As the Pride Fighting Championships Openweight Grand Prix kicked off at the beginning of 2000, Mark Coleman was not only an afterthought in the bracket but perhaps the first example in the sport’s short history of a washed-up fighter. The “Godfather of Ground-and-Pound,” who had won the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title just three years before, had exited that organization on the heels of three straight losses, including a savage face-kick knockout by Pete Williams that still crops up on UFC highlight reels.
When Coleman arrived in Pride and promptly lost his debut to Nobuhiko Takada in one of the most egregious fixed fights of all-time at Pride 5, most of the public’s remaining faith in him evaporated. A bounce-back victory over the gigantic—but never very good—Ricardo Morais at Pride 8 did little to dispel the notion that “The Hammer” was in Japan mainly to cash checks and help put over Pride’s stars. Going into the first round of the grand prix in January, it was Coleman’s protégé, Mark Kerr, who attracted most of the attention. With his undefeated record, superhero physique and “Smashing Machine” nickname, Kerr was seen as one of the favorites to win the tournament, and he was placed on the opposite side of the bracket from Igor Vovchanchyn, whom he had fought to a controversial no contest in his previous fight.
Once the tournament began, however, things got strange in a hurry, due in significant part to the bracket. Coleman, despite not being one of the favorites, ended up with the easiest opening-round draw, as he was matched with Masaaki Satake. The debuting Satake was a great karateka and an important early figure in K-1, but he was a mixed martial arts neophyte who would go on to rack up a dismal 1-8-1 record. Coleman manhandled him, forcing him to tap to a neck crank in barely over a minute.
At the finals on May 1, 2000, where the last three rounds of the tournament were to be held in a single night, the intricacies of the tournament bracket continued to show. In his quarterfinal, Coleman faced the popular, eternally tough, but horribly undersized Akira Shoji, while Kerr, on the same side of the bracket as Coleman, drew Kazuyuki Fujita, a true heavyweight with legendary toughness and a high-level amateur wrestling background. While Coleman cruised to a decision against Shoji, Fujita eliminated Kerr in a fight so grueling that Fujita’s corner threw in the towel at the beginning of his semifinal with Coleman, paving his way to the final and a showdown with Vovchanchyn.
In the final, Coleman was the larger, stronger and fresher man, and after he took down Vovchanchyn early, he spent most of the first round working over the Ukrainian slugger from top position, cinching up a keylock in the final moments. In the second round, he once again scored a takedown, trapped the exhausted Vovchanchyn in a corner of the ring and rained down knees to the head—perfectly legal under Pride rules—until referee Yuji Shimada intervened at 3:09. Coleman ran to celebrate winning the Pride Grand Prix 2000, including a hilarious near-wipeout while jumping off the ring ropes. It was MMA’s first great comeback story and the crowning moment of his own career, and it forms the bittersweet climax of “The Smashing Machine,” the renowned 2002 documentary about Kerr.