by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
When it comes to influential legends in MMA, you don’t get much better than Tsuyoshi “TK” Kosaka and Mario “Zen Machine” Sperry. Both fighters have been around since the early inception of the sport and not only have they been great competitors in their own right, they’ve taken it a step further by mentoring and leading the next generation of fighters.

At Pride 31: Unbreakable this Sunday they will meet for the first time in their long and illustrious careers and see which one may head onto this year’s Pride Open Weight Grand Prix starting in May. But don’t think that’s the only thing on the line, as this match could eventually help determine where these two legends truly place among the pantheon of all-time greats in MMA history.

Most people’s introduction to Tsuyoshi Kosaka came at UFC 16 in 1998 where he defeated Kimo Leopoldo by unanimous decision after one fifteen minute round (not the current three round format that’s used today). But TK had already had a very solid career in the sport spanning three years in his native Japan.

Beginning his career formally in the RINGS organization in 1995, Kosaka instantly became Japan’s premier heavyweight fighter. Winning his first seven fights, including victories over fan favorite Egan Inoue and future UFC Heavyweight Champion Maurice Smith, Kosaka’s well-rounded skills were well ahead of many fighters who still wallowed in one-dimensional styles of fighting.

After losing his first bout to Russian Top Team legend Volk Han in January of 1997, TK would spend the next two years alternating wins and losses, never losing or winning more than two in a row, including a loss to Frank Shamrock. While he would not always come out on top, he was always competitive and became a truly revered fighter for his embodiment of the famed Japanese fighting spirit.

With the UFC slowly evolving and always looking to bring in international talent, they reached out to Kosaka to become the company’s Japanese heavyweight representative and upon defeating Kimo, TK would go on to beat Pete Williams in his next UFC bout. This set up a showdown with Bas Rutten at UFC 18 and would become a very anticipated bout for Japanese fans, as it would match a longtime RINGS competitor with a former King of Pancrase, Japan’s premier MMA shows of the time.

With Randy Couture having split with SEG (the company that owned the UFC prior to Zuffa) and vacating his Heavyweight Championship, the winner of the match between Kosaka and Rutten would go on to compete for the title later that year. In what would become a classic bout of the early era of the UFC, Tsuyoshi and Bas would battle back and forth before Rutten eventually took control shortly before the 15-minute mark ending the fight. TK battled hard but would come up short in his bid for a title.

Over the next couple of years Kosaka would split time between the UFC and RINGS and would begin to truly make his mark on the sport as the second generation fighters he helped to train would begin to become dominant staples of the industry. In 2002 TK would place more emphasis on teaching others as he began to fight less and focus more on developing talent, taking sporadic fights over the next couple of years.

In late 2004 TK would be called upon by the Pancrase organization to compete for their Super Heavyweight Championship against Ron “H2O” Waterman and would finally gain his elusive title defeating Waterman via unanimous decision. Upon winning, TK’s students would hoist him into the air and raise him to the sky, the grand teacher had added yet another mark to his impressive resume, World Champion.

Over the next year Kosaka would be brought into Pride FC for the first time to face off against Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko, a fighter TK had defeated years prior in RINGS via controversial stoppage. Gallant as always in defeat, Tsuyoshi would impress Pride with his spirit and would be brought back for Pride 31 this Sunday to face off against another legend whose path closely mirrors that of Kosaka’s, Brazilian Top Team patriarch Mario Sperry.

Entering into his 11th year in the sport, BTT Founder Mario Sperry has long been one of the shining lights during the early development of gimmicky NHB into the current evolution of legitimate MMA sport. Along his path he’s helped to create and sculpt one of the most dominant teams in the world, which consistently has turned out some of the most elite fighters around.

Yet for all his success as a trainer, it seems the MMA community has somehow lost sight of the fact that with a record of 12-3 he’s one of the best fighters around. Throughout his career in the ring, Sperry has owned the ground, mastering the early art of the takedown, ground ‘n pound, to set up his trademark Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu earlier than most, developing the style that would be built upon by the BTT’s second generation fighters.

Prior to his entrance into Pride FC in 2001, Sperry had only been stopped once in his previous fights, and then only by a doctor’s stoppage due to a cut. So impressed was Pride by Sperry’s skills that they wasted no time matching him up against one of their dominant fighters, Ukranian KO machine Igor Vovchanchyn at Pride 17.

Sperry did not disappoint, avoiding the heavy hands of Igor, managing to take the fight to the ground where Mario’s skills were far superior. At just under the three-minute mark, Sperry locked on an arm triangle, forcing Vovchanchyn to submit, giving Mario his first win in Pride.

Next Mario was matched up with youngster Murilo “Ninja” Rua of the hated rival Chute Boxe Academy at Pride 20. Unlike his bout against Vovchanchyn, Sperry had difficulty with the lean and quick Rua. In the end it was Ninja’s speed and striking prowess that would do in Mario as Rua would take a unanimous decision victory handing Sperry only the second loss of his career. Sperry would close out 2002 winning his next two fights and then would shift his focus towards preparing his protégé, Ricardo Arona for the upcoming Pride 2003 Middleweight GP.

Upon conclusion of the tournament, Sperry would be asked to return to the ring to take on Light-Heavyweight King of Pancrase Yuki Kondo in Kondo’s Pride debut at Shockwave 2003 on New Year’s Eve. After a wild exchange early in the fight, the two would end up on the ground where Kondo would gain the advantage, cutting open Sperry with knees and forcing the fight to be stopped early in the first round.

Mario would win his lone fights in 2004 and 2005 and returns for his fist fight in over a year as he faces off against another great fighter/teacher in Tsuyoshi Kosaka with a possible birth in the Open Weight GP hanging in the balance. This fight could easily be considered a pick-em. Both Kosaka and Sperry are in the twilight of their careers and both are looking to close out the end of their fighting careers with a bang.

Neither fighter is known for KO power, but both are skilled enough to know what they are doing standing and given the right circumstances are accurate enough to take advantage of an opening and possibly place the other fighter on the canvas. It is on the ground where this fight will most likely be decided and while TK is more than knowledgeable in the ground game, it is there that Sperry thrives and should have the advantage.

With a win, either fighter has a legitimate shot at the 16-man field of the Open Weight GP in May. A loss and it could be the door for TK or Sperry as neither have a long term deal currently with Pride. Either way this is a match-up where anything can happen and if both fighters live up to previous performances, could be the sleeper fight of the night. Both fighters are legends, both will have legacies that last beyond their fighting careers thanks to their efforts as teachers, and that is ultimately the measure of their worth, regardless of victory.