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Wrestling / Kazushi Sakuraba

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"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 Sakuraba

Kazushi Sakuraba (born July 14, 1969) 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 began climbing up the roster, but UWF International closed doors before he could achieve a bigger status, so he joined Kingdom, a promotion founded from UWF remnants. However, he found a new field in the blooming MMA world: where his mentor Takada had failed, tapping out in 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, Rickson's brother. Sakuraba went to beat Rickson's other brother Royce in a fight which made history and turned him into a legend, being nicknamed "Gracie Hunter", and he 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 and his willingness to be gruesomely beaten down. Aside from his BJJ hunts, Kazushi also held victories against three of his own style's best wrestlers, 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. After a four year run working for New Japan Pro-Wrestling and a brief return to MMA in Rizin, Sakuraba is currently unofficially retired from MMA and running the submission grappling promotion Quintet.


"Gracie Hunting Tropes":

  • Accidental Hero: Saku was just a barely mid-card wrestler from Kingdom Pro Wrestling when he was forced to replace an injured Hiromitsu Kanehara in a Ultimate Fighting Championship tournament, which KPW had sent a team to in order to boost their reputation. Not only did he did better than everybody would have expected of any of his teammates, he won the entire tournament.
  • The Ace: One of the best Japanese fighters in history, period. 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 popularizers of the art. Look no further than him taking down the Gracie family on multiple occasions: no Gracie had ever lost a professional fight since the Kimura ages, and it was so shocking that the initial thought among them was that PRIDE had screwed Royler, but this sentiment vanished after the other three Gracie brothers fell to Sakuraba.
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  • The Alcoholic: Along with a chain smoker, Saku is known as a hard drinker, very much like his master Takada.
  • Almighty Janitor: Was notoriously low in the scale of UWF International, but he proved to be the best fighter coming from its snakepit.
  • Alternate Company Equivalent: Towards the end of his career, he became to MMA what Musashi was to K-1 kickboxing: an out-primed fan favourite, washed up by a career composed of being 30 pounds lighter than every opponent, who routinely got beaten down while the referees gave him all sorts of chances until he managed to save the fight through the punishment. Naturally, it didn't play well for his health.
  • Always Someone Better: Though one might consider Wanderlei Silva and Ricardo Arona as the biggest fishes in Saku's foes gallery (not counting Kiyoshi Tamura, who only fought him when Saku was easy prey for health and age wear issues Tamura didn't have), Sakuraba revealed in an interview that the only fight he turned down was against Fedor Emelianenko.
  • The Apprentice: To Nobuhiko Takada, although he also trained catch wrestling with the legendary Billy Robinson and Muay Thai with Bovy Chowaikung. Later in his career, he also learned the basics of Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Sergio Penha in the Takada Dojo and Cristiano Marcello in Chute Boxe, but he has never got ranked in the art. (He was presented by Marcello with a honorific BJJ black belt, but Saku humorously would confess in an interview that he never learned quite how to tie it.)
  • 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 while carrying much less injuries and body wear than Saku at that point.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Gave some important one to the Gracie family during the PRIDE Grand Prix tournament.
    "Let me say that, perhaps, it is due to that poker faced Royce and his relative Rorion that we have this no-rules fighting, as they say. But isn't it that this fire that they lit has gotten bigger than them and now they are running away from it?"
  • 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 when he learned of the special rules Royce demanded:
    "“Crazy” and “Gracie” sound similar in Japanese, and the Gracies really are crazy. 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.
  • Atheism: A self-confessed atheist.
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: He was not the main trainer in Takada Dojo for nothing.
  • Badass Teacher: In Takada Dojo.
  • Big Entrance: Was very fond of them, especially while cosplaying famous pro wrestlers and media characters.
  • Blood Knight/Challenge Seeker: According to Sakuraba himself, the bigger his possible opponents were, the eager he was to engage them. He was once offered to fight either a gimmick fight against washed pro wrestler El Solar or a bout against the rising star Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, both for the same payment, and he nonchalantly chose the latter.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: In his fight against Royce, Saku took a moment to smile to the camera. He later clarified he was actually smiling to the cameraman, who was a friend of his, but with Saku you never know.
  • 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 MMA 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 legit fight, but it is not counted as a MMA fight due to its special rules.
  • Champions on the Inside:
    • After the towel was thrown at his match with Igor Vovchanchyn. Sure, Saku had lost and been eliminated of the tournament, but he had defeated Royce Gracie of the mighty Gracie family in a fight that would pass to history and also had showed the world that the invincible Vovchanchyn could be defeated. The Takada Dojo could not have been more proud that night.
    • Same with his controversial rematch with Royce Gracie. Saku lost, but he lost a decision which made half of the MMA fandom scream rob, and only after Gracie hit unceasingly his bad knee and played safe to scratch the win. And then it was revealed that Royce had been a walking pharmacy during the match, and all the scores were settled.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: And how.
  • 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 Laughter 7 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.
    • Parodied in Dramatic Dream Team, where he put on a mask that left him blind.
    • Played it for laughs in an interview, in which he was asked what would he do if Rickson Gracie tried to psych him out with his aura. Sakuraba replied that he would make a demon mask out of cardboard and would wear it to scare him.
  • 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.
  • David Versus Goliath: A David against several Goliaths, Saku was essentially a welterweight fighting light heavyweights, when not full-fledged heavyweights, for most of his career. It is best exemplified by how small he looked in Mirko Cro Cop's guard and Quinton Jackson's shoulders.
  • 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 referred this trope, labelling the move as "hazukashi-gatame" ("embarrasing hold").
  • Death of a Thousand Cuts: As it was common to most 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 with the Chute Boxe school.
  • Defeating the Undefeatable: Handed Royce Gracie, who at the time was considered almost unstoppable, his first loss. And that was his first example of the trope.
  • 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 the Beverly Hills Jiu-Jitsu academy by Marco Ruas‘ invitation, resident 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, but even now that he has returned to the more accomodative pro wrestling, he does not have the retirement in his horizon.
  • 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 usual for him to master the art. It was not until two or three years that he learned how to avoid getting completely wrecked by his training partners.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: He said jokingly in the Black Belt magazine that he wanted to bite Rickson Gracie's ear off as payback for all the bad things Rickson had said to the press about him.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: After his return to wrestling, he kept his MMA ankle wraps as opposed to his old wrestling kneeboots.
  • Dramatic Dislocation: Got his elbow grossly dislocated in a backdrop suplex by Yuji Nagata in 2013.
  • Ear Ache: Got an ear completely torn off against Marius Zaromskis.
  • Early-Bird Cameo: Not him, but his personal fighting style. Saku tried a giant swing in his last match against Kiyoshi Tamura, years before he made himself famous for goofing around with his opponents.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • Countering Marcus Silveira's Kimura lock attempt into a cross armbar for the win. It was the first moment which showcased the kind of magic he was able to do.
    • Playing goofy antics on Royce Gracie.
  • Expy:
    • Saku was considered the 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 gyaku-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 inverted 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 a 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 armbar. He also developed a catch technique called Yurikamome, which he originally planned to use on Shannon Ritch, but lost his chance and only used it when he returned to pro wrestling, and his partner Naoki Sano adopted it for pro wrestling much earlier.
  • Fundoshi: According to the Chute Boxe members, Saku attracted many an awkward look when he took a swim in the gym pool while wearing a traditional Japanese thong.
  • 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.
    • He also believes that Ryan Gracie was faking his shoulder injury in order to catch him off guard during the match. Saku avoided attacking the injury as he promised, but still kept his guard up.
  • Hero Killer: To Brazilian eyes, when not a Worthy Opponent.
  • Hidden Depths: When Saku was slated to work in his first film, the PRIDE produced Nagurimono, he was so flustered with the prospect of acting in front of a camera that he asked the director to reduce his part of the script. Funny how someone who can goof around thousands of people while fighting an active opponent can have stage fright.
  • Homage:
    • Saku wore a Kendo Kashin mask during his entrance for the match with Ryan Gracie, as Kashin (under his real life persona) had been defeated rather brutally by Ryan before the ordeal, and he wanted to avenge him. Not that Kashin did not avenge himself at the end as well, however.
    • At the receiving end, his teammate Kazuhiro Hamanaka wore a mask modelled after Kazushi's face when he came to fight Nino Schembri, in order to symbolically avenge him for the famous upset. He won the match, which he attributed to Saku's spirit being on him.
  • Honor Before Reason:
    • Due to the "K-1 vs PRIDE" special arc, PRIDE offered a rule of no strikes on the ground for the matches between mixed martial artists and K-1 representatives, but Saku turned it down his bout against Mirko Cro Cop, not wanting to fight with any rules to his favor like the Gracies did (to show how Serious Business it was, even Minotauro Nogueira accepted the rules that night when he had to fight Bob Sapp). Ironically, he went to lose by a random strike from the ground, so accepting the rule would have actually prevented him from losing.
    • He avoided targetting Ryan Gracie's injured arm during their match, as it would have been a dirty move.
    • Also, during his fight with Masakatsu Funaki, Saku refrained himself from using ground and pound, as Funaki was technically a brother in their background and it would have been a lowlife trick to use against him (Funaki had almost never competed with punching to the face allowed and he was notoriously fragile to it). Sakuraba wanted to win through technique, and so he did.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: Sakuraba's trademark Mongolian chop backfired rather spectacularly during his fight against Nino Schembri, who headbutted him (an illegal attack which was not seen by the referee) and knocked him out with soccer kicks after countering the move.
  • 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 notorius 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.
  • I Am Not Left-Handed: His fight against Royler Gracie. Saku kept the fight standing as if he feared Gracie's groundwork, but when it was time to finish, he went into the ground and basically submitted Royler at will.
  • I Know Karate: Has a background in amateur wrestling, which he complemented with the strikes and submissions of shoot-style wrestling. He also trained some Brazilian-style Muay Thai at the Chute Boxe, and received a honorific Brazilian jiu-jitsu belt from them.
  • Instant Expert: During his first day as an amateur wrestler, he curbstomped future bronze medalist Takuya Ota. Surprisingly Realistic Outcome happened, however, as Ota defeated him in all of the three times they faced each other later.
  • Jack-of-All-Stats: Was good enough in striking, wrestling and grappling to switch between them freely to his advantage.
  • 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.
  • Lame Comeback: Parodied, almost to Chewbacca Defense levels, in an interview whose host asked Saku his thoughts about Rickson Gracie's harsh criticism of him, calling him unskilled and just lucky on the ring. Kazushi's answer was theorizing that Rickson was losing hair due to stress.
  • Let's Fight Like Gentlemen: He decided to attack Ryan Gracie's injured arm at as little as possible at PRIDE 12...
  • Literal Ass-Kicking: ...but he still chopped him in the ass.
  • Meaningful Name: "Sakuraba" means "Cherry Blossoms Garden". Quite adequate, considering that Saku went to represent Japanese MMA to world wide level, and there are few things more representative to Japanese that their appreciated sakura cherry blossoms.
  • Nightmare Face: In the aforementioned interview about Rickson Gracie, Saku was asked what would he do, in a possible match, to avoid being psyched out by Rickson's reputation like Funaki had claimed to be. Kazushi quietly answered that he would make a scary mask out of cardboard and wear it to the ring to freak Gracie out.
  • Odd Friendship:
    • With Tsuyoshi Kohsaka, despite both originally coming from Rival Dojos. In fact, Kohsaka used to train with him at the Takada Dojo, and Japanese media shows them going fishing together from time to time.
    • Saku is also close friends with baseball pitcher Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: His interviews before his desired match against Tamura were uncharacteristicaly somber and bitter, stating that he didn't like Tamura and even that he wanted to fight gloveless and knock him out in the style of his friend Wanderlei. He then stated he was kidding, but his expression was not so much.
  • Passing the Torch: Saku ended his career in PRIDE without a candidate to hold his torch as the Japanese top fighters, but it didn't stop promoters of trying to find one, sometimes in rather contrived ways.
    • Olympic judoka Hidehiko Yoshida was chosen by the management to become the next native star. He got a special match against Royce Gracie, the man Saku cimented his legend over, and managed to defeat again in the eyes of the crowd (the match ended in which has been hotly debated as a possible premature stoppage, but it was a dominant performance anyways), so he was soon thrown to the foreign wolves just like Saku had been in his time. However, in an example of History Repeats, this decision happened to wreck his late career the same way it wrecked Saku's. Yoshida retired comparatively earlier with a similar record, full of immortal glory and great matches, but also of pointless beatdowns and hopeless battles.
    • Another Olympic judoka, Yoshihiro Akiyama, was considered a Saku sucessor as well, as he was incredibly popular not only to Japanese people, but also to Koreans for being himself a zainichi. He even was put into a match against Kazushi in order to solidify the torch passing, and it was expected that he would defeat him cleanly to ascend the next level. However, those plans were broken in pieces in that very fight, as Akiyama proceeded to perform badly and be ignominiously caught in a grave case of illegal greasing. It turned the crowds against him forever, and even although he soon reached UFC and became somewhat of a Japanese representative, he was never expected to try occupy Saku's place again.
    • Finally, Hideo Tokoro seemed to hold Saku's torch for a time in recent times, being considered as a new Gracie Hunter after his domination of Royce and Royler Gracie, but he failed at getting the same impact due to his wildly inconsistent performances and overall unability to reach top levels. He was chosen as Saku's partner in their tag team grappling at RIZIN, showing that people still remembered him for those feats, but when he lost to Kron Gracie at the next event it was clear that he wasn't going to be a new star.
  • Pint-Sized Powerhouse: Back when he did freestyle wrestling, Saku competed at 68kg (149 ibs), and although he gained some weight over the years, he never got higher than 187 ibs. Still, barring the Gracie family, he fought heavier opponents for most of his career - he even had to lie about his weight in order to make his debut. It only makes one speculate how high his career would have went if he had fought only in his own weight division.
  • Power Copying: His victory over Conan Silveira was a mirror move. Saku tried a Kimura and Conan reversed into a cross armbar attempt, and later, when Silveira tried his own Kimura, Saku reversed him into a cross armbar and made him tap out.
  • Power Stable: Has been an associate of New Japan Pro-Wrestling's Chaos faction thanks to a partnership with co-founder Toru Yano as both were battling with Suzuki-gun. Eventually he got recognized as a full member the night of Shinsuke Nakamura's send-off from the company.
  • Red Baron: "The Gracie Hunter", "The IQ Wrestler", "Saku", "Nihon no Kyuuseigun" ("The Savior Army of Japan") and "Ikeru Densetsu" ("The Living Legend").
  • Ring Oldies: In his fifties and still wrestling.
  • Slow Motion: Super Sasadango Machine activated... something in Dramatic Dream Team to make everything around the ring move in slow motion to get an advantage on Sakuraba. Whatever it was sputtered out, leading to Sakuraba regaining the advantage and defeating him.
  • 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 guess 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 (though at the last year).
  • Start My Own: Founded the 5 on 5 team submission wrestling promotion QUINTET.
  • Technician Versus Performer: A strong performer, by his own admission. Though one should never over look his technical skills either.
  • ¡Three Amigos!: Saku's cornermen in PRIDE were almost always Nobuhiko Takada and Daijiro Matsui, who trained with him and used to back each other. Also, most of his three-men entrances were played by him, Matsui and fellow Takada Dojo trainee Minoru Toyonaga.
  • Took a Level in Badass: From jobbing to Mark Silver (a long suffering UWFI Jobber) to beating several members of a Badass Family that brought Vale Tudo to America and Japan.
  • The Trickster: He was a big one, not only in the ring. Chute Boxe instructor Rafael Cordeiro recalled that Saku would constantly pull funny moves and screams while sparring with him in Brazil.
  • Underdogs Never Lose: One of the biggest in the entire Japanese martial history. He was just a pro 'rassler with an amateur background, not a trained cagefighter like his opponents; he competed against much heavier opponents for most of his career, as well as much more experimented ones, and some of them when he was passed his prime; and he still came out victorious against an impressive number of them, and gave usually good performances whenever he lost. Few competitors in his circumstances have accomplished so much through such a tough career, and judging for how has the MMA landscape changed over the years, it's improbable that someone will ever do it again.
  • Unknown Rival: Challenged Rickson Gracie several times to no effect, and in fact took his match against Royler only in the hopes his brother would want to avenge him. Saku eventually admitted he had lost the interest in fighting him because Rickson would make it so difficult to happen that promoters would suffer economically, but he really never abandoned the aspiration altogether.
  • 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.
  • The Worf Effect: Saku was enough to show the world how freakishly dangerous Wanderlei Silva was when he stomped his way to a win over the Japanese fan favourite and repeated the feat two more times. Silva himself has acknowledged them as his greatest victories.
  • 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, and after minutes of grappling, Sakuraba submitted him with a kneebar of all things.