Whether he competes in boxing or mixed martial arts, the toughest decision any professional prizefighter must confront is deciding when to end his career. Boxing history is littered with countless once great fighters that diminished their legacy and put their health and well being at risk by sticking around too long. As evidence that MMA has matured as a sport, it appears to be experiencing the same phenomenon with fighters such as Ken Shamrock soldiering on despite being well past their prime. Kazushi Sakuraba is definitely the most legendary fighter in the history of MMA in Japan, but unfortunately he too must be added to that list following his brutal knockout loss to Melvin Manhoef at DREAM 4.
Mixed martial arts is booming in America, but there’s not one specific fighter responsible for its upswing in popularity. That’s not the case in Japan, as Sakuraba is almost universally acknowledged as having brought MMA to the mainstream of Japanese sports and popular culture. In particular, his on-going feud with Brazil’s Gracie family made him a major superstar and national hero.
Sakuraba’s record definitely justifies the high regard in which he’s held, but the reality is that he’s done nothing to build on his legacy for a number of years. His last really impressive win was over former UFC light heavyweight champ Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson, but he hasn’t even defeated a credible opponent of any sort since his 2003 win over Kevin Randleman.
Boxing pundits frequently speak of a fighter’s age in terms of ‘ring years’. For that reason a younger fighter who has endured a series of grueling fights against high level opponents can be considered ‘old in ring years’, while an older fighter who has taken an easier path is considered ‘young’ by the same metric. Under this evaluation, there’s no doubt that Sakuraba has to be considered old in ‘ring years’. His 90 minute battle with Royce Gracie alone took a significant toll on Sakuraba, and he continued to face high level opponents after that.
Compounding Sakuraba’s ‘ring age’ was his tendency to face much larger superstars–these ‘dream matches’ would sell tickets in Japan, but are the sort of matchup that would never get sanctioned in the better regulated US fight sport industry. The quality of opponent he faced at heavier weights is mind boggling and includes Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, Vitor Belfort and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Unfortunately, the old saying that ‘a good big man will beat a good little man’ was proven true in these matchups with most ending in losses for Sakuraba by brutal KO or stoppage.
Sakuraba, unfortunately, has shown little indication that he’ll retire any time soon. Hopefully his prolonged career won’t undermine his legacy of greatness, or more problematically damage his long term mental or physical well being.
Ross Everett is a freelance writer and noted authority on price per head. His writing has appeared on a variety of sports sites including sportsbooks and racebook software. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada with three Jack Russell Terriers and a kangaroo. He is currently working on an autobiography of former energy secretary Donald Hodell.