Photo of Wanderlei Silva courtesy of Sherdog.com, makeover courtesy of Dan Henderson.
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.
The Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, officially opened its doors on Sept. 1, 2000. Three months later, Pride Fighting Championships (Pride) held its first event in the building. It was the beginning of a near seven-year long relationship, one that would bring fans fights like Wanderlei Silva's second shellacking of Quinton Jackson and the wild brawl between Don Frye and Yoshihiro Takayama.
And it all started at Pride 12 known in the states as "Cold Fury."
More than 25,000 fans packed into the Saitama Super Arena to watch the event, which was more than six months removed from the finals of the 2000 grand prix. Pride's popularity surged in the period right after Mark Coleman became the world's best heavyweight and events like "Cold Fury" helped continue the momentum the promotion was enjoying.
With ace Kazushi Sakuraba in its corner, there seemed nothing Pride could do to prevent its from being the biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) promotion in the world. His "Gracie Hunter" moniker came full circle at this event, while a Brazilian and an American went toe-to-toe to help decide who the Japanese legend would face next. Two future and two former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) titleholders fought at the event, helping along the theory that Pride is where champions came to fight.
Let's take a closer look at the historic event:
UFC 13 tournament winner Guy Mezger was having more trouble across the Pacific than he had inside the Octagon. After losing a split decision to Japanese stalwart Akira Shoji, he entered the 2000 grand prix and faced off against Sakuraba in the opening round. The bout went all 15 minutes and to a judges' decision. In a fight many felt the Lion's Den had done enough to win, the scorecard read a "draw."
One angry Ken Shamrock later and Mezger had forfeited the bout.
A decision win four months later surely helped his confidence, but the devastating knockout loss he suffered to "The Axe Murderer" a few months after didn't help matters. Nearly a year into his Pride career and Mezger was sitting on a 1-3 record. Mezger helped tilt the numbers more in his favor with a brutal knockout over Alexander Otsuka in less than two minutes.
Future UFC welterweight and heavyweight champions Carlos Newton and Ricco Rodriguez made appearances, each picking up a unanimous decision wins over their opponents, while former middleweight contender Ricardo Almeida made his MMA debut in a winning effort over Shoji. Heath Herring continued his impressive run after a come-from-behind upset win over Tom Erikson a few months before by defeating Enson Inoue.
Pride 2000 grand prix quarterfinal opponents Kazuyuki Fujita and Mark Kerr each stepped inside the ring, but like that evening in Tokyo seven months prior, Fujita come out a winner, while "The Smashing Machine" came up short. "Ol' Ironhead" bested Gilbert Yvel over 10 minutes, while Kerr fell to Igor Vovchanchyn in 15 minutes. Kerr would, of course, be deeply affected by personal and substance abuse issues in the ensuing years, finding success only twice more in his career before retiring in 2009.
The two big fights on the event would end up being Wanderlei Silva taking on Dan Henderson and the headliner of Kazushi Sakuraba and Ryan Gracie.
At the time, both Silva and "Hendo" were relative newcomers to the sport and had hardly achieved the legendary status each enjoys today. But, both were still exciting scrappers and the match up didn't disappoint. Unable to get the Brazilian onto his back, Henderson was forced to stand and bang with "The Axe Murderer." For all his wrestling accolades, "Hendo" did well for himself on his feet and it'd be no surprise if this performance -- combined with his brutal knockout of Renzo Gracie three months later -- is what gave the Team Quest fighter the confidence he needed in his stand up to become the knockout machine we all know and love today.
The main event saw Sakuraba solidify his "Gracie Hunter" nickname when he defeated his fourth member of the vaunted "first family of MMA." He nearly snapped Royler's arm at Pride 8, dominated Royce for 1.5 hours at the grand prix and then made good on his previous threat when he dislocated Renzo's elbow at Pride 10. His performance against Ryan was more Royce than Royler and Renzo as the Japanese legend was unable to submit the Brazilian, but still had no trouble defeating him. "Saku" didn't even seem to take the younger Gracie seriously and seemed more interested in entertaining the audience with bits than anything else.
Pride 12 wouldn't have the same air as future events, but it was a more than fitting beginning to what would become the promotion's legacy at the Saitama Super Arena.
More from the "Ghosts of Saitama" series: