There are two main currents that produced the modern sport of mixed martial arts. The first is Gracie Jiu-Jitsu—through Brazil and then the U.S. which is based on teachings learned a century earlier in Japan. The second is catch wrestling,a submission style handed down over the years through icons like Karl Gotch, who brought it from Europe to America and was key to popularizing it in Japan.
When modern MMA began to take off as a spectator sport in the 1990s, organizing fights based on the rivalry between these two currents was not only natural for promoters, but somewhat of a historical necessity to address the question of which style was more effective.
In the heyday of the Pride Fighting Championships in Japan, the chief representative of the Japanese style of catch wrestling was the colorful Kazushi Sakuraba. A tophigh school and college wrestler, Sakuraba came to prominence in the Union of Wrestling Forces International, which ran staged bouts with more realistic moves than therest of “pro wrestling.” Transitioning to actualfighting, Sakuraba scored a number of impressive victories in UFC and Pride to make believers out of those who thought he was just an actor.
Arranging a fight between Sakuraba and a member of the legendary Gracie family, however, required some give-and-take. About was thus arranged for Pride 8 on November 21, 1999, in Tokyo between Sakuraba and Royler Gracie. But Royler was one of the smaller Gracies, weighing just 150 pounds to 183 pounds for Sakuraba.
Special rules were devised for this fight, especially since the Gracies were putting their family’s reputation on the line. There were two 15-minute rounds, but there were no judges, and the referee could not stop the fight. Only a knockout or submission could end it. Otherwise, it would be a draw.
The fight looked like a mismatch. For most of the first round, Sakuraba landed dozens of powerful kicks to the legs of the butt-scooting Royler, whose stand up and grappling were ineffective. The beating continued in round two, with Sakuraba knocking down Royler twice from kicks. After dominating with a deliberate series of kicks, Sakuraba finally went to the ground late in the second round after a failed takedown attempt by Royler.
Almost immediately, Sakuraba sunk in a nasty Kimura armlock on Royler’s rightarm. While Royler was clearly in pain, he did not submit.
Then, with less than two minutes remaining in the fight, and despite the rules, refereeYuji Shimada stopped the fight. He awarded the victory to Sakuraba at 13:16 of round two. Royler popped to his feet immediately, protesting and waving his arms to indicate that he was unhurt and had not tapped.
To this day, Royler insists the stoppage was wrong. “They screwed me up,” he recently said in an interview. “The referee was not supposed to stop the fight. Why did they stop it? Nobody has the answer.”
Whatever the answer was, Sakuraba had manhandled a Gracie. The question of how he would fare against Gracies of his own weight would not be answered until a few years later. However, he didn’t come to be nicknamed “The Gracie Hunter” for nothing.