Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba are both MMA legends and they represent two stylistically different approaches to grappling, BJJ and catch wrestling respectively. Their careers each lasted somewhere around two decades and they each left their marks on grappling and MMA for years to come, in different ways. They competed for the UFC and PRIDE back when those organizations were the most dominant MMA promotions on the planet, each broadcasting from a different side of the planet but with appeal all around the globe. While Gracie is usually associated with the UFC and Sakuraba with PRIDE, they have each fought for both promotions at one point or another.
Or for more of our articles looking into moments throughout BJJ history, visit our throwback archives.
Royce Gracie v Kazushi Sakuraba
Royce Gracie announced the arrival of MMA as a sport with a series of flawless performances at UFC 1 that have gone down in history. He came back to win more tournaments at UFC 2 and UFC 4, before fighting Ken Shamrock to a draw at UFC 5. At that point Royce decided to leave the UFC, disappearing from MMA competition for several years. That was when Kazushi Sakuraba appeared on the scene, winning UFC Japan and putting in some great performances for PRIDE that culminated in a submission win over Royce’s brother, Royler Gracie. It’s only natural that two fantastic fighters competing at the same time would cross paths at one point or another, but there was a lot more than that behind the fight between Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba.
It was Sakuraba’s win over Royler Gracie that proved to be the catalyst for this fight. The referee stopped the fight while Royler was caught in a Kimura, preventing his arm from being broken even though he refused to tap. This was the first time in decades that a Gracie had lost in an MMA fight and it echoed the moment that Helio Gracie was defeated by Masahiko Kimura back in 1951. The Gracie family denied the legitimacy of the fight however, as Royler did not actually submit and they did not believe this constituted a ‘real’ loss as a result. Kazushi Sakuraba then challenged Rickson Gracie to a fight and the family decided to address the challenge in a different way, by sending Royce to fight him instead.
The PRIDE Grand Prix 2000 was coming up and the promotion facilitated the challenge by inviting Sakuraba to compete, and allowing the Gracie family to send their representative too. Royce Gracie negotiated special rules in the event that he met Kazushi Sakuraba in the tournament; where they would fight for an unlimited number of 15-minute rounds until one fighter was knocked out, submitted, or threw in the towel. Both Royce and Sakuraba won their opening round matches against Nobuhiko Takada and Guy Mezger respectively at the beginning of the year, booking their place in the semifinals opposite one another on May 1st, 2000.
There was an audience of almost 40,000 people watching on the night, as Royce Gracie made his walk into the ring wearing a gi and Kazushi Sakuraba wore orange shorts. Sakuraba put in the more impressive work in the opening round, spending quite a while attempting a kimura and finishing the round with Gracie caught in a tight kneebar. The second round was much closer, with both men having good moments in it and Gracie even managing to secure a guillotine at one point. Sakuraba’s takedowns were working well throughout the match so far though, and that was a story that continued as the fight wore on.
The third round started similarly to the first two, although Sakuraba actually scored a knockdown with punches part-way through it. Kazushi Sakuraba was using kicks to the legs of his downed opponent, encouraging Royce Gracie to stand back up to avoid them. A heavy leg kick from Sakuraba caused noticeable damage and he started to open up his striking much more before the round ended. Gracie came out very aggressively in the fourth round, but without much more success. He attempted several takedowns but Sakuraba shut them down and continued to work his striking, causing even more damage to Gracie’s legs as the fight approached the hour mark.
Royce Gracie was looking visibly exhausted and battered as the fifth round began but Kazushi Sakuraba was much fresher. Sakuraba hit another leg kick and a quick takedown, choosing to utilize ground and pound this time around rather than staying standing. Although Sakuraba was working to pass, he also seemed content to maintain top position and grind Gracie down with heavy shots. Sakuraba stuck to his tactics in the sixth round, battering Gracie with leg kicks and landing even more ground and pound as his opponent was too exhausted to trouble him as he did earlier in the fight.
There was some deliberation among Royce Gracie’s corner at the end of the sixth round, but Rorion Gracie eventually decided to throw in the towel after an incredible 90 minutes of action between his brother and Kazushi Sakuraba. It was a huge moment in MMA history, as Sakuraba had become the first man to defeat Royce Gracie in the sport and had cemented his place as one of the greatest fighters of all time.
Despite having fought against Royce Gracie for 90 minutes already, Kazushi Sakuraba was actually happy to proceed in the PRIDE Grand Prix and was matched up with Igor Vovchanchyn in the next round. He fought for 15 minutes against the heavyweight veteran despite a 60lbs weight disadvantage and the fight was close enough to go to a second round. Sakuraba had fought for an hour an forty-five minutes that night but he couldn’t continue any further than that, and his corner threw in the towel before the second round began.
Both men continued their careers at different paces from that point, with Kazushi Sakuraba fighting another 20 times and Royce Gracie only 4 times in the 7 years that followed. Then the pair announced a rematch at Dynamite!! USA and while the idea seemed appealing on paper, they were both significantly older than the first time they met. The fight took place at a much slower pace and both men had good moments over the course of three rounds, although Gracie was declared the winner by unanimous decision.
The decision was seen as a questionable one by some fans and members of the MMA media, as many had scored it in favor of Sakuraba instead due to an early knockdown and several takedowns over the course of the fight. To make matters worse, Royce Gracie tested positive for the anabolic steroid Nandrolone in both his pre-fight and post-fight PEDs tests. It definitely tainted the results of the fight, but Dynamite!! did not overturn the result itself and the official record between Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba ended at 1-1 despite the controversy.
The footage of the epic battle between Royce Gracie and Kazushi Sakuraba from the PRIDE Grand Prix 2000 Finals was uploaded to the official YouTube channel of MMA Forever: