The Willing Warrior: Kazushi Sakuraba Returns to the Ring

Tomorrow night one of mixed martial art’s true legends returns to the ring. But instead of a cause for celebration, it’s clearly a cause for concern. When you consider for a moment the history of the sport of MMA, Kazushi Sakuraba stands alone as the biggest star ever produced by the land of the rising sun.

Before the UFC exploded into the mainstream in America, before you knew a single person with an Affliction t-shirt or a tribal tattoo, the center of the MMA universe was in Japan. Combining pro wrestling theatrics (and a ton of pro wrestlers) with traditional Japanese combat arts like judo and jiu jitsu, mixed martial arts was a perfect fit for a Japanese culture that revered the warrior. Sakuraba became the biggest star in the sport, a cultural icon really, because of how well he combined these two competing ethos.

He had a showman’s flair, complete with goofy and fun ring entrances where he would dress up like Super Mario or come out in a group of masked men, only revealing himself at the last moment by dramatically removing his mask. Yet, when the bell rang, Sakuraba became a fierce warrior. He made his name as the “Gracie Hunter” taking down members of the legendary Brazilian fighting family one by one.

Sakuraba didn’t win all of his fights, far from it. At 185 pounds, he was competing in the light heavyweight division and often giving up 30 pounds to highly skilled opponents. He took three horrific beatings at the hands of Wanderlei Silva, one of the scariest men in the sport. Instead of diminishing his reputation, these losses only made him a bigger star. It was his courage to continue, his fighting spirit, that made the Japanese fans love him more than ever before in the face of defeat.

At some point however, in every fighter’s career, there comes a time when the spirit is willing but the body and the brain are no longer able to respond. Sakuraba reached that point three years ago against the lightly regarded K?stutis Smirnovas. Knocked down in the ropes, Sakuraba was the victim of a vicious assault. Smirnovas hit the Japanese legend over and over again while a shell shocked audience watched in horror. Miraculously, Sakuraba survived the beating to win the fight with an armbar. But the damage was done; he would never be the same fighter again.

Now the hall of famer is firmly in the Ali-Holmes stage of his career. He’s clearly no longer the man he once was, and just as clearly needs to stop fighting to protect his long term health. Yet, promoters keep dragging him back to the ring. And he goes willingly. And audiences still want to watch him fight and in an ugly business that trumps all. Everyone is responsible for the tragedies, yet no one is.

Longtime fans hoped Sakuraba had fought his last battle on New Year’s Eve last year when he finally took on longtime rival Kiyoshi Tamura. It seemed the Gracie Hunter would finally be able to lay down his sword, that his fans would finally be able to remember the good times, to celebrate his career. They didn’t count on DREAM.

The Japanese promoter DREAM has an important show tomorrow at the Yokohama Arena. It’s the final show on their television contract with the TBS network (very funny!) and they desperately need a strong rating to survive on network television. Enter Kazushi Sakuraba.

The only good news, if you can consider this good news, is that Sakuraba is fighting one of the only men on the planet in worse shape than he is. Rubin Williams was a fringe boxing contender, in such bad shape that he wasn’t even allowed to fight on The Contender reality show. Hehasn’t won a fight since 2006 and is firmly in the “opponent” stage of his career. He has no real MMA experience and with five days notice is being flown to Japan to play the victim. It’s never a good thing when all you can say about a fight is: “I hope no one gets hurt.”

I hope no one gets hurt.

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