ByRyan Matsunaga, writer at
MMA fan, BJJ enthusiast, and Executive Publisher at Creators Media.
Ryan Matsunaga

In 1999, a fighter named Kazushi Sakuraba was on the rise in the MMA world. Undefeated in his last seven, Sakuraba had already beaten the likes of Vernon White, Carlos Newton, and Vitor Belfort.

At Pride 8, Sakuraba was matched up against Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend Royler Gracie, who had most recently defeated Sakuraba's teammate Yuhi Sano. Many assumed it would be Sakuraba's toughest challenge to date, especially considering the Gracie family's fearsome reputation in the 90s.

Despite the odds stacked against him though, Sakuraba shocked the world when he not only defeated Gracie, but did so with a kimura submission; eerily echoing the legendary challenge match between Masahiko Kimura and Royler's father, Hélio Gracie, in the 1940s.

It was the Gracie family's first loss in professional MMA.

Following the fight, Kazushi Sakuraba became an instant superstar in Japan. On the other side of the world though, the Gracie family was looking for payback. Stepping up to avenge Royler's defeat was Royce Gracie, the winner of the very first UFC tournament and an icon in the MMA community.

Both he and Sakuraba entered the PRIDE 2000 Grand Prix, a 16-man tournament, to face each other. They both handedly won their bouts in the opening rounds, with Sakuraba defeating Guy Mezger, and Gracie defeating Nobuhiko Takada, allowing them to be matched against each other in the quarterfinals.

Due to the nature of their grudge match, special rules were put into place. There would be no referee stoppages and no time limit. While there would still be round breaks, the match would continue until one fighter submitted or was knocked out.

Needless to say, it was one of the most anticipated fights in mixed martial arts history.

Royce Gracie began the fight aggressively, showing an improved striking game, and managing to nullify Sakuraba's early submission attempts. However, as the fight wore on, he began to visibly tire. Sakuraba's superior wrestling ability prevented Gracie from keeping the fight on the ground, punishing the Jiu-Jitsu expert with withering leg kicks. Even when it did go to the mat, Sakuraba would use Gracie's gi against him to control the pace, and even land some devastating ground and pound techniques.

Despite that, Gracie never gave up, and the two of them battled back and forth for six 15-minute rounds (an hour and a half total). At the start of the seventh though, Gracie's leg was so damaged that he was unable to stand, and his brother Rorion threw in the towel to save him from further injury.

The fight would go down as one of the most impressive displays of heart and courage inside the professional ring, and also a major turning point for modern mixed martial arts.

It would signal the end of the era of Gracie dominance over the fight game, and an emergence of new talent, including Kazushi Sakuraba, who would continue to evolve and develop the grappling element of MMA.


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