Fight Facts Retrospective: Kazushi Sakuraba

By: Jay Pettry
May 1, 2020

Fight Facts Retrospective is a branch of the Fight Facts series that chronicles the accomplishments and achievements of legendary fighters and historic promotions. Join us as we celebrate the career of the MMA pioneer Kazushi Sakuraba, ahead of the 20th anniversary of his momentous battle with Royce Gracie at the Pride Fighting Championships Grand Prix 2000 Finals.

Nicknamed “The Gracie Hunter,” the iconic Sakuraba feared no man in any weight class during his unprecedented run in Pride Fighting Championships. A first-ballot MMA hall of famer and an actual Ultimate Fighting Championship hall of famer, Sakuraba almost certainly resides on the MMA-imagined version of Mount Rushmore.

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THE FIRST DANCE: Sakuraba’s first professional bout came against Kimo Leopoldo, a man who outweighed him significantly. Sakuraba ultimately succumbed to an arm-triangle choke and before joining the UFC and then Pride, he competed in multiple mixed-rules matches against the likes of Paul Herrera, Rene Rooze and Mark Hall.

PROFESSIONAL WRESTLING IS STRONG: The first bout for Sakuraba in a major promotion was in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where he prevailed in the Ultimate Japan heavyweight tournament at UFC 15.5. He first met Marcus Silveira in the semifinals, where an early stoppage from referee John McCarthy and a subsequent review saw the bout overturned to a no contest. When David Abbott suffered an injury and withdrew from the final, Sakuraba rematched and armbarred Silveira to win the tournament.

MORE PRIDE THAN SHOJI: After making his promotional debut at Pride 2, Sakuraba competed in the Japanese organization’s next eight consecutive events. He is the only fighter of that era to appear at every Pride card from Pride 2 to the Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals, spanning over two years of shows.

A GRACIE HUNTER WAS HE: Sakuraba won each of his first four encounters with members of the Gracie clan. In his first such meeting with Royler Gracie at Pride 8 in 1999, Sakuraba hit a kimura that forced referee intervention, marking the first time a Gracie had ever lost in major MMA competition.

OH BOY, HERE I GO HUNTING AGAIN: After submitting Royler, Sakuraba went on to hand Royce Gracie his first career defeat in a bout unmatched in major MMA history. Like Royler, Royce was also undefeated at the time. Although his next opponent, Renzo Gracie, had lost once, Sakuraba did the unthinkable by also submitting him with a kimura.

LONG TIME TO GO WITHOUT A CIGARETTE BREAK: Engaging in the lengthiest match in major MMA history against Royce at the Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals, Sakuraba won the contest by technical knockout. With rounds scheduled for 15 minutes and no round limit or referee stoppages allowed, Gracie’s corner threw in the towel after the sixth due to damage the Brazilian had sustained to his legs across 90 minutes.

YOU CAN’T COUNT THAT: The final Gracie that Sakuraba defeated was the inimitable Ryan Gracie, and Sakuraba took a 10-minute decision win over him. Although Sakuraba lost to Royce in a rematch at K-1 Hero’s Dynamite!! USA in 2007, the latter tested positive for anabolic steroids. Nevertheless, the result of the bout was not overturned.

GRACIE’S REVENGE: In the only legitimate revenge for the Gracies, Sakuraba lost a three-round unanimous decision to Ralek Gracie at Dream 14 in 2010. Sakuraba never won again.

HELLO JAPAN!: Sakuraba competed in his home country of Japan for all but one of his career bouts. His rematch with Royce took place in Los Angeles.

THE UFC HUNTER, TOO: Throughout his career, the Japanese legend faced five fighters who held UFC titles at some point: Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort, Quinton Jackson, Kevin Randleman and Ken Shamrock. He beat them all, and scored finishes against everyone but Belfort.

ALWAYS UNCHARTED TERRITORY: On 10 separate occasions, the grappling specialist became the first fighter to submit that specific opponent. Sakuraba is the only man to have ever submitted Royler or Renzo in MMA.

SAMURAI IN FOUR-OUNCE GLOVES: Sakuraba finished his Pride career tied for the second-most victories (18), along with Igor Vovchanchyn and Mirko Filipovic. He did face both of them during his time in the organization, and both men knocked him out. Atop the list Pride wins list is Wanderlei Silva with 21. He knocked out Sakuraba three times.

GOOD SAK HUNTING: Fifteen of Sakuraba’s 18 wins in Pride came by stoppage, putting him one shy of the all-time record set by Filipovic and Silva. By comparison, the all-time finishes record over in the UFC is 16, held by Donald Cerrone and Charles Oliveira.

ANTONIO SAKURABIO NOGUEIRA: Sakuraba and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira hold the record for the most submission victories in Pride history with 11.

MIR IS JEALOUS: Across Pride’s storied history, Sakuraba is the only fighter to record multiple technical submission wins. He forced the referee to step in and stop a contest due to a kimura three times. Sakuraba accounts for 25 percent of all technical submissions in Pride.

AND HE DID IT AGAINST THE GRACIES: The three kimuras performed by Sakuraba are also the most by one fighter in Pride. Fedor Emelianenko and Mark Kerr each pulled off kimuras twice in their respective careers.

A PRIDEFUL MAN: Sakuraba competed a whopping 27 times for Pride, tying him with Vovchanchyn for the second-most bouts in the promotion’s history. Only Silva fought more times under the Pride banner (28).

THE LION’S DEN DOESN’T SCARE SAKURABA: At Pride Grand Prix 2000 Opening Round, Sakuraba competed in the openweight tournament and was first matched with Guy Mezger. The single 15-minute round was declared a draw, as Mezger and cornerman Ken Shamrock protested the decision, leaving the ring as a result. Sakuraba advanced by earning the forfeit win, officially marked as TKO (Retirement).

IT PUTS THE LOTION ON ITS SKIN: Sakuraba also saw another bout overturned in his career besides the one with Silveira. In 2006, he faced Yoshihiro Akiyama and suffered a first-round knockout loss. After the match, the K-1 Hero’s committee determined that Akiyama had applied lotion to his skin before the match. The bout was then ruled a no contest. Meanwhile, the referee who ignored Sakuraba’s claims of greasing was fined, and the official who should have checked Akiyama’s skin was fined and suspended.

HARD MAN TO KEEP DOWN: Only three fighters were ever able to submit Sakuraba during his legendary career: Leopoldo, Jason Miller and Yan Cabral. Over the years, he stood across from a Gracie family member six times, as well as practically every Pride great the promotion had to offer.

DON’T REMATCH SAKU: Although Sakuraba faced multiple opponents more than once throughout his career, the only fighter to ever record more than one win against him was Silva. “The Axe Murderer” did so on three separate occasions.

HE’S DONE IT AGAIN: The final victory for Sakuraba came at Dream 12 in 2009, when he faced Zelg Galesic. After enduring a nasty beating, “The Gracie Hunter” pulled out a kneebar and got the tap at the 100-second mark. It was his first kneebar submission since he tapped Newton at Pride 3 over 11 years earlier.

FROM SAKAKIBARA TO SAKAKIBARA: Sakuraba retired as one of a small number of fighters—they include “Cro Cop,” Heath Herring and Hayato Sakurai—who have competed with the UFC, Pride and Rizin Fighting Federation. His retirement bout came against Shinya Aoki at the inaugural Rizin event in December 2015.

WAY BETTER THAN GETTING PUNCHED: After his retirement from active MMA competition in 2015, Sakuraba competed in multiple grappling events. Of note, he engaged in a tag-team grappling match with Hideo Tokoro against Silva and Kiyoshi Tamura at the first numbered Rizin event. They fought to a draw.

I’LL DO IT MY WAY: Following these matches, Sakuraba founded his own grappling promotion, Quintet, in 2018. It stages five-on-five submission-only tournaments, where teams compete against one another. Most recently, the organization held a mega-event, pitting competitors from the UFC, Pride, Strikeforce and World Extreme Cagefighting against one another. Sakuraba competed on the Pride team, which lost to the eventual winning UFC squad.

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