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PRIDE Before the Fall: a look back at Japan's greatest MMA organization

Rhapsodizing, criticizing (and feelings, maaan!) to mark both the seventeen-year anniversary of PRIDE FC’s first event, and the seven-year anniversary of the organization’s final, irrevocable close.

Esther Lin

Seventeen years ago this month, under the Tokyo Dome, PRIDE FC held its inaugural event. Rickson Gracie and pro-wrestling hero Nobuhiko Takada fought at the top of a card only seven bouts long, featuring fighters with a cumulative record of 63-21-3, a figure that drops to a much more modest 43-19-2 if you remove outlier and co-headliner Dan Severn. Two-thirds of the fighters had records near or below the .500 mark, and three of them had no pro fights at all, including headliner Takada.

Over the next ten years, however, PRIDE FC would grow into arguably the greatest MMA promotion of its day, laying claim, at any one time, to the strongest heavy, light-heavy, and lightweight divisions. It brought to MMA a sensationalism and spectacle never before seen in the sport, and likely never to be recreated. It's events drew arena crowds of twenty, sixty, and some ninety-thousand people.

In addition to these record-setting audiences, however, PRIDE, along with its parent company Dream Stage Entertainment, also gathered to itself rumors of yakuza affiliation.  This seems to have been key in PRIDE's loss of a television contract with Fuji Network, a blow which would leave the fight promotion so financially weakened as to be open to purchase the following year by Lorenzo Fertitta, co-owner of Zuffa and, of course, long-time PRIDE rival UFC. Plans to keep the PRIDE brand alive in Japan fell apart, with UFC President Dana White pointing to the inscrutable, byzantine business culture of Japan as the main culprit, and in October of 2007 the remains of PRIDE FC were finally put to rest.

PRIDE's legacy is a complex one, embodying the best and worst of fighting culture, often at the same time (Don Frye versus Yoshihiro Takayama is either one of the greatest fights of all time or a shameful display of numbskullery, depending on what time of day you ask me about it). No single thesis can really encompass all my feelings and opinions about it. And so, instead of a single essay, what I've done is pick my way through my PRIDE library this month, making notes not for one essay but many, in the form of lists and appreciations and diatribes (edited for decency, of course), to share with you, in hopes that you might share a few with me.

Confession Time

In the (flame)war between UFC and PRIDE fans, I was all about the Octagon. I recognized that PRIDE had the better heavyweight division (I wasn't delusional) but I believed that the UFC was the better overall organization. A lot of this had to do with a vein of corruption that seemed to run through the organization, in particular the way PRIDE matches were judged and refereed. And I didn't warm up to the PRIDE aesthetic until around 2005. And also I thought (and still think) that Goldberg and Rogan were the superior commentary team to Stephen Quadros and Bas Rutten (more on which later).

The Greatest (in the order in which they occur to me)

1. Igor Vovchanchyn, who kicked off a tradition of stone-faced Eastern Bloc nightmares in PRIDE, which culminated with Fedor Emelianenko, and which included Mirko Cro Cop, Aleksander Emelianenko, and Sergei Kharitonov. Kharitonov, by the way, has been undersold as an entertainer. He was a little up and down when it came to high-level competition, but he never failed to KO anyone he was supposed to, and the guy beat the holy hell out of Semmy Schilt when that Dutch ubermensch was still a K-1 terror.

2. Rodrigo Nogueira

3. Mirko Filipovic. Tied with Nogueira for the role of second banana in the heavyweight division. But when the person you're second banana to is Fedor Emelianenko, you're still a pretty big banana (there may be a better way to express those feelings, but I doubt it).

4. Wanderlei Silva. I've always run pretty hot and cold on Silva. I generally prefer the stoic demeanor of someone like Cro Cop over the animal mania of Silva, and I think that his run as champion in PRIDE was pretty thickly padded. You'd be hard-pressed to find a spate of competition equivalent to Daijiro Matsui, Alexander Otsuka, and Hiromitsu Kanehara on Chuck Liddell's UFC record. Plus, Wanderlei totally head-butted Guy Mezger en route to that KO.

5. Mauricio Rua.

6. Kazushi Sakuraba. I'm continually surprised at his success. He never appeared especially quick or ferocious, his striking technique seemed pretty all over the place, and he possessed little apparent raw physical power. And yet all of a sudden he's snapping Renzo's arm or going ham on Nino Schembri. Having said all that, I never quite got "into" Sakuraba. A lot of what others liked about him--your cartwheeling, your Mongolian chops, what have you--I found totally insubstantial, and I think he benefited from some serious administrative favoritism, including a purported, mid-bout rule change to his fight with Mezger (which he was losing). The flip-side of this is that he stepped into the ring under some pretty outrageous circumstances, if you consider the murderous fury of Wanderlei Silva a circumstance.

7. Takanori Gomi

8. Paulo Filho. I mean, maybe, right? He went 7-0 in the organization, grappling the bejeezus out of every 185-pounder PRIDE put in front of him (EDIT: Filho didn't, as previously stated, win the grand prix tournament. An injury in the semi-final round kept him from fighting in the same-day finals. Misaki, who Filho had submitted earlier in the night, advanced to the finals as an alternate, beating Denis Kang by split-decision).

9. Quinton Jackson

10. Hidehiko Yoshida. Way more legit than I gave him credit for at the time. His performances against Wanderlei in particular were pretty solid, and he submitted Mark Hunt in a fight that delivered on the UFC's not-quite-fulfilled promise years before to pit the best of two given disciplines against each other.

The Weakest

There are probably too many to name. Guys like Daijiro Matsui, Akira Shoji, and Alexander Otsuka were brought back time and again despite only being able to win under the condition that they be matched with someone equally hapless or that the judges cut them a break. The winless Yoshiaki Yatsu's entire MMA career is a two-part, twelve-minute-long poem written by Gary Goodridge on the subject of abject terror and human suffering. PRIDE undercards were basically master classes in the worst ways to work off gambling debts.

Best Nicknames (in no particular order)

The Brazilian Tiger

Crusher

Iron Head

The Fireball Kid

The Endless Warrior

Diet Butcher

Has anyone seen this video?

It's of a Japanese guy in his underwear, banging on a little drum kit while singing the name "Rickson Gracie" over and over. This was a point of serious bonding between my brother, dad, and me, and if anyone can link me to a copy, or at least confirm that it was real and not just a wonderful dream, I'd be very grateful.

In Part 2: PRIDE's commentators, referees, best and worst qualities, plus thoughts about what we've gained and lost in the world of MMA since 2007.