It’s damn near inscrutable, the things that go through my mind.
And the odd, out of the blue things that will take stage center in my attention.
In a very busy, holocaust strewn news day, a conversation with co-workers gets me thinking about mixed martial arts. We talked about some local schools, one that teaches Jujitsu among other disciplines, and has to its credit a Gracie as a teacher. And discussing Gracies always gets me onto the topic of Sakuraba, The Gracie Hunter.
Sakuraba is not a name known in the UFC dominated Americas, but for those who let their exposure to MMA extend beyond the borders of the US, Sakuraba a few years ago, fighting almost exclusively in the Japanese PRIDE fighting league, was one of the most celebrated names in Mixed Martial Arts.
Depending who you ask… he still is.
He gained world-wide acclaim for his defeat of living legend Royce Gracie. And he didn’t just beat Royce Gracie, a man who for a long time WAS not just the most domineering and feared fighter in mixed martial arts, but arguably was Mixed Martial Arts… Sakuraba destroyed Royce Gracie. It’s not putting too fine a point on it to say he humiliated Royce Gracie, walked through him like he wasn’t there.
All these years later and the fight is still in rotation throughout the Internet. This led to what amounts to a family fued, with Gracies lining up to avenge Royce’s defeat. Sakuraba, stoic and game, took on all comers.
4 Gracie fights. 4 Gracie victories. (Though recently Royce in 2007 came back to avenge his defeat)
In a field of walking monsters, of engines of destruction, it’s hard to explain what makes Sakuraba special, what makes him stand out if you haven’t seen those early fights. He was clearly not the biggest, not the strongest, perhaps not the fastest, definitely not the most brutal or the most intimidating, but this ex-performance wrestler, what he had… was an all around skill unlike anything anyone else had brought to the table, he was technically the most exciting and skilled fighter I had ever seen, he could beat you standing up, or on the ground, and his heart— his heart was the stuff they make movies about. They write ballads about.
And there was something amazingly likeable about him. He got in the ring, this stoic but seemingly affable enigma, and he beat you in a chess game of moves, of holds, of submissions, of punches, and you knew, the way people who saw Jack Johnson, or Joe Lewis or Sugar Ray Robinson or Hagler or Hearnes or Ali or Foreman or Holifield… you knew, you were seeing something pure, violence distilled into something not far removed from… art.
Some odd mating of the technical wizardry of a Roy Jones, with the heart of a Roberto Duran.
Yeah years ago when I discovered Sakuraba, he quickly enshrined himself for me, as what this always questionable sport of MMA could be about, at its best. Not cracking people skulls open, or pit bull brutality, but technical wizardry, and sportsmanship. I think that’s what came across in the fights of Sakuraba, yeah this was a tough guy, but he walked into the ring, with respect, both giving it and getting it, not like an animal, but like a man.
But even then, I could see, he was taking too many hits. And just as the sport outgrew Royce Gracie, grew better, tougher meaner, by his example, Sakuraba’s popularity brought an ever more devastating class of opponent to his door. Men often weight classes heavier than him, and men increasingly younger, stronger, and more brutal than him.
Life being what it is I tuned out of the mixed martial arts scene for the last few years, but often I would think of the wizardry of the man called Sakuraba. My discussion with my coworkers piquing my interest enough to do an internet search of recent Sakuraba news.
I came across ever more recent fights. And what I saw…increasingly sickened me.
I’m not one overly given to sentimentality. Well maybe I am. God knows someone needs to be these days.
But I think the most important thing for a fighter is to have someone who cares about him in his corner, someone he can trust with his life. Because ultimately a fighter’s manager, should be there to preserve the well being of his fighter, to defend him, when he is no longer capable of defending himself.
Sakuraba obviously has no such person in his corner.
I watched a recent fight with Sakuraba, a Japanese PRIDE fight, where the Gracie Hunter, this poet of the ring, where he was literally kneed in the head over twenty times, until his skull cracked.
Yes, I said until his skull cracked.
And the referee, just let it go on. And his corner-men just let it go on, and the crowd just— let it go on.
And Sakuraba, he could have yielded, he could have surrendered, but because he is Sakuraba, he to his detriment does not know how to yield. That is why he is the stuff of legend, and that is why I fear for him continuing to fight. He will endure, everything you throw at him even onto his death… he will endure.
And he, has nothing left to prove. He shouldn’t have to. But he is a warrior, he will not yield, that’s why it’s important for the referee and his corner to be there to keep a competition from escalating into a bloodbath.
And increasingly at Sakuraba’s fights… they’re not doing their job.
And it’s enough to make one both sick and mad.
A lot of people talk about the rules of UFC and how it’s weak compared to PRIDE, and I was one of them. But Let me tell you something, thank god for the rules of the UFC. Because what I witnessed happening to Sakuraba is not a sport, it’s a travesty. It’s putting pit bulls in a ring until one dies. The referee should be admonished at the least, and more likely fired and charges laid against him. Sakuraba’ cornermen, his manager and friends, should be ashamed of themselves for allowing the butchery to continue. Obviously with the first couple of blows, the fight, the contest is over, stop the damn fight.
I mean Sakuraba was, is a fucking national Japanese Treasure, and they let him increasingly get nearly murdered in the ring, for no good reason. The contest was over long before the 2nd knee landed, and I’ll tell you something about a knee to the head, it doesn’t take a fighter to hurt you with a knee or an elbow to the head, just about anybody’s knee or elbow will do the job, so when you have a 200lb, trained fighter, whose knees and elbows can break stones, you don’t want anybody getting hit more than once or twice by such a fucker if you can help it. Cause the only possible outcome of such abuse is brain damage or murder.
Sakuraba is older than me, and I’m older than Methuselah. And seriously there’s no way he cannot have brain damage, with the abuse he has taken. Someone, his manager, his friends, the Japanese fight board really needs to tell him, “you know what, you’re the greatest, but… in the ring is not the place for you any longer. You’re not as fast as you were, and you’re getting tagged too much”.
So here’s hoping the karma of this message gets out there, and maybe infects people, who infect people, who infect people, and it gets back to Sakuraba’s people that… “hey… you did us proud warrior… now time to rest”.
At least I hope so.
Because for Sakuraba to die in the ring is a waste of a great warrior who would be better served training a new generation of Sakurabas.
Here endeth my rant.