In the lead-up to any large-scale MMA event, particularly one that relies on PPV buys, there is often talk about Blood Feuds. About Rivalries. About Grudge Matches. Most of the time they smack of falseness, of marketing executives telling the fighters to hype it up; there is often no real animosity between the fighters, and sometimes there isn’t even any history. Even worse is when the attempted hype falls flat on its face; see Forrest Griffin and Quinton Jackson for a good example of that.
Sometimes, though, the emotions are real. Ken Shamrock—with his experience in grappling in Japan—was perhaps considered one of the only people with any real chance of beating Royce Gracie in the early UFCs, and as such, an intense rivalry built up between the two. They grin stiffly at each other at Hall of Fame meetings or conventions, but you know, deep down, they still want to choke the crap out of each other.
It seems like, at one point or another, Ken has had words with just about everyone in MMA. He knows how to sell a fight, as illustrated by the three quarters of a million pay per views sold when he rematched Tito Ortiz.
The UFC orchestrated a masterful hype symphony with Ken and Tito, building them up as bristling coaches on Season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter to culminate in a match that had fans frothing at the mouth and whipped into a PPV-buying frenzy. The rivalry had the most basic of issues at its core: respect. Shamrock felt disrespected by Ortiz, ever since Tito had unrepentantly dished out the punishment on some of Ken’s Lion’s Den fighters.
Being in Japan didn’t stop Ken from generating heat; he had a bitter war of words and a gruelling slugfest with Don Frye, presumably over who got to be the most pumped-up meathead or the guy with the tightest underpants.
In the same ring, Wanderlei Silva ignited a continent and promotion-spanning rivalry with Quinton Jackson simply by kneeing him in the face about a hundred times. Somehow, though, Pride had a way of making things seem bigger and more important than just two guys clobbering each other.
Take Fedor Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Two icons of the sport with one of the most spectacular trilogies of fights ever; and a complete lack of bad blood. A good rivalry is, in the end, about respect and about competition.
Sporting rivalries tend to come about a couple of ways. Either teams or players are in close proximity to each other, or they often compete against each other at important events. Japan and Brazil are not neighbours, but the rivalry between those two countries is an epic one that has been bubbling away since long before you or I were born.
The Gracies have been battling the Japanese for almost three quarters of a century, from matches between Helio and various judo masters in the thirties to Rickson’s general stomping of Japan in the nineties, to Royce, Royler and Renzo’s mixed success more recently.
There can’t be many MMA fans who don’t know of the saga of Kazushi Sakuraba, the Gracie Hunter and his cheeky, almost casual demolition of a previously invincible family, so I won’t dwell on it; suffice to say, it was an important chapter in the ongoing exchange of beatings between the two nations.
Just when it looked like the enigmatic Japanese fighter had the key to defeating all Brazilians, Wanderlei Silva came along, shoved the key up Sakuraba’s spandex shorts, twisted it off, and restored pride to his nation. Silva was the alpha male of Chute Boxe, a team well represented in Pride who would often find themselves up against the best of the Japanese warriors. Takanori Gomi, Pride’s Japanese lightweight hero, had a long and violent feud with Chute Boxe, taking on and defeating Luiz Azerado twice, and Jean Silva.
The chaps at Chute Boxe were no stranger to feuds; they had a bloody rivalry with country-mates Brazilian Top Team that started back before their battles in the Pride ring, but culminated in the Middleweight Grand Prix of 2005. Ricardo Arona of BTT outwrestled Wanderlei Silva, only to be stomped on by Chute Boxe’s Mauricio Rua.
When a rivalry transcends teams and generations, it’s real. But you can’t have a rivalry without a healthy amount of respect. Japanese fighter and bizarre superhero Minowaman trained in Brazil with the Brazilian Top Team (probably in between ripping the heads off chickens or dancing like a deranged elephant to hardcore techno), and not so long ago, Satoshi Ishii (Japanese Olympic gold medallist in judo) was spotted getting his not inconsiderable jawbone broken by Lyoto Machida at his dojo.
Perhaps the most heart-warming tale of "if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em" is that of Sakuraba who, after receiving a series of bone-crunching drubbings at the hands (and knees) of Wanderlei Silva, became a regular visitor at Chute Boxe in Curitiba.
That shows the true spirit of sporting rivalry, I think; a mutual, if grudging, respect, with both parties acknowledging that they need the other side, to compete and to improve.
(This is article 3 of 3 that I sent off to a magazine and they never got back to me. I'd rather put them here than have them disappear forever!)