December 21st, 1997

Kazushi Sakuraba was only competing at UFC Japan tonight after fellow wrestler Hiromitsu Kanehara suffered an injury in training. The 28 year old was the smallest man in the heavyweight tournament and was on the wrong end of a bad refereeing error in the semi final but still emerged as the winner.

A bizarre set of circumstances led to Sakuraba facing the same opponent twice at the Yokohoma Arena, in the first ever UFC event in Japan. In the semi final of the heavyweight tournament he was matched with Marcus Silveira and appeared to have been eliminated after suffering a TKO loss.

However it soon became clear that the American referee had made an error. Sakuraba had blocked a series of punches before dropping for a single leg takedown, only for the contest to be immediately called off.

The Japanese fighter was clearly not even hurt, let alone in a condition where he could not continue. After some discussions the bout was ruled a no contest.

Immediate rematch

This left Tra Telligman in line to face Tank Abbott in the final. The former had submitted Brad Kohler in the alternate bout while the latter beat Yoji Anjo by decision in the other semi final.

However fate had other ideas. The 15 minute fight with Anjo had taken its toll on Abbott who was forced to withdraw from the tournament with a broken hand.

The promotion opted to put on a rematch between Sakuraba and Marcus Silveira in the tournament final, to the delight of the Japanese fans. The Brazilian had got the better of the first fight and outweighed his opponent by nearly 40lbs.

Surprise submission

Silveiro is a BJJ champion and he shot for an early takedown, despite having enjoyed success in the striking exchanged during the first fight. He quickly got the fight down only for Sakuraba to attack with a kimura from bottom position.

A lengthy scramble ensued and Sakuraba eventually worked his way up, albeit with the Brazilian hanging off his back. Silveiro elected to drag the fight to the ground in the hope of securing a triangle choke or armbar.

Sakuraba wriggled free causing Silveiro to switch strategy and try for a kimura from his back. But the Brazilian has no control over his opponent’s body leaving him open for a counter.

Instantly Sakuraba spotted the opportunity and spun around to attack the arm on the opposite side with an armbar. The fight was over in a split second with a stunned Silveiro forced to tap.

The end came at the 3:44 mark and sparked wild celebrations both inside and outside the cage. Sakuraba was crowned the heavyweight tournament winner having demonstrated that pro wrestlers can be a match for the world’s best mixed martial artists.

The result is particularly significant for Japanese wrestling which suffered a humiliating setback when Rickson Gracie submitted Nobuhiko Takada at Pride 1 a few months ago. With the win over Silveiro the UWF and Kingdom veteran has showcased his sport in a much more positive light.

Best of the rest

The last man to win a UFC heavyweight tournament was Randy Couture and the American was also in action. His reward for winning the four man competition in May was a title eliminator against Vitor Belfort two months ago.

Couture made short work of the Brazilian to secure himself a shot at champion Maurice Smith in Yokohoma. The bout went the distance with the challenger winning by decision to become the new UFC heavyweight champion.

Could Sakuraba be next in line for a shot at the heavyweight title? Given that he weighed in at just 203lbs he might be better off challenging for the light heavyweight belt.

That title is now the property of Frank Shamrock. He needed just 22 seconds to submit Kevin Jackson with an armbar tonight in a bout that had the inaugural light heavyweight belt on the line.

UFC Japan, Yokohoma, December 21st 1997
Randy Couture def. Maurice Smith by Decision after 21:00 of Round 1 (Wins Heavyweight Title)
Kazushi Sakuraba def. Marcus Silveira by Submission (armbar) 3:44 of Round 1 (Heavyweight Tournament Final)
Vitor Belfort def. Joe Charles Submission (armbar) at 4:03 of Round 1
Frank Shamrock def. Kevin Jackson Submission (armbar) at 0:22 of Round 1 (Wins Light Heavyweight Title)
Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Marcus Silveira end in No Contest (Premature Stoppage) at 1:51 of Round 1 (Heavyweight Tournament Semi final)
Tank Abbott def. Yoji Anjo by Decision after 15:00 of Round 1 (Heavyweight Tournament Semi final)
Tra Telligman def. Brad Kohler by Submission (armbar) at 10:05 of Round 1 (Heavyweight Tournament Alternate Bout)

This is part of our retrospective series looking at some classic shows and fights.