If you only started watching MMA in the past decade, you may be surprised to hear that many of the greatest fighters in its history are Japanese. Back when the UFC was attempting to market itself as a legitimate sport while throwing one-dimensional fighters against each other, Japan was regularly producing well-rounded martial artists who would set the template for generations to come. Most of these fighters were too old or injured to take advantage of the UFC when they arrived and couldn’t live up to the hype.
So gather round, grab a seat and forget the men who live in the palace; we’re going across the ocean to meet the men who built it.
#5 - Hayato Sakurai
Like many MMA fighters in the late 90's, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai figured out that grounding his opponent and punching them into oblivion was a very efficient way of fighting. But as a judo practitioner, he was hitting hip throws with frequency not surpassed until Ronda Rousey's title reign. He had thunderous low kicks at a time that no one but Pedro Rizzo understood how lethal they could be. He was an unbelievable mixed attacker, alternating between head, body and legs within the same combination.
Despite standing only 5' 7" as a welterweight, Sakurai was undefeated in his first 20 career fights. This included a knockout over the larger Frank Trigg, in which Sakurai overcame getting out-muscled on the ground and hurt repeatedly to flatten Trigg with a counterpunch and a knee.
A decision loss to Anderson Silva touched off a career skid that ended after working with Matt Hume. Sakurai decided that despite being a lifelong welterweight, he'd cut to 160 lbs for the first time in his career, and he'd do it at Pride Bushido 9. It was a tournament in which Joachim Hansen, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Yves Edwards, Jens Pulver and Luiz Azeredo were all competing while in their primes.
His dedicated leg kicking helped him outlast Pulver's thunderous left hand, and he eventually dropped the lightweight legend with a liver punch to jumping knee combo in one of the greatest lightweight fights of all time. It was another example of Sakurai displaying skills that wouldn't be replicated on a high level until half a decade later. He then won a decision over Hansen in a fight that wouldn't have been nearly as competitive had he not taken inefficient risks to get a finish.
The only reason he didn't win the tournament?
#2 on this list beat him in the finals.
#4 - Norifumi Yamamato
Norifumi "Kid" Yamamato was born to be an MMA fighter.
His father was a freak athlete and a wrestling Olympian, skills which all of the Yamamoto children inherited in spades. IF the rumours are to be believed, the only reason Norifumi didn't have a celebrated wrestling career like his siblings is that he annoyed the Yakuza. Considering that ties with the Yakuza plagued Pride FC even during its glory days, this rumour may hold some water. Either way, Yamamoto moved onto MMA and stayed with it.
The problem was that Yamamoto was a natural bantamweight. The weight classes below lightweight may be shallow today but they were barren in the early days of MMA. If Yamamoto wanted competition, he'd have to fight at featherweight. If he wanted to fight elite competition, he'd have to go all the way up to lightweight. Yamamoto didn't care; from 2001 to 2007 he went 17-1 with 1 NC, all of them fought against larger opposition.
But what's really impressive is how he did it.
Despite giving up a few inches and several pounds to his opponents, Yamamoto hit like a demon. He'd bounce lightly on his feet just outside his opponents' range before leaping forward with booming hooks and knees that crumpled the giants before him or convinced the referee that he didn't want a death on his hands. If the bigger men tried to grapple him, his wrestling pedigree would kick in and he'd shuck them off. Royler Gracie, Caol Uno, Genki Sudo and Rani Yahya are some of the men who couldn't withstand his aggression despite dwarfing him inside the ring.
A catastrophic knee injury derailed his career permanently. He couldn't leap in and out explosively to trouble larger fighters, but he was nowhere fast enough to keep up with men in his own weight class. He was forced into brawls he couldn't win, and eventually his chin gave out as well.
So why is Yamamoto a legend?
Well, consider that chins are a function of biology and build so they don't evolve; the average punishment a fighter in a certain weight class can take remains pretty consistent over time. Plus, Yamamoto only stood 5' 4", meaning that he'd be a flyweight in the current era. This means that Kid Yamamoto was essentially knocking out men three weight classes higher than him. He legitimately has claim to the title of pound-for-pound hardest hitter in MMA history.
Think about that.
#3 - Shinya Aoki
When writing, I divide submission specialists into two categories: positional fighters who methodically work towards submissions step by step and "spring trap" fighters who use speed and flexibility to secure submissions within minute windows of opportunity.
Shinya Aoki belongs in both categories and is arguably the most terrifying submission artist in MMA history. Out of his 39 career wins, Aoki has 25 submission victories.
Not only was he the first man to hit a gogoplata on the big stage, but he did it against Joachim Hansen. At his prime, Hansen was a half-notch below championship level; the men who beat him are generally regarded as some of the greatest in their weight class. He certainly wasn't a man who could be easily dominated on the ground. Yet Aoki choked him out just two-and-a-half minutes into the opening round with an extremely rare submission.
Oh, and he's one of only two fighters in history to have two gogoplatas in mainstream MMA competition. The other, weirdly enough, is Brad Imes.
Part of Aoki's creativity on the ground stems from necessity; his striking is atrocious. Most grappling specialists are at least competent in their striking but Aoki looks like a fish out of water. Every bit of technical excellence, planning and improvisation that makes him so dangerous on the ground seems to disappear when he decides to throw on the feet. This causes a feedback loop in which Aoki improves on the ground to compensate for striking, which in turn suffers from neglect.
The fact that he's 39-7 with 1 NC illustrates just how good his ground game is.
This is a guy who can smoothly turn a failing single leg takedown into a leg lock. A guy for whom jumping into guard is a legitimate strategy. A guy who pulled a standing wristlock across his body and tripped his opponent to hyper-extend his elbow. Who let Caol Uno think he could roll into guard and instead caught him in a triangle.
Words can't do Aoki justice. Do yourself a favour and YouTube his highlights.
#2 - Takanori Gomi
In his prime, Takanori Gomi was just as good as BJ Penn. Both were cutting through the best fighters their division had seen to date and making it look easy. Both were the greatest champions of their weight class in their respective organisations and both have highlights upon highlights that have cemented their legacy in the mainstream.
But whereas BJ was the scalpel, Gomi was the wrecking ball.
Gomi still hits hard in the present, but in his prime he had power that has yet to be matched. He could broadside opponents, overestimating distance and striking with the palm heel or wrist by accident, and still buckle their knees. His left cross was an absolute thunderbolt, and he could knock a man senseless even if he punched across his body. He could throw his right hook compact or long and produce equal results. He was a dedicated body puncher at a time when the sport had very few.
He started out as a wrestler and the footwork and distancing carried over into his boxing. As a result, letting Gomi walk you down was a death sentence.
He'd stalk opponents, measuring himself and unleashing multi-level combinations that simply couldn't be blocked. His bread and butter combination was a dipping left cross, pulling his head off the centreline and closing with a sledgehammer overhand right. This is the same combination which put the iron-chinned Nick Diaz on his ass and first broke the notoriously tough Tyson Griffin.
As many of his opponents wanted to mitigate this destructive power, they would try to either crowd his punches or take him down. So Gomi developed his knee strikes. He could whip perfect knees to the gut out of nowhere with such precision that opponents would visibly weaken when they exited the clinch. If they attempted a takedown from too far out, Gomi had one of the best intercepting knees in the business.
This guy knocked out Tatsuya Kawajiri at Pride Bushido 9 and Sakurai at Pride Shockwave 2005 to win the tournament.
That's like dunking on Shaquille O'Neal so hard that Kobe Bryant has a heart attack.
#1 - Kazushi Sakuraba
Could there be anyone else?
To newer fans, Kazushi Sakuraba is probably a name they've heard but whose significance they don't understand. The previous fighters on this list have had a combination of quantifiable merits that cements their legacy. In the face of giant killers, legendary power hitters and obscene submission artists, Sakuraba looks rough if not downright unimpressive.
But Sakuraba is a man who commands universal respect from the MMA community, and it's because of what he means to the sport.
Even by the standards of his day, Sakuraba was a bit rough. He was reasonably strong, had a wrestling background with good cardio but was unpolished everywhere else. He struggled to pass even basic guards and his strikes were thrown one at a time. And perhaps specifically because of this, Sakuraba started making up strategies on the fly that would propel him into stardom.
Being a grappler that's unable to pass guard is like being an F-1 driver but not knowing how to drive. Instead of learning to transition positions by the book, Sakuraba simply experimented until he found something that worked.
That involved diving, cartwheeling or pirouetting so that he passed guard in the air. He also developed a savant-like ability to give up his back, grab a wristlock and roll into submissions. That's right: the man who couldn't pass a regular guard could finish fights from one of the most disadvantageous grappling positions there is. He became one of the greatest submission fighters in MMA history without having a BJJ background, which is astounding when you think about it.
There's also the fact that Sakuraba probably should have been a welterweight. But he didn't want to cut weight and was a hard drinker and smoker throughout his career. When questioned about fighting significantly larger and stronger men who may be using PED's, Sakuraba replied that he could just eat "healthy" and train and the rest would take care of itself. There is a good reason that many of his peers refer to him as the embodiment of the bushido code.
As a result of this, his accomplishments read like stories that old men and women pass onto their grandchildren.
He submitted Royler Gracie, something which the Gracie family took as an insult to their name and touched off an intense rivalry. They sent three more family members after him only to have every single one of them finished, including a legendary 90 minute bout against Royce Gracie. He was repeatedly out-muscled by Kevin Randleman, a beast of a wrestler who had at least a 40 lbs advantage on a good day. And yet finally he gave up his back, got a wristlock and rolled Randleman into an armbar for the victory.
If the early days of Pride FC were the Wild West, then Sakuraba was the eccentric stranger who rode into town and captured everyone's heart. He will never be considered the best, but there's a genuine question as to whether he is the greatest or most influential.
If you have a conversation about who goes on the MMA Mt. Rushmore, remember that there are only three spots up for debate.
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