Pride Middleweight Grand Prix 2003: The Coronation of the Axe Murderer
On November 9th 2003, a man known as the Axe Murderer went from feared champion to undeniable icon. His name was Wanderlei Silva. That now historic date marked the finals of the 2003 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix and the Chute Boxe product Silva found himself in the final four, surrounded by future and current superstars. Two of those four would advance to the final that would take place on the very same night and a packed Tokyo Dome filled with almost 70,000 fans watched on in great anticipation. First though, we need to lay the groundwork.
The eight man tournament began on August 10th with all four quarterfinals taking place. In the first tournament fight of the night, UFC representative Chuck ‘The Iceman’ Liddell would take on future Heavyweight star Alistair Overeem. Liddell entered the tournament following his upset loss to Randy Couture with the hopes that he’d meet the Pride King Silva in the Grand Prix’s final. Desperate to show that the UFC were equal to their Japanese counterpart, UFC president Dana White even bet $250,000 with Pride CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara that Liddell would win the whole thing.
After a somewhat slow start Liddell would complete the first mission too, knocking out a stunned Overeem after just over three minutes of action. ‘The Iceman’ was through to the semi-final. He’d find out his opposition quickly too as the next fight was between the other two participants on his side of the bracket: Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Murilo Bustamante. Jackson entered riding a five fight win streak, his fame in Japan had grown exponentially due to his colourful personality and explosive fighting style. After a debut loss to Sakuraba, Jackson had fought with so much spirit and (pun intended) pride that he quickly became a regular fighter for the top promotion.
Bustamante, on the other hand, was making his promotional debut. The Brazilian hadn’t fought in over a year but his last outing was a successful defence of his UFC Middleweight Title, a belt he had vacated after signing with Pride. Bustamante was an incredibly late replacement for his injured teammate Ricardo Arona but nonetheless, he gave ‘Rampage’ an incredibly tough fight. Threatening with submissions often, Bustamante came close to upsetting the popular American fighter but in the end, Jackson’s damage done with low kicks and his overall control of the action earned him the hard fought split decision victory. And so the first semi-final was booked, Jackson would meet Liddell.
On the other side of the bracket, Japanese fan favourites Hidehiko Yoshida and Kiyoshi Tamura met in a clash of contrasting contenders. Yoshida was just two fights into his MMA career, excluding a bizarre ‘no contest’ with Royce Gracie in a grappling match of sorts, but entered the sport to great fanfare as a former Judo Olympic Gold Medallist. Tamura, on the other hand, came in with almost forty fights under his belts. A professional wrestling star, Tamura was a once MMA great that had recently rebounded from a rough streak of form. On fight night Tamura would batter Yoshida early, hammering him with hard strikes. However, out of nowhere Yoshida would flurry before taking Tamura down and almost immediately submitting him with an Ezekiel Choke. The identity of three of our semi-finalists had been revealed, now it was time to find out the last.
And so in the main event of the evening, the aforementioned Pride Middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva took on the beloved Kazushi Sakuraba for the third and rightly final time. Silva had beaten Sakuraba twice before but the second fight had ended in controversy. Regardless, it was a harsh match for Sakuraba who entered off the back of a violent stoppage loss against the quite unheralded Nino Schembri. Nonetheless, with Silva’s rival ‘Rampage’ on commentary, the fight went ahead. After some tense action, the ending seemed inevitable and came at the five minute mark when Silva checked a low kick before violently knocking Sakuraba out with an unforgettable two punch combination. Our semi-finals were booked.
And so that brings us back to where we started, November 9th 2003, the Tokyo Dome. After an eighteen second opening contest, it was time for tournament action and more specifically our first semi-final. It would be clash between two of America’s best as Quinton Jackson took on Chuck Liddell. ‘Rampage’ seemed almost irritated that his countryman had so much more fame in their home country whilst he’d been dominating in Japan, even dismissively declaring “The UFC ain’t shit”. Motivated by his opponent representing the UFC, Jackson was even more motivated to protect the brand that he loved both then and now: Pride FC.
Jackson knew that Liddell was an excellent fighter though and that showed inside the famous Pride ring. In memorable fashion, the two titans traded heavy knockout punches for the duration of the ten minute opening round but for Liddell, that was the problem. Chuck wasn’t using his greater variety and was suddenly sucked into ‘Rampage’s fight, it showed too as Jackson landed the harder and more telling shots. A frustrated Dana White sat on commentary as he virtually watched his $250,000 vanish. As the action packed first round came to a close, Jackson was the aggressor and Liddell had visibly faded.
The second round only continued in that direction too, with Jackson stunning the fatigued Liddell with an uppercut before reigning down with punches from half guard. The exhausted ‘Iceman’ was virtually defenceless as Jackson hammered his body with ferocious elbows. In a smart move, Liddell’s team would throw in the towel, ending the fight. In front of over 60,000 people ‘Rampage’ had solidified his spot as one of the world’s best by vanquishing the revered Liddell in a gruelling battle. Unfortunately though, there was no time to celebrate as Jackson would now have to prepare to fight the other semi-final winner in the tournament’s final that would take place in just a few hours. That other semi-final would be next too with Wanderlei Silva taking on Hidehiko Yoshida.
After just three professional MMA fights, Yoshida was now in the ring with Pride’s long time Middleweight destroyer, a man who hadn’t lost in his last thirteen showings. Heading in it looked a very hard matchup for the Olympian but time would tell. In trademark Silva fashion, ‘The Axe Murderer’ would be aggressive in the staredown, jolting his head side to side almost gleeful at what’s, in his mind and usually in reality, about to happen. To his credit, Yoshida just stood still, calm and assured. As usual Silva started quickly, jumping on Yoshida with an early flurry. However, Silva was a little too aggressive and left himself vulnerable, allowing Yoshida to score a takedown as the Tokyo Dome crowd roared.
Yoshida would land some ground and pound too but Silva was offensive off of his back and almost had a triangle choke that was in many ways thwarted by his lack of space next to the ropes. When the two men were re-positioned, Yoshida immediately attacked from side mount before Silva powered out and gained top control of his own. Just like Silva though, Yoshida was aggressive off of his back. After a few minutes of playing with fire, Silva would eventually smartly stand up but as soon as he flurried, he was once again taken down. The atmosphere was electric as the Japanese underdog took the champion into his world, he’d keep Silva down for the rest of the round too. Was a shocking upset on the cards?
Predictably, Yoshida would try for another takedown at the start of round two, Silva would sprawl this time though before firing some knees. Yoshida’s response? A shake of the head and a smile. To the surprise of many, we had a serious fight on our hands in this thrilling second semi-final. Unfortunately for Yoshida though, the smile only angered a frustrated Silva who launched a left head kick that would stun his foe. Yoshida was aware of the high stakes though and refused to wilt, trading punches with Silva bravely. Whilst his success was minimal, the exchange gave a real insight into Yoshida’s spirit and courage, he was fighting fire with fire. However, he was smiling no more. Yoshida’s willingness to engage would quickly be an issue too, as Silva began to land heavy shots on the inside.
A weary takedown attempt left Yoshida open to a violent Silva attack of knees and punches which led to the two fighters heading back to the ground. Just when it looked as though Silva would control Yoshida for the rest of the fight, the Japanese fighter would land a final sweep just moments before the bell. As the fight finished the two men looked like polar opposites, Silva was almost unblemished and Yoshida completely brutalised with an agonized glare on his face. Silva had done enough damage to earn the unanimous decision victory and thankfully so in the sense that Yoshida would’ve struggled to fight again on that night, let alone against ‘Rampage’. Nonetheless, ‘The Axe Murderer’ was through and our final was set.
Though the Liddell Silva match was the one many were invested in, in hindsight, this was really the storybook final. Since Jackson’s success following that Sakuraba loss, he’d been regularly insulting Silva and even almost brawled with him at Pride 25 as Jackson confidently exclaimed, “You have my belt, you’re keeping it warm for me.” Well this fight wouldn’t be for the belt but it would be for more than just the Grand Prix crown, this was personal. For Jackson this was the chance to finally solidify his spot as the best after two years of fighting up the Pride ranks. Silva had the opportunity to silence Jackson’s mouth both figuratively and literally and destroy any doubts about his spot as the world’s absolute best Middleweight fighter. Both men were depleted, tired and damaged but that didn’t matter, it was finally time for ‘Rampage’ vs. ‘The Axe Murderer’.
The crowd was electric as the men came head to head in one of the sport’s most famous staredowns, the intensity was incredible. The action began quickly, with Jackson taking advantage of Silva’s traditional early flurry by shooting a takedown and elevating the Brazilian. However, Silva quickly snatched a guillotine forcing Jackson to hold him up against the ropes to avoid the submission. Eventually Jackson did lower to the ground, breaking out of the choke and landing in Silva’s guard. Jackson would be quite active from top position, throwing frequent body shots. The referee disagreed though, constantly warning Jackson for inactivity. Regardless, Jackson was having success until Silva quickly attempted an armbar, ‘Rampage’ would defend though and come out in side mount landing heavy knees before returning to the guard for more quite consistent attacks.
Whilst Jackson wasn’t being overly aggressive, he was working to a more than fair level from my viewpoint. That’s irrelevant though as the Pride referee didn’t feel so and stood the fighters up, giving both yellow cards. It was a good move from an entertainment standpoint though as the two men traded immediately with Silva nailing Jackson with hooks. It was Silva’s knees that made the difference though as he unleashed a barrage of brutal knees from the Muay Thai plum. One after another connected hard, some Jackson was even moving into. Desperate, Jackson pushed forward, trying to close the distance but another knee sent him backwards on shaky legs, Silva chased him with more knees before launching some soccer kicks. Somehow, ‘Rampage’ stood up again before Silva pushed him back by reengaging his clinch.
Then in one of MMA’s most iconic moments, the two stopped fighting and looked at each other. Prior to closing the show, Silva wanted to take a moment to smile at his already beaten and battered rival, delighted at his work. Incredibly, Jackson smiled back. It was one last show of defiance from a man out on his feet. An unforgettable visual. The fight was finished though and Silva released one final knee on the backed up Jackson before the referee mercifully stepped in, though he tried to complain, Jackson immediately fell. Wanderlei Silva was the 2003 Middleweight Grand Prix winner and the two men would embrace in a show of respect, for then at least. The rivalry would soon continue, but that’s another article for another day.
In hindsight, the start of Silva’s gradual decline wasn’t more than at most a couple of years away. ‘The Axe Murderer’s long win streak would soon end before heading to the UFC for a less than stellar run in the wins and losses department. For good or bad, thirteen years after this sublime triumph, Silva is preparing for another Grand Prix in Japan. However, Silva’s legacy is already unmovable, he’s one of the sports greats who will always be remembered fondly due to his obscenely aggressive style and attitude. Though Silva was already the champion entering that November Tokyo night in 2003, this was the true apex of his career. The coronation of his dominance. It was a moment in time, a moment in which Wanderlei ‘The Axe Murderer’ Silva was the world’s most feared fighter.
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