Kazushi Sakuraba has parlayed his remarkable mixed martial arts career into almost universal adoration, his popularity crossing cultural, racial and generational lines.
MMA royalty in every sense of the term, Sakuraba has always shown a willingness to meet any challenge at any time. No other fighter from Japan has had more of a lasting impact on the sport than “The Gracie Hunter,” who paired immense physical talent with once-in-a-lifetime charisma and an inhuman ability to withstand punishment. Sakuraba personifies courage and embodies the warrior spirit, embracing his role as a flagbearer for his people. He has packed his resume with a number of high-profile names, including wins over Vitor Belfort, Guy Mezger, Kevin Randleman, Ken Shamrock and Quinton Jackson. Still, his most defining moments have come at the expense of MMA’s First Family: the Gracies. Sakuraba also answered the bell against opponents who were much larger and more imposing, battling Igor Vovchanchyn, Mirko Filipovic, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona while showing no regard for his physical well-being. While he has not aged well -- fighters rarely do -- he will go down as one of the most influential people in mixed martial arts history.
Here are five things you might not know about Sakuraba, a man who certainly belongs on MMA’s Mount Rushmore:
1. He has more than held his own against the supposed cream of the crop.
Sakuraba has defeated four former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholders: Randleman, Jackson, Belfort and Carlos Newton.
2. Submissions are his bread and butter.
A protégé of Nobuhiko Takada and catch wrestling savant Billy Robinson, Sakuraba has delivered 19 of his 26 professional victories -- 73 percent -- by submission. Eight have come by armbar, five by kimura, two by kneebar, one by neck crank, one by triangle armbar, one by rear-naked choke and one by Achilles’ lock.
3. He was a pillar of the Pride Fighting Championships organization.
Between March 15, 1998 and March 25, 2001, Pride staged 14 events in Sakuraba’s native Japan. He appeared at 13 of them, going 11-2-1 in 14 bouts. His only losses were to Vovchanchyn and Wanderlei Silva.
4. His career got off to an inauspicious start.
Sakuraba made his pro MMA debut at a Shoot Boxing show on July 14, 1996 and tapped to an arm-triangle choke from Kimo Leopoldo at Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo. He would not lose by submission again for more than 14 years.
5. Only quality opponents have managed to solve his riddles.
The 15 men to whom Sakuraba has lost -- Nogueira, Silva (three times), Arona, Filipovic, Vovchanchyn, Leopoldo, Shinya Aoki, Yan Cabral, Marius Zaromskis, Jason Miller, Nino Schembri, Ralek Gracie, Kiyoshi Tamura, Melvin Manhoef and Royce Gracie -- own a cumulative 367-118 record, good for a .757 winning percentage.