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Icarus of the East: The final days of Pride FC (Part three)

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End of the century …

Pride had one of its best years ever in 2005. But when a Yakuza scandal crippled the organization, the company was dropped from a critical television deal, which took away a sizable portion of its revenue.

Head honcho Nobuyuki Sakakibara tried to downplay the drastic turn of events, but the writing was on the wall.

The fall was so sudden and so quick, in fact, that by the end of it, Pride was a mere shell of its former self. But like that old cliché goes:

It's better to burn out than fade away.

In the last installment of Icarus of the East, we’ll take a look at Pride’s final year of operations. The failed American blitz, the sale to the UFC, and the last show, appropriately named "Kamikaze."

Here we go:

In its last year, Pride tried to invade America. In an attempt to carve out a piece of the United States MMA landscape for themselves, it ran Pride 32: "The Real Deal" at the Thomas and Mack Center, a venue in Las Vegas that the UFC has used plenty of times.

Unlike other promotions such as Strikeforce or Affliction, Pride was taking the fight to the UFC’s doorstep.

"The Real Deal" didn't look all too impressive on paper and didn't provide any real fireworks. Sure, Fedor Emelianenko made his North American debut, but it was against Mark Coleman, a man "The Last Emperor" had easily beaten two years prior.

The card was filled with American talent such as Josh Barnett, Dan Henderson and Robbie Lawler, but they were all fighting opponents who had little chance at beating them. It seems Dream Stage Entertaiment (DSE) and Sakakibara, for all the millions of yen they made and all the millions of tickets they sold in Japan, did not understand the U.S. market.

The last Bushido and Shockwave shows followed shortly thereafter, which after so many classic events in their respective pasts, were lackluster. Bushido 13 was a chore to sit through, with plodding decision after plodding decision.

Shockwave, the annual New Year's Eve blockbuster event that would normally be stacked to garner high television ratings was without many major stars.

Why?

Simply because Pride had no television deal, hence no need to battle for ratings. It was still a solid card, but where Barnett should have challenged Emelianenko, he instead re-matched Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and the Russian fought an overmatched Mark Hunt.

Takanori Gomi/Mitsuhiro Ishida, Joachim Hansen/Shinya Aoki, and Tatsuya Kawajiri/Gilbert Melendez all had great bouts on the card, in a sense making up for the snoozefest that was Bushido 13.

Nonetheless, Pride was on life support, gasping for air. Rumors of a sale began to pick up steam. The promotion decided to take one more plunge into America.

Like "The Real Deal," "Second Coming" didn't look terribly great on paper. Dan Henderson taking on Wanderlei Silva for the 205-pound title was interesting, but the match up reeked of jingoism. Henderson had been bouncing from weight class to weight class before settling at 183-pounds.

And now all of a sudden, he gets a title shot against Silva?

It was exactly the kind of booking which erred more on the side of entertainment than sport that Pride was known for. A lot of fans loved it and just as many hated it.

Gomi, the lightweight champion was taking on Nick Diaz, a UFC veteran with a 6-4 Octagon record, and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira was taking on a nobody.

But unlike its predecessor, "Second Coming" delivered the goods.

That "nobody" shocked the world when he knocked out "Lil’ Nog." Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou would continue shocking when two months later when he did the same thing to Ricardo Arona.

That UFC veteran with the so-so record thrilled the audience and those watching at home by gogoplataing Gomi in what many called the Fight of the Year. The image of Diaz, busted open and bloody with broken orbital bone being hoisted up after making the best lightweight in the world (at the time) tap, is something I'll never forget.

And that 183-pounder with no business in a 205-pound title fight? Knockout in the third round. New champ. Henderson ended Silva’s reign in brutal fashion.

As great a card that "Second Coming" was, it couldn't stop the inevitable.

A little more than a month later, on March 27, 2007, it was announced that Pride Fighting Championships was sold to Lorenzo Fertitta, co-owner of Zuffa and the UFC for a reported $70 million. Rumors of an MMA Super Bowl, title unifications and everything else imaginable under the sun began to pop up and very few of those promises were fulfilled.

But that's a whole other matter in and of itself. And on April 8, 2007, Pride FC -- under DSE management -- presented its last show: "Kamikaze."

My introduction to Pride FC was back in 2001 when I found a copy of the 2000 Grand Prix. I hadn't followed MMA for about a year so I was eager to see what an old favorite, Royce Gracie, was up to. Imagine my surprise when a Japanese fighter I'd never heard of had his way with the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) legend for an hour and a half.

Yes. An hour and a half. They fought for 90 minutes.

I nudged my girlfriend, who had fallen asleep about 30 minutes into the bout, and said, "Kazushi Sakuraba just fought Royce Gracie for 90 minutes and made him quit." "Sakuraba? Who is that," she asked, still half-asleep.

"Well … I think he's the best fighter in the world right now."

After that, I was addicted to MMA again and especially on Pride. So yes, my eyes welled up when a montage of famous Pride moments set to The Ramones' "Do you Remember Rock ‘n' Roll Radio" played.

The card was one of Pride's worst. It was over. Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

But it didn't really matter.

When your company’s history is filled with moments like the Gracie/Sakuraba, the Wanderlei/"Rampage" fights, Shogun marching through the 2005 GP, Fedor taking on Big Nog, Cro Cop, and Herring, "Rampage" nearly slamming Arona through the mat, or the entire Bushido 9 card, you’ve earned yourself a freebie.

So pour out your 40 for Pride Fighting Championships. It was a lot of fun.

So long, Pride, we'll always have Saitama.

Photo via prideneverdie.com

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