The word 'Samurai' is the term for the military nobility of pre-industrial Japan. The term was meant to describe those who serve in close attendance to the nobility. However, in the 12th century the word became synonymous with and was closely associated to the middle and upper echelons of the warrior class.
Move forward to the 21st century and legendary Mixed Martial Arts fighter Kazushi Sakuraba still embodies that true heart of a samurai warrior. Lost in all the pageantry of the New Years celebration and all the MMA action-taking place, here in the states with the UFC and in Japan with both 'Dream' and 'Sengoku', was the fact that Sakuraba lost both a fight and an ear in the process.
It may be because this was a meaningless fight at the end of a long illustrious career for a true legend of the game. However, there was a time not too long ago when the man, known as 'The Gracie Hunter', was arguably the most popular fighter in the world.Sakuraba (26-14-1, 3 KO's 19 subs), is a wrestler by origin, who began his amateur-wrestling career at the relatively late age of 15, He enjoyed immediate success in both high school and college, eventually finishing fourth in the All-Japan tourney his senior year. Considering coaching after college, he inevitably pursued professional wrestling to fulfill a childhood dream of emulating his idol, the legendary 'Tiger Mask'.
During the early through mid '90's Sakuraba enjoyed a stellar pro wrestling career, working his way up from a relative jobber for his first full year, to a nationally renowned star. During his tenure as a pro wrestler he worked for promotions such as New Japan Pro Wrestling, UWFi and Kingdom Pro Wrestling. It was while with Kingdom, a promotion founded by fellow pro wrestling legend and MMA fighter Nobuhiko Takada, that Sakuraba would eventually find his way into MMA.
When the UFC made its way to Japan in December, 1997, for 'Ultimate Japan', it of course was looking to have some local Japanese fighters involved in their heavyweight tournament. Kingdom Pro Wrestling, looking to gain notoriety for their own fledgling promotion decided to enter two of there own wrestlers in Yoji Anjoh and Hirmitsu Kanehara. However, right before the tournament Kanehara sustained an injury in training, thus forcing the inexperienced Sakuraba as a last minute replacement.
Weighing a meager 183 lbs., they had to list him as 20 lbs. heavier just to get him over the 200 pound limit needed to enter the "heavyweight" tournament back then. His first ever opponent in MMA, the 243 lbs. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Black belt and former Extreme Battlecade Champion Marcus 'Conan' Silveira. After a wrongful premature stoppage that awarded Silveira a TKO, the UFC and referee John McCarthy, realized their mistake, declared the fight a no-contest and brought Sakuraba back later in the night.
With Tank Abbott winning his side of the bracket, but having to withdraw because of injury, Sakuraba was pitted once again against Silveira for the tournament title. Being outweighed by 60 lbs., this time he defeated Silveira via armbar submission in less than four minutes. The wrestler proved he could hang with the big boys of MMA and he would do so time and time again over the next 13 years.
In that time he's fought and defeated the likes of Vitor Belfort, Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, Kevin Randleman and Ken Shamrock; all former UFC champions much larger than he is, which he defeated while fighting in the now defunct Pride Fighting Championships. Many of his losses, also were to former champions much larger than he, including Wanderlei Silva (three times) and heavyweights Mirko 'Cro-Cop and Igor Vovchanchyn.
Yet, it was his run against the renowned Gracie family, during their prime that has made him a legend in Japan. Royler, Renzo and the late Ryan all lost to the 'Gracie Hunter'. However, those fights all paled in comparison to his win in the epic six-round 90 minute marathon against three time UFC champion Royce Gracie (pictured above) during the Pride Grand Prix 2000 finals. Easily the longest fight in modern MMA history, Sakuraba outlasted Gracie, eventually forcing his corner to throw in the towel.
Now 41 and possessing some of the worst cauliflower ears in the game, the MMA legend has lost his last three fights. Not only have his skills eroded, but also so have his ears as his right ear literally shredded in his last fight when he attempted to shoot in on his opponent. Obviously, past his prime and unable to compete any longer, I can only hope that like his US counterpart Chuck Liddell, Saku will finally retire and Japan will find a way to take care of their native son who has clearly displayed the heart of a samurai warrior.