Kazushi Sakuraba was the first Japanese UFC champion

A deep dive into the life and career of Kazushi Sakuraba.
Kazushi Sakuraba
Kazushi Sakuraba / UFC

This article is part of a new series by FanSided MMA honoring milestones and memories from the past. Watch for a new flashback feature every Thursday.

In the lead up to Tatsuro Taira's fight with Alex Perez on June 15, there was a lot of talk of Taira wanting to become the UFC's first Japanese champion. Taira has future title challenger written all over him and one day might claim a championship in the UFC. However, he will never be the UFC's first Japanese title holder. That honor goes to UFC Hall of Famer and mixed martial arts pioneer, Kazushi Sakuraba.

Sakuraba is a legend in MMA. He started wrestling in high school with the ultimate goal of becoming a professional wrestler. After wrestling in college, Sakuraba achieved his goal of becoming a professional wrestler.

The style of professional wrestling that Sakuraba participated in was known as shoot wrestling. In this style, the matches have more improvisation, with fewer theatrics, and more realistic maneuvers. In Japan, shoot wrestling was presented as strong base for real fighting. With the rise of mixed martial arts, this would soon be tested.

Sakuraba's stable mate at Union of Wrestling Forces International, Yoji Anjo, responded to a dojo challenge from Rickson Gracie. With Japanese media in attendance, Gracie handily defeated Anjo. In an attempt to restore glory to Japanese shoot style wrestling, Anjo and Sakuraba entered in to the UFC Japan heavyweight tournament. The tournament took place December 12, 1997 in Yokohama, Japan. It was the first time the Octagon had been outside of the United States.

Sakuraba weighed less than 185 pounds at the time and had to falsely claim he weighed 203 pounds in order to enter the tournament. His opening round fight in the four man tournament was against the 243 pound Marcus "Conan" Silveira. Some of you might recognize that name as the co-founder and coach of renowned MMA gym American Top Team.

Sakuraba secured the takedown in the first 20 seconds of the fight. Both fighters attempted leglocks before Silveira landed some kicks and punches from the bottom. Silveira was able to scramble to his feet and threatened a kimura. Shortly after Sakuraba returned to his feet, Silveira unleashed a flurry of punches. When Sakuraba dropped down for a single leg takedown, referee John McCarthy called a stop to the fight. Sakuraba immediately protested.

McCarthy repeatedly stated that Sakuraba "was out" and Silveira was declared the winner. On the other side of the tournament bracket, Anjo was defeated by David "Tank" Abbott. However, Abbott broke his left hand during the fight and was unable to compete in the finals. Additionally, the finish to the Sakuraba and Silveira fight was reviewed by the UFC's sanctioning body in Japan and was deemed an early stoppage. With Abbott out and their previous fight being ruled a no contest, Sakuraba and Silveira would fight once again, this time for the tournament championship.

Sakuraba rushed Silveira at the start of the round and ended up in the clinch. Silveira spun Sakuraba down to the mat who countered with a kimura. Silveira, forced to defend the submission, was unable to get off any offense of his own. Eventually, Silveira worked himself free and was able to get to the back of Sakuraba. After a brief scramble and a failed kimura from Silveira, Sakuraba found himself on top. Another scramble ensued and Sakuraba snatched the arm of Silveira and sunk in a deep arm bar. Silveira tapped almost immediately.

That night the legend of Sakuraba was born. Over the next seven years he would become one of the faces of Prides Fighting Championships where is rivalry with the Gracie family not only earned him his nickname of "The Gracie Hunter", but also made him a household name in mixed martial arts.

Outsized in most of his fights, Sakuraba relied on his skill and resilience to outlast his opponents. He shared the ring with a who's who of early 2000's MMA, defeating seven different UFC champions. I hope one day that Taira does win a UFC championship and returns Japanese MMA to its former glory, but let's not forget (as apparently the UFC has) about the man that firmly planted the flag of Japan in the Octagon, the country's first UFC champion, Sakuraba.