|Nickname||The Gracie Hunter / The IQ Wrestler|
|Weight Class||Middleweight (185 lbs.)|
|Height||6' 0" (183cm)|
|Birth Date||July 14, 1969|
|Fighting Out Of||Katagami, Akita, Japan|
|Kazushi Sakuraba Pictures||Official Website|
Kazushi Sakuraba is a Japanese professional mixed martial arts competitor. He has competed for New Japan Pro Wrestling, UWFi, Kingdom Pro Wrestling, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), PRIDE Fighting Championships, K-1 Hero's and DREAM. He has the distinction of competing in the longest mixed martial arts bout on record, having beaten Royce Gracie in a 90-minute bout in 2000.
In Japan, he is known as "The IQ Wrestler", for his brilliance in the arts of catch wrestling and freestyle wrestling, as well as for his overall cerebral approach to fighting. He is also known as "Saku", which is frequently represented by the number "39" (the Japanese pronunciation of 3 being "san" and 9 "ku"). In the West, he is often referred to as the "Gracie Hunter," due to his victories over members the famed Gracie family of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners, including Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, Ryan Gracie and Royler Gracie. He also holds other notable wins over Vitor Belfort, Quinton Jackson, Guy Mezger, Kevin Randleman, and Ken Shamrock.
Sakuraba is widely regarded as one of the greatest mixed martial arts fighters of all time. On a retrospective of Sakuraba's career, Mike Coughlin of the Wrestling Observer stated the following: "Not only is Sakuraba not over rated, simply put, he's the greatest fighter in the history of MMA. And not just the greatest fighter by a little bit, but by such a wide margin that his skill level may never actually be met by another competitor for generations, if ever."
|Record||26 - 16 - 1 (Win – Loss – Draw) (2 NC)|
|Loss||Yan Cabral||Submission (Arm Triangle Choke)||DREAM.17||9/24/2011||2||2:42|
|Loss||Marius Zaromskis||TKO (Doctor Stoppage)||DREAM and K-1: Dynamite!! 2010- The Power of Courage||12/31/2010||1||2:16||For DREAM Welterweight Championship|
|Loss||Jason Miller||Submission (Arm Triangle Choke)||DREAM.16||9/24/2010||1||2:09|
|Loss||Ralek Gracie||Decision (Unanimous)||DREAM 14||5/29/2010||3||5:00|
|Win||Zelg Galesic||Submission (Kneebar)||DREAM 12: The Cage of the Rising Sun||10/25/2009||1||1:40|
|Win||Rubin Williams||Submission (Kimura)||DREAM 11: Featherweight Grand Prix 2009 Final Round||10/06/2009||1||2:53|
|Loss||Kiyoshi Tamura||Decision (Unanimous)||K-1: Dynamite!! Power of Courage 2008||12/13/2008||2||5:00|
|Loss||Melvin Manhoef||TKO (Punches)||DREAM 4: Middleweight Grand Prix 2008 Quarterfinals||6/15/2008||1||N/A||Dream Middleweight Grand-Prix 2008 Quarterfinals|
|Win||Andrews Nakahara||Submission (Neck Crank)||DREAM 2: Middleweight Grand Prix 2008 Opening Round||4/29/2008||1||8:20||Dream Middleweight Grand-Prix 2008 Opening Round|
|Win||Masakatsu Funaki||Submission (Kimura)||K-1: Premium 2007 Dynamite!!||12/31/2007||1||6:25|
|Win||Katsuyorki Shibata||Submission (Armbar)||K-1 HERO's: Tournament Final||9/17/2007||1||6:20|
|Loss||Royce Gracie||Decision (Unanimous)||K-1 HERO's: Dynamite!! USA||6/02/2007||3||5:00||Gracie tested positive for anabolic steroids after fight|
Sakuraba wrestled for Chuo University, where 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.
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 shoot wrestling organization Pancrase, he ultimately chose the 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.
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. Nonetheless 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 Yoji 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 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.
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 (UFC) 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. 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 blows by Silveira, Sakuraba dropped for a low single leg takedown, only for the fight to be prematurely ended on a KO. Referee John McCarthy had mistakenly thought Sakuraba to have been knocked down. 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 tourney. 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 a KRS promoted event called PRIDE, 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 catch 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 Ebeneezer 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, remained on the ground in an effort to bait Sakuraba into a grappling-oriented contest. Eventually, with less than two minutes remaining, Sakuraba finally engaged Royler on the ground, soon catching him in a Kimura lock. 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 maneuver Sakuraba utilized to beat Royler. That time, the recipient had been Royler's father, Helio Gracie, who had, like Royler, also refused to submit.
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 in order to protest the judges' inability to render a decision. 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. Sakuraba nearly ended the match with a knee-bar towards the end of the first round. Later on, Royce returned the favor with a guillotine choke which Sakuraba lingered in, but eventually escaped from. 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.
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, Sakuraba flatteringly pointed to Royce as the superior ground-technician when questioned as to why he didn't engage him on the ground more frequently. 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. After the final bell, the bout was close enough that it was ruled a draw, with an overtime round to determine a winner between them. However, fatigue and size both had worn on Sakuraba by now his corner opted to throw in the towel.
Following the Grand Prix, Sakuraba was christened the Gracie Hunter by the Japanese sports media. Keeping in tow with his new nick-name, 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. 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 waved off the contest due to the injury, stoically showed no sign of disappointment or pain. 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. 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.