PRIDE FC’s inaugural event was held in October of 1997. The main event featured a superfight between legendary BJJ black belt Rickson Gracie and Japanese pro wrestler Nobuhiko Takada.
This contest would set the standard for PRIDE events. The combination of incredible fighters and awe-inspiring production values would prove to be successful. 47,000 fans filled the Tokyo Dome to watch their country’s most popular fighter clash with the champion of the Gracie family. Rickson defeated Takada by armbar less than five minutes into the match. The overwhelming success of the promotion’s debut meant that PRIDE would be back. Renzo Gracie has called PRIDE 1 the perfect MMA event.
PRIDE continued to attract huge audiences and many of the world’s best fighters to their subsequent shows.
At PRIDE 2, another Japanese pro wrestler, Kazushi Sakuraba, made his PRIDE debut. Unlike Takada, Sakuraba proved to be a force in MMA, submitting Vernon White in the third round. He rose to fame in Japan by participating in all eight subsequent PRIDE events and winning every fight, despite often being the smaller fighter.
Sakuraba fought Royler Gracie at PRIDE 8. He had Royler’s arm locked in a kimura, but the Gracie refused to tap. The referee stopped the fight, which fueled the rivalry between the IQ Wrestler and the Gracie family. Sakuraba’s success against the family eventually earned him the nickname “Gracie Hunter”.
While the UFC was struggling due to poor management and attacks from politicians like John McCain, PRIDE had a lucrative TV deal in Japan and had signed some of the world’s greatest fighters.
In 2000, after eight successful events, PRIDE held its first Grand Prix. The event was designed to determine the greatest fighter in the world. The pool of fighters included many greats, such as Goodridge, Coleman, Sakuraba, Vovchanchyn, Kerr, and Royce Gracie.
The second round of the tournament was the first PRIDE event to be aired in the USA. It featured one of the most anticipated superfights in MMA history between Sakuraba and Royce Gracie. Royce demanded special rules for the fight, which lead to an epic 90 minute war, with Gracie’s corner finally throwing in the towel after the sixth round.
Meanwhile, Igor Vovchanchyn, who had a record of 33-1, was destroying everyone who got in his way with some absolutely brutal KOs.
On the other side of the bracket, Coleman was using his world class wrestling to dominate his opponents. Coleman defeated Shoji to earn his place in the finals. Igor and Sakuraba met in the semi-finals in what would become Saku’s first loss in PRIDE. Vovchanchyn hadn’t lost a fight in five years and looked unstoppable heading into the finals.
The final fight of the tournament had no time limit, which worried Coleman because he didn’t know how he would be able to finish Igor off. Coleman used his wrestling to secure a dominant north-south position and crush Igor’s head with devastating knees. Vovchanchyn tapped out. In the post fight interview Coleman said, “I feel like the luckiest man in the world!” The former UFC champion claims that winning the Pride GP was the greatest accomplishment of his career.
After the tournament, more of the best fighters in the heavier weight classes flocked to PRIDE. Among hardcore USA MMA fans, PRIDE was generally regarded as the best organization in the world.
Many current MMA stars rose to fame in PRIDE over the next three years, including Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, Ricardo Arona, Quinton Jackson, Minotauro Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko.
At PRIDE 10, Sakuraba, who had become an idol in Japan, fought Renzo Gracie in a fight that had one of the most incredible endings people have ever seen. Sakuraba secured a kimura. Like Hélio and Royler before him, Renzo refused to tap. He watched helplessly as his arm was being torn from his shoulder. After the fight, Renzo said, “Many people make excuses when they lose. I have only one. He was better than me tonight”.
But Sakuraba was introduced to the next generation of MMA fighters when he clashed with Wanderlei Silva. Wanderlei knocked him out less than two minutes into the fight.
PRIDE decided to introduce HW and MW (206 lb.) championship belts in 2001.
The MW contest featured a rematch between Sakuraba and Wanderlei. Sakuraba had earned the rematch by beating the bigger, faster and stronger Quinton Jackson. He performed much better agaist Wanderlei than he did in their first fight, but lost when his left shoulder was injured during a takedown. The age of Wanderlei Silva had begun.
Meanwhile, the HW title fight pitted Heath Herring against Antonio Rodrigo “Minotauro” Nogueira. Herring had made his name in PRIDE by going 5-1. But Nogueira proved to be too much for the Texas Crazy Horse, defeating him in a 20 minute war, where some heavy blows were exchanged and Herring narrowly escaped the Brazilian’s submission attempts.
Two weeks after 9/11, one of PRIDE’s most charismatic stars, Don Frye, made one hell of an entrance. In his own words, “I was carrying a flag on a pole, the proper way. You don’t hang it on your shoulders like a damn hippie”. The Japanese fans showed tremendous respect by embracing the American fighter as he entered the ring. He went into the fight with an injured leg, but held on for seven minutes before his opponent was disqualified.
Frye would win his next fight in a grudge match against Ken Shamrock and would be part of one of the most memorable clashes in MMA history four months later. He was matched up against Yoshihiro Takayama, and neither fighter held anything back. This fight outdrew Japan’s world cup soccer game in the same timeslot.
PRIDE champion Nogueira continued to dominate the PRIDE HW division over the next year and a half and avenged his only loss. In 2002, PRIDE teamed up with K-1. The event, called Shockwave, attracted more than 90,000 fans. In one of the most anticipated matches in MMA history, PRIDE’s HW champion was matched up against Bob Sapp, who outweighed him by over 100 pounds. Sapp manhandled Nogueira for the majority of the fight. One of the commentators said, “I don’t care how much experience you have, you can not overcome that kind of power”. But somehow, Minotauro managed to survive long enough to submit The Beast in the second round. Nogueira became an idol in Japan and at 17-1-1, with no unavenged losses, he seemed unstoppable.
Some questions arose in 2003 when PRIDE’s president was found dead, hanging from ceiling of his hotel room. Some speculated that the Yakuza was behind his death.
In the MW division, Wanderlei was beating every challenger. He often took advantage of PRIDE’s rules, which allowed kicks, knees, and stomps to the head of a downed opponent. After eleven PRIDE fights, he remained unbeaten. To give Wanderlei the challenge he deserved, PRIDE decided to hold another Grand Prix.
By this time, the UFC had been purchased by Zuffa and had established itself as the premier MMA organization in the USA. UFC President Dana White wanted to prove that his organization was home to the greatest fighters in the world, so he sent his friend Chuck Liddell to compete in the GP. Dana White was confident saying: “Chuck Liddell will win”. He even made a $200,000 bet with Sakakibara that Chuck would beat Wanderlei.
The fight that Dana wanted was Liddell vs. Silva, but Chuck would have to earn his shot at PRIDE’s champion by going through Alistair Overeem and Quinton Jackson. On the other side of the bracket, Wanderlei took out Sakuraba and Hidehiko Yoshida.
Liddell was defeated by Jackson in the second round, when his corner threw in the towel due to Rampage’s dominant position and devastating strikes.
Jackson and Wanderlei met in the finals and there was bad blood. Wanderlei continued his reign of the division by beating Rampage by TKO. The two would meet again, and while Rampage put up a better fight the second time, he became the victim of a brutal knockout.
In the HW division, the #1 contender was a pudgy Russian who had made a splash in PRIDE by dominating Semmy Schilt and Heath Herring. Fedor, who was a heavy underdog, shocked the world by beating Nogueira. He spent the majority of the fight in the BJJ master’s guard and instead of being submitted, he punished Nogueira with devastating strikes.
Fedor Emelianenko was the new HW king.
In 2003, PRIDE also introduced Bushido events. The rules were slightly different from their regular shows and were designed to encourage faster paced matches. Each match would have only two rounds (a ten minute first round and a five minute second round) and the cards would feature PRIDE’s best up-and-coming talent. Some of the best fighters in the world would make their name in Bushido, including Takanori Gomi and Mauricio Rua. PRIDE closed out 2003 with a bang, starting their tradition of promoting a stacked New Years card called Shockwave.
PRIDE’s 2004 GP featured HW fighters. Many of the world’s best HWs entered the sixteen fighter pool, but Emelianenko and Nogueira would meet in the finals. Fedor went on to defeat Nogueira again, becoming the 2004 GP champion and retaining his belt.
Fedor would continue to dominate the deepest HW division in the world. He not only established himself as the greatest HW in MMA, but as the greatest fighter ever to walk the earth. His only missteps in PRIDE came against Fujita and Randleman.
Fujita landed a hard punch and Fedor was out on his feet, but the Russian regained his composure and proceeded to knock Fujita down and apply a nasty rear-naked choke.
Against Randleman, he was suplexed and landed on his neck. Seconds later, Randleman was tapping out to a kimura.
2004’s Shockwave card was amazing. It featured nine current or former PRIDE or UFC champions, and some very memorable fights. Among them was Ryo Chonan’s shocking upset of Anderson Silva and Wanderlei Silva’s war with Mark Hunt.
The next GP would feature the MW division again. It was arguably the most stacked tournament in MMA history.
Wanderlei Silva’s prodigy “Shogun”, who was a huge underdog entering the tournament, earned a position in the finals by beating “Rampage”, Little Nogueira and Overeem. In the finals he faced Arona, who defeated Silva earlier that night. “Shogun” knocked Arona out in a dominant performance and was crowned the GP champion. Over the course of five months, “Shogun” had gone from talented prospect to top ranked MW.
The same night “Shogun” was crowned champion, Fedor was challenged by #1 contender and knockout artist Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic in the biggest fight of 2005. Fedor showed his versatility by standing with “Cro Cop” and beating him on the feet.
PRIDE’s seventh Bushido event, held in 2005, marked a transition from the cards featuring up-and-coming fighters to featuring fighters from PRIDE’s two lightest weight classes.
Bushido 9 contained the first round of the organization’s WW (183 lb.) and LW (161 lb.) tournaments. Not only would the winners be crowned tournament champion, they would also receive the inaugural championship belt for that division, which they would go on to defend. Many fans consider Bushido 9 the greatest MMA event of all time. After a night of fourteen exciting fights, Takanori Gomi and Hayato Sakurai would battle for the LW belt and Dan Henderson would fight Murilo Bustamante for the WW belt. The finals were held at Shockwave 2005, where Gomi scored a knockout and Henderson would win a close decision. Neither fighter would ever lose their belt.
In 2006, PRIDE held its second open weight Grand Prix. With Fedor injured, it was the perfect opportunity for another PRIDE HW to earn a title. All three events were very exciting, and featured some of the world’s top ranked fighters, including Wanderlei Silva, “Cro Cop”, Nogueira and Barnett. “Cro Cop” earned his place in the finals by brutally knocking out Silva. Barnett did so by beating Nogueira in a controversial decision. In the finals, “Cro Cop” finally won an MMA belt by beating Barnett a third time.
Unfortunately, after the 2006 GP PRIDE’s Japanese TV deal fell through. The network cited a breach of contract, but many speculated that it was because of the organization’s alleged Yakuza ties.
Without a TV deal, the organization’s only chance to stay afloat was on pay-per-view. Thanks to the UFC, the USA was the largest market for MMA PPV buys, so PRIDE decided to leave Japan for the first time in nine years to attempt to break into the USA market.
In PRIDE’s second USA show, WW champion Dan Henderson challenged MW champion Wanderlei Silva for his belt. Wanderlei had defeated Henderson earlier in his career, but after more than five years as champion, Wanderlei finally lost his belt. Dan Henderson became the first fighter in PRIDE to hold two belts simultaneously.
Despite two very entertaining cards in the USA, PRIDE’s president, Sakakibara, announced that PRIDE had been sold to the owners of the UFC. This news excited many MMA fans, who were thrilled about the possibility of dozens of UFC vs. PRIDE superfights finally coming to fruition.
Sakakibara said that his goal in selling PRIDE to Zuffa was to make sure that the PRIDE ring, where miracles have happened, would not go away. He said to the Japanese fans, “Fear not, PRIDE is here to stay”. Zuffa co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta claimed: “This is not about business, this is not about money. It brings me a huge amount of joy that I’m able to bring these two great organizations together. I think we’ll see some incredible PRIDE events and some incredible UFC events”. Dana White said: “We as an organization, PRIDE as an organization, and you the fans will all benefit”.
Twelve days after Sakakibara announced that PRIDE had been sold, the organization held its final event, PRIDE 34. Six months later, Zuffa laid off every PRIDE Worldwide employee. Dana White said: “I’ve pulled everything out of the trick box that I can and I can’t get a TV deal over there with PRIDE. I don’t think they want us there. I don’t think they want me there”.
After ten years of producing many of the most memorable moments in MMA history, PRIDE FC was finally knocked out.
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