While MMA has exploded in popularity in the United States, there’s not one individual fighter who can be credited with the boom. In Japan, however, Sakuraba is widely acknowledged to have brought the sport to the mainstream of that country’s popular culture. His legendary feud against the Gracie family, highlighted by his epic 90 minute war with Royce Grace at PRIDE’s 2000 GP event, elevated him well past superstar status into the realm of national hero.
Sakuraba’s record definitely justifies the high regard in which he’s held, but the reality is that he’s done nothing to build on his legacy for a number of years. His last really impressive win was over former UFC light heavyweight champ Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, but he hasn’t even defeated a credible opponent of any sort since his 2003 win over Kevin Randleman.
Boxing pundits frequently speak of a fighter’s age in terms of ‘ring years’. For that reason a younger fighter who has endured a series of grueling fights against high level opponents can be considered ‘old in ring years’, while an older fighter who has taken an easier path is considered ‘young’ by the same metric. Under this evaluation, there’s no doubt that Sakuraba has to be considered old in ‘ring years’. His 90 minute battle with Royce Gracie alone took a significant toll on Sakuraba, and he continued to face high level opponents after that.
Sakuraba also made the most of his box office popularity, demonstrating his bravery by facing much larger opponents including heavyweights like Mirko Cro Cop and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. These physical mismatches would never be sanctioned in the more tightly regulated US fight scene, but were big box office in Japan. The result, however, wasn’t as favorable for Sakuraba with most ending with him losing by knockout or submission.
Despite his recent setbacks, Sakuraba has made no indication that hell be retiring anytime soon. Hopefully, this decision doesn’t put his long-term health and future well being at risk.