On this day in grappling history…

Today (May 1) represents the 23rd anniversary of the historic fight between Kazushi Sakuraba and Royce Gracie during the opening round of the 2000 Pride Grand Prix Finals.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Pride Grand Prix 2000 Finals, it was the Super Bowl of Super Bowls for MMA. With few exceptions, the biggest names from past and present participated in the event until only one remained to be crowned champion.

The idea behind the Grand Prix was to crown the best fighter in the world at the moment. Not the best welterweight. Not the best heavyweight. The best fighter, regardless of size!

More importantly for us grapplers, it pitted one of the scions of the Gracie family–and a BJJ purist–against a wrestler trained in catch-as-catch-can by the legendary Billy Robinson. I still remember watching the fight two-plus decades ago as an enthusiastic blue belt in jiu jitsu feeling absolutely sure that Royce would win…🙂

The context mattered, too. Sakuraba had defeated Royce’s older brother, Royler, the previous November. According to legend, it was the first time a Gracie had publicly—perhaps even privately—suffered a loss in a fight since their father Helio fell to Kimura in 1951.

Though the contest was competitive early on, at no point did it feel like Royce was in control. Sakuraba used his superior stand-up wrestling and physicality to wear down Gracie. He nearly submitted Royce several times with leg lock attempts, as well.

After an hour had passed the ‘Gracie Hunter’ began to kick out Royce’s legs . After 90 minutes the Gracie corner finally threw in the towel. The feud between Sakuraba and the Gracie’s was far from over, but this was the definitive high point of their rivalry. Both men had put all their cards on the table and Sakuraba won.

Although I don’t believe the fight may stand the test of time from a technical viewpoint, one profound lesson still resonates–if you study BJJ, you must train the neutral (stand-up) portion of grappling with even greater diligence. Twenty-three years later, Royce’s inability to bring the fight to the ground on his terms is an important lesson for all of us grapplers!

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