by Al Yu – MMAWeekly.com
Changing of the Guard

Though he never revealed his identity, fans at the Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo greeted the man behind the tiger mask with shocked excitement as he walked towards the center ring to a familiar theme song. The man was Kazushi Sakuraba and one day later, K-1 Hero’s officially announced the biggest star cross-over in Japanese MMA history.

To the Japanese fans, the name Kazushi Sakuraba has always been synonymous with Pride Fighting Championships. Since his debut at Pride 2, Sakuraba was essential to the growth of Pride. He helped turn Pride into one of the biggest MMA organizations in the world. Known for his exciting style and his willingness to accept any challenge, the ever popular ‘Gracie Hunter’ helped make the sport of MMA what it is today in Japan.

It’s no secret that there has been a rivalry between two of the top MMA organizations in Japan, Pride and K-1. Last year, Pride finally defeated its Japanese television rival in the New Year’s ratings war. The victory was a major milestone and concluded a historic year for Dream Stage Entertainment, the parent company of Pride Fighting Championships. However, Sakuraba’s recent departure was a huge loss for DSE and signified a change in momentum.

Now at age 38, Kazushi Sakuraba is nearing the end of his great career. At Critical Countdown 2005, Sakuraba showed signs of his age as he was battered by Ricardo Arona. Though he may only have a few years of fighting left, Sakuraba is and will probably remain a very popular figure in Japanese MMA. K-1 realized the marketing potential that acquiring him would bring and capitalized on it. With Sakuraba’s name recognition alone, K-1 will be able to gain more sponsors, potentially attract bigger name fighters, and most importantly, gain more viewers.

While the previous year was stellar for Pride, so far in 2006, they have had to deal with Shukan Gendai, a Japanese magazine that published articles and interviews accusing DSE of working with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia. Pride’s seemingly unstoppable lightweight champion, Takanori Gomi, shockingly tasted his first defeat in a Pride ring as he was submitted by Marcus Aurelio. The much debated open weight tournament, Total Elimination Absolute, was met with criticism after DSE failed to create match-ups that best corresponded with the concept of open weight. The tournament was essentially a heavyweight tournament with some light heavyweights who didn’t need to cut weight and Ikuhisa Minowa as the sole welterweight representative. Sakuraba’s signing with K-1 seemed like icing on the cake and a grim foreshadowing of things to come.

So what is next for Pride?

Even though the loss of Sakuraba was huge, DSE still has Hidehiko Yoshida, arguably the most popular Japanese fighter today. Pride has always had a greater depth to their talent pool, something that K-1 has been trying to improve upon. It would be in DSE’s best interests to continue to promote their top fighters and make an impact in the United States. In the past, Pride’s television ratings have been better than K-1 Hero’s. With the recent termination of DSE’s broadcasting contract with Fuji Television, K-1 Hero’s will gain a lot ground lost by Pride.

Have we truly seen the last of Kazushi Sakuraba in a Pride ring?

Sakuraba has stated that he would like to fight for Pride again, in addition to K-1 Hero’s. He seemed very optimistic that such an opportunity might arise. Could Sakuraba bridge the gap between Pride and K-1? As fans recall, K-1 and Pride collaborated in 2002 to create the first Shockwave show, a historic event that was touted as the ‘World Cup of MMA’. Is it possible for the two rival companies to recreate history? Such an event could be beneficial for both companies and I’m sure MMA fans all over the world would love to see it again.

Recently, current K-1 Hero’s star Norifumi ‘Kid’ Yamamoto announced his hiatus from the sport of MMA. Seeking to fulfill his Olympic dream in wrestling, Yamamoto has taken an indefinite leave of absence in preparation for the Beijing Games in 2008. With one of their biggest stars gone and Genki Sudo on the injured list, K-1 Hero’s will be relying on the star power of Kazushi Sakuraba to help fill the void.

Making his debut in the 187-pound tournament, Sakuraba will face current Shooto European cruiserweight champion Kestutis Smirnovas. In addition to Shooto, Smirnovas has fought in Rings Lithuania and ZST. The tough Lithuanian fighter has a background in Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling. Kestutis has strong takedowns and is well-versed in submissions. He has finished the majority of his previous opponents via submission. Normally weighing around 195 lbs, Smirnovas will have to cut a little weight to make the limit for this fight. Though he has beaten many Lithuanian fighters, Smirnovas is still relatively untested and has yet to face a top ten fighter. Sakuraba may be in the twilight of his career but he’s still a very talented and intelligent fighter. After many tough match-ups in Pride, the Japanese star will finally fight again at his natural weight limit.

The ‘Gracie Hunter’ recently went back to Brazil to train with Chute Boxe in preparation for his K-1 Hero’s debut. After returning from training, Sakuraba requested special rules for his fight with Smirnovas. Having fought under specials before, Sakuraba asked for unlimited ten minute rounds. K-1 producer Sadaharu Tanigawa stated that he may consider some rule alterations so it’ll be interesting to see if Kazushi is allowed his special request.

Anticipation for Kazushi Sakuraba’s K-1 Hero’s debut is very high. With some of their stars absent at the moment, his arrival comes at an opportune time for K-1. Kestutis Smirnovas will serve as a solid opponent for Sakuraba and I expect an entertaining yet competitive fight. Look for Kazushi Sakuraba to earn a decision over the tough Lithuanian fighter and begin a new chapter in his career.

Kazushi Sakuraba embodies the spirit of fighting and has long been a loyal member of Pride. News of his departure is still shocking to many fans today. K-1 Hero’s seemingly has the upper hand, now that DSE has tasted a major political blow. Pride must work hard to rebound from recent unfortunate events. Although his current relationship with DSE seems amicable, is it possible for Sakuraba to bridge the gap between two rivals? That remains to be seen as anything can happen in MMA.