Royce Gracie was more than just another mixed martial artist. He was a legend, unbeatable, an icon. He entered the world stage in 1993, changed martial arts for ever, and then like a ghost, he disappeared for five years. And for five years every fighter on the planet battled in his enormous shadow. He left the game undefeated and unbowed, his head held high.
Pro wrestler Ric Flair says to be the man, you've got to beat the man. Royce, unquestionably, was the man. In 12 UFC fights he had his hand raised eleven times. Eleven times his opponent admitted defeat, making a brutally honest and split second decision that Royce Gracie was the better man. Only Ken Shamrock survived a contest with Royce, laying on top of the jiu jitsu wizard, muscles swollen and bulging, afraid to move an inch, wary to the end of Gracie's prowess on the mat. It was a draw, but an emasculating one for a fighter 30 pounds heavier.
The Shamrock match changed everything. The UFC, suddenly, wasn't the no holds barred competition Royce's brother Rorion had imagined anymore. The introduction of time limits was a pivotal stage in the development of mixed martial arts; for Royce Gracie, however, it was a disaster. Against skilled opponents, the smaller Gracie would need time and plenty of it to catch his prey in a submission hold. With pay per view restrictions and millions of dollars at stake, the UFC didn't have unlimited time. The Gracies walked away from the sport they created.
A two year no-compete clause kept him out of the cage and on the lecture circuit, but by the late 1990's Gracie was raring to return to fighting. He lost a 1998 jiu jitsu match to Wallid Ismail, a warmup bout for a return that didn't bode well for his chances with a suddenly super skilled and physically strong new generation of fighters. Royce was determined to press on. His camp was negotiating a return to the UFC - SEG was demanding he sign a three fight deal, while Royce's brother Rorion wanted to take it one fight at a time.
As the negotiations dragged, the Gracies got a call that shifted the balance of power in the MMA world. PRIDE was on the other end of the line offering Gracie a spot in their Grand Prix. The tournament winner, culled from a field of 16, would be the unofficial top fighter in the world - and $250,000 richer. Royce's guarantee just to appear dwarfed that figure. The Gracies were heading back to Japan.
In January 2000, Royce Gracie made his return to mixed martial arts, beating pro wrestler Nobuhiko Takada in the first round of the tournament. Takada, the star of the show, had already fallen twice to Royce's brother Rickson. In those fights, at least, he showed fighting spirit. Against Royce, the Japanese hero fought so cautiously that even his countrymen booed him without mercy.
In the quarter-finals Royce would meet a different kind of Japanese pro wrestler. Unlike Takada, who Bas Rutten says was routinely tapped out by white belts when he trained at the Beverly Hills Jiu Jitsu Club, Kazushi Sakuraba was the real thing. He had beaten Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort, and most importantly, Royce's older brother Royler.
For this fight the Gracies, feeling secure in their leverage, demanded unprecedented rules changes.There would be no judge's decisions. There would be no time limits, only 15 minute rounds. It would be a battle to the finish, and old school Gracie-style challenge match. Sakuraba, normally an affable clown, was furious. When Gracie didn't even show up for the rules meeting held to explain the stipulations he had demanded, the Japanese fighter was uncharacteristically angry, screaming "Where is Royce Gracie?"
The fight was no longer a simple contest - a grudge match was brewing. Sakuraba lashed back with his trademark wit, mocking the Gracies for their special rules and using humor as a defense mechanism.
"Sakuraba did a press conference and he wore a diaper," PRIDE announcer Stephen Quadros remembers. "People asked 'Why are you wearing a diaper?' He said 'You never know, this thing may go on for a long time and I might have to go to the bathroom.' Here you had this serious martial artist in Royce Gracie, who came from a family lineage of champion warriors, people who changed martial arts, against a cigarette smoking, wisecracking, pro wrestler from Japan."
When he took to the ring, Sakuraba was accompanied by two training partners. All three men wore the mask popularized by the pro wrestler Strong Machine. No one could be sure which one was really Sakuraba. Announcers Bas Rutten, Quadros, and former UFC champion Maurice Smith all took a guess at which was really the Japanese wrestler. Finally Sakuraba removed his mask to reveal a red hair dye and a smile. The tone had been set. Gracie could compete with a grimace if he wanted - Sakuraba would do battle with a smile.
For 90 minutes the two waged a war of attrition. Gracie showed immediately that he was still a force to be reckoned with in the first round, demonstrating improved standup skills and impressive and aggressive grappling. As the fight went on, it took on the feel of an epic boxing match. The pace was often slow, but there was a certain grandeur to the display, a feeling that you didn't want to blink for fear of missing a pivotal moment.
"When you look back at a 90 minute fight that was televised, I don't think we'll ever see that again in our lifetime," Quadros said. "In the television age at least. Who knows what will happen 10 or 15 years down the line. But that, in itself, made it a special fight."
Gracie fought a conventional bout - looking to bring the action to the ground, competing valiantly on his feet when he couldn't. Sakuraba, per his nature as an entertainer, tried to keep things lively even as the action ground to a halt.
"You could write a book about that fight and most of it would be about the fight itself," Quadros said. "He was doing all kinds of crazy things. The double Mongolian chop, pulling the gi over Royce's head like a hockey fight, untying his gi pants - Royce had said no rules, so Sakuraba said 'Okay, check this out.' Sakuraba would turn his back to Royce, was looking out at the audience smirking. How many people had turned their back on Royce and survived?" Nobody. But Sakuraba did."
In the end, the battle between two superlative grapplers was decided by strikes. When Gracie would drop to his back after a standing exchange or a takedown, Sakuraba would punish him badly with leg kicks. Gracie switched to a southpaw stance to avoid the punishing kicks and looked helpless. Towards the end of the sixth round, Royce was limping and obviously hurt. On the Tokyo Dome's big screen, the crowd saw the Gracie family huddle and Rorion take a towel into his hand. More than 38,000 fans exploded in anticipation.
When the bell rang, the result seemed obvious. Sakuraba was still fresh, able to leap high into the air to land a jumping punch to Gracie's face. The proud Brazilian could barely return to his feet after each ground exchange. His leg, it would turn out, was cracked and badly damaged. All Gracie could do was go out and receive more punishment. He was willing to go, but his family had the courage to say 'no more.' Rorion Gracie threw the towel into the ring, signaling defeat.
A new star was born that night in Sakuraba and it couldn't have come at a better time. Before his win over Royce, the promotion was struggling. Attendance was actually down for the finals of the tournament - Takada's loss had that kind of impact on the crowd. Sakuraba's win over the legendary Gracie allowed him to assume the mantle of Japanese standard bearer, a burden he still carries in some ways to this day.
Mark Coleman beat Igor Vovchancyn to win the PRIDE Grand Prix. But the result that mattered most, the one that changed the course of MMA history, was Sakuraba's quarterfinal victory, a one of a kind moment and one the 52 reasons I love MMA.