Former UFC Heavyweight champion Josh Barnett describes Hayato Sakurai, 33, as “mean as a badger.” Sakurai, Barnett warns, “doesn’t forget.” He’s a vengeful fighter in training, even worse in a fight.
Sakurai started judo at 13 years old. Power and emotion then guided “Mach” (pronounced ma-ha) to a shot-out-of-the-cannon start to mixed martial arts in 1996. The Tokyo-based fighter posted an undefeated record (18-0-2) in his first 20 fights, including winning a onenight, eight-man tournament. He was two months shy of remaining undefeated for five years when he suffered his first loss.
If a fighter could throw a flying strike, Sakurai threw it. Jumping knees, flying spinning heel kicks, tumbling axe kicks – just to name a few. Style wasn’t over substance, though. His striking impressed alongside his heavy ground-and-pound and slick submission game, making him a Japanese counterpart to other pioneering mixed martial artists touting complete games like Americans Pat Miletich and Frank Shamrock.
Showmanship wasn’t lost on Sakurai, who took his nickname from a Japanese professional wrestler known for a lucha libre style, either. Jumping guard passes, punch passes and cartwheel passes were in the Shootor’s arsenal before the man who popularized them, Kazushi Sakuraba, became famous. Sakurai was fast and technical – one of the best in the world.
Sakurai’s fights are stone engravings in the MMA world. His first fight was against another debuting fighter – Caol Uno. Uno lost and then went on to become a fellow Shooto legend and UFC title contender. Sakurai kneed Frank Trigg violently, handing the future UFC title challenger the fi rst loss of his career. Sakurai’s fi rst loss, in which he dropped the Shooto title to Anderson Silva, began Silva’s time lighting up the fight radar
A four-round loss to UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes in Sakurai’s lone Octagon appearance solidified Hughes’ career. It also the fi rst title defense in Hughes’ unmatched welterweight title streak. Sakurai’s talents made him the odds-on favorite in the match. He knocked down Hughes, but he was beaten by consistent takedowns and smallball ground-and-pound, which convinced fans that Hughes’ knockout slam over Carlos Newton wasn’t Iowan luck.
The loss to Hughes came just weeks after Sakurai got into a severe car accident, and his effort was another reason that, at 26 years old, he was already considered “a legend in his time.” He lost to Jake Shields in his next fi ght, which helped the Cesar Gracie fighter find a place on the MMA map. Sakurai then was swayed with inconsistency all over Japan.
He rebounded by outpointing rubber grappler Shinya Aoki in Shooto before making a second run at PRIDE, where he soundly defeated Jens Pulver and Joachim Hansen in one night, earning a shot at the inaugural PRIDE Lightweight belt against Takanori Gomi. “The Fireball Kid” made himself Japan’s undisputed megastar by knocking out the Shooto legend.
Watch Sakurai’s knockouts of Jens Pulver, Olaf Alfonso, and Mac Danzig to see precise timing. And watch his fi ghts with Hidehiko Hasegawa and David Baron to see an underwhelming fighter.
The dynamic fighter reemerged when DREAM arranged an April rematch between Sakurai and Aoki, signaling a formal changing of the guard in Japanese MMA. Aoki lumped Sakurai into the “vale tudo” era and promoted himself as the future — a generational godfather ready to take over the family. He hoped to right a wrong he made in 2005 when he dropped a decision to Sakurai. The rematch looked like a 27-second blur of knees on the mat. Sakurai had to get Aoki’s face laser removed from his knee.
He knocked the “Tobikan Judan” out of the Dream welterweight tournament. It wasn’t supposed to happen; Sakurai wasn’t supposed to hold on to the torch. Aoki – the bracketed favorite — came up in weight not only to avenge his loss, but to get the tournament win necessary to endear him to Japanese fans who were disappointed by his Lightweight tournament loss. Sakurai seemingly stepped into the favorite spot and combined nostalgia and a bright future to capture increasingly indifferent Japanese fans with a tournament crown.