The calm before the storm...
It's been over four years but you still read about it.
You'll read about how either it was the greatest thing ever, where the best in the world faced off against one another in packed arenas of 30, 40, or even 50,000 spectators, or you'll read about how it was totally overrated, complete with mismatches, fighter favoritism, and pointless non-title affairs.
It was either a shooting star that flashed brilliantly for a short time before it burned out or a product of hype, pushed forward by those who exhibited a bizarre anti-xenophobia mixed with a perverse sense of elitism.
However you remember Pride Fighting Championships, one thing is certain: you will never forget it.
Icarus of the East is a three-part series where I discuss the last days of Pride FC. Part one will take a look at Pride's last year of normalcy, starting with the Final Conflict event held in August 2005.
Bust out the Kleenex, folks, it's bound to get emotional.This was a huge event for the Japanese promotion. Not only were the semi-finals and finals of a tournament with arguably the best collection of 205-pound fighters ever being held that night, the card also featured the most anticipated heavyweight match-up in the history of the sport.
Wanderlei Silva would take on Ricardo Arona and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua would face Alistair Overeem with the winners advancing to the finals. Those four navigated through a sea of fighters which included Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Igor Vovchanchyn, former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton Jackson, and MMA living legend Kazushi Sakuraba.
And in the co-main event, Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic would challenge the undisputed Pride FC Heavyweight Champion, Fedor "The Last Emperor" Emelianenko, unbeaten in nearly five years while facing top competition.
The event was, in a word, amazing. Arona controlled Silva en route to a decision victory and even laughed in the Chute Box fighter's face as the final bell sounded, that which only comes with the knowledge that he had ended Silva's five-year unbeaten streak at 205-pounds.
Rua survived an early onslaught from Overeem and made his way into the finals where he completely decimated the Brazilian Top Team product via hammerstrikes and immediately shot up to a number one or two ranking on many MMA pundits' top ten lists. A more in-depth look at Rua's involvement in the tournament can be found here.
The heavyweight bout did not disappoint. Twenty minutes of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat action between two of the world's best ended with Emelianenko getting his hand raised. His face was battered and bruised, proof that even the Russian Cyborg, was not immune to "Cro Cop's" striking proficiency. In that victory, Emelianenko also provided the blueprint for beating the kickboxer: press the action and never let him get comfortable. Gabriel Gonzaga utilized this tactic in the UFC and nearly decapitated the beloved Croatian.
The event was an enormous success and left fans wanting more. And, of course, Pride FC delivered.
Their next card was arguably the greatest mixed martial arts (MMA) event of all time: Bushido 9. Go to any MMA website and ask what the best events ever are or what DVDs should be added to a collection and I guarantee you nearly everyone's answer will include this event.
The card featured five past or future world champions, not including organizations such as Shooto or DEEP. Throw those organizations into the mix and the list of champions grows even further.
Paulo Filho, Dan Henderson, Takanori Gomi, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Murilo Bustamante, Yves Edwards and Joachim Hansen were just a few of the fighters on the card. 14 bouts total with only five going to decision and even those, especially Hansen vs. Edwards, were great fights.
This card was the beginning of Pride's lightweight and welterweight tournaments to crown a 161-pound and a 183-pound champion, which would be decided at Shockwave 2005.
Pride's next event, Fully Loaded, featured the main event of Filipovic taking on former UFC Heavyweight Champion Josh Barnett in a rematch from a bout the year prior in which the American suffered a freak shoulder injury.
Filipovic dominated his way back into the win column and looked as though he was en route to a rematch with Pride's heavyweight king. The co-main event featured Mr. Pride himself, Kazushi Sakuraba, knocking out Ken Shamrock.
By this point, the stage was set for Pride's annual New Year's Eve show. They, and rival kickboxing promotion K-1, would stack their cards in hoping of winning the all-important ratings war in Japan. Pride, for their part, filled the card with a who's who of MMA: Fedor, Wandy, Arona, "Cro Cop," Gomi, Hendo, and Sakuraba, among others.
Gomi and Henderson won their matches, each the finals of the tournament that started at Bushido 9. Silva retained his title with a split decision victory of Arona, avenging the loss from Final Conflict. The most surprising result was Mark Hunt, former K-1 World Grand Prix Champion, defeating "Cro Cop" via split decision. The Croatian just couldn't dish out enough punishment in 20 minutes to topple the Super Samoan.
2005 was definitely a banner year for the premier fighting organization in Japan and arguably the world. 2006, however, would have a rocky start.
Pride's first event of that year, Unbreakable, lacked marquee names or stellar match-ups. Antonio Rodgrio Nogueira and Barnett made appearances against over-matched opposition and "Shogun" returned to the ring for the first time since his 2005 Grand Prix win against an aging Mark Coleman, who many felt was no match for the Brazilian.
In what came as a shock to many, a takedown attempt by Coleman inadvertently led to Rua dislocating his elbow. The ensuing madness in the ring between the Hammer House team and Chute Box blurred the lines between MMA and pro wrestling.
While Unbreakable (yes, the irony of the name is not lost on me nor should it be you) somewhat floundered, Pride's Bushido series kept putting on amazing shows. Bushido 10 is perhaps best known for the shocking upset by Marcus Aurelio, in a non-title bout, choking Takanori Gomi unconscious. These amazing cards, however, failed to draw well and the brand struggled financially.
A big question going into 2006 was what weight class would take control of the now-annual Grand Prix. When Pride answered that question, it was a bit of a surprise.
It wouldn't be for heavyweights. It wouldn't be for light heavyweights. It wouldn't even be for welter- or lightweights. No, it would be for them all. Pride was holding an open-weight tournament to crown the "best fighter in the world." Immediately, talk of Wanderlei Silva taking on Fedor Emelianenko or Takanori Gomi fighting "Shogun" Rua was on the tip of every MMA fan's tongue.
While the idea of a 155-pound fighter taking on a middleweight seems insane, it was that kind of insanity the company was known for.
What actually transpired was less than exciting. For all intents and purposes, it was a heavyweight tournament save for some light heavyweights who had previously competed at heavyweight and a couple of 185-pounders thrown in for good measure.
The promise of an open-weight tournament was greater than the result and fans were, as expected, somewhat disappointed.
But that was the least of Pride FC's problems.
In the next installment, we'll explore the yakuza scandal that rocked the company to its core and eventually brought it to its knees.