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As quickly as it may have started, its demise was seen as instantaneous. Pride Fighting Championships made its debut on Oct. 11, 1997, as Pride 1 was held in Tokyo; and with nearly 48,000 people in attendance, it was a huge commercial success. The card featured a mixture of Japanese heroes and ex-Ultimate Fighting Championship stars, along with some Brazilian MMA and jiu-jitsu legends. However, of the 14 fighters who competed at the historic event, none were destined for future stardom with the promotion.
Pride 2 three months later saw the addition of one of the Top 5 stars in company history and perhaps the biggest Japanese MMA star of all-time. Kazushi Sakuraba, fresh off his win at UFC Japan 1, drew his first assignment with the company, then went on to compete in nine consecutive Pride events while amassing 28 appearances with the promotion. Along the way, he earned his nickname—“The Gracie Hunter”—by going 4-0 against MMA’s First Family. Pride continued to enhance its roster with world-class competitors like Dan Henderson, Takanori Gomi, Eddie Alvarez, Josh Barnett and Anderson Silva.
The duopoly period for the UFC and Pride—many still believe Pride was the dominant force in the industry—lasted for 10 years. However, Pride was ended with the flip of a switch. After their second American event, the organization was struck by scandal. It was purchased by UFC owners Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta in 2007 and, despite efforts to keep it alive, shuttered its doors soon after.
When you think of Pride, there are some absolutely spectacular matches worth remembering. Included among them: Mark Coleman-Igor Vovchanchyn. A former UFC champion, Coleman entered his encounter with the Ukrainian on a four-fight winning streak, brutalized him with a continuous stream of unanswered knees to the head and forced him to submit in the second round. Elsewhere, Don Frye and his neither-man-was-willing-to-back-down dance partner Yoshihiro Takayama staged a battle for the ages at Pride 21—a toe-to-toe demolition derby that became a staple of thousands of highlight reels. Meanwhile, Wanderlei Silva was paired with Quinton Jackson in two unforgettable showdowns and knocked out the popular American on both occasions. Finally, Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Filipovic stepped into the ring together at Pride Final Conflict 2005 in a confrontation fans had begged to see for years. So great was the spectacle that it was hard to believe it was happening. Emelianenko-Filipovic largely lived up to expectations and garnered various 2005 “Fight of the Year” awards.
However, it was on June 26, 2005 that arguably the greatest fight in company history took place. Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira went to war for 20 full minutes in the 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix quarterfinals. Rua was known for his striking but ran into difficulty with Nogueira’s tight boxing. “Minotoro” managed to pepper Rua with quick jabs and straight rights and even floored his younger opponent. The “Shogun” clinch game made the difference, as he constantly pummeled with muay Thai-styled trips, utilized his aggressive jumping stomp guard pass and unleashed his ground-and-pound. It was a fight for the ages, and contained within it was everything fans loved about Pride Fighting Championships. This included the tension-filled rivalry between two storied camps: Rua’s Chute Boxe and Nogueira’s Brazilian Top Team. “Shogun” was awarded the decision and went on to win the tournament, but the fans were the true winners.
After Pride was purchased, most of its superstars migrated to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. While not all of them performed as well as expected, Rua, Jackson and Fabricio Werdum all captured UFC titles.
When Rua and Nogueira oppose one another for a third time—“Shogun” posted a unanimous decision over his rival in their UFC 190 rematch—in the UFC on ESPN 14 co-headliner on July 25, it will mark the unofficial end of an era. How? It will more than likely be the last time we see two true Pride legends matched together in the cage. As a Pride-ofile and Japan-ofile, I will be sad to see this part of the story come to a conclusion, though I am happy I was there to see all the soccer kicks and face stomps that helped make Pride unique. When the bell rings for “Shogun”-“Minotoro” 3, make sure you stand up, take a knee or pause to reminisce about the greatness of Pride Fighting Championships.