One of the most beloved figures in MMA and combat sports is Kazushi “The Gracie Hunter” Sakuraba. He is a legend of the sport that has done it all from MMA, pro wrestling, and grappling.
Here is the full story of the UFC hall of fame and legend Kazushi Sakuraba. Detailing how his journey from pro wrestling took him to MMA and of course his rivalry with the Gracie family.
Sakurba Amateur Wrestling Career
Kazushi Sakuraba grew up as a huge fan of pro wrestling and idolized the famed Japanese wrestling star Tiger Mask. He read all of the Manga comics of Tiger Mask and religiously watched New Japan Pro Wrestling.
Sakuraba had a dream of becoming a pro wrestler and wanted to drop out of school to pursue it. But instead of dropping, he was persuaded to stay in school and join his school’s amateur wrestling team at age 15. This way he would already have wrestling skills to pursue pro wrestling after he finished school.
Kazushi showed a lot of talent in freestyle wrestling and became one of the best in the country. Ranking 2nd in Japan when he finished high school and then joined the wrestling team at Chuo University.
In just his first year at the university, Sakuraba would win the East Japan Freshman Championship and become the team captain. His wrestling career in college would continue to be successful. Capping off his final year of wrestling as the 4th best in the nation in his division.
Sakuraba Begins Pro Wrestling Training
After finishing his amateur wrestling career, Kazushi Sakuraba began to pursue his dream of becoming a pro wrestler. He would gain weight at the recommendations of his peers and would begin his training at a wrestling dojo.
The training was tough and very realistic. Each day consisted of thousands of squats, pushups, sit-ups, and running along with the brutal training.
During this time pro wrestling was still seen by many in Japan as legitimate. Sakuraba learned legitimate shoot wrestling techniques from pro wrestler and catch wrestling expert Billy Robinson.
Once he completed his training, Sakuraba was offered a contract by the MMA organization, Pancrase. But he turned it down to join the pro wrestling promotion Union of Wrestling Forces International.
Sakuraba’s Entry Into MMA
While Sakuraba was working as a pro wrestler, he was offered a pseudo-MMA match against Dutch kickboxer Rene Rooze. He would win this match by toe hold, although it technically wasn’t considered an MMA match due to the rules.
His first official MMA fight would be against former UFC tournament contestant Kimo Leopoldo, which he ended up losing by arm triangle
Sakuraba’s next 2 MMA fights would be on the UFC Japan card in 1997 against Marcus “Conan” Silveira. It was 2 fights because referee Big John McCarthy stopped the fight due to low blows by Silveira.
The first fight was ruled a no contest. He and Sakuraba would face each other a second time, with Sakuraba winning by armbar.
Sakuraba Enters Pride FC
After his fights with the UFC, Kazushi would make his debut for Pride in their second-ever show. He would quickly become a star in the company and was beloved by the Japanese crowd.
Going 5-0-1 in his first 6 bouts and 4 of the wins by submission, including a win over former UFC champion Vitor Belfort.
His background in wrestling gave Kazushi a flair for the dramatic and he would play to the crowd in his fights. Doing highly unorthodox moves like backflips and diving foot stomps to get the crowd into his match.
Sakuraba Becomes The Gracie Hunter
In his 9th fight, Kazushi Sakuraba would face Royler Gracie of the esteemed Gracie family. Gracie was a heavy favorite going into the bout as he was the best BJJ competitor of the family.
Sakuraba would shock the MMA world as he would dominate Royler on the feet and win with a kimura. This was the first time a Gracie family member had ever lost in an organized MMA competition.
Royler never tapped and the Gracie family felt cheated by Pride. They vowed revenge against Sakuraba and demanded he fights another one of the family members.
The next time Sakuraba would fight a Gracie would be against Royce in the 2000 Grand Prix Tournament. Before this match, the Gracie’s demanded that the format of the match be changed to 6 - 15 minute rounds.
Royce and Sakuraba would battle for 90 minutes with Gracie’s corner throwing in the towel after the sixth round.
Kazushi would then meet Renzo Gracie at Pride 10. Sakuraba controlled the fight. Ending with Sakuraba snapping Renzo’s arm with a kimura. Renzo, like Royler, refused to tap and the referee stopped the bout.
Then after Sakuraba defeated Ryan Gracie at Pride 15, the Japanese media gave him the nickname “The Gracie Hunter.”
The 2nd Half of Sakuraba’s MMA Career
After his bout with Ryan Gracie in 2000, Sakuraba continued fighting for another 15 years. Much of his career after 2000 was very up and down.
Sakuraba would suffer devastating KO losses during this stretch. This included multiple KO losses to Wanderlei Silva, Cro Cop, Ricardo Arona, and Melvin Manhoef.
He would fight everywhere from Pride FC, Dream, K-1 Dynamite. His last bout was a loss to Shiya Aoki at a Rizin event in 2015. Ending his career with a record of 26-17.
Sakuraba in Pro Grappling
Towards the end of his MMA career, Sakuraba started performing in pro wrestling again and also in pro grappling. His first big grappling match would be a rematch against Renzo Gracie at Metamoris 5. It was a friendly competition that would result in a draw.
The next grappling match would be another draw against former UFC champion Frank Shamrock at a Rizin event in 2017.
Then in 2018, Sakuraba would find the grappling promotion Quintet. A grappling event where 4 teams of 5 people compete against each other in a tournament-style format.
Kazushi would compete in the first tournament with his team and make it to the semi-finals. He has competed in 4 Quintet events going 1-1-3 in his bouts.
In 2017, Kazushi Sakuraba was inducted into the pioneer wing of the UFC Hall Of Fame. This was a much-deserved honor to one of the most beloved fighters in the history of the UFC.
Sakuraba may not have been the best, but he put his heart and soul into every fight he ever had. His style and character are unmatched and these are what made him a fan favorite. It was an honor to see Gracie Hunter fight and he has the utmost respect for the MMA community.