This week marks the twentieth anniversary of the first PRIDE Fighting Championship show in Tokyo, Japan. PRIDE is now defunct, and has been since 2007, but you need only look at the booking on any UFC, Bellator or Rizin card to realize that many of of us who are willing to part with cash to watch fights dearly long for it to still be that era. Fedor Emelianenko, Wanderlei Silva and Mirko 'Cro Cop' Filipovic can still fill arenas as main event attractions even though they just cannot go like they used to. That's partly because of the fighting ability they demonstrated in their heyday, but just as much a product of nostalgia for the theatre and spectacle that PRIDE built around them.
The secret to creating the perfect mixed martial arts product—which so many have tried to imitate—was to infuse it with Japanese professional wrestling or puroresu. The new Japanese promotion, Rizin is hosting a card this weekend which lacks star power. But most of the fans who intend to watch that show will tell you the same thing: "it is the spiritual successor to PRIDE." "No Holds Barred" was always a hit and miss sport, there were great fights but just as many thirty minute snoozers that resulted in draws. What PRIDE brought to the table was the pageantry, the storylines, and the drama before and after the match.
The Birth of PRIDE
PRIDE 1 was built around Nobuhiko Takada. A professional wrestling icon in Japan, Takada was a good worker from a classical catch wrestling lineage. Takada's Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi) was built on shoot style matches with a focus on real holds and transitions rather than big slams and high spots. The UWFi drew attention to this, calling out other professional wrestling organizations as "fake" while insisting that theirs was "real." (It is worth noting that the UWFi's invasion angle with New Japan Pro Wrestling would also inspired the WCW's N.W.O angle which many of our readers will have grown up with.)
The UWFi wrestlers were always keen to spin an angle and get some exposure, but also believed they could scrap. Yoji Anjo famously "dojo stormed" Rickson Gracie in 1994, only to be savagely beaten by the legitimate fighter. While he had no professional record, Takada saw himself as "legit" and was willing to work his way into a shoot if he felt he needed to. When Takada worked a high profile match with the controversial former yokozuna, Koji Kitao, the two agreed that the bout would result in a time limit draw, but at the beginning of the third round Takada stiffed Kitao with a head kick. This event was eerily reminiscent of the night in 1953 when "The Father of Puroresu," Rikidozan, double crossed the great judoka Masahiko Kimura and knife hand struck him in the neck for real.
The UWFi's inventive angles and interesting in ring work could not keep them afloat, however and after they folded Takada was approached by a new promotion for the possibility of a professional bout against Gracie.
Home Grown Talent
But Takada was not the only home grown pro wrestler entering the PRIDE ring that night. In the opening bout, Kazunari Murakami worked a suspicious looking hip throw to arm bar on the largely unimportant John Dixson. It was a great beginning to proceedings for the forty thousand Japanese fans in attendance for the Takada—Gracie showdown.
Bas Rutten and Stephen Quadros provided commentary on the U.S. release. This was recorded after the event which lead to awkward moments where they had to stop an anecdote midway through because the conclusion would spoil the result of the fight that they were commentating. On other occasions, Rutten would have to pretend to run up to the ring when the camera caught him coaching in the corner of Mark Kerr. During the Dixson-Murakami match, which had very low stakes, Rutten and Quadros engaged in an interesting moment of foreshadowing. Quadros asked Rutten about the last time he had seen Dixson fight—in a tournament in Kiev—and Rutten brushed over Dixson to hint at the abilities of a young Ukranian who blasted through Dixson and had been winning one night tournaments all over Europe. Igor Vovchanchyn would make his way to PRIDE the next year.
Takada was not even the only Japanese talent taking on a Gracie that night. The great Renzo Gracie was matched against the seemingly undeserving Akira Shoji. Shoji had just three fights to his name, and a 1-1-1 record. The Gracies were still undefeated as a family in the world of mixed martial arts and the Gracie legend was still in full force. Renzo had a 5-0 professional record, with one No Contest as his last fight had started a riot! Shoji surprised everyone by slithering out of Gracie's submission attempts, but was aided greatly by the referees. When Renzo climbed on Shoji's back, Shoji dived between the ropes onto the ring apron, ran around the side of the ring, and the two men were restarted from a standing position. When the two clinched, Shoji headbutted Gracie. Shoji landed illegal knees to the head on the ground without reprimand, then when Shoji tried to pour it on in the later going, he unleashed a flurry on underwhelming punches to the back of Gracie's head.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the bout was its foreshadowing of developments in the grappling game. Shoji spent much of the fight holding Gracie around the waist from inside his guard, stalling for dear life. Gracie repeatedly pulled his own foot up and tried to weave it between him and Shoji to attack the omaplata. It was a very simplistic attempt at what would develop into the knee-hugging omaplata game which has become a staple of closed guard play in no-gi and MMA environments. Gracie's own student, Shawn Williams would go on to pioneer what is now called the Williams guard, hugging his own knee and attacking the omaplata on the trapped arm. Eddie Bravo's rubber guard game is built on the same principle but with more chance of a meniscus tear. Gracie was unable to attack the omaplata successfully in this bout but he did demonstrate a beautiful sit-up sweep off one attempt.
While the pace was slow, the action was oddly riveting. The Gracie family had a name to maintain and Shoji had nothing to lose. Each time Gracie took the mount or attacked an armbar, his job got harder as Shoji—the better conditioned man—became slicker and slicker with sweat. Each time Shoji squirmed out and returned to his feet he screamed and the crowd went ballistic. When the end of time came, Shoji had put a draw on Renzo Gracie's record. It wasn't the result the Japanese fans wanted, but it was more than most expected. Akira Shoji would come to be known as "Mr. PRIDE," competing on all but one of the first ten PRIDE cards. His record ran to an unspectacular 14-17-5 but he became a staple performer for PRIDE even after they acquired genuine world class talent.
Renzo Gracie picked up more losses than Royce, Rickson and Royler, but then he put himself in position to have that happen by fighting much stiffer opposition. He went on to be a regular contestant in the ADCC no gi championships, and now runs one of the most successful grappling camps in the United States out of New York. During his bout with Shoji, Renzo began working on an arm-in guillotine choke and Rutten and Quadros remarked that it only works if there is a large strength difference and that it is not a reliable technique—a standard attitude for the time. The arm-in guillotine became a Renzo Gracie trademark. Not only did he use it to submit Pat Militech in 2006, many of his students, such as Ricardo Almeida and Joe Capizzi, have become famous for it. Another Renzo Gracie alumni, Gordon Ryan just won his first ADCC gold medal with an arm-in guillotine choke against Keenan Cornelius.
Koji Kitao was a heat magnet. Through two different sporting pursuits he had turned everyone he ran into an enemy. Kitao had been elevated to sumo's highest rank, yokozuna, at the age of just twenty two. He had been runner up in a couple of tournaments, with impressive wins over the current yokozuna , but his promotion was more to do with the glut of wrestlers ranked at ozeki. He had won no major tournaments but it was assumed that he was on the way up. Kitao proceeded to win nothing after his promotion and his bratty attitude turned his stablemates against him. After allegedly hitting the wife of his stable leader, Kitao became the first yokozuna to be expelled from sumo, also securing his place in history as the only yokozuna to never win a major tournament.
Kitao turned to professional wrestling and caused drama wherever he went. In 1990 he made his way to New Japan Pro Wrestling and was promptly fired for racism towards Korean wrestlers. Super World of Sports threw him out on his arse after he no-sold for "Earthquake" John Tenta, and grabbed a microphone to tell the audience that pro wrestling was fake and that he'd destroy Tenta in a real fight. In 1992 he went to UWFi, where Takada put a stop to his antics before they even began by kicking him upside the head.
After taking time away from wrestling to become a karate black belt, Kitao was afforded the chance to show John Tenta and wrestling fans everywhere what a legit fighter he was in 1996. Instead he lost in first round batterings against Pedro Otavio and Mark Hall. A year later, he was approached to fight in PRIDE.
Taking on Australia's Nathan Jones, Kitao turned up in slacks and a belt, with sneakers like he was Ric Flair phoning it in on Monday Night Nitro. Perhaps he was contractually obliged to be a scumbag, because Kitao promptly spat on a ringside photographer seconds after the fight had begun. Nathan Jones circled the ring, threw a surprisingly quick wheel kick for a three hundred pounder, and was then bundled to the mat. Jones audibly grunted and panicked on the bottom before Kitao applied a very loose Americana to take the submission in just over two minutes. It was underwhelming and marked the end of both men's MMA careers. Nathan Jones went on to team with The Undertaker in the WWE, while Kitao was given a retirement ceremony at PRIDE 4.
For those who felt let down by the lack of Kitao drama, Branko Cikatic was more than happy to oblige. Cikatic, the first K-1 champion but already an old man, took on the overmatched Ralph White in a kickboxing match wearing the gloves from the opening scene of Enter the Dragon. Cikatic was famous for his ability to starch anyone with his right hand, but he was just as prone to cheating. Cikatic, all class, opened the bout with a glove touch into back kick.
Knocking White off his feet in the opening minute, Cikatic punted him in the head on the ground and raised a ghoulish hematoma. When White's corner protested, Cikatic acted as if he had done nothing wrong. The break in the action gave Rutten and Quadros the chance to recount other instances of Branko causing near riots in the kickboxing ring. The fight was waived off but Branko was brought back for PRIDE 2, where he was disqualified after multiple, surprisingly lenient, warnings for elbowing Mark Kerr in the brain stem while clinging to the ropes. As Cikatic and White left the ring at PRIDE 1, Quadros referenced the attempts to ban mixed martial arts that were giving the UFC so much trouble in the United States, saying "good thing John McCain didn't see this match."
The Extremes of MMA
No fights show the extremes of mixed martial arts more than the two billings between name fighters on the PRIDE 1 card. Gary Goodridge vs Oleg Taktarov was breathtaking. Taktarov was a UFC champion, master of sambo, and came into the fight having worked extensively on his boxing at the Wild Card gym. Gary Goodridge was an arm wrestler who hit extremely hard and was strong enough to shuck off Don Frye for a good length of time in the UFC. Taktarov's focus on boxing during his camp didn't seem to do much, he stood static out at range before leaping in with a left hook. The first time he caught Goodridge. The second time he caught Goodridge, he was dropped by the return. The third time he stepped in on Goodridge, Taktarov was left face down and stiff as a board. It was horrifying and spectacular in the same instant.
Dan Severn and Kimo Leopaldo, on the other hand, showed exactly how bad evenly matched MMA fights can be. Both experienced wrestlers decided to throw hands at each other—turning their heads away and closing their eyes when they swung. While both men were terrified of each other's blows, there were no repercussions when one was hit. At several points in the fight Severn began pulling up his knee sleeves while Kimo was hitting him in the face and seemed completely unfazed. For thirty minutes the two swatted at each other like kittens and when Severn finally shot and completed a takedown, time expired. Bas Rutten, a regular on the Japanese MMA circuit, remarked that he had never heard a Japanese crowd boo before that fight.
Finally, Rickson Gracie vs. Nobuhiko Takada showed the best way to get an exciting fight—book someone who knows what they're doing against someone who doesn't have a clue. Within five minutes Takada was taken down and arm barred but it didn't matter. He had drawn the people through the door with his talk and his star power. Some were even buying into this fight being a legitimate test of Rickson's ability based on Takada's worked matches.
The secret of PRIDE's success was in mixing the legitimate with the ridiculous. Fighting is not a sport in the sense that other sports are. It is first a spectacle. On every PRIDE card there were plenty of fights that felt like a real fair test of both men's skills and the later rounds of any PRIDE Grand Prix were composed of the top ranking fighters in that division. But equally on any PRIDE card there were freak matches, often containing Japanese professional wrestlers with little real fighting experience. For every legitimate title defense that Wanderlei Silva, Takanori Gomi, and Fedor Emelianenko made, they had two non-title fights designed to showcase their destructive ability. In many ways, keeping the big names active in unimportant matches was similar to how New Japan Pro Wrestling has its big names appear in various combinations in tag matches—showcasing them at more events without ruining the big angles. Of course there are no safe fights in MMA but even when Gomi, PRIDE's lightweight champion and Japanese superstar, lost by a shocking arm triangle choke against Marcus Aurelio, it was okay because the title wasn't on the line. They fed him another no-hoper in a non-title fight and then gave him half a year to build up to a rematch with Aurelio which he won.
Perhaps it is here worth noting that there was no bigger victim of the Japanese style of matchmaking than the aforementioned Gary Goodridge. Known for his huge power and lacking ability, Goodridge would go out on his shield and the Japanese promoters loved that. Bouncing between K-1 and PRIDE, Goodridge would take horrible beating after horrible beating. His kickboxing record from 2005 to 2010 was 2-18, with many of those losses coming by knockout, and yet K-1 kept booking him. Goodridge now suffers from pugilistic dementia and serves as a reminder of how disgusting fight promotion can be.
The Rise of PRIDE
PRIDE 1 was a roaring success and the PRIDE phenomenon was well underway in Japan. When Nobuhiko Takada and Rickson Gracie rematched at PRIDE 3 they were able to fill the Budokan in spite of the previous result and Takada's shoddy fighting skills (though Rickson was made to look very bad through the first round of this rematch).
PRIDE quickly acquired many of the best fighters in the world and the PRIDE 2000 Open Weight Grand Prix marked a watershed moment in the sport. UFC tournaments had always contained maybe two good fighters and a heap of guys who claimed unbeaten street fight records and were promptly smashed. The last UFC one night tournament contained four men: three no hopers and Mark Kerr.
The PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix contained legitimate, world class talent. From then on PRIDE was a force as a showcase for great fighters and not just good fights. Over the next ten years PRIDE became the biggest name in combat sports and provided many MMA fans with their fondest memories.
Where Pancrase had its roots in pro wrestling and aimed for "real pro wrestling," a PRIDE event felt like a major WWE pay-per-view. The entrances and openings became grander as time went on. Takada, a hopeless fighter, was moved into the role of PRIDE's public face and often partook in these show openings. There would be a taiko drum troupe, or Takada would take the stage in a tuxedo and perform the piano backing to a singer, but the fighters were always brought out on the ramp and introduced as an entire roster, undercard and main eventers, before the event. Each fighter individually introduced by "crazy PRIDE lady" Lenne Hardt while PRIDE FC's exhilarating theme tune blared in the background.
Many underrate pageantry in what is supposed to be a sport, but PRIDE's fanfare and glamour stood in stark contrast to the awful gladiator introduction with talking heads which opened every UFC card for a decade.
Then consider how formulaic every UFC pre-fight package has been for the last few years. Joe Rogan in a darkened room tells you that someone is a monster, Dana White refers to a fighter as "this kid," then knockout clips play. Meanwhile PRIDE's pre-fight packages were more in the style of the WWE and TNA: the fight was built up to be something way more than a fist fight could ever be. Just take a look at the revenge movie trailer that played before Cro Cop challenged for Fedor Emelianenko's heavyweight crown. It's campy, and over the top, and perhaps in poor taste, but it sticks in the mind even a decade later.
Of course the downside was that PRIDE FC hemorrhaged money. They lost their TV deal in 2006 but continued to produce lavish events with pyro and drum troupes. The reason that the UFC was able to survive and then thrive after MMA was almost outlawed in the US was due to its ability to continue to host professional events with production being exactly the same and focusing on the in-cage action. Eventually the UFC won the war, buying up PRIDE and closing its doors after briefly flirting with the idea of keeping it going but it was a grand old run while it lasted and the memories it seeded are the reason that the same fighters from a decade ago are still trotted out to headline major events today.
While Takada was a bust, the Japanese did find their real pro wrestler. His name was Kazushi Sakuraba and he was a goddamned marvel. He handed the Gracies their first "L" and beat three more of them before the amount of athletic tape needed to hold his joints together made watching his fights uncomfortable.
The decline of Sakuraba in many ways reflected the downturn in the Japanese MMA scene. MMa, rather than a booming sport for the future, was more of a momentary craze over there. The days of filling the Saitama Super Arena and being broadcast on a major network on New Year's Eve are long gone and the UFC's half-hearted attempts to revitalize the market have received a tepid reaction. Twenty years after the birth of PRIDE FC we are left wondering just how that lightning could be bottled once again.
Pick up Jack's book, Notorious: The Life and Fights of Conor McGregor .