Introduction To Kazushi Sakuraba

Kazushi Sakuraba, The IQ Wrestler. A Japanese catch as catch can and professional wrestler who became legendary for his bouts with much Larger fighters and his multiple victories over members of the Gracie Family that also earned him the nickname The Gracie Hunter. 

In this study, we are going to look at the career, techniques, impact and legacy of Sakuraba on the sport and entertainment side of the industry. As a professional wrestler, he made sure his entrances into the Pride ring were always a spectacle and entertaining, and it was another form of entertainment that would be the catalyst for Sakurabas Entrance into the sport of mixed martial arts. 

Born in Japan in 1969, As a youth, he was a fan of the Japanese Manga or graphic novel called Tiger Mask which tells the story of a professional wrestler who battles against a mysterious organisation of wrestling villains known as the Tigers Den. The Manga also had an anime television show featuring the same professional wrestling storyline that inspired Sakuraba to follow the career path of the protagonist. 

Kazushi Sakuraba as a child
Sakuraba as a child.

Sakuraba began amateur freestyle wrestling in high school that lead to him having success representing Chuo University. There he was coached by Olympic Gold Medalist & world champion Shozo Sasahara. But after turning down the opportunity to stay on and coach at the university, he decided to continue with his original intention. He started his professional wrestling career in the Union of Wrestling Forces International organisation. But how does a quirky athlete pursuing a career in professional Wrestling become the biggest adversary of a notorious no holds barred fighting family? This is where we have to explore the origins of professional Wrestling and how Sakuraba trained. 

Kazushi Sakuraba & Billy Robinson
Sakuraba & Billy Robinson

Many of the moves that Sakuraba used to defeat his opponents can all be seen in vintage professional wrestling matches. This is because the roots of professional Wrestling can all be traced back to catch Wrestling or catch as catch can. Catch wrestling is a collection of several English wrestling styles, the most prominent of these being Lancashire catch-as-catch-can and dating back to around 1870 in England, a full decade before the establishment of Judos Kodokan Dojo.  

Catch wrestling was a legitimate combat sport that involved winning by pin or submission. Catch wrestling was even included in the second modern Olympic games in 1904. But eventually with some submission techniques considered too dangerous rulesets evolved that removed submissions and led to the creation of folkstyle Wrestling in America and Freestyle Wrestling in the Olympics. 

Professional Wrestling also evolved out of this style. So in the beginning, all-pro wrestlers had legitimate grappling skills, or as it was known the ability to “shoot”, making the bouts seem more realistic. They may have even issued challenges for anyone in the crowd looking to test their might against the travelling show. Overtime professional wrestling drifted further away from the sporting aspect and towards the entertainment, with promoters finding it more profitable to have matches with outcomes within their control resulting with less of a requirement for wrestlers legitimate grappling credentials. 

But eventually, a return to more realistic matches was seen in Japan which leads to the creation of Japanese Shoot-Style or Strong Style wrestling. Spearheaded by Karl Gotch, known as the God of wrestling in Japan and who the German suplex is named after, and the legendary Antonio Inoki who famously had an early mixed rules match against Muhammed Ali. Both these men were pivotal in the creation of the Japanese MMA scene. Now Shoot Style was professional Wrestling performed in a hybrid style that intended to appear as legitimate freestyle fighting while still retaining a predetermined winner. And the UWFi that Kazushi Sakuraba made his debut in was one of a handful of these shoot-style promotions.

The UWFi employed legendary catch wrestler Billy Robinson to train its wrestlers with the legitimate submission grappling skills of catch-as-catch-can to increase the level of submission grappling ability in their bouts. Billy Robinson learned his catch wrestling at the legendary Wigan Snakepit in England under Billy Riley who learned Lachashire catch as catch can from the coal miners of the area. After learning his skills as a young man, Billy Robinson then became an experienced professional wrestler who travelled all around the globe performing. Sakuraba, now with his catch wrestling training he received under the watchful eye of Billy Robinson, was able to use that submission grappling style and the influence of the Wigan Snakepit in all his future bouts. 

Now beginning with Antonio Inoki, Japan had a tradition of entering their pro wrestlers into freestyle fights to prove their strength. While the outcome often didn’t go the way of the wrestler, it was from this tradition that Sakuraba entered the UFC in Japan as a late replacement to help promote the Kingdom Pro Wrestling league. Shockingly defeated the much larger Marcus Silveira, becoming the first person in the UFC to tap a BJJ Blackbelt and winning the UFC Ultimate Japan Heavyweight Tournament. From then on representing Pro Wrestling, Sakuraba would become one of the all-time greats of freestyle fighting with many of his victories coming from Catch as Catch can submissions. But before Sakuraba could use his catch wrestling, he would have to deal with the fights starting standing and work with his striking skills. 

Gracie Hunter - Kazushi Sakuraba Documentary

Striking of Sakuraba

Now Sakuraba was never known for his striking prowess, a southpaw he was mainly characterised from his rushing flurries and swarms towards his opponent. His main goal would have always been to secure a takedown and work towards a submission, but he was not afraid to throw down with some of the scariest strikers in the sport including Mirko Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva and Rampage Jackson. He was able to throw off his opponents and with an array of unique and deceptive tricks including a standing double axe handle or hammer fist. 

But along with the catch wrestling training, Sakuraba also received training in Muay Thai from Bovy Chowaikung. He was employed to train the wrestlers and also competed for the UWFI in a series of kickboxing matches in what was known as the UWF International Stand-up Fighting Division. As such he was able to strike and had a few sleight of hand techniques like faking a hook and throwing a straight and feints and deception, in general, played a significant role in his striking game. 

After two fights with Wanderlei Silva, he even went to Chute Box in Brazil to work with Rafael Cordero and also won two contests from using his punches. One against Ken Shamrock as he slapped down his lead hand to land a straight left and against the Judoka Yoon Dong-Sik after battering him in his debut. But perhaps a more substantial part of his striking arsenal was his array of kicks including massive head kicks and relentless low kicks whenever an opponent attempted to step in and even spinning back kicks. 

The consistent volley of leg kicks also setup other avenues for Sakurabas feints as he would then be able to feint his leg kicks to put an opponent onto one leg and then follow through with a straight punch that would catch fighters off guard. He even worked his leg kick feints into setting up takedowns. The repeated leg kicks and perhaps the heavily taped knees would also draw opponents into leg kicking back at Sakuraba. That would also lead to further takedowns for him as he was adept at catching an opponents kick out of mid-air and turning it into a wrestling exchange where he could put them onto the mat. 

Takedowns of Kazushi Sakuraba

Once he was in a wrestling exchange, Sakuraba’s wrestling experience allowed him to implement a wide variety of takedowns including body locks, ankle picks, double legs, trips and his most frequently used the single-leg takedown. Sakuraba’s amateur wrestling career was also quite successful. At high school he placed as high as second in the nation and in his university career where he would also serve as team captain, he won the east japan tournament in his freshman year and in his senior year he finished in fourth place in the all japan tournament and held a notable win of future Olympic bronze medalist Takuya Ota.

The art of Catch Wrestling is also very rich in takedowns along with the submissions as the standup wrestling portions would take up a large amount of the bouts. It invariably valued top position more where you can ride your opponent and use your weight and gravity on them. Sakuraba was also able to score many takedowns caused by changing levels on his opponents as they rushed or blitzed towards him in striking salvos. Once Sakuraba had put his opponent to the mat with his single leg unless he was able to land in side control, he often found himself at the end of their feet. It allowed them to guard which would be one of Sakuraba’s most challenging yet most exciting parts of his game. 

The Trouble with Guard Passing

Kazushi Sakuraba vs Royce Gracie

Which the guard does exist in Catch Wrestling where it is called the Body Scissors, due to the nature of pinning it is not as extensively developed or trained as other grappling styles. At the end of an open guard, Sakuraba was so troubled that he might even elect to drag his opponent around the mat rather than look to pass and also the phenom Vitor Belfort sat to guard as he knew it was a weak area of Sakurabas game. 

Sakuraba would still launch thrilling attacks like baseball slide kicks and round kicks over the top of the guard and when he did attempt to pass it often became some of the most memorable moments for fans. His most notorious method would be the cartwheel guard pass, where he would look to cartwheel over the side of the opponent’s guard. Keeping a hand posted he would run at the opponent and launch into a spectacular cartwheel attempt that was visually impressive but never worked effectively as a successful pass. 

The other method that wowed the fans would be a high flying jump over the top of the guard. Sakuraba might try to land cleanly on the other side, or come down with a stomp on the opponent or ever throw a dramatic flying punch. Sakuraba did this so often that merely taking a few steps back for a run-up would get the crowd anticipating the high flying attack. He was also able to use the threat of the jumping guard pass to help brutalise the legs of his opponents with kicks. As he would fake a jump, the opponent would raise their feet, exposing their thighs for Sakuraba to fire off devastating low kicks. 

Kicking the opponent’s legs in the open guard was an area that Sakuraba did become proficient at and was able to inflict a lot of harm as he showed when he brutalised Royler Gracie’s legs in their outing. But kicks were not the only way Sakuraba would attack the legs as Leglocks were also a preferred technique of Sakuraba and Catch Wrestling. 

Sakurabas Leglocks

Sakuraba Leglocking Carlos Newton

Karl Gotch even once stated that “If a jiu-jitsu guy has you in his guard and you didn’t break his leg with a leglock, you should quit Wrestling forever.” and Sakuraba certainly embodied this ethos as he dived for toeholds, kneebars and foot locks at every opportunity. 

Catch wrestling always valued leg locks as a technique and even influenced other arts like Sambo to incorporate them into their style. As the name Catch as Catch can suggest, you take whatever your hold your opponent gives you so if an opponent plays guard then the feet, ankle and legs are always going to be the first avenue of attack.  

And Sakuraba had a commitment and belief in the power of leglocks that would see him hold onto some for an extraordinary amount of time as he would chain between toeholds, kneebars & straight ankle locks while absorbing a remarkable amount of punishment. So while on the ground Sakuraba was on the hunt for leglocks and this would even help open up the opponent’s guard, allow Sakuraba to get back to his feet or it could also set up successful guard passing opportunities.

Once Sakuraba did get past the guard, he would start to look for another quick kill by diving onto armbars. It’s here where we will pick up with part 2 as will finish by examining his use of Catch wrestling armbars—rolling to his belly and turtle, his infamous double wristlock and the legacy that Sakuraba has left on the sport and entertainment industry of Mixed Martial Arts. 

Rise of the Gracie Hunter – A Kazushi Sakuraba Documentary (Part 1)