Wrestling: Kazushi Sakuraba

"Kazushi Sakuraba was a stone in our shoes. He was one of the most amazing fighters who came from Japan, and most amazing was his ability to play smart. He was able to adapt himself and to figure out ways to break his opponents. He was very succesful at what he did."
Renzo Gracie about Saku

"In fact, pro wrestling is strong."
Kazushi Sakuraba, after winning the UFC Japan tournament

Kazushi Sakuraba (b. 1968) is a Japanese Professional Wrestler and Mixed Martial Arts fighter, best known for his role in the existence of PRIDE Fighting Championships. He originally started as a pro wrestler in Union of Wrestling Forces International, learning the style of shoot wrestling under the tutelage of legends Nobuhiko Takada and Billy Robinson. Kazushi showed brilliancy and ascended swiflty in the roster, but UWF International closed before he could achieve a bigger status. He joined Kingdom, a promotion founded from UWF remnants, but he found a new field in the blooming MMA world: where his mentor Takada had failed, falling at the hands of Brazilian jiu-jitsu chieftain Rickson Gracie, Kazushi thrived, gaining popularity after winning the UFC Japan tournament against a BJJ black belt despite being, like Takada, just a pro wrestler. He then moved to PRIDE and showed his skills submitting several BJJ fighters, eventually making the impossible at the time and defeating a member of the Gracie family, Royler. Sakuraba went to beat Rickson's brother Royce in a fight which made history and turned him into a legend, getting nicknamed "Gracie Hunter", and later added Renzo and Ryan to his record. Hailed as a national hero by Japanese press, Sakuraba became PRIDE's native ace, fighting superior opponents throughout a grueling five years career and getting known by his unorthodox, pro wrestling-influenced style. Aside from his BJJ hunts, Kazushi also held victories against three of his own's style best wrestler, Masakatsu Funaki, Ken Shamrock and Ikuhisa Minowa. Passed his prime, he later moved to HERO'S and DREAM promotions, but his many injuries told the world that his era had passed. Currently, Sakuraba is unoficially retired from MMA and working pro wrestling for New Japan Pro Wrestling.

As usual, you can find the basics at The Other Wiki.

"Gracie Hunting Tropes":

  • The Ace: While called the Gracie Hunter, it was really the other way around. No Gracie had ever lost a professional fight since Kimura times and the initial thought among them was that PRIDE had screwed Royler. This sentiment vanished later, but only after other three Gracie brothers fell to Sakuraba.
  • Almighty Janitor: Was notoriusly low in the scale of UWF International, but he proved to be the best fighter come from its Snakepit.
  • Arrogant Kung-Fu Guy: He is known as a firm antithesis to this trope, always friendly and humorous, but he enforced the trope to build tension before his fight with Royce. As he put:
    The Gracies really are fools. Fools, idiots, retards, jackasses, buffoons... No matter how many words I line up, I can't express my feelings for them. I'll take you on, with your own rules.
    • After the fight, he hugged Royce and gave Hélio Gracie a handshake, and later claimed to consider Royce a friend. He did have, however, a brief dialectic confrontation with Hélio about who had symbolically won the fight.
  • The Apprentice: To Nobuhiko Takada, although he also trained with catch wrestling legend Billy Robinson and muay thay master Bovy Chowaikung.
  • Arch-Enemy: Kiyoshi Tamura. He was Kazushi's sempai in the old UWF, and it's said that he used to mistreat him. Later, Sakuraba and Tamura went to become aces of their respective companies, PRIDE and RINGS, and after years of negotiations, they faced each other in Dynamite 2008. Tamura won the fight, albeit in a rather uneventful way and against a wrestler who carried more injuries than him.
  • Atheism: A self-confessed atheist.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: He was not the main trainer in Takada Dojo for nothing.
  • Badass: One of the biggest in the entire Japanese martial history. At the UFC era, a pro wrestler submitting a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter was like a boy killing a soldier with a willow stick, and Sakuraba did it not once, but many times, and against the very founders of the art.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In his fight against Royce, Saku took a moment to smile to the camera.
  • Brilliant but Lazy: Saku described himself as very laid-back towards training, always trying to skip lessons and not having very much motivation. In fact, he almost failed the pass exam for the UWF dojo because he was pretty out of shape.
  • Canon Discontinuity: Though some sites (among them the prestigious Sherdog) cite the bout between Sakuraba and Kimo Leopolodo as Saku's first fight, he has denied it, with no comment about the match's legitimacy. Another example is his 1996 fight against Rene Rooze, which technically is Saku's first shoot fight, but it is not counted as a MMA fight due to its special rules.
  • Confusion Fu: His fighting style include all manners of unorthodox and puroresu-esque moves, like Mongolian chops, aerial stomps, cartwheel guard passes and silly antics.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: He started wearing reddish tights, though later orange became his signature color, to the point his dojo Laughter7 got a training ring with an orange mat.
  • Cool Mask: Used to wear masks during his entrance to remind everyone of his pro wrestling ancestry. In a famous instance, he and his two cornermen came with identical Super Strong Machine masks to hide which of them was Saku.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: The reason behind his fight against Masakatsu Funaki. The two (along with Kiyoshi Tamura) were considered the best shoot-style wrestlers, and Funaki had challenged him on the basis that their styles would make for an entertaining contest.
  • Defeat by Modesty: Saku played with it while defending a guillotine choke by Royce, simulating he pulled down Gracie's gi pants to show the crowd that the hold was not working. In fact, Japanese press actualled refered this trope, labelling the move as "hazukashi-gatame" ("embarrasing hold").
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Handed Royce Gracie, who at the time was considered almost unstoppable, his first loss.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: After losing to Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi was invited by him to train in the Chute Boxe academy in order to improve his muay thai.
  • Defeat Means Respect: When visiting Marco Ruas's Beverly Hills Jiu-Jitsu academy, local students looked him down for being Japanese, and one of them, a Greco Roman wrestling champion, challenged him to a match. Saku accepted and threw him down with a seoi nage in mere seconds. He was seen with new respect, specially after he continued the sparring and submitted all of them that day.
  • Dented Iron: Has got more injuries throughout his career than most of Japanese fighters due to his schedule, but even now, he does not have the retirement in his skyline.
  • Determinator: After a 90-minute fight against Royce, Sakuraba showed up for the next tournament bout against the 50 lbs heavier, much better rested, and universally feared striker Igor Vovchanchyn. And he managed to go the distance for another 20 minutes, fighting succesfully enough for the match to be considered a draw. He lost at the end when his corner threw the towel to not to risk further his health.
  • Difficult but Awesome: Despite some initial success in amateur wrestling (see Instant Expert below), Saku's skills weren't really great as a novice, and it took more years than normal to him to master the art. He said it was not until two or three years that he started to not to get completely wrecked by his training partners.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: After his return to wrestling, he kept his MMA footwraps as opposed to his old wrestling high boots.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Countering Marcus Silveira's Kimura lock attempt into a cross armbar for the win, or perhaps more establishing, catching Royler Gracie in a Kimura lock and breaking his arm.
  • Expy:
    • Saku was considered next Masahiko Kimura, as he repeated Kimura's victory over a Gracie by using his signature armlock. Very much like the technique (originally called double wrist lock or ude-garami) was renamed "Kimura lock" after Masahiko, Saku's finishing move is currently called "Sakuraba Lock".
    • He also was considered an expy to Ad Santel, the famous catch wrestler who terrorized the Kodokan judo school in the 20s. Amusingly enough, this time was the inverse in terms of fighting styles, as the Japanese side led by Saku was the one featuring catch wrestling while their foreign opponents were using precisely an ancient variation of judo.
  • Face: If MMA has faces and heels like pro wrestling, Sakuraba was the top face for the Japanese people.
  • Finishing Move: Sakuraba Lock (Kimura Lock) and Cross Armbreaker. He also developed a catch technique called Yurikamome, but he never used it, and his partner Naoki Sano adopted it for pro wrestling.
  • Genre Savvy: Kazushi knew that the best way to defeat BJJ grapplers was to keep them away from the ground in order to strike them, and his fight against Royce was won mainly through it. Given that Saku was a shroud grappler as well, he didn't need this strategy very often.
  • Gradual Grinder: As it was common to most of the shoot wrestlers, Saku's striking was based around grinding leg kicks and punches to wear down his rivals. He eventually improved it and got knockout power.
  • Hero Killer: To Brazilian eyes, when not a Worthy Opponent.
  • Hyper Competent Sidekick: Back when Kazushi was an apprentice, his master Nobuhiko Takada travelled to the Beverly Hills Jiu-Jitsu Club to retrain before his rematch with Rickson Gracie, as he had contacts with his owner Marco Ruas (also a notoriusly enemy to Rickson), and Sakuraba accompanied him to carry his bags. Eventually, after Takada was schooled by resident grapplers, Sakuraba came forward and tapped out everybody.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Sakuraba's trademark Mongolian chop backfired rather spectacularly during his fight against Nino Schembri, who headbutted him (an illegal move which was not seen by the referee) and knocked him out with soccer kicks after countering the move.
  • Instant Expert: During his first day as an amateur wrestler, he curbstomped future bronze medalist Tokuya Ota. Reality Ensues had place, however, as Ota defeated him all the three times they faced each other later.
  • Jack of All Stats: Was good enough in striking, wrestling and grappling to make the difference. Some said that he changed the concept of the MMA fighter forever.
  • Japanese Spirit: Considered a national hero.
  • Just Toying with Them: To Royce Gracie's chagrin, Saku did everything except taking seriously their fight. He looked to the camera and mocked the Brazilian's striking attempts, simulated to pull down his pants while defending a choke, and toyed with punches and chops while consistently kicking his leg.
  • Odd Friendship: Saku is close friends with baseball pitcher Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi.
  • Passing the Torch: Ended his career in PRIDE without a candidate to hold his torch, but Olympic judoka Hidehiko Yoshida was chosen by the management to become the next native star. Also Yoshihiro Akiyama was considered a Saku sucessor, but his greasing-caused fall from grace after his fight with Kazushi took away this aspiration.
  • Red Baron: "Gracie Hunter", "IQ Wrestler", "Saku", "Nihon no Kyuuseigun" ("The Savior Army of Japan") and "Ikeru Densetsu" ("The Living Legend").
  • Spot the Imposter: The trope was played during his entrance before the fight against Royce. Three men in identical Super Strong Machine masks came to the ring and taunted the crowd and the Brazilian to guessing which of them was Saku, and they did not revealed it until the announcer bellowed Sakuraba's name and he took off his mask.
  • School Is For Losers: He was such a pro wrestling fan as a child that he intended to leave the school to enrole in the puroresu world a la Masakatsu Funaki, but his parents convinced him otherwise. Ironically, to his parents's horror, he ended quitting university instead at the last year.
  • Technician Versus Performer: A strong performer, for his own admission.
  • ¡Three Amigos!: Saku's cornermen were always Nobuhiko Takada and Daijiro Matsui, who trained with him and used to back each other.
  • Underdogs Never Lose: Saku was just a barely mid-card wrestler from Kingdom Pro Wrestling when he was obligued to replace an injuried Hiromitsu Kanehara in a Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament, to which KPW had sent a team in order boost their reputation. Not only did he did better than everybody would have expected of any of his teammates, he won the entire tournament.
  • Wax On, Wax Off: Typically in Japan, he spent his first years doing menial chores in the dojo to build determination.
  • When All You Have Is a Hammer: His favorite technique, the Kimura armlock, was used not only as a Finishing Move, but also as a multipurpose weapon to endanger the opponent and force him to reposition.
  • Worked Shoot: His fight against Kimo Leopoldo is considered to be one. Sakuraba himself said that, oddly enough, he doesn't remember whether it was a work or not, but nonetheless he doesn't consider it as part of his MMA career.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: A funny example happened during the fight between Saku and Carlos Newton. Before the event, Newton had been sparring with Bas Rutten, whose grappling style was similar to Kazushi's due to his time in the similarly catch-based Pancrase, and Rutten coached Newton to look after kneebars after tapping him out with one. Carlos went to the ring reassured, the match started, and after minutes of grappling, Sakuraba submitted him with a kneebar of all things.
  • You Gotta Have Red Hair: In line with his initial reddish tights, Saku used to dye his hair bright red.