Sex, Drugs, Gangsters and MMA: Remembering Pride, UFC's Wild Predecessor

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterJuly 6, 2017

Bleacher Report

The UFC has become nearly synonymous with the sport of mixed martial arts. The Las Vegas-based promotion is home to many of the top MMA fighters in the world, and its events dominate the landscape.

But that hasn't always been true.

Before it was a piece in a billion-dollar company's portfolio, MMA was home to mavericks, outcasts and fanatics looking for a tiny slice of danger. The sport had an Eastern flair, and for nearly a decade, it called Tokyo its home.

While the UFC was battling regulators, politicians and cable companies at home, Pride Fighting Championships was the dominant player in the space, featuring events equal parts ridiculous and sublime.

"Pride was a date night—the cool thing to do at the time—so people were dressed to the nines, and they got quite an experience, visually and otherwise," announcer Mauro Ranallo says. "It was Cirque du Soleil meets the Super Bowl meets WrestleMania meets your favorite rock 'n' roll concert.

"It was a hybrid of everything I really loved. I was immediately taken by the spectacle. From the moment you enter the building, it was an attack on the senses."

Celebrities, freak shows and pro wrestlers shared the stage with the best fighters in the world, and the result was something that could never be duplicated. It was an orgy of excess, fueled by mafia money and legal steroids, a spectacle that was almost obscene in its grandeur.

Hybrid Shoot @HybridShoot

There was nothing quite like the spectacle of Pride Fighting Championship. https://t.co/QuafNopJe9

"It's hard for American audiences to understand because UFC is so big here now, but at that time, Pride was the organization," former heavyweight contender Heath Herring says. "UFC was around, but it wasn't anything compared to Pride when it came to pay days or how many people were watching.

"Pride was the big show, the epitome of the sport at that time."

[Pride] was Cirque du Soleil meets the Super Bowl meets WrestleMania meets your favorite rock 'n' roll concert. — Announcer Mauro Ranallo

This year marks the promotion's 20th anniversary. Though it has been shuttered for a decade, its memory will never fade for those who lived through the wild nights and even wilder mornings as the sun rose the next day.

Told by the fighters, executives and media members who lived it, this is the story of Pride's rise and ugly fall, and of all the death, intrigue and excellence in between.

As they say in hardcore circles, Pride Never Die.

The fight that birthed Pride, the legendary Japanese MMA promotion, took place far away from the cavernous Tokyo Dome that would later be filled to the brim for its biggest events. The promotion's fights would later air to television audiences numbered in the tens of millions, but only a select few have seen the carefully guarded VHS tape of this particular bout.

It was December 7, 1994, and pro wrestling tough guy Yoji Anjo planned a sneak attack intended to make him a superstar overnight. Instead, it turned out to be the biggest mistake of his life.

The Gracie name loomed large over the martial arts world at the time. Royce Gracie had already won two UFC tournaments, and nine days later, he would add a third. In Japan, his older brother Rickson had dispatched three opponents earlier that year in just over six total minutes to capture championship glory in a similar event, as his signature jiu-jitsu style proved to be a mystery for even the most experienced martial artists.

"Rickson was the champion of our family," Pride and UFC legend Renzo Gracie said in a 2010 interview. "I've never seen a specimen like him, not in my whole life. He was the perfect athlete with the perfect art, jiu-jitsu. Every opponent was like butter, and he was hot iron."

Rickson and Royce were quickly becoming combat sports royalty, and the pro wrestling community in Japan caught the familiar scent of cash.

Two decades earlier, Antonio Inoki had become an icon by challenging and defeating a number of legitimate martial artists in realisticbut decidedly fixedbouts. Nobuhiko Takada, a popular box office attraction with matinee-idol looks and vicious leg kicks, was walking a similar path and perhaps saw Gracie as his Muhammad Ali.

When Rickson refused a series of pro wrestling matches with Takada, the promotion pivoted adeptly, challenging the Gracie brothers to fights they knew could never happen, a tactic they commonly used to shame other pro wrestlers in Japan who wanted no part of swaggering bullies from the Union of Wrestling Forces International.

Anjo, considered the toughest of Takada's crew in a real fight, called a press conference to challenge Rickson, telling the world he could beat the jiu-jitsu ace in less than a minute. Though Rickson watched the tape at his home in Pacific Palisades, California, he had no response. It appeared to be the kind of grandstanding that made professional wrestling such a colorful delight.

Then Anjo took things a step too far.

He got off a plane at Los Angeles International Airport and drove—with a throng of Japanese media in tow—to Gracie's gym on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica. At home with a cold, Gracie got a call that there was trouble at the gym. Taping his fists as he and his 11-year-old son Rockson drove to their academy, Rickson was ready for whatever might come.

Anjo expected Gracie to think twice about accepting his challenge. After all, he was 35 pounds bigger and a complete unknown. But Rickson was from another time, a modern-day gladiator born into a fighting family. He was a businessman who was careful about building the family brand, but a man calling him a coward in front of his wife, his son and his students couldn't slide.

Stripping his shirt off, Rickson asked Anjo to sign a waiver and requested the media leave. They could come back in for pictures when the carnage was complete. Anjo asked Gracie whether he needed time to prepare for the contest.

"I was born ready, motherf--ker," Rickson reportedly replied.

In an athletic contest, Rickson was willing to stop when the referee told him to. In a street fight, he'd stop when he was good and ready, destroying his Japanese opponent's face and refusing to accept his concession.

"Rickson was a legend of Vale Tudo, the anything-goes fighting that came before modern MMA. It was a time of street rivalries and gym rivalries. It was almost like gang warfare," Pride commentator Stephen Quadros says. "Yoji Anjo was a legitimate tough guy in Japanese pro wrestling. It didn't work out for him, though. It was not good. Rickson wouldn't let the guy tap out; he just kept drilling him."

For years, pro wrestlers had worked hard to establish themselves atop the martial arts mountain in Japan. Anjo's loss threatened that primacy and created a minor identity crisis for wrestlers used to holding their own against anyone.

"They used to take out ads in the newspaper saying professional wrestling was the strongest of all martial arts," former UFC champion Josh Barnett told Bleacher Report in 2012. "And karate guys, judo guys would show up at their dojo saying, 'We don't believe that. We think that's crap. And we're going to come in and beat you and show you otherwise.' [Wrestling legend Karl] Gotch or Inoki would say 'Osamu Kido, go wrestle that dude and just tear him apart.' They never lost. They beat everybody up who showed up at their gym."

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Things didn't work out for Yoji Anjoh as planned when he crashed Rickson Gracie's dojo. https://t.co/xh6RC2YkIF

The story was plastered across the sports pages in Japan, and pressure built for Takada to avenge Anjo and defend his promotion's honor. Reeling from a failed run for political office and the slow demise of realistic wrestling in the face of actual fighting presented by the UFC and others, Takada had little choice but to accept.

With 50 million yen from reformed gangster Hiromichi Momose and the support of Fuji Television, Pride was born as a showcase for the fight more palatable on paper than in the ring. Takada was hopelessly outclassed in front of nearly 50,000 fans in the Tokyo Dome, and he lost again a year later in the promotion's fourth event.

Rather than stay on as a foil for other Japanese stars, Gracie walked away from the sport after his son Rockson was found dead in early 2001.

Pride could have drowned in the wake of these misfortunes. The early events were a financial failure, and the headliner proved to be a fraud. Instead, Naoto Morishita took over the creative reins and quickly established Pride as more than a mere novelty promotion.

"If Naoto Morishita had not restructured Pride after the first four events, Pride wouldn't have survived for very long," journalist Zach Arnold, who covers the Japanese scene for Fight Opinion, says. "If he had not come into power, who knows how long Pride would have survived after the first four shows. Maybe 18-24 months."

Working closely with Kunio Kiyohara from Fuji TV, Morishita adopted a two-pronged approach. In addition to highlighting the best fighters in the world, he endeavored to find new Japanese stars and to challenge them with intriguing opponents. The Pride World Grand Prix in 2000, a tournament unlike anything MMA had ever seen, managed to do both in spectacular fashion.

The top names in the sport converged on Tokyo for a multinight affair that featured a mix of dashing pro wrestlers, established veterans and single-discipline specialists. Mark Coleman, a former American Olympian who had success in the early UFC events, returned to form and captured the 16-man tournament with brutal knees to the head of Russian kickboxer Igor Vovchanchyn.

"I hit him with 15 or 16 knees in a row," Coleman remembered in a 2009 interview. "I was starting to think nothing could stop him. I didn't know what else I could do. Even after he tapped out, he got right up and was walking around like nothing happened. The guy was tough."

Coleman's Pride success earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Coleman's Pride success earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame.Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Though Coleman's victory assured his Hall of Fame status, a fight in the tournament's second round would become legendary. While he could no longer rely on Rickson and Takada to entice audiences, Morishita knew Pride had already invested millions into the feud between Japanese and Brazilian combat traditions and that audiences weren't quite done with the storyline.

He deftly inserted Takada's protege, Kazushi Sakuraba, and Rickson's brother Royce into the lead roles. Unlike Takada, Sakuraba was a gifted grappler who could meet the Gracies on their own terms. And, unlike the more gifted Rickson, Royce was actually willing to compete.

The result was magic.

Before the bout, Gracie demanded (and was granted) special considerations, including an unlimited number of 15-minute rounds. That prompted Sakuraba, as Quadros recalls, to show up at a press conference wearing a diaper, telling the media he had to be prepared to use the bathroom in case the fight truly lasted for hours. But when Gracie failed to show up to the rules meeting before the bout, the smile was wiped off Sakuraba's face and the time for joking was suddenly over.

"Sakuraba—who was usually a very mellow, funny, wise-cracker—was really angry," Quadros says. "He was yelling. He was ready to rumble right there. It was more than two martial artists in the ring. It was a battle of ideologies. Royce was a traditional martial artist, a serious martial artist. Sakuraba was a cigarette-smoking, partying, drinking wise-cracking guy. He was the everyman."

The two did battle for more than 90 minutes. In the days before digital photography, those tasked with documenting the bout had to send assistants out for more film as they shot round after round. Finally, with Gracie's leg giving out after what felt like a lifetime of undefended kicks, his brother Rorion threw in the towel. For the first time in his career, Royce Gracie had lost an MMA contest.

"He was this unknown Japanese kid and they were the biggest names in MMA," former UFC tournament champion Don Frye remembers with a chuckle. "And they couldn't keep up with him. It was great. Not for the Gracie family, I bet. But it was electrifying for the rest of us."

With Sakuraba as the new Japanese face of the promotion, the company was well-positioned to build more stars on his back. But Pride was far from a xenophobic showcase, designed to push Japanese fighters at the expense of everyone else. Following the template created by the kickboxing promotion K-1, Morishita assembled a collection of international stars that fans were quick to embrace.

"We're big Pokemon to them," Herring says. "I don't mean that in a negative way. But you're just a real-life cartoon or a circus act. It was awesome. As close as you'll come to being a rock star. They kind of expected it of you. Everywhere you went, they were like, 'Oh, here come these crazy fighters. What kind of high jinks will they be up to now?' We were like 'OK, we'll act like idiots for you.' It was a lot, a lot of fun."

Heath Herring fought Nogueira three times.
Heath Herring fought Nogueira three times.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Enthusiasts would swarm the Tokyo Hilton, where the fighters were known to stay, and scenes resembling a Beatles appearance in the 1960s became commonplace.

"One of the main fights in my career was in Tokyo in front of almost 80,000 people," former heavyweight champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira says. "I remember waving to the fans from the bus, and they ran after us for more than three blocks.

"In Japan at the time, we used to participate in soap operas, TV shows and other advertisements. It was strange coming home and not having the same recognition. There were many times when I was coming back from Japan to Brazil with my trophies and all beat up, and people would look at me as if I was an alien, as if fighters were an animal from another planet."

The first post-Gracie foreign foil was Wanderlei Silva, the Brazilian buzzsaw who wrecked Sakuraba in disturbing and unforgettable style. Soon following him were Nogueira, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filopovic and Fedor Emelianenko, whose three-way rivalry redefined heavyweight MMA.

Quickly making Coleman and his generation of stars look like ancient relics, the triumvirate headlined many of the biggest shows in history without needing histrionics of any kind.

"When they finally met, that was like the Olympics to me," Quadros says. "They were the three top fighters in the game. They weren't about smack talk. It was all about the sport and answering a simple question—who was the best fighter?"

Emelianenko, who never tasted defeat in the Pride ring, was a national-level judoka in Russia who combined raw punching power with refined grappling. From 2002 to 2006, he beat everyone from Olympians and former UFC champions to literal giants and professional wrestlers in a run unmatched by anyone before or since.

"[Fedor] is one of the best fighters of all time," Nogueira says. "A simple man who spoke very little but delivered in a very big way. He was very unpredictable in his actions during the fights, which I believe really helped him inside the ring."

Like all great fighters, Emelianenko is defined by his foes. Nogueira was arguably the best heavyweight submission artist in MMA history. Cro Cop was a championship-level kickboxer. But rather than attempt to face them where they were weakest, Fedor met each foe in the area of his greatest strength. The result was a series of fights for the ages.

Fedor blocks a Cro Cop kick.
Fedor blocks a Cro Cop kick.Tomokazu Tazawa/Getty Images

"I had to learn new techniques just to approach the training process and the camp process in different ways specifically against them," Emelianenko says. "I had to be able to get rid of everything else because I needed to concentrate only on my camp and training. I fought such great opponents, especially them, that I was always growing as a fighter."

A unique rules system that provided a yellow card and financial penalties for any fighter the referee deemed to be too passive prevented any extended stalemates on the mat or much lollygagging in the corners. In an era before athletic commissions and concerns about CTE, and in a culture famous for worshiping the warrior spirit, the action often bordered on barely controlled chaos.

It was anarchy, beautiful and brutal. There will never be anything like it. — Announcer Mauro Ranallo

"It was anarchy, beautiful and brutal," Ranallo says. "There will never be anything like it. Some of the fights were almost too violent, and I almost wish I hadn't been a part of them. Wanderlei Silva trying to pop Yuki Kondo's head like a grape, stomping on him while illegally holding the ropes? I made the call with relish—but maybe it's age, maybe it's wisdom, but today I watch that and it makes me a little uncomfortable."

The brutality in the ring had the expected physical consequences, limiting fighters and making them more vulnerable to further injury. By the time Frye, an American pro wrestling villain whom the Japanese fans loved to hate, fought native son Yoshihiro Takayama in a bout that resembled a hockey brawl more than a martial arts contest, he could barely even walk to the ring, let alone compete at a top level.

"My back was bad. My shoulder was bad," Frye recalls. "I was stoned on Vicodin going into that fight. I was in so much pain. Standing there with him was all I could do. It's all I brought to the fight. I couldn't rotate my shoulder and turn a punch over. I didn't have any lateral movement. I fought with all I had to fight with that night. I paid for it later.

"When you're young and dumb, you've got a hard-on, you don't think about that. I regret it all, but I'm happy I did it."

Frye was far from alone, but in a promotion informed by professional wrestling, the show must always go on. What fighters did to make that happen was their business, and it was an open secret that the promotion had a cavalier attitude towards substance and performance-enhancing drug use.

"You can look at guys and say, 'He's on something.' You don't have to be a rocket scientist," the late Kevin Randleman, a former UFC champion and Pride regular, said in a 2010 interview. "I can't say for certain what anybody else did, but in my career I did a lot of bad stuff, though prescribed by a doctor.

"Of course, most of the stuff I took was detrimental to my career rather than enhancing my career long-term. But I was a crazy motherf--ker and didn't want to miss any fights."

Drug testing, if it truly existed at all, was a joke, especially to athletes who had faced Olympic or athletic commission scrutiny.

Liddell would go on to become UFC champion.
Liddell would go on to become UFC champion.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

"I walk in to do a pee test, and somebody hands me a cup," former UFC champion Chuck Liddell says. "I head down a hallway, and there's a left, then a right, then another left. I go in this bathroom by myself and pee in this cup. I go back to the room, and there's no one in there but there's a bunch of other cups with people's names on it.

"Finally, someone shows up and is like, 'Just put it over there.' I wondered, 'What the hell is going on?' What was the point? There's no way they were testing any of those cups. I could have had 15 other people fill that cup for me."

"I don't know of anybody that ever got caught," Frye says. "I think they just looked at it and poured it out. Or maybe they stole our DNA and are going to duplicate us for a clone army."

In 2006, MMAWeekly revealed some Pride promotional contracts guaranteed there would be no testing for PEDs. A contract shared with the Nevada Athletic Commission read:

"Fighter agrees to be tested immediately preceding and following the fight in each event, to confirm negative results of the use of marijuana, cocaine, barbiturates, and other illegal substances. Should any test be positive, fighter shall forfeit all amounts payable under this agreement granted for such event. Performance-enhancing stimulants of the steroid-based family are specifically excluded from the scope of the tests and the prohibition in this section."

In addition to the lax PED protocols, Pride's fan-friendly ethos dulled the line between sport and entertainment in ways that were uncomfortable for purists used to the UFC's more straightforward approach. In Pride, winning was far from the most important thing, at least to promoters. The group's regular fighters understood that an exciting loss was worth more than a dull victory, and they adjusted their priorities accordingly.

"Rampage" Jackson.
"Rampage" Jackson.Scott Kane/Getty Images

"If I go out there, I'm going to try to knock somebody out. I'm going to try to slam people," Quinton "Rampage" Jackson said in a 2013 interview. "I'm going to try to destroy them. But if I get beat in the process, I just hope it's a good fight. ... I come from the Pride generation where it's entertainment first. Would I have as many fans as I do now if I was the type of fighter who goes out there and plays it safe and just makes sure I win all my fights? You put it on the line. What's wrong with losing if you [went] out there and you did your job and entertained the fans? What's so bad about losing?"

"I didn't come to show I was the most technically sound," Frye says. "I came to fight and entertain. By God, that's what I did. It's gone from a fight to a sport to a TV show."

While the action was furious inside the ring, the animosity all but disappeared when the fights were over. Strangers together in a strange land, the fighters would gather backstage for epic post-event parties, then take the celebration into the night where Roppongi, the famous Tokyo nightclub scene, beckoned.

We were all Elvis over there. — Former UFC tournament champion Don Frye

"I got drunk as hell, that's for damn sure," Frye says. "I'd mix it with the pain pills and had a good time. You could party like a rock star because we were all Elvis over there."

"That was the culture," Herring confirms. "... After a night of good fights, [Pride co-founder Sakakibara] would bring in cases of Dom Perignon and we'd drink it right out of the bottle like a bunch of damn barbarians."

Roppongi was the wild west, and the fighters weren't the only bad hombres around. Sometimes they would even be tested. Occasionally it went poorly, like the time Frye and fellow fighter Brian Johnston limped into the arena with glass in their feet after an ill-advised brawl in flip-flops. Other times, the post-fight action put the professional bouts to shame.

"One time, I remember somebody yelled up the stairs, 'Come quick! Randleman's about to get jumped.' So we all go downstairs, because we're not going to let Kevin get beat up," Herring says. "And you see some Nigerian street crew standing around Randleman.

"This one guy is out front yelling at Kevin, "Now you're in trouble.' He's got this group of guys who think they are pretty tough until the Pride All-Star team walks around the corner. It was me, Brazilian Top Team and Quinton's Southern California crew. They all have this dawning moment of realization, all except for the leader, who's turned around sticking his finger in Randleman's chest, thinking he's got his backup there.

"But they all run away. Just flat-out run. The guy doesn't realize it. And Kevin goes, 'Turn around.' And all his guys are gone and it's just this group of enormous fighters. I liked our odds. Then Kevin just wailed on that guy. Going to Japan was so much fun."

Not everyone wanted to unwind from a fight with yet more fighting. For those so inclined, the lineup of beautiful women who flocked to the hotel to meet the fighters was legendary. The adrenaline of fight night, combined with free-flowing alcohol, led to more than a few amorous adventures late into the Tokyo night.

"You want to talk about hot-looking women? It was nuts," Quadros says. "It was crazy. We had a certain amount of status, and the benefits were amazing."

"One time this guy came up, very polite and told us, 'I don't want any trouble, but that girl your buddy is kissing is a dude.' Those kinds of things happened all the time," Liddell says. "Another night, I ended up an hour-and-a-half away from the hotel at some girl's house out in the middle of nowhere. I had to get on the train and figure out how to get back. It was a lot of fun. I had a blast."

While fighters enjoyed relatively huge paydays and fans bore witness to some of the greatest fight cards ever assembled, the seeds of Pride's demise were present from the first event when "The Phantom of Pride" Momose all but self-funded the enterprise.

Momose had reinvented himself during a six-year prison stint, writing a book of poetry and becoming famous as an intellectual gangster. But no matter how high he rose in society or how many top executives and government officials he mingled with, he never quite escaped the street life.

According to journalist Shu Hirata, Momose may have read seven hours a day in prison, but when he returned to civilian life, he picked right back up where he left off:

"After being released from the slammer, he stopped by at Sendai-city to eat deep fried pork fillet, and then went right back into a few years in the 'sandpaper-business,' roughing-people-up. He was basically a so-called collector, mobster, thug. His daily operations were things like, chasing down a vanished ex-member of the board of education who embezzled over a million dollars from the golf course development project, or paying a visit to a business owner who refused to pay his tab."

Some fighters knew Momose only as the funny older guy who sat ringside with Antonio Inoki wearing his "Forever Young at Heart" baseball cap. That led to a handful of potentially explosive incidents.

"He came to all the events with that baseball hat on," Quadros remembered. "And Quinton [Jackson] wanted to go up and steal his hat. Quinton was an impish guy and always doing things like that. I said, 'Quinton, look at me. Look at me! You don't know who that guy is. Don't do that.' And thank God he didn't."

Quinton [Jackson] wanted to go up and steal [gangster Hiromichi Momose's] hat. Quinton was an impish guy and always doing things like that. I said, 'Quinton, look at me. Look at me! You don't know who that guy is. Don't do that.' And thank God he didn't. — Pride commentator Stephen Quadros

While Momose faded to the background during Morishita's reign, he was still an important figure behind the scenes. When Morishita died under suspicious circumstances in 2003 and Sakakibara replaced him, a war broke out between competing Yakuza interests for control of Pride.

In November of that year, in front of a packed house at the Tokyo Dome, Silva did battle with Rampage and Cro Cop fought Nogueira in a heavyweight megafight. But the real battle, Cro Cop's then-manager Miro Mijatovic said during a Spike TV interview for MMA Uncensored in 2012, was between Momose and a Korean-born gangster named Ishizaka.

Hybrid Shoot @HybridShoot

The late Hiromichi Momose, the Phantom of Pride, was one of the most important figures in Japanese MMA history. https://t.co/6V2lSDyc2X

"There was probably, I'd say, between 100 to 200 armed yakuza guys from two different groups basically looking like they were setting up battle lines and ready to start open warfare," Mijatovic said (via FightOpinion.com). "...Ishizaka [Kim Dok Soo] and his Osaka-based crew were having a major dispute with Momose's crew, and it came pretty close to shots being fired at that specific event. So, it was a pretty dangerous scene behind the scenes."

The end result was Momose's removal from the Pride hierarchy and the solidification of Sakakibara and Ishizaka's power. One yakuza group was out, another in. For those familiar with the Japanese wrestling scene that had spawned the MMA boom, this was just business as usual.

"The gangs controlled turf around major arenas by collecting taxes [extortion fees] in exchange for chasing off rival gangs and not crashing events to create trouble," Arnold says. "They wanted in on the action. Gambling on big fights. Using high-profile events on television as recruiting opportunities. Buying blocks of tickets at a discount and then forcing others to buy those tickets to create pyramid schemes."

A similar story exists throughout the entertainment world, according to CNN investigative reporter Jake Adelstein:

"In Japan, the yakuza have some control over the entertainment industry—many major talent agencies have yakuza ties and rule over their empires ruthlessly. The head of the National Police Agency on August 31, 2011 publicly stated: 'We will do what is necessary to aid the entertainment industry in cutting their ties to organized crime.'

"The Yamaguchi-gumi has even been linked to the funding of one of Japan's ubiquitous, super-cute teen girl bands. The band's management has not publicly commented on the claim, which has been reported in Japanese weekly magazines."

"The Yakuza run everything over there," Frye says. "They shut down the subway at midnight and don't open again until 7 a.m. Because they run the taxicabs. But they don't speak about it."

The emergence of kickboxing promotion K-1 and Antonio Inoki as MMA promoters increased the gang involvement and created some tense negotiations between the Japanese and fighter managers looking to cash in as best they could. Threats flew as fighters jumped from group to group. The solution to yakuza involvement was often bringing in a yakuza group of your own to the negotiations. It was a high-stakes game, but that didn't mean those involved couldn't have a little fun with it.

"They were threatening to kill him (Bas Boon, the manager of many European fighters), and I remember jokingly telling him, 'Don't stand so close to me, Bas. Go stand over there," Herring, who would eventually leave Pride for K-1, says. "There might be ninjas, and I don't want to get any of your blood on me.' Did I ever really feel endangered by it? No. Did I like to make jokes about it to him? Yes."

I remember jokingly telling [Bas Boon], "Don't stand so close to me Bas. Go stand over there. There might be ninjas, and I don't want to get any of your blood on me." — Former heavyweight contender Heath Herring

Things escalated in December of that year when Inoki's promotion signed Pride champion Emelianenko for their big New Year's Eve show. The Russian fighter worked on a fight-by-fight deal, making the poaching possible. That didn't mean Pride was happy about the defection, as Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye promoter Seiya Kawamata found out the hard way in at the Akasaka Tokyu hotel.

"Mr. I [Ishizaka] and Sakakibara came into the room together," Kawamata told Shukan Gendai, a Japanese weekly magazine (translation by Fight Opinion). "Then they started to yell at me, "It's not only Sakakibara that you're dealing with. We own Pride. What are you doing taking our fighters? Kiyohara from Fuji TV has said that we can't let Fedor fight on Nippon TV's program.

"Kiyohara said that if Fedor fights on Inoki's show that they will cut their contract with DSE. ... I was shocked that Sakakibara would be present at this sort of meeting. His attitude was totally different than usual. He threw a fight magazine at me and said, 'What the hell is this?'"

The revelation, years old by the time it was made public, was far from shocking, but coming as it did in a high-profile magazine article, Fuji TV was forced to take action. Pride was cancelled in 2006, less than a year after judo stars Hidehiko Yoshida and Naoya Ogawa squared off in its highest-profile fight ever.

Powered primarily by this television money, it was the beginning of the end, a deathblow not just for Pride, but for the entire Japanese MMA industry. In March 2007, the UFC swept in, buying Pride's assets and promising to create an MMA Super Bowl. Global domination was the stated goal, and this was just another way to expand the company's worldwide influence.

"This is really going to change the face of MMA," then-UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta told the Associated Press (via the San Diego Union-Tribune). "Literally creating a sport that could be as big around the world as soccer. I liken it somewhat to when the NFC and AFC came together to create the NFL."

But by August, it appeared the UFC had all but given up on the idea of running two powerhouse promotions. Thanks to the yakuza scandal, the Pride name was toxic, and a new television deal seemed to be an impossible goal. Meanwhile, a background check revealed Sakakibara was "not a person of suitable character" to partner with the UFC. In October, the lights were turned out at Pride's Tokyo headquarters for good.

In some ways, it's probably for the best. Pride wasn't just a mixed martial arts promotion—it was a movement.

"I think the rules and its format were what made Pride so special. And also its freedom. Sometimes they'd hold openweight fights, small guys would fight big guys, that stuck into people's minds," Rogerio Nogueira says. "Stomps were allowed. The fights were in a ring, so visibility was better. They would enforce action in all the fights. You didn't see a fighter just controlling the other on the ground and killing time for a long time. The rules made the fights flow more, and that led to more finishes and submissions."

Events that were Pride in name only, infected by the UFC's matchmaking ethos and vision, wouldn't have been Pride at all.

Only in death could Pride truly never die.


Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.