Gis to Gogo’s: The Evolution of Jiu-Jitsu in MMA (Part 2)
- Originally published March 24, 2009
In our continuing series on the evolution of Jiu-Jitsu in Mixed Martial Arts we fast-forward a couple years from our last segment. When we checked in last time, Royce Gracie’s reign of dominance over the MMA world was beginning to falter, and Royce decided to walk away from the sport.
In the two years between Gracie’s departure, and the emergence of the next great Jiu-Jitsu players in the world of MMA, the sport went through a lot of flux. Without any elite Jiu-Jitsu fighters to keep them in check, wrestlers became the dominant fighters. Fighters like Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr and Randy Couture rose to the top of the sport.
Cross-training had become the norm for the competitors at the highest level. Wrestlers were learning how to strike, as evidenced by matches like Couture-Belfort. Strikers were learning how to defend on the ground, as we saw in Smith-Coleman. However, the difference between learning how to defend from submissions from a mediocre Jiu-Jitsu player and an expert in Jiu-Jitsu are two very different things.
With wrestlers and strikers now cross-training and at least learning basic Jiu-Jitsu skills, they were now able to survive on the ground against the current level of Jiu-Jitsu fighters in the sport. An evolution needed to take place for Jiu-Jitsu based fighters to become dominant again.
This evolution was definitely occurring, and in my humble opinion it was unveiled to the MMA world on December 21st, 1997. The event was UFC Japan, which was very fitting, given the appreciation for the ground game Japanese audiences have. The two fighters who led this new generation of grapplers were Frank Shamrock and Kazushi Sakuraba. One came from a royal lineage in terms of the MMA world, while the other was a professional wrestler from Japan trying his hand at something else.
Frank Shamrock was a familiar name to many not only because of his last name, but because of his numerous competitions in the Pancrase organization. Frank followed in the footsteps of his older adopted brother Ken, who also fought in Pancrase, and was Frank’s first teacher. For the early portion of his career, Frank focused on submission wrestling matches and became quite adept at the grappling aspect of MMA, even going so far as to become an interim King of Pancrase in 1996 when he defeated Minoru Suzuki by kneebar.
By 1997 however, Frank had switched his focus to MMA. He suffered what for a long time would stand as his only loss in a bout with full MMA rules against John Lober in January 1997, and this propelled him to become the fighter we would see at UFC Japan and throughout the rest of his UFC career.
Kazushi Sakuraba followed a slightly different path than Frank. Sakuraba was a successful amateur wrestler in university, who then went on to an even more successful Pro Wrestling career. It should be noted that Japanese Pro Wrestling and American Pro Wrestling are two very different things. While most Japanese Pro Wrestling bouts were also “worked”, the athletes were knowledgeable and skilled in grappling, and bouts were intended to appear as real as possible. For a quick crash course on Japanese Pro Wrestling, Click Here.
Sakuraba’s debut in MMA was actually more of a publicity stunt to help the struggling Kingdom Pro Wrestling organization. One of his stablemates had to pull out of the fight, and Sakuraba stepped into a heavyweight tournament on short notice, even though he weighed only 183 pounds and the heavyweight minimum was 200.
In his first round match, Sakuraba was faced with a giant of a man. “Conan” Silveira was a 240 pound student of the famed Carlson Gracie. At the time, Carlson was known for being one of the founders and original masters of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. He had also taught such fighters as Vitor Belfort, Murilo Bustamante and Allan Goes, to name a few. To have a black belt pedigree from a man like Carlson Gracie was no small feat. As such, Silveira was considered a huge favorite over the unknown Sakuraba.
Their first round match was not without controversy, as it was stopped when Sakuraba dropped for a single leg takedown and referee Big John McCarthy stopped the match thinking Sakuraba had been knocked out. After reviewing the tape backstage, McCarthy decided to overturn his original ruling, calling the match a no-contest. As fate would have it though, the winner of the other Semi-Final, Tank Abbott, injured his hand and could not continue. The stage was now set for Sakuraba to re-match Silveira in the final.
In the final, Silveira was obviously still the favored fighter, but Sakuraba showed why fights take place in a ring or cage, as opposed to on paper. Sakuraba continually pressed “Conan” with unorthodox submission attempts, and gave his back to Silveira numerous times in order to attempt kimura after kimura. At the 3:44 mark Sakuraba countered an attempted kimura by Silveira with an armbar that forced his opponent to tap.
The win made Kazushi a beloved figure in the Japanese martial arts scene, and he would continue to build on this popularity by going undefeated over his next 9 matches, all in the newly formed PRIDE organization, including submission victories in what are considered some of the greatest ground battles ever against Vernon White at PRIDE 2 and Carlos Newton at PRIDE 3. Despite those wins, Sakuraba’s crowning achievement in MMA was his epic 90-minute long defeat of the legend Royce Gracie at PRIDE’s 2000 Grand Prix.
Back at Ultimate Japan, the man with a familiar last name was making his debut in the UFC. Frank Shamrock was pitted against former-gold medal winning wrestler Kevin Jackson to determine the UFC’s first ever Middleweight (under 200lb) Champion. Shamrock actually claimed before the fight that, “Wrestlers need a little lesson in submission, and I’m the man to teach them.” The lesson was lightning quick for Jackson, as Frank locked in an armbar and caused the tap at 16 seconds of the first round.
Shamrock would go on to become one of the most dominant champions in UFC history by becoming the first mixed martial artist to truly develop an all-around game. The foundation of his skills always remained his Jiu-Jitsu though. This was evidenced by wins over Jeremy Horn whom he finished with a kneebar, and even in his legendary match against Tito Ortiz which he didn’t win via submission, but instead used his active guard to tire Ortiz, eventually enabling him to capitalize against an exhausted Ortiz in the 4th round.
The quick nature of Shamrock’s submissions and his ability to capitalize on a transitional situation certainly showed an evolution from the previous Jiu-Jitsu players that had been seen in MMA. An evolution was also evident by watching Kazushi Sakuraba’s unconventional grappling skills. Sakuraba was always known as the type of fighter who would forego a dominant position in order to attempt a submission, which was not a common characteristic of Jiu-Jitsu fighters at the time.
While fighters who exclusively practiced Jiu-Jitsu would never again be as dominant as Royce Gracie once was, the new generation of Jiu-Jitsu players, led by (but not limited to) the likes Shamrock and Sakuraba had made Jiu-Jitsu highly relevant again. The onus was now on the wrestlers and strikers to evolve once more if they wanted to dominate the sport like they did following Gracie’s retirement. However, Jiu-Jitsu was not nearly done its development by any means. Those practicing Jiu-Jitsu were becoming more athletic, more versed in their craft and were still discovering new ways to ply their craft in the Mixed Martial Arts world.