Kazushi Sakuraba “The Gracie Hunter” - MMA Legends
By Elite Sports on
By Elite Sports on
Kazushi Sakuraba “The Gracie Hunter” - MMA Legends
- Given Name: 桜庭和志, Sakuraba Kazushi
- Pro MMA Record: 26-17-1, 2 NC (Win-Loss-Draw)
- Nickname: The Gracie Hunter
- Date of Birth:07.14
- Last Fight: December 29, 2015, in RFF
- Weight Class: Welterweight | Last Weigh-In:0 lbs
- Height: 5'11" (180cm)
- Career Disclosed Earnings: $30,000 USD
- Born: Katagami, Akita, Japan
- Fought out of: Setagaya, Tokyo, Japan
- College/University: Chuo University
- Foundation Style: Wrestling
Table of Contents
Early Life and Amateur Wrestling
Born in Katagami, Akita in Japan, Kazushi Sakuraba or better known as, The Gracie Hunter, is an MMA legend, one of the only two Japanese UFC Hall of Famers, founder of the submission wrestling promotion Quintet, and the first man to defeat Royce Gracie in MMA history.
Kazushi was inspired by the then-famous Japanese Manga series, Tiger Mask in which the protagonist fights a wrestling organization wearing a tiger mask. This also puts into perspective the fighter’s showy entrances and frequent use of matching MMA gloves with colorful masks and props that resembled something out of a fight game or anime.
Starting out with a weight of just 68 kilos, Kazushi Sakuraba was 15 when he began pro wrestling.
Dropping out of high school, he focused on his dream of becoming a catch wrestler and eventually competed to attain the second position in the nation. That’s when he joined the freestyle wrestling squad of Chuo University. Sakuraba won the East Japan Freshman championship in his first year and served as the team captain after that.
Although the university offered him a chance to stay and coach, he decided to pursue his career as a professional wrestler and joined the Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFI). After Billy Robinson trained him in UWFI to increase submission grappling through catch wrestling and receiving Muay Thai training under Bovy Chowaikung, Sakuraba was already equipped with the tools he needed to create his unorthodox fighting style that would dominate in the coming Pride Fighting Championships.
Although he was a pro-entertainment wrestler, he fought for UWFI down to the last fight where he submitted Anjoh before the UWFI shut its doors. This happened after UWFI, who continuously bragged about having real fighters, sent Yoji Anjoh to Rickson Gracie’s dojo and suffered a terrible defeat.
After this, Sakuraba joined Kingdom Wrestling and started showing up for New Japan Pro-Wrestling matches alongside Katsuyori Shibata.
On his 27th birthday on July 14th, Sakuraba made his debut in 1996, against Kimo Leopoldo, a stronger, bigger and obviously more experienced fighter in a catch wrestling match that Sakuraba lost via an Arm Triangle choke in the 4th minute of the first round.
Although a rough start, the legendary Gracie Hunter would go on to defeat Marcus Silveira in their second match with his signature Armbar in the 4th minute of the 1st round.
This match, the final of the UFC’s Ultimate Japan tournament, saw Kazushi step in as a replacement for his teammate at an hour’s notice.
Moreover, what’s more exciting is that Kazushi had to lie about his weight being 203lb to be able to compete with the 240lb giant waiting inside. Whereas, in reality, he was only 183lb.
Regardless, he had now proven that not only was he the giant-slaying Samurai who was the embodiment of principles and philosophy of Bushido, but he was also the UFC Japan’s champion.
Once this was over, Kazushi signed up for Pride 2 when he went up against Vernon White. Again, Sakuraba was at a 20-pound disadvantage. However, he still came out victorious with his signature armbar at the end of the third round.
In Pride 3, Sakuraba fought UFC veteran Carlos Newton, who was an expert in grappling and had recently dethroned a light heavyweight champion, Shooto.
The whole fight was an epic display of grappling talent but much to the crowd’s amazement, Sakuraba managed to dodge a rear mount attempt and against all odds, actually submitted Newton with a kneebar that was carelessly given to Sakuraba.
To make things even more interesting, Sakuraba wanted to prove that the reigning styles of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu weren’t as impregnable or invincible as the world perceived. And thus, he matched against three BJJ black belts, i.e. Vitor Belfort, Allan Goes and Luta Livre black belt Ebenezer Fontes Braga.
All these athletes were not only the top contenders for their weight classes, but they all weighed almost 20-pounds more than Sakuraba. After quickly displacing Belfort, Sakuraba came across Allan Goes who had a top-notch guard game on the ground. However, this is where Sakuraba made history.
Instead of engaging with the grappler on the ground, Kazushi crafted a fighting style that was meant to destroy the guard pulling the opponent from safe distances without engaging heavily on the ground. While the fight continued and both athletes made several attempts to finish each other off, the fight was called a draw because Pride Championships did not include judges at the time.
Unlike the others, Ebenezer Fontes Braga was an expert in dismantling opponents with critical strikes such as knees, elbows and brutal kicks. Although things seemed bleak for the Japanese, Sakuraba turned things around and finished Braga with his second takedown when he locked an armbar.
Sakuraba Vs Royler Gracie
At Pride 8, Kazushi Sakuraba Vs Royler Gracie was the first fight between the Gracie Hunter and a member of the Gracie family. The two men clashed early on and put on a terrific display of stand-up and ground fighting with the crowd on their feet in anticipation.
Towards the controversial end of the fight, with a kimura grip locked in on Royler, Sakuraba had it nearly finished but although Royler didn’t tap, the referee jumped in and called it in favor of Sakuraba. Royler and Rickson Gracie, who was present at the corner, spoke up against the referee’s decision and said it was uncalled for.
They maintained that Royler was waiting for the end of the round and he was not going to tap. At the end of the fight, Sakuraba took the microphone and called out Rickson Gracie to a fight that Rickson refused, claiming that Sakuraba hadn’t won in all fairness to earn the shot.
Sakuraba Vs Royce Gracie 1
On May 1, Pride held the Grand Prix 2000 Finals, in which Royce Gracie and Sakuraba both partook.
This was the first time Royce took on Kazushi and knowing that he did not want to make the same mistake as Royler did, Royce called upon Pride’s administration and had them change the rules for his match against Sakuraba to be limitless, i.e. consecutive 15 minute rounds that will keep going until someone surrenders or taps.
This meant that the referee could not intervene unless one of the athletes tapped out or threw in the towel.
Given his reputation as the winner of the first UFC and the fact that no Japanese had been able to defeat a Gracie after Masahiko Kimura defeated Helio Gracie in 1951, the fight was going to be big.
The fight went on for 90 minutes with Kazushi systematically and brutally beating down Royce without giving in to the legendary grappler’s ground or stand-up game. During the fight, the most iconic moments that are remembered by fans all around are of Sakuraba making fun of Royce’s BJJ Gi by pulling it over Royce’s head or pulling his trousers down when locked in a clinch.
Showboating aside, Sakuraba delivered devastating blows to Royce by using his Gi against him, pulling it to keep Royce from getting away while leveraging the momentum to increase the power of his own punches.
The same tactic, followed by repeated deadly kicks to the legs was damaging Gracie with each round. After 90 minutes, when Royce finally told his corner that he was unable to walk, Rorion Gracie threw in the towel and Sakuraba finally scored a win.
Although no one expected it, Kazushi managed to come out for yet another fight on the same day after his 90-minute unreal and unprecedented fight with Royce to face Igor Vovchanchyn, who was much larger and stronger than Kazushi.
However, as Kazushi had already set a record for the longest fight in Pride’s history, it was obvious he wasn’t going to last much longer. Regardless, this display of showmanship managed to win over an already eccentric crowd that had fallen in love with the Gracie Hunter.
In a later interview, when asked what would’ve happened if Royce’s corner had not thrown in the towel, Kazushi recalled thinking that he maybe had the capacity to last another 2 rounds in him.
Sakuraba Vs Renzo Gracie
Renzo Gracie was the third of the BJJ family to meet Sakuraba in Pride 10, August 27, 2000. However, this fight’s rules weren’t changed and both men faced each other in a 2 10-minute round match.
Though the match started out with an aggressive Renzo rushing in at Sakuraba, both men fought standing up while spending a lot of time on the ground as well.
Without giving an inch to each other, they lasted to the end of the second round, when at the final minute, a downed Sakuraba with Renzo trying to get into the rear mount managed to lock in a deadly kimura grip on Renzo.
This literal turn of events was so fast and involved both fighters standing and turning to fall down that nobody but Sakuraba saw that Renzo’s arm had twisted the other way. It was broken. Surprisingly, Renzo still did not tap but the referee called it off as soon as he saw it.
It was at this fight that Renzo officially called Sakuraba, a Japanese version of the Gracie family because he saw how Kazushi always trained and fought and it wasn’t that different from Renzo’s own family.
Sakuraba Vs Ryan Gracie
Kazushi met Ryan Gracie on December 23, 2000, in the Pride 12 – Cold Fury. Ryan Gracie was introduced to the audience by his brother, Renzo, who revealed that although Royce was suffering from a shoulder injury, he would still go on to fight Sakuraba against the recommendations of the Pride medical team.
Ryan Gracie was drastically different from the previous Gracie or even Brazilian fights Sakuraba had been a part of mostly because Ryan had an extremely devastating stand-up striking game. While this did surprise the audience to see Ryan landing early strikes, Sakuraba quickly took control of the situation by delivering powerful combinations of his own.
Both men managed to give each other a difficult time for the duration of the fight that was, to the despair of the crowd, only 10 minutes long. During the round, Kazushi managed to get Ryan in a nasty head crank that made it seem like it was the end. However, Ryan amazingly endured through the submission attempt and lasted till the very end. The 10-minute round ended with Kazushi trying to take Ryan’s arm to go for an armbar.
The newly appointed judges of the Pride championship scored the fight in favor of Sakuraba, who had now attained the reputation of being referred to as the Gracie Hunter.
Sakuraba Vs Royce Gracie 2
Even though the first fight between the two was a custom-rules match designed by Royce himself, he still demanded a rematch that was scheduled for June 2, 2007. Royce, who was 41 now, was in the ring with a 38-year-old Kazushi Sakuraba. This fight went the whole duration with both sides attempting submissions and landing strikes.
What made this fight controversial at first was the ‘unanimous’ decision of the judges in favor of Royce. What blew everyone’s minds away was Royce’s pre and post-fight drug tests revealed by the CSAC showed that he had been testing positive for 50 ng/mL of anabolic steroid Nandrolone (the body average is supposed to be 2-6 ng/mL).
Given the huge difference that was found in repeated tests, there was no mistake that Royce had been using performance-enhancing drugs prior to the fight. However, due to an infraction in the legal system of California, the state wasn’t in power to overrule the decision of the match, even though that was the usual norm.
Sadly, that illegal win still reflects on Kazushi’s career as a loss to this day.
Sakuraba Vs Wanderlei Silva I, II, and III
Sakuraba vs Wanderlei Silva was a brutal series of fights that were only historic because of how much beating Sakuraba endured. In all three matchups, Sakuraba lost to Silva with the first two being on March 25, 2001, and November 3, 2001.
In the first match-up, Wanderlei managed to overwhelm Kazushi with his brute force and no-mercy attitude and the fight ended with a TKO scored by Wanderlei on a downed Kazushi. Silva was raining down knees and soccer kicks, brutalizing Sakuraba’s nose, who refused to give up until the referee decided it’s over.
In the second match-up, crowds gathered around the world to watch the Japanese redeem his loss but to everyone’s despair, this fight ended with a doctor stoppage because a ground slam near the call resulted in Sakuraba damaging his collar bone. This match was for the Pride Middleweight Championship.
On August 10, 2003, Sakuraba and Wanderlei were matched again. The fight started off with both men carefully delivering heavy strikes to each other but right at the 5-minute call of the first round, Wanderlei delivered a devastating 1-2 punch combo on Kazushi’s face who was going for low kicks that knocked him out cold.
Achievements/Records and Retirement
As an Amateur Wrestler, Kazushi managed to become:
- National championship runner-up (high school)
- East Japan freshman championship
- All Japan collegiate wrestling championships (fourth place)
In the world of MMA, he has fought for Pride Fighting Championships, setting the following records:
- 2000 Pride Openweight Grand Prix semi-finalist
- Longest fight in Pride FC as well as MMA history – Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals (90:00)
- The first man to defeat Royce Gracie in MMA history
- First Japanese Athlete to defeat a Gracie since Helio Gracie's 1951 loss to Masahiko Kimura.
- Tied with Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira for the most submission wins (11) in Pride FC history
In the UFC: Kazushi Sakuraba has been inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame’s Pioneer wing, class of 2017, having won the UFC Japan Heavyweight Tournament and becoming the first Japanese champion in UFC history.
Sherdog has honored Kazushi Sakuraba by inculcating him into the Mixed Martial Arts Hall of Fame whereas Wrestling Observer Newsletter has awarded Kazushi with the 2000 Best Shootfighter, Best Shoot Match (vs. Royce Gracie), 2001 Feud of the Year (vs. Wanderlei Silva), 2001 Best Box Office Draw and has also included Sakuraba in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame (Class of 2004).
In his homeland, Tokyo Sports recognized Gracie Hunter as the Most Valuable Player of 2000 as well as with the Outstanding Performance award in 1999.
Kazushi Sakuraba, the Gracie Hunter, was always revered by the Japanese as the national champion, an icon to follow for the youth. However, this put a lot of pressure on his shoulders, especially when he faced his first loss to Wanderlei, he told an interviewer that he felt relieved because now, people could see that he wasn’t this unbeatable hero but another wrestler can have weaknesses and bad luck.
Although he didn’t want it, he still managed to become a rocking celebrity idol who contributed a lot to MMA history, ensuring Japanese fighters are still considered worthy contenders for the top fighting spots in the world.
Having fought his last fight in 2015, Kazushi Sakuraba retired and started his own submission wrestling promotion, Quintet.
Sakuraba has never refused or picked a fight for himself. Everything was brought to him by the promoters. He was often matched with people way above his weight class but he didn’t mind. In fact, in an interview, Kazushi said, “the more impossible the fights got, the more willing to accept them I became.”
The fighter openly acknowledged at every stage of his career that he was a casual smoker and drinker, an atheist Japanese pro wrestler who’s had trouble with weak knees throughout his life.
Having retired to his hometown and casually making appearances with contemporary fighters and other living legends such as himself, Kazushi Sakuraba managed to retire with a record of: