It is said that the most sincere form of flattery is imitation. In the PRIDE 2000 Grand Prix, Kazushi Sakuraba showed a great respect for the teachings of Helio Gracie. Although the timing was strange, since he was at the time derailing the Gracie legacy of unbeaten champions and at the time using the method to defeat Helio’s son.
Helio Gracie had a style of fighting that was and remains quite different from traditional Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and even further from Catch Wrestling. Helio was often much smaller than his opponents, never being over 165 pounds or so at any point in his career and often much lighter. He developed a style that today would probably be neither very effective or entertaining, but at the time was extremely effective. He was often not very aggressive and did no take many risks, he was content to stay safe and allow his opponents to tire and then capitolize. This is reflected in his motto,”I do not fight to win, but rather I fight not to lose.” This idea was time and time again reflected as his matches were frequently longer than 60 minutes and often consisted of Helio being controlled but not finished only to capitolize on his foes exhaustion late in the fight. This would not be very effective today for a few resons, chief among them being that matches are under vastly different rules with short fights and frequent stand ups.
When the first of the modern Gracies fell in MMA competition it was Helio’s son Royler Gracie losing to Kazushi Sakuraba by a suspect referee stoppage, one which I disagree with. Regardless, Royler was dominated in that match, probaly mostly due to the fact that he was some 35 pounds lighter than Saku. The burden of defeating this fighter from Japan who had shattered the Gracie mythos in one dominant performace fell to the most famous and arguably most successful MMA fighter, UFC 1,2, & 4 champion Royce Gracie.
Livid at the suspect stoppage Gracie demanded a fight with Sukuraba, but not under PRIDE rules, rather an older style match with an unlimited number of ten minute rounds. This is not as shocking when one realizes that these rules were employed by PRIDE before, when Renzo Gracie briliantly employed Helio’s stratagy and submitted Abu Dhabi champion Sinae Kikuta after 50 grueling minutes of combat. The Gracies were convinced that these rules would favor them. They were wrong.
The match began it became apperent early on that Sakuraba would take a page from Helio’s book and wear out his opponent with a “don’t lose” stratagy that was quite different than his usual style. In a manner that Helio himself would be proud of, Sakuraba stopped many takedowns and controlled Gracie both standing and on the ground with his Jiu-Jitsu uniform, or Gi. He often used this not only to maintain control over Royce on the ground and also to avoid damage standing in the clinch when Gracie had his back. Evnetually, after 90 minutes Royce was exhausted and battered by leg kicks. Though he wanted to continue, his corner would not allow him to; it was his father Helio. The image of Helio in the corner while the towel is thrown in between rounds is, to me at least, one of the most memorable moments in all of sports history.
In his next match, Sak would defeat Renzo Gracie, who would offer his greatest complement to Sakuraba by telling him that he was the Japanese version of the Gracies. On that night where he defeated Royce though, Sakuraba offered a tribute to Helio not with words, but by employing his very strategy to defeat one of the greatest champions of the family.