Forty-one years ago today - July 14, 1969 - Kazushi Sakuraba, one of the greatest (and most creative) MMA fighters of all time, the man later known as "The Gracie Hunter", was born in Katagami, Akita, Japan.
Our own Jonathan Snowden, in his great book Total MMA - Inside Ultimate Fighting, which I highly recommend, said "in Japan, more than anywhere else on the planet, mixed martial arts and professional wrestling are inexorably linked." Sakuraba, like such other major-promotion MMA fighters as Brock Lesnar, Ken Shamrock, Don Frye, Dan Severn, etc, got his start in professional wrestling. Sakuraba ("Saku" affectionately among fans), as is also the case with a number of other great MMA fighters, began in amateur wrestling. In high school and college in Japan, Saku was a legitimately talented national-caliber wrestler who trained alongside and competed with Olympic wrestlers.
His start in professional wrestling was with UWFi, a Japanese organization known for its realistic (while worked, i.e. scripted) matches. UWFi was huge in Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Japanese fans by and large believed that the matches were legitimate. Gradually, however, the rise of the UFC and Pancrase, and the merciless beating that Rickson Gracie put on UWFi standout Yoji Anjo, began to generate suspicion and dissatisfaction among the Japanese fans, as well as a curiousity regarding precisely how top pro wrestlers of the day would do against pro MMA fighters. It was in this environment that PRIDE Fighting Championships, the future home of Sakuraba and the setting for most fans' prevailing memories of him, was born. When UWFi closed operations, Kazushi Sakuraba briefly fought for the short-lived Kingdom organization. It was only a matter of time, however, until he found his place in combat sports lore: PRIDE.
First Sakuraba, substituting for the injured Hiromitsu Kanehara, made a brief pit stop in the UFC, competing in their Ultimate Japan tournament in December 1997. One of the worst calls longtime referee "Big" John McCarthy ever made - he called a stoppage thinking Saku was hurt when he dropped for a takedown - gave Sakuraba a loss to Marcus Silveira via TKO, a loss which he however avenged later that evening when injury to Tank Abbott allowed Sakuraba to face Silveira in the tournament final. This was Saku's first and only UFC event.
Sakuraba debuted in PRIDE at PRIDE 2, defeating Vernon "Tiger" White by armbar. A wonderful battle with Carlos "the Ronin" Newton followed at PRIDE 3, with Saku winning via kneebar in a fight still considered a favorite example of ground fighting among fans. Japanese fans eagerly embraced Saku around this time, starving for a native champion in their homegrown organization following the one-sided defeat of Nabuhiko Takada (again - the martial arts vs. pro wrestling theme) at PRIDE 1.
Sakuraba appeared in every event of PRIDE 2 through 7, racking up 5 wins with one draw in this run. At PRIDE 8 he faced his first Gracie. Royler Gracie is a multiple-time ADCC Champion and World Jiu-Jitsu Champion who is widely regarded as one of the most technical ground fighters in the world. Nevertheless, Sakuraba, after initially toying with engaging him on the ground in their PRIDE 8 confrontation, finally did and in short order had him in a Kimura. The referee, controversially, stopped the fight just before the bell, with Royler's arm twisted in a very unnatural position but having never tapped.
This fight was alleged to be the Gracie family's first lost in professional competition in decades, a situation that instantly put Sakuraba on the map to stay and set him well on his way to his common nickname of "The Gracie Hunter".
Royce Gracie, the multiple-time UFC champion who had not competed professionally in years, came out of retirement to challenge Sakuraba and restore honor to the very proud Gracie name. After both men won their first bout in PRIDE's 2000 Grand Prix opening round, they met in a now-legendary match at the Finals on May 1, 2000. The two ground wizards squared off in the longest professionally sanctioned MMA fight of all time - an unbelievable 90 minutes, split into six 15-minute rounds. The fight was conducted under special rules insisted upon by the Gracie family - no time controls, no judges. The fight was to continue until a stoppage via (T)KO, submission, or throwing in the towel - which is precisely what Royce's corner did after a full hour and a half of unevenly paced battle. Again Snowden, citing Kakutogi Tsushin in quoting Royce:
There was no problem until I got hurt on the left instep. In the sixth round, when I was lying on my back, he kicked my left instep twice in exactly the same place...I just told [my corner] about the pain [between rounds]. I wanted to make them understand that my leg was in so much pain that I couldn't move as they demanded.
Royce's brother Rorion Gracie threw in the towel following the sixth 15-minute frame. Sakuraba had been through a mythically long battle with a legend of the sport, the man who single-handedly put MMA on the American map in the early days of the UFC, and had prevailed. It goes without saying how popular he was among the Japanese fans (and not only the Japanese fans!) following this victory.
Following a loss to Igor Vovchanchyn, Sakuraba faced his third Gracie - Renzo Gracie - at PRIDE 10. Near the end of the second round, Sakuraba caught Gracie in a standing armlock that has endured as one of the most widely recognized and popular MMA clips among fans. Gracie, like Royler before him and Helio Gracie before that, refused to tap or surrender. "To be honest, I really even enjoyed that moment, because I had plenty conscious of what was going on and I didn't give up. I saw the ligaments going, I heard one by one going away, and I embraced that as a punishment for the mistake that I had," said Renzo of the famous submission in a piece he did for 60 Minutes in 2006.
Sakuraba picked up a few more wins in PRIDE, including wins over yet a fourth Gracie, Ryan, and a rear naked choke victory over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson - to date still the only fight Jackson has lost via submission - but his PRIDE heyday had come and gone. Saku fought an exciting trilogy of fights against PRIDE's wrecking ball of a light heavyweight ("middleweight" in PRIDE's nomenclature) champion Wanderlei Silva, but came up short to spectacular finishes in all three contests.
While Sakuraba lives on as one of the "founding fathers" of the sport - particularly in Japan, where he greatly contributed to the exploding popularity of MMA - he is often sadly regarded these days by fans as a fighter who, like Chuck Liddell, Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, and so many great fighters of the past, stayed on much too long. Age and all the high-impact wars Saku has participated in within the ring have long ago caught up with him, and while he continues to compete (most recently at DREAM.14 where he lost to Ralek Gracie), his days of being competitive at the top levels of the sport are now well behind him.
Few fighters - few men, period - stand as tall in the pantheon of the sport's greats as Kazushi Sakuraba. For all his contributions to the sport; for all his creative and unpredictable moves; for all his legendary battles with the likes of Wanderlei Silva, Carlos Newton, Rampage Jackson, and multiple members of the Gracie family; for all the excitement that he engendered and all the fans he has delighted for the past decade, Sakuraba was named by Inside MMA as one of the top 10 MMA fighters of all time - the hard-earned and universally-bestowed recognition for a lifetime of work which began 41 years ago today.