By Zach Arnold | February 24, 2012
On Saturday, the UFC returns to Japan for the first time since 200, and this will mark the organization’s first show in Japan since parent-company Zuffa bought the floundering company from Semaphore Entertainment Group. For newer fans, this may look like another step in the UFC’s efforts to expand into international markets.
(Over the last 5 years the UFC has put on shows in England, Ireland, Germany, Australia, and Brazil. You can add Sweden to that list in April.)
There’s a larger significance for long-time fans of the sport. While the UFC currently has a stranglehold on major-league MMA, it was only five years ago when that title was in dispute.
Between 1997 and 2007, PRIDE ruled the MMA world from Tokyo. The company stockpiled the best fighting talent that money could buy, and complemented that talent with over-the-top, pro-wrestling-style theatrics. At the turn of the millennium, the UFC was struggling to stay afloat, putting on shows in Indian casinos and trying to fight a cultural stigma spurred by John McCain. Meanwhile, PRIDE was packing 40,000+ into the Saitama Super Arena to watch Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko “Cro Cop” and Wanderlei Silva and all the other legendary names that long-time fans look back on with sepia-colored glasses.
PRIDE began to crumble in 2006. Japanese fight magazine Shukan Gendai uncovered published stories implicating PRIDE as a front for the yakuza, Japan’s answer to the mafia. By the spring of 2007, the company completely collapsed. The UFC bought the assets (what essentially amounted to the PRIDE brand name and tape library), and, after a brief attempt to run the company separately (think Strikeforce present day), stuck Gorilla Monsoon’s proverbial fork in the carcass.
The UFC’s return to Japan falls on an interesting date. You see, PRIDE held their final show, PRIDE 33*, five years ago today. (Event pictures here.)
The card, on paper, seemed to be plagued by schizophrenic matchmaking. Brazilian wunderkind Mauricio “Shogun” Rua would fight current heavyweight monster Alistair Overeem despite having beat him clean less than two years ago in the semifinal of PRIDE’s middleweight (205 lb.) tournament. Lightweight champ Takanori Gomi squared off with UFC welterweight castoff Nick Diaz, in a non-title affair. And Wanderlei Silva, the only middleweight champ PRIDE had known, would battle Dan Henderson for his title. Silva had won a decision over Henderson back at PRIDE 12, but the rematch was an interesting choice as Henderson was the reigning welterweight (183 lb.) champ and Kazuo Misaki, then-number one contender and a man Henderson had split two fights with in 2006, fought another questionable fight against Frank Trigg on the undercard.
And yet, it is hard to find a serious fight fan who doesn’t rank PRIDE 33 among their top five shows of all time.
Joachim “Hellboy” Hansen and Jason Ireland opened the show with an entertaining lightweight scrap. Trigg, whose career had mostly been written off following multiple rear-naked choke losses to Matt Hughes and Georges St. Pierre in the UFC, followed with an upset decision victory over Misaki. James Lee surprised Travis Wiuff with a wild haymaker early before finishing with a guillotine choke 39 seconds into the bout.
Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou then stepped into the ring against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, the twin brother of former PRIDE heavyweight champ Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Sokoudjou had all of three professional bouts, and was listed as a 10-1 underdog (or worse) by the bookmakers. As the bell rang, Josh Barnett, on color commentary, commented that Nogueira had just been named as Brazil’s Olympic representative for boxing. Twenty seconds and a winging left hook later, “Lil’ Nog” found himself staring at the rafters. As far as I know, this is still the biggest betting upset in MMA history, though Matt Serra challenged the shock factor when he TKO’d Georges St. Pierre just six weeks later.
In the wake of the upset, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai and Sergei Kharitonov made easy work of overmatched opponents Mac Danzig and Mike Russow, respectively.
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s knockout of Alistair Overeem is packed with poetry. It would be Overeem’s last fight at 205 lb. before moving up to heavyweight full time, and it perfectly encapsulated his career to that point. In the opening minutes of the bout, Overeem proved he had the size, skill, and athleticism to hang with the man most considered as the number one fighter in the weight class. But his cardio failed him — Overeem is always quick to point out the massive cut he needed to undertake to make weight — and a diving right hand put his lights out before the bout had reached four minutes. Overeem has only lost a single bout since, and is scheduled to fight Junior dos Santos for the UFC heavyweight title sometime in the late spring.
“Shogun’s” career has been much more rocky. He wound up in the UFC, dropping his debut to Forrest Griffin. Multiple knee surgeries kept him out of action for 15 months. He returned to TKO an aging Mark Coleman in the most unimpressive of fashions. He earned a title shot after helping stamp out Chuck Liddell’s career. After a controversial decision loss, “Shogun” knocked out Lyoto Machida in an immediate rematch to win the light heavyweight crown. He dropped the title in his first defense to Jon Jones, the new 23-year-old wunderkind who would go on to complete the greatest individual year in mixed martial arts history. Rua would go on to avenge his loss to Forrest Griffin before putting on the Fight of 2011 against Dan Henderson in November.
It was the co-main event at PRIDE 33 between Takanori Gomi and Nick Diaz that took home Fight of the Year honors in 2007, and elevated a very good card to an all-time great. Gomi had amassed a 13-1 record over the past 3 years and was the reigning PRIDE lightweight champ (though this was, for whatever reason, a non-title affair). He was paired with Diaz, a 23-year-old kid with 20 fights under his belt, including a 6-4 record in the UFC. Most infamous for a post-fight hospital brawl with Joe Riggs, PRIDE saw Diaz as a way to promote their organization’s superiority to the UFC.
And for the first few minutes of the bout, that objective looked like it would come to fruition. Gomi secured a takedown and pounded Diaz from top position before the referee stood the fighters up. At the two-minute mark, Gomi landed a dynamite right that put Diaz back on the mat. Diaz managed enough defense to survive Gomi’s follow up onslaught. By the end of the round, Gomi struggled to keep his hands in front of his face, allowing Diaz to pepper him with jabs and straight rights as the bell rang.
Gomi returned with some life in the second, continuing to land wild power shots to Diaz’s face. That face had become a smorgasbord of abrasion and bruises and sweat and swelling. A cut under the right eye forced the referee to ask for advice from the ringside doctor, who allowed the bout to continue. Gomi, fueled by some mix of compassion and exhaustion, visibly pleaded with the referee to put a halt to the contest after the restart. His wish was denied, prodding Gomi to shoot for a takedown. As the two fell toward the mat, Diaz brought his right leg over Gomi’s left shoulder and under his chin. With his ankle secured around the neck, he trapped Gomi in with his left leg and pulled down on the head, forcing Gomi to tap.
It’s largely regarded as one of the top ten fights of all time, and is often used as a primer for newer fans to the sport. Unfortunately, Diaz’s win is not recognized by the Nevada State Athletic Commission. Diaz tested positive for marijuana, and the athletic commission, taking the position that marijuana is a “performance-enhancing drug,” declared the bout a no contest.
If Gomi and Diaz represent the climax of our story, then Wanderlei Silva and Dan Henderson provide a satisfying resolution. The fight was even through two rounds. Midway through the third, Henderson lands a spinning backfist that briefly wobbles the champ. Moments later, Silva is knocked unconscious by a perfectly placed left hook. It was an historic moment: Henderson became the first, and thus far only, man to hold major titles in two weight classes simultaneously.
The results may have been exciting, but they provided the final nails to PRIDE’s coffin. Gomi and Misaki took huge shots to their profiles in Japan. Henderson’s knockout gave Silva, one of the biggest draws in the company, his third loss in five fights and second knockout loss in a row. The man who delivered the first, Mirko Filipovic, had already migrated to the UFC. So had Silva’s foil Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. A month later, the UFC would announce their purchase.
*My apologies for the David Foster Wallace, but I know this will cause a mild ruckus. PRIDE 33 was the organization’s penultimate show. It was also held in the United States. When the organization’s demise became a full-blown reality, PRIDE officials scrambled to put on one final show (aptly titled “Kamikaze”) to be held in Japan. That show was headlined by Jeff Monson and Kazuyuki Fujita. If you recognize those names, I hope you appreciate my point. If you don’t recognize those names, well, I hope you appreciate my point.