September 24, 2005

by Mick Hammond
When it comes to being an alternate for anything it can be perceived incorrectly by outsiders that you were not good enough to actually participate in the event you are an alternate for. But that perception is very untrue in the case of Pride’s Welterweight GP alternates Paulo Filho and Ryuta Sakurai.

Both fighters are more than capable of winning the whole tournament given the opportunity to do so. Both have proven in the past that they are worthy of being included in any form in the process to determine the 183lb championship. And now they are being given that opportunity against each other to see who could possibly enter the tournament should an injury arise.

While both fighters find themselves in the same position, they are distinctly different individuals. In the case of Paulo Filho you get a highly skilled and passionate fighter whose fierce competitive spirit can not only be a threat to his opponents, but to himself.

An example of this spirit can be seen in Filho’s last entry into Pride. This 27-year-old Brazilian Top Team product was entered into a 4-man elimination tournament to decide a slot in this year’s Pride Middleweight GP. After dispatching MMA veteran Amar Suloev in just under five minutes with an arm bar, Filho was set to face off against Dean Lister in the evening’s finals for the slot.

Unbeknownst to the crowd and Lister, Filho suffered an injury to his leg and would not be medically cleared to fight; yet he walked to the ring, fighting the pain and stood ready to face Lister. It took multiple Pride officials and Filho’s own teammates to finally convince him to leave the ring and not do further damage to himself. Such is the desire of Paulo Filho.

There’s no doubting that Paulo’s intensity and skill have played a big part throughout his relatively young career. Currently undefeated at 8-0, Filho has faced off against numerous competitors who have more experience than he does and has come out on top each time. Along with Suloev, fighters such as Ikuhisa Minowa, Yuki Kondo, Akira Shoji, and Daijiro Matsui have all fallen to the less experienced Filho.

Filho’s natural athleticism has also been a big part of his success. He is often credited by BTT leader Mario Sperry as the most physically gifted fighter that Sperry has ever worked with. Considering the likes of Luis Firmino, Ricardo Arona, and the Nogueira brothers have all been under Sperry’s tutelage, that shows you how truly gifted that Filho is.

But if he is to get an opportunity to enter the main draw of the tournament he must get past one of the sport’s true veterans in Ryuta Sakurai. And let there be no doubt that Sakurai has seen and experienced just about everything MMA has to offer and that makes him a most dangerous opponent for a young fighter who is still developing his game.

Unlike Filho, Sakurai’s career is based off his calm and collected nature. He’s rarely disheveled and win or lose he’s given his opponents a lot to handle. Couple that with the fact that fighting is in his blood, being Hayoto “Mach” Sakurai’s brother, he has more than enough motivation to continue to carve his own path in MMA and capture yet another championship.

While Sakurai’s record of 12-8-4 may not be impressive on paper, to be sure he can more than handle himself against any competition put in front of him. Starting his career in the Lumax Cup tournaments in 1996, Sakurai has been around since the true inception of the sport of MMA and continued to develop and grow as the sport has.

Entering Shooto in 1998 Sakurai’s well-rounded skills had him racking both submission and knockout victories against some of the company’s toughest competition. There were very few times that an opponent could push Sakurai to the full time limit and force him to make mistakes. His cool demeanor kept him in every fight that went to any extended period and his conditioning allowed him to finish strong each time out.

His persistency landed him a long overdue title shot in 2004 against Deep Champion and fan favorite Ryuki Ueyama and he did not let the opportunity slip past him. Quickly establishing himself he kept Ueyama off his game and at just under the three minute mark Sakurai landed a wicked punch that put Ueyama on the canvas, becoming the first ever to KO the champ in his career. Ryuta had his long awaited title.

Now comes an opportunity for Ryuta to take a further step out of his brother’s shadow and establish himself as the family’s patriarch if he can defeat Filho and get into the main draw of the tournament. But that is a lot easier said than done.

Both fighters have shown an ability to fight on any front, but each has a slight advantage over the other that they can exploit. While a very strong ground fighter in terms of physical strength and skill, Filho’s striking is still very much a mixed bag. Sakurai has shown ability to stand with anyone in front of him and does possess knockout power, so the edge there goes to Ryuta.

Conversely while a good ground fighter Sakurai has been suspect at times to submissions, where Filho’s game is the strongest. With both fighters possessing good cardio it could be a matter of who makes the mistake against the strength of the other that will determine the fight.

Not knowing if they will make it into the main draw both Sakurai and Filho must put on a good show and treat this fight as if it is the only fight they will have. If they manage to impress in the bout then they could get an opportunity down the line at the eventual champion should they not make it into the tournament. And while both fighters are very different in terms of personality and style they do possess a common goal, win the reserve bout and place themselves one step closer to becoming Pride’s Welterweight Champion.