By summer of 2001, as he prepared to meet Quinton Jackson at Pride 15, Kazushi Sakuraba had emerged as a budding superstar. He had already picked up his nickname, “The Gracie Hunter,” by taking on Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s first family and turning back all comers, from the first teamers (Royce, Renzo), to the bench (Royler, Ryan) and even the kayfabe adopted scion, Victor. While he had suffered a setback in his most recent outing, the first of three eventual beatings by Wanderlei Silva, he remained one of Pride Fighting Championships’ biggest draws and best fighters.
Jackson, who made his Pride debut that night, was a comparative unknown to put it mildly. The 10-1 former junior college wrestler had been tearing it up in regional North American shows including Gladiator Challenge and King of the Cage, but had faced nothing like the murderer’s row with which Sakuraba had been dealing for the last couple of years. However, all of the component elements of Jackson’s future stardom were already present, just waiting to coalesce in front of a suitable audience. His wins on the regional circuit had been sensational: colossal slams and suplexes leading to savage ground-and-pound or mercy-kill submissions, paired with boxing that was still raw but undeniably powerful. “Rampage” also showed the irreverent, insouciant charisma that would soon make him one of the sport’s top draws. When asked by Pride announcer Stephen Quadros where he saw himself in two years, Jackson, already sporting his trademark 10-pound hardware store chain, replied, “Well, I’m 23 now, so in two years I see myself being 25.”
Once the fight started, the disparity in skill and experience was glaring, as the far smaller Sakuraba shot a single-leg for a successful takedown within seconds. Jackson worked his way back to his feet and ended up in Sakuraba’s guard. From there, he proceeded to elevate and slam Sakuraba five or six times in the space of a minute, as “Saku” attempted to apply a triangle choke. While the slams may have prevented Sakuraba from securing the submission, he managed to avoid the kind of killshot that Jackson used to victimize Ricardo Arona in the Pride ring a few years later. Once they were back on their feet, Sakuraba again took Jackson down with ease, and after threatening with an armbar, kimura and kneebar, executed a lightning-quick back take and cinched up a rear-naked choke for the tap.
Despite the fairly one-sided loss, Pride clearly knew it had something in “Rampage,” and brought him back in November for the second of what would be 17 appearances for the promotion. By the time Jackson made his Ultimate Fighting Championship in 2007, a few months before Pride’s final collapse, he was one of the biggest stars in the sport and already owned victories over three former or future UFC champions, including current light heavyweight champ Chuck Liddell. The stage was set for a rematch.