Searching for Kazushi

Alan Lee
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As an Asian kid growing up in the South Bronx, people used to joke about my love for Pro-Wrestling. "It's not real!" "You should do Kungfu instead." I ignored them as I knew in my heart, my love for Pro-Wrestling was pure.

In May of 2000, my Pro-Wrestling Love became elation and pride (no pun intended), when I heard of a young Japanese fighter going 90 minutes with the legendary Royce Gracie, and beat him. The last and only time I saw Royce (before 2001), he fought Ken "The World's Most Dangerous Man" Shamorck on the UFC V: Return of the Beast video I rented from Blockbuster when I was in the fith grade. Needless to say my first MMA experience was also my last one for 8 years.

However, Kazsuhi Sakuraba, who also happened to be a former Pro-Wrestler of the Union of Wrestling Federation International (UWFi), not only rekindled my love for Pro-Wrestling but also sucessfully bridged the gate between MMA and Pro-Wrestling. For that, I am forever grateful to "The Messiah of Pro Wrestling." Kazushi Sakuraba was born in the Akita prefecture of Japan on July 14, 1968, with an O-blood type, to a culture which views Pro-Wrestling very seriously. In fact, whereas only a small percentage of fans in the US think pro-wreslting is "real," the reverse is true in Japan: only a small percent think it is worked.

Even newspapers, and sports newscasts to this day, list Pro-Wrestling results as if they were shoots. Thus, it was doubtful that kids laughed at a young Kazushi Sakuraba, when he said he wanted to be like Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayma). Well, they may not have laughed at the fact that he adored Wrestling and Tiger but they may have bantered him of wanting to be like Sayama.

Satoru Sayama, from 1981 though 1983, achieved his dream of being like his idol, the Mexican luchador, Mil Mascaras and was the pinnacle of Pro-Wrestling, and created what would be known as the hard-hitting, aerial "Junior Heavyweight" style of wresting (someone is, usually, considered a "Jr." when he under 100 kg (220lbs) and stands shorter than 180cm (5'11"). Somewhat odd that the Japanese follow American standards for Pro-Wrestling, despite Japan having a lower average height and weight than the US).

Sayama, considered a legend today, had a style consisting of aesthetically-pleasing aerial attacks (including hard dives to the outisde of the ring), a plethora of suplexes, and stiff kicks (from his karate background). He had many great matches with the likes of "Rollerball" Marc Rocco, El Gran Hamada, and "Dynamite Kid" Tom Wellington (of which one this writer considers a ***** on the exact date of his birth. Luckily, I was not born on the date Ali vs Inoki took place). Because of his puroresu-love, Sakuraba started wrestling at a young age. While in high school, Sakuraba seemed to have won 2nd place in the big intramural championship of his area. After he graduated, he enrolled in the famous Chuo University, where great grapplers such as Yoshiaki Fujiwara previouly had attended. There he joined the wrestling team and won at a East Japan Amateur Wrestling Championship, and won 4th place at the All-Japan Collegiate Championships. When he graduated, he joined the UWFi in 1992. Formed by Nobuhiko Takada, the comarade of Sayama in the original Universal Wrestling Federation (UWF) of 1984, the UWFi was a Shoot-Style Wrestling promotion, meaning most strikes were done with full strength and submissions were fully appplied. Here Sakuraba worked on his Mid Roundhouse Kicks, German Suplexes, and Double Wristlocks (Kimura/ Ude Garami), and the other techiniques of his repetoire with his Muay Thai coaches former Shootboxing competitor and then-ISKA champ, Makoto Oe, his coach Bovy Chawaikun, and the estemeed Billy Robinson.

Also, it is said that Kiyoshi Tamura, the rising UWFi star and current gym leader of U-File Camp, made him do all the dojo chores the new boys usally do (ie mop the floors, etc), which is supposedly the source of Saku's disdain towards Tamura. On August 13, 1993 at the famed Nipon Budokan Hall in Tokyo, Sakuraba made an unsucessful debut against Steve Nelson, a later SHOOTO fighter and Texas HS wrestling coach.

A little over a year after his debut, on Auguest 18, 1994, he and Masahito Kakihara defeated Gene Lydick and Billy Scott, giving Sakuraba his first win, although it was Kakihara who submitted Scott at 17:07. Sakuraba would not earn his first singles match victory until October 08 of that year when he defeated Mark Silver. In 1995, the UWFi and its rival New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) began promoting interpromotional wrestling matches.

Unfortunately, the purpose of this copromotional series was to ultimately bury or damage the value of the UWFi, with the majority of UWFi workers (aside from Takada, and Tamura who abstained to particpate and later jumped to Akira Maeda's RINGS) getting quick and devalutizing losses.

This, as well as Sakuraba's senior, Yoji Anjoh's ill-fated challenge to Rickson Gracie would eventually lead to the fall of the Uwfi. However, the 1995-1996 time period in which the two promotions worked together, Saku was able to work with Yuji Nagata, Tokimitsu Ishizawa (Kendo Kashin), Koji Kanemoto and on June 16, 1996, against Shinjiro Otani in one of the best 8 minute matches ever, in this writer's opinion. On July 28, 1996, Sakuraba was finally given a main event headlining match, which was against Yoji Anjoh. In December of that year, the UWFi closed its doors, and most of its workers transferred to KINGDOM, Takada's new dojo and part-time Shoot-style Pro-Wrestling organization, in 1997.

Two week before his first main event, SAKU fought at the Shootboxing organization's S-Cup tournment show, in a single MMA match against UFC veteran Kimo, July 14, 1996, in which Kimo supposedly submitted Saku at 4:36 of Round 1 with a Arm Triangle Choke. This match, however, has sparked a lot of controversy in the world of MMA, because although Shootboxing is not an orgazniation know for works (Kimo also was involved in a Pro-Wrestling match with Yoshiro Takayama around this time period), Shootboxing did not include the fight in their "Shootboxing: The 10th Anniversay" DVD despite inluding fights of fighters from other promotions, such as Makoto Oe during his UWFi run (though understandably, it could be possible that Takada Dojo owned the rights to this footage or some other legal loop prevented its inclusion). Conveniently, SAKU's comments to Sherdog in September of 1999 were that he didn't remember what happened in that fight. KINGDOM was not drawing much due to the rise of MMA in Japan damaging Shoot-style Wrestling's credibility (and probably due to the attempts of KINGDOM to be as realistic as possible, thus akward guard passing sequences that even this writer is not fond of). Thus on December 21, 1997, he and Yoji Anjoh competed at UFC's Ultimate Japan tournament.

The night began as a disaster for KINGDOM as Tank Abbot injured Yoji Anjoh and wona decision after three 5 minute rounds. 6", 203 lb SAKU's luck ws even worse as a fight between him and 6'2, 243 lb Marcus Conan Silveira of Carlson Gracie Jujitsu (and now ATT) was stopped in Round 1. However, a windfall occurred when Tank was unable to continue to the second round and the UFC officials reconsidered their stoppage in SAKU and Silveria's match and deemed it a premature stoppage. Thus SAKU and Conan would rematch in the semi-main event that night to determine the winner of the tournament.

The match began with Silveira striking and SAKU countering by clinching. SAKU tried to work a Front Headlock and Silveira hit a Go-Behind and dropped with SAKU then attempting a Double Wristlock. After jockeying for positon for a few seconds on the mat, Conan free his arm and continued holding onto SAKU's back without sinking his Hooks in.

SAKU immediately tried for a Double Wristlock again and this time Silveira tried to counter with a Straight Armlock from his Open Guard. After escaping, SAKU keeps his head and body low by Silveira's knees, and when Silveira tries to apply a Kimura on SAKU, SAKU counters and submits him with a Juji-Gatame at 3:49 of Round 1. Thus, SAKU's MMA debut in the Octagon was a sucessful one.

On March 15, 1998, Kazushi Sakuraba was contracted to fight the Lion's Den's Vernon "Tiger" White at a new MMA promotion funded by the KRS coorporation called PRIDE. PRIDE held its initial event October 11, 1997, with the express purpose of promotiong, finally, Rickson Gracie vs Nobuhiko Takada, after Takada's original challenges that led to the Anjoh fight at Rickson's school in the mid-90s.

Unfortunately, Rickson quickly defeated Takada in 4:47 of Round 1 with a Straight Armbar that Takada basically did not defend against. Sakuraba had a heavy burden upon him which he met, when he defeated Tiger at 6:53 of Round 3 that night. Saku would go on to beat Carlos Newton, Victor Belfort, and Ebenezer Braga, before Destiny (and a PRIDE's new owners, DSE) would allow SAKU to feud with the Gracies to make history.