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PRIDE 1 retrospective - Rickson Gracie takes center stage as a new era dawns

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Rickson Gracie Attends Press Conference
Rickson Gracie
Photo by Sankei via Getty Images

When Kakutougi Revolutionary Spirits held their inaugural event in Tokyo, Japan on October 11, 1997 the Tokyo Dome was the furthest thing from my mind. In fact as a college student at the time mixed martial arts was not something I had even heard or been aware of. It was only later through the involvement of “The World’s Most Dangerous Man” Ken Shamrock at WrestleMania 13 that the idea of professional fighting outside the world of boxing started to dawn on me. The only fighting pay-per-views I ever bought until then featured Mike Tyson.

After college the world of MMA became steadily more intriguing to me. I had always been a pro wrestling fan dating back to the days my grandfather would yell at Paul Orndorff on his television, but mixed martial arts for lack of a better phrase seemed “more real” yet still had the same drama and spectacle of a staged wrestling match. UFC 60 was my gateway drug. I had already been sucked in by The Ultimate Fighter a year earlier, but the build up to Matt Hughes and Royce Gracie completely absorbed me. A venerable fighter from the past returned to face the dominant legend of the present. I bought it and I loved it.

At that point I had to know everything there was to know about the Gracie family, and beyond their role in getting UFC off the ground, they were also “Big in Japan” as Alphaville would say. That led me to PRIDE 1, headlined by Rickson Gracie vs. Nobuhiko Takada. Gracie was the third oldest son of the legendary Helio Gracie and half brother of Royce Gracie. He was a BJJ black belt by the age of 18 and already having mega fights in Brazil in the 1980’s. He was a perfect 8-0 in pro fights, having finished every bout via submission to date, while his opponent Takada was better known as a Japanese pro wrestler with no “shoot fighting” experience whatsoever. All you need to intrigue the people though is a legend and a star, just like Royce Gracie and Matt Hughes. Different era, same idea.

The birth of what would eventually be known as PRIDE had more than one match though. Kazunari Murakami also had a background in Japanese professional wrestling, and he opened the evening against American fighter John Dixson. Neither man had a stellar record. Murakami was 3-3 while the man from Biloxi, Mississippi was 3-5, but Murakami’s judo background enabled him to throw Dixson to the ground and secure a quick armbar at 1:34.

From there it was off to the races. “Big Daddy” Gary Goodridge had already made his name in UFC, well remembered for going to the finals of UFC 8 to face off with Don Frye. Oleg Taktarov had an even more distinguished UFC career, winning the UFC 6 tournament and recording the fastest submission in the promotion’s young history in the process.

Goodridge managed to drop Taktarov with a right hand and hurt him badly, but he tried to get back to his feet and regroup. Goodridge dropped him again with the same shot and fell on top of him in the process, jack hammering him repeatedly with rights until the referee stopped it by knockout at 4:57.

Two bouts on this card went to a draw. Renzo Gracie had also knocked out Oleg Taktarov in a fight and came in a perfect 5-0 (1 NC), but he could not find a submission or a knockout against the 1-1-1 Akira Shoji. It wasn’t for lack of trying though. Gracie outworked Shoji for the entire 30 minutes and locked him in dangerous positions multiple times, but as there were no judges at the inaugural event nobody was able to score him the winner when the time limit expired.

A battle of behemoths came to the canvas next as the 6’7” 390 lb. Koji Kitao from Japan faced the 6’9” 345 lb. Nathan Jones from Australia. As you might expect from his size Kitao was formerly a world class sumo who later turned pro wrestler, while Jones took his fame from strongman contests and built his own pro wrestling career. Kitao had not won a single MMA fight before facing Jones, but Jones was completely inexperienced in fighting and tried to dance around Kitao like Muhammad Ali. He could not escape a key lock with all his size and strength once it went to the ground and the submission came at 2:14. It was Kitao’s last MMA fight and Jones’ only MMA fight.

After a kickboxing contest between Branko Cikatic and Ralph White ended in a no contest due to Cikatic illegally kicking a grounded opponent, another battle of UFC veterans took center stage as Dan Severn faced Kimo Leopoldo. If you’re suffering from insomnia watch this bout and I guarantee you’ll get a good night’s sleep. A lot of stand up, a lot of clinch work, and a lot of hard blows led to both men fighting exhaustion by the bout’s end, with Leopoldo blatantly holding the ropes trying to stop Severn from taking him down. Once again a lack of judges ensured there was no winner but in this case it was justified.

At long last we come to the famous Gracie vs. Takada fight. This was the kind of spectacle PRIDE events would become known for. Was the Brazilian legend nearing his 40’s going to be able to withstand the unpolished but energetic assault of the younger Takada? Of course he was, but you still wanted to see it just the same. Takada tried his best to make something happen but once Gracie got a double leg takedown it was only a matter of time before he secured an armbar for a submission at 4:47.

The fight turned out to be a big box office draw, doing almost 48,000 fans in the Tokyo Dome, ultimately leading to a rematch to headline PRIDE 4 a year to the day later. Despite two fights (one lackluster) going the distance, it was by and large an exciting introduction to Japanese mixed martial arts for me, and one that I recommend you watch yourself on VHS, DVD or the streaming service of your choice.