It's pretty much a given that Kazushi Sakuraba is the best fighter in the history of Japanese mixed martial arts. At 180 pounds, he competed against the best in the world at light heavyweight and even heavyweight. He was delightful to observe, a solar myth in a sport that trends ugly, a bright light in a dark and blood-soaked game. Sakuraba was the best - I don't think it's really disputable and have never heard anyone downplay his legacy or accomplishments. Even UFC President Dana White told MMA Nation's Luke Thomas that Sakuraba's status as Japan's best was "absolutely true." That was in July, 2010.
Now White's saying something different. "In my opinion, Yushin Okami is the best fighter to ever come out of Japan," White said during yesterday's media conference call. "This guy didn't come up fighting cans and get this built-up, mythological record. This guy's been fighting the absolute best for years, and I'm sure he feels and a lot of people feel this guy hasn't gotten the credit he deserves."
White was just continuing a narrative he started with former Pride champion Fedor Emelianenko. But the critique of Sakuraba's record rings hollow. It just doesn't reflect reality as we know it, or more importantly, as the record shows it.
Sakuraba is the last remaining figure from the bygone days of the Pride Fighting Championship that we are allowed to look at with a sense of sentimentality. As fans and historians we've varnished and polished his veneer until it sparkles. But does his myth live up to the cold scrutiny of observation?
When I look at Sakuraba's career I don't see the cans and manufactured record White suggests. Instead, Sakuraba was thrown to the lions, early and often. From former Extreme Fighting heavyweight standout Marcus Silveira to former UFC heavyweight star Vitor Belfort, Sakuraba was immediately tossed into the deep end. And he didn't just fight beasts and behemoths. Skilled craftsman like Alan Goes and Carlos Newton also fell at his hand - as did four members of the legendary Gracie family.
Eventually Sakuraba met his master in the great Wanderlei Silva. But even as his body wore the marks of the battles he had fought in the ring, Pride brutally continued sending him out against a who's who of the sport. Mirko Cro Cop, Ricardo Arona, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. These were the "cans" allegedly set up for Sakuraba. What's actually remarkable about Sakuraba's legacy is how little Pride and other Japanese promoters did to protect it.
Of course, Sakuraba wasn't a perfect fighter. There is no such thing. You can believe in the idea of a perfect fighter absolutely - but never fully trust in any man. If he has a head for the fight game, he may lack the heart to do what is necessary. Give him a powerful right hand and he'll have barely a thimble full of grappling prowess. No man is perfect and neither was Sakuraba. But he combined technical skill with an artist's grace better than anyone in mixed martial arts history.
There's no need for White to cannibalize Sakuraba's record of achievement to prove a point. This sport needs its heroes. Besides, his legacy is there on DVD, on Blu-Ray, on YouTube. It cries out to be admired - whether it's his perfectly timed cartwheel guard pass or his will to stand and do battle with the monstrous Silva. Kazushi Sakuraba doesn't need Dana White's stamp of approval any more than he needs mine. His legacy is secure and it will take deeds - not words - for another Japanese star to surpass him.