With Sakuraba laying his gloves down in 2015 after nearly 20 years of glory inside the cage, it seemed a fair time to give ode to the once Japanese phenom. 'Saku' was unlike any fighter of his era due to how ahead of the game he was. Both intelligence and superior grappling carried Sakuraba to the legend status he's at today... and most of it came by taking out the Gracie family one by one.
Sakuraba was so great because of his fight IQ, and his willingness to blend multiple grappling arts to initiate and control positions. Nobody could figure out the Gracie family's game because they were so in tune with their jiu jitsu style that butterfly sweeps and even something as simple as 'closed guard' was so distant from anything being used in the mid 90s era of mixed martial arts. Kazushi gained his notoriety strictly from Japan, but American UFC fans had always wanted him in the stateside fight organization.
When the UFC did make its first trip to Japan at the end of 1997, they loaded the card with now legends in Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort, and even Tank Abbott. Sakuraba was in fact a late addition to this card as he was a natural lightweight to welterweight and this was a tournament of light heavyweight and heavyweight juggernauts. The minimum weight for this tourny was 200 pounds.. and Sakuraba maxed out at 183. He was the smallest man in the tournament, yet one of the most profoundly effective against the opponent.
Oddly enough, in Saku's eliminator match against Marcus Silveira he was thought to have slumped over from taking too many shots to the head, but the referree (in Big John) at the time watched tape and realized Sakuraba was simply bending his head down to avoid shots and land the takedown. With this realization, the fight was rematched later in the night and Sakuraba won by his trademark armbar!
When Gracie jiu jitsu has stormed the UFC and mixed martial arts altogether, it seemed as though nobody would be able to stop the consistent threat of submission, but Sakuraba was the one man who never settled for position, and could turn himself into Gumby when he needed it. A deceptively soft frame and cordial glace from Sakuraba could take an opponent by surprise when he mounts and starts attacking every limb. With wins over Renzo, Ralek, Royce, and Ryan in professional matches, Sakuraba became an absolute legend. Nobody has thrashed the Gracie lineage in such a way, and we may never see a force like Saku again.
Do you remember Sakuraba's first and only night in the UFC? Did this night craft the legend he became?