MMA Royalty: Kazushi “The Gracie Killer” Sakuraba
Kazushi Sakuraba is one of the greatest and most versatile MMA fighters in the game. With over 20 years as a mixed martial artist and a professional wrestler, Sakuraba is still fighting today despite being over 50 years old.
Today we’re looking back at his long career and some of the big MMA names that Sakuraba has put down throughout his career. There’s a reason they call him the Gracie Killer – having beaten Royce, Renzo, Ryan, and Royler Gracie – but that’s just scraping the surface.
Sakuraba is no longer part of the modern UFC but, if you’re interested, you should check out the latest MMA odds.
Let’s start with Sakuraba’s origins – where he came from and how he became such a prolific fighter.
Like many young fighters across the world, Sakuraba was inspired by the Japanese professional wrestling scene and wanted to drop out of high school to pursue it. He was convinced not to, however, and tried amateur wrestling instead. He soon joined the esteemed Chuo University, which had trained Olympic wrestlers for Japan in the past. After graduating, he became a coach at Chuo but then decided to pursue his pro wrestling ambitions.
He joined the Union of Wrestling Forces International, or UWF-I, but let’s focus on his MMA prowess. He stayed with them from 1993 to 1996, after which he entered the UFC.
In The UFC
In 1996, Sakuraba fought his first UFC action. Having lied about his weight to gain entry (being 20 pounds beneath) and substituting for Hiromitsu Kanehara, Sakuraba had to face all 240 pounds of BJJ blackbelt Marcus Silveira.
What followed was a stop-and-start fight fraught with leg-lock stalemates and ended in upset as the referee incorrectly called Sakuraba as being KO’d. This was later changed to a no-contest by the referee himself. After yet another dropout somewhere else in the tournament, Sakuraba and Silveira’s rematch became the championship bout.
If that first match was all about leg locks, the next one was about Kimuras. Both fighters attempted to place the devastating armlock on each other. On paper, the Brazilian blackbelt should have had no trouble, though the Japanese fighter proved slippery and won by submission.
Even today, Sakuraba is one of the last UFC Tournament champions and is enshrined in the Pioneer Section of the UFC Hall of Fame.
The Gracie Killer
From the UFC, Sakuraba entered the Pride Fighting Championship, as many Japanese fighters did. He witnessed his stablemate, Nobuhiko Takada, get defeated by Rickson Gracie, and recorded a draw against Allan Goes. Goes was a student of Carlson Gracie and would state that Sakuraba was one of the best ground fighters he ever fought on the ground.
Sakuraba also took Vitor Belfort down during this time, in a brutal fight that saw him awarded a unanimous decision.
Then came Sakuraba’s infamous brush with the Gracie family. At Pride 7, Sakuraba competed against Royler Gracie. For once, Sakuraba actually had a weight advantage over the Gracie protégé and handily beat him with a Kimura. This was the first loss by a Gracie in decades.
Next, at the Pride 2000 Grand Prix, Sakuraba was now a Japanese superstar who had angered the Gracie family. Some felt that the Pride 7 call was incorrect. After challenging Rickson, he fought UFC legend Royce Gracie instead, with no referee stoppages or time limits.
What followed was 6 rounds, 15 minutes each, during which Sakuraba played the morale game. Staying calm, even smiling to the camera sometimes, Sakuraba let Royce wear himself out as the stamina of a trained wrestler overcame the explosive power of the angered MMA fighter. After clearly gaining advantage, Rorion Gracie threw in the towel on his brother’s behalf.
That was where Sakuraba officially became “The Gracie Killer” (and sometimes “Hunter”) in Japanese media. With Renzo and Ryan Gracie, Sakuraba later recorded wins over the next generation of the Gracie family too.
Royce Gracie beat Sakuraba in a 2007 rematch at Dynamite!! although sentiment about the fight was split and Royce later tested positive for PEDs.
After reaching superstar status for beating the Gracie family, Sakuraba would later join the Dream MMA promotion and later the Rizin Fighting Federation. His last fight, a loss, was against Shinya Aoki in 2015. It seems Sakuraba is focusing on his pro wrestling career nowadays with Pro Wrestling Noah.
Having beaten the likes of the Gracie family, Ken Shamrock, and Belfort, Sakuraba has solidified himself as one of the most accomplished fighters in early MMA history.