Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Kazushi Sakuraba: The Greatest Mixed Martial Artist Ever

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There are some dates in the history of the UFC that while not immediately recognizable to many, mark some of the most pivotal moments in the history of both the UFC and MMA at large, from record-breaking title reigns to landmark achievements never before accomplished.

April 19, 2008: Georges St-Pierre captures the UFC welterweight title for the second time in his career, remaining unbeaten for the next decade while dominating every single major contender in the process.

March 19, 2011: Jon Jones utterly decimates a living legend in Mauricio Rua in a gigantic upset, claiming the UFC’s light heavyweight title at the still-record age of 23, and begins the undefeated championship reign that will cement him as one of the greatest mixed martial artists to have ever lived.

November 12, 2016: Conor McGregor achieves one of the greatest and most one-sided performances in a UFC title fight to date, not only securing the UFC lightweight title but becoming the first fighter in UFC history to hold world titles in two separate divisions simultaneously.

St-Pierre and Jones are interchangeably the greatest and second greatest mixed martial artists ever in the eyes of most MMA fans. If they are not given first and second place, no serious “Greatest of All Time” list is complete without their inclusion.

It is my sincere opinion that, for various reasons that have little to do with their undeniably glorious legacies, neither man qualifies for the first place podium.

That honour goes to a chain-smoking,  baby faced Japanese fighter who lost a third of his professional bouts.

His name is Kazushi Sakuraba.

Kazushi Sakuraba- The Greatest Ever

December 21, 1997: A False Start

At the end of 1997, the North American professional wrestling scene was enjoyable a period of unbelievable popularity and pop culture relevancy. The “Monday Night Wars” were in full swing, with the now-defunct WCW Monday Nitro going head to head with the now-iconic WWE Monday Night RAW in an explosive feud for the attention of (seemingly) all of America. Goldberg, “Stone Cold”, The Rock, Ric Flair: these iconic names were legitimately blurring the lines between wrestling royalty and bonafide pop culture icons, elevating the business from something of a muscular pantomime to something really, legitimately cool.

The same could not be said for the Japanese wrestling scene. Major promotions like All Japan Pro Wrestling were enjoying some success, but the emerging popularity of mixed martial arts amongst the Japanese paying public was proving bothersome to a certain sect of pro wrestlers.

Kazushi Sakuraba, at this time, was wrestling for a smaller and ultimately short-lived promotion named Kingdom Pro Wrestling (KPW), which specialized in a form of pro wrestling named “shoot style”. While the major American promotions were focused on larger-than-life characters, entertaining storylines and rivalries, “shoot style” sought to present a more grounded, realistic depiction of pro wrestling.

It focused more on “realistic” grappling and striking displays. Sometimes unscripted, sometimes planned, but always with a focus on presenting a more believable confrontation than their Western contemporaries.

Unfortunately, this style of wrestling was becoming less and less compelling to audiences, when grappling that appeared real was being superseded by grappling that was real.

That is how Kazushi Sakuraba, one of KPW’s biggest stars, ended up in the UFC Japan tournament. After a fellow KPW wrestler had both agreed to compete and then been pulled from the tournament, Sakuraba filled in as his late notice replacement.

The idea behind participation in this tournament was relatively simple: if a shoot-style superstar could prove himself in legitimate combat scenarios, then perhaps this could reinvigorate Japan’s interest in shoot-style wrestling, and KPW’s business model.

Sakuraba was not simply a professional wrestler, rather his skill set was far more suited to real combat than one might assume. Trained under the legendary Billy Robinson in the practice of “catch wrestling”, Sakuraba had great knowledge of legitimate submission wrestling, as he would go on to prove in his storied career. The idea that Sakuraba was simply a professional wrestler does a disservice to the proven combat chops of catch wrestling, and what an excellent base it proved to be for mixed martial arts competition.

This was not Sakuraba’s first foray into the world of mixed martial arts. He entered this tournament with a professional record of 0-1, having lost via submission to Kimo Leopoldo in the summer of ‘96. However, this match may have been something of a “work”. Sakuraba and Leopoldo may have known of the outcome before the commencement of the match, essentially a shoot wrestling match under the guise of legitimate combat. Leopoldo has never made a public comment about this match. Sakuraba has: he said it may have been fixed, but he honestly cannot remember.

Which is my favourite answer to any question, ever.

Sakuraba entered the UFC Japan tournament as a heavyweight. At the time, the lower limit for a heavyweight was 200 pounds. Sakuraba’s opponent, a jiu-jitsu black belt named Marcus Silveira came in at 243 pounds, a respectable size for a heavyweight even by today’s standards.

Sakuraba was 183 pounds for this tournament. He was 17 pounds below the lower limit and a full 60 pounds lighter than his opponent. To give a contemporary comparison, imagine Israel Adesanya being asked to weigh in slightly below the middleweight limit, and then fight a man the size of Stipe Miocic.

Sakuraba decided to drop out of the tournament upon realizing the enormous size difference and would reintegrate into mixed martial arts competition when a more even matchup presented itself.

Sorry, slight typo. Sakuraba lied to the UFC and told them he weighed 203 pounds.

This number was wholly invented and seemingly never checked. And so, Sakuraba fought Marcus Silveria. Despite the size difference being so wildly apparent that a blind man would likely ask for a quick jump on the scales, Sakuraba squared up to Silveria and the two exchanged heavy shots. During a wild flurry from Silveira, Sakuraba dropped to the mat to pursue a single leg takedown, when veteran referee “Big” John McCarthy dove in and waved off the contest, believing that Sakuraba had been knocked out cold.

The crowd is enraged, but not as much as Sakuraba. Speaking no English, he takes several minutes to realize the fight has even been stopped. When he catches up, he spikes his gumshield on the floor, and in one of the funniest moments in MMA history, attempts to pull the microphone from the hands of a then-unknown Bruce Buffer to protest the stoppage.

After the conclusion of the bout, McCarthy realized his error and in a move that would only have been possible in the early days of this frankly ridiculous sport, Sakuraba and Silveria’s matchup would be rebooked for that same night. It took place mere hours later, and after an injury to Tank Abbot’s hand in his fight ruled him out of his place in the final, Sakuraba and Silveira would settle the score in the final of the tournament.

UFC Japan: Take #2

It is important to contextualize exactly how preposterous this matchup was. Sakuraba was at a severe, multiple weight class size disadvantage. He was engaged in what could only really be described as a street fight with a referee, against a gigantic man with legitimate high-level jiu-Jitsu accolade. While Sakuraba was an accomplished catch wrestler, jiu-jitsu had dominated the landscape of MMA, with Royce Gracie being the most famous example of the smaller man dominating much larger and aggressive opponents.

Sakuraba was a physically unimposing pro wrestler with roots in legitimate, if largely unknown, submission grappling. Silveira was a legitimate heavyweight with an extensive background in a respected and proven discipline. Despite the controversial ending to their first bout, Sakuraba didn’t look brilliant in that matchup, one of his legs wrapped in a seemingly imminent leg lock attempt while struggling to contend with the power coming from Silveria.

Fight number two is an entirely different story. A quick clinch to mat exchange sees Sakuraba trap the arm of Silveria, looking for the double-wrist lock (or kimura as it’s more famously known). Silveria neatly transitions to Sakuraba’s back, all while Sakuraba maintains the threat of the arm lock—a move that would become inseparable from Sakuraba’s legend in years to come.

This fight is emblematic of what made Sakuraba so great. Whenever he could, he would force this wrist-lock and use it to make his opponents fight with a defensive mindset. You can transition wherever you would like, as Sakuraba would frequently give up his back, knowing that jiu-jitsu practitioners favor having their opponents back as it allows them to pursue an arsenal of both choke and joint submissions while maintaining a very dominant position with ease.

Silveria rolls through, largely removing his arm from the danger zone. A standing body lock from behind keeps Silveria in a seemingly solid position, until Sakuraba descends, hooking Silveria’s leg and forcing them to the ground, allowing Sakuraba to claim the top position. Sakuraba is now in top half guard, and Silveira appears to be pursuing an armlock also.

Then, in a true blink-and-you-missed-it moment, Sakuraba follows the path of motion that Silveira wants him to take, rolling with the momentum and taking Silveria’s arm in the process as he pivots from the left to the right-hand side of Silveria’s torso.

Armbar. Extension. Sakuraba grimaces as he stretches Silverira’s gigantic arms across his pelvis and hyperextends the arm.

Tap. Silveira submits. Sakuraba wins.

It is (almost) impossible to exaggerate what had happened here at UFC Japan. A pro wrestler with no name value and a losing record cleanly submitted a man 60 pounds heavier than him with a black belt in jiu-jitsu, in less than four minutes. At no point does Silveria look in control. He is constantly on the defensive, from fending off the wristlock to giving up a single-leg against the fence, attempting to control Sakuraba in the half guard. Kazushi Sakuraba fought a man who quite literally looks double his size had submitted a man with an undeniable grappling pedigree in a fight precisely nobody thought he could possibly win.

Sakuraba’s post-fight speech says it best: “In fact, Pro Wrestling is strong.” And he was right.

But…wait.

How?

Really, how? Fighting is not that easy, right? How did a guy that much smaller possibly beat a guy so big?

Because Sakuraba had found a fatal flaw in jiu-jitsu, and he would use it to dominate the ranks of the greatest and most prestigious dynasty in all of martial arts.

Kazushi Sakuraba, unbeknownst to his 28-year-old self celebrating a monumental victory in Yokohama, was on a collision course with the most dominant force in mixed martial arts.

And he would win.

This article is the first of a three-part essay, in an effort to present a somewhat unconventional pick for the greatest mixed martial artist in the history of the sport.

End of Part 1.

Main Image:Embed from Getty Images

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