For a promotion known for its sometimes cryptic and fanciful English event names, Pride Fighting Championships’ “Critical Countdown 2004” was pretty well on the nose. The event, which took place on June 20, 2004 at Saitama Super Arena, featured the quarterfinals of the ongoing heavyweight grand prix, and where the first tournament round had weeded out some of the more undersized, oversized or less MMA-serious entrants, at least three of the quarterfinal matchups felt… well, critical.
In the first quarterfinal, Sergei Kharitonov ground-and-pounded Semmy Schilt for a TKO win in the closing seconds of the first round. The fight was quite an enjoyable affair, especially considering that the last thing anybody had probably expected or wanted to see from those two was nine-plus minutes of mostly ground fighting.
The second and least notable of the quarterfinals featured Naoya Ogawa against Paulo Cesar Silva. While both men were professional wrestlers, the similarities more or less ended there. Ogawa was still undefeated at the time, and while he was never quite in the same league as wrestling crossovers such as Kazushi Sakuraba or Kazuyuki Fujita, like them, he came from a legitimate combat sports background—judo, in his case—and was a true heavyweight and solid athlete. Facing a literal pituitary giant in Silva, Ogawa did what every serious mixed martial artist did to the towering Brazilian: throw him on the ground, maul him and either pound him out or choke him out. Ogawa elected for the former, and it took him just over three minutes.
In the third quarterfinal, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira defeated Heath Herring in a rematch of their first meeting, which remains one of the best fights in Pride history. After a first round in which both men had their moments, but momentum was clearly going the way of “Big Nog,” the Brazilian zapped Herring with a right hand early in the second. Herring shot for a takedown, Nogueira sprawled and slapped on a beautiful anaconda choke—a technique new enough to MMA that many observers weren’t even sure what to call it—and Herring was forced to tap out just 30 seconds into the round. Nogueira and Herring would meet once more a few years later at UFC 73, and that fight continued the trend of each subsequent meeting between the two featuring fewer and fewer bright spots for Herring.
The fourth quarterfinal, of course, featured reigning Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko against former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ Kevin Randleman. Emelianenko was by this point the consensus top heavyweight in the sport, while Randleman was the man who had shocked Mirko Filipovic in the first round of the tournament, thus ruining the “Fedor vs. Cro Cop” fight that everyone wanted to see.
The entire fight is likely still burned into the memory of any fan who was around at the time. Randleman had already landed one takedown when Emelianenko, attempting to escape, gave up his back for a moment. The former NCAA wrestling champion—where, it must be noted, the ensuing technique would absolutely not have been allowed—locked his hands around the Russian’s waist and launched the most ridiculous belly-to-back suplex in the history of major MMA. While it all happened in a split second, photos of the throw from numerous angles clearly show how far off the canvas both men were at its apex. Emelianenko hit the ground first, landing on his head, neck and shoulders, the combined weight and momentum of the two men bending his body into an upside-down question mark. On top of the sheer kinetic energy of the slam, Randleman landed in side control and promptly spun to north-south position. Short of actually putting Emelianenko through the floor, the whole thing couldn’t have been much more perfectly executed.
While it isn’t too surprising in hindsight that nobody was seriously injured—the throw was incredibly well controlled for such a high-amplitude maneuver, and Emelianenko landed perfectly, as one might expect of a lifelong sambist—it is definitely surprising how quickly he recovered. Without even appearing to need to gather his wits for a second, Emelianenko calmly swept Randleman. Ten seconds after they crashed into the canvas, Emelianenko was on top. Ten seconds later, he was punching Randleman in the head from side control, and ten seconds after that he was locking up a kimura for the finish. It was all over in 93 seconds, one of the most sensational fights ever.