The UFC announced Saturday night that Kazushi Sakuraba has been named to their Hall of Fame.
Sakuraba becomes the first person to be inducted into both the UFC Hall of Fame and the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame.
In 2004, in his first year on the ballot, Sakuraba was elected with 86 percent of the vote, which tied with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the highest percentage of the vote for any candidate in history, trailing only Kenta Kobashi and Jushin Liger.
Sakuraba will be inducted in a ceremony on July 6th at 7 p.m. at the Park Theater in Las Vegas as part of the UFC's International Fight Week.
Sakuraba defeated Royce Gracie, when Helio Gracie, after denying it for several minutes, finally told son Rorion to throw in the towel at the 90 minute mark of a no time limit match on May 1st, 2000, at the Tokyo Dome.
It was part of a tournament, and Sakuraba not only came out to fight in the second round of the tournament, but was winning his fight against Igor Vovchanchyn, who was 50 pounds heavier and in many places was the number one ranked heavyweight in the world going into the Grand Prix tournament. Sakuraba was winning the fight until hitting the wall after 101 1/2 minutes of fighting and his body shut down, and his corner eventually threw in the towel.
Sakuraba only fought twice in the UFC, as a late replacement in 1997 in a heavyweight tournament, which was one of the strangest tournaments in history. Sakuraba faced Marcus "Conan" Silveira in the first round, and referee John McCarthy stopped the fight after Sakuraba was dropped. While billed at 203 pounds, there was no weigh-in in the heavyweight tournament and UFC was not regulated in those days since the show was in Japan, and Sakuraba actually weighed 183 pounds to Silveira's 243.
McCarthy has later called the stoppage the worst of his career, as Sakuraba appeared to have dropped to shoot a takedown. When Tank Abbott suffered a broken hand and wouldn't go out for his fight with Silveira, Sakuraba was brought out as the replacement. Sakuraba then armbarred his much larger opponent.
Sakuraba paid the price for constantly fighting men much larger than he was. The last part of his career was very sad as his name would be used to try and draw fans to keep MMA alive, and later to revive it, long after he should have been fighting.
He wrestled in college at 149 pounds and placed fourth in the nation. He usually fought, without weight cutting, at 180 to 190 pounds, and in his heyday usually fought larger opponents, including three major heavyweight champions, Silveira (Extreme Fighting), Ken Shamrock (UFC/Pancrase), and Kevin Randleman (UFC). He submitted Silveira and Randleman and knocked out Shamrock.
During his prime, he mostly fought light heavyweights, men much larger than he was, and scored wins over Rampage Jackson, Guy Mezger, Vitor Belfort, Ebenezer Fontes Braga, and former UFC welterweight champion Carlos Newton.
He also had a memorable pro wrestling match on January 4th, 2013, when he lost to Shinsuke Nakamura at the Tokyo Dome for the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.
He began his career with the UWFI promotion, and was trained for both pro wrestling and submissions by the late Billy Robinson, who called Sakuraba his best protege, in his later years always bragging about being the person who trained Sakuraba for fighting.
Pride was a struggling organization in 1999, drawing poorly and losing significant money until the Sakuraba era led to it packing major stadiums, including a Sakuraba vs. Mirko Cro Cop main event, a ridiculous fight given the size difference, that Cro Cop won before 71,000 fans (the announced number was 91,107) at Tokyo National Stadium. It is still the largest crowd for an MMA event.
Sakuraba was also named in a national poll at one time as the seventh biggest pro wrestling star in Japanese history even though his fame came from representing pro wrestling, which was the discipline he would always claim as his background on MMA shows, in real sports competition.
He was also named 2000 Wrestler of the Year by Tokyo Sports even though it was for his success in beating three Gracie family members in Pride competition.