Staff Editorials
JARSULIC: A look back at Royce Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba I
By By Mike Jarsulic, MMATorch Columnist
Jun 1, 2007, 23:57

In the short history of Mixed Martial Arts, we have seen a few classic fights that will be remembered as such as the sport grows well into the future. Forrest Griffin and Stephen Bonnar will be remembered for putting it all on the line to earn a spot in the UFC. Fans will also never forget Randy Couture coming out of retirement to win the UFC Heavyweight Championship from Tim Sylvia. However, the first classic matchup in Mixed Martial Arts history was the war of attrition between Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba in the quarterfinals of the 2000 Pride Grand Prix on May 1, 2000.

From the opening round of the Grand Prix tournament, it was obvious that Pride envisioned a matchup between Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba. On November 21, 1999, Sakuraba became the first man to defeat a Gracie in mixed martial arts competition when he defeated Royler Gracie by referee stoppage with less than two minutes to go in the second round in the main event of Pride 8. In the opening round of the Grand Prix, Gracie was given the easy matchup of taking on Nobuhiko Takada, a Japanese pro wrestler with very little legit MMA experience. Gracie walked away with an easy decision victory in a boring fight in which neither fighter made much of an attempt to finish his opponent. Sakuraba faced Lion's Den fighter Guy Mezger in the first round and picked up a controversial win when the fight was ordered into overtime and Mezger left the ring citing that there was no overtime stipulation in the rules. While some would argue that Mezger was winning the fight at the time due to his ability to stuff Sakuraba's takedown attempts, the "10 kilo" rule would have given Sakuraba an advantage had the match been judged at that point.

Due to the controversial nature of Sakuraba's technical submission win over Royler Gracie, the rules of the fight were modified to avoid a similar incident. The rules set for the match included an unlimited number of 15 minute rounds and no referee stoppages.

Royce Gracie is without question the pioneer of Mixed Martial Arts in the United States. In 1993, Rorian Gracie created an infomercial called the Ultimate Fighting Championship to prove the superiority of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu over different styles of martial arts and combat sports. The format of the original UFC shows placed experts of a particular style in a tournment against opponents possessing contrasting styles. Royce Gracie was chosen to be the representative of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and the Gracie family in the tournament. While he was not the best fighter in the family, Royce was chosen because, at 170 lbs, he could better highlight the effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu against a much larger opponent. The strategy proved to be successful as he walked through the first tournament, defeating boxer Art Jimmerson, Pancrase veteran Ken Shamrock, and Savate expert Gerard Gordeau.

Royce Gracie returned four months later to compete in the second Ultimate Fighting Championship. This time the format consisted of a 16-man tournament with the winner needing to walk away four victories in one night. Gracie was more than up for the task as he defeated Minoki Ichihara (Karate), Jason Delucia (Kung Fu), Remco Pardoel (Judo), and Patrick Smith (Kickboxing). Gracie's performance was again impressive and he had yet to be put in a compromising position in seven fights.

Round 1
0:00 - 7:00

Kazushi Sakuraba scored a takedown with a single leg shortly after the opening bell. Gracie immediately pulled guard, but Sakuraba was able to stand up and deliver a cut kick to the leg which forced Gracie to get back to his feet. Both fighters ended up in the clinch against the ropes with Sakuraba maintaining double underhooks. From the clinch, Gracie's offense consisted of a series of knees to Sakuraba's right thigh, which did little to phase his opponent. Eventually, Gracie attempted to pull guard from the standing position and came up empty. Sakuraba went on attack with a right straight to his prone opponent, but Gracie was quick to recover with a leglock attempt which Sakuraba gracefully escaped from by turning his back and pulling the leg away. As Gracie attempted to take Sakuraba's back from the standing position, Sakuraba locked on a kimura and fell to his back to pull guard and finish the hold. Gracie was able regain his footing and drive the fight into the corner. While trapped against the ropes, Gracie defended against the kimura by grabbing onto the leg of his gi pants. As Sakuraba held onto the arm, Gracie tried to free himself with punches to his opponent's back and head, along with knees to the back of the leg. Even though there was a high accumulation of punches, they did not have much on them and highlighted that Gracie was at a large disadvantage if the fight remained standing. Eventually, the ref got both fighters out from between the ropes and restarted the match.

Round 1:
7:00 - 15:00

Gracie immediately went for a rear naked choke, but Sakuraba turns into and dumps him down to the mat. He is quick to recover to his feet and even attempts to take Sakuraba out with a high left roundhouse kick that is blocked. The fight eventually ends up with Gracie getting Sakuraba's back from the neutral position and inflicting damage with a series of knees to Sakuraba's tail bone. Sakuraba did a nice job of keeping options available as he tried to endlessly maneuver Gracie into position for both a kimura and a kneebar. Gracie attempted to ride Sakuraba to the mat from behind, but Sakuraba ended up on top in perfect position for a kneebar. Royce was calm and defended by crossing his legs. As time expired, Sakuraba had just broken the grip and extended the kneebar.

Throughout the first round, Gracie was the more aggressive fighter and inflicted more damage on his opponent. However, Sakuraba came close to finishing with the kneebar at the end of the round. He also did a nice job of controlling where the fight was contested as he was able to keep the action standing and was adamant in keeping the fight from becoming a Jiu-Jitsu contest on the mat.

Kazushi Sakuraba's mixed martial arts career also began with a tournament win in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. On December 21, 1997, Sakuraba competed for the UFC in a four-man heavyweight tournament as a late replacement for the injured Hiromitsu Kanehara. The bracketing consisted of first round matchups of UWFI wrestler Yoji Anjoh vs. Tank Abbott, along with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Marcus Silveira facing Sakuraba. Less than two minutes into his first professional fight, Sakuraba switched levels to shoot in for a single leg takedown and the fight was quickly called by referee John McCarthy. After much protest the fight ended up being ruled a no contest.

In the finals of the tournament, Sakuraba returned to again face Silveira as a replacement for the injured Tank Abbott. Even though Silveira was able to overpower Sakuraba and take him down, Sakuraba was relentless in attempting submissions throughout the fight. Eventually, Silveira tried for a keylock while Sakuraba had side control. Sakuraba countered well by spinning around his opponent and falling into a juji-gatame to pick up a submission victory.

Round 2:
15:00 - 19:20

Both fighters looked fresh coming out for the second round. Gracie initiated the attack and both fighters ended up in an over-under clinch against the ropes. From the clinch, Gracie began throwing knees to the inside of Sakuraba's right knee, which is usually wrapped for his fights. The ref wanted to restart the fight, but Royce refused to break against the ropes since there were no rules mandating a break.

Round 2:
19:21 - 25:30

After a short discussion of the rules, the referee allowed the fight to continue in the clinch with Sakuraba trapped against the ropes. Sakuraba defended against Gracie attacking with the hands by grabbing the sleeve of his gi. In a move usually reserved for sport Jiu-Jitsu competition, Sakuraba undid Gracie's gi from his belt. Having the gi loosened from the belt can allow for Sakuraba to use the gi to aid in control, guard passes, and submissions if the fight goes to the ground. Gracie attempted to pull guard by dead weighting himself, but Sakuraba had double underhooks and pulled Royce back to his feet. Sakuraba attempted to pull the gi over Gracie's head, but was unsuccessful. He would actually have been better off to tighten the gi by pulling it over Gracie's shoulder in order to control his arms.

Round 2:
25:31 - 30:00

Gracie fought his way to the inside of the clinch and began nailing Sakuraba with punch combinations that included right hooks to the body and a series of right uppercuts to the chin. Sakuraba slowed the pace of the fight down by gaining control of Gracie's gi. Another strategy tried by Sakuraba was to pull the gi down around Gracie's shoulders. I'm not sure what advantage that this would provide Sakuraba, but it was interesting to watch him learn how to use Gracie's own gi against him throughout the round. Gracie was able to push Sakuraba's head down in an attempt to finish with a standing guillotine choke. Sakuraba took him down and ended up in Gracie's half guard while Gracie held onto the choke until time expired.

Gracie was again the aggressor in the second round of the fight and, for his efforts, dominated the round. He held an advantage over Sakuraba by delivering the more damaging strikes and came closer to finishing the fight with the guillotine choke. Sakuraba, however, is still controlling where the fight is contested by keeping the match standing for the most part. He has also done a tremendous job of allowing time to elapse without using a lot of energy.

The first chink in Royce Gracie's armor came at the third Ultimate Fighting Championship, when he met up with Kimo Leopoldo in the first round of the tournament. Kimo, a 240 lb Hawaiian, claimed to be disciplined in Tae Kwon Do, but it was obvious when the fight started that he had a grappling background. Through his size, strength, and pure aggression, Kimo was able to neutralize Gracie for approximately four minutes. He had success in avoiding takedown attempts, escaping from mount, and taking Gracie's back. However, Kimo made the mistake of posting his left arm while trapped in Gracie's guard and fell victim to a straight armlock. While Gracie walked away from the match victorious, he was unable to continue in the tournament and was forced to forfeit his semi-final match to Harold Howard.

At UFC 4, Gracie returned to action and drew a much easier path to the finals of the tournament. In the first round, he was matched up with Ron Van Clief, a 51-year old black belt in Chinese Goju. After dispatching Van Clief with a rear naked choke, Gracie defeated Keith Hackney with an armlock to earn a spot in the finals. At the other end of the bracket, former Arizona State wrestler Dan Severn dismantled both Anthony Macias and Marcus Bossett to earn the right to compete for the championship. Without much MMA training, Severn relied on his wrestling background to take Gracie to the mat and spent 15 minutes in his guard trying to figure out how to finish his opponent. Eventually Severn made a mistake and was submitted with a triangle choke. Even though Royce Gracie was able to pull out another tournament win in the UFC, it was becoming painfully obvious that his opponents were learning enough about submissions to stay out of trouble and that his road to victory would not be as easy as it had been in the early tournaments.

Round 3:
30:00 - 33:00

Gracie used some strikes to get inside on Sakuraba and drive his to the ropes again. In the clinch, Gracie did a nice job of controlling his opponent's hands and throwing knees to the body. Sakuraba caught Gracie in the groin with a knee strike and received a yellow card. The referee stopped the fight and gave Gracie a few minutes to recover.

Round 3:
33:01 - 38:00

The ref restarted the fight and Gracie began trying to sweep the legs to draw Sakuraba to the mat. Sakuraba took Gracie to the mat but refused to go down into the guard. Gracie was able to regain his footing and drove Sakuraba into the corner with an inside Russian tie and underhook. In the clinch, Gracie became complacent in trying to soften up his opponent with foot stomps and knees to the body, which allowed Sakuraba exploded with a series of right straights that dropped Gracie to the mat.

Round 3:
38:01 - 45:00

The fight contined with Gracie on his back and Sakuraba on his feet. Sakuraba inflicted some damage with a few cut kicks to Gracie's legs, a technique that had worked well against Brazilian fighters in the past. Gracie regained the neutral position and readjusted his gi, but Sakuraba threw a damaging right cut kick that seemed to hurt Gracie's left leg. Every time Gracie advanced to take the fight back into the clinch, Sakuraba did a nice job of stopping the advance by throwing either a heavy cut kick to the legs or a combination of punches. With about 3 minutes left in the round, Sakuraba began entertaining the crowd by setting up leg kicks by faking the Mongolian chops. As the end of the round was near, Gracie finally succeeded in clinching with Sakuraba against the ropes, where he was able to slow the pace of the fight until time expired.

The third round was all Sakuraba. He was able to find a weakness in Gracie's game, which is the ability to properly defend low cut kicks. The damage inflicted by Sakuraba seemed to throw Gracie out of his game plan and he began making mistakes. For example, in a desperate attempt to take the fight into the clinch, Gracie would advance with his hands down, allowing Sakuraba to nullify the attack with punch combinations.

The early Pride shows were full of long fights that provided little in the way of action and worked matches that produced annoying results (e.g. Nobuhiko Takada defeating Mark Coleman). One fighter that stood out as a cut above the rest in terms of both excitement and technique was Kazushi Sakuraba. In his Pride debut, Sakuraba defeated Lion's Den veteran Vernon White in a ground battle that saw Sakuraba overwhelm his opponent with aggressive takedown and submission attempts. His next fight was another great grappling match against Jiu-Jitsu standout Carlos Newton. In both fights, Sakuraba amazed the crowd with his tenacity and was able to walk away with two hard fought submission victories.

For his next series of fights, Pride matched Sakuraba up with a group of prestigious Brazilian fighters that included Allan Goes, Vitor Belfort, and Ebenezer Fontes Braga. He was more than up for the challenge as he won a dominant decision over Belfort, submitted Braga via armlock, and fought to a 30 minute draw with Goes. Even though Sakuraba was garnering success against some of the top Brazilian fighters in the world, he still had yet to fight a member of the Gracie family, who had all been undefeated since the beginning of the modern era of MMA.

Round 4:
45:00 - 48:00

To start the fourth round, Gracie came out aggressive, using some strikes to drive Sakuraba into the ropes. As the fight went on, it was becoming obvious that Sakuraba had trained to utilize Gracie's gi against him as he was able to control Gracie's upper body by grabbing both the sleeves and lapels.

Round 4:
48:01 - 55:00

Gracie was unsuccessful at pulling guard and both fighters returned to the neutral position. Sakuraba was able to score a takedown when he caught Gracie's leg off of a lazy cut kick attempt. On the mat, Sakuraba still would not play in Gracie's guard as he quickly backed out and controlled Gracie's legs with the gi pants to force a standup. At this point, Gracie had a noticeable gash under his right eye. Every time Gracie advanced with strikes, Sakuraba began to throw counter punches that would hit their mark consistently. He also scored periodically with cut kicks to Gracie's left leg. Gracie would try to counter with leg kicks of his own, but they did not seem at effective as his opponent's kicks. With each kick thrown, Gracie's left leg would buckle when he attempted to regain his footing.

Round 4:
55:01 - 60:00

After advancing with a series of strikes, Gracie was finally able to drive Sakuraba into the corner and get his back while he entangled in the ropes. Gracie fought hard to move Sakuraba away from the ropes and score a takedown, but Sakuaba exhibited tremendous takedown defense by exploding back to his feet each time he touched the mat. Eventually, Gracie fell back with a minute remaining and the round ended with Sakuraba on top in Gracie's half guard.

Another great round for Sakuraba. Even though he did not expend much energy throughout the round, he dominated the standup with leg kicks and strikes. More importantly, he exposed another weakness in Gracie's game. Throughout the round, Sakuraba was able to land his left hook at will since Gracie had a tendency to drop his right hand during his attempts to engage with strikes.

The fifth Ultimate Fighting Championship featured the very first Superfight, which was a rematch between Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock. Even though their match at the first UFC lasted less than a minute, both fighters had established themselves as the two top competitors in the sport. After his loss to Gracie, Shamrock began learning as much as he could about the gi and how he could utilize it against an opponent who insisted on wearing it in competition.

The fight itself did not offer much in the way of action as it was contested in Gracie's closed guard with both fighters playing it tentative. After 35 minutes, the match was ruled a draw with Shamrock claiming victory for a right hand that cut and swelled Gracie's eye. Shamrock also became the first fighter who had not fallen victim to one of Gracie's submissions. Rorian Gracie would sell his shares of the UFC shortly after the event and Royce Gracie went on a near-five year hiatus from MMA competition.

Round 5:
60:00 - 67:00

After surpassing the length of any fight in the modern era of MMA, both fighter came out for the fifth round. Sakuraba opened the round with a low kick and Gracie quickly closed the distance and was taken down. On the mat, the fight ended up in Gracie's closed guard. From the guard, Sakuraba did a great job of posturing up to create distance to throw punches. By striking in the guard, Sakuraba forced Gracie to begin working from open guard, which allowed Sakuraba back out and control the legs with the gi pants. Using the back of the pants, Sakuraba stacked Gracie and landed a few right straights to the face.

Round 5:
67:01 - 75:00

Gracie was able to reset his guard and became more active by throwing strikes from the bottom. After eating some strikes from the guard, it seemed as though Gracie became more aware of maintaining hand control. Sakuraba stacked Gracie again to attempt a guard pass, but Gracie's flexibility allowed him to maintain a butterfly guard. With a minute left in the round Sakuraba stood up and delivered a stomp to Gracie's face as time expired.

As the fight went on, it was apparent that Sakuraba was only getting stronger. The story of the fifth round consisted on Gracie taking the fight to the mat and Sakuraba ending up in his guard. Not only did Sakuraba survive the guard, but he was able to strike effectively by using the gi to stack his opponent before reigning down punches. Even though neither fighter did much damage, Sakuraba's success in the guard must have provided him with a huge confidence boost going into the sixth round.

In 1955, Masahiko Kimura fought Helio Gracie in Brazil in a battle between Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Thirteen minutes into the contest, Kimura locked Gracie in a ude-garami, the move that now bears his name. Even though Helio did not submit to the hold, the fight was stopped and Kimura was declared the winner.

The result of the fight between Kimura and Helio is very similar to result of Kazushi Sakuraba and Royler Gracie that was contested in November 1999. Throughout the fight, Sakuraba had Royler puzzled with cut kicks thrown while Royler was trying to lure his opponent into his guard. The fight was stopped at approximately 13 minutes of the 2nd round when Sakuraba locked on a tight ude-garami, the same move Kimura used to defeat Helio Gracie 44 years earlier. The fight was stopped even though Royler never submitted. Shortly thereafter, Royce Gracie began preparing for his return to MMA after his long hiatus from competition.

Round 6:
75:00 - 79:00

Sakuraba shot in immediately and took Gracie to the mat, ending up in Gracie's closed guard. Gracie paid close attention to controlling Sakuraba's right hand and began throwing kicks to the back of Sakuraba's neck. The kicks allowed Gracie to break his opponent down in the guard, where he was looking for an Ezekiel choke, but Sakuraba backed out and both fighter returned to their feet.

Round 6:
79:01 - 83:00

From the neutral position Sakuraba landed a few cut kicks that Gracie wanted no part of. After eating a few strikes, Gracie attempted to pull guard. Sakuraba remained on his feet and would land a couple leg kicks every time Gracie went to his back. Eventually, Gracie was able to slow the pace by clinching with Sakuraba against the ropes.

Round 6:
83:01 - 90:00

Gracie backed out of the clinch and the fight resumed in the center of the ring. At this point, Gracie was moving slow as the accumulation of cut kicks had done a lot of damage to his legs. Sakuraba was still fresh and was able to drop Gracie with another kick to the left leg. With five minutes left in the round, Sakuraba began picking Gracie apart with strikes and dropped him with a left hook. Gracie started becoming more aggressive in an attempt to regain control of the fight by trying anything including takedowns and pulling guard to get the fight on the mat. Outside the ring, Gracie's corner was preparing to throw in the towel. After an attempt by Gracie to pull guard, Sakuraba continued to attack the legs of his prone opponent until time expired.

After the sixth round, Royce Gracie sat on the stool in his corner, which is not a good idea for a fighter who has taken a lot of damage to his legs. He never came out for the next round, as his corner threw in the towel after 90 minutes of action to concede the fight to Kazushi Sakuraba.

Overall, the fight between Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba was tremendous battle that exemplified the resilience of both fighters. It is historic because Sakuraba became the first man to defeat Royce Gracie in MMA competition and for sheer length of the fight. The most amazing aspect of the fight is that momentum of the match parallels the careers of both fighters up until the point that they met up in the Pride Grand Prix. Early in the fight, Gracie was the aggressor and, in my opinion, was getting the better of Sakuraba for the first two rounds. However, as the match progressed, it became apparent that his style was one dimensional and that it was possible to defeat him. Sakuraba's performance mimicked his early career because you were able to watch him grow as a fighter throughout the match. With each round, Sakuraba came out a different fighter and became more dominant as the match progressed.

On June 2, 2007, Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba will fight for the second time in Los Angeles, California for K-1 Heroes. Even though both fighters are nearing the end of their careers, the match will be a reminder of the performance that they both put on 7 years prior.

To email me, Mike Jarsulic, click on my email link at our Contact Page

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