It was 1998 and after just two shows the Pride Fighting Championships in Japan had redefined the sport we have come to know as Mixed Martial Arts and established itself as the top destination for fighters across the globe but we’re not going to prattle on about Prides extensively documented greatness. No, we’ll save that for another time. Instead lets take a look back at Pride’s first great fight.
Kazushi Sakuraba and Carlos Newton should both require no introduction now but at the time of Pride 3 both men were merely good prospects. Sakuraba was well known in Japanese Pro Wrestling circles and did win the UFC Japan tournament but he was still a relative unknown to MMA fans, until his drubbing of Vernon “Tiger” White at Pride 2 that highlighted his supreme grappling acumen and put everyone on notice that his looks were very deceiving. Carlos Newton had exploded onto the scene with a lightning fast submission of the legendary Erik Paulson and followed it up with three more quick sub finishes before only just barely dropping a decision to Dan Henderson in his UFC debut prior to his Pride debut in this very match.
As the bell for the first round echoed through the Nippon Budokan and Sakuraba fired of a few leg kicks that would serve as the only significant stand up strikes the entire bout. No one could have predicted that the two gentlemen in the ring would set a new standard for grappling in MMA, as Saku planted Newton with an amazing whizzer trip counter to Newton’s bodylock, passed Newton’s guard like it was nothing and lock up a beautiful armbar that Carlos masterfully defended, it quickly became apparent that something very special was happening inside the white ring.
Through the first ten minute round, the two gentlemen put on a clinic of attacking and defending. Saku used his wrestling and all the Catch tricks that Billy Robinson him taught him in the UWF Dojo, to remain on top and relentlessly attack the arms and legs, as well as control Newton. It was far from one sided however, Carlos skillfully worked from his back defending every move Saku made and countering in turn with his own attacks, taking advantage of Sakuraba’s tendency to give up his back like it was no big deal. One of the most startling things was the seemingly unspoken gentleman’s agreement not to strike each other on the ground as the two men only threw a hand full of halfhearted ground strikes the entire fight. Pancrase had a similar unspoken rule in their matches but it was most unusual seeing it in a full NHB rules match.
The second frame would start with Newton taking Sakuraba down from the back as Sak attempted to Armlock Carlos, a move he would later do to Renzo Gracie in another unforgettable Pride moment. Carlos got back control and held on as Sakuraba attempted numerous roll outs, sweeps and even an extremely deep single leg, the Saku specialty but Kazushi would not be denied and indeed got back on top before locking up another extremely tight armbar that Newton once again flawlessly countered out of and took Sakuraba’s back, this time it would be his undoing. As the clock ticked down and “Last five minutes!” rang through the awestruck arena, Newton feeling the pressure, tried to get his hooks in but it was exactly what Saku was waiting for, as the very soon to be Japanese demi-god grabbed Carlos’ foot, rolled through, grabbed Newton’s other leg to catch one of the most spectacular kneebars in grappling history and this time there was no escape for Mr. Newton.
Over fifteen minutes the two created a masterpiece of fluidity and class that set a new standard, one that still stands today and one that any fighter who calls themselves a grappler would have to try and top. Both men would go on to become legends in the sport; Saku would become perhaps the most beloved and respected fighter that MMA has ever seen, as well a completely revolutionize the sport, a revolution that began with this fight. Carlos would eventually become a champion in the UFC and this match would serve as the first of many of the most incredible moments in combat sports history that Carlos would be involved in, from his Powerbomb/Triangle double KO loss at the hands of Matt Hughes to his return of the living dead submission win over Pele. win or lose both men always put on the most exciting fights they could and we will never forget the night they faced off, one on one.
All photo’s by the legendary Nagao Susumu