Probably everyone who trains BJJ has heard of the Gracie family. They are a bit like royalty when it comes to grappling. After all, it is a family with many champions and titled martial arts fighters. And its members are simply the founders of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Most people admire and respect them. However, there are also people for whom they are just another opponent to beat. Such a person is the Japanese MMA fighter and wrestler Kazushi Sakuraba. During his sports career, he repeatedly won with the competitors of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from the Gracie family, thanks to which he received the nickname Gracie Hunter. More about his career and the road to achieving such a nickname below.
Kazushi Sakuraba (born on July 14, 1969) is a Japanese grappler, mixed martial artist, and professional wrestler, who has fought for the world’s largest MMA organizations such as UFC, PRIDE FC, and DREAM. Best known for his extraordinary skills in catch wrestling and submission wrestling. Sakuraba is considered to be one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time. He holds notable victories over 7 UFC champions, 3 Pancrase Champions, a DREAM champion, a King of the Cage champion, Battlecade Extreme Fighting champion, and many others.
As a child, Sakuraba became a fan of Japanese professional wrestling thanks to the Tiger Mask manga. At the age of 15, he began training wrestling, hoping to gain a useful background to achieve his childhood dream. He successfully continued his amateur wrestling career in college. After college, Sakuraba initially thought of staying at the university as a coach. However, at the last minute, he gave up on this idea and eventually decided to continue his competitive career. After graduation, he began his professional wrestling career and performed in UWF International, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), and Kingdom Pro Wrestling. During this period, he was trained by Billy Robinson, a British catch wrestling instructor, thanks to whom he developed the skills of finishing holds (levers and chokes).
MMA career timeline
Sakuraba’s next step in his sports career was mixed martial arts. He fought his first professional MMA fight in 1996 against Kimo Leopoldo, known for his appearances in the UFC. Despite the defeat, Sakuraba did not give up and competed again in December 1997. This time Kazushi competed in the UFC Japan: Ultimate Japan heavyweight tournament in Yokohama and won it by defeating Marcus Silvera by submission (shoulder lever) in the final. From that victory on, he was soon to become Gracie Hunter.
In 1998 he joined PRIDE FC, where he performed for over 7 consecutive years. In the period 1998-1999, he achieved six victories, incl. During this time he defeated, among others, later UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton, later UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort and multiple world champion in BJJ Royler Gracie. With such successes, Sakuraba quickly became one of the organization’s leading fighters.
‘Gracie Hunter’ era
In 2000 he took part in the PRIDE 2000 Openweight GP. In the first round, he eliminated former Pancrase champion Guy Mezger. Then, in the quarter-finals, Sakuraba faced three-time UFC winner Royce Gracie. Finally, after 90 minutes of an exhausting fight, Kazushi won. After that Sakuraba made it to the semi-finals, where he faced Ihor Wowczanczyn. However, after 15 minutes of an even fight, the Japanese was put down by his own corner due to exhaustion. It was his first failure in 4 years. In 2000, Sakuraba also had two more battles with other members of the Gracie family. In August, he defeated Renzo Gracie by breaking his arm in the elbow with a kimura, and in December he won by a unanimous decision of the judges over Ryan Gracie.
After the streak of success, Sakuraba had the hard year 2001. During the PRIDE middleweight championship, Kazushi was seriously injured. He suffered a collarbone fracture and after 10 minutes the fight was interrupted by a doctor. After almost a year’s break due to rehabilitation, Sakuraba returned to competing. In the following years, he fought with variable success. In 2006, he left PRIDE and signed a contract with the rival organization FEG for fights during the HERO’S galas, Dynamite !! and DREAM. Unfortunately, the following years were not the happiest for Sakuraba, his fights ended with mixed results, so in 2011 he returned to wrestling, with which he is associated until today.
|Professional record breakdown|
|46 matches||26 wins||17 losses|
‘The Gracie Hunter’
Sakuraba has had many victories in his career and has had many great fights. His opponents were all sorts of great competitors. However, what Sakuraba became most famous for were his victories over the members of the Gracie clan. More about his clashes with them below.
His first encounter with the Gracie family was against Royler at Pride 7. During the fight Royler was unable to score a takedown or strike effectively from a standing position, so he wanted to bring the fight to the ground. Sakuraba, however, did not let that happen and while standing, was kicking Royler’s legs, thighs, and head. Eventually, with less than two minutes remaining, Sakuraba engaged Royler on the ground and instantly caught him in a Kimura. The referee stopped the fight with 1 minute and 44 seconds remaining on the clock, and Sakuraba was announced a winner by TKO.
It was the first professional failure of the Gracie family in several decades. This was so unexpected that it caused a wave of shock and controversy in the MMA community. Some protested that the victory was tainted because Royler (although placed in a debilitating submission hold) never conceded defeat and was little time away from the final bell when the fight was stopped. After that, the Japanese fight media rejoiced and elevated Sakuraba to superstar status. When Japan celebrated Sakuraba success, others were not so happy. Gracie’s family was very embittered by the fight. BJJ ‘royalty’ felt they had been deceived by Pride. And the story of Kazushi versus Gracie was just getting started.
After the fight with Royler, Sakuraba challenged his older brother – Rickson. However, this challenge was not taken up by Royler’s older but younger brother – former UFC Champion Royce. To restore his family’s dominance, he returned to MMA in 2000 and competed in the 16-Man Pride Grand Prix along with Sakuraba and several other top fighters of the era. Gracie and Sakuraba were placed on the same side of the bracket. In the event of a Kazushi-Royce match, the Gracie clan demanded a special set of rules. Their fight was to take place without judges’ detentions and without time limits, and could only end with a submission or Knockout. All this was to prevent a repetition of the situation in Sakuraba’s fight with Royler.
The longest fight in MMA
Gracie and Sakuraba met in the quarter-finals. Their fight lasted extremely long, as much as 90 minutes (six 15 minute rounds). To this day, it is considered the longest in the history of mixed martial arts. Gracie opened the fight aggressively by attacking the back of the Japanese with numerous punches. Sakuraba, however, remained calm. He knew Royce had no knockout power and that he would lose energy quickly. It even got to the point where Kazushi smiled at the cameras during the Brazilian attacks. Towards the end of the first round, Sakuraba nearly ended the fight with a kneebar. And in the second Gracie came back with a guillotine choke. Kazushi, however, knew that he was in no danger, and to joke about it, he even pretended to take off Royce’s gi pants.
In the third round, Sakuraba switched to attack. Kazushi dominated the stand-up and made Royce lie repeatedly on the ground to avoid him. As time passed, the rules Gracie wanted, began working against Royce. Sakuraba’s wrestling skills and balance canceled Gracie’s ability to score a takedown and—in some cases—even pull guard. Even Royces ever-present BJJ gi became a weapon for the Japanese to use against him as Sakuraba used it to control Gracie on the instances the fight did come to the ground. After Kazushi landed a long series of leg kicks at the fifth and sixth rounds, Royce’s brother, Rorion threw in the towel.
The nickname ‘Gracie Hunter’ has become official
Following the Grand Prix and win against Royce, Sakuraba was christened the ‘Gracie Hunter’ by the Japanese sports media. Keeping in tow with his new nickname, Sakuraba had to face brothers Renzo and Ryan Gracie. In contrast to Royler and Royce, Renzo and Ryan were products of Carlson Gracie’s approach to BJJ, which placed a stronger emphasis on combat-ready skills and training without a gi.
Renzo’s stylistic differences from his cousins were evidence from the outset of his fight against Sakuraba. He pressed the pace of the fight with a variety of kicks and punches. Sakuraba replied calmly, the fight slowed down and seemed to be stalled. As a next step, Sakuraba used his wrestling skills and tried to takedown Renzo. However, Renzo’s defensive skills from the bottom thwarted Sakuraba’s offensive attempts. Gracie after using an entry derived from the De la Riva even took the Kazushi back as mere seconds remained in the fight.
However, this was not the end. Sakuraba performed his own reversion, locked in a kimura from the back, and spun around, flipping Renzo to the mat even as he wrenched his arm behind his back. Renzo declined to submit to the hold even despite his elbow being snapped before hitting the ground. The referee had to stop the fight and Sakuraba was declared the winner.
Appreciation for Sakuraba
After the fight, Renzo took the mic and told 35,000 fans that Sakuraba was “the Japanese version of the Gracie family”. Renzo has since referred to the fight as his proudest moment in MMA. Years later Gracie called Sakuraba “his hero” and remembered their fight as “one of the biggest lessons he learned in his life”. One of the commentators also stated: “if any fans still doubted the abilities of Kazushi Sakuraba in MMA competition, they are now silent.” Ryan Gracie, who had fought on the same card and emerged victoriously, jumped into the ring and issued a challenge to Sakuraba, which Kizushi accepted.
Sakuraba and Ryan’s fight happened at Pride 12. Due to Ryan’s shoulder injury, the fight was limited to a single 10-minute round. Ryan’s attack attempts were generally stopped and controlled by Sakuraba, who clearly avoided attacks on the younger opponent’s injured shoulder. Kazushi threw some of his usual antics during the match, at some points delivering punches to Ryan’s rear while controlling him. Ultimately, Sakuraba once again emerged victorious from a fight with a member of the Gracie family.
Sakuraba rematched Royce Gracie in K-1 Dynamite!! USA 2007. Even though Sakuraba knocked Gracie to the mat in the first seconds, the pace of the fight was relatively slow. Kazushi scored multiple takedowns and Gracie scored several flailing kicks to the legs and face, as well as standing knee strikes to Sakuraba’s Injured knee. The Japanese besieged Gracie on the ground, finishing the fight having the back of Gracie and searching for an armbar. However, by the judges’ decision, it was Royce who was declared the winner. Many MMA fans, however, immediately questioned this result. In their opinion, Sakuraba should have won. This belief became even stronger when Gracie tested positive for steroids after the fight.
In Dream 14 Sakuraba faced Ralek Gracie. It was the sixth time Sakuraba faced Gracie. This time there was a big age difference between the competitors. Kazushi was 41 years old while Ralek was just 24. During the match, Kazushi fared relatively well against the young Gracie. Ralek, however, dominated, it was obvious that he was specialized in counteracting Sakuraba’s style. There was controversy towards the end of the fight, as Sakuraba seemed to have secured a kimura, only for the referee to pause the match to pull up Ralek’s pants. This restart let the Brazilian come back with an armbar. Even though Kazushi escaped it, the fight ended with a unanimous decision win for Gracie.
In 2014 Sakuraba once again faced Renzo Gracie. This time in a grappling match in Metamoris V. Renzo started the fight with defensive closed guard with the two exchanging guillotine choke attempts. He eventually flipped Sakuraba over and pinned him. Sakuraba resisted all of his submission attempts, and with 90 seconds left he tried to lock a Kimura. It was unsuccessful and the fight ended in a draw. This result can be considered almost symbolic. Recognizing that the Gracie family and Sakuraba are equals. Both of them showcasing an amazing level of fighting skills.
Sakuraba’s secret to defeating Gracie?
If anything were to be recognized as Sakuraba’s secret way to defeat Gracie’s clan members, it would be his unique fighting style. His style was often referred to as unorthodox and creative, while his technical skills stood at the highest level. Kazushi used techniques taken from professional wrestling and his main strength was his rounded set of abilities developed from shoot-style wrestling, which included a grinding striking learned from Muay Thai and a brilliant catch wrestling submission expertise. He was also well-known for confusing, often comical tricks to gain an advantage over his opponent. You can also jokingly say that Sakuraba’s secret is his lifestyle. Kazushi has never cared much about diet and admits to drinking alcohol and being a smoker. Perhaps it is this approach that has brought Sakuraba so much success 😉