History of MMA in Japan Part VI: Pride crown champions & decline of RINGS

In North America while the UFC was on life support with the trio of Dana White and the Lorezo brothers trying desperately to resuscitate it, 6,000 miles away Pride Fighting Championships were about to take a huge step forward, the crowning of their first champions.

Pride 17 was appropriately named Championship Chaos packing the Tokyo Dome with 53,000 strong to witness the crowning of two champions, first up the much anticipated rematch between Wanderlei Silva and Kazushi Sakuraba.

The Japanese contingent in attendance were firmly behind their hero from the get-go, the calm and collected audience that we know and love began to sound like a Las Vegas crowd when Sakuraba was on offense.

Sakuraba wasted no time grabbing a leg of the killer from Curitiba, Brazil and putting him on the floor within ten seconds – The next ten minutes were highly competitive unlike their first outing with both men trading positions, punches and submission attempts.

Unfortunately Sakuraba suffered a broken clavicle during that round that forced the ringside doctor to call off the fight giving Silva his first title.

Receiving top billing in Tokyo, Japan in the early hours of Sunday morning was the heavyweight title fight between Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Heath Herring.

Herring was considered to be the next breakthrough heavyweight star to come out of Japan – With his cowboy persona, solid wrestling and superb submission chops industry insiders believed he was the total package.

When he got a shot at the inaugural heavyweight title he was 18-6 with wins over Evan Tanner, Enson Inoue and Mark Kerr and was considered the favorite against Nogueira who hadn’t tasted defeat in almost two years.

Nogueira proved against the Texan that he isn’t just a grappler showing off his boxing technique and when their fight hit the floor he made Herring look like an amateur – Herring battled out of a number of submission attempts showing a world of heart but when all was said and done Nogueira had dominated his American foe.

This night was also a memorable one for two prospects on the rise that will become major players in the Kakutogi boom down the line in Mirko Filipovic and Quinton Jackson.

Cro Cop really was the first person from the kick boxing world to come over to mixed martial arts and leave a path of destruction, Pride 17 serves as his debut in a Pride vs. K-1 rules match against Nobuhiko Takada where if neither puts the other away it would be ruled a draw and that’s exactly what happened but if judges were in effect the Croatian sensation would have clearly left with his hand raised.

He would fight under the same rules with the same result at Pride 20 when he faced middleweight kingpin Wanderlei Silva but in that case, having no judges worked in the Croatians favor as the under-sized Brazilian would have done enough to win on points.

Jackson made his promotional debut in July of 2001 losing to Sakuraba and this fight was his first time to show off his skills against a lesser-tier fighter and he blitzed Yuki Ishikawa – For a little under two minutes Rampage was on the offensive showing off his boxing arsenal and even attempting a piledriver before knocking the Japanese combatant out cold, falling through the ropes.

Beginning in 2002 Pride began promoting events called Pride: The Best that only lasted three events spread over eight months – The concept was for all the hottest prospects to meet up and face off against one another as well as throwing in fighters who had fallen from grace in the MMA landscape.

When this plan fell through the idea being thrown around was Pride: Survivor but before you get your hopes up it didn’t involve throwing Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba and Bob Sapp on a stranded island for twelve weeks.

The idea behind Pride: Survivor was to start bringing in more talent to fill out their cards, the fighters who lose a string of fights will go back to the Survivor shows, and if successful there they will return to the big Pride events.

In many ways, similar to the idea being thrown around today with regards to using Strikeforce as a developmental league for the UFC.

But this plan never went forward for two key reasons, firstly the fear that if fighters continue to lose in the Survivor shows they will get dropped altogether and if this continued over and over again it would leave them without a healthy crop of talent.

And secondly, with an organization being promoted as a group of fighters who aren’t good enough to hang with the big boys only the most hardcore of fans would be throwing down their money to get tickets.

Pride 19 is one of the forgotten big-money events in Prides history due to the main event with two fighters considered past their prime in 2002 but the drama before the bell had both North America and Japan intrigued for Ken Shamrock and Don Frye to lock horns.

Their rivalry began from a radio interview conducted by Dave Meltzer where Frye accused Shamrock of cheating on his wife in the late nineties with his eventual girlfriend, the nineteen year old Alicia Webb who played his on-screen sister during a series of angles in WWE.

Shamrock was enraged and demanded to fight Frye, interestingly enough the UFC was looking to host this grudge-match but financially it made no sense for either to fight in North America at that stage.

These two aging veterans of the sport put on an all-out war with Frye getting his arm raised when all was said and done but not after taking a series of heel-hooks that caused long-term damage to The Predator who stated these injuries led to his addiction to pain killers.

In the last series I talked about RINGS falling on financial peril despite being a hotbed for talented newcomers to the sport, in their final year before they closed their doors they put on two major tournaments.

The first being a middleweight tournament to crown their inaugural king of the blossoming division with their four-top guys battling it out with the honor being given to Ricardo Arona who edged Jeremy Horn and knocked out Gustavo Machado.

Finally they had the open-weight title tournament again pitting four top fighters against one another with Fedor Emelianenko being the shining star defeating Kerry Schall and Renato Sobral to win the title.

The following year RINGS closed its doors for the first time with all their top stars being moved over to Pride, the organization would again open for business in 2008 and remain running events today but have failed to make a significant contribution to the industry like they did for the first few years of the millennium.

Pride 21 is an essential DVD to your Pride collection, not because it’s the best they ever promoted but it features the infamous match between Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama.

Takayama was a professional wrestler who tried his luck in MMA, while he didn’t ever win a fight the 6-foot-5, 290-pounder was a part of one of the most memorable battles in MMA history — From the opening bell these two big men grabbed one another and threw punches.

With one hand behind each other’s head they used their free hand to throw bombs at one another in something that resembled a hockey-fight but after eight-and-a-half minutes Frye finally put the Japanese behemoth to sleep and thankfully his mustache remained intact.

This event also served as the promotional debut of Emelianenko who faced four-time K-1 World Grand Prix champion and former King of Pancrase Semmy Schilt who was unbeaten in a Pride ring up until that point.

The Russian made a statement with his first fight defeating the world-class striker who was highly regarded at the time on the judges’ cards after going to five-minutes overtime.

In 2002 Shockwave was presented for the first time, unlike the rest that would follow this wasn’t held of new-years-eve it was in August.

Shockwave was the annual super-show with K-1 and Pride joining forces to put on a blockbuster event, the 2002 event drew a reported crowd of 91,107 to witness MMA, kickboxing and straight jiu-jitsu matches.

The idea of the super-show was stolen from the pro wrestling handbook beginning with the National Wrestling Alliance promoting Starrcade in 1983 and was eventually brought to Japan in 1992, that tradition lives on today with every January 4th NJPW hosting a super-show bringing in talent from across the globe.

The two most important battles on the event were both held under Pride rules, the first being Nogueira squaring off with Bob Sapp.

Sapp was never the most skilled fighter on the planet in any combat sport but his giant physique and having muscles in places where most don’t have places he became a star in Japanese pop culture.

For a moment the fight community stood still as this giant man took from the wrestling handbook with a piledriver on the best heavyweight in the world, in typical Sapp fashion he failed to put the nail in the coffin on the Brazilian who came back to submit him in an armbar.

Finally the bout that received top billing when Sakuraba faced Cro Cop – It was this fight that pushed the Croatian sensation to new heights and made him a player in the MMA world, despite giving up almost 60-pounds to Filipovic he didn’t back down.

The kick boxer returned to what brought him to the dance later in the fight breaking the orbital bone of Sakuraba which forced the ringside physician to call off the fight.

Meanwhile in the land of Shooto, the welterweight [143-154lbs] class remained ruled by Takanori Gomi who was well on the way to becoming a superstar with a great supporting cast behind him.

Their lightweight [132-143lbs] class might not have been butting butts in the seats like their contemporaries ten-pounds above but it was a highly competitive weight-class ruled by Alexandre Franca Nogueira.

143-pounds has never been the most competitive weight-class, even today the featherweight ranks are abysmal in comparison to the lightweights so Nogueiras run with the Shooto title is often glossed over.

The Brazilian submission artist would defend his title six times in as many years – The most a Shooto title has ever been defended.

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