An accomplished college wrestler trained in the "stiff" style of Japanese pro wrestling, which had more application in fighting than its American counterpart; defeated Royler Gracie by controversial referee stoppage at Pride 8, shortly after Royce Gracie had signed to compete in the tournament.
An explosive and imposing 1992 Olympic alternate who earned two UFC tournament titles and their heavyweight championship before suffering losses to Maurice Smith, Pedro Rizzo and Pete Williams; signed with Pride in 1999.
A Division I wrestling champion out of Syracuse University who entered the Grand Prix with an 11-0 record.
Jiu-jitsu's representative for the first five UFC events; had signed a two-year non-compete clause upon leaving the promotion in 1995.
An unimposing but determined grappler with an indelible will; appeared in all of the first seven Pride events
A student of famous pro wrestler Antonio Inoki who narrowly missed a place on the Japanese Olympic team; entered the Grand Prix with four years of exposure in the New Japan Pro Wrestling circuit.
A former arm-wrestling champion who made his UFC debut with an infamous elbow-piston assault on Paul Herrera; had previously lost to tournament entrants Mark Coleman and Igor Vovchanchyn.
A former Shooto heavyweight champion who made his debut in Pride 5 in a no-strikes-allowed bout due to an injury; famously candid about his ties to Japan's organized crime families.
A kickboxer who joined Ken Shamrock's Lion's Den facility in the 1990s; made his MMA debut at UFC 4 in 1994 and went on to become a King of Pancrase, an event using open-handed strikes that originated a month before 1993's UFC 1. He lost to Akira Shoji in his Pride debut in 1999.
An American journalist who covered crime for the Yomiuri Shinbun newspaper (which boasts of more than 14 million readers daily), Adelstein is the only gaijin (foreigner) to be admitted access to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police press corps.
A talent agent who represented Ken Shamrock and helped negotiate Pride's U.S. distribution on satellite pay-per-view.
Joined the Gracie Academy in 1995 to handle business affairs.
The first in the jiu-jitsu family to migrate to the United States in the 1970s, Gracie taught students in his garage and later popularized a $100,000 winner-take-all challenge. Along with Art Davie, he formed WOW Promotions and created the UFC in 1993.
An athletic Judo-boxer hybrid, Johnston gained UFC experience before moving to New Japan Pro Wrestling.
A Midwest fighter/trainer with a 5-0 UFC record and their lightweight title at the time of the Grand Prix.
A former King of Pancrase who picked up the UFC's heavyweight title before retiring in 2000 due to injuries.
A fight promoter (Hook 'N Shoot out of Indiana) who chronicled early mixed martial arts via a series of video magazines.
A filmmaker who teamed with Jon Greenhalgh to chronicle the career of Greenhalgh's college friend Mark Kerr.
An actor, martial artist and play-by-play commentator.
A Gracie student who later opened his own school, 6 Levels, in Orlando. Currently trains Shaquille O'Neal.
A fighter/trainer who joined Pride beginning with the Grand Prix as a judge and ring official. Defeated Pat Miletich in a 1997 Extreme Fighting event.
A lackluster first round -- half the bouts went to a decision -- still resulted in Pride getting their star eight in the finals. To stir fan interest, they distributed ballots that would allow observers to vote on their preferred finals pairings, though it was more a series of leading questions than empty brackets. Naturally, Gracie would face Sakuraba despite Fujita lobbying hard for the Brazilian; Coleman and Kerr would be kept apart until the semifinals; Goodridge and Vovchanchyn would slug it out.
After a successful training camp with Rutten, Kerr stayed in Los Angeles only briefly to prepare for the finals, preferring to return to Phoenix -- and a toxic relationship with a girlfriend.
Rutten: You can call her "the b----." She was nuts. That was a problem. He would have two-hour conversations on the telephone. I said, "Mark, get off that phone, what are you doing?" I knew it was a bad decision and I told him that.
Hyams: He had some training partners, but didn't have a real coach. When you don't have
Bas or someone who's going to force you to do things -- nobody is going to make Mark do anything he didn't want to do.
Kerr: It was one of those situations where a simple decision can change everything. I wanted to go back to Arizona. I didn't get as much training as I probably could have. I look back on it and yes, the outcome could have been different.
Rutten: He left me; he was not up to shape and I was kind of p---ed about that. I knew that nobody would push him when he was back in Phoenix. Nobody is going to say to him, "One more round." He's going to decide. If he trained with me and I said, "One more round" and he said no, then it was two more rounds.
Kerr: I ended up going to the Abu Dhabi Combat Championships a month before the finals. It was stupid, but it was close to six figures in cash. In 2000, to do a grappling event and make almost six figures for one event? It doesn't take much math to figure it out. But if I balanced it out -- being the Pride champ, which would've been $250,000 plus my appearance fee, I probably lost $200,000.
One of the first round's biggest stars, anomalous Japanese heavyweight Kazuyuki Fujita, embarked on a world tour of training, with stops in Seattle, Texas and with trainer Brian Johnston at the behest of his mentor, famous pro wrestler Antonio Inoki.
Brian Johnston: He was very raw. No striking, no submission but excellent positioning. One time he shot a double on me and I hit him with a knee by accident. It was hard, right on the button. It laid him out for like 20 seconds. I thought, "Oh, great. I'm going to lose my job." But he just kind of woke up and kept training. That's when I knew he was tough.
Don Frye: We got Fujita a fight in Fort Hood. Old Shannon Ritch had a show. We went there one night and the crowd went nuts for him. We put him in under the name "Saito" in honor of Masa Saito, the best f---ing pro wrestler to ever come out of Japan. He went in there and did so good they asked him if he wanted to fight again. He said, "Yeah, let's do it!" Two fights in one night. The crowd embraced them as one of their own because he had f---ing balls. This was a month
Coleman opted not to return to trainer Tim Catalfo in Atlanta, instead heading for the first of MMA's big-name, big-reputation fight camps: Pat Miletich's school in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Coleman: I cut ties with Catalfo. He just wasn't a person I wanted to be around. The guy took my trophy from the Ricardo Morais fight. They found it in his gym when he cleared out. He's not very well-liked at theSherdog
moment. Pat had been inviting me up there for a long time. He had been talking about the famous Hill in Iowa. I showed up to his place a couple weeks before we had to leave for Japan. He put me through a two-hour workout and when I thought the practice was over, he said, "So you wanna go run the Hill?" I'm not going to say no. And when I kicked eight to 10 of them with no problem, I think he was a little bit impressed from Day 1.
Pat Miletich: I remember some big guys that weren't there one day. I had him spar with one of my heavyweights. Mark and this guy agreed to start out light. Then Mark clobbers the guy with a left hook and knocks him out.
Coleman: I hadn't done much sparring up until this point. I was a ground and pounder. The night before, when he said we're going to spar tomorrow, I admit I was a little bit worried. It was a surprise for him.
Miletich: I go, "Oh, s---," because there was nobody else there to spar with him. At the time, Mark was friggin' huge. I sparred with him and we went really hard for 5-6 rounds. As big as he was then and as hard as he hit, I was better technically than him. But I just about survived the s--- he was throwing at me, trying to kill me in a racquetball court. It was pretty comical, actually.
Coleman: He was a lot better boxer, but it was definitely fun to be the bigger guy in the room that day. You can ask him how it went. By the end of the second round, he was fighting with one hand because the left side of his body was paralyzed.
Miletich: Mark was very aggressive. He got frustrated at times. He screams and yells and raises hell, which is good. If somebody would do something to him where he'd get himself in trouble, he'd basically just start screaming, "F---" and "son of a bitch" and stomp around the room and then come back and start wrestling again or doing whatever. It was awesome. You've got to love that kind of intensity.
Coleman: I was very immature. I was extremely emotional in practice. I didn't like doing things wrong,
and when I wasn't able to pick something up quickly, I would get frustrated. There probably were some F-bombs thrown out.
Miletich: He was a perfectionist back then and wanted to do well. He had a lot of energy, to put it lightly. It was fun. Those were really intense days. Everyone in my gym was really aggressive and in their primes and meaner than s---. Mark fit in pretty well.
While everyone worked for the possibility of facing opponents of various strengths, Gracie was occupying himself with demands for unprecedented rules changes: no time limit and no judges. While he eased up on the latter, the biggest match Japan could make at the time was in danger of being buried by his demands. Because Japan was both in awe of the Gracies and desperate to conquer them, no request was turned down -- though Sakuraba threatened to learn ventriloquism to make the referee believe Royce was verbally giving up.
Sakuraba: To ask for rule changes, you come all the way to Japan? Is that normal? Instead of
going through all the trouble to hold a press conference, you could've just faxed it. If you have that much time, you should stay in Los Angeles and train!
Kerr: Everyone was going to walk away from the show. All of us were going to protest and say no, we're not going to do unlimited rounds. They ended up compensating the fighters a little bit more money to just accept the rule.
Royce Gracie: I have my demands. It's not exactly special treatment. My family, my father, created this fighting business. What he created in Brazil a long time ago, the challenge matches, it's why we have Pride, the UFC, Strikeforce. I'm already giving the weight advantage, so give me something back. They know my name is going to be a draw on the show.
Rand: I know we were contractually obligated, so I know we wouldn't have put something on the table and said we were withdrawing. We wouldn't have done that on an ethical basis. We wouldn't want to fight the legal fees.
Sakuraba: "Crazy" and "Gracie" sound more similar in Japanese, but they really are crazy. I can't even put
into words my feelings for them. I'll take you on, with your own rules. Let me say that it is due to expressionless Royce and his relative Rorion that we have this no-rules fighting. But isn't it that this fire that they lit has gotten bigger than them and now they are running away from it?
Rorion: They really wanted Royce in there and they were willing to stretch the rules. If you're in a position to ask for it and you have enough clout to ask for it and they respect it, it's good.
Sakuraba: Unlimited rounds? OK. Let's fight for about a week. We can hurt each other for six days and decide it on the seventh. I'll have to go to the bathroom, so I'm going to borrow a diaper from my son and head to the Dome. The audience should be prepared. Please bring at least three days' worth of change of clothes. Oh, and bedpans.
Quadros: The day before the tournament, they had a rule meeting and the Royce Gracie camp had gotten the unlimited time limit. Royce didn't show up to the rule meeting. And Sakuraba, very uncharacteristically, got up and started yelling,
"Where's Royce Gracie?" He's usually this wisecracking, quiet-type guy, with almost a self-effacing sense of humor. He's standing there livid.
Royce Gracie: I didn't go to the rules meeting. I know the rules. It's a waste of time. You just sit there and fighters go, "I want this, I want that." The rules were set already in the contract we signed. They don't even have them anymore. I guess I was ahead of my time.
The week of the event, fighters began to descend on the Tokyo Hilton, one of Japan's most opulent hotels. It was used by Pride until company president Naoto Morishita committed suicide in one of its rooms in 2003 -- a moment when many feel Pride was almost completely taken over by the Yakuza.
Coleman: Everybody loved the Tokyo Hilton. You can ask any fighter out there what they loved most about it, and they'll tell you: the breakfast buffet. Best breakfast buffet ever. Fighters didn't miss it. Chefs there serving it really loved the fighters. They got to know you so well you didn't even have to order.
Hyams: Breakfast is fascinating because the guy you're about to fight is two tables over. Everyone in this same building together, passing each other, riding in the elevator together, in the lobby. It made for a very tense environment in the way that was ripe for theater for the whole thing. I think that was somewhat by design.
Quadros: The buffet just went on forever. All the executives were there.
The Royal Host was like a Denny's style restaurant, but obviously served a lot more noodles than French fries and burgers. The fighters, especially the Dutch contingency who could be a little bit loud, would go in there and terrorize these poor people running around and taking our orders.
Coleman: They have American channels over there. You got to watch a lot of CNN. You watch that pretty much nonstop. It's a Japanese version of CNN. You're getting to see some pretty neat stuff.
Gary Goodridge: If you can understand it, it's great. I find Japanese television very funny.
Coleman: Gary speaks a few languages. He's a smart guy. He comes in handy.
While Pride spared little expense with its production and accommodations, the fighter's actual purses were largely dependent on their own sense of self-worth.
Inoue: I think I got $80,000 for the Kerr fight. They paid Sakuraba peanuts. Pride didn't pay Sakuraba well because Takada was in charge of him. He was taking all the money. Pride would pay Takada Dojo. Sakuraba
got a salary from Takada Dojo That's why they ended up having a falling-out. They want nothing to do with each other now.
Burke: We flew to Tokyo and went to a very nice, very remote summer resort. It was quiet. We had the opportunity to have a resort to ourselves, run on the beach and all that fun stuff. It was a decision to get there early and that Dream Stage would pay for it.
Goodridge: Royce, Wanderlei [Silva], Sakuraba -- once you're in the upper echelon, that's the only time you can get what you want. Other than that, you have to play their games.
Mezger: Basically, you were led to believe in a very strong way that when the contract negotiations came up, there was a good chance you wouldn't be part of it if you refused fights.
Inoue: I believe Pride was the type of association that could take what they could get. It wasn't an association where they treated all the fighters fairly. I was treated very differently in Pride because I was needed. I was popular in
Japan. They knew I didn't need them. They played hardball with people that needed them. Igor Vovchanchyn made peanuts -- $10,000. They'd threaten Mark Kerr, go down to where Kerr was training and make sure he was ready. Pretty much bully him around.
Kerr: The hardest thing in the world about working for a Japanese company is that you don't know what rules you broke until you broke them. The one time I had elbow surgery, I took my own money and paid for my ticket over to Japan, paid for my hotel room, went into the ring -- this is when I was supposed to fight Enson in Nagoya -- and I let the stitches stay in my arm about a week past the point they were supposed to come out. That was so I could take off my shirt and literally show them, yes, I actually had surgery. That was the length you had to go to for the Japanese.
Hyams: You couldn't go anywhere else and get paid the same amount. So they more or less had a monopoly on the fighters who wanted to earn anything close to six figures.
Burke: This thing was created because of the Gracies. It's business. The Japanese knew, if they can get
Royce, the man who started this whole thing, they can make 10 times more money than if they don't. If it takes five extra hotel rooms, paying for his team's food, $40 per diem a day instead of $15, I don't think the Japanese cared.
Mezger: I didn't give a s---. You get what you can.
Rand: The winner of the tournament got $250,000, but Royce's number was significantly more than that. Part of it was wire transfer and part was cash.
Osborne: I know of a guy in Japan who won a quarter-million [dollars], got paid in cash, and left the money in a cab when he got back home. He never would've seen that bag again if his brother hadn't been friends with the cab driver.
Japan's loose structure -- no athletic commission has any jurisdiction -- meant that promoters could organize events as they saw fit; athletes had few restrictions.
Inoue: In our contracts there was a clause that
specifically stated, "We do not test for steroids." In other words, it was like a clause that you can do steroids.
Hyams: A lot of guys started doing steroids because it would give you a lot of strength and a lot of power and you could go in there and finish a guy off really quickly. However, once the fight started going longer, suddenly steroids had a really detrimental effect on that game plan. From the way everyone described it to me, they give you that big burst of power but your heart and lungs are powering a bigger body. You get gassed quickly.
Kerr: You see the period where I was overbuilt because I took anabolics [steroids]. But it was a short little window where I used them and that was it. After I figured out that it was a bodybuilder's body, not a fighter's body, you'll see my physique change again.
Goodridge: Right before we were walking out on stage for the first round, Osamu was smoking a cigarette. I thought, "What the f---?" I think 90 percent of Japanese smoke.
Coleman: All of a sudden, I'm sitting in the rules
meeting. I'm not waiting for something bad to go wrong, but out of nowhere, a day before the show, the president gets up and says, "The finals will be a no time limit match." It was supposed to be a 20-minute time limit. And there's nothing you can do about it.
Rorion Gracie: It's part of the deal when you're dealing with [Pride]. You get what you can before because there's not much you can do at the time of the fight. In the moment, they can say they didn't understand and that's the end of that.
Mezger: Mainly, I felt like they were just disorganized. I didn't know I was going to fight Masaaki Satake until 18 days before the fight. Their take was, "If you're a real warrior, you'll do it." I go, "Really? OK. All right."
Coleman: I could wear wrestling shoes there. As far as my speed and power, once you take the shoes away, you take a lot of that away. It just gave me so much grip that it made me so much stronger. I went into the Ohio State wrestling room once before and tried to wrestle some college guys wearing shoes while I wasn't. It was
embarrassing. I had to come back a couple of days later with shoes on just to save face.
Kerr: I probably could've gotten paid twice or three times the amount of money I got paid to do what I did for them. I was functioning under the assumption that pigs get fed while hogs get slaughtered. That was my mentality.
Mezger: There's an old saying; a friend of mine told me this. He said, "If you think you made a good deal with a Japanese businessman, check all your fingers and toes. If you have them, count your relatives because somebody's missing." And that's a Japanese guy telling me that.
In April 2000, Miletich posted a message to mixedmartialarts.com that claimed Sakuraba would purposely lose the fight to Gracie. It was another indication Pride may have been getting uncomfortably close with the demands of the Yakuza and their penchant for gambling.
Miletich: With Pride back in those days, there were obviously some fights that were works people were talking about it. I was hoping that wasn't the case.
Inoue: Knowing Sakuraba personally, he would never do that. With Takada, I'd have my doubts. But Sakuraba, there's no way. He has a lot of integrity and honor. I don't think he'd ever throw a fight in an MMA ring. Not Sakuraba.
Adelstein: I can't imagine any motivation for him to lose that fight, unless it was about gambling. If you put out that Sakuraba is going to lose and it's already been fixed and people believe that, they're going to bet against him and bet on Gracie. And when Gracie loses, they make more if people believe Sakuraba is the weak horse. Certainly, the Yakuza would be good at facilitating such a rumor.
Mezger: You're told, "Oh, this guy is who he is," all that kind of stuff. But it's not like you're living in fear for your life or anything like that. It's just the opposite. They were very good about treating you well. You got a really nice place, they made sure you were taken care of financially, got food, gave you every opportunity. That was nice.
Adelstein: Every time they staged an event in Tokyo or Osaka where there's a big arena,
they had to pay a certain amount of money: permission to perform in their area. It was kind of like a tax. That was the standard thing at the time.
Inoue: It had to be done. You can't avoid it. It's the custom. I have a gym in Saitama. If I didn't have friends who were close to me in that group, I would have to pay monthly. It's like protecting us from them so they don't give us s--- or trouble.
Adelstein: The consequences of not paying the site tax are that you may have interference with your ticket sales. Scandals about your athletes would be released to the media. It's not always the threat of physical violence. If you're not paying your dues and operating in their area, they'll do something that makes life difficult for you. That can include things like telling a local magazine, this competitor is sleeping with an underage girl. Or, this guy is cheating on his wife.
Inoue: If you go to 100 people in America and ask if they have mafia acquaintances, 90 percent of them would probably say no. It's the opposite here. Maybe 90 percent of people would say, "Oh, I know Yakuza." I had a Yakuza guy at my house the other night. It's not a big thing.