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Ghosts of Saitama: The end of an era when PRIDE closes up shop at the Saitama Super Arena

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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.

PRIDE never die.

It's been long enough that it almost seems like a meaningless meme spouted off on MMA sites when Wanderlei Silva or or one of the Nogueira twins step inside the Octagon.

But for the fans who were there, for the fans who either stayed up until the crack of dawn or militantly stayed off the internet until the event aired stateside, it was and still remains a battle cry.

The Saitama Super Arena opened its doors to many PRIDE Fighting Championships events for over six years. It did so the final time in April 2007 when PRIDE 34, aptly named Kamikaze, marked the last show under the company's old management. The promotion -- two weeks prior -- had been sold to the Ultimate Fighting Championship's parent company. While a future for PRIDE was promised, everyone -- fighters and fans alike -- knew this was the end. And indeed it was.

"Ghosts of Saitama" ends with a look back at PRIDE's final event. It wasn't just the end of a company. It was more than that.

It was the end of an era.

Despite Wanderlei Silva's presence on the promotional poster, a suspension handed down from the Nevada State Athletic Commission prevented "The Axe Murderer" from competing. He had been brutally knocked out at the company's previous event by Dan Henderson and risked further disciplinary action if he went against the ruling.

In fact, the only fighters with significant history with PRIDE that appeared were Don Frye, Ricardo Arona and headliner Kazuyuki Fujita. There was no Silvas, no Sakurabas, no Emelianenkos. The event seemed more a shell of what PRIDE had been than anything. But it was a chance for fans to say goodbye.

The show opened with Yoshihiro Nakao taking on Brazilian Edson Drago. The Japanese fighter took advantage of his opponent's inexperienced ground game and was able to score an impressive neck crank submission in the closing minute of the opening round.

The next fight was exactly the type of freakshow PRIDE was known -- and either loved or hated -- for. Side attraction boxer Eric Esch -- better known as "Butterbean" -- took over Brazilian counterpart "Zuluzhino." The giant Brazilian was brought into the company two years prior as a possible foil for Fedor Emelianenko but the hype clearly exceeded reality. "Butterbean" -- in one of the most inexplicably hilarious moments in MMA history -- escaped a submission attempt from the Brazilian only to force a tap out seconds later by slapping on an americana armlock.

It was dumb. It was ridiculous. It was fun. It was PRIDE.

Two of Japan's sons competed in the next couple of fights. Makoto Takimoto took on Croatian kickerboxer -- mini "Cro Cop" he was called -- Zelg Galesic while Akiro Shoji met Dutch bad boy Gilbert Yvel. Takimoto survived some PRIDE-style soccer kicks and stomps before managing to secure a submission five minutes into his bout but Shoji fell short in his bout. The Japanese stalwart impressed -- as he always did -- with his fighting spirit but took huge damage as a result of Yvel's ground and pound.

If not for Don Frye and his bout with James Thompson, this event would have barely resembled a PRIDE event. Frye didn't care about titles, he didn't care about moving up the ladder. When he competed in PRIDE, he did so as a showman and bless his heart for it. He played the character of a big, dumb, tough American who seemed to feed off the elated gasps from the Japanese crowd.

His pre-fight face off against the Briton saw each man grinding their forehead into the other, an act which actually busted Frye open before the fight even started. "The Predator" rocked the infamously glass-jawed Thompson seconds into the fight and thought the fight was going to be stopped but it continued. Back and forth punches brought back memories of Frye's war with the beautiful Yoshihiro Takayama. The American ended up on his back and ate a huge soccer kick which proved to be the beginning of the end. Brutalized in the corner, the referee was finally forced to stop the fight.

It was dumb. It was ridiculous. It was fun. It was PRIDE.

A surprise appearance from Kazushi Sakuraba came next. "Saku" had left PRIDE from the Hero's promotion the prior year but made a return to the company that helped him -- and he helped -- prosper. He showed up bearing the guise of famous Japanese pro wrestler Tiger Mask. Despite the mask, everyone could tell "The Gracie Hunter" was in tears. He once again -- as he had in the past -- said he wanted to famous longtime rival Kiyoshi Tamura inside a PRIDE ring. After refusing the bout for years, Tamura joined Sakuraba in the ring and agreed, hugging his countryman inside the Saitama Super Arena.

They would finally face off a year and half later.

Before he became known as the submission wizard he is today, Shinya Aoki was just a scrappy Japanese fighter who loves to grapple. He made quick work of his opponent at PRIDE 34, securing an armbar in a little over 90 seconds. The most impressive performance of the night came next as Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou stepped inside a PRIDE ring for the second time against a top 10 Brazilian light heavyweight and for the second time walked away with an unbelievable knockout.

Antonio Rogerio Nogueira was his victim six weeks prior and Brazilian Top Team product Arona would fall to him that night in Saitama. A vicious uppercut ended Arona's night early and helped "The African Assassin's" hype train reach insane levels.

The last fight of the night -- the last fight in PRIDE's history -- was "Ol' Ironhead" taking on Jeff Monson in a bout promoted as a PRIDE vs. UFC match-up. It promised to be the first of many co-promotional bouts but none would end up taking place. The American would score the submission victory and put a quiet, muted end to the most celebrated MMA companies in the sport's history.

For the first time, the event was aired live in the United States on pay-per-view (PPV) as opposed to the tape delayed, edited servings that had been the norm. If it was to be the last time we got to enjoy PRIDE, it was only fair we got to see it as it happened.

And once it was over, the view went from inside the Saitama Super Arena to a generic cable or satellite screen promoting a replay of the event or another PPV on the schedule backed by some generic muzak. An important chapter in MMA's history had just ended but it seemed the world at large didn't care.

PRIDE never die.

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