Naturally here at Catch Wrestling United, we love ourselves some Kazushi Sakuraba, and we’re not the only ones to consider Saku one of our grappling and fighting heroes. Many know of the name he made for himself becoming ‘The Gracie Hunter’, defeating 4 members of the esteemed Brazilian family in Japan and helping make Pride Fighting Championship into the power house MMA promotion of its day.
Before he won fights with the seemingly unbeatable Gracies, and before his controversial and sadly brief stint in the UFC, he cut his teeth in the worked-shoot Pro Wrestling promotions of Japan where the blurred lines between what was real and what was a predetermined exhibition were ever present.
Working in the ill-fated UWFi promotion towards the end of its existence, Sakuraba was mostly used as ‘enhancement talent’ — Pro Wrestling’s more polite term for a jobber used to put another worker over. However when UWFi founder and New Japan Pro Wrestling alumni Nobuhiko Takada later formed Kingdom Pro Wrestling out of UWFi’s ashes, Sakuraba was to feature as a main card player, being booked to ‘win’ matches more than he was to ‘lose’.
And so in his first match with the promotion on May 4, 1997 at ‘Kingdom – Birth Step 1’, 7 months before UFC Japan, Sakuraba locked horns with UWFi Snake Pit and Takada Dojo stable-mate Yuhi Sano.
For anyone who has followed MMA for even a little while, the match is quite apparently not on the level. Though the strikes are stiff, the grappling is fairly sloppy by today’s standards of non-compliant ground fighting, and the Pro Wrestling element of rope breaks and knockdown 10 counts carry over from the UWFi days. It’s still enjoyable to watch as a piece of Sakuraba history, and shows the prevalence of Catch based grapplers going for leglocks far more than their BJJ counterparts of the time.