THIS DAY IN MMA HISTORY (10/11): The debut of Pride Fighting Championships

By Dayne Fox, MMATorch Contributor

This Day in MMA History (10/11)

1997: The first Pride Fighting Championships event was held in the Tokyo Dome, headlined by Gracie family champion Rickson facing Japanese wrestling legend Nobuhiko Takada in a bout that Rickson took rather easily, by armbar of course. Other notables from the event included Kimo Leopoldo and Dan Severn rarely engaging over the course of 30 minutes as they fought to a draw, and Gary Goodridge scoring a highlight reel KO with a single punch to former UFC tournament champion Oleg Taktarov.

1998: Pride 4 was held on the first anniversary of the Pride Fighting Championships debut with a rematch of that first main event. Though Nobuhiko Takada put on a better showing this time around by lasting almost 10 minutes, Rickson Gracie once again emerged victorious with an armbar submission. Igor Vovchanchyn made his Pride debut with an impressive finish of Gary Goodridge with punches, and Mark Kerr took an unusual victory over Hugo Duarte, with Duarte refusing to stand with Kerr as well as continually crawling through the ropes.

October 11, 1997 is an often forgotten about day in the history of MMA, largely due to the fact that it had nothing to do with the promotion which completely dominates the MMA landscape as we know it today, the UFC. However, it’s a day that should be remembered just a step below November 12, 1993 (first UFC event) as days of import in the short history of the sport. It is the day that Pride Fighting Championships made their debut.

Many fans have only joined the MMA cause in the last decade or so, after the Pride boom had already passed, so it’s easy to see why they don’t fully comprehend the significance of this event. For roughly a five to six year period, Pride Fighting Championships was the premier organization of MMA, as the UFC endured financial and political issues and struggled to stay afloat. Even after the Fertitta brothers purchased the UFC, it took a few years for the UFC to emerge ahead of Pride as the top dog in the MMA world.

In a not so coincidental manner, Pride started off much the same way the UFC did: with a Gracie reigning supreme by the end of the night. How it formed is a much different story than the formation of the UFC, as it came out of professional wrestling as opposed to the desire to determine what martial art reigned supreme in the world.

It was pro wrestling that reigned supreme in Japan, where promoters refused to acknowledge the kayfabe factor of the business, instead selling the realness of it to their fans. As Pancrase and the UFC emerged and gained popularity in the mid-90’s, the belief of the fans in regards to the legitimacy of the product was greatly damaged. In an effort to regain legitimacy, one of the top wrestling stars of the time, Nobohiko Takada, made Rickson Gracie, who had been acknowledged by UFC champion and younger brother Royce as “10 times better than me,” an insane financial offer to fight him. The catch: it would be a work with Takada emerging victorious in order for Japanese wrestling to regain some of its lost mojo. Rickson refused to do a work and declined.

Takada still had Rickson in his sights, even if he couldn’t get him to do a worked match. But first he wanted to make Rickson look like a coward. Yoji Anjo was legitimately one of the toughest guys in the UWF-I (Takada’s wrestling promotion) and was sent by the promotion’s booker to challenge Rickson at his dojo in Los Angeles in December of 1994. Anjo had at least 30 pounds on Rickson, with plenty of training in catch wrestling. Rickson was furious with Anjo’s appearance, taking it as a huge display of disrespect, but was still willing to go through with the unconventional Gracie Challenge. Taking Anjo into a private room, Rickson proceded to pound Anjo out as opposed to looking for the quick submission that Gracie’s usually looked for. Anjo emerged from the incident a shamed bloody mess, failing in his attempt to discredit Rickson.

Takada was looking worse by the day following Rickson’s display on his contemporary Anjo, and his company was losing popularity (folding in 1996) as he tried to maintain the reputation of a real fighter. In the meantime Rickson had gone over to Japan and picked up a number of victories over Japanese fighters to only further solidify his reputation. The only way Takada was going to silence his critics was by fighting Rickson. Takada finally gave in and agreed to face Rickson in a legit fight, leading to the birth of Pride Fighting Championships.

It wasn’t much of a fight, as Rickson stalked Takada before getting a double-leg takedown, quickly achieving mount, and getting the armbar in under five minutes to add to his legend. Takada’s reputation was in the mud at this point, as he was not competitive at all.

The rest of the card featured some of the larger names in the era who came across the ocean looking for a payday that the UFC could no longer provide. Dan Severn gave up a main event spot on the UFC 15 card, as he was being paid significantly more on the undercard of Pride than he was in the struggling UFC, resulting in him getting the cold shoulder from the UFC for a number of years after. Perhaps if his snooze fest with Kimo Leopoldo had resulted in something other than the final result (in which they largely danced around one another ala Severn’s fight with Ken Shamrock about a year and a half earlier), maybe they would have brought him back… but who knows?

Aside from a highlight reel one punch KO from Gary Goodridge to former UFC tournament champion Oleg Taktarov, the action in the ring was lackluster. Despite that, it is obvious in hindsight that the event was a success, as it spawned what would become the world’s preeminent MMA organization for a time.

Pride 4, taking place exactly one year later in 1998, provided a better showing of what was to come. Once again highlighted by Rickson and Takada (Pride had paid off Jason Sturgeon to take a fall to Takada at Pride 3 to help rebuild his reputation and sell the rematch), Takada was better prepared to deal with Rickson’s skill set, but still vastly overwhelmed, as he almost made it 10 minutes in the sequel before again submitting to an armbar. The loss effectively ensured Takada would never again reach the heights of popularity he had formerly enjoyed, as he was no longer the legit tough guy in the eyes of the Japanese audience that he made himself out to be.

Considering the controversy that surrounded Pride throughout its history (fixed fights, unregulated performance enhancing drug use, Yakuza influence), the circumstances that brought the first event together were more than appropriate for what became a most beloved organization (one that many fans still favor to this day over the UFC). As we approach nine years since the UFC bought the Japanese organization out, its influence is diminishing as former stars (Mirko Cro Cop, Shogun Rua, Wanderlei Silva, the Nogueira brothers among others) are all well past their primes or retired. Regardless, there is still a strong “Pride never dies!” sentiment among its fans, something that has been revived with the announcement by former Pride head Nobuyuki Sakakibara that he will be forming a new MMA promotion, set to debut at the end of the year headlined by none other than former Pride Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko. What will it bring us? Who knows, but if it is anything like what Pride Fighting Championships brought us for many years, fans will be chomping at the bit.

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