Kazushi Sakuraba: The Jester of MMA

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Kazushi Sakuraba: The Jester of MMA
Photo by Jeff Sherwood / Sherdog

Kazushi Sakuraba's list of accomplishments is simply astounding, but because of the unnecessary and brutal losses he accumulated as he dragged his feet about retirement, it is easy to forget just how great a fighter he was. If you have forgotten or don't know just why Sakuraba is so revered in Mixed Martial Arts circles, I shall give you the run down on some of his feats.

- Sakuraba defeated numerous world class 205lbs fighters including Vitor Belfort, Kevin Randleman and Quinton Jackson when he is comparable in build to some modern welterweights and easily made 185lbs in the twilight of his career.

 - Sakuraba defeated four members of the legendary Gracie family when they were still a name to be feared in the sport.

 - Sakuraba's first bout with Royce Gracie went 90 minutes (the longest MMA bout in history) by Gracie's request and ended with the Gracie corner throwing in the towel.

- Rather than drop out of the tournament which the bout was part of, Sakuraba went on to fight Igor Vovchanchynthe scariest striker in MMA at the time and a heavyweightto a respectable loss in the same night.

Kazushi Sakuraba is truly an all time great in the MMA world, but an often under—appreciated technician. Sakuraba is an excellent example of a fighter who excelled in "anti—technique". Similar to the boxer who will drop his hands and throw looping counters, Sakuraba would put himself in calculated danger on the mat to secure his infamous kimura lock or a knee bar. 

While I am certainly nowhere near as comfortable talking grappling as I am when I am talking the ins and outs of striking, I cannot help but appreciate the unorthodox methods that made Sakuraba such a difficult man to fight in his youth and have made him such an inspiration in my own training.

Sakuraba's fights often featured prolonged periods of fighting from this position.

Sakuraba is sporting his traditional orange hot pants and a Renzo Gracie backpack

I'm sure anyone who has seen a single Mixed Martial Arts event in the last five years will be able to tell me why that is such a poor position in the traditional positional hierarchy. Whether you're a wrestler or a jiu—jitsu fighter, you want to be the guy with a body lock from the opponent's back. 

With the opponent's hands locked around him from behind, however, was where Sakuraba—the anti—technician that he was—did much of his best work. 

Not even bothered

From this position Sakuraba would work to figure—four his grip and separate his opponent's wrists. Once this was accomplished he could simply spin with the kimura and try to wrench the opponent's shoulder while standing—as he did to Renzo Gracie—or he could use it to turn them.

Take a look at how Sakuraba actively and repeatedly gives his back to Kevin Randleman (of suplex fame) en route to separating Randleman's hands and using the kimura to turn him.

Relying on the kimura so heavily (not to mention giving the opponent one's back so routinely) above steady movement through the positional hierarchy is not the jiu—jitsu norm, but plenty of active competitors have realized the benefits of the kimura as a positional weapon rather than a submission attempt. 

Sakuraba has separated Randleman's wrists.
As Sakuraba falls back and wrenches Randleman's arm, Randleman rolls.
Sakuraba follows Randleman up to attempt an armbar.

Here is the great Andre Galvao using a diving kimura to force a predictable reaction out of an opponent and using a vicious armbar to take his opponent's back. Galvao also uses the kimura grip routinely to take opponent's backs as they roll into him.

Something interesting to note about Sakuraba is his choice to "turk" the legs of his opponent when using the kimura. Where Paulo Filho and others take the kimura grip from half guard and use it to preoccupy the opponent as they pass, Sakuraba would actively hook his opponent's legs to keep them from moving as he attempted to finish the kimura

Renzo is offering Sakuraba the pass, but Sakuraba has hooked Renzo's leg to hold him in place.

When Sakuraba's opponents did manage to drag him to the mat he would either scramble up to all fours and start looking for the kimura again as he did against Randleman, or he would scoot over one of his opponent's hooks and begin to work for a knee bar. Sakuraba almost finished Royce Gracie in the first round with this kneebar, and concluded his incredible grappling match with Carlos Newton with it as well. 

Sakuraba finishes his knee bar on Carlos Newton

Even though I have filled a page just talking about Sakuraba's love of turning his back to great grapplers and wrestlers, there is still an awful lot to say about the rest of Sakuraba's game. It wouldn't be right to talk about Sakuraba without mention of the low single—which basically no one has used to the same effect since.

Probably the only other time you have seen a low single shot effectively in a major MMA organization was in Randy Couture's farcical match up with James Toney. Sakuraba did it to guys who knew what they were doing and he got away with it because it was unusual.

A man who also had great effect by utilizing the low single was John Smith, the legendary amateur wrestler. Here he is explaining a basic low single—though Smith would often use his head where Sakuraba (and his coach Billy Robinson) advocate use of the shoulder against the inside of the knee.  Robinson reportedly broke an opponent's leg by dropping too violently on a low single.

Simply diving on low singles under PRIDE rules (stomps and kicks to the head of a grounded opponent were perfectly permissible) would be tactical suicide. Sakuraba would pick them up off of an opponent's low kicks.

Wanderlei Silva throws a low kick at Sakuraba.
Sakuraba pressures Silva's knee and takes him to the mat.

 

Sakuraba would also fake his own low kick to get the opponent to check, then shoot at their standing leg (which is genius), or as he did when Igor Vovchanchyn was chasing him into a corner, he would shoot at their trailing leg and swing around behind them.

 

Igor Vovchanchyn chases Sakuraba to the corner with his terrifying punching power.
Sakuraba slides around behind Igor as he attacks Vovchanchyn's rear leg.

Even Sakuraba's gimmicks (which he made an entire instructional video on in Japan) were intelligent. Everyone remembers the Mongolian chops which Sakuraba performed from guard, but have a look at how the double handed slap to the outsides of his opponent's forearms perfectly positions his opponent's head and arms for a hard punch to slip down the centre.

Sakuraba draws his hands back for his flamboyant bell clap to his opponent's ears.
Sakuraba's opponent covers.
Saku lands a good right hand between his opponent's arms.

Against Royce Gracie, Sakuraba punished Gracie for wearing a gi at every turn by pulling the jacket over his head, grabbing the sleeves to drag Royce into punches, and by using the back of Royce's pants to stack him on his head in an old school Judo pass. This left Royce helpless against a couple of hard punches from Sakuraba.

Sakuraba stacks Royce Gracie with his gi.
Sakuraba connects a right punch.

I haven't even begun to talk about the cartwheel guard passes, leaping stomps over an opponent's guard and the numerous fake variations he invented such as running into a sliding side kick. Sakuraba is simply a fighter whose creativity needs to be viewed. If you aren't fully acquainted with Sakuraba, or you simply want a fun way to spend the next half hour, please check out these two excellent highlight videos.

We can debate for hours about how Sakuraba would do against modern opponents or if he were afforded the kind of training opportunities in striking that modern fighters take for granted. One thing we can be sure of is that there is unlikely to be another fighter with the same creativity and unorthodox efficacy of Kazushi Sakuraba, The Gracie Hunter.

Jack Slack breaks down over 70 striking tactics employed by 20 elite strikers in his first ebookAdvanced Striking, and discusses the fundamentals of strategy in his new ebookElementary Striking.

Jack can be found on TwitterFacebook and at his blog: Fights Gone By.

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