The word legend gets thrown around a lot these days, but very few are more deserving than Kazushi Sakuraba. From the early offset of Pride, Sakuraba became a household name with MMA fans world wide as one of the most unorthodox and exciting fighters ever. His background in Japanese pro-wrestling gave way to a huge future in the world of the Pride Fighting Championships, and he was able to build a reputation as one of the best fighters in the world.
Sakuraba first made himself known in the UFC when the largest MMA organization in America made it’s way overseas and put on an event in Japan. A premature referee’s stoppage in a match with a much larger opponent in Marcus Silveira, gave Sakuraba a second shot to redeem himself in front of his countrymen. The always unpredictable Sakuraba didn’t disappoint and pulled out an armbar victory and with that started his climb to the top of the ladder.
In Pride 2, Sakuraba made his debut inside of their ring taking on veteran fighter and Ken Shamrock student, Vernon “Tiger” White. Again, Sakuraba won by armbar and fans and critics alike started to notice him and his unique talents. Wins over Carlos Newton, Ebenezer Fontes Braga and Vitor Belfort followed, but Sakuraba’s reputation would start to gain it’s biggest bit of notieriety when he took on Royler Grace at Pride 8 in 1999.
The Gracie family, known for their tradition and history, were legends in the world of MMA and Royler was touted as one of the most technically sound fighters in the entire family. Sakuraba was not only able to defeat Royler, but do so by submission, which is something very few fighters can say they have done to a Gracie family member. Sakuraba’s stature as one of the best would reach a pinnacle in the year 2000 during the first Pride Grand Prix when he took on possibly the most famous and legendary MMA fighter ever in Royce Gracie.
Royce Gracie made a name for himself when he walked through much of the competition in the early days of the UFC and he was ready to start a new legacy in Pride…that is until he ran into Kazushi Sakuraba. In a fight that had no time limit set, Gracie seemed almost befuddled in how to approach Sakuraba in the fight. The Japanese star took the very best that Gracie could dish out and in what many call the greatest fight in MMA history, the towel was thrown in and Sakuraba defeated a legend.
The win earned Sakuraba the nickname, “The Gracie Hunter” and before all was said and done, he managed to beat Renzo and Ryan Gracie as well. Pride soon announced the creation of the middleweight title and matched Sakuraba up against one of the most dangerous fighters in the world in Wanderlei Silva. Silva, a Chute Boxe team member, had gone on a tear of victories and a title shot seemed only logical. In was in this fight that Sakuraba’s career would take a turn for the worse.
Outsized and outgunned, Sakuraba was unable to stand and trade or get the fight to the ground where he was most effective. Silva teed off on Sakuraba throughout the fight and after a few punishing kicks on the ground, Silva won the title and the aura and mystique around Sakuraba started to fade. Since the first fight with Wanderlei Silva, Sakuraba has never seemed the same. He’s almost always been the smaller man in every fight he’s had, but since that loss, his game seemed smaller as well. Sakuraba didn’t seem to flow with the same kind of energy that made him so exciting just a few fights before. One thing that has never been questioned was Sakuraba’s heart and he has tried time and time again to regain that same fire that fueled him in victories early in his career. Two more losses to Wanderlei Silva have followed and still Sakuraba comes back every time. Most recently, Sakuraba was entered into the latest Pride middleweight Grand Prix.
He had an easy match-up with newcomer Yoon Dong Sik in the first round and as almost everyone predicted, Sakuraba won easily. In the second round he was matched up with the much larger and very skilled Brazilian Top Team fighter, Ricardo Arona. Again, Sakuraba fought valiantly, but again size and strength were against him and Arona walked out with a TKO victory.
Now, Sakuraba has to be seen at a huge crossroads…he can keep on trying to be the best little man in a big man’s fight world in the Pride middleweight division…he can wait for Pride’s 180lb division to take form and actually fight people of his own size…or he can call it a career and retire as the legendary “Gracie Hunter.” The truth is that no one knows what Sakuraba will do.
With every fight that he takes he seems to have more bandages wrapped around a knee or ankle or elbow. With every fight that he’s in, he seems to take more and more punishment. And with every cheer and every fan that still loves to see him fight, Sakuraba will always be one of the most popular and enigmatic fighters in the world. But with every loss, it seems clear that Kazushi Sakuraba may be taking one more step into saying goodbye.