Most fight fans have fond memories of a 140-pound Brazilian man named Royce Gracie submitting the much larger American wrestler Dan Severn at UFC 4 or the now infamous war between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar at the first ever UFC free-to-air event.
But what about the classic bouts that aren't talked about frequently amongst fight fans? In this series I will take a look at those classic encounters.
For this series let me take you back in time, a little over a decade ago. The date is January 20th, 2000. The world was just getting over the Y2K crisis, Eiffel 65 are topping music charts worldwide with their one hit wonder "I'm Blue," UFC is losing money taking its events to pay-per-view with a limited niche audience in the United States. Newly formed Japanese MMA organization Pride Fighting Championships (Pride FC) are about to host their first ever tournament.
At this stage Pride FC have been in business for a little over two years and have hosted eight events to date. Pride first put themselves on the map by hosting a bout between Professional Wrestler Nobuhiko Takada and member of the legendary Gracie family, Rickson Gracie.
This bout garnered a large amount of attention from Japanese fans and media who packed the infamous Tokyo Dome with an estimated 47,000 people.
Following the success of their first event Pride FC was able to secure a television deal with Fuji Television as well as pay-per-view revenues on newly formed satellite channel SKY PerfecTV.
Tournament fighting was the next step for the growing Mixed Martial Arts organization, the UFC had held one-night tournaments since its inception which got a lot of curiosity amongst spectators to begin with. Pride FC took a different route with their tournament format and hosted it over two nights with the winner earning four victories, $200,000 and the right to call himself the top MMA combatant on the planet.
For their first Grand Prix, Pride FC had gathered an impressive resume of fighters from all over the world ranging from kick boxers such as Guy Mezger and Igor Vovchanchyn, wrestlers such as Mark Kerr and UFC cast-off Mark Coleman, professional wrestler Nobuhiko Takada, fellow professional wrestler turned MMA legend Kazushi Sakuraba and Brazilian jiu-jitsu pioneer Royce Gracie.
When the opening round of action had concluded eight men had advanced to the finals four months later, but not without controversy. Guy Mezger and Kazushi Sakuraba battled for fifteen minutes in a contest controlled for the large part by Guy Mezger, however when all was said and done, all four judges scored the bout a draw and opted for this fight to go into over time to determine who will advance to the quarter-finals.
This decision enraged Guy Mezger's fellow Lions Den team member, Ken Shamrock, who was never known for keeping his cool. The future UFC Hall of Famer ordered Mezger back to the locker room and forfeited the bout so Kazushi Sakuraba advanced in the Grand Prix.
When all the smoke had cleared after the first night of fights eight men had advanced in the tournament: Gary Goodridge, Akira Shoji, Kazuyuki Fujita, Kazushi Sakuraba, Mark Coleman, Igor Vovchanchyn, Mark Kerr and Royce Gracie.
May 1st, 2000 was the time to go again, this time around 38,429 packed the Toyko Dome once again to conclude the first ever Pride FC Grand Prix and determine the best mixed martial artist on the planet. Along with seven tournament bouts, this event also featured Guy Mezger facing off against Masaaki Satake and after a four-year hiatus from MMA, Ken Shamrock was making his much anticipated return facing off against Alexander Otsuka.
In the first quarter-final encounter was between Gary Goodridge facing off against the Ukranian kickboxer Igor Vovchanchyn. Goodridge landed a few shots on Vovchanchyn but for the most part Igor controlled the bout before finishing him off a little past the 10 minute mark of the first round.
The second quarter-final bout was a classic encounter for the ages, Royce Gracie facing off against Kazushi Sakuraba. This bout was contested under special rules meaning there were no judges scoring each bout and we must determine a winner.
If you enjoy a mat-based encounter or not, this was either one of the most exciting clashes in Pride FC history; otherwise, it was one of the most boring. The earlier part of the bout was controlled by Gracie, however as the bout went on the Brazilian tired himself out and Sakuraba controlled the latter part of the affair.
After 90 minutes of back and forth action the Gracie corner threw in the towel and Kazushi Sakuraba advanced in the tournament in a fight that will be talked about for years to come.
The third quarter-final encounter was American wrestler Mark Coleman facing off against Akira Shoji. Mark Coleman dominated this bout for a solid fifteen minutes both standing and on the mat utilizing his ground-n'-pound but was unable to finish the tough Japanese prospect but left with a victory and a trip to the semi-finals.
The final quarter-final bout was contested between Mark Kerr and Kazuyuki Fujita. Kerr, being the larger wrestler, controlled Fujita on the mat for the beginning of the bout but, seemingly gassed mid-way through the first round, Fujita took over, out-wrestling the American for the most part. When all was said and done the judges awarded the bout to Kazuyuki Fujita as he took one step closer to being crowned the first ever Pride FC Grand Prix Champion.
The first semi-final bout was between the man who would latter be dubbed "The Gracie Hunter," Kazushi Sakuraba squaring off against Igor Vovchanchyn. Keep in mind that Sakuraba had fought for 90 minutes against the legendary Royce Gracie earlier this evening.
Despite the war he had just been through Sakuraba took control at the beginning of this bout, obviously standing with Igor Vovchanchyn was going to spell certain disaster for the former professional wrestler so he took it to the mat where he is most comfortable. The bout raged on until Igor finished it with a belly-to-back suplex, followed up by a series of strikes which forced the corner of Sakuraba to throw in the towel after Sakuraba had just completed his 105th minute of fighting.
The final semi-final bout was scheduled to be Mark Coleman facing off against Kazuyuki Fujita however Fujita entered the ring taped up and in obvious pain so his corner threw in the towel before the two even touched, essentially forfeiting this match and giving Mark Coleman a bye to the finals.
The reason behind Fujita entering the ring and having his corner throw in the towel before Coleman was able to touch him is because this way he still received a pay-cheque for this two-second clash with Mark Coleman.
After 14 fights it all comes down to this, Mark Coleman facing off against Igor Vovchanchyn to crown the first ever Pride FC open-weight Grand Prix Champion.
Coming into this bout the two men's game-plans were clear, Vovchanchyn wanted to keep this encounter standing so he could counter-punch the American and leave with a quick victory, Mark Coleman on the other hand wanted this bout to hit the mat and use his wrestling game to control the kick boxer and ground-n'-pound out a victory.
The first round went exactly as planned Coleman using his game plan to control the large Vovchanchyn on the mat and land a number of strikes in the process. Igor, not being an accomplished mat-based fighter, did little off his back which worked in the favor of the former NCAA collegiate wrestler.
When all was said and done, Igor Vovchanchyn surrendered to the punishment a little past the two-minute mark of the second round, but what followed was possibly more memorable.
The first ever UFC Heavyweight Champion got caught up in his historic victory, Coleman screamed in triumph and charged across the ring as if to hurdle the ropes. He leaped, but once airborne, seemed to change his mind. His body went horizontal in the air, his feet got caught up in the ropes and his entire body came crashing down to the Pride canvas.
Some remember the Pride Grand Prix 2000 as the series of events that shaped modern day mixed martial arts. Others remember it for the birth of Kazushi Sakuraba as a mega-star in Japan. Others remember it as the biggest tournament in MMA history.
Whatever way you look at it, this tournament changed the sport of mixed martial arts for the better and will be one of the historic moments, not only in the history of Pride FC, but the history of MMA when people choose to acknowledge it.
Be sure to check out the next installment of Forgotten Classics coming shortly.