There was no shortage of options for this week’s “This Day in MMA History” column, as the UFC has historically held a pay-per-view in the middle of November for the last decade with a number of very memorable performances: Shogun vs. Henderson, GSP’s return from ACL surgery, GSP’s final fight, GSP’s second fight with Matt Hughes… damn. That is a lot of GSP. So what to choose?
How about we go way back to 1999. November 21 to be exact. The UFC was still on the verge of collapsing at any moment due to lack of funds, and Pride was still just an emerging power, not quite at the heights that it would reach. It seemed pretty clear to most MMA fans (the few that there were at the time) that the UFC was going to be a thing of the past while Pride was the future, as it had already lured some of the UFC’s brightest stars. Mark Kerr won two UFC tournaments before jumping to Japan. Gary Goodridge established himself in America before becoming a fixture in Pride. Even the Gracie family, who had co-founded the UFC, had taken their talents to Japan.
Going into Pride 8, the Japanese organization had an emerging star to attract their home audience in Kazushi Sakuraba. Sakuraba, like most others on the Pride roster at the time, had made his first MMA splash in the UFC, winning the Ultimate Japan tournament. Under unusual circumstances for sure, but he won it nonetheless. After making his Pride debut at Pride 2, he had appeared in every Pride event since without a single loss yet. Those included an instant classic with Carlos Newton at Pride 3, and a huge upset over established star Vitor Belfort at Pride 5. Having his roots in the Japanese pro wrestling circuit was a big boon as well, seeing as how Pride was established with pro wrestling roots.
Now Sakuraba was facing his biggest challenge in Royler Gracie. Sure, Royler was the smallest Gracie in the family, coming in around a buck fifty, but the Gracie family had yet to lose in professional MMA with his brothers Royce, Rickson, and cousin Renzo having also competed at the professional level at this point. The aura and mystique surrounding the family was at its peak, as it had boasted that it hadn’t been beaten since Helio Gracie lost to Valdemar Santana in 1955. Further roots in the rivalry had been established when Rickson had beaten Yoji Anjo in the Gracie gym a few years earlier, and later Nobuhiko Takada twice in Pride bouts, as Anjo and Takada were cohorts of Sakuraba’s in the wrestling industry.
Right from the beginning of the fight Sakuraba utilized his size advantage on the smaller Royler effectively. Royler would continually look to pull guard, and did have some initial success. In doing so, Sakuraba would keep his weight on top of the smaller fighter, which slowly wore Royler down. After a while, Sakuraba refused to play that game anymore. As Royler would lay on his back inviting Sakuraba to jump in, Sakuraba littered Royler’s legs and butt with heavy kicks, an element of fighting that was largely foreign to the grappling ace. Even worse, Sakuraba toyed with him, taking his time with a laissez-faire attitude, putting his hands on his hips as he thought about where he wanted to land his selective kicks.
Royler was looking defeated as welts popped up on his legs, and his confidence slowly seeped away as he scooted towards Sakuraba desperately, kicking at Sakuraba’s own legs less and less. When Sakuraba did get him to stand, a large variety of kicks to the head and body continued to add to the significant damage already done, and then Royler would eventually collapse back to the ground, inviting Sakuraba to join him. The final stand-up exchange concluded with Royler pulling Sakuraba down into the guard near the ropes. Royler left an arm out there for Sakuraba to grab; he did just that, twisting it behind Royler’s back in a kimura. Sakuraba had it extremely tight, but Royler wouldn’t tap. Sakuraba continued to crank more and more, with Royler still refusing to tap on the verge of a broken arm or dislocated shoulder… only for the referee, Yuji Shimada, to jump in and call the fight, awarding a technical submission victory to Sakuraba.
While Royce and Renzo had fought to draws with Ken Shamrock and Akira Shoji, this was the first loss that the Gracies had suffered, proving the first family of MMA wasn’t invincible. Despite Royler taking a beating and being in an obviously precarious position, the Gracies opposed the outcome as Royler didn’t tap. As a result, Royce would then make his return to MMA against Sakuraba to avenge his brother’s loss.
That match would become a legendary display of heart and endurance, lasting for 90 minutes before Sakuraba emerged victorious when Royce’s camp threw in the towel before a seventh round. Sakuraba would then face Renzo, breaking his arm as he wrestled Renzo to the ground with a kimura; finally, he took down the wild man of the Gracie family, Ryan, by decision. Sakuraba would become known as the Gracie Hunter, having defeated four prominent members of the family without a loss, and established himself as the biggest MMA star at the time. His victories over Newton and Belfort were certainly good wins, but Newton had yet to turn into a star at the time of the Sakuraba’s victory, and many attributed his victory over Belfort to an off-night to the young Brazilian star, as Belfort didn’t look to be himself the night of the fight. Sakuraba was a unique talent who appealed to Japanese fans, but he wasn’t a true star… until the night that he beat Royler. Sure, it wasn’t the brightest moment in his career as his wins over Royce and Renzo would overshadow his win over Royler, but this was where his meteoric rise into legendary status would begin.
This Week in MMA History
November 15, 2008: In just his fourth professional MMA fight at UFC 91, Brock Lesnar took the heavyweight title from MMA legend Randy Couture, as Lesnar used his reported 45 lb. advantage (Lesnar certainly weighed more than his reported 265 lbs. by fight time) to bully his smaller opponent, thus beginning the Lesnar era, a time period highlighted by incredible pay-per-view sales.
November 17, 2012: Georges St. Pierre made a successful return from a torn ACL, defeating Carlos Condit at UFC 154 despite eating a head kick in the third round that nearly put him out cold. The win marked GSP’s seventh title defense in a legendary run that would culminate just a year later at UFC 167 with a controversial defense over Johny Hendricks.
November 18, 2006: With a head kick to the dome of longtime welterweight champion Matt Hughes, GSP avenged the only loss of his career to that point, and became the Welterweight Champion at UFC 65. Though his first reign would be short, dethroning Hughes marked the beginning of the GSP era. Earlier in the night, Tim Sylvia defended his Heavyweight Title against Jeff Monson in a largely boring bout that sealed Sylvia’s fate as a fighter fans loved to hate.
November 19, 2011: In the same night at separate events, two of the greatest matches in MMA history took place, as Michael Chandler upset Eddie Alvarez at Bellator 58 for the lightweight title while Dan Henderson beat Shogun Rua in an epic five round war at UFC 139; a night that many refer to as the best night of action in MMA history.