History of MMA in Japan part IV: Pride Open-weight grand prix & resurrection of Coleman

There are some events that hold a different level of importance than your average event, you won’t be able to tell the story of the Ultimate Fighting Championship without the first UFC tournament or the first appearance on FOX, the inaugural Grand Prix Pride held in 2000 is one of those events.

At this stage, Pride wasn’t the phenomenon that it would become – They were providing a string of smash-mouth action-packed events but action alone doesn’t make you a successful organization.

History of MMA in Japan part IV: Pride Open-weight grand prix & resurrection of Coleman

The openweight grand prix was the first time that the North American audience could see Pride on pay-per-view getting an edited, condensed version of the final on DirecTV for $19.99 three weeks after it aired live in Tokyo.

To cater to their new audience they also incorporated English commentary on behalf of Stephen Quadros and Bas Rutten.

“I was flown to Japan in late 1999 to meet with Pride executives. I was offered the lead commentating spot in their American pay per view broadcasts. The first live event to contain English commentary was the Pride Grand Prix opening round in January 2000,” Quadros says “After those  events I had a meeting with the PRIDE execs, who asked me who I wanted to work with in the future. Immediately I said Bas and the rest is history”

Additionally, a bilingual American girl based in Japan made her debut that night that would become a unique entity to Japanese MMA, of couse I ‘m talking about Lenne Hardt.

“I just got a call from my agent two days before saying they needed a bilingual announcer who wouldn’t be shy in front of 40,000 people at the Tokyo Dome, I knew I fit that bill” she says.

Since MMA’s humble beginnings in Shooto & Pancrase tournament fighting had been the way to determine who was at the top of the pecking order and the next step for Pride — Between two events the winner earns four victories, $200,000 and the right to call themself the top MMA combatant on the planet.

For their first Grand Prix on January 30, Pride had gathered an impressive resume of fighters from all over the world ranging from kick boxers such as Guy Mezger and Igor Vovchanchyn, wrestlers such as Mark Kerr and UFC cast-off Mark Coleman, professional wrestlers Nobuhiko Takada and Kazushi Sakuraba and Brazilian jiu-jitsu pioneer Royce Gracie.

The semi-finals of the tournament were put together with a clear sight of who they wanted in the finals and all eight (Coleman, Kerr, Gracie, Sakuraba, Vovchanchyn, Goodridge, Shoji and Fujita) advanced to the finals on May 1st but not without controversy.

Kazushi Sakuraba drew the hardest opponent of all that advanced in former kickboxer who had  recently joined Ken Shamrock’s Lion’s Den facility and was well on his way to becoming a well-rounded fighter, Guy Mezger.

The fight went to a decision following fifteen minutes of Mezger dominating the action but the judges’ ring side declared the fight a draw, opting for it to go into overtime.

“They wanted a huge match-up between Sakuraba and Royce and that would not have happened if I won the fight.  The fight was scheduled for one round, no overtimes, they had to render a decision at the end of the 1st round,” Mezger said said.

“That was the agreement because I had 2 week notice (Hadn’t been training due to an illness).  I showed up even though I had fractured my foot and had the flu.  I took 4 bag of IV fluid before I got on the plane to Japan, that’s how sick I was.  The reason for the draw they said was I had a 10 kilo weight advantage, which was not true.  I weighed in at 90 kilos (because I was sick) and he weighed in at 85 kilos.  They didn’t like the result so they tried to change the contract in the middle of the fight.”

The decision to go to overtime enraged Guy Mezger’s hot-headed training partner Ken Shamrock – The future UFC Hall of Famer ordered Mezger back to the locker room and forfeited the bout so Kazushi Sakuraba advanced in the Grand Prix.

“Ken was looking out for me,” he continued “The contract was the contract and they were pulling a fast one.  The fight was over by contract.  There was no over-time in the contract.  How you get a forfeit when you fight a fight and it is over is beyond me.  There was no way they could give it Sakuraba so they pulled a fast one.”

In fairness, Sakuraba should not have advanced to the semi-finals of the tournament, if he didn’t move on and have his fight with Royce the history of MMA could be a completely different story.

Three months later it was time to come back to the Tokyo Dome with a star-studded line-up but with the first event failing to deliver the goods as well as the last minute cancellation of the Ken Shamrock vs. Nobuhiko Takada dream-match gave this event minimal media coverage and equal amount of attention from the general public.

Shamrock remained on the card facing Alexander Otsuka in his first MMA fight since the 1996 UFC Ultimate Ultimate and Guy Mezger also battled Masaaki Satake.

38,429 showed up to see the conclusion of this 16-man field on a Monday night and were given a treat for doing so – To get more attention about this card they allowed fans to vote on which fighters would square off in the opening round.

Naturally Sakuraba was paired with Gracie, Coleman and Kerr were left separate due to their friendship pairing them with the Japanese contingent in Fujita and Shoji, leaving the kickboxers Gary Goodridge and Igor Vovchanchyn to throw fists of fury in the opening scrap.

Opening up the night of action was the aforementioned Goodridge vs. Vovchanchyn fight, these two first met at Pride 4 with Vovchanchyn getting the better of the 250-pound behemoth and in their second go-around it was a similar story.

For Japanese fans, what came next was their main event, it’s in our nature to support an athlete that represents your Country and the Japanese believed that Sakuraba was the man to beat Gracie who at this point looked invincible.

“He was the man, he was the reason for the success of Pride, if he didn’t beat the Gracies it wouldn’t have a legacy in Japan,” Bas Rutten says “Japanese people need somebody to root for and he was the guy”

Today the Gracie name brings a stigma of being one-dimensional grapplers, at this stage people believed that if your surname was Gracie you could have anyone’s arm on your mantle at any given time.

With that comes the ability to carry favor and play by your own rules, Gracie believed that given an unlimited period of time he could submit anyone so when these two met in their unforgettable clash it took place with no judges and no time limit.

The bout was broken down into fifteen-minute rounds that would continue until we had a winner – Sakuraba began a trend that would continue to this day of putting on creative entrances that night.

The Japanese sensation walked to the cage wearing a professional wrestling mask with two clones by his side, when he took off his mask to the eruption of the crowd he had bright orange hair.

In a fight that has been heavily criticized over the years Sakuraba and Gracie fought for 90 minutes in a mat-based war that ended with Gracie having to throw in the towel because he couldn’t take any more – When all was said and done these two had fought six regulation-period fights in a row.

Next up was the fight between the first UFC heavyweight champion Mark Coleman and Akira Shoji – At this stage in his career Coleman was considered washed up by industry insiders the former Olympian was cut from the UFC following a string of difficult losses.

Coleman made the move to Pride out of necessity, to keep putting food on the table by punching people in the face Japan was the only other place to go – Coleman didn’t shake the image of a washed up old man with his first run in Pride.

In his first fight on Japanese soils he was submitted by professional wrestler Nobuhiko Takada and he followed that up with back-to-back wins that failed to knock anyone’s socks off over Ricardo Morais and Masaaki Satake.

“I started reading what everybody was saying about me and I started believing it,” the original champion says “I did not handle success very well. I started having fun and partying y’know and focusing less on my training”

Shoji was completely outmatched against Coleman, with his world-class wrestling and smash-mouth style of ground-and-pound “Mr.Pride” was beaten on for fifteen minutes before Coleman got his hand raised on points.

The final quarter-final match-up was between Mark Kerr and Kazuyuki Fujita, at this point Kerr was the fighter pinned to be ‘the next big thing’ with an NCAA Division I championship and two UFC tournament wins under his belt Kerr was the Brock Lesnar of this day.

It’s well documented his issues with pain killers, steroids and his psychotic ex-girlfriend that is documented in the gripping documentary The Smashing Machine which still remains the gold-standard of MMA documentaries but at this point he was on top of the world.

Kerr, being the larger wrestler, controlled Fujita on the mat for the beginning of the bout but, seemingly gassed mid-way through the first round, Fujita took over, out-wrestling the American for the most part. When all was said and done the judges awarded the bout to Kazuyuki Fujita as he took one step closer to being crowned the first ever Pride FC Grand Prix Champion.

Less than an hour-and-half since he went to infinity and beyond with Gracie the former pro wrestler Sakuraba was at it again in the semi-finals, this time meeting  Vovchanchyn.

Vovchanchyn was fresh as a daisy being three-hours removed him his ten-minute smashing of Goodridge and it showed; obviously standing with Igor Vovchanchyn was going to spell certain disaster for Sakuraba so he took it to the mat where he is most comfortable.

The bout raged on until Igor finished it with a belly-to-back suplex, followed up by a series of strikes which forced the corner of Sakuraba to throw in the towel after Sakuraba had just completed his 105th minute of fighting.

The final semi-final bout was scheduled to be Mark Coleman facing off against Kazuyuki Fujita however Fujita entered the ring taped up and in obvious pain so his corner threw in the towel before the two even touched, essentially forfeiting this match and giving Mark Coleman a bye to the finals.

The reason behind Fujita entering the ring and having his corner throw in the towel before Coleman was able to touch him is because this way he still received a pay-check for this two-second clash with Mark Coleman.

After 14 fights it all comes down to this, Mark Coleman facing off against Igor Vovchanchyn to crown the first ever Pride FC open-weight Grand Prix Champion, but as always in Japan there came a twist.

Two days out before the event took place Pride officials made the announcement that in the final of the tournament would have no time limit, both combatants must go until either their opponent stops or your heart does.

“He was destroying everybody,” Coleman says “At the time nobody had even come close to finishing him. I’m sitting there thinking ‘How am I going to finish this guy off? Because I knew the guy could go a couple of days if he had to”

Coming into this bout the two men’s game-plans were clear, Vovchanchyn wanted to keep this encounter standing so he could counter-punch the American and leave with a quick victory, Mark Coleman on the other hand wanted this bout to hit the mat and use his wrestling game to control the kick boxer and ground-and-pound out a victory.

The first round went exactly as planned Coleman using his game plan to control the large Vovchanchyn on the mat smashing his face with his signature ground-and-pound. Igor, not being an accomplished mat-based fighter, did little off his back which worked in the favor of the former NCAA wrestler.

When all was said and done, Igor Vovchanchyn surrendered to the punishment a little past the two-minute mark of the second round, but what followed was possibly more memorable.

When referee Yuji Shimada stepped in to stop the action for a moment the best fighter in the world lost his mind, an adrenaline rush coupled with the adulation of proving his naysayers wrong had pushed him to charge across the ring as if to hurdle the ropes.

He leaped but once airborne seemed to change his mind – His body went horizontal in the air, his feet got caught up in the ropes and his entire body came crashing down to the Pride canvas.

It was a little after midnight in Tokyo and modern day MMA changed at that moment; Coleman had won the biggest tournament in the history of the sport and marked the final time one-night tournaments of this size would be held at the highest level.

“I knew by winning that tournament I had shut a lot of people up” Coleman said.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the beginning on Prides soaring rise to the top, producing some of the best fights and even better fighters along the way.



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