As a child, Kazushi Sakuraba was captivated by the story of Tiger Mask and Japanese Professional Wrestling. While he considered dropping out of high school to pursue his dream career in wrestling, he opted instead for an amateur route at 15-years-old. This paid off as he won the East Japan Freshman championship and served as team captain until finally finishing fourth nationwide his senior year.
Sakuraba followed the path of many early MMA pioneers. He started training in submission wrestling, or catch-as-catch-can (catch) wrestling in order to understand the submissions needed for professional wrestling. His big break came when one of his training partners who was registered for the UFC Japan heavyweight tournament got injured and Saku entered as his replacement. Lying about his weight to meet the 203 lb minimum, the 180-lb Sakuraba defeated 240-lb Brazilian Marcus Silveira in the finals.
Over the next few Pride events, Sakuraba submitted the likes of Vitor Belfort, Erik Paulson, and Carlos Newton, all of whom had UFC experience early in the game. Sakuraba’s true legendary status was formed with his victories over the Gracie family starting at Pride 7 and going into the Pride Grand Prix.
Sakuraba TKO’d Royler Gracie soon after engaging on the ground and finishing him with a Kimura arm lock, marking the first defeat of a Gracie in international competition in decades. Against Royce (Royler’s brother) the Gracies wanted to redeem their name, so much so that they introduced their own ruleset for the Grand Prix tournament. Despite the disadvantage to Sakuraba, he clowned Royce, wore him down with kicks, and drained him on the ground, showing that a guillotine wasn’t tight by pretending to pull down Gracie’s gi pants. Eventually, the infamous Gracies threw in the towel between rounds, marking the end of the hour-long fight.
Famous Names on Sakuraba’s Victims List:
- Ken Shamrock
- Quinton Jackson
- Vitor Belfort
- Carlos Newton
- Kevin Randleman
- Masakatsu Funaki
Perhaps what made Sakuraba so successful was not any one individual fighting technique, but rather his creative and unorthodox approach to the sport. He employed a variety of techniques from different martial arts styles and professional wrestling moves, often using them in unique ways to surprise his opponents. Most notably, he had fun and entertained the audience while defeating the world’s top submission wrestlers and strikers. His catch wrestling submission expertise was especially effective, allowing him to submit some of the best fighters in the world despite their size advantage.
What can we learn from Sakuraba's fighting style? That it pays to think outside the box and be prepared for anything when stepping into the ring.