For those who are unfamiliar with the Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals, its historicity could never be covered in a single article. At the time, it wasn’t just the Super Bowl of MMA, it was the Super Bowl of Super Bowls for MMA. With few exceptions, the biggest names from past and present participated in the event until only one remained to be crowned champion. Royce Gracie, Ken Shamrock, Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, Kazushi Sakuraba, Igor Vovchanchyn—while some of those names have faded over time, they were the best of the best in the year 2000.
The idea behind the Grand Prix was to crown the best fighter in the world at the moment. Not the best welterweight. Not the best heavyweight. The best fighter, regardless of size. It was the first openweight tournament held by Pride FC, and wouldn’t be their last. The original field of 16 for the tournament had been narrowed down to eight three months earlier, three victories in one night needed to crown a new king of MMA. It all went down on May 1, 2000.
Royce Gracie vs. Kazushi Sakuraba: The unofficial main event
While there was a level of intrigue with all of the contests, there was one that had viewers’ attention more than any other: Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Royce Gracie. That’s also the fight I want to focus on, as it seems to have drifted out of what passes for the modern MMA version of history. Sakuraba had defeated Royce’s older brother, Royler, the previous November. According to legend, it was the first time a Gracie had publicly—perhaps even privately—suffered a loss in a fight since their father Helio fell to Masahiko Kimura in 1951. As Sakuraba made his charge at greatness, the Gracie mystique was still at its peak.
Of course, there had been controversy around Royler’s loss. The referee stopped the fight when Sakuraba was about to break his arm in a kimura. Royler had refused to tap. Because of the disgrace, the Gracie’s only accepted a contest with the Japanese submission specialist if they could have their own special set of rules.
Those rules mostly revolved around an unlimited number of 15-minute rounds with no referee stoppages. The only way either fighter could lose would be via submission; not even technical submission or knockout. If nobody tapped, the fight would continue on. Sakuraba agreed to the terms. He was fully prepared to fight the Gracies at their own game.
Though the contest was competitive early on, at no point did it feel like Royce was in control. Sakuraba laughed and smiled throughout, allowing his superior physicality and conditioning to wear on Royce. All the while, Sakuraba played to the crowd, doing his best to entertain throughout the process.
After an hour had passed (four rounds) the ‘Gracie Hunter’ began to kick out the legs of an increasingly slowing Royce. After 90 minutes (six rounds) the Gracie corner finally threw in the towel. Sakuraba had defeated a Gracie while playing by their own rules. The feud between Sakuraba and the Gracie’s was far from over, but this was the definitive high point of their rivalry. Both men had put all their cards on the table and Sakuraba won.
Their contest was named Shoot Match of the Year by the Wrestling Observer—the most prominent publication covering MMA at the time—but it doesn’t hold up as well over time. There are long periods of minimal action. For those who remember exactly why the Gracie clan was so revered at that time, it isn’t hard to see why it received the honor it did.
Even today, the idea of fighters going one 15-minute round seems absurd. These two men went six times that amount. Who could possibly fail to appreciate just how badass that feat of endurance was? For those who have the time to spare, check out the fight below:
Outside of the grand drama of this fight, one aspect that’s frequently forgotten is that Sakuraba’s night wasn’t finished just by beating Royce Gracie. He’d go on to fight Igor Vovchanchyn that same night, who entered the contest having not suffered a loss in his last 37 bouts—with only five going to decision. Sakuraba came up short in his bid to beat Vovchanchyn, but not before putting a scare into the much larger man with a tight armbar. Rather than push on after their first 15-minute round was declared a draw, Sakuraba’s corner threw in the towel.
The PRIDE 2000 GP Finals were otherwise notable as the place where Mark Coleman rehabilitated his career by taking home the tournament title. The ‘Godfather of Ground-n-Pound’ defeated Vovchanchyn to wrap the tournament.
It should be noted, however, that Coleman only fought twice as his semifinal opponent, Kazuyuki Fujita, threw in the towel as soon as the fight officially began. Some might say he didn’t have the most impressive evening of all the combatants, I would agree wholeheartedly. But that shouldn’t diminish his ultimate accomplishment. After all, he did snap Vovchanchyn’s unbeaten streak at 38 fights. Plus, it’s hard not to appreciate, the American’s exuberant celebration.
The reason Fujita essentially forfeited—his corner threw in the towel two seconds in—was due to the beating the Japanese fighter had endured at the hands of Mark Kerr earlier in the night. There’s no doubt Fujita deserved the victory, but Kerr dealt out a serious amount of damage before gassing badly. Once Kerr was spent, Fujita turned the tables, forcing the two-time UFC tournament winner to turtle up. It was officially the first loss of Kerr’s career. It later came out, in the documentary The Smashing Machine, all the difficulties Kerr was dealing with at the time. Worth a look, not just for further background on the event, but the broader history of MMA.
While most fans should recognize the name Gary Goodridge in the remaining eight man field, many may not recognize the name Akira Shoji. Known as ‘Mr. PRIDE’ due to his frequent appearances in the organization in its early days, Shoji was one of the toughest SOB’s to ever step foot in a cage or ring. He rarely won against the best, but he always gave them everything he had and developed a strong following in Japan. He’s also the only fighter to appear in both the first and last PRIDE event.
He wasn’t a part of the tournament, but Ken Shamrock also made his return to MMA that night after three-and-a-half years away. I know Shamrock has dimmed his legacy some over the last 20 or so years, but it was a HUGE deal at the time.
In his time away, he raised his profile with American audiences off a notable stint in what is now known as the WWE during the Attitude Era. When Shamrock left the sport in 1996, he was arguably the biggest star in NHB fighting. This was set up as a tune up match as Alexander Otsuka, who while tough, wasn’t ever considered a top flight opponent. Shamrock did what was expected, dropping him with a series of punches just over 9 minutes into the fight.
About the author