Nobuhiko Takada brings in a Pride event with style: Stephen Martinez/Sherdog.com
Japan had gotten its taste for mixed martial arts on a grand scale when professional wrestlers like Nobuhiko Takada began blurring the lines between scripted competition and real athletics: if Hulk Hogan and Mike Tyson had ever made good on talks to have a real match in the 1980s, it would be easier to imagine the level of attention garnered by Takada’s two matches with jiu-jitsu artist Rickson Gracie in 1997 and 1998.
With Rickson proving to be a difficult negotiator and Takada ill-suited for unscripted fighting, Pride’s parent company, Dream Stage Entertainment, pursued more creative thinking. Among their ideas: meetings with the WWE and WCW wrestling groups about talent exchange; a series of “Ultimate Boxing” stand-up-only shows with Evander Holyfield; and an all-in tournament field of the best available talent. President Naoto Morishita announced the “last big event of the decade” on Nov. 23, 1999: 16 fighters with various titles from various organizations would vie for $250,000 and the unofficial title of the toughest man in the world.
To indicate their commitment to a fantasy lineup, they managed to accomplish what no promotion had in five years of trying: corral a dormant Royce Gracie out of semi-retirement following his 1993-1995 UFC stint.
Jeff Osborne, Videographer: At the time, there wasn’t any money in the UFC. Pride had money coming in from all over the place. Japan teaches judo in their schools: fighting was more of a big deal to the Japanese and they could make more television revenue off of it than the U.S. could at the time.
Sam Rand, Gracie Academy Business Manager: Rorion Gracie and I were right in the middle of negotiating a fight for Royce for another UFC appearance. I received a phone call from Pride and went up to Rorion’s office. I think Rorion may have even been on the phone with the UFC at the time. We agreed we should ask for a number 20 percent higher than what we were asking the UFC for.
Rorion Gracie, Gracie Academy Owner: UFC wanted a three-fight deal. I didn’t.
Rand: I called Pride back and said, “Here’s my number. I need to know in 20 minutes if it’s a yes or a no.” They called me back 20 minutes later and said, “We’ll do it.” I said, “I need to see a letter of intent in one hour and I need to have a deposit within 72 hours.” They were like clockwork, man. They were good on their word on everything.
Royce Gracie: At the time, I stayed out of the negotiations and details. My brother would just say, “Hey, there’s a tournament going on. Would you like to be in it?” Sure. I show up and fight. That was my business.
Jon Burke, Gracie Training Partner: There was a lot of excitement. It was an opportunity for Royce to get back into fighting and showcase his skills again with fewer constraints on him. Being smaller and weaker, Royce played that patient bottom guard game. That doesn’t work in a five-minute time limit.
Osborne: Royce put himself in that position, marketed himself brilliantly to where he and Rickson both got seven figure paydays for talking sh-t for several years and not fighting.
Gracie’s original deal to face Mark Kerr fell through after suffering a back ailment that kept him sidelined for another two years: he accepted the tournament invite. While Gracie’s slight 175-pound frame was not expected to do well against the mammoth wrestlers, the big men had problems of their own. Both Mark Coleman and Kerr had remained friends since college. Now, both were faced with the very real possibility of fighting each other.
Mark Coleman: I guess we had some phone conversations. In my mind, there wasn’t anything to talk about. Yes, he’s a friend, but it made no difference to me. He might’ve thought differently, but if I had to fight him, I would’ve had only one thing on my mind.
Bas Rutten, Kerr’s Trainer: I asked Kerr about it. He told me, “Coleman will not take me down.”
Coleman: That surprises me. I had beaten Kerr just about every time we wrestled. In practice, I didn’t have too many problems with him. I really don’t think he wanted to fight me. I would’ve been able to take him down. If not, I don’t think his stand-up was all that great anyway.
Mark Kerr: I always thought I was the better wrestler. I think I just had more talent than Mark. Mark got to where he got in life because he’s a hard-working dude. He’s nothing that super-special, but he’s gritty. He’s like a blue-collar guy.
John Hyams, Director, “The Smashing Machine”: It just wasn’t something they wanted to do. The fact that enough money had been put in front of them that forced them to do it -- there was a sinister aspect to it.
Kerr: At first, it was like, “Sh-t.” It was my friend, a guy I’ve trained with. But he and I always understood that if there was the opportunity and if the money made sense, we’d fight just about anybody. It’s kind of like being a mercenary, I guess. Our discussion basically consisted of, “Good luck.” That was as deep as it went.
Coleman: By the time we were in Japan, we could be in the same room together, but I was eyeballing him up, and I’m pretty sure he was eyeballing me up. It was getting awkward to even talk to him at that point.
Unbeknownst to anyone but his closest friends, Kerr was slated for the opening round (against Shooto veteran Enson Inoue, who had recently submitted Randy Couture) just a month out of rehab for an addiction to opiates, as depicted in Hyams’ “Smashing Machine” documentary.
Rutten: I had a really bad case of tendonitis in both arms. I was training with Mark in Japan. We got to the hotel and Kerr pulled out syringes. He said, “Bas, the pain will be gone.” And he gave it to me. Right away, the pain was gone, but I was like catatonic. I started sweating profusely. I couldn’t move on that stuff. I knew, from that moment on, every time he was sweating, he was on that stuff. It’s Nubain, a painkiller. It’s one just underneath morphine.
Kerr: It was probably my first or second year of fighting. You can walk into any gym in America and go up to the guy who looks like he’s on steroids and you can ask him where you can get steroids. He can probably get them for you. At one point, I just asked a person if they could get some things, and the answer was yes. That’s where it started.
Hyams: The producer was a good friend of Mark’s, so it wasn’t like we were a completely anonymous film crew. I think the presence of cameras when someone has something they’ve been hiding in their life and are being followed by a camera crew 24/7, it starts to become this confessional environment. We went home to Arizona with Mark after Pride 8, and within a week, everything came out.
Kerr: I trained really, really hard, and when you train really, really hard, you inadvertently get injuries. You go to the doctor and the doctor says, “Hey, you can take one of these for pain.” I’d go ahead and train without pain, and that was kind of the formula. The harder I train, the harder I work, the more money I can make fighting. And then it turns into something that gets out of control.
Kerr, Coleman and Gracie were joined by other favorites in Igor Vovchanchyn, a dangerous striker from the Ukraine; Gary Goodridge, a brawler with little ring patience; Kazuyuki Fujita, a New Japan Pro Wrestling star getting weekly television exposure; Kazushi Sakuraba, already Pride’s most accomplished pro wrestler-turned-fighter; and Akira Shoji, a durable but undersized Takada Dojo athlete.
Opposing them were a mixture of threats like Inoue and tragic choices like Osamu Tachihikari, a former plumber turned pro wrestler who commanded a high price tag for his celebrity. Frank Shamrock, who had recently left the UFC over money, was invited but felt that a promise to meet Sakuraba was an empty incentive; Randy Couture opted to re-sign with the UFC. The field’s most glaring omission may have been Tom Erikson, a dangerous American grappler who had perpetual trouble finding fights.
Tom Erikson: I have heard from several reliable sources of why I was not invited. One of them involved Kerr and Coleman: they did not want me in the Grand Prix because they did not want to have to fight me. I think at the time Coleman was taking whatever and did not have the pull to make that happen. Kerr, on the other hand, I believe might have tried to do that. Could I ever prove it? No. But I can believe it.
Kerr: I didn’t petition anybody. If Tom wanted in that tournament, he could’ve gotten in the tournament. We’re professionals, man. Regardless if you think you can or not, you just do it.
Hyams: Here you have a fighter in Kerr making good money from this and is essentially the champion. I think Pride’s philosophy was, you build up fighters to a point. But no fighter should be someone who can dictate the direction of the company and his career. It indicated that they wanted to put everyone on notice, that you’re a champion only as long as we say you are.
Kerr: The first six Prides, they pushed to make me the biggest star I could possibly be over there. I flew out weeks in advance to do radio, TV, photo shoots. I think they felt like their return for doing that was for me to fight like a Samurai warrior, like I was protecting the village. They wanted me to be the champion.