Kazushi Sakuraba long ago carved out his place of permanence in the mixed martial arts history books. Easily one of the most influential fighters of all-time, the Japanese icon’s career spanned some two decades and saw him compete in a number of major organizations, from the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Pride Fighting Championships to K-1 and Dream. Now 51 years old, Sakuraba has not fought since he suffered a first-round technical knockout loss to Shinya Aoki under the Rizin Fighting Federation banner in 2015.
As the Nobuhiko Takada protégé fades further and further into the rearview, a look at some of the rivalries that contributed to his legend:
Sakuraba’s first appearance in a major MMA organization unfolded at UFC Ultimate Japan 1 on Dec. 21, 1997. There, at the Yokohama Arena in Yokohama, Japan, he toed the line against Marcus Silveira—a frightening physical specimen better known as “Conan”—in the semifinals of a heavyweight tournament. A little more than 90 seconds into their match, Sakuraba escaped the Brazilian’s bid for an arm lock and returned to his feet. Silveira cracked him with a thudding right hand, advanced toward a potential finish and flurried with punches. Sakuraba shielded his head from the follow-up blows, managed to evade most of them and attacked Silveira’s left leg to hunt for a takedown. However, referee John McCarthy, believing Sakuraba had been knocked out, swooped in and called for the stoppage. A subsequent review of the bout saw the result overturned to a no-contest. Fortunately for Sakuraba, a wrong was made right the same night. When David "Tank" Abbott suffered an injury and withdrew from the final, Sakuraba was called upon as his replacement, rematched Silveira and submitted the hulking Brazilian with a first-round armbar to win the tournament.
Royler Gracie became the first member of his proud family to encounter Sakuraba at Pride 8 on Nov. 21, 1999. The decorated Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt was a perfect 3-0 in mixed martial arts competition at the time, but it was soon clear that he was outmatched at Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo. Sakuraba bottled up the Brazilian grappler on the canvas and battered his legs with standing kicks, turning them deep shades of purple and blue. He later knocked down Gracie with a head kick, pancaked his subsequent takedown attempt and locked in a kimura from half guard. Sakuraba bent his opponent’s shoulder beyond its bounds until the referee intervened, and though Gracie protested the stoppage, the decision was final. “The Gracie Hunter” had been born. Sakuraba went on to defeat Royce Gracie in a 90-minute war of wills at the Pride 2000 Grand Prix Finals some six months later, then submitted Renzo Gracie with a second-round kimura at Pride 10 on Aug. 27, 2000 and took a unanimous decision from Ryan Gracie at Pride 12 on Dec. 23, 2000. The Gracies exacted a measure of revenge as Sakuraba aged and piled up the miles on his odometer. Royce took a unanimous decision—he was later flagged for anabolic steroids—from him in their K-1 Hero’s rematch in 2007, and Ralek Gracie laid claim to a unanimous decision against him at Dream 14 in May 2010.
Sakuraba for all he accomplished failed to capture a major mixed martial arts championship. In fact, his only real chance at claiming one came at Pride 17 on Nov. 3, 2001 in Tokyo, where he challenged Silva for the Pride Fighting Championships middleweight crown. It did not unfold as Sakuraba had hoped. He managed a couple takedowns but failed to successfully navigate the Silva guard. Once “The Axe Murderer” returned to his feet, Sakuraba’s situation deteriorated in a hurry, as he was met with a volley of violent knees and punches. Silva later defended against a guillotine by launching the Japanese great into the air in a devastating slam. The impact broke Sakuraba’s collarbone, and at the end of the first 10 minutes, the challenger made it known he was in no condition to continue. It was the second of his three failed attempts to subdue Silva. Sakuraba had lasted just 98 seconds against the Brazilian juggernaut in their initial showdown at Pride 13 in March 2001. They completed their one-sided trilogy at Pride Total Elimination 2003, where Silva punched out the Japanese legend 5:01 into the first round.
As soon as Sakuraba defeated Katsuyori Shibata in September 2007, he was on a collision course with Funaki. He agreed to meet the Pancrase co-founder in the K-1 Premium Dynamite 2007 main event on New Year’s Eve at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka, Japan. Sakuraba initiated the action with a double-leg takedown, freed himself from an attempted kneebar and positioned himself briefly on his counterpart’s back. Funaki managed to reclaim guard, as Sakuraba stood and battered his legs with kicks. “The Gracie Hunter” did not escape the exchange unscathed, Funaki ripping open a cut near his eye with an upkick. The wounded Sakuraba sought refuge on the ground, answered an attempted sweep with a kimura and forced the tapout 6:25 into Round 1.