At one point in time, during the early days of mixed martial arts, the Gracie’s were the most revered family in the sport. In that period, Kazushi Sakuraba managed to do the unthinkable and pick off members of the family.
When MMA first grew in popularity, Pride was the biggest promotion in the sport. The Gracies were bringing attention to the sport in the States, using their then-unknown Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, but Japan was where the best were.
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Among those many talented legends, was Kazushi Sakuraba. The catch wrestler had success against the Gracie family when nobody else could, and earned the nickname “The Gracie Hunter/Killer.”
This is the story of Sakuraba’s feud with the Gracie family.
The Story Begins With Royler Gracie
Going down at Pride 8 in 1999, Kazushi Sakuraba first came face-to-face with the Gracie’s when he took on Royler. At the time, the catch wrestler was undefeated in Pride, with a 7-1-1 record and a win over Vitor Belfort.
The two squared off in what was billed as a BJJ vs catch wrestling showdown. Royler had quite the reputation in the Gracie family, and was considered by many to be the surefire victor in the fight.
However things would not go this way, as Sakuraba used defensive wrestling and smart strategy to stay out of Royler’s dangerous guard. Much of the fight was spent with Royler on his back, getting blasted with leg kicks.
Ultimately, Kazushi would secure the half guard position, and sink in a kimura to win the fight. This stoppage was heavily disputed by Royler’s corner, which then opened the door to a bigger rivalry.
The Rickson Gracie Feud
Working in the corner during the Royler Gracie fight, was his brother Rickson. He did not appreciate the way Kazushi Sakuraba handled the fight, nor with the referee stopping the fight as he did.
Following the bout, Kazushi got on the microphone and called for a fight with Rickson, who seemed interested at the tine. Pride tried to jump on this idea too, offering a hefty sum of money to make it happen.
Unfortunately it was around this time that Rickson lost his son, Rockson, due to a drug overdose. This understandably had a profound effect on Rickson, and he ended up never fighting again.
While this fight never materialized, it is still an important part of the legacy of Sakuraba. It helped to pave the way for the future of the rivalry between he and the Gracie’s.
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Kazushi Sakuraba vs Royce Gracie
After failing to secure a fight with Rickson, Sakuraba moved on to compete in the Pride Open Weight Grand Prix. After beating Guy Mezger in the opening round, he met Royce Gracie in the quarterfinals.
Not wanting a repeat of what happened in the Royler fight, the Gracies used their influence to change some of the rules. They made it a fight with no time limits, and without the possibility of referee interference.
They got what they wished for too, as what ensued was one of the most legendary scraps in MMA history. After the first three sets of fifteen minute rounds concluded, the fight then went into overtime.
After three additional rounds of fifteen minutes, Royce was finally too exhausted to continue. After 90 minutes at war, Kazushi Sakuraba was ruled the winner by TKO, adding fuel to his claim at being the “Gracie Killer.”
It should be noted that the pair would rematch seven years later, at a Dynamite event. Royce would earn the decision win, becoming the first Gracie to beat Kazushi, but he would test positive for steroids afterwards.
Breaking Renzo Gracie
After dropping the next fight in the Grand Prix, Kazushi Sakuraba would return to the ring a few months later to take on Renzo Gracie. It was time for him to add another notch to his Gracie hit list.
This fight would have some stark comparisons to the Royler bout from the year prior, with Kazushi using his wrestling to keep out of dangerous spots. He kept out of Renzo’s guard using leg kicks.
Things seemed to be going well for a moment, as Renzo got Sakuraba’s back while standing. However the catch wrestler used his now-iconic kimura to roll out of the position.
In the process of this roll, he broke Renzo’s arm, a fact that the referee was able to spot. Knowing that the Gracie disciple would never submit, he had no choice but to stop the fight, declaring Kazushi the winner.
Sakuraba vs Ryan Gracie: The End Of An Era
After seeing three different members of his bloodline fall to the hands of Kazushi Sakuraba, Ryan Gracie thought he had what it took to win. He was a younger and bigger member of the family, so perhaps he could get the win.
Nevertheless this would all be for naught when the two squared off at Pride 12, in December of 2000. Kazushi showed himself to have the superior grappling pedigree, controlling the fight to win via decision.
This would be the final time Sakuraba would fight a Gracie under the Pride banner. It was also his final victory over a Gracie, as he would lose the aforementioned rematch to Royce, as well as to Ralek Gracie in 2010.
The Legacy of Kazushi Sakuraba
In around a year and a half, Kazushi Sakuraba went from a skilled and talented prospect to one of the biggest stars in the sport. He changed the landscape of the sport and showed that it was possible to beat the Gracie’s.
While the rest of his career may not have had the same kind of flair, for this period he was on top of the world. Not to mention the fact that his record is deceiving, considering how many times he fought way bigger men.
All in all, Kazushi Sakuraba was an integral part of the early days of MMA, and the legend of the “Gracie Killer” still lives on in infamy.