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Ghosts of Saitama: The Japanese New Year's Eve war starts with three blockbuster shows

Photo of Royce Gracie battering Hidehiko Yoshida via <a href=""></a>.
Photo of Royce Gracie battering Hidehiko Yoshida via

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.

Yesterday we took a look back at 2011's New Year's Eve (NYE) event at the Saitama Super Arena, a show that very well could be the last in the near-decade long tradition. Indeed, the future looks grim from where we sit.

It wasn't the case eight years prior when groups headed by Antonio Inoki, K-1 parent company Fighting and Entertainment Group (FEG) and Pride Fighting Championships (Pride), each decided to go to all-out television war on Dec. 31, 2003.

Bom-Ba-Ye. Dynamite!!. Shockwave.

Three huge events that had millions of combat sports fans glued to their television sets at home and more than 100,000 people packed into three different stadiums. Saitama Super Arena, of course, was one of them. The building played host to Pride's Shockwave event, also holding the honors for the next three years.

It was supposed to be the dawn of a new age in mixed martial arts (MMA) and combat sports in general. And while it seemed to fulfill that very promise for the next couple of years, it also inevitably led to the downfall of the sport in Japan.

Let's dive right in:

Shockwave was a star-studded event naturally headlined by Japanese all-star Kazushi Sakuraba taking on the younger of the Brazilian twins, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. An Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) rematch also took place as Octagon originals Don Frye and Gary Goodridge locked horns for a second time. This time "Big Daddy" came out on top with a thunderous head kick that put "The Predator" immediately to sleep.

Americans Quinton Jackson and Heath Herring each took on and defeated overmatched competition. In "Rampage's" case, it was Ikuhisa Minowa, a fighter he likely outweighed by 20 points. For "The Texas Crazy Horse," it was Giant Silva, a fighter who likely outweighed him by 100 but whose MMA skills were rudimentary at best.

Akira Shoji would end up getting viciously knocked out by Murilo Rua only two months after Mauricio Rua achieved the same result. It seemed the Rua family had Shoji's number. Fellow Japanese fighters Yuki Kondo and Kiyoshi Tamura fared better aganist their competition, however.

Kondo bested Brazilian legend Mario Sperry while longtime Sakuraba rival Tamura was able to submit Ray Sefo's baby brother Rony. A fight between Hayato Sakurai and fellow countryman Daiju Takase went the judges who scored "Mach" as the victor.

The Gracie family earned back some respect for Brazil before the night was done. Daniel Gracie submitted his opponent with relative ease and while the result of Royce Gracie's bout with Hidehiko Yoshida is a draw, it was only the special rule set that defined it as such. After allowing the judoka to take his back the previous year and elicit a stoppage through a possibly dubious choke, the UFC Hall of Famer was not going to rest on his laurels.

During their first bout, Yoshida employed the ezekiel choke using his gi. Staying in position for a few moments, the Japanese fighter then alerted the referee that Gracie had passed out. The bout was called and Yoshida popped up to his feet. The problem was so did Gracie. It seemed like the entire country of Brazil poured into the ring then to protest the stoppage so 16 months later, two fighters found themselves back where they started.

Only this time, Gracie had a score to settle and a point to prove. The fight is officially a draw but in reality, it was a one-sided beatdown. The UFC legend dominated his opponent from bell to bell and despite not coming out with a win, he still earned back some of the respect he had lost the year before.

It became the fight the event has become best known for. The bout was booked because Pride officials were eager to get both fighters back into the ring to settle the score after the scandalous ending to their first match-up over a year prior at a Pride/K-1 co-promoted event. Their hope was to make money while also hoping to quell any controversy.

But controversy remained. Two names surprisingly absent from the Shockwave card were those of popular kickboxer turned MMA fighter Mirko Filipovic and Pride's heavyweight champion at the time Fedor Emelianenko. "Cro Cop" mysteriously took the night off while "The Last Emperor" actually appeared at Inoki's Bom-Ba-Ye event. The details surrounding those situations would eventually lead to Pride's downfall.

Allegations of crooked promoters and even dirtier managers with the Yakuza having its fingers in everything. Two years after this event, the murky details began to surface and Pride wouldn't survive the fallout. It helps cast a shadow over this event since the competitiveness of Pride officials to put on the biggest and best show possible is also what led to the company's demise.

The main event was Pride ace Sakuraba taking on the relatively fresh face of "Lil Nog." While older brother -- by 23 seconds -- was already an established name on the Pride circuit, Rogerio Nogueira had only stepped inside the promotion's ring three times. The two had a great fight. Really, it will probably go down as when two of the greatest fighters to never hold a major title met inside the ring.

The pomp and the spectacle would reach even greater heights in the ensuing years -- Shockwave 2005 boasts nearly 50,000 fans in attendance -- but it all began in 2003 at the Saitama Super Arena.

In a way, it's also where it began to end.

More from the "Ghosts of Saitama" series:

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