When looking at MMA fighters who have transcended the sport it does not take very long for the name Kazushi Sakuraba to be mentioned. A scrawny, athletic youth that grew into a master of catch wrestling, Sakuraba had a natural charisma that drew fans in and his aggressive fighting style and flair for the dramatic made him beloved. But it was his famous victories over the Gracie family that turned Sakuraba from a middling pro wrestler to a Mixed Martial Arts superstar.
Born July 14 of 1969, Sakuraba grew up a fan of professional wrestling. When Sakuraba reached secondary school he looked at his options for a sport to participate in and jumped at the chance to join the wrestling team as he despised basketball and baseball. With almost no athletic background, Sakuraba struggled through much of high school wrestling as he had never grappled before. Almost all of the wrestlers Sakuraba faced during his adolescence had extensive youth experience in wrestling or judo. It would have been very easy for the young man to become discouraged, but Sakuraba loved every minute of it. What he did not love was the mindless repetition that came in wrestling practice, and he became known as the guy who would stop doing push-ups as soon as the coach's back was turned. Sakuraba was far from lazy, however. He was a student of the game and preferred learning something about wrestling rather than doing squats and sit ups by the hundreds.
When Sakuraba graduated from high school, he put off his dream of becoming a professional wrestler and decided to compete at the collegiate level. He attended Choi University, a minor player in the Japanese collegiate wresting world that had famously produced two Japanese Olympic Champions in the mid-1900's. There, Sakuraba worked hard on improving his wrestling, but it did not result in an overwhelming amount of success on the mats. His college career was highlighted by an 8th place finish at the All-Japan Championships and a win over future Olympic bronze medalist Tokuya Ota that shocked even Sakuraba. Again, here Sakuraba is playing catch up against lifelong wrestlers and despite being beaten badly in a rematch with Ota, this lone moment of success showed the potential the young man held.
When Sakuraba's wrestling career was coming to an end, his plan was to coach wrestling and finish up school. But during a night out, and after more than a few drinks, Sakuraba declared that he wanted to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler to a friend. That friend then informed him that he had the phone number of someone in a Shootstyle wresting gym. While Sakuraba would never actually try out for that particular gym, he was spurred to action and answered a call for talent try outs with the Union of Wrestling Forces International (UFWi) pro wrestling promotion.
The infamously tough Japanese Pro wrestling try outs were hard on Sakuraba, who was famous for cheating on his physical workouts when his coaches weren't looking during his wrestling career. The endless push-ups, squats, and runs broke down the young pro wrestling hopeful physically, but he refused to quit, and Sakuraba was accepted.
Sakuraba was with the UFWi from 1993 until the promotion's demise in 1996, and he was wholly unremarkable as a professional wrestler, but those years Sakuraba spent in the gym with catch wrestling legend Billy Robinson would be important. Born in England, Robinson had grown up competing in amateur wrestling, winning a British and then a European Championship. He then joined the legendary Snake Pit gym, one of the best catch wrestling gyms in the world and trained under Billy Riley for eight years. Robinson traveled around the world, wrestling and training wrestlers, becoming a fabled figure in catch wrestling circles.
A young Kazushi Sakuraba (bottom right) at the UFWi gym with from top left to right Kiyoshi Tamura, Masahito Kakihara, coach Billy Robinson, Yuko Miyato, and Yoji Anjo, and Hiromitsu Kanehara on the bottom left. Picture thanks to K.J. Gould
Robinson tutored Sakuraba in catch wrestling, and the young Japanese wrestler drank up the techniques and lock flow he was taught. In addition, Sakuraba learned striking skills, much of it karate based, as they were also a crucial skill set for a professional wrestler in Japan. His skills grew quickly, but the world of pro wrestling is a mess of politics where grappling skill was not the only factor in advancement. Sakuraba toiled as a middling wrestler as the UFWi declined.
When the UFWi died, Sakuraba went to Kingdom Pro Wrestling, but it was clear the pro wrestling scene in Japan was suffering. For years, the pro wrestlers had claimed to be the toughest and best fighters in the world. Those claims had been supported in stage matches and in Pancrase or other mixed rules matches such as Shooto.
But that image was being shattered in Mixed Martial Arts competition, mostly by the Gracie family. It started with Ken Shamrock's UFC 1 loss to Royce Gracie, but continued when both Rickson and Royler Gracie began competing in Vale Tudo Japan events where they dominated pro wrestlers and shootfighters alike. The Gracies represented a new, and yet very old, player on the grappling scene, a modified form of Judo known as Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Sakuraba's first experience with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu came in the gym while he was still a professional wrestler. One of his training partners brought a friend to visit, Japanese-American Enson Inoue, a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. At first Sakuraba was baffled by how differently Inoue approached grappling, but after training with him for an extended time he began to understand how and why a Jiu Jitsu fighter grappled. This experience would be vital for Sakuraba as, unbeknownst to him, he was about to enter the world of Mixed Martial Arts and take his first steps toward becoming a legend.
It was clear that the money in Japan was moving toward live fights, and Sakuraba followed.
Sakuraba's first real fight is something of a controversy, however. Officially his first mixed rules match was at the Shoot Boxing - S-Cup 1996 event at Yoyogi National Gymnasium in Tokyo, Japan. There, Sakuraba faced Kimo Leopoldo, a veteran of early MMA matches, and famous for not only his hard fought loss to Royce Gracie, but also knocking out American Kickboxing stand out Pat Smith twice. Kimo had recently lost a fight for the UFC Superfight title against former Japanese Pro Wrestler Ken Shamrock and had a failed attempt at professional kickboxing. Sakuraba lost to Kimo by submission, in what many suspect was a worked match, as Sakuraba clearly was the more skilled grappler. Kimo did enjoy a 60 pound weight advantage in the fight.
About a year and a half after this match, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, an American Mixed Martial Arts promotion, hosted a show in Japan and the UFC looked to include Japanese pro wrestlers to pull in some of the local fans. They turned to Kingdom, and they drew two fighters, one of them being Sakuraba, despite his being too small to actually compete in the all-Heavyweight event, showing a willingness to fight up in weight that would come to define and damage his career.
Sakuraba was actually alerted to his role in the event only days in advance, and he was paired with a hulking Carlson Gracie black belt, Marcus Silveira. This match came just weeks after Rickson Gracie had christened a new Japanese MMA promotion called Pride FC, with a one sided beating of a famous Japanese pro wrestler. To say the community of Pro Wrestlers was shaken by this event would be an understatement, and Sakuraba knew their eyes would be on him.
So, when in the first round of their fight the referee John McCarthy incorrectly thought Sakuraba was hurt and stopped the fight right as Sakuarba dropped for his soon to be signature low single leg takedown, there was outrage. McCarthy admitted his mistake quickly, and with the underregulated nature of MMA at that time, the fight was rescheduled for later that night. Sakuraba made the most of his second chance submitting the Brazilian with an armbar in just under four minutes.
Kazushi Sakuraba finishing an armbar on Marcus Silveria for his only career UFC win at UFC 15.5
Soon after his lone UFC win, Sakuraba was invited to join the new Pride Fighting Championships for their second event. Sakuraba would defeat a very experienced Pancrase fighter, Vernon White, by armbar at Pride 2, and then be a part of every Pride event through 1999.
During that time, Sakuraba would claim a 7-0-1 record, with six submissions. This impressive run included a crafty kneebar win over future UFC Welterweight Champion Carlos Newton, and a decision win over Vitor Belfort. Then at the end of 1999, Sakuraba was paired with Royler Gracie who, along with his brother Rickson, had terrorized Japanese pro wrestlers. The Gracies famously held pro wrestlers in contempt, and it had been decades since a Gracie had suffered a defeat, and despite the fact that Sakuraba had defeated a BJJ black belt already it had long been documented that facing a Gracie was something else entirely.
But Sakuraba was wise to the ways of Jiu Jitsu fighters, and was able to neutralize Royler's cutting edge butterfly guard, use his wrestling to trap Royler on the feet, and slowly wear Gracie down. The Japanese fighter was able to catch a Kimura shoulder lock and Royler, true to his lineage, refused to tap and the referee stepped in before Sakuraba broke the arm, handing the Gracies their first loss to a Japanese fighter since another God of War, Masahiko Kimura, broke Helio Gracie's arm in the lock that now bears his name. Sakuraba became a star in the Japanese fighting community with this win, and he was awarded a spot in the 2000 Pride Openweight Grand Prix.
Gracie honor would have to be satisfied and to that end the family would enter Royce Gracie, the three-time UFC Champion and standard bearer of the Gracies in MMA, in the Grand Prix as well.
In the opening round, Sakuraba would advance after a mid-bout rules dispute caused Ken Shamrock to pull his fighter, Guy Mezger, out of the match in a fit of rage. Many suspected Pride of engineering the situation because it set up a match between Sakuraba and Royce in the quarterfinals.
Royce was a legend in the sport at this time, officially undefeated in MMA competition and a veteran of grueling battles with much larger fighters, and facing a skilled Japanese pro wrestler his own size seemed a surmountable challenge for the Brazilian.
The Gracies had insisted on there being no time limit, and the match was set to be an unlimited number of 15 minute rounds, proceeding until one fighter was unable to continue. That strategy would backfire as again Sakuraba would win the battle of attrition, wearing Royce down and using the gi Royce wore against him. After 6 rounds and a full hour and a half of fighting, Royce's brother Rorion Gracie threw in the towel.
Royce Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba
Just a few hours after this signature win, Sakuraba suffered his first loss in Pride against Heavyweight Igor Vovchanchyn. But that would become a mere footnote as Sakuraba earned the title of "The Gracie Hunter" and his win over Royce launched him to fame in MMA communities outside of Japan as well. His aggressive style which included leaping stomps to grounded opponents, cart wheel guard passes, and the famous Mongolian chop made him a fan favorite.
Sakuraba had become a superstar to MMA fans in and out of Japan.The Gracies knew they had to respond, and it was Renzo Gracie, arguably the best MMA fighter of the family, that would challenge Sakuraba next. Renzo did not use the traditional, grinding Jiu Jitsu only attack of his family. He had adopted a much more aggressive approach with more wrestling and boxing integrated into his personal style.
The two met in the main event of Pride 10 on August 27, 2000 in the Seibu Dome. Renzo went right at Sakuraba, and the two traded kicks and punches in a close first round. Then in the second round, Renzo used a clever piece of de la Riva guard work to take Sakuraba's back standing. Sakuraba then locked up a Kimura and when he spun to sink it in he broke Renzo's arm. Renzo took the loss with grace, declaring that his only excuse for not winning is that Sakuraba was just better than him.
Kazushi Sakuraba vs Renzo Gracie Round 2
Sakuraba crossed into legend, in an era where the Gracies were still the pinnacle of success in MMA, he was 3-0 with two wins by technical submission against the best the Gracie family had to offer. Japanese fans had been in awe of the Gracies, and now that there was a Japanese fighter demonstrating dominance over the Gracies they flocked to Sauraba and he became Pride's biggest star. It was something Pride would exploit to the hilt, and Sakuraba's pro wrestling "the show must go on" attitude meant he was willing to fight anyone at anytime.
Pride would use their large weight classes and "open weight' fights to have Sakuraba fighting in big money fights, regardless of how much larger the opponents were. As a result, Sakuraba would never experience the consistent success of that three year run that peaked in 2000, but his popularity would only grow from there. Sakuraba would win a decision over Ryan Gracie, an unstable member of the family famous for his involvement in street fights.
In his next fight, Sakuraba was matched with an up-and-coming Brazilian star, Wanderlei Silva. Sakuraba suffered a quick and brutal loss to Silva, as the Brazilian claimed a quick TKO win. In his next fight, Sakuraba would face future UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in 2001. Sakuraba would win by submission, but it only came after Rampage tired himself out slamming Sakuraba over and over again.
The matchmaking moving forward did Sakuraba few favors as he went 4-6 in his next ten fights, five of those losses coming by stoppage. This included losses to Heavyweight kickboxer Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, jiu Jitsu fighters Antônio Rogério Nogueira, Nino Schembri and Ricardo Arona, and suffered another two losses to Wanderlei Silva. Sakuraba took a huge amount of damage during this three year span from late 2001 to early 2005, all in the name of making big fights for Pride, and it would have a lasting impact on his career.
However, Sakuraba was not with out his successes, and in 2003 he submitted former UFC Heavyweight Champion Kevin Randleman in one of his classic performances.
Sakuraba Kazushi submits Kevin Randleman
As Pride collapsed in the late 2000's, Sakuraba engaged in small rivalries with other current or former pro wrestlers, and experienced a short renaissance in the mid-2000's. He lost a rematch with Royce Gracie in 2007, but when Gracie tested positive for steroids that result was overturned in the eyes of many fans. It wasn't until 2010, when Ralek Gracie won a decision over Sakuraba, did the Gracies finally get a small measure of revenge. That loss came in the midst of 2-6 run that caused Sakuraba to retire from Mixed Martial Arts.
Images of Sakuraba sailing through the air to stomp through a guard or using the Mongolian chop to set up punches have become as much a part of MMA as any of Royce's victories in the UFC. It is often said Japanese fight fans don't care as much about the win or loss, but rather if the fighter displayed a fighting spirit, and there is no better example of that than their love of Sakuraba.
Despite the fact that Sakuraba never won a championship in MMA or wrestling, he transcended his sport and became an icon of not just catch wrestling, but all of Japanese MMA. He was Pride's biggest star, with hardly a Pride event occurring without him appearing on it in some fashion. Sakuraba never shied away from a fight, and even when over matched physically he always fought with the same reckless abandon, even if it wasn't always in his best interests. And with that Sakuraba is a worthy and proud addition to the God's of War pantheon.
Kazushi Sakuraba - Remembering Grace
For more on the life and career of Kazushi Sakuraba check out his chapters in Jonthan Snowden's books Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.