It’s December 31st 2006 and the lights have just gone out in the Saitama Super Arena, Japan. The crowd cheers in anticipation as a spotlight picks out a well-dressed man and woman on stage. The man, who sits in front of a grand piano, pauses for a moment until they have every one of the 48,000 strong crowds’ undivided attention. He nods to his accompanist, spreads his fingers over the keys, and begins to play. The singer opens with the first few verses of the gospel song ‘Joyful Joyful’ and the crowd falls into appreciative silence.
As the duo’s part comes to an end the lights drop once again. The stage curtain then begins to rise revealing a gospel choir standing beneath a giant screen. “Joyful Joyful, Lord we adore thee!” The song is ratcheted up several notches accompanied by hand clapping, foot stomping involvement from all concerned. Fireworks are brought in to act as punctuation and the performance is now in full and excitable swing.
The one item in this picture that might seem a little out of place is what has appeared on the screen. Two men are punching each other in the head. With an urgency that suggests tigers may be released to finish the job at any moment. As is often the case in situations like this, it doesn’t end well for one of the party.
“Hearts unfold like flowers…”
More footage; this time a head kick putting an abrupt end to someone’s evening.
“Joyful joyful…” Clap…
An armbar follows.
Another knockout… Is that Cheick Kongo?!
This is PRIDE FC
And all the while, underneath, above and all around this bloodshed and carnage – “Fill us with the light of day!” The crowd isn’t bewildered however. These are not televangelists. This is all part of what they’ve come to see. This is Pride FC and they’re only just getting warmed up.
The atmosphere now takes on a more apocalyptic feel of the sort only capable by action movies of the 80’s and 90’s complete with red lights and metallic drum sounds. As the lights rise for a third time so too does a large Taiko drum. A well-oiled Japanese man in Sumo attire stands in front of it sticks aloft. Ready to beat out a rhythm to accompany Pride’s infamous fight announcer, Lenne Hardt. That man is Nobuhiko Takada, former competitor, current executive. Occasional well-dressed pianist and one of the founding fathers of the organisation. Dedication personified.
The highly anticipated card that night was a veritable collection of MMA’s best and brightest; lightweight champion Takanori Gomi. Shinya Aoki, Gilbert Melendez, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Josh Barnett and Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua to name a few. All of which was topped by a heavyweight title bout between the holder Fedor Emelianenko and challenger Mark Hunt. By the time Emelianenko had tapped out Hunt with a Kimura. The crowd had witnessed 3 submissions, 3 KO/TKO’s and certainly got their money’s worth.
Zuffa Buys PRIDE Fighting Championships
As it turned out, this grandest of spectacles was to mark the beginning of the end for Pride owner Nobuyuki Sakakibara. Envious eyes were looking on from the other side of the Pacific. And just a few short months later U.S. based Zuffa Ltd, announced the purchase of the promotion. In the end, Pride’s last event went off in April ‘07 as something of an afterthought rather than the testimonial it deserved.
As saddening as it was to see at the time, the MMA world has gained as much as Zuffa in the deal of course. The match-ups that became possible. Only the matter of debate up until that point — brought more and more attention and ultimately added to the already growing momentum of the sport. Despite this however, there will always be a group of people amongst us who no matter how slick the presentation becomes. However many athletic commissions licence it as a recognised sporting activity. Will always carry a torch for the days of Pride FC.
People talk of the great match ups, the monumental fight cards. The Grand Prix events, the mad, brilliant ceremony of it all, and they have a point. As someone who grew up watching Rocky prove that heart and an aggressive stupidity wins out time and again. Over superior training, tactics, genetics, skill and even steroids – I needed something more from a combat sport.
Kazushi Sakuraba The ‘Gracie Hunter’
Heroes were important back then and Pride had that angle covered better than anyone. On the books for example, ‘The Gracie Hunter’ Kazushi Sakuraba. Who against significant odds, ended the early BJJ dominance in the promotion and won himself and the sport a huge following for his trouble. And as every good hero needs a test befitting of their power, Pride had the Grand Prix.
This was the pinnacle of everything that Pride stood for. No existing belts would be won and lost here; this was simply last man standing, for the honour alone.
Considering the UFC began life in 1993 with a marketing ploy to rival that of Mad Max and The Running Man, Pride. Without ever needing such overt sentiment. Just had an intrinsic sense of finality to everything it did and in most circles at the time was viewed as the best in the MMA business.
When Chuck Liddell was brought over to Japan by Dana White in 2003. He was widely thought to be one of the most gifted strikers in MMA. He arrived on enemy territory to compete in the middleweight category of the Pride Grand Prix. And was set to face a young Muay Thai danger man Alastair Overeem in the first very first round.
This event serves as one of my earliest memories of MMA. Outside of the minimal UFC coverage in the UK at the time. From the moment I saw the fighters taking their bows in the ring. With Liddell being announced via a dystopian Lenne Hardt screech from the arena’s edge. I was in no doubt that this is what had been missing from the sport all along.
Fedor’s PRIDE reign
Everyone wanted to feel that that school yard question of ‘Could Bruce Lee beat Tyson?’ might get an answer of sorts at some stage. But this actually appeared to be ‘Enter the Dragon’. All the characters were there with a few bonus appearances for added flavour. Enter the steely Russian who refuses to make eye contact. And carries an almost automaton sense of purpose.
And here’s the tattooed South American with the look in his eye which said, ‘Sure, we can do this with knives.’ This seemed to combine the key elements of all of my favourite movies and video games of the last 10 years. If they could have just found a way to enlist Bruce Campbell to signal the end of the announcements. With a single, poignant round from his shotgun, the image would have been complete.
Despite White’s high expectations, Liddell battled his way through a close striking contest with Overeeem. But went on to lose to Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson in the semi-final by way of far heavier hands. As a Liddell fan I was disappointed, but happy enough that there were other strikers out there. To rival the likes of UFC stars Ortiz and Couture – no one ever chose Zangief on my street.
Wandrlei Silva Fan Favourite
Liddell’s loss in this stage of the tournament might have robbed some events of the final everyone wanted. But Pride had a bigger story going on. Wanderlei Silva and Rampage Jackson squared off for the last fight. And even with limited knowledge I could see this was about as clear a grudge match as you could wish for to round off the tournament.
The first few minutes didn’t quite live up to the hype with Jackson attempting a signature slam. Only to find himself grappling against a guillotine choke. It ended however, in typical ‘Axe Murderer’ fashion with Silva being pulled away from a cowering Jackson to be crowned Grand Prix Champion 2003. The level of intensity shown during the stare down alone. Along with the general level of madness surrounding the whole promotion. Epitomises the Pride era for me and, to this day, it has yet to be matched.
People can talk of how much the sport has moved on since Pride closed its doors. Of how much talent is now on show as a result. Perhaps it was always too brutal to ever enjoy the widespread acceptance MMA does now. And sure, there were allegations of fight fixing and a few blatant cases of steroid abuse.
But you just have to look past all of that and consider the brilliance. Of the mind that conceived of combining ‘Joyful Joyful’ with organised violence. And just remember, the next time you see Jon Jones flash a victorious smile to the Fox viewers around the world. The fighter he’s just brushed aside was probably one of the pillars that the sport was built upon. And likely as not, came through the ranks of Pride FC at one stage or another.
May they never be forgotten …
Image courtesy of Fighting-MMA.com