For ten years, Pride FC was home to some of the zaniest -- and most memorable -- moments in MMA history. Seven years after the promotion’s demise, here’s a look at some of the organization’s wild plans that didn’t quite come together…
From 1997 until its untimely death in 2007, Pride Fighting Championships was unarguably the zenith of global mixed martial arts. What the Ultimate Fighting Championship pioneered, Pride FC more or less perfected, providing MMA fans with crazy ass match-ups, incredibly awesome tournaments featuring the best fighters on the planet, and of course, grandiose spectacles at the Tokyo Dome and Saitama Super Arena that made the UFC’s Las Vegas cards look downright staid by comparison.
About two years after Pride FC was bought out by UFC parent company Zuffa, a somewhat mysterious book was published by Japanese fighting magazine Kamipro titled “Pride FC: Secret Files.” The book, according to Sherdog prattle, was penned by someone with some inside info at Pride, whom apparently was privy to all of the bizarre and outlandish things the suits at the promotion wanted to green light. Recently, an English fan translation of the book has popped up on the MMA shareware circuits, and if even HALF the things the enigmatic author of the title says are true, then it appears we, as mixed martial arts fans, were this close to seeing some truly unforgettable things transpire in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The book begins with a recap of the Zuffa buyout on March 27, 2007. According to the author of the book, Lorenza Fertitta (who shilled out $3.3 million from his own pocket to pay for the announcement press conference) had a major tiff with Nabuyuki Sakakibara and Dream Stage Entertainment shortly thereafter, which more or less sunk any chances of Pride FC shows operating under the Zuffa banner. The two sides exchanged legal threats -- with DSE accusing Fertitta of contractual breaches and Zuffa accusing Sakakibara of fraud -- until Zuffa decided to just shutter the Pride FC Worldwide offices in Japan on Oct. 4 of the same year.
According to the book, Fertitta (whose interest in MMA was sparked by the legendary Royce Gracie/Kazushi Sakuraba bout at Pride GP 2000) said that without a TV deal in Japan, the costs of running any Pride shows in the promotion’s home country were just too expensive. On April 8, 2007, Pride FC officially became “American capital,” but due to insufficient “asset assessments” on Sakakibara’s behalf and a lack of time to schedule shows in the wake of the transfer, plans for the much ballyhooed Pride Lightweight Grand Prix had to be nixed. Speaking of which, had that tournament gone on as planned, it likely would have consisted of a who’s who of then-lightweight and welterweight Japanese heavies, including Shinya Aoki (who said that he was given an offer to fight BJ Penn before going full time with Pride) , Gilbert Melendez, Joachim Hansen, Takanori Gomi, and Satoru Kitaoka. Furthermore, there was at least discussions of bringing in some current UFC fighters for the tourney as well, including Sean Sherk, Matt Hughes, and yes, possibly Georges St-Pierre himself. While the Pride tournament never came to fruition, we did end up getting something of substitute with the DSE-backed Dream 2008 Lightweight GP, the book reminds us…which, of course, was sans Zuffa umbrella fighters of any kind.
While the end of Pride is somewhat glossed over (funny, the authors of the book never really seem to address the well-founded accusations that, at least in part, the promotion’s downfall could be traced to bad business with the Yakuza), there is a WEALTH of information about the original plans for the first couple of Pride FC shows.
As it turns out, the entire point of the first Pride show was to basically be a Pro Wrestlers Kingdom vs. Gracie family exhibition. That initial show -- held Oct. 11, 1997 at the Tokyo Dome, with the main event of Nobuhiko Takada vs. Rickson Gracie -- originally had Kazushi Sakuraba penciled in to do battle with RENZO Gracie as a co-main event. Of course, seeing as how important their eventual showdown in 2000 became to the history of mixed martial arts, the author of the book rightfully muses what could have been had the two tangled three years before their infamous, arm-snappy bout.
Additionally, there were plans for Tank Abbot to battle Kimo Leopold on the first Pride show, which ultimately tuned into the colossal Kimo/Dan Severn snoozer. Various other wrestlers, among them Akira Maeda, Minoru Suzuki, Riki Chosu and even MITSUHARU MISAWA were also contacted about appearing at Pride 1, although little came out of the discussions, obviously.
The original main event for Pride 2 was to be Mark Kerr vs. Royce Gracie, with the Gracies ultimately cajoling the Pride suits to turn the bout into a no-time-limit, no ref-stoppage affair (virtually, the same regulations they demanded for the Saku bout in 2000.) However, Royce got a bad case of bitch flu before the fight could be finalized, and we instead ended up with the Mark Kerr/Branko Cikatic “classic” that saw the former K1 Grand Prix champ disqualified just two minutes into the match-up.
A dude named Akimoto Yasuhsi, who is probably best known for being the Svengali behind the popular girl group Onyanko Club, was originally pegged as the producer for Pride 4, but it was not to be. I probably don’t need to tell you this, but the guys at Pride also had a really intense interest in luring a ton of sumo wrestlers over during the early years of the organization. Alas, few grapplers of name value took the lure. The book skips chronological sequencing for a while, it lets us know that the reason Pride held its U.S. shows in smaller Las Vegas venues than the UFC wasn’t because of territorial reasons, but because the larger arenas wouldn’t let them use gun powder.
With DSE taking the reins from KRS, Pride FC underwent a huge restructuring that saw the promotion land a Fuji TV deal as well as hash out partnerships with organizations like K1, New Japan Pro Wrestling and Rings, which went a long way in helping the fledgling MMA organization secure a much-needed “end of the year” television special. Of course, that DSE takeover didn’t mean that Pride was soon to abandon its leanings towards the bizarre, as the author of the book informs us that the promotion had THREE different plans lined up to bring in a Tiger Mask-themed fighter. Originally, Pride went after pro wrestler Tiger Mask IV, but negotiations fell through. A plan for journeyman Guy Mezger to rock the iconic furry mask in battle similarly was on the table, but it likewise deteriorated. At one point, the organization even wanted to create TIGER MASK V as an all new mascot, to be “played” in battle by Kiyoshi Tamura. However, the sight of a grown man a giant cat helmet in a genuine mixed martial arts bout just wasn’t in the cards for Pride, unfortunately.
From there, we leap a couple of shows to Pride 23. A symbolic event of sorts, that show saw longtime Pride FC spokesfighter Nobuhiko Takada get "retired" by Kiyoshi Tamura. However, Naoya Ogawa was actually penciled in to be Takada's final opponent, and when that fell through, both Hidehiko Yoshida and Big Nog were floated around as possible adversaries before the powers that were ultimately decided upon Tamura.
Believe it or not, a good five years before The Ultimate Fighter made its cable TV debut, Pride FC had its own reality program, titled "Pre-Pride" and later "Pride King," which aired on Toyo TV. According to the book, none other than Yushin Okami served as the ultimate winner of the program's fourth season, where it appears as if he strolled out to ringside while rocking a Batman mask. Other reality TV experiments backed by Pride included a similar show called "Pride Challenge," "Sayama's Ultimate Boxing" and "MMA the Best," which featured not-quite-ready-for-PRIDE-time fighters duking it out in a very familiar looking eight-sided cage.
Pride 25 basically marked the beginning of the organization's second life, with the "passing of the torch" from Big Nog to Fedor. At the next numbered event, Mirko Cro-Cop became an instant legend when he KO'ed Heath Herring, thus setting up what was basically a two-year long "angle" with the Croatian kickboxer on a collision course with the Last Emperor. At the same time, however, the UFC was in the midst of some wheeling and dealing with the Pride powers that were, with UFC 46 almost landing a Kazuyuki Fujita vs. Wesley "Cabbage" Correiera match-up. The UFC also made a bid for Saku, and allegedly turned down a contractual offer for Sergei Kharitonov, because he was a "no-name Russian" that was too good for the comparably thin UFC heavyweight division at the timeframe. The UFC even gunned for a cross-promotional show in Japan, with Cro-Cop is a potential headliner; and had things gone smoother, we may very well could have had ourselves a Wanderlei Silva vs. Randy Couture bout at the 2004 New Year's Eve show.
Speaking of NYE shows, the original plans for the 2003 event were downright insane. While we ended up with a pretty boring Ronnie Sefo vs. Tamura bout, the original plan was to have Tamura do battle with Saku. With Saku and Tamura unwilling to come to terms for the bout, the back-up plan was to have Tamura fight Big Nog, and when talks sputtered there, Pride FC talked about bringing in former heavyweight boxing champ EVANDER HOLYFIELD as Tamura's opponent! The organization also targeted Oscar de la Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard for contests, but unsurprisingly, not much came from the discussions. Believe it or not, the blueprints actually got even crazier from there, with Pride wanting to have Saku fight at the show while wearing a lucha libre mask, and the suits even mulling a TAG TEAM BOUT with Saku and Tamura teaming up with partners of their choosing in what would've been an MMA first (and most likely, an absolute train wreck, to boot.) And before Saku's bout with Lil' Nog was finalized, he came pretty close to having a match against lucha libre legend El Solar.
Russian Top Team, the book alleges, really had it out for Fedor. In fact, RTT was downright obsessed with creating their own homegrown monster to take down the Last Emperor. While the grooming of Kharitonov didn't go as planned, RTT was -- at one point, at least -- deadset on turning Suren Balachinsky, a guy that had bested Fedor in Sambo competitions, into the next great Russian MMA wrecking machine. Alas, the best laid plans of both mice and men often go awry, and they certainly went awry for RTT.
Ryan Gracie was the loose cannon of the first family of mixed martial arts, and his ongoing "backstage feud" with Chute Box is well documented. Ryan provides us with perhaps the book's funniest passage, in which the author describes how, as soon as he buried the hatchet with Chute Box, he immediately pissed of a bunch of fighters under the Brazilian Top Team umbrella to start another ongoing rivalry. Speaking of backstage fights, there's an old urban legend claiming that Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett once knocked out Wanderlei Silva, after he himself was choked unconscious by Cristiano Marcello. While Krazy Horse, to this day, claims to have KO'ed Silva in a fury after regaining consciousness, the book tells a different story -- namely, that a disoriented Bennett swung and landed a few hits on Silva after waking up, but coming nowhere close to knocking out the long-time Pride middleweight champion.
According to the book, the Bushido co-brand was to be an "MMA toy chest," largely anchored around homegrown Japanese talents (who, as fate would have it, weren't doing too well against their Brazilian, American and Russian cohorts.) The idea of a "Pride Survivor" program was also knocked around, focusing on fighters on long losing streaks, but it never came to fruition. If you recall the first Bushido event, you'll probably never forget watching Mirko Cro-Cop knock Dos Caras, Jr. (now, WWE'S Alberto del Rio) silly -- per the author of the book, Mil Mascaras was none too pleased that his protege wore a modified mask during the bout as opposed to his traditional luchador regalia.
Before Brock Lesnar became a pro wrestling-turned-MMA sensation, Pride sought their own American heavyweight import -- none other than the man called Vader himself! Way back in 1996, Vader was scheduled to do battle with Kimo in a U-Japan bout; eventually, Vader backed out, with Bam Bam Bigelow stepping in to get his ass kicked instead. So, what kept Vader from making his Pride debut in 2003? Well, it was primarily due to his in-ring performance at a Hustle pro wrestling show a few weeks earlier, where he allegedly spent a great deal of time backstage puking blood everywhere.
As Pride reached its twilight, the organization became obsessed with weird-ass publicity match-ups. First up was a proposal for the 2006 NYE show that would have seen Takanori Gomi doing battle with former WBC Super Flyweight boxing champ Masamori Tokuyama. The original plan was for the bout to be contested under boxing rules, with four rounds, and only knockouts "counting." Needless to say, things never really progressed that far from the drawing board.
For the last five years, the two biggest MMA stars in the world have been Anderson Silva and GSP. According to the book, Pride cut Silva back in 2005 because he was on bad terms with Chute Box, and the organization didn't want to do anything to alienate its fighters. And believe it or not, Pride actually passed on Georges St-Pierre, with DSE stating they were't interested in the fighter prior to his signing a contract with UFC, although they did send him "materials" regarding the organization.
Perhaps the last major hurrah for Pride's crazy-ass planning was in 2006, when the organization bandied about an idea for a "Mike Tyson World Tour," which would have seen the iconic fighter boxing Pride heavyweights like Fedor and Cro-Cop in special events in China, Russia and Europe. And if you know anything at all about Mr. Tyson, you already know why that shit never got off the ground, either.
As for the organization's final two shows, the book tells us two things that most MMA fans weren't aware of. First, the original plan for Pride 33 (one of the best MMA cards of all-time, by the way) was to have Lil' Nog do battle not with Sokoudjou, but none other than KIMBO SLICE! According to the book, however, Pride decided on an "other black and beastly" fighter (those quotes are theirs, not mine), which itself led to one of the greatest upsets in mixed martial arts history. And for Pride 34 -- what would come to be the promotion's final card -- the original main event was supposed to be Saku versus Tamura, which was then scrapped for a hypothetical Saku vs. Wandy IV showdown -- a bout made impossible because Wanderlei got knocked out just a few weeks prior by Dan Henderson.
After reading "Pride FC: Secret Files," I really got me a hankering for some old-school, mismatched, freak-show, weight class averse Japanese MMA action, all right. While the book itself seems pretty biased towards Pride FC -- what, with the vilification of the UFC and the brazen oversight of the organization's shadier business doings -- the stench of sour grapes isn't that overwhelming, thankfully. Needless to say, the big draw for the publication is all of the "top-secret" data on Pride's kookier matchmaking ideas, and there is a ton of such material to be found within said treatise. Of course, this being a Japanese publication, the Engrish is out in full force, and the "exclusive" interviews with dudes like Gomi and Minowa really don't tell us anything we don't already know. Beyond a few outright miffs (like the author of the book saying that Fox tried to buy the UFC for $1 billion in 2009), it seems to be a rather reliable tome, for the most part; and perhaps best of all, virtual copies of the publication aren't difficult at all to come by.
There's no denying that Pride FC had a penchant for the grandiose, the bizarre and the downright absurd, and this book was a delightful look at all of the crazy ass ideas that were just too much, even for the nation that once gave us a live, televised bout featuring Bob Sapp and an anthropomorphic cartoon character. It's a fun, nostalgic look back at what once was, and the downright insanity of what could've been -- it may not be sports journalism at its finest, but for hardcore MMA fans that sure do miss them some wacky, soccer-kick-laden action, it's most certainly a tract worth thumbing through, if nothing else, for the sheer "WTF" value contained therein.