Fighting is too young a sport for a descriptor like “legend” to mean all that much, but so far as it does, Kazushi Sakuraba is one of the few people who deserve it. His incredible career has been too strange and interesting to easily summarize, but, briefly, after starting out as a pro wrestler, he transitioned into fighting; beat the likes of Carlos Newton and Vitor Belfort; became the first Japanese fighter in decades to defeat a member of the Gracie family; and followed on by taking on Royce Gracie in a fight with no time limit, defeating him after a full hour and a half when Gracie’s brother Rorion threw in the towel, earning a name as “The Gracie Hunter” and becoming about the most popular fighter in Japan in the process. He was an underdog, tough and skilled and charismatic and fun above everything else (he was known for pulling off goofy pro wrestling moves in the middle of dead-serious fights) and it would be hard to overstate the impact he had on the sport in the days when the best fighters, the biggest stars, and the most money were all to be found in Japan.
The sad thing about Sakuraba is that this wasn’t yet a sport that deserved him. For all the criticisms you can make of the way the UFC balances sport and spectacle and handles issues of fighter safety, it is something completely different from Pride FC, the then-dominant promotion for which Sakuraba fought, which presented fighting as a variant of pro wrestling, full of pageantry and more or less openly fixed fights and, above all, spectacle. This led to Sakuraba, a welterweight by modern standards, spending his prime as a fighter against the most dangerous strikers in weight classes up to three above his own. During one stretch from 2001 to 2002, he fought light-heavyweights Quinton Jackson and Wanderlei Silva (twice) and heavyweight Mirko Filopović. He lost three times, brutally, and the awful thing was that the worse he was beaten, the more people loved it, because it allowed him to prove that no matter what, he would never, ever say die.
Before long, it caught up with him. By 2006, with him having moved on to a rival promotion, there was nothing surprising about a report that he’d been taken to the hospital for tests after he started vomiting and fainted during training, or about promoter Sadaharu Tanigawa assuring the public that the issue wasn’t brain damage, but merely a circulation problem in his head and neck caused by all the shellings he’d taken over the years, certainly nothing that would prevent him from fighting again:
While Sakuraba’s August MRI scans following his damaging bout with Kestutis Smirnovas showed no brain damage or abnormalities, Tanigawa indicated that yesterday’s tests show that Sakuraba has sustained damage to his vertebrobasilar system, which is responsible for blood flow to the posterior of the brain.
It was stressed that Sakuraba does not have brain damage, but rather the vertebrobasilar damage has prevented proper blood circulation in his head and neck, stopping blood from reaching the base of Sakuraba’s brain.
The damage, indicated Tanigawa, came as a result of repeated blows to the head and neck, dating as far back as Sakuraba’s collegiate wrestling career.
Sakuraba would take an especially awful beating just a few months later. It was one of the 14 times he fought in the five years after this incident, during which he ran up seven wins and seven losses and looked both like a shell of himself and like someone who would never give in.
All of this is context for the video below, which shows Sakuraba, now 46, being brutalized by Shinya Aoki in Japan earlier today in his first fight in over four years, for the new Rizin promotion:
It’s a fight that should never have been made or allowed to happen, in which a referee with presumably full knowledge of Sakuraba’s past watches, declining to stop the fight, as he lays there helpless, taking a beating that it visibly tires Aoki to deal out. The saddest thing isn’t even that the one man who could definitely have prevented this from happening, Sakuraba, didn’t; it’s that he’ll probably allow it to happen again.
GIF via Youtube