MMA History XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba's Early PRIDE Run

I'm returning to the MMA History mines with a very fun era: the unlikely rise of a Japanese professional wrestler as the greatest Mixed Martial Artist Japan has ever produced. I'm talking about Kazushi Sakuraba of course.

In previous installments, we've already looked at the emergence of Sakuraba at UFC Japan and even seen his was-it-MMA-or-was-it-a-work MMA debut against Kimo Leopoldo.

We also talked about the first PRIDE event which was headlined by Sakuraba's puroresu mentor Nobuhiko Takada losing badly to Rickson Gracie. The founder of PRIDE later said that had Takada won, he would have returned to puroresu and PRIDE would have been a one-time-only event.

Instead, PRIDE would go on to be the world's top MMA promotion for most of the following decade and Kazushi Sakuraba would emerge as the promotion's greatest star.

That would have been seen as an unlikely turn of events by fans familiar with Sakuraba's low man on the totem pole status in Takada's UWFi and Kingdom stables. Sakuraba was an accomplished collegiate wrestler before going "pro" but it was Kiyoshi Tamura who was seen as the rising star.

Sakuraba had turned some heads by winning a four man tournament at UFC Japan, but few expected great things from the undersized Japanese pro wrestler. Sakuraba's two fights in the same night -- originally the first was ruled a loss then ruled a NC setting Saku up for a win in the rematch against Conan Silveira -- seemed too weird. Personally I dismissed it as puroresu trickery, especially coming on the same card as Vitor Belfort's fishy submission win over Joe Charles.

But from PRIDE 2 in March 1998 to PRIDE 7 in September 1999, Sakuraba but together a string of fights against a string of highly regarded fighters that remain among the most delightful exhibitions of grappling ever seen in MMA. Along the way he beat Vernon "Tiger" White, Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort, Brazilian Luta Livre ace Ebenezer Fontes Braga, UFC vet Anthony Macias, and tied Allan Goes. Most of those guys enjoyed at least 20 pound weight advantages over Sakuraba.

This was the rising star phase of Sakuraba's career, comparable to where Jon Jones is in 2010.

First up for Saku was Ken Shamrock protege and Pancrase veteran Vernon "Tiger" White. Here's 411 Mania talking about Sakuraba vs Vernon "Tiger" White from PRIDE 2:

Interesting comment from Quadros who says that this might be the most technical fight he has seen in MMA up to this point. I'm inclined to agree, as off of the top of my head at least, I can't think of a fight in the UFC, Pride or my admittedly limited Pancrase knowledge that matched this in terms of grappling. Had there been judges I think it would have been hard to score this round as both fighters got in good positions, Sakuraba had the submission threat but Vernon had the slightly superior strikes.

Starting with the win over Tiger White, Sakuraba caught the fancy of fans who were awed by Saku's blend of take down skill, the purest expression of catch-as-catch-can's approach to submission grappling, and effective kicking based stand up. See the fight here.

In the full entry, we'll break down Sakuraba's catch wrestling genius and look at lots of fights from this period.

Coming into PRIDE 3, Carlos Newton had a much bigger reputation than Sakuraba. Newton was fresh off a controversial decision loss to Dan Henderson at UFC 17 in the finals of a four man "middleweight" (200lbs) tournament. Newton had given Henderson everything he could handle on the feet and even gotten some take downs and reversals on the Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler.

But the positional philosophy that Newton brought with him from jiu jitsu proved to not have an answer for Sakuraba's catch wrestling. Sakuraba had been an adept student of Billy Robinson and to this day we've not seen anyone apply pure catch to MMA to such an extent. The full fight is a little further down the page.

From there, Sakuraba tied with Carlson Gracie student Alan Goes and then came face to face with "the Phenom" Vitor Belfort. Here's how 411 Mania summed up that bout:

Dominating performance from Sakuraba and he just completely took Belfort out of his gameplan and then took his heart. Quadros questions whether Belfort might have hurt one of his hands early in the fight because he stopped punching VERY early in the first round and that was about it. A big win for Sakuraba which served to legitimize him as a complete mixed martial artist, as opposed to just a strong grappler.

Sakuraba survived an early punching blitz from Belfort, during which Vitor likely broke one or both hands, then used his spinning back kick to the body to repeatedly hurt Belfort standing. Vitor spent most of the bout flopping to his back rather than exchange on the feet with Sakuraba.

After beating Fontes Braga and UFC vet Anthony Macias, Sakuraba would be ready for his first fight with a Gracie.

Now let's look at some fights.

Here's a brilliant break down of Sakuraba's PRIDE 3 bout with Carlos Newton, widely considered to be the most entertaining grappling bout in modern MMA history. This video makes a strong case that Sakuraba was by far the most accomplished exponent of a nearly pure catch as catch can approach to grappling for MMA:


Here's Sakuraba demo'ing a very catch wrestling neck crank applied after using the legs to roll a turtled-up opponent (makes me think of the old time catch legend Clarence Eklund who was known as the king of the "leg wrestlers" -- grapplers who used their legs like a second pair of arms to control opponents):

Newton vs Sakuraba the full fight at PRIDE 3, June 24, 1998 Part 1:

Sakuraba vs Newton Part 2:

HL of Sakuraba vs Vitor Belfort PRIDE 5 April 29, 1999


Kazushi Sakuraba VS Vitor Belfort HL

Here's Marco Ruas vs Gary Goodridge from PRIDE 2, March 15, 1998
This was an important fight as Ruas, the UFC 7 tournament winner, at the time had a big rep and an MMA record marred only by a boring decision loss and an even more boring tie against Oleg Taktarov. Ruas was coming in off a win over UFC veteran Pat Smith. Goodridge had KTFO'd Oleg so bad at PRIDE 1 that the Russian retired. So Ruas getting the win over the very powerful and dangerous Canadian kept him high in the heavyweight rankings.


Other notable fights from this period include Mark Kerr's frustrating string of fights in which a series of highly touted Brazilian heavy weights proved more interested in escaping the ring than trying to fight Kerr. Kerr's fights with Mestre Hulk, Pedro Otavio, and Hugo Duarte came after his two UFC tournament wins in which he didn't face a single credible challenger and barely broke a sweat.

Also RINGS fighter and Frank Shamrock training partner Tsuyoshi Kohsaka notched an impressive win over a then highly regarded Kimo Leopoldo at UFC 16. Watch that fight.

The Gracies, Royler, Renzo and Rickson were active in the early PRIDEs, but other than Rickson's marquee wins over Takada, none of their matches were that notable. The important thing was the Gracie legend remained untouched and no Japanese fighters were able to get a win over a Gracie. That would change.

Earlier installments:

XXII: Catch Wrestling and Kazushi Sakuraba's Early PRIDE Run
XXI: The Amazing UFC Championship Run of Frank Shamrock

XX: Kazushi Sakuraba and Frank Shamrock Emerge at Ultimate Japan
XIX: The Humbled PRIDE of Nobuhiko Takada
XVIII: The Losses of Luta Livre
XVII: The Lion's Den Roars
XVI: Rico Chiapparelli and the RAW Team
XV: Pancrase, RINGS, and Shooto 1996
XIV: Boom and Bust in Brazil
XIII: Coleman Gets His Kicks
XII: End of the UFC Glory Days
XI: Carlson Gracie's Mighty Camp
X: The Reign of the Wrestlers
IX: Strikers Attack
VIII: From Russia With Leglocks
VII: A New Phase in the UFC
VI: A Dutch Detour
V: The Reign of Royce
IV: Rickson Brings Jiu Jitsu Back to Japan
III: Proto MMA Evolves Out of Worked Pro Wrestling in Japan
II: The Ur-Brazilian MMA Feud: BJJ vs Luta Livre and the Style They Never Saw Coming
I: UFC 1 Pancrase meets BJJ

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