Pride Fighting Championships was magical. The pounding of the drums, the boisterous sound of Lenne Hardt booming through the arena, the jaw-shattering violence and the gathering of the world’s best fighters made Pride an unforgettable spectacle that became the hottest thing in Japanese pop culture.
Years before thousands were piling into the Saitama Super Arena on the regular the seeds had already been laid for a fighting organization with Vale Tudo Japan (VTJ), a showcase for Rickson Gracie declaring himself as the baddest man to wear a gi.
Vale Tudo is considered the birthplace of mixed martial arts, while technically the no-holds-barred fighting emerged in Greece with pankration it was the legendary Gracie family that took it to greater heights in Brazil.
Helio Gracie’s version of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the 1930’s was gritty, it was raw and it was like nothing else that the Portuguese-speaking population had seen before. At its popularity peak thousands filled outdoor soccer stadiums to witness the battles that waged on for hours on nothing more than a dirt floor with a light canvas over the top.
The bare-knuckle bash up derbies had been through numerous peaks and valleys by the early-nineties before Rorion Gracie brought his little brother Royce over to Denver, Colorado for the first UFC event in 1993. Witnessed by 2,8000 in the high-altitude state Gracie was severely undersized by all his foes that night but it didn’t matter as he submitted three opponents in 299 seconds.
While it was only short-lived this sparked a big boost in popularity for the underground caged-fighting organization and sensing a pattern from the west Rickson applied the same formula in the land of the rising sun, and it paid off.
Linking with Shooto founder Satoru Sayama, better known as the high-flying, innovative junior-heavyweight ‘Tiger Mask’ in professional wrestling circles the first two installments consist of Rickson tearing through the competition like a hot knife through butter.
The bigger, badder, meaner, stronger and downright better version of every other Gracie won six fights over his back-to-back tournament outings with only Pride veteran and MMA pioneer Yoshihisa Yamamoto making it out of the first frame.
After two years of Rickson rag-dolling and choking his foes the dangerous Brazilian was set to embarrass an outmatched Nobuhiko Takada in the first Pride main event so for the 1997 series the tournament format was dropped and suddenly all the brightest flames from the Shooto ranks and some top fighters of that era were headed to the now-closed Tokyo Bay NK Hall.
With the world-class athletes like George St. Pierre and Jon Jones that inhabit the fighting game today, men who could be elite at whichever sport they chose to participate in it’s almost comical to watch the first few years of VTJ but they were ground-breaking for their time.
Before VTJ there were only a few companies doing real fights. Pancrase and Shooto were around but both were in a strange phase of some worked-some shoot fights [although participants from both parties deny that to this day] and VTJ was the birth of modern-day mixed martial arts in Japan.
The next three years of VTJ were interesting if nothing else – Royler Gracie trashed early Shooto product Noboru Asahi, Enson Inoue lost to Frank Shamrock because younger brother Egan ran into the ring, Enson redeemed himself triumphing over Randy Couture the year later, Andre Pederneiras kicked Rumina Sato’s teeth down his throat, Sato ripped Rafael Cordeiro’s leg to shreds but most importantly it set up for the second generation of Japanese MMA stars.
Takanori Gomi, Tetsuji Kato, Caol Uno & Hayato Sakurai are among the top pupils of that era and they all got catapulted into the spotlight from their dominate victories at VTJ.
Ten years after the 1999 event VTJ went back to the races with their 2009 card that failed to knock anyone’s socks off, in fact my socks didn’t budge an inch. Sure, Mamoru Yamaguchi blasted Jesse Taitano, ‘Lion’ Takeshi Inoue finished Alexandre Franca Nogueira and Takanori Gomi got his last victory on Japanese soils but with their plans of bringing in fighters like Joe Warren and Shinya Aoki falling through it wound up feeling like just another Shooto card.
Christmas Eve 2012 it’s time to jump back on that same horse again and while this isn’t comparable to the glory years in the mid-to-late nineties it’s a fine way to waste a few hours of your evening instead of spending it with your loved ones.
The seven fight bill features a slew of Japanese fan-favorites with Hideo Tokoro and Rumina Sato both trying to snap two-fight losing skids, recently release UFC vet Carlo Prater steps in to meet Shooto’s 154-pound champion Kunivoshi Hironaka and Tachi Palace Fights champ Ian Loveland comes to face hot prospect and Kid Yamamoto protégé Kyoji Horiguchi.
Additionally, popular combatants like top-ranked female Megumi Fujii and 125-pound stand outs Mamoru Yamaguchi and Darrell Montague will also be looking to add some high-octane violence to your night before an obese man in a red suit breaks into your house later that night.
The fight scene that’s on life support gets ready to boycott sitting at home with their loved ones in front of a warm fire watching holiday classics to brutalize each other inside a four-sided ring and I salute them for it.
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