Today marks the 15th anniversary of one of the most significant events in mixed martial arts history. The Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals took place on May 1st in front of a 38,429 strong crowd in the Tokyo Dome.
Santana topped the American charts with Maria Maria, American Beauty had recently won the best picture at the Academy Awards, and Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich had filed a lawsuit against Napster.
We were still eight months away from the Fertittas purchasing the UFC, and neither Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic nor Fedor Emelianenko had made their professional MMA debuts. Are you feeling old yet?
The event had many significant points of interest. Ken Shamrock would make his mixed martial arts return after a three and a half year absence, a successful professional wrestling career in the World Wrestling Federation (later known as World Wrestling Entertainment) now behind him.
Kazushi Sakuraba and Royce Gracie would face each other in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Fight of the Year. The fight would be part of a 16-man tournament that had begun in January of the same year, and would help solidify the legacy of another all-time great, Mark Coleman.
THE REAL DIFFERENCE WAS PERCEPTION
In 2000 mixed martial arts was viewed quite differently to the way it is today. The widely held opinion is that the real cross-trained, fully developed fighters did not come into the sport until some years later, and while that’s somewhat true the skill sets possessed by a number of fighters of this era weren’t all that different. Our understanding and perception of what we were viewing was the big difference.
In 2000 we had no Patrick Wymans, Luca Furys, or Mike James’ to study hours of tape and break down every last technical aspect for us in easily accessible chunks of internet content. Even if we had, In 2000, for many of us, having internet access at all remained a privilege rather than a necessity.
Connecting with other fans was more difficult, and as a result when we did get the chance to talk about the fights other things formed the base of our predictions. We looked at their heart, their resilience and power, and in many cases whether we recognized their names and past, often outdated, achievements.
Bear in mind, we were still two and a half years away from vast numbers of fans believing that Ken Shamrock had a genuine chance of beating Tito Ortiz in their first fight. There would be another year to add on top of that before Randy Couture taught us that our belief that Tito Ortiz could out-wrestle elite level wrestlers had been ludicrous.
We knew no better, and were learning as we went along.
90 MINUTE WAR GIVES BIRTH TO A GRACIE HUNTER
Japanese fighter, Kazushi Sakuraba had already achieved heroic status by the time he faced Royce Gracie in the quarter finals of the Pride Grand Prix. A former UFC tournament winner, Sakuraba had also beaten Carlos Newton, Vitor Belfort and most recently Royler Gracie in Pride.
His win over Royler had been deemed controversial, not just because it was the first time any member of the Gracie family had been defeated in a professional contest in many, many years, but because Royler had not submitted. It was the referee who had stopped the contest as Sakuraba applied pressure with a Gyaku Ude Garami, or to most of us, a Kimura.
When Sakuraba and Royce Gracie met in the Grand Prix, the fight was set for unlimited 15 minute rounds. There would be no referee stoppages, one man would have to stop the other or force their corner to throw in the towel.
Three masked “Sakuraba’s” stood across the ring from Royce as one of the most iconic figures in Japanese professional wrestling, Antonio Inoki handed out flowers. One unmasked, showing himself to be the real Kazushi Sakuraba and so began a 90-minute war of attrition.
Everything was fought for as minute after minute passed, each fifteen minute round serving as its own unique chapter as part of a greater story. It wasn’t always exciting, no fight could be for 90-minutes straight, but it was always compelling. Both men struggled for position, for control, at times they would simply battle to determine whether Gracie’s gi would ride up or down his various limbs.
Then in the sixth round, with 75 minutes already in the bag, Sakuraba started to stand and strike. He caught Gracie with punches more than once, and connected with leg kicks that took all the fluidity out of Gracie’s movement by the time the round was over.
Gracie would not come out for round seven, the towel eventually thrown in by his Brother, Rorion. Sakuraba would amazingly go on to fight in the tournament semi-finals against Igor Vovchanchyn, and earn chances during the first round of their contest to win the fight. Sakuraba eventually tired and his corner threw in the towel at the end of the first round.
He may not have won the tournament, no man could have after fighting one of the sport’s true greats for 90 minutes, but this was the night that Kazushi Sakuraba became the Gracie Hunter.
COLEMAN CEMENTS LEGACY, AS PIECES FALL INTO PLACE
By the time the Pride Grand Prix began in January of 2000, there were many who believed Mark Coleman had been exposed and become a busted flush. After winning back to back UFC tournaments, and becoming the first ever UFC Heavyweight Champion, Coleman would lose the title in his first defense against heavy underdog Maurice Smith.
Cardio had played a big part in the defeat, as had the lack of a plan B when he was unable to take the challenger down. Things would get no better as Coleman went on to suffer a crushing defeat to Pete Williams at UFC 17, before dropping a split decision to Pedro Rizzo at UFC 18 and leaving the UFC.
Having gone 1-1 since debuting in Pride, the once dominant Coleman entered the Pride Grand Prix with a 7-4 professional record. In a tournament that included the likes of Mark Kerr, Royce Gracie, Kazuyuki Fujita and Igor Vovchanchyn, Coleman was not considered the favorite.
Coleman had dispatched Masaaki Satake comfortably enough to advance to the quarter finals where he would meet Akira Shoji on May 1st. While Coleman got past Shoji, Mark Kerr took enough out of Kazuyuki Fujita, even in defeat, to ensure that Fujita was unable to continue in the competition. His corner would immediately throw in the towel when the semi-final with Coleman began.
On the other half of the draw, highly fancied Igor Vovchanchyn had gone over ten minutes with Gary Goodridge in the quarter finals, before finding himself in trouble against the heroic Sakuraba in the semis. Coleman could not have asked for a better path to the final, and he was going to make the most of it.
Igor Vovchanchyn was a fearsome, but tired striker. Coleman was able to put him on his back and control him for the majority of their tournament final. Eventually, with little more than three minutes gone in the second round, Coleman rained knees down into the head of his opponent and forced Vovchanchyn to submit.
Coleman’s celebration was emphatic, that of a man reveling in his own redemption. It was not the greatest achievement of his career, that had already come at UFC 10 where he went through Moti Horenstein, Gary Goodridge and Don Frye to win the tournament, but he had every right to treat it as if it was.
Combined with his tournament wins at UFC’s 10 and 11, and his brief run as UFC Heavyweight Champion, Coleman had secured himself iconic status within the sport, and with it, so too had the event on May 1st, 2000. The Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals.