First came the soft punches to the side of the head, each hammering away a little resistance for the heavily tattooed arm to snake around the gargantuan pickle jar sized neck of the man in the wrestling shoes. Then the hooks went in and Jeff Monson compressed Kazuyuki Fujita’s beefy neck, the latter desperately tapping to end the fight. The pain on Fujita’s face was tragically poetic as the victor stoically walked away. The arena around them might as well have imploded to continue the tragic streak. But with that rear naked choke, an era was finished. Never again would a ring be bathed in white light with gladiators fighting on in an eerie silence from the intensely focused Japanese crowd. It was over and memories were all I was left with.
The main event of Pride 34: Kamikaze was unremarkable on paper, but its combatants carried the baggage of their respective franchises. Jeff Monson repped the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) for whom this event was a garden party before their coronation ceremony as kings of the MMA world. Fujita was from the Pride stable, a Japanese company man fighting to resurrect the dignity of his employers. The fight ended just like the boardroom battle for Pride – one the worlds largest MMA promotion - had played out.
Through the dark ages of MMA and the baby steps of the Zuffa owned UFC that produced putrid events like UFC 33: Victory in Vegas, there was a vague sense that something better existed. A utopia where MMA was not just a backalley curiosity PPV attraction, yellow cards were handed out for timidity, where premium jiu-jitsu was on display and kickboxers knew how to sprawl. Thousands would fill cavernous arenas to watch the combatants in the white ring, that sometimes took on a carnival atmosphere when the obese were pitted against hyperactive pituitary glands. Those were our dark ages as we watched and marveled at grainy fight footage that good Samaritans had left us to find online.
Like a veteran sailor who had seen the world, talking to villagers who had never been past the village square, I sneered at the early UFC fans crawling out of the Tapout primordial ooze who would worship at the feet of Tim Sylvia. I had seen a man who called himself “Minotauro” who would make short work of him. That Russian guy, Fedor was no joke either. There was the slamming Quinton Jackson, the razor kneed Wanderlei Silva and the indestructible Kazushi Sakuraba. What made the Pride era special was being in the possession of exclusive knowledge of a world whose horizon extended beyond Tito Ortiz. It was international, showcased the Budo spirit and the best of all disciplines. The grand prix tournaments that engineered classics with alarming regularity are now the stuff of legend. Something the Sylvia nuthuggers would never see. A mountain they refused to notice. Pride was a vision of what MMA could somehow become stateside in stature and spectacle.
How badly had Mr. Monson symbolically wrecked that vision with his choke. The hours spent collecting fight footage, dissecting slams and slugfests, debating the pros and cons of Wajutsu Keisukai versus the Takada dojo in internet back alleys were a part of my life and that of many others. It was our Narnia that the fatties who couldn’t fit into the wardrobe would never know. We could only talk about the grand MMA affairs we had witnessed to the non-believers. But our world was usurped by the ugly sister and she was in charge of redecoration.
Pride events were held irregularly, sometimes close and at other times with months in between. Fight cards were sometimes scheduled barely days before an event and the suspense kept us hooked. But each event would reveal a highlight in the annals of MMA (Annals, lol). The aforementioned Jackson slams, the countless knees delivered by Silva, the abnormal sight of dueling colossi, the resilience of Nogueira and the subzero demeanor of Fedor.
Like all Pride shows, No. 34 produced its share of indelible moments. A new phenom (at the time at least) had knocked out Ricardo Arona, the human Octopus Shinya Aoki clinically submitted a dutch striker and James Thompson and a Magnum PI lookalike indulged in a slugfest redolent of another bygone classic. But what would we do with those moments? There was talk of an exchange program between the UFC and Pride, a rumored welterweight tourney that provided a glimmer of hope. But they all died on that fateful Sunday. The end of Pride 34 left me with memories, indelible images of fights and the dull sense that things would never be the same.
And what now? The once indestructible promotion had fallen. But so had a titan named GSP. Felled by a dwarf on the same night. An irony that highlighted the fickleness of our sport. Prime real estate in the once pure enclave I inhabited was being snagged up by foil encrusted tshirt wearing freaks that were drawn in by the lights of a reality show. They had the temerity to argue that their reality show winners were better than my heroes. Well, as time would tell, they weren’t totally off the mark there. My once pristine world of MMA was finished. The bright lights of Tokyo had been turned off, there was no illusion of an undiscovered world driving forward. The Affliction crew would be moving in. So, Pride was torn up. A tasty morsel for the UFC machine.
The acquisition brought some good fights to the Octagon as jobless fighters and fading legends trickled in. The world did not end. It went on. There was just one more promotion by the wayside.