One day, the most prized commodity in the study of cerebral trauma in a mixed martial artist may be the lumped-up brain of Kazushi Sakuraba, the 14-year veteran of Japan’s masochistic fight scene who seems to have little interest in aging gracefully and every motivation to do it painfully.
For K-1’s end-of-year spectacular, Sakuraba (Pictured) will reportedly face Marius Zaromskis, a violent striker good enough to put Nick Diaz on his heels and tear through Dream’s 2009 welterweight grand prix. Bizarrely, it’s Zaromskis who has suffered more TKO losses in the past few years -- four -- than Sakuraba, who has only been stopped by strikes once since 2005. But records don’t tell the whole story: Sakuraba is ailing, was in significant trouble in fights he survived, and generally resembles very little the man that was once considered the best in the sport. Putting his hobbled knees and geriatric reflexes against a little monster like Zaromskis is a strange choice. But strange has a different meaning in Japan.
Sakuraba’s compulsions for continuing to compete remain ambiguous: his salaries in Pride were allegedly underwhelming, and (again, allegedly) paid to Takada Dojo rather than to him personally. Money is an easy explanation, but he would be far from the first athlete to fear what his life would become without competition. He might also be the closest thing Japan has come to having its Ali in MMA -- enigmatic, talented, and a born salesman. If he’s not careful, he might wind up having more in common with that man than he’d like.