In MMA terms, Japan is a cradle of civilization.
Co-evolving alongside Brazilian grappling, it was responsible for the first big-money MMA events. All-time greats like Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Fedor Emelianenko, and Mirko Cro Cop forged their legacies as the fledgling UFC struggled to attract talent. So it should be no surprise that some of the best fighters in history are Japanese.
Yes, their penchant for refusing to cut weight capped their success in the UFC. Yes, many had aged by the time MMA went truly mainstream.
So, sit down young ones. Let the fogeys regale you with tales of the men who laid the foundation of the sport we love. Here are the five greatest Japanese MMA fighters in history.
Even in the late 90’s, ground and pound wasn’t new. But Hayate Sakurai took it to the next level by relying on judo more than wrestling. Back when Ronda Rousey was off terrorizing elementary school playgrounds, Sakurai was hip-tossing people like it was no big deal. He was a disciplined leg-kicker at a time when they were less appreciated than they are even now.
Undefeated in his first 20 fights, his career recovered from a brief skid after working with Matt Hume. Cutting to lightweight, he put together a fantastic run to the finals of Pride Bushido 9. His fight against Jens Pulver is one of the best fights no one remembers.
Pulver was still in his prime, 19-5-1 at that point. His chin was still granite and his left hand still had dynamite. Sakura’s thudding leg kicks won out over Pulver’s power boxing and he sealed the victory with a liver punch to jumping knee combo. Sakurai is one of the pioneers of mixed attacking in MMA.
Kid Yamamoto was a bantamweight in a time when the division’s depth was laughable. If he wanted to fight legitimate competition, he’d have to hop up to featherweight. If he wanted to fight elite competition, he’d have to leap all the way to lightweight. That suited Yamamoto just fine, and he went 17-1 and 1 NC in his first 19 fights.
But more impressive is how he did it. He wasn’t the traditional giant killer who relied on speed and endurance. No, he was a knockout king.
A demon resided in Yamomoto’s fists, and the only way to exorcise it was to split a man’s skull open. Giving up height, reach, and weight to his opponents, Yamamoto would bounce on the balls of his feet just outside of the other man’s effective range. When the opportunity presented, he’d leap in with hooks that decapitated opponents. Prior to his career-derailing knee injury, Yamamoto may be the hardest pound-for-pound fighter in history.
Yamamoto was a bantamweight then, but at 5’4″ he’d be a flyweight now. Now consider that chins are a function of biology over technique, so they don’t evolve too quickly. The man was able to destroy fighters three weight classes above him.
MMA has many submission superstars, but Shinya Aoki is head and shoulders above them. In 39 career wins, he has amassed a staggering 25 by submission. It’s not just the quantity, but the quality. Not only did he score the first gogoplata in a mainstream MMA competition, but he’s one of only two men to score two.
What makes Aoki truly special is his application.
Securing a submission victory in MMA competition can be broken down into several stages. You have to close distance, get the opponent to the ground, gain position and then lock in the submission. Aoki is a fighter who can link them together so quickly that it looks like a blur. He’s a guy who can improvise so well it looks like “Whose Line is it Anyway?” on the ground.
This is a guy who grabbed a standing wristlock across his body while standing and then tripped his opponent to hyperextend the elbow. He loosened a dominant position on Caol Uno so he could trick him into a triangle choke. Aoki’s highlight reel is a gut-wrenching compilation of cracked limbs and strangled necks.
For a very long time, there was debate as to whether BJ Penn or Takanori Gomi was the best lightweight on Earth. If Gomi had continued taking his training and conditioning seriously, we’d probably be asking which one is the greatest of all-time.
In his prime, Gomi may have been the hardest puncher in lightweight history. He hit so hard that even a slapping shot with his wrist could send opponents reeling. He could punch all the way across his body with a left cross and still produce knockouts. His closing right hook was effective in close and at range. He was a dedicated body puncher before it was cool. In response to opponents who wanted to crowd him, he developed a wicked intercepting knee.
Utilizing footwork born of wrestling, Gomi could stalk and retreat with the best of them. He’d walk down and ignite opponents with multi-level combinations until they wilted. His bread-and-butter combination was a dipping left-cross to take his head off the center line followed by a booming right hook. This is the combination that took Nick Diaz off his feet and first cracked the notoriously tough Tyson Griffin.
The reason Sakurai didn’t win the Pride Bushido 9 tournament is that Gomi knocked him out in the finals at Pride Shockwave 2005.
Could there be anyone else? In terms of US presidents, Sakuraba is Lincoln; someone everyone can agree on.
Even in the early days of MMA, Sakuraba was lacking. He was reasonably athletic with good cardio but unpolished everywhere else. His strikes were singular and sloppy and he struggled to pass even the most basic guards. And perhaps because of these shortcomings, Sakuraba developed a distinctive style that propelled him to stardom.
To pass guard, he’d leap and cartwheel so that his pass would happen in the air. He also developed a savant-like ability to give up his back, secure a wristlock and roll into a kimura. That’s right, the guy who couldn’t understand a guard pass could somehow secure submissions from one of the most disadvantageous positions in grappling. He loved spinning kicks, one of the few strikes in his repertoire.
But more than that, he was bushido code embodied. A welterweight by today’s standards, he frequently fought at middleweight and light heavyweight. When asked why, he replied that his smoking and drinking made it tough for him to cut weight. When asked how he felt fighting larger opponents that may have been using PEDs, he replied that he’d just eat healthily and train and the rest would take care of itself.
Consequently, his feats read like the stuff of legend.
Sakuraba submitted Royler Gracie, touching off a storied if one-sided rivalry with the entire family. He vanquished the next three Gracie men including a 90-minute bout against Royce. He survived being repeatedly out-muscled by the far heavier and explosive Kevin Randleman, before giving up his back and then rolling into an armbar.
If the early days of Pride FC were the Wild Wild West, Sakuraba was the eccentric stranger who brought law and love into the town. He will never be considered the best fighter in history, but there’s no question as to whether he’s a possible greatest. When discussing who goes on the Mt. Rushmore of MMA, remember that only three spots are up for debate.