Ghosts of Saitama: In 2004, the world's greatest heavyweights descended upon Saitama Super Arena

16 men ... only one champion

The roar of the crowd ... the sound of bare feet shuffling against canvas ... the unexplainable electricity inside the building. They are all mere echos today as crowds in the tens of thousands have dwindled down to a fraction of that amount. The Saitama Super Arena, host of this Saturday's (Feb. 25) UFC 144 event, has been home to some of the greatest mixed martial arts (MMA) events in the history of the sport. "Ghosts of Saitama" will take a look at some of those moments, forever preserved and never forgotten.

In 2000, Japanese promotion Pride Fighting Championships (Pride) took the format the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) got their start with -- the tournament -- and turned it on its head.

Rather than having the entire thing over the course of one night, the opening round was held four months before the quarter-, semi- and final rounds. It was a massive success and helped establish Pride as the preeminent MMA promotion in the world. They replicated the success on a smaller scale -- both in terms of weight and scope -- in 2003 when an eight-man 205-pound tournament was held.

The following year introduced the grand prix in the format it would be remembered by. 16 fighters, three events, one champion. While Andrei Arlovski and Tim Sylvia were -- as Dana White put it recently -- "knocking each other out every weekend," Pride housed names like Mirko Filipovic, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko.

The first installment of "Ghosts of Saitama" will take a look back at the 2004 grand prix, the only tournament held exclusively at the Saitama Super Arena. From Total Elimination to Final Conflict, the arena saw each heavyweight triumph and failure.

Let's go!

The 2004 grand prix kicked off with Total Elimination in April of that year. There were K-1 kickboxers, giants, sumo wrestlers, Russian cyborgs, American wrestlers and Texas crazy horses. Current heavyweight champ Emelianenko faced off against the 2000 grand prix winner Mark Coleman and submitted him easily in the first round. Former champion Nogueira also made his first round opponent tap while a debuting Sergei Kharitonov lit up Murilo Rua in impressive fashion.

The most stunning part of the event, however, was undeniably Kevin Randleman's knockout over "Cro Cop." Filipovic flinched his hips ever so slightly, teasing his dreaded head kick and "The Monster" countered with a massive hook that put the Croatian down for the count. Mauro Ranallo screamed himself hoarse by screaming, "Kevin Randleman has knocked out Mirko Cro Cop!" over and over. In a tournament Filipovic was expected to possibly win, his first round exit was shocking.

Randleman looked primed to continue his Cinderella run at Critical Countdown when he faced off against Emelianenko. A German suplex Mitsuharu Misawa would have been proud of dropped the Russian nearly on his head but a minute later, he had wrangled one of the American's arms and twisted it back. It was an amazing display of poise and technique from "The Last Emperor."

Aside from the grand prix, Critical Countdown is well known for two non-tournament bouts. Mark Hunt, a K-1 World Grand Prix champion made his MMA debut in a losing effort to Hidehiko Yoshida. Hunt would go on to a roller coaster career, getting wins over names like Wanderlei Silva and "Cro Cop" before losing six straight. He makes his return to Saitama at UFC 144, taking on Cheick Kongo.

The other fight was a title eliminator between Quinton Jackson and Ricardo Arona, each looking to unseat "The Axe Murderer." The Brazilian controlled the opening minutes of the bout, even landing a vicious upkick that appeared to stun "Rampage" before Jackson countered a triangle choke attempt by lifting Arona up and then slamming him down onto the mat.

The final four emerged at Final Conflict: Emelianenko, Nogueira, Kharitonov and Naoya Ogawa. The Japanese judoka was booked against the Russian in the semi-finals but fell short to the champion. "Big Nog" and Kharitonov went to a decision and while the Pride newcomer continued to impress, the Brazilian won the nod. Emelianenko and Nogueira. After their epic clash at Pride 25, a rematch between the two titans was set.

Before "The Last Emperor" stepped inside the ring for the second time, however, he had to sit backstage and watch "Cro Cop" brutally knock out his baby brother, Aleksander. It was one of two devastating knockouts that evening as Silva took on former King of Pancrase Yuki Kondo and nearly stomped the Japanese fighter's head through the canvas.

Four months after it began, the 2004 grand prix was set to end with two men inside the ring. Both Emelianenko and Nogueira waded through 14 other heavyweights so they could settle their score from over a year before. Unfortunately, an accidental headbutt opened a gash on the Russian's forehead. It was deep enough to warrant a medical stoppage and the bout ended in an underwhelming No Contest. It wouldn't be until the annual New Year's Eve card four months later when the two returned to Saitama that the grand prix was finally decided.

And in the end, it was Emelianenko standing alone.

Tomorrow: Pride Fighting Championships makes its Saitama Super Arena debut

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