Kazushi Sakuraba: Should He Hang Up the Gloves?

Justin FauxCorrespondent IAugust 29, 2010

The toughest decision that a professional fighter must make is to determine when its finally time to hang up the gloves and watch the sport from the side line.

In this instance we have 41 year old pioneer of mixed martial arts, Kazushi Sakuraba.

Sakuraba first made a name for himself as a professional wrestler working for the Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi) organization, and later, Kingdom Pro Wrestling until the latter part of 1996.

However, combat sports were more popular in Japan at the time, so the future icon decided to dabble in mixed martial arts.

His first notable event was the UFC's first to Japan. Sakuraba was an unknown Japanese fighter on the card with only one defeat under his belt but ended up winning the first ever UFC ultimate Japan heavyweight tournament.

Fast forward twelve-and-a-half years and you have one of the biggest names in Japanese MMA—throughout his storied career he has had countless memorable battles from running through the Gracie family to battling squaring off against strikers Wandelei Silva and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic; it seems that the catch wrestler has done it all.

Throughout the past two years, Sakuraba has competed under the DREAM banner; he has gone 3-3 in his time in the organization, picked up victories over Andrews Nakahara, Zelg Galesic and Rubin Williams, and dropped decisions to Kiyoshi Tamura and Ralek Gracie. He was also viciously knocked out by Melvin Manhoef.

The Manhoef bout is the one I want to focus on for a second. Typically, when I watch a Sakuraba match, I worry for his health and safety prior to the fight. Not so much for this one.

Despite the fact that Manhoef is a deadly striker with one punch KO power, he is also a fish out of water once the fight hits the mat: he has little take down defense and close to no submission defense.

But on that night, it took Monhoef 90 seconds to level the icon with a head kick and hammer down andnumerous unanswered strikes, all of which signaled the end of Sakuraba's journey to the DREAM middleweight title.

This week it was announced that Sakuraba would compete on the upcoming DREAM 16 event, which will take place on September 25th, 2010 from the Nippon Gaishi Hall in Nagoya, Japan against Team Quest stand out Jason Miller.

Miller is an experienced combatant with 31 bouts under his belt—he is pretty well rounded with power on his hands as well as being a skilled mat technician. This will create an interesting match up for Sakuraba, but should he still be competing?

In interviews, Sakuraba has stated that he would like to continue competing until he is 70 years old, which is another 29 years from now.

So what if Sakuraba continues fighting for the remainder of his career? who am I to tell a legendary figured when its time to hang up his gloves?

The reality is, Sakuraba is still a very talented performer and has the skill set to compete against a lot of the MMA community. But over time he is going to get slower and he won't have the tools that he had in his younger years.

Sakuraba also risks tainting the legacy he himself created.

If you look to a man like Ken Shamrock—a true pioneer of the sport and once considered the best fighter on the planet—he is now considered a joke amongst keyboard warriors.

Sakuraba has had a great career, one that many could only dream of after 42 historic match ups. But I feel it is time for him to walk away.

I am not saying that Sakuraba should not be a part of the MMA world. I am just saying that he should not be in a ring considering his age and the amount of beatings he has taken over his career.

Sakuraba could be a great promotional tool for Japanese MMA organizations to get the word out and bring in more  fans without putting his heatlh at risk.

If he continued to compete for another 29 years, I fear that one day I will tune into an event and see one of my heroes of the sport pass away inside the ring.

When the history books are written, I think they will look back on Kazushi Sakuraba as a legend of our time and a man that helped take the sport to new heights. I hope that continuing to compete does not tarnish his legacy or risk his health.