Posted by mmaplayground Monday, February 23, 2009 12:00 AM
Submitted by Shawn Rafferty
With UFC in full swing and with no sign of the dark days ahead, a new organization arose in the Land of the Rising Sun in 1997, boasting odd round and scoring structures, a truly international roster and including the vicious rules that were quickly being removed from the legally-embattled UFC. Pride FC held its first event on October 11th of that year with a showcase of old UFC fighters and combat sport veterans and legends from the world over, and running with that momentum, soon turned themselves into a premier fight organization with one of the most competitive rosters on the planet. Their fighters were second to none in all aspects of combat sports, conditioning, and ippon, or will to finish the fight, making Pride FC THE place for any fighter who wanted to be the absolute best. Or, at least that's what they would have had us believe. When watching such early Pride greats as Wanderlei Silva, Kazushi Sakuraba, and Igor Vovchanchyn destroy their competition, it was difficult to imagine these warriors could possibly be sub-par to the fighters in other promotions around the globe, and the proof was in the pay. How could someone who's paid $250,000 a fight, lose to guys making a tenth of that stateside? How could someone who battles in front of 60,000 fans at the Sitama Super Arena possibly be bested by someone fighting in a place called Casino Magic in some forgotten city in Mississippi? Three years into Pride FCs reign of supremacy though, we started to see cracks in the organizations armor. With Wanderlei Silva dropping a close decision to Tito Ortiz in Prides own homeland, and in other pivotal bouts along the way. What was perhaps the greatest upset in the organizations smoke and mirrors show came at their own event, Pride 33, which was held in the USA.
The invincible Japanese warrior, Takanori "The Fireball Kid" Gomi, a man who had crushed the competition time and again with is ferocious assault, wrestling and submission savvy and a nuclear left hand, went against Nick Diaz, who was 14-6 as a professional with a UFC record of 6-4. While most agreed he was a tough-as-nails fighter, it was a forgone conclusion that Gomi would knock him into sleepyland within the first round. Yet, try as he might, Gomi couldn't put Diaz down for the count and was, in fact, on the wrong side of the scorecard at the end of round one, and didn't fare much better in round two. Recreational drug-related shenanigans aside, Diaz locked up an ultra rare Gogoplata finish in the second round for a tremendous upset over Prides lightweight dynamo. Shortly thereafter, Pride FC dissolved as a company and its fighters were cast into the wind to seed destruction in the fight leagues of the world. But, what happened was far from the carnage one would anticipate from the worlds greatest fighters landing in smaller organizations. One after another, Pride greats were being crushed by mid-ranked opponents, who years before we would have bet our houses against, and it was happening all to often to be a fluke. What happened to the fighters of Pride? How could someone be an utter wrecking machine on one side of the Pacific, and be a laughing stock on the other? This is my personal theory on the situation which is still unfolding before us, I believe it to be, maybe not the whole story, but a good part of why Pride fighters fail outside their home turf.
No athletic commision = No weight classes:
While the NSAC and CSAC might cause trouble from time to time with split decisions and not overturning fights that really should be stricken from the records, they do a fine job of keeping the playing field even in the world of fighting where size, and occasionally skill, is involved. Japan, and Pride by proxy, have no such officiating body and were able to create loose weight classes, that were mere suggestions for the people fighting in them. While fight organizations in Japan occasionally have "weigh-ins" they're closed door affairs where the weights aren't even posted, and is used more as a photo shoot than an actual leveling device for relative size of fighters. While the Japanese attitude might be "Its not about the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog", what happens with a beagle and a bull mastiff have the same amount of fight in them? The bull mastiff has a beagle-sized snack. While there are no weight classes on the streets, there certainly need to be in professional combat sports. Not only to avoid grievous injuries, but to allow fighters to work and train within their own weight. Watch a season of TUF, where guys are dropping 23lbs to make weight, or eating sandwiches on the scale to show how undersized they are, and see what kind of difference 15 or 20lbs makes in a fight. There are certain techniques that don't work particularly well against larger or smaller opponents, and its difficult for a fighter to know what these are until they train against said opponents, and it isn't fair for fighters to be training for huge disparities in weight. As professionals, Pride fighters were never subjected to this, and the two times they were, fighting under the NSAC banner, it was mayhem. Looking at the weigh-in numbers for the two US events, of the 13 non-heavyweight fights, 5 of those featured guys fighting at three or more pounds difference with their opponents, which shows not only how difficult it was for some to make weight, but how some don't even have to try, as they fight at their walking weights. Not only may this have harmed them professionally in their growth, but this was certainly something that harmed them when moving into other markets.
Making the weight:
As Pride fighters were never required to make a standardized weight like other fighters, the art of "weight cutting", where an opponent sheds fat and water weights to make sure they're as large as they can possibly be at their weight class, is something that was never learned by a majority of fighters. Weight cutting is something from wrestling and Western boxing, which are sports that never took off in Japan as they have in the US, and cutting weight never developed in the Japanese fight culture. Most Pride fighters fought at their walking weight, putting them at a tremendous disadvantage to fighters who drop sometimes as much as 40lbs from the time they take a fight to the time they weigh in, and replace 20lbs of that in the 24 hours before the fight. Several Pride fighters, once leaving their organization, dropped one, and sometimes two entire weight classes in the new markets, as they simply couldn't compete with their larger opponents. Even the prime fighters of Pride in Wanderlei Silva, Mirko "Cro-cop" Filipovic, and Kazuo Misaki were, or currently are, finding they're unable to hang with the larger breed of fighters in the larger world of MMA.
Levels of competition:
Wanderlei Silva was arguably the greatest champion in MMA for the 6 years he held the Pride Middleweight Title, although not all fights were at his weight and not all were title affaris. A six year run is almost unheard of in this sport and is an amazing feat, but with Silva, and all Pride champions and contenders, there was a large amount of cannon fodder thrown against him in his career. Being very generous with the skill level of his opponents, it can be said that, in 28 bouts under the Pride banner, Wanderlei only fought 9 opponents (Mezger, Henderson, Sakuraba, Tamura, Filipovic, Jackson, Kondo, Arona, Fujita) in 15 bouts all told, that were anywhere near his skill level. Of those 15 bouts, he was 11-3-1. Being less generous, only two of those nine fighters (Henderson and Jackson) were able to crack the upper crust of the divisions outside of Pride. His record against those two, 3-2. This same experiment can be repeated with every champion pride ever had and shows that a large percentage of championship level fights were against inferior opponents, which is not the case outside of the Pride mold. Its the time in the gym and the battles in the ring that make a fighter great, and I can't imagine guys like Silva, Gomi, Nogueria and Emelienenko trained very hard when fighting professional wrestlers and circus sideshows like Alexander Otsuka and Hong Man Choi. Paying someone for easy fights is hardly a way to forge an unbeatable champion, and this was painfully obvious when these champions have fought outside of Pride, with the notable exception of Fedor Emelienenko, who remains well-tested and undefeated.
Whether for the sake of excitement, or a bizarre lack of planning, fights in Pride were often thrown together in the last week or even day before the events, and this gave fighters precious little time to train specifically for an opponent and work out a gameplan. While this is commonplace in the lower levels of fighting, where regional promoters go through three or four opponents and have replacements on a few hours notice, this is not acceptable in the upper tiers of combat sports. When elite fighters go against elite fighters, they need to be able to train to fight that particular person, and not train to fight anyone that might be thrown in with them. This is where supreme conditioning, trainers and fight camps come together to mold champions, and this is a concept that never developed in Pride. A perfect example would be the utter destruction of Mirko Cro-cop by Gabriel Gonzaga at UFC 70, where it was painfully obvious, that while Gonzaga had trained to destroy Cro-cop, Cro-cop had trained the same way he had his entire career. Gonzaga implemented a perfect game plan of fast footwork, excellent hand speed, take downs off the left kicks, ground and pound assault, and finally, a spectacular right high kick that signaled the end of a dominant heavyweight in MMA. It was Mirko Cro-cops athleticism and skill level that brought him through his fights in Pride, but when he went stateside, he was outmatched in two of three fights by fighters who were possibly less skilled, but definitely better prepared for the Croatian heavyweight.
The first several UFCs were not so much a test of the fighters, but a test of the martial arts they represented. Sumo, kickboxing, BJJ, Karate, Muay Thai, wrestling, and every major combative system under the sun came together in the first dozen UFC events to see what system worked the best in the largest variety of circumstances, and in the formative portion of MMA, it was the grappler who ruled the octagon. Around the time of UFC 10 and onward though, there was a sort of awakening in the UFC, and the term "Mixed Martial Artist" was coined, to describe fighters that went beyond their disciplines to iron out their games and become complete fighters. Fast foward to the present age, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a fighter at the upper levels of MMA that isn't at least versed in striking, submissions and wrestling with varied emphasis on one or more aspects. In Pride, and still in the whole of Japanese MMA, there seem to be a large number of purists who are almost exclusively one style, even to this day. In Pride 1, there was a particularly embarrassing fight between Dan Severn and Kimo Leopold, in which neither guy could take the fight to the ground on their own terms, and instead engaged in a stand-up battle that bordered on a slap fight. It was one of the worst displays of stand-up fighting ever seen in professional MMA, and Pride fighters like Masakazu Imanari and Shinya Aoki, while amazing at their disciplines, are still entirely one dimensional fighters. A great deal of upper level Pride fighters spent a majority of their careers fighting people who specialized in one area and dabbled in the rest, as opposed to the average MMA fighter of abroad, who is often just as at home on the mat as on his feet. This approach to combat sports caused stylistic nightmares in the ring of Pride, which became full-fledge night terrors on the international market. Mirko Cro-cop, for all this great fighters in Pride, was still merely a very good kick boxer with a little take down defense when entering the world stage, and that lack of overall skill proved to be his undoing the time that he fougtht a man that wasn't forced to stand with him. My hopes were revitalized in the first round in his fight with Kongo, but one good shot to the ribs set him back again. In a world where fighters weren't forced to stand with Cro-cop, he was beaten, and this has repeated itself over and over again outside the Pride ring.
Who used, or what was used, might always remain a mystery, but Pride fighters were allowed to use performance enhancers that would be illegal in combat sports, and this had to have had an effect on their fights. This might be a touchy subject, but Mark Kerrs documentary "Smashing Machine" clearly shows him using pain killers while training to fight in Pride, and the fact remains that Pride held 66 events in Japan without a single person failing a drug test, while a combined three fighters failed drug tests in the two shows they held under NSAC and CSAC drug test guidelines. Without naming names, some fighters have looked like bad impressions of themselves since coming to the US and while their excuses are many, there seems to be certain individuals and fight camps that have changed completely since Pride dissolved. Obviously spending your entire fight career on the influence of steroids, pain killers and other various performance enhancers would have a tremendous effect on your ability to compete once you were forced to function without them, and strong cases could be made for several fighters fighting abroad concerning this.
As a fan of the organization, and MMA in general, it saddened me to see Pride FC come to an end after its long and successful run, and watching some of its greatest stars fall from the rankings, As of this writing, with the exception of Fedor Emelienenko, no former Pride title holder is in possession of a title in any weight class. That's not to say that their former alumni have had no success. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson held the UFC light heavyweight title for a brief while, and may do so again in the future; Anderson Silva is a very dominant and heavily tested middleweight champion in the same organization, and Josh Barnett has been successful stateside in his fighting career. However, Quinton and Anderson became completely different fighters from the time they left Pride ,and joined the UFC. Their technical proficeincy grew by leaps and bounds ,and both had fights in other organizations between their joining the UFC ans exiting Pride . As a whole though, Pride fighters, for the reasons stated above, have not done well abroad, and as a sports fan, there's something painful about watching the greats fall to the way-side. In most athletics, that is due to the ravages of time and injury, and with Pride fighters, its especially odd because of the image I held for years that their fighters were beyond comparison, but as the sport moves on and leave the Pride FC roster behind, you can't help but think they were just big fish in a small pond, and how cruel the ocean can be.
(The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of this website in general, nor it’s webmaster. They are solely the views of this writer)
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