Sakuraba in March 2015
July 14, 1969 |
Katagami, Akita, Japan
|Other names||The Gracie Killer, The Gracie Hunter, The IQ Wrestler, Ikiru Densetsu ("The Living Legend")|
|Height||1.83 m (6 ft 0 in)|
|Weight||85 kg (187 lb; 13 st 5 lb)|
|Years active||1997 - present (MMA)|
|Mixed martial arts record|
|Mixed martial arts record from Sherdog|
Kazushi Sakuraba (桜庭 和志 Sakuraba Kazushi?, born July 14, 1969 in present-day Katagami, Akita) is a Japanese mixed martial artist and professional wrestler, currently signed to New Japan Pro Wrestling. He has competed in traditional puroresu for New Japan Pro Wrestling and shoot-style competition for UWFi and Kingdom Pro Wrestling. He has fought in MMA competition in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Pride Fighting Championships, K-1 Hero's and Dream. He is known as the "Gracie Hunter" or the "Gracie Killer" due to his wins over four members of the famed Gracie family: Royler Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Ryan Gracie, and Royce Gracie. In particular, Sakuraba is famous for his initial fight with Royce, which lasted ninety minutes. Sakuraba is also the former UFC Japan Heavyweight Tournament Champion. Known for his excellent skill in shoot wrestling, he is considered to be one of Japan's greatest mixed martial artists and also holds notable victories over Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort, Quinton Jackson, Ken Shamrock and Masakatsu Funaki.
- 1 Background
- 2 Professional wrestling
- 3 Mixed martial arts
- 4 In wrestling
- 5 Championships and accomplishments
- 6 Mixed martial arts record
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Additional sources
- 10 External links
Sakuraba began his career in amateur wrestling at the age of 15. A high school stand-out, he finished as high as second in the nation before joining the wrestling squad of Chuo University, a team which had counted Olympic gold medalists Shozo Sasahara and Osamu Watanabe amongst its ranks. He won the East Japan Freshman championship in his first year and served as their team captain thereafter. In his senior year, he finished fourth place in the All-Japan tournament. Amongst his notable wins was a defeat of future Olympic bronze medalist Kat Ota.
Upon graduating from the university, Sakuraba had initially thought to remain with Chuo University as a coach. However, at the last minute he decided to pursue a career as a professional wrestler. According to Sakuraba, the impetus for this stemmed from a childhood dream of one day emulating Tiger Mask, a famous Japanese cartoon hero and real-life professional wrestler.
After considering the mixed martial arts organization Pancrase, he ultimately chose the shoot wrestling promotion UWFi, a professional wrestling league that was nonetheless known for its highly technical and realistic-looking bouts. His time in the UWFI would prove to be a formative experience for Sakuraba; it was there under the tutelage of Billy Robinson that he received his initial instruction in catch wrestling. It is catch wrestling that would serve as the base of the unorthodox ground-game that would later lead him to success in the Pride Fighting Championships. He also trained in muay thai under master Bovy Chowaikung, the main UWF-i striking teacher, and refined his training under the UWF International leader Nobuhiko Takada, becoming one of his four main trainees along Kiyoshi Tamura, Yoshihiro Takayama and Masahito Kakihara.
In spite of his amateur pedigree, Sakuraba was forced to work his way up from the bottom of the UWFi's rung. Sakuraba lost his debut in 1993 to Steve Nelson and went winless through his rookie year with the league. It is also popularly alleged that under the eye of Kiyoshi Tamura, he was made to perform menial chores about the dojo. Still undeterred, Sakuraba steadily built a working knowledge of submission holds upon his freestyle wrestling base until his efforts were at last rewarded with a win over Mark Silver in October 1994.
Though his record remained below .500, Sakuraba continued to edge his way closer to mid-card status through the rest of the year. Then, in 1995, the UWFi began an interpromotional feud with New Japan Pro Wrestling. The vast majority of UWFi workers came out on the losing end of the booking to the larger and more mainstream promotion and Sakuraba was no exception. He was defeated in high-profile bouts to Tokimitsu Ishizawa, Koji Kanemoto and Shinjiro Otani, bringing Sakuraba a new level of exposure to the public. The ring psychology and technical prowess he displayed in the bouts also impressed the management of the UWFi enough that he was finally pushed towards main event status.
New Japan's dominance in the feud injured the marketability of the UWFi promotion, which had pressed the perception that their athletes boasted legitimate skill in catch wrestling and kickboxing. In a bid to regain credibility, Yoji Anjoh travelled to California to challenge Rickson Gracie in the latter's own dojo, only to be swiftly and brutally defeated before the assembled Japanese press that had followed him there. With the UWFi's formerly fearsome reputation in tatters, its attendance numbers swiftly decreased, with the federation closing its doors once and for all in December 1996. In their final show it was Sakuraba who at long last headlined, defeating Anjoh by submission.
Kingdom Pro Wrestling
Following the close of the UWFi, Nobuhiko Takada, the most popular of the UWFi workers amongst the mainstream public founded Kingdom Pro Wrestling, taking in Sakuraba and the majority of his fellow UWFi alumni. In the vein of its predecessor, Kingdom was primarily a league devoted to shoot-style realistic-looking works. Having by now established his ability, Sakuraba was this time booked as a main-eventer from the outset. However, unlike the UWFi, Kingdom struggled from the beginning to draw substantial crowds. Mixed martial arts was growing in popularity, and the dominance of the Gracie family and their fellow Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners over the field and more specifically over professional wrestlers, left the Japanese public ever more unconvinced as to the fighting ability of Kingdom's stable of athletes.
Return to New Japan
On August 12, 2012, Sakuraba, alongside Katsuyori Shibata, returned to New Japan Pro Wrestling. Sakuraba and Shibata wrestled their return match on September 23, defeating Hiromu Takahashi and Wataru Inoue in a tag team match. Sakuraba and Shibata, collectively dubbed Laughter7, continued their winning ways at the following two pay-per-views, King of Pro-Wrestling on October 8 and Power Struggle on November 11, both times defeating the team of Togi Makabe and Wataru Inoue. Also at Power Struggle, Shinsuke Nakamura nominated Sakuraba as the next challenger for his IWGP Intercontinental Championship. On December 2, Sakuraba won his first exchange with Nakamura, when Laughter7 defeated Nakamura and Tomohiro Ishii in a tag team match to remain undefeated since their return. On January 4, 2013, at Wrestle Kingdom 7 in Tokyo Dome, Sakuraba suffered his first defeat since his return to professional wrestling, when he unsuccessfully challenged Shinsuke Nakamura for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Sakuraba and Shibata returned to their winning ways at the following pay-per-view, The New Beginning on February 10, where they defeated Hirooki Goto and Wataru Inoue in a tag team match. On April 7 at Invasion Attack, Sakuraba and Shibata suffered their first tag team loss, when they were defeated by Hirooki Goto and Yuji Nagata via referee stoppage, when Sakuraba injured his right elbow, after taking a belly-to-back suplex from Nagata, and unable to continue the match. New Japan later announced that Sakuraba would be sidelined for two to three months. Sakuraba wrestled his return match on July 20, defeating Yuji Nagata via submission. On September 8, Sakuraba and Shibata took part in the Wrestle-1 promotion's inaugural event, defeating Masakatsu Funaki and Masayuki Kono in a tag team match. Sakuraba continued his rivalry with Yuji Nagata at the September 29 Destruction pay-per-view, where he and Shibata defeated Nagata and Manabu Nakanishi with Sakuraba pinning his rival for the win.
On October 14, Sakuraba was defeated by Nagata in a singles rematch between the two. Following the match, Sakuraba and Nagata came together to accept a challenge issued by Daniel and Rolles Gracie On January 4, 2014, at Wrestle Kingdom 8 in Tokyo Dome, Sakuraba and Nagata defeated the Gracies via disqualification, after Nagata was choked out with a gi. A rematch between the two teams took place on February 11 at The New Beginning in Osaka and saw Rolles submit Sakuraba for the win. Sakuraba suffered another loss against the Gracies on May 3 at Wrestling Dontaku 2014, where he teamed with Shinsuke Nakamura. On May 25 at Back to the Yokohama Arena, Sakuraba ended the Gracies' win streak by defeating Rolles in a singles match. Sakuraba then started a new rivalry with Minoru Suzuki. The rivalry culminated in a match on January 4, 2015, at Wrestle Kingdom 9 in Tokyo Dome, where Sakuraba was defeated by Suzuki.
On April 5 at Invasion Attack 2015, Sakuraba submitted Katsuyori Shibata in a tag team match, where he and Yano defeated Shibata and Hiroshi Tanahashi, igniting a rivalry between the former Laughter7 partners. The two faced off on July 5 at Dominion 7.5 in Osaka-jo Hall in a match, where Shibata was victorious.
Mixed martial arts
Ultimate Fighting Championship
In an attempt to gain attention for the embattled Kingdom Pro Wrestling league, Hiromitsu Kanehara and Yoji Anjoh signed on to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's Ultimate Japan tournament. Kanehara was injured in his training for the tournament, and Sakuraba wound up as his late-hour substitute. The tournament was intended for heavyweights, and Sakuraba, at 183 pounds, was nearly twenty pounds beneath the UFC's 200 pound designation for the weight class. Purposely reporting himself as 203 pounds in order to gain entry, Sakuraba was paired off against the 243 pound Brazilian Jiu Jitsu blackbelt and former Extreme Fighting champion, Marcus Silveira.
Following a barrage of light blows by Silveira, Sakuraba dropped for a low single leg takedown but referee John McCarthy stopped the fight prematurely before Sakuraba could complete the takedown. A loud protest followed from the crowd and an angry Sakuraba attempted unsuccessfully to take the microphone and address the Japanese audience. However, after reviewing tape, McCarthy changed his decision to a no-contest. Tank Abbott, who had earlier defeated Yoji Anjoh, dropped from the tournament due to an injured hand, leaving Sakuraba and Silveira to face off once more that night in what would be the championship bout of the tournament. This time, Sakuraba claimed the victory, submitting Silveira with an armbar. Afterwards, Sakuraba famously stated, "In fact, professional wrestling is strong". With the victory Sakuraba remains one of the last UFC tournament champions to date.
With Nobuhiko Takada having left Kingdom to challenge Rickson Gracie in an event called Pride Fighting Championships, the still struggling promotion capitalized on Sakuraba's newly found popularity establishing him as Kingdom's top talent. He embarked on a winning streak against several foreign mixed martial arts competitors including Paul Herrera, Rene Rooze, Mark Hall and Orlando Weit. However, Kingdom continued to flounder and finally folded in March 1998.
Pride Fighting Championships
Entering the Pride Fighting Championships on the heels of a defeat of stablemate Nobuhiko Takada at the hands of Rickson Gracie in the organization's initial event, Sakuraba was paired off against Vernon White, then a veteran of 32 bouts who also boasted a 20-pound weight advantage. Showcasing a balance of wrestling and submission prowess, Sakuraba came after White with constant takedowns and unceasing submission attempts. White held Sakuraba off for the first two sessions, but was ultimately armbarred towards the end of the third round.
Next, Sakuraba was matched against Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Carlos Newton. Though relatively new to mixed martial arts, Newton had recently disposed of the reigning Shooto light heavyweight champion Erik Paulson with a swift armbar victory and already developed a reputation as a talented grappler. Sakuraba finished the match in the second round, this time with a rolling kneebar. Throughout the bout, both men displayed a high-level of grappling acumen, leading many fans and pundits of mixed martial arts to label it as the definitive grappling match in the history of the sport.
Eager to capitalize on Sakuraba's shoot wrestling prowess to reverse the perception that Japanese professional wrestlers were inferior to Brazilian combatants (in part perpetuated by his teammates' own defeats), Sakuraba's next three bouts were scheduled against Brazilian jiu jitsu blackbelts Vitor Belfort, Allan Goes and Luta Livre blackbelt Ebenezer Fontes Braga. Sakuraba, after enduring an early flurry, defeated Belfort by unanimous decision, drew with Goes and submitted Braga via armbar. In a trend that would continue through Sakuraba's Pride career, each opponent occupied a spot near the top of the 205-pound class at the time of their meeting with him and held a weight advantage of around 20 pounds.
"The Gracie Hunter"
After defeating Anthony Macias, Sakuraba was matched against Royler Gracie, who had previously conquered Sakuraba's stablemate Yuhi Sano. It marked the largest weight advantage Sakuraba has enjoyed in his career to date (being around 30 pounds heavier than Royler). Royler, unable to score a takedown or strike effectively from a standing position, remained on the ground in an effort to bait Sakuraba into a grappling-oriented contest, while Sakuraba, standing, landed punishing kicks to Royler's legs, thighs and head. Eventually, with less than two minutes remaining, Sakuraba finally engaged Royler on the ground, soon catching him in an elbow lock known as Gyaku Ude Garami or Double-top wristlock. As Sakuraba wrenched on the submission, the referee intervened with 1 minute and 44 seconds remaining on the clock, ending the contest and awarding Sakuraba the win by TKO. Sakuraba's victory over Royler constituted the first loss by a Gracie in professional fighting in several decades and as such, sent ripples of shock and controversy through the mixed martial arts community. Some protested that the victory was tainted due to the fact that Royler (although placed in a debilitating submission hold) never conceded defeat and was mere seconds away from the final bell when the bout was stopped. It is worth noting that the last Japanese athlete to defeat a Gracie prior to Sakuraba's win against Royler, legendary judoka Masahiko Kimura, had used the very same catch wrestling technique Sakuraba utilized to beat Royler. That time, the recipient had been Royler's father, Helio Gracie, who had, like Royler, also refused to submit but likewise lost.
While the Japanese fight media rejoiced and elevated Sakuraba to superstar status, the Gracie family took great umbrage over the incident, feeling that they had been cheated by Pride. Compelled to set the record straight and re-assert the dominance of his family, Royler's younger brother and former UFC Champion Royce Gracie returned to the sport of mixed martial arts in 2000 and entered the 16-Man Pride Grand Prix alongside Sakuraba and several other top fighters of the era. Placed on the same side of the bracket, a special set of rules were requested by the Gracies in the event of a Sakuraba-Royce match, including no referee stoppages and no time-limits, the fight ending only in the event of a submission or knock-out. In his first fight of the 2000 Pride tournament Sakuraba once again found himself matched up against a heavier opponent, this time the well-regarded 205-pound fighter, former King of Pancrase Guy Mezger. After a closely fought 15 minutes the judges requested an overtime round, and the fight ended in controversy when Mezger's coach Ken Shamrock forced his fighter back to the locker room claiming that no additional rounds were agreed upon in the contract. Sakuraba ended up winning the match by forfeit. Meanwhile, Royce defeated Nobuhiko Takada by unanimous decision and thus set the stage for their much anticipated showdown.
In the tournament quarterfinals Royce and Sakuraba battled for an hour and a half (six 15 minute rounds). Sakuraba nearly ended the match with a knee bar towards the end of the first round. As the confrontation stretched on, the Gracie's own no time-limit rules began to work against Royce as Sakuraba's wrestling skills and balance nullified Royce's ability to score a takedown and—in some instances—even pull guard. Even Royce's ever-present jiu-jitsu gi became a weapon for the wrestler to use against him as Sakuraba used it to help him control Gracie on the instances the fight did come to the ground. However, with Sakuraba's control of the takedown, these instances of ground warfare became increasingly sporadic. After the 90 minute battle of punishing leg kicks, Royce's brother, Rorion threw in the towel. Sakuraba would lose a rematch with Royce in 2007, though Royce tested positive for illegal steroids after the fight and was suspended for six months.
Prior to the bout, there was speculation that the fight was largely personal, with Royce looking to avenge his brother and Sakuraba looking to atone for his stablemate's defeats and vindicate professional wrestling and the UWFi once and for all. However, following the stoppage, Royce and Sakuraba embraced in the ring. Gracious in victory. Exhausted from his battle with Royce, Sakuraba surprised many when he emerged from the locker room for the tournament semi-finals. His opponent, Igor Vovchanchyn, outweighed him by close to fifty pounds (Sakuraba had come into the bout with Royce lighter than usual, at 176 pounds) and was considered to be the top heavyweight striker of the day. Sakuraba surprised many by taking Vovchanchyn down and nearly finishing him with an armbar. Sakuraba was actually leading the fight past the 10 minute mark, but near the end Igor was able to reverse a takedown and draw the first round even with ground strikes. After the first round was declared a draw Sakuraba's corner threw in the towel before the beginning of overtime, primilary due to fatigue.
Following the Grand Prix, Sakuraba was christened the "Gracie Hunter" by the Japanese sports media. Keeping in tow with his new nickname, Sakuraba sandwiched a swift victory via achilles lock against Shannon Ritch between fights against brothers Renzo Gracie and Ryan Gracie. In contrast to Royler and Royce, Renzo and Ryan were products of Carlson Gracie's approach to jiu-jitsu, which placed a stronger emphasis on combat-ready skills and training without a gi.
At the time of his bout with Sakuraba, Renzo's only loss in 10 bouts was a closely contested decision to Sakuraba's former UWFi stablemate and rival, Kiyoshi Tamura while Maurice Smith, Oleg Taktarov and Abu Dhabi champion Sanae Kikuta numbered amongst his victims. Renzo's stylistic differences from his cousins were in evidence from the outset of his contest against Sakuraba, as he pressed the pace of the bout with a variety of kicks and punches, although few connected. Sakuraba responded in kind, and the striking seemed to stalemate. Throwing his wrestling into the equation, Sakuraba timed a number of double and single leg takedowns against Renzo's flurries from where he alternately attempted to cartwheel past Gracie's guard, malign his legs with kicks from the standing position and even attack with a low dropkick. However, Renzo's defensive skills from bottom nullified the entire gamut of Sakuraba's offensive attempts until mere seconds remained in the battle and the contestants found themselves pressed against the turnbuckle. Sakuraba locked in a kimura and spun around, flipping Renzo to the canvas even as he wrenched his arm behind his back. Like Royler and Helio before him, Renzo refused to submit to the hold despite his elbow being snapped prior to hitting the ground and, even as the referee stopped the contest due to the injury, which awarded victory to Sakuraba. His arm in a sling, Renzo took the microphone and, before the 35,000 fans assembled at the Seibu Dome, stated that Sakuraba was "the Japanese version of the Gracie family". Renzo has since referred to the bout as his proudest moment in mixed martial arts, due to his refusal to submit in the face of injury.
Ryan Gracie, who had fought on the same card and emerged victorious, issued a challenge to Sakuraba and the two were subsequently scheduled to meet at Pride 12 - Cold Fury. Due to a shoulder injury, the fight was limited to a single 10-minute round, where Ryan's spirited efforts were generally stymied and controlled by Sakuraba, who noticeably avoided attacks on his younger opponent's injured arm.
Decline and comeback
Following the win against Ryan, Sakuraba battled Wanderlei Silva. Sakuraba knocked Wanderlei down, but the Brazilian Muay Thai specialist recovered to TKO Sakuraba via knees to the head on the ground in the initial minutes of the first round. It marked Sakuraba's second defeat in mixed martial arts and his first loss in the 205-pound division. In spite of his weight disadvantage, Sakuraba had been a heavy favorite to win. Sakuraba then shocked the audience by giving Silva his belt with Saku engraved on it. Wanderlei then stated that he would willingly give Sakuraba a rematch if Sakuraba wanted one.
After sitting out the next Pride to recuperate, Sakuraba found himself across the ring from Quinton Jackson, a former collegiate wrestler who had compiled a record of 10–1 on the American circuit. At the sound of the bell, Sakuraba immediately took the bigger and more powerful man to the canvas with a low single-leg takedown. However, Jackson's superior size and enormous physical strength allowed him to muscle out of Sakuraba's submission attempts. After locking his legs about Jackson for a triangle choke, Sakuraba found himself hefted into the air and repeatedly slammed to the canvas. Later, he attempted an armbar against Jackson, only for the Tennessee native to again lift him up and this time, attempt to drop him from the ring. His expression unchanging through the course of Jackson's assault, Sakuraba continued to flow from one lock to another. Eventually, he took the back of an exhausted Jackson and submitted him with his first rear naked choke victory. The contest was a launchpad for Jackson's career, leading to a long-term contract with Pride where he eventually became regarded as a top middleweight competitor.
It also re-established Sakuraba's proficiency in dealing with larger opponents and placed him back in line for another shot at Wanderlei Silva in Pride's next event, this time to decide Pride's inaugural 205-pound champion. Usually prone to humorous entrances, it was a somber and focused Sakuraba that came down the aisle for his rematch with Silva. As with Jackson, Sakuraba was able to score an early takedown in the bout, where he then worked from Silva's guard. After several minutes searching for an opening, he finally found one when Silva attempted to escape to his feet. Sakuraba locked on a tight guillotine, but was countered by a slam from Wanderlei which ended up breaking his collar bone. Not willing to let him go on so hampered, his corner threw in the towel between rounds.
Sakuraba took time off to let his shoulder heal, then returned against heavyweight kickboxer Mirko Cro Cop. Sakuraba managed to take Cro Cop down, but sustained another injury, this time a broken orbital bone done by a powerful punch from the guard . Finally assenting to place him in competition against fighters of his own weight class, Pride management put him against French jiu jitsu champion Gilles Arsene in a bout Sakuraba dominated and then against Rickson Gracie protege, Antonio Schembri. With a win over Schembri, it was speculated that Sakuraba might be then groomed for a championship fight in a new weight division for fighters of his size. Sakuraba controlled the fight until Schembri stunned Sakuraba with a series of knee strikes, winning by TKO.
At Pride Total Elimination, Sakuraba faced Wanderlei Silva for the third time. Again flashing a comic entrance, Sakuraba started the match exchanging strikes in the stand-up with the Brazilian specialist. Silva blocked a takedown attempt and delivered knees to the head, but Sakuraba escaped and kept trading strikes, which at the end got him dramatically knocked out. After the fight, there was talk of Kazushi planning to retire, but nothing came from it.
Those defeats seemed to mark a turning point in Sakuraba's career; though he was unbeaten in his first nine Pride bouts, he thereafter split his next six matches before suffering a particularly devastating loss against Ricardo Arona at Pride's Middleweight Grand Prix event in June 2005, during which his face became severely swollen and bloody due to repeated knee strikes to the head while in the downed position; his corner stopped the fight after the second round. Following the win, Pride president Sakakibara suggested Sakuraba might move down in weight to compete in their newly formed 183-pound division. However, instead of moving down in weight, Sakuraba began training at Chute Boxe Academy in Brazil alongside his one-time rival, Wanderlei Silva.
Upon completion of his training, he made his return to the ring to engage in yet another contest at the 205-pound limit, this time against fellow shoot wrestler Ken Shamrock. Three minutes into the bout, Sakuraba struck through Shamrock's guard with a left hand. Shamrock staggered back and ultimately fell into the ropes, his head hanging out of the ring, his back turned to Sakuraba. Sakuraba rushed in to follow up but before any meaningful offense could be launched, the fight was halted by referee Yuji Shimada. Shamrock sprang to his feet immediately following the KO and protested vigorously. Opinions have been mixed regarding the KO's legitimacy; Ken's adopted brother and rival, Frank, has stated he believed the stoppage was justified, while others have come down on the opposing side.
Prior to Pride's Shockwave 2005 New Year's Eve event, Sakuraba strongly petitioned for a match against fellow shoot wrestler and professional wrestling proponent, Kiyoshi Tamura, even going so far as to publicly request a bout with Tamura. However, with Tamura refusing to face him, Sakuraba recommended another shoot wrestler, Ikuhisa Minowa, who referred to himself as a "real pro wrestler." Sakuraba did not request the match due to any grudge against Minowa, but rather because he believed that he and Minowa would put on a fight worthy of the Shockwave event. The bout was a competitive one, with Minowa getting the better of Sakuraba strike-wise and nearly catching him first with a kneebar and then a heel-hook. In the end, Sakuraba managed to outwrestle Minowa on the ground and catch him in a kimura which, although Minowa would not tap to it, nonetheless prompted the referee to halt the contest. The victory marked his final bout under the Pride banner; it also marked one of the few times he was matched against an opponent of his own size from the 183-pound division and his first bout against a Japanese fighter.
On 3 May 2006, Sakuraba surprisingly appeared with Hero's head Akira Maeda at a Hero's event wearing his street clothes (yellow shirt and blue jeans) and a pro wrestling mask in the style of one of his childhood heroes, Tiger Mask. He did not reveal himself, but it was apparent that it was a masked Sakuraba and that he signed with K-1 and FEG. A day later, Sakuraba appeared at a FEG press conference to announce he would fight in Hero's. His defection to Hero's was a culmination of several signs that suggested he was leaving Pride. It was reported that Sakuraba left Takada Dojo (run by Pride's general manager, Nobuhiko Takada), and conspicuously was not entered into Pride's 2006 Open Weight Grand Prix Tournament.
Sakuraba was then scheduled to compete in Hero's Light Heavyweight Tournament. His first opponent was the 16–5 Lithuanian Kęstutis Smirnovas. Sakuraba opened the fight striking aggressively and even flooring Smirnovas with a kick. However, as he was coming in to follow up, Smirnovas caught Sakuraba cleanly, knocking him down to his knees and hands. Sakuraba then turned over, sliding beneath the bottom rope, where Smirnovas unleashed repeated blows to his head. Sakuraba seemed at this point unable to defend himself; when the referee stepped between the two fighters, it seemed likely he was moving to put an end to the contest. However, instead of halting the battle, the referee re-positioned the fighters from underneath the bottom rope into the ring and resumed the bout. Though the restarting of fighters who have found themselves near or outside the ropes is common practice, it was nonetheless controversial.
Following the restart, Smirnovas picked up where he'd left off, pounding a supine Sakuraba whose only defense seemed to turtle up. Finally, Sakuraba got to his feet and worked for a single-leg on Smirnovas. The attempt was thwarted and again Sakuraba found himself beneath the Lithuanian who this time attempted to work a rear-naked choke. Sakuraba escaped the attempt and returned his feet once again. From this point on, Sakuraba's earlier cobwebs seemed to have cleared and he began to land combinations upon the Lithuanian with greater and greater frequency until Smirnovas finally collapsed from the assault. Sakuraba assumed side-control and swiftly moved into an armbar. Smirnovas fought the technique as long as he could, but was eventually forced to submit to spare his arm which had been fully extended.
Initially there were some doubts as to whether Sakuraba would be able to make it into the next round of the Hero's tournament based on the severity of the damage he endured against Smirnovas. However, Sakuraba reported that a follow-up CAT scan had found no irregularities and was then slated to face one-time Olympic judoka, Yoshihiro Akiyama in the tournament's semi-finals on October 9 in what K-1 hoped would be a high revenue match-up. The winner of that bout was to face the victor between Melvin Manhoef and Shungo Oyama to determine a tournament champion.
However, during a hard sparring session for the upcoming bout Sakuraba began vomiting and fainted. After being rushed to the hospital he was diagnosed with vertebrobasilar damage that restricted blood circulation to the head and neck area. The doctors determined the damage was caused from years of untreated head injuries dating back to his college years.
In spite of this revelation, Sakuraba was—rather than being granted a break to recover and possibly undergo surgery—scheduled to return to action on December 31, 2006 against Yoshihiro Akiyama at K-1 Dynamite!!. The bout ended with Sakuraba struggling to execute a kneebar submission while Akiyama attacked with ground and pound. Words were exchanged between Sakuraba and referee Yoshinori Umeki prior to the stop, which was brought on by the sounding of a bell at the behest of Akira Maeda, the event coordinator, the referee separating the fighters following the bell rather than initiating the stop himself.
Afterwards, the usually soft-spoken Sakuraba surprised many with complaints that Akiyama's body had been greased. The referee in charge subsequently checked Akiyama's body and gave indication to ringside officials that he had not found anything unusual. In the aftermath of the fight the controversy escalated drastically and new accusations of weighed gloves also surfaced. To deal with the growing controversy, K-1 launched an investigation to look into the accusations against Akiyama. Although Akiyama's gloves were found to be regulation, video-tape revealed Akiyama administering a lotion to his skin. Akiyama—who attested he was simply treating his dry skin—was found to have been "negligent" and disqualified. The fight was subsequently declared a no-contest and Akiyama's purse was withheld. A press conference followed, wherein Akiyama—now heavily maligned by the Japanese sports media—offered a public apology.
Although Sakuraba wore a shirt into the ring against Akiyama which read "K Sakuraba: End of Service", his experience against Akiyama apparently changed his plans regarding retirement and at Heros 8 he submitted the winless Yurij Kiseliov by armbar.
Following that win, he would next share the mixed martial arts ring with his fellow shoot wrestler and UWFi alum, Kiyoshi Tamura. Once again donning the guise of his childhood hero, Tiger Mask, as he had to signal his exodus from Pride Fighting Championships to Heros, Sakuraba this time wore the mask to mark the occasion of his return to Pride at their final DSE promoted show, Kamikaze. Before the assembled crowd at the Saitama Super Arena—Pride's most frequented venue—Sakuraba and Tamura publicly voiced their willingness to meet in a Pride ring, before shaking hands and embracing. A bout between Tamura and Sakuraba had been one of Pride's most frequently promised match-ups, one that had never been delivered upon in spite of several efforts to put it together.
On 2 June 2007, Sakuraba rematched Royce Gracie in K-1 Dynamite!! USA. The bout itself was fought at a relatively slow pace; Sakuraba knocked Gracie to the canvas in the opening seconds and finished the bout searching for an armbar, having taken the back of Gracie. In the intervening time, Sakuraba scored multiple takedowns while Gracie scored a number of kicks to the legs and face once on bottom. Royce won by a somewhat controversial unanimous decision, as many viewers and MMA sites felt that Sakuraba won the fight, Sherdog scored it 29–28 in favor of the Japanese fighter, and Gracie tested positive for steroids after the bout.
Sakuraba returned to the ring on 17 September 2007 at K-1 Hero's 10 against former NJPW pro wrestler Katsuyori Shibata. Prior to the bout, Shibata's trainer, Masakatsu Funaki had challenged Sakuraba on the basis that he their styles would make for an entertaining contest. Shibata came out striking aggressively, but was soon taken to the canvas by Sakuraba's trademark single leg. Shibata unleashed a torrent of blows off his back, but the more experienced Sakuraba responded with strikes of his own before transitioning into an arm bar and finishing the bout.
Sakuraba versus Funaki
Following his victory, Sakuraba praised the fighting spirit of Shibata and accepted Funaki's challenge. Much like Sakuraba, Funaki was trained in shoot wrestling and emerged into the world of mixed martial arts on the heels of a career in the UWF (the direct predecessor of Sakuraba's UWF International). Both men also held in common a past history of submission wins over world-class opposition and recognition as two of the top Japanese mixed martial artists to date. Appropriately, their bout took place in the main event of K-1's year end Dynamite!! show, which garners more TV viewers each year than any other televised mixed martial arts event in Japan.
After exchanging professional wrestling-inspired entrances, the submission specialists traded strikes. Funaki's arsenal of punches and kicks appeared to be quicker and more powerful, but Sakuraba was able to sneak in a double leg takedown after Funaki committed heavily to a missed right cross. On the ground, Funaki closed guard around Sakuraba before opening it up to spin for a kneebar. For a moment, Funaki appeared to secure Sakuraba's leg only to be thwarted by a combination of Sakuraba's submission acumen and their position against the ring ropes, which blocked Funaki from rolling with the hold. Sakuraba then maneuvered to Funaki's back, only for the Pancrase founder to roll back into the guard position. Breaking away from the grappling contest, Sakuraba stood up and began to assault the still-prone Funaki's legs with a series of kicks. Funaki answered with a kick of his own, blackening Sakuraba's eye and cutting his face. Sakuraba returned himself to the ground, where Funaki immediately attempted to sweep him. However, Sakuraba blocked the attempt and secured a double wristlock, eventually forcing Funaki to submit.
In 2008, it was announced that Kazushi Sakuraba would compete in the Middleweight Grand Prix of the new MMA promotion, Dream. On 29 April 2008, Sakuraba defeated Andrews Nakahara in the main event at Dream 2: Middle Weight Grandprix 2008 1st Round. However, he was knocked out (and thus eliminated from the tournament) by Melvin Manhoef in the main event of Dream 4: Middle Weight Grandprix 2008 2nd Round. During the match, Sakuraba suffered an ulnar fracture of the left forearm, which was caused by a kick from Manhoef./ Sakuraba has returned to the Dream promotion on a further six occasions. He lost to Kiyoshi Tamura at Dynamite!! 2008 and defeated boxer turned mixed martial artist Rubin Williams at Dream 11, before facing Croatian Zelg Galesic on Dream 12. Sakuraba took Galesic to the ground via single leg takedown and he immediately transitioned to a leg lock. Galesic tried to defend himself against the submission by raining punches on Sakuraba. Sakuraba absorbed the punches and held on to Galesic's leg until he successfully made the Croatian tap out due to a kneebar. On May 29 he faced Ralek Gracie, at the Saitama Super Arena in Dream 14, where he lost by unanimous decision. On September 25, at Dream 16, Sakuraba lost to Jason "Mayhem" Miller via arm triangle choke.
Sakuraba fought for the Dream Welterweight Championship against current champion Marius Zaromskis at Dynamite!! 2010 on December 2010. The fight ended in doctor stoppage, Sakuraba's ear was partially ripped off.
Championships and accomplishments
Mixed martial arts
- Pride Fighting Championships
- Ultimate Fighting Championship
- UFC Japan Heavyweight Tournament winner
- First Japanese champion in UFC history
- Wrestling Observer Newsletter awards
- Tokyo Sports
- Kingdom One Million Yen Tournament (1997)
- National championship runner-up (high school)
- East Japan freshman championship
- All Japan collegiate wrestling championships (fourth place)
Mixed martial arts record
|Professional record breakdown|
|44 matches||26 wins||15 losses|
|Loss||26–16–1 (2)||Yan Cabral||Submission (arm-triangle choke)||Dream 17||September 24, 2011||2||2:42||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Loss||26–15–1 (2)||Marius Zaromskis||TKO (doctor stoppage)||Dynamite!! 2010||December 31, 2010||1||2:16||Saitama, Saitama, Japan||For Dream Welterweight Championship.|
|Loss||26–14–1 (2)||Jason Miller||Submission (arm-triangle choke)||Dream 16||September 25, 2010||1||2:09||Nagoya, Aichi, Japan|
|Loss||26–13–1 (2)||Ralek Gracie||Decision (unanimous)||Dream 14||May 29, 2010||3||5:00||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Win||26–12–1 (2)||Zelg Galešić||Submission (kneebar)||Dream 12||October 25, 2009||1||1:40||Osaka, Osaka, Japan|
|Win||25–12–1 (2)||Rubin Williams||Submission (kimura)||Dream 11||October 6, 2009||1||2:53||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan|
|Loss||24–12–1 (2)||Kiyoshi Tamura||Decision (unanimous)||Fields Dynamite!! 2008||December 31, 2008||2||5:00||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Loss||24–11–1 (2)||Melvin Manhoef||KO (punches)||Dream 4: Middleweight Grand Prix 2008 Second Round||June 15, 2008||1||1:30||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan||Dream Middleweight GP Quarterfinals.|
|Win||24–10–1 (2)||Andrews Nakahara||Submission (neck crank)||Dream 2: Middleweight Grand Prix 2008 First Round||April 29, 2008||1||8:20||Saitama, Saitama, Japan||Dream Middleweight GP Opening Round.|
|Win||23–10–1 (2)||Masakatsu Funaki||Submission (kimura)||K-1 PREMIUM 2007 Dynamite!!||December 31, 2007||1||6:25||Osaka, Osaka, Japan|
|Win||22–10–1 (2)||Katsuyori Shibata||Submission (armbar)||Hero's 10||September 17, 2007||1||6:20||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan|
|Loss||21–10–1 (2)||Royce Gracie||Decision (unanimous)||Dynamite!! USA||June 2, 2007||3||5:00||Los Angeles, California United States||Gracie tested positive for anabolic steroids after match. The judges original decision was not overturned.|
|Win||21–9–1 (2)||Yurij Kiselov||Submission (triangle armbar)||Hero's 8||March 12, 2007||1||1:26||Nagoya, Aichi, Japan|
|NC||20–9–1 (2)||Yoshihiro Akiyama||No Contest (greasing)||K-1 PREMIUM 2006 Dynamite!!||December 31, 2006||1||5:37||Osaka, Osaka, Japan||Originally TKO loss; was ruled a no contest after Akiyama confessed to applying lotion before the fight.|
|Win||20–9–1 (1)||Kestutis Smirnovas||Submission (armbar)||Hero's 6||August 5, 2006||1||6:41||Tokyo, Japan||Hero's 2006 Light Heavyweight Grand Prix Quarterfinals; unable to continue in tournament due to medical reasons.|
|Win||19–9–1 (1)||Ikuhisa Minowa||Technical Submission (kimura)||Pride Shockwave 2005||December 31, 2005||1||9:59||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Win||18–9–1 (1)||Ken Shamrock||TKO (punch)||Pride 30||October 23, 2005||1||2:27||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Loss||17–9–1 (1)||Ricardo Arona||TKO (corner stoppage)||Pride Critical Countdown 2005||June 26, 2005||2||5:00||Saitama, Saitama, Japan||Pride 2005 Middleweight GP Quarterfinals.|
|Win||17–8–1 (1)||Yoon Dong-Sik||KO (punches)||Pride Total Elimination 2005||April 23, 2005||1||0:38||Osaka, Osaka, Japan||Pride 2005 Middleweight GP Opening Round.|
|Win||16–8–1 (1)||Nino Schembri||Decision (unanimous)||Pride Critical Countdown 2004||June 20, 2004||3||5:00||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Loss||15–8–1 (1)||Antônio Rogério Nogueira||Decision (unanimous)||Pride Shockwave 2003||December 31, 2003||3||5:00||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Win||15–7–1 (1)||Kevin Randleman||Submission (armbar)||Pride Final Conflict 2003||November 9, 2003||3||2:36||Tokyo, Japan|
|Loss||14–7–1 (1)||Wanderlei Silva||KO (punch)||Pride Total Elimination 2003||August 10, 2003||1||5:01||Saitama, Saitama, Japan||Pride 2003 Middleweight GP Opening Round.|
|Loss||14–6–1 (1)||Nino Schembri||TKO (knees)||Pride 25||March 16, 2003||1||6:15||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan|
|Win||14–5–1 (1)||Gilles Arsene||Submission (armbar)||Pride 23||November 24, 2002||3||2:08||Tokyo, Japan|
|Loss||13–5–1 (1)||Mirko Filipovic||TKO (doctor stoppage)||Pride Shockwave||August 28, 2002||2||5:00||Tokyo, Japan|
|Loss||13–4–1 (1)||Wanderlei Silva||TKO (doctor stoppage)||Pride 17||November 3, 2001||1||10:00||Tokyo, Japan||For the Pride Middleweight Championship.|
|Win||13–3–1 (1)||Quinton Jackson||Submission (rear-naked choke)||Pride 15||July 29, 2001||1||5:41||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Loss||12–3–1 (1)||Wanderlei Silva||TKO (knees & soccer kicks)||Pride 13 - Collision Course||March 25, 2001||1||1:38||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Win||12–2–1 (1)||Ryan Gracie||Decision (unanimous)||Pride 12 - Cold Fury||December 9, 2000||1||10:00||Saitama, Saitama, Japan|
|Win||11–2–1 (1)||Shannon Ritch||Submission (achilles lock)||Pride 11 - Battle of the Rising Sun||October 31, 2000||1||1:08||Osaka, Osaka, Japan|
|Win||10–2–1 (1)||Renzo Gracie||Technical Submission (kimura)||Pride 10 - Return of the Warriors||August 27, 2000||2||9:43||Tokorozawa, Saitama, Japan|
|Loss||9–2–1 (1)||Igor Vovchanchyn||TKO (corner stoppage)||Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals||May 1, 2000||1||15:00||Tokyo, Japan||Pride 2000 Openweight GP Semifinals. Decision went to overtime, withdrew due to exhaustion.|
|Win||9–1–1 (1)||Royce Gracie||TKO (corner stoppage)||Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals||May 1, 2000||6||15:00||Tokyo, Japan||Pride 2000 Openweight GP Quarterfinals. Rules modified for unlimited rounds/no ref stoppages. Fight of the Year (2000).|
|Win||8–1–1 (1)||Guy Mezger||TKO (retirement)||Pride Grand Prix 2000 Opening Round||January 30, 2000||1||15:00||Tokyo, Japan||Pride 2000 Openweight GP Opening Round; Mezger forfeited due to contract dispute.|
|Win||7–1–1 (1)||Royler Gracie||Technical Submission (kimura)||Pride 8||November 21, 1999||2||13:16||Tokyo, Japan|
|Win||6–1–1 (1)||Anthony Macias||Submission (armbar)||Pride 7||September 12, 1999||2||2:30||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan|
|Win||5–1–1 (1)||Ebenezer Fontes Braga||Submission (armbar)||Pride 6||July 4, 1999||1||9:23||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan|
|Win||4–1–1 (1)||Vitor Belfort||Decision (unanimous)||Pride 5||April 29, 1999||2||10:00||Nagoya, Aichi, Japan|
|Draw||3–1–1 (1)||Allan Goes||Draw||Pride 4||October 11, 1998||3||10:00||Tokyo, Japan|
|Win||3–1 (1)||Carlos Newton||Submission (kneebar)||Pride 3||June 24, 1998||2||5:19||Tokyo, Japan|
|Win||2–1 (1)||Vernon White||Submission (armbar)||Pride 2||March 15, 1998||3||6:53||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan|
|Win||1–1 (1)||Marcus Silveira||Submission (armbar)||UFC Japan||December 21, 1997||1||3:44||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan||Won UFC Ultimate Japan Heavyweight Tournament.|
|NC||0–1 (1)||Marcus Silveira||No Contest (early stoppage)||UFC Japan||December 21, 1997||1||1:51||Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan||Referee John McCarthy stopped the bout while Sakuraba was going in for a takedown.|
|Loss||0–1||Kimo Leopoldo||Submission (arm-triangle choke)||Shoot Boxing – S-Cup 1996||July 14, 1996||1||4:20||Tokyo, Japan||Openweight bout|
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- Official website
- Pride FC Profile
- Dream Profile
- Professional MMA record for Kazushi Sakuraba from Sherdog
|UFC Ultimate Japan Heavyweight tournament winner
December 21, 1997