Japan flashback: Kazushi Sakuraba the "Gracie Hunter"
Gracie battles a submission from Kazushi Sakuraba
In the 1990’s Royce Gracie was spreading notoriety for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), the martial arts brainchild of his father Helio. The Gracie family struck fear into their adversaries with their bottomless playbook of submission holds, but one man dared to hunt the Gracie clan.
Kazushi Sakuraba’s feud with the Gracie family earned him the nickname “Gracie Hunter” and changed the MMA landscape instantly. In the blink of an eye, combat sports became the hottest thing in Japanese pop culture.
The showman’s obsession with the group of grapplers began as he craved a showdown with Royce’s elder brother Rickson. The biggest, meanest, strongest and most skilled Gracie - but that fight would never come to pass.
The first time he tangled with a Gracie it wasn't pretty. Royce's younger brother Royler was trapped in a deadly kimura with Sakuraba wrenching on his arm. The Brazilian refused to quit to the deadly hold, forcing the referee to stop the fight, saving Royler from himself.
The Japanese sensation would get his next encounter with a Gracie at the first Pride Grand Prix – a murderer’s row of MMA competitors. The 16 man tournament promised a quarter million dollars for the eventual winner.
The tournament format added a mystical element of surprise. Onlookers pondered the potential match-ups but no fight was more discussed than Sakuraba challenging Royce, a dream match that almost didn't eventuate.
In the opening round of the tournament, Sakuraba met Lion’s Den member Guy Mezger. The American karate stylist dominated Sakuraba, bullying him around for the entirety of their bout. Fortunately for Sakuraba, the shady Japanese judges declared the fight a draw, calling for an overtime period.
“I had two weeks’ notice and hadn’t been training due to illness. I showed up even though I had fractured my foot and had the flu,” Mezger remembers.
“I took four bags of IV fluid before I got on the plane to Japan, that’s how sick I was. The reason for the draw they said was I had a ten kilogram weight advantage, which was not true. I weighed in at 90 kilos because I was sick and he weighed in at 85 kilos. They didn’t like the result so they tried to change the contract in the middle of the fight.”
As a result of the controversial judge’s verdict, Mezger’s cornerman Ken Shamrock jumped in to Pride’s roped ring, cussing at the referee and marching his student back to the locker room. Sakuraba lived to fight another day.
Sakuraba got his date with Royce months later on a Monday night to remember in Tokyo, Japan but it was going to happen under Gracie rules. Just like the original UFC events, there were no judges, referees or time limits - the battle include 15 minute rounds until there was a definite winner.
Almost 40,000 spectators patiently watched the epic 90 minute marathon. The bout had its share of pinnacle moments. Sakuraba, the Japanese combatant with bright orange hair almost locked in a heel hook and Gracie came within an inch of sinking in a fight-ending guillotine-choke. All in all, it was a relatively slow and plodding contest.
Over the course of an hour-and-a-half Sakuraba mentally and physically broke Gracie. Royce had no answer for the leg kick attacks from the former professional wrestler, with Sakuraba not giving an inch in their war of attrition.
The pair of all-time greats fought for six regulation-periods in a row before the Gracie corner threw in the towel. Royce was simply too exhausted to continue.
Sakuraba fought ten more minutes that night, valiantly battling 235 pound (107kg) Ukranian kickboxing machine Igor Vovchanchyn in the semi-finals, but the his journey came to an end when his corner threw in the towel just as Gracie’s brothers did two hours prior.
After that night, Sakuraba transcended his sport, becoming a national hero in Japan and the poster boy for Pride. Gracie is remembered as one of the most important men in MMA history.