History of MMA in Japan part V: Pride does reality TV & Brazil invades Japan

While MMA in America was under fire from politicians and watchdog groups at the beginning of the new millennium business was booming across the Pacific with all the biggest names and most marketable fighters chasing the almighty dollar.

Last time I discussed in-depth the openweight grand prix which was the launching point for Pride becoming what it did in its heyday, the popularity and exposure made their combatants mainstream celebrities in Japan with big-money endorsements and regular television appearances.

 Over the next year or two it was clear that the organization was headed in a different direction, instead of a large focus on professional wrestler vs. MMA fighter matches they relied on their blossoming talent pool to deliver the goods.

The reason wrestler vs. fighter matches were successful to begin with was because puroresu (Japanese pro wrestling) is presented in a realistic, smash-mouth style and in Japan their supporters believed that these were people you wouldn’t want to run into in an dark alley-way.

The problem was most of them had minimal training and most talented combatants would put them to sleep without breaking a sweat, in return this hurt the wrestlers image and his drawing power.

Kazushi Sakuraba took the first giant leap to becoming The Gracie Hunter in the quarter-finals of the openweight grand prix defeating Royce Gracie when he was on top of the world but he scored his first win over a Gracie at Pride 8 submitting Royler but that didn’t have the impact that wins over his fellow family members had.

“It was a lot of pressure being a Gracie,” Renzo said “They wanted my family to fight all the Japanese fighters so we came and did that”

By the time the year 2000 had come to a close he had four member of the Gracie family under his belt – At Pride 10 he faced the member of the legendary Gracie family that was touted to take back the reigns of control and avenge his cousin’s lone defeat in Renzo.

“I knew Sakuraba was the real deal, he was a really tough guy,” Renzo says “He was their star, he fought in almost event Pride event so I knew I was fighting a hard guy but I thought I could beat him”

 Heading into the fight with the submission magician he had never been defeated in Pride but that was about to change, the opening stanza was highly competitive with Gracie aggressively throwing his fists around looking to put his Japanese foe away while Sakuraba looked to take it to the mat.

The second round Sakuraba kicked it up another notch putting Renzo on his back for a lot of the contest putting the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt on the defensive for most of the round, with seconds remaining in their encounter Sakuraba pulled Gracie to the floor with an arm-lock before sinking in the fight-ending kimura.

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Gracie refused to submit to the devastating submission hold that broke his arm in a career defining moment for both warriors.

“I would never tap, in a real fight, I consider tapping quitting so I would never quit,” he says “I never had nobody ever come close to beating me and I always thought I would be able to take the punishment without quitting”

“That fight with Sakuraba I had the chance to see if I would tap or not and I consider the mind stronger than the body, even though it was hurting like hell and how much easier it would be to tap I just couldn’t” Renzo stated.

One of the forgotten cornerstones of Pride at this point and time was Igor Vovchanchyn – The Ukrainian kickboxer was synonymous with explosive knockouts and his ice-cold persona that he brought to all his fights leaving a path of destruction behind him.

Following his run in the grand prix that took him to the finals he had over 40 professional victories to his credit and was believed to be one of the top three heavyweights on the planet

in 1999 he faced Mark Kerr — Kerr and Vovchanchyn at this time were believed to be the two top heavyweights according to fighters, fans and analysts and were paired up to face one another at Pride 7 but the fight didn’t answer any questions, if anything it created more.

In a pre-fight press conference the announcement was made that knees and kicks to a grounded opponent were deemed illegal which would become a huge factor in their heavyweight encounter.

They battled in a back-and-forth encounter with Kerr getting the upper hand to begin with but his gas-tank became a factor as this war raged on with Vovchanchyn taking control and finishing him with a series of knees to the face making this fight a no-contest.

This fight is covered in The Smashing Machine where his girlfriend at the time who was a contributing factor to his downfall explained that the former two-time UFC tournament champion and NCAA Division I wrestler didn’t train properly and weeks prior was partying in California.

The rematch is often a glossed over part of the sports history, while it did not hold major rankings implications in December 2000 but paired with Sakuraba meeting Ryan Gracie they packed the Saitama Super Arena with 26,882 selling $140,000 in event programs alone.

It was the classic striker vs. grappler match-up and a seesaw back-and-forth affair with Kerr showing off his world-class wrestling abilities putting the 5-foot-8 striker on his back but Vovchanchyn wasn’t going to get submitted and worked to get off his back and land effective strikes.

After the first two-rounds had come to a close the fight was ordered into overtime as the judges couldn’t decide on a winner, in the five-minute overtime Kerr was dropped early with a strike and spent the opening half taking punishment from his adversary that gave him the win and was really the last significant fight in Kerrs career.

The main event of this event was the Aforementioned Sakuraba vs. Gracie match, the last of its kind until he rematches Royce in 2007 – Ryan wasn’t the most accomplished Gracie and had only one fight under his belt at the time but the Japanese pop culture were eating up their hometown hero beating up the previously unstoppable force of the Gracies.

In one of the more exciting fights of the Gracie-versus-Sakuraba series the red & orange haired Japanese sensation controlled most of the fight landing a high-volume of strikes and putting the Gracie in tough positions on the mat over and over again.

Sakuraba at this point was The Gracie Hunter and consensus pound-for-pound star and the only notable Gracie family member that he hadn’t beat was Rickson that was a dream-match for its time but it never materialized.

“Kazushi Sakuraba is the most unique entity I have ever encountered in my career in martial arts. His importance to Japanese MMA and ‘puroresu’ culture cannot be overstated,” Pride announcer Stephen Quadros stated “He single handedly redefined what a fighter could be, both personally and athletically. His mastery of the art of catch wrestling was peerless and his progressiveness kept him ahead of the pack in his formative years

“He defied all odds and became the first professional wrestler to become an MMA champion and icon. The charisma he had cannot be learned or manufactured. A man like Sakuraba only comes along maybe once in a lifetime” he says.

Also on the preliminary portion of this event was a match between Dan Henderson and Wanderlei Silva, in 2000 this fight didn’t hold the significance that it would when they met again in 2007 but was really the launching point for Silva.

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Wanderlei earned the moniker The Axe Murderer in his home land of Brazil, the no-rules, bare-fisted loosely-organized violence became his bread-and-butter and took no time to begin inflicting punishment on the Pride roster.

At this point Henderson was believed to the next big thing in MMA, the Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler had just won the King of Kings tournament in RINGS and was considered on a fast-track towards Sakuraba but Silva wasn’t anyone’s stepping stone edging the developing American.

With that win he earned the shot to face Sakuraba at Pride 13 – Despite most counting out the seemingly one-dimensional Brazilian expecting the Japanese sensation to remove a limb or two he made quick work of Sakuraba.

Silva floored him with a knee to the face and followed it up with a soccer kick to dethrone the top-ranked fighter on earth. In many ways Silva became the first to use Sakuraba as a launching pad to superstardom.

 We saw it as time went on with Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira that a win over the closest thing there is to god in Japanese MMA would leap frog you to the top of the pack.

Today if you ask MMA fanatics what took the UFC to the next level most will tell you it was their hit reality television series The Ultimate Fighter but what most don’t know was that Pride did it first – With the success of the organization in Japan they paired with Toyo TV to put on a reality series.

The series was originally named Pre-Pride and would eventually morph into Pride Kings with the concept similar to the Shooto formula acquiring amateurs from throughout Japan’s top gyms to get into a Pride ring and audition to move into the PRIDE organization.

The first coaches on the show were Masaaki Satake, Daijiro Matsui, Akira Shoji, and Alexander Otsuka. The fighters started and trained at various gyms around Japan for two months, being evaluated along the way. These evaluations dictated how the tournaments would stack up as the show progressed.

Much like the winner of TUF receiving a contract with the UFC, the winner of the Pre-Pride tournament would move up into the real Pride ring as the prize, this was the way that many Japanese talent first got seen, most notable Yushin Okami and Eiji Mitsuoka.

RINGS around this time were in financial peril and would eventually close their doors in 2002 but they really served as a hotbed for up-and-coming talent.

In 2000 they would run three tournaments – First up was their ‘rising stars’ series pitting their top prospects against one another to determine who was at the top of the heap.

Their best prospects between heavyweight and middleweight came to test their skills against one another, with Bobby Hoffman and Jeremy Horn topping the classes.

In the last issue I spoke of the 1999 King of Kings tournament, in 2000 they got back on the horse and tried again.

Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Randy Couture, Alistair Overeem, Valentjin Overeem, Renato Sobral, Kiyoshi Tamura, Jeremy Horn, Fedor Emelianenko & Ricardo Arona were just some of the 32-man field that battled for the honor.

A cut to the eye of an unknown Russian Sambo champion in many ways could have altered history, Emelianenko edged Arona in the first-round in one of the forgotten classics in the career of The Last Emperor before he was cut by an illegal elbow strike of Stuyoshi Kohsaka in the next-round of the opening night.

If we weren’t operating under tournament rules this bout would be a disqualification victory for the Russian, if not a no contest but since someone had to advance Kohsaka got the nod to move forward.

We could be looking at a completely different kettle of fish if the greatest heavyweight of all-time continued in this tournament, but it wasn’t his night, it belonged to Nogueira.

Nogueira was rushing to the top of the heavyweight ranks with unheard of submission chops and unlimited heart the Brazilian soon became one of the most beloved in the game but it was his run through this tournament that got him there.

antonio rodrigo nogueira

He made a splash in the 1999 King of Kings gauntlet making it to the semi-finals losing to eventual winner Dan Henderson but in 2000 he wasn’t letting it slip through his fingers again.

Nogueira defeated four-straight opponents over two events eventually defeating the elder Overeem brother in the final with an arm-triangle in a little over a minute.

Much like Henderson, it was this bout that got him a call from the Pride office and put him on-track for his Hall of Fame caliber career.

Shooto were well ahead of the curve for many years leaving a long lineage that goes back further than any MMA organization and the system that they must go through brings a deep appreciation from those who came through it.

When you see Shooters wearing shirts that read “Shooto is my life” and “Shooto and Truth never die” this is the state of mind that is bred, even when fighters become rich and famous Shooto remains their home.

At the turn of the 21st century the hot weight class was welterweight [143-154lbs] with Rumina Sato and Caol Uno becoming the top 154-pounders in the company for the early shades.

The Shooto welterweight title had been active since 1991 but until 1999 it had only been defended once and nobody had held it since the mid-nineties before the young crop of welterweight came to play.

Sato and Uno fought for the vacant title in May of 1999 with Uno coming out on top, Uno at the time was one of the most exciting fighters on the planet with his lightning-fast hands and unheard of submission abilities he got worldwide notice.

So much so that the UFC came knocking down his doors to join their organization and their virgining lightweight division where he was expected to rule the roost for a long time but it never materialized failing to become UFC champ on two tries.

When he left most expected Sato to take the place as the top dog at 154-pounds but the rise of Takanori Gomi came at the perfect time.

The Fireball Kid is at worst the second best lightweight of all-time, he began his reign of terror in Shooto going undefeated for fourteen-straight fights while winning the Shooto title during that stretch.

The 154-pound division was nearing its strongest at this stage with Gomi on top and a pack of talented welterweights underneath including Sato, Din Thomas, Dokonjonosuke Mishima, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Vitor Ribiero and Leonardo Santos all chomping at the heavy-handed ruler of the division.

 Thanks for tuning in guys, next time we take a look at more talent coming into Pride & their crowning of their first champions.

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