-a-lifetime charisma and an inhuman ability to withstand punishment. Sakuraba embodied courage and the warrior spirit, embracing his role as a torchbearer for an entire people. He filled his resume with a number of high-profile victories, including wins over Vitor Belfort, Guy Mezger, Kevin Randleman, Ken Shamrock and Quinton Jackson. Still, his most iconic conquests came at the expense of MMA’s First Family: the Gracies. Sakuraba also engaged men who were much larger and more imposing, battling Igor Vovchanchyn, Mirko Filipovic, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona while showing no regard for his physical well-being.
In a remarkable career with plenty of defining moments, here are five that stand out:
1. Marathon Man
When Sakuraba faced Royce Gracie under the Pride Fighting Championships banner on May 1, 2000, they did not engage in an all-action free-for-all. Rather, it was a slow-burning candle that seemed to last forever. Sakuraba and Gracie fought and grappled for 90 minutes -- the equivalent of a 16-round bout in the modern Ultimate Fighting Championship -- in a landmark battle before more than 38,000 fans at the Tokyo Dome. The undefeated Gracie donned his traditional gi but found that it worked against him in his showdown with Sakuraba in the 2000 Pride open weight grand prix quarterfinals. Sakuraba almost executed a kneebar at the end of the first round, and though Gracie dodged the bullet, he ran into tremendous difficulty trying to take down the Japanese star. When he succeeded in doing so, Sakuraba’s wrestling and positioning wore down the future UFC hall of famer. After six grueling 15-minute rounds of clinching, grappling, occasional submission attacks and Sakuraba’s crippling leg kicks, the Brazilian’s brother, Rorion Gracie, threw in the towel. It remains one of the most-talked-about Pride fights of all-time, its historical significance off the charts.
2. Breaking Renzo
Renzo Gracie locked horns with Sakuraba in one of the most anticipated bouts in Pride Fighting Championships history at Pride 10 on Aug. 27, 2000 in Saitama, Japan. The Brazilian was widely regarded as the most complete mixed martial artist among the Gracies, with legitimate standup skills to go along with world-class grappling chops. They fought to a virtual stalemate for some 19 minutes, exchanging low kicks and sporadic punching combinations. Sakuraba executed multiple takedowns but chose to back out of the Gracie’s guard and chop at his legs with standing kicks as the Brazilian settled in the butt-scoot position. Late in the second round, Gracie surrendered another takedown, ducked between Sakuraba’s legs, stood and moved to his back. In his haste to advance position, he allowed Sakuraba to frame a kimura. With time winding down, Sakuraba separated the two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist’s hands and spun to a more advantageous position. He landed in half guard, with Gracie’s left arm torqued at a gruesome, unnatural angle. The referee took one look at the Brazilian’s visibly damaged elbow and called for the stoppage. Only 17 seconds remained in the fight.
3. Grappler’s Delight
It was a grappling fan’s dream. The Sakuraba-Carlos Newton matchup at Pride 3 on June 24, 1998 at Nippon Budokan in Tokyo thrilled those with an affinity for the ground game. For 15-plus minutes, Sakuraba and Newton took turns putting each other in precarious positions. Whether it was one on the other’s back, in guard, in side control or even trading leather on the feet, Sakuraba and Newton dazzled the tens of thousands on hand to witness their encounter. Five minutes into the second round, Sakuraba turtled as the future UFC welterweight champion hovered over him trying to thread his hooks. Newton made the mistake of overexposing his right foot; Sakuraba snatched it and rolled forward. Newton defended well, but Sakuraba quickly transitioned to the Canadian’s left foot and locked up the kneebar, forcing the tapout 5:19 into round two.
4. Axed Title Hopes
Sakuraba never won a major mixed martial arts championship. In fact, his only real chance at claiming one came at Pride 17 on Nov. 3, 2001 in Tokyo, where he challenged arch nemesis Wanderlei Silva for the Pride Fighting Championships middleweight crown. It did not unfold as Sakuraba had hoped. He managed a couple takedowns but failed to successfully navigate the Silva guard. Once “The Axe Murderer” returned to his feet, Sakuraba’s situation deteriorated, as he was met with a volley of violent knees and punches. Silva later defended against a guillotine by launching the Japanese great into the air in a devastating slam. The impact broke Sakuraba’s collarbone, and at the end of the first 10 minutes, the challenger made it known he was in no condition to continue. It was the second of his three failed attempts to subdue Silva.
5. Birth of ‘The Gracie Hunter’
Royler Gracie became the first member of his proud family to encounter Sakuraba at Pride 8 on Nov. 21, 1999. The decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt was a perfect 3-0 in mixed martial arts competition at the time, but it was soon clear that he was outmatched. Sakuraba bottled up the Brazilian grappler on the canvas and battered his legs with standing kicks, turning them deep shades of purple and blue. He later knocked down Gracie with a head kick, pancaked his subsequent takedown attempt and locked in a kimura from half guard. Sakuraba bent his opponent’s shoulder beyond its bounds until the referee intervened, and though Gracie protested the stoppage, the decision was final. “The Gracie Hunter” had been born.