Rise of the Axe Murderer: Wanderlei Silva vs. Kazushi Sakuraba

In the wake of UFC 132 and Chris Leben's destruction of Wanderlei Silva, I wanted to take some time to look back on the great career of The Axe Murderer. Previously, we looked at his roots in Brazilian Vale Tudo competition in part 1. We pick up where things left off in 1999.

After putting together a 7-2 record and a fearsome reputation, Silva ventured out of Brazil to take part in the growing international MMA scene. After a quick stop in the UFC, defeating Tony Peterra at UFC 20, Wanderlei made his way to the organization that would be his new home - Pride. He got off to a bit of a slow start, opening his Pride career with two decision victories, but in 2000 he took off, scoring 4 wins and one No Contest in Pride, plus challenging Tito Ortiz for the vacant UFC Light Heavyweight title. These wins set him up for the biggest fight of his career to date, and what would be one of the defining moments in his long career. At Pride 13, Wanderlei Silva would meet Kazushi Sakuraba.

To understand just how big a deal this was for Wanderlei, you need to go back to, quite literally, the birth of MMA. You likely know at least part of the story: Japanese Judo player Mitsuyo Maeda travels to Brazil in the early 20th century, meets the Gracie family, and begins training them. The Gracies master Brazilian jiu jitsu, and, flash forward half a century, they take over the international combat sports world, creating the UFC, dominating that company's early years, while also making a strong presence in Japan largely thanks to Rickson Gracie and his much hyped 400-0 record. Today, the view of the Gracie legend is a bit more reserved, but in the late 90s, they were still considered by many to be the unbeatable gods of MMA. Kazushi Sakuraba changed all that.

With his wins over Royce, Renzo, Royler, and Ryan Gracie, Sakuraba almost single-handedly smashed the Gracie legend, exposing that they could indeed be defeated (prior to the Sakuraba fights, these Gracies had only suffered one loss total between the four), and proving himself to be the new unbeatable force in MMA. Add in wins over Brazilians Vitor Belfort, Ebenezer Fontes Braga, and Conan Silveira, and Sakuraba not only crushed the Gracie legend, he ended the idea of Brazilian dominance. He was, arguably, the #1 pound for pound fighter on the planet, and an absolute phenom in his home country of Japan. At Pride 13, the mega-star was set to face Wanderlei Silva - a worthy challenger to be sure, but a man perceived to be just another Brazilian scalp to add to Sakuraba's ever growing list.

But it was not to be.

More after the jump.

Sadly, no full video of the fight online, but there's a nice HL reel package below. Highlights from this fight start at 3:30.

In just over 90 seconds, Kazushi Sakuraba, the man who had faced down the Gracies, who had lasted 90 minutes with the great Royce Gracie, who had never truly been defeated, was simply beaten down. Brutally. Silva unleashes an absolute fury here, mauling Sakuraba with knees from the clinch, knees on the ground, and then a soccer kick to the face straight out of Vale Tudo days to finally close things out.

And with that kick, the legend of Sakuraba was irreversibly damaged. Just as he had done to the Gracies, Sakuraba was shown to be a mere mortal. And now we had a new monster on the scene.

The two men rematched twice more. Later that year, they faced off at Pride 17 to determine the first Pride Middleweight champion. Sakuraba turned in a better showing this time, lasting 10 minutes before Silva broke his collar bone and forced the stoppage. Two years later, they met for the 3rd and final time as part of the Pride 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix. Again, Silva triumphed, this time knocking out Sakuraba clean with a perfect one punch KO.

Looking back, this first fight represents an unmistakable passing of the torch in Pride. Just as Sakuraba had taken the torch from the Gracie clan, Silva snatches it away from the Japanese legend himself. After rising to the very top of the sport, Sakuraba was never truly the same after encountering Silva. Although he remained competitive for a number of years, he never managed to put together more than a 3 fight winning streak, with virtually none of those wins coming against top level competition. 

As for Silva, he would follow this win up with an amazing 13 fight, 3 year winning streak, establishing himself at the #1 205 pound fighter in the world, and one of the most feared men in the sport. These 90 seconds represent the true beginning of that fearsome reputation, and remain arguably the highlight of Silva's 15 years terrorizing MMA foes everywhere.

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