Seventeen years ago, a packed Tokyo Dome witnessed the most glorious night of the history of Brazilian MMA in the final round of Pride Fighting Championships’ 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix.
Besides Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Wanderlei Silva capturing belts, the show also featured the presence of Brazil’s most popular journalist, Gloria Maria, who produced a long-form report that was broadcast a week later to 30 million people via Globo TV. That coverage is considered, even today, as the turning point for the sport in Brazil.
“The Submission Artist against the Knockout King”
That was the Japanese headline for the clash between Pride’s two heavyweight stars, Nogueira and Mirko Filipovic. If “Minotauro” felt extra motivation due to the Globo TV coverage, his Croatian opponent also knew that the show would be broadcast live on network television in his country. Nogueira and “Cro Cop” were fighting for the interim heavyweight title, since Fedor Emelianenko had twice declined matchups with the Croatian.
“Cro Cop” completely dominated the first round, punishing the Brazilian with kicks and punches, and even knocking him down with his famous high kick at the last second before the bell. Filipovic came out relaxed in the second round, and was almost immediately surprised by Nogueira’s single-leg takedown. Shortly after taking the fight to the ground, “Minotauro” moved to mount delivered a series of punches, then took advantage of the Croatian’s desperation to take his arm in one of the most incredible comebacks in the history of the sport.
“I normally keep emotion out of my fights, but that kick at the last second of the first round made me crazy, and I got back to finish the fight,” Nogueira told me a few hours later, already holding his interim belt.
“Rampage” Smokes Liddell
After beating Murilo Bustamante in the quarterfinal in August, Quinton Jackson faced the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s representative, Chuck Liddell, in the firstsemifinal. And when the time came, he fulfilled the promise he made at the weigh-in: to “smoke” his countryman.
Liddell, who had knocked out Alistair Overeem in his quarterfinal, came to the show with his bosses Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta, promising to unify the Pride and UFC titles. The fight was actually pretty even at the start, but Chuck opened up too much in his attacks, and after a near-knockout at the end of the first round, was no match for Rampage’s quick hands. In the second round, Quinton hit another good combination and knocked Liddell down, finishing the contest with a series of punches from the guard at 3 minutes and 10 seconds.
After the fight, the UFC crew that had come along with White—doctors and masseurs—headed to Rampage’s dressing room to help him recover for the awaited final, possibly against his Brazilian rival, Wanderlei Silva.
Meanwhile, in the other semifinal, the great Japanese icon Hidehiko Yoshida—who beat Kiyoshi Tamura in the first round of the Grand Prix—would face the promotion’s middleweight champion, Wanderlei Silva, who had defeated Kazushi Sakuraba in the other quarterfinal. The support of the fans, who greeted their idol with a standing ovation, was not in vain. After two months of training with Sakuraba, who had faced the Curitiba native on three occasions, Yoshida gave Wanderlei a tough fight in the first round, clinching and taking him down.
In the second round, however, Silva swarmed his Japanese opponent with guns blazing. Though he had impressed the crowd by going toe-to-toe with the Brazilian’s standup, Yoshida eventually tired out and became easy prey for Silva, who won by unanimous judges’ decision and proceeded to the final, very drained.
Two Pride Belts for “The Axe Murderer”
The last fight of the night was fraught with expectation. Eight months earlier, after knocking out Kevin Randleman at Pride 25, “Rampage” had taken the mic and challenged Silva, saying, “I want you, boy.” The Brazilian immediately climbed in the ring and shoved him, saying: “This is my ring.” That confrontation was shown repeatedly by the Japanese, and got the fans even more amped for the tournament final.
Silva stormed out with his trademark aggression, but “Rampage” managed to take him down and got to side control, where he attacked with knees and punches. Already bleeding above his eye, “Wand” got back to guard and trapped his opponent’s arms. He was punished with a yellow card, but got what he wanted as the fighters were stood up.
From that point, the champ charged forward and, after a series of punches, grabbed the American’s neck and hit a knee. Jackson laughed, and got two straight punches in return. The Curitiba native then landed two more knees and punches, forcing the referee to stop the fight and declare Silva the Grand Prix champion at 6 minutes and 40 seconds of the second round.
“I stopped for six months due to knee surgery. As divisional champion, I could’ve sat out and waited to face the GP winner later, but I was determined to fight, because that’s the price that champs must pay. Cowards feel good because they’re never threatened. No matter if you win or lose. What matters is facing all challenges,” declared Silva in the locker room, shortly after the fight.
Collateral Damage of the “BTT vs. Chute Boxe” War
At the time, the rivalry between Brazilian teams Chute Boxe and Brazilian Top Team was a Pride trademark, and was reflected backstage as well, where managers Motoko Ushida (BTT) and Koichi Kawasaki (Chute Boxe) were constantly at odds.
Unfortunately, at that show I was the victim as a bystander in their rivalry. When Kawasaki saw the BTT manager helping me fill out my registration paperwork, he decided to flaunt his power. Along with the event management, he orchestrated the denial of my registration for ringside photography—which I had done at three previous shows. Despite the journalistic coverage helping both teams and having nothing to do with team politics, the Chute Boxe leader didn’t lift a finger to solve the situation. That was very upsetting, since I was the only Brazilian photographer at the show.
They ended up placing me miles from the ring, where I would have no chance to take quality pictures, so I decided to use my creativity. Taking advantage of the security team’s distraction when the lights went off for the opening ceremony, I climbed a camera tower meant for overlooking the ring. It wasn’t ideal as ringside would have been, but at least I managed to get pictures from a unique angle, which ended up being the cover of the next issue of Tatame Magazine.
A Turning Point for MMA in Brazil
It was definitely a special night for Brazil in the ring, but the most important happenings were outside, where the journalist Gloria Maria—kind of a Brazilian Oprah—fell in love with the sport she once hated.
“I had this idea of the fighters as Stone Age men. What surprised me was learning that it’s not like that at all. I met normal, intelligent guys. I’ve covered shows and events all over the world, but I’ve never seen anything like Pride. That experience was actually a life lesson to me. We should never judge anything by their appearances, or from a distance. We must walk into the eye of the hurricane to see how they are,” she told me after the event.
The result of that went on air the following week on “Fantastico,” Brazil’s most popular variety show, which had aired every Saturday since 1973. After editing over eight hours of footage, the journalist introduced MMA to 30 million Brazilians in an extraordinary six-minute feature. The fact is that Maria´s report changed the prejudiced view of all Brazilian media and, from that point on, MMA was treated like a legitimate sport. That was the first step of the big revolution that was finished by Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort eight years later at UFC 126.