By: Mike Coughlin
"Why Sakuraba is the greatest of all time"
After years of complete dominance over the Mixed Martial Arts world, Kazushi "Saku" Sakuraba has been in a bit of a downfall, to understate it. Newer fans may be watching him for the first time and, after hearing all the hype from people like me, find themselves saying, "What's the big deal? This guy keeps on losing." And long time fans, who jump from bandwagon to bandwagon, which isn't anything new, as it's a phenomenon that one can track across all sports, not just MMA, now like to say that Saku was over rated. Not only is Sakuraba not over rated, simple put, he's the greatest fighter in the history of MMA. And not just the greatest fighter by a little bit, but by such a wide margin that his skill level may never actually be met by another competitor for generations, if ever.
There are those who feel that, "Size doesn't matter." In short, these people believe that the best skilled fighter will win out, and as a result MMA does not need weight classes. Yet the fact that there are weight classes is an indication that those within the MMA community, from the promoters to the athletic commissions, realize that weight does matter. In August of 2002, the best heavyweight fighter in the world, Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera fought Bob "The Beast" Sapp. Sapp had previously fought in exactly two MMA fights, while Noguiera was the Pride Heavyweight champion, a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt, and had 19 fights in his career. Bob Sapp, the very definition of a novice, quite literally almost killed Noguiera during that match, and gave Rodrigo all he could handle for almost 12:00. The reason Sapp was able to do this? Size. Anyone who says that size doesn't matter in MMA is quite honestly ignorant of the realities of fighting. If a man who had trained less than a year, and who had 2 prior fights, can almost beat the #1 fighter in the world, then size matters. In MMA, there are weight classes every, roughly, 15 pounds. In pro boxing, there are weight classes every SIX pounds! In fact, in boxing, if a man moves from 120 to 126, experts often wonder if he can handle the added weight. They wonder if a boxer can handle SIX extra pounds. SIX!!!
Now then, back to weight cutting and just how it proves Saku's skill. For starters, one has to ignore the Sakuraba that currently exists. He's a shell of his former self, though even then still dangerous, and has been plagued with injuries. He has added considerable weight, though it mostly appears to be fat, as opposed to muscle. To get a picture of Sakuraba's true weight, one has to look at Saku in his prime. Sherdog.com officially lists Saku at 183 lbs, and that's what his weight was, in general, reported to be for his fights with Royce Gracie, Vitor Belfort, and all the rest. In the regular, non "combat sports", world 183 lbs is a big person. In MMA, that's incredibly small. I can best illustrate how small this is by comparing him to B.J. Penn. Penn is universally considered a top 5, and by most accounts #1, lightweight MMArtist. Lightweight means 155 lbs and below. Of the major shows, that is the smallest a competitor can fight at. (In the Shooto organization, I believe they go as low as 145 lbs.) B.J. Penn is reported to walk around at 182 lbs. Yes, the number one LW fighter in the world weighs one pound less than Kazushi Sakuraba. Give that a moments thought: if Sakuraba properly cut weight, and being a former college wrestling star, there's no doubt he could, like roughly 85% of today's MMArtists do, Saku would be a lightweight. Also, keep in mind that at 183 lbs, Saku's body was still far from "ripped". In fact, at that weight, he still had enough fat on him that he had no visible abs.
Kazushi Sakuraba is a lightweight. With that in mind, when one now takes a look at who Saku has defeated, it's not just incredible, it's basically impossible. Impossible except for the fact that Saku did it. Currently, Saku holds victories over TWO top 10 Light HeavyWeight fighters, one former UFC HEAVYWEIGHT champion, a former UFC Welterweight champion (one weight class above LW), and four members of the legendary Gracie family. His only losses, except for the very weird fluke loss to Nino Schembri, are against either the number 2 (or one in some circles) LHW, and current Pride MW (just another term for LHW) champion Wanderlei Silva. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (the twin brother of the Pride HW champion) who is a top 10 LHW. The man who was universally recognized as a top 5 HW and who just challenged for the HW title, Mirko CroCop, or the man who was THE #1 HW in the world, Igor Vovchanchyn, and that was a fight during which Saku was clearly winning for the first 10 minutes, before he finally lost all his energy (which was the result of having fought for 90 minutes earlier in the night). What is truly scary is that by most accounts, Saku was competitive with "Lil Nog", was firmly in control of CroCop until suffering an unfortunate eye injury, and actually had Silva in a choke during the 2nd fight. In fact, probably the only reason Silva was able to escape the choke was because he had such a weight advantage over Saku.
Sakuraba has fought and beat people who realistically outweigh him by anywhere from 30-50 pounds and has beaten most of them, or was at least very competitive against them. To truly put how amazing Sakuraba is into clear focus, consider this: when he is slated to fight people who are a weight class above him, he is somewhat expected to "find a way to win". If B.J. Penn was scheduled to face Randy Couture, there is not a single person on the planet who would give Penn a chance. In fact, in less than a month, at UFC 46, Penn will be moving up ONE weight class, and most are expecting that to be to great of a jump.
Kazushi Sakuraba is a man who could realistically fight at 155 lbs, but who has fought and beaten some of the best in the world at 205 pounds, and who almost beat some of the best in the world at around 225 lbs. And not only beat people 50+ lbs bigger, but beat the most skilled people on earth at those higher weights. There will never be a man whose skill level is so great that he could routinely negate 50+ pounds. In the history of mixed martial arts, there is Kazushi Sakuraba, and then there is everyone else.
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