In this three-part series, we honor the impending UFC retirement of the all-time great Anderson Silva with a look at three of his most important victories: today, his battle with legendary shootist, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai.
Bad matchmaking is the bane of any combat sport. When it occurs it confuses newcomers and irritates, sometimes infuriates, long time watchers. To most who prepared to watch the undefeated 18-0-2, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai defend his Shooto Middleweight (168 lbs, so a UFC welterweight) strap against some 6-1 nobody from Brazil, this must have seemed just a formality.
Anderson Silva and Hayato Sakurai: Spiderling and Speed of Sound
Perhaps that’s too harsh. Anderson Silva had acquitted himself well against Tetsuji Kato. It was only Silva’s first match in Shooto and yet he had soundly beaten Kato, outmatching him on the feet with long jabs and straights. Kato had formerly fought for the belt himself against Sakurai and took the latter to a split decision. But this was still an immense disparity in fight experience.
Sakurai wasn’t just a record. One of the first truly complete fighters in MMA, Sakurai combined judo perfectly modified to MMA along with a devastating striking arsenal, such as his powerful knees. Sakurai’s attributes were as intimidating as his skillset; when he seemed to be in trouble against Frank Trigg, his good chin had given him just enough time to land an explosive hook that turned the tide. So proficient was Sakurai that some even considered him the best welterweight on the planet, if not the best fighter pound-for-pound.
Silva, on the other hand, was a far cry from the fighter he would become. This early Silva was an awkward, stiff striker, who used his frame, extremely lanky at welterweight, to pick away with jabs and one-twos. Though his takedown defense, as in all periods of his career left something to be desired, Silva did compensate with a guard that was difficult to pass or to work in. More importantly, Silva could be creative striking from the bottom; against Kato, he framed on Kato from guard with one long arm in order to build distance for his punches from the bottom.
As the fight began it seemed things were all going Sakurai’s way. After slapping Silva with a few low kicks, he suddenly landed a quick left hook clean. Silva tried transitioning to the clinch to land knees, but Sakurai pushed him to the ropes, seized a body lock, and tossed him to the ground.
But Sakurai struggled with Silva’s stifling guard game. Sakurai was trapped in full guard, unable to advance position or even land punches effectively. Silva, on the other hand, was able to land blows from the bottom. Eventually, when Sakurai postured up to try and force his way past, Silva kicked him off. This inability to pass Silva’s guard or land ground and pound from it would be critical.
It was when Anderson Silva backed Sakurai to the corner though, that his striking genius manifested for the first time. Silva threw a straight right from orthodox, which Sakurai slipped. Sakurai tried to break out from the corner by throwing a fastball overhand as a counter. But instead of backing away, Silva pivoted around the charging Sakurai, shifting into southpaw as he did so, and cracked him in the side of the head with a jab.
Unable to see the shot coming, Sakurai was clearly badly hurt and backed away. Silva pounced, throwing a combination and cracking Sakurai dead on with a left straight. But the Brazilian had become too aggressive. Tying up, Sakurai slammed Silva on the ground with a perfect Uchi Mata. But again, Sakurai became trapped in Silva’s guard and was unable to work before the bell marked the end of the round.
At the beginning of the second round, Sakurai immediately tried to tie up and throw Silva once more. This time, however, he failed, and not only did he fail, but as he fell to the floor underneath Silva the Brazilian was able to get into his half guard. Silva did some work from the top before being kicked off, and after a few half-hearted low kicks let Mach rise.
As Silva beckoned Sakurai up it was clear that the momentum was decisively in the Spider’s hands. Silva peppered Sakurai with one-twos before Sakurai tried to take the fight to the ground again, this time with a conventional shot. But now Silva was ready, and he clinched up and blasted Sakurai with a knee. A high kick followed, then more one-twos. Sakurai turned away, and Silva grabbed a body lock and heaved him to the ground. Silva’s use of top position proved far more effective than Sakurai’s. As Silva’s hands lanced Sakurai’s head it resembled nothing so more than a pool cue hitting a ball. After a brief stoppage to check the blood leaking from Sakurai’s nose, Silva finally locked in a rear-naked choke. But Sakurai was able to buy just enough space to make it to the bell.
In the third round, Sakurai was clearly operating hurt and fell easy prey to Silva’s lancing jab. But Sakurai still had something left in the tank and took Silva down with a trip from the clinch. But for the third time, Sakurai’s top position yielded nothing. He was trapped in Silva’s guard, again. He failed to pass it, again. And when he postured up, Silva kicked him off, again. When Sakurai shot for Silva’s legs, he was stuffed and found himself being trapped on the floor in the corner. Though he was able to get back to his feet before the final bell, the decision was unanimous and uncontroversial. Anderson Silva had handed Hayato Sakurai his first defeat and taken his Shooto belt.
Anderson Silva and Hayato Sakurai: The Aftermath
Not, perhaps, as glamourous as some of Silva’s later victories. One of the most decisive aspects of the fight was Sakurai’s inability to pass Silva’s guard. But as scrappy as it was, Silva had fought an opponent significantly more experienced than himself and soundly outclassed him on the feet while negating him on the ground. While his striking had not come together as neatly as it would during his prime, Silva showed flashes of brilliance, including good use of stance switching. The things Silva displayed in this fight would appear again and again throughout the rest of his career – his creativity, his accuracy, and also unfortunately his slightly suspect takedown defense.
Silva would go on to have limited success in PRIDE before a detour through the UK based Cage Rage and eventually the UFC, where his glory would shine brightest. Sakurai, on the other hand, would go to the UFC first and succumb to the strength of no less a figure than Matt Hughes. Then, like a phoenix, “Mach” would put on a series of startling lightweight performances, becoming the runner-up in the legendary PRIDE Lightweight Grand Prix.
It was not quite proper matchmaking for Silva to fight someone as experienced as Sakurai so early on. But what that did was show how even against the fiercest adversity, Silva had the potential of true genius. That genius would reach its fullest flower years later…