Who was Kazushi Sakuraba, and why did he plague the Gracie family?

The supremacy of the Gracie family in the realm of combat sports is well documented. Royce Gracie’s story of dominating everyone in the first couple of UFCs and launching the entire sport of MMA is the stuff of legend. And most people are also aware of the original Gracie challenges in Brazil, where Rickson and co. fought everyone and anyone.

The thing is, in all these stories, the Gracie family rarely come off on the losing side. Kazushi Sakuraba would change all of that. Let’s take a look at how Sakuraba came to be known as the Gracie Hunter.

The Fleeting Concept Of Flawless Martial Arts Careers

“Train so hard that your idols become your rivals.” This adage is important for every serious competitor to remember. While you may idolize certain athletes, they should never gain so much respect that you fear them, because if you keep competing long enough you may ultimately find yourself standing across from them in the ring.

Kazushi Sakuraba is a perfect example of someone who not only challenged everyone’s idols, but routinely beat many of them. This Japanese grappler became famous for defeating Gracie family members in the Pride Fighting Championships, at the time a major competitor to the UFC. He earned his nickname for beating the Gracie family at their own game – ground grappling. In doing so he proved nobody is flawless in combat sports. 

Many times, we hear among grapplers and MMA fighter that they would love to have the perfect career and retire undefeated. So far, not many have managed to achieve this. Almost everyone loses, with Khabib Nurmagomedov standing out as a notable exception. This is simply the nature of combat sports; they are constantly evolving and there is always a younger, tougher opponent. This relentless crucible drives people to become better, always seeking to improve themselves and their art.

The Story Of Kazushi Sakuraba – The Gracie Hunter

Kazushi Sakuraba can best be described as an MMA fighter with a submission-wrestling background. He trained in submission grappling and catch wrestling for most of his life and competed professionally in Japan before MMA came onto the scene. In the new sport of mixed martial arts, Sakuraba’s skillset proved to be extremely useful.

It was during Pride 7 where Sakuraba began earning his nickname, defeating Royler Gracie by submission. At the time, submitting a Gracie was thought to be nearly impossible and this victory launched Sakuraba into legendary status. Royler’s loss was the first time a Gracie family member had suffered defeat in several decades. 

Some questioned this victory as Royler did not tap – but instead the fight was called by the referee as Sakuraba had Royler locked into a extremely tight kimura from which Royler did not look like he could escape.

Sakuraba’s second victim was Royce Gracie, the winner of the first-ever UFC and a legend in both MMA and BJJ. Trying to avenge his brother Royler’s loss, Royce fell victim to the Japanese wrestler as well. This fight was unique in that the Gracie’s had requested a modified ruleset to ensure that the referee could not dictate the outcome of the fight. The fight could only end in knockout or submission, and the typical 5x5minute round format was abandoned in favor of a no-time limit match.

After six 15-minute rounds of battering on the feet and on the ground, Royce’s brother Rorion threw in the towel, handing Kazushi Sakuraba his second Gracie victory.

Sakuraba’s third Gracie victory came when he not only defeated Renzo Gracie in Pride but also broke his arm in the process, once again, with a Kimura. 

Finally, Sakuraba got a win over Ryan Gracie to round off an impressive set of performances against the family many thought unbeatable at the time. A lingering regret in the fight community is that a match between Sakuraba and Rickson never materialized, despite Sakuraba challenging the legendary Gracie and his promoter mentioning its possibility. 

A Tribute To The Gracie Killer

The Gracie family dominated many matches with their enviable skills on the ground. However, Kazushi Sakuraba proved that no one is invincible. You can see his unorthodox grappling style on display in his victories against the Gracies, and others, in this highlight video of “The Gracie Hunter.” Kazushi Sakuraba continued fighting up until the age of 51, with his last performance coming at the Quintet Grappling Championship in 2018.