2007 saw the end of an era for Japanese mixed martial arts. On October 4 of that year, world-renowned MMA promotion PRIDE Fighting Championships was officially shut down by parent company Zuffa, who opted to close the company after failing to make arrangements materialize; a piece of MMA fans died that day.
PRIDE ruled the scene for the best part of a decade, tempting accomplished western fighters such as Dan Henderson and Chuck Liddell to the ring in order to compete in their yearly Grand Prix, a growing tradition that has since provided fans with some of the sports most exhilarating moments.
In addition to offering its fair share of classic encounters between contestants, PRIDE is responsible for producing legendary fighters with historic win streaks. Despite it taking place over a decade ago relatively new fans are wide aware of the legend surrounding Wanderlei Silva and his incredible 18 fight run, in which he went undefeated and dispatched of numerous well-respected competition, all while under the PRIDE banner. This speaks to the value at which fans, media members, and fellow fighters alike hold the now-deceased organization “PRIDE never die” is the quote, after all.
In the year 2005, PRIDE was on top of the world, and so was lightweight competitor Takanori Gomi. Following a five-fight finish streak just one year earlier which saw him run through former UFC champ Jens Pulver, Gomi had positioned himself well heading into the annual Grand Prix. As fighters often did back then, he was able to squeeze two more bouts in before the opening round (quarter-finals), winning both in dominating fashion.
“The Fireball Kid” was on a tear, blasting through the opposition with relative ease while sporting his nation’s flag with pride.
Momentum is a powerful tool and Gomi had plenty of it; a concoction of this featuring the fact he was in his prime was somewhat fatal, but only for his opposing man; spectators were in for a treat. For the quarter-final round, Gomi was paired alongside gritty contender Tatsuya Kawajiri, Shooto’s lightweight champion, and prized possession at the time.
In what was a highly entertaining scrap, the then 26-year-old Takanori bested his man within the first round by way of rear-naked choke. Later that evening he defeated Luiz Azeredo by unanimous decision. He was now one of PRIDE’s two finalists for the 2005 Grand Prix, set to take place on New Year’s Eve.
PRIDE Shockwave 2005
December 31 was the date and while many were out celebrating the arrival of the new year, Japanese sports organization PRIDE had their own way of marking the occasion. A yearly Grand Prix had seized the attention of fans across the globe, and in 2005, it very much remained that way.
The nation’s No. 1 lightweight at the time was named Takanori Gomi, and boy was he on a roll. Heading into the promotions concluding event of the year, Gomi had starched nine opponents consecutively, whittling down the competition fight by fight in order to stake his claim as the world’s best 155-pounder.
The belief that he, in fact, was the division’s finest athlete was boasted by many, particularly Japanese fans themselves; prohibiting Gomi from fully deserving this title was BJ Penn, who defeated him soundly just two years earlier. Regardless of his position in the sport at the time, Takanori Gomi was set to compete for PRIDE’s lightweight crown against Hayato Sakurai, a UFC veteran with over 35 professional bouts. Sakurai was riding a wave of his own – a four-fight streak, and just like his scheduled foe, a knockout win over Jens Pulver.
PRIDE Shockwave 2005 was an unbelievable event, even by today’s standards. Mirko Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva, Mark Hunt, and both Emelianenko brothers all ruled the card, with their names being enough value to draw an attendance of over 49,000; the atmosphere Saitama Super Arena was electric.
The 12 fight event had its mix of firm finishes and close decisions, with Dan Henderson scraping by Murilo Bustamante en route to claiming the inaugural welterweight title and Grand Prix trophy. Succeeding this was the long-awaited match between Gomi and Sakurai, and tensions were high. Depending on how circumstances played out, this would act as a passing of the torch moment for Japanese mixed martial arts.
The tale of the tape hit the big screen as both gentlemen stood relaxed in the ring — Gomi, 27, with an undefeated record of 9-0 in PRIDE, and his counterpart, 30, with a less menacing score of 5-2. Each audience member then arose to their feet as Kimigayo, Japan’s national anthem, flooded the arena. A round of applause topped off by the ring announcer’s introductions was all that was left: the action was set to commence.
Gomi started by slightly applying pressure and stepping into the pocket with powerful strikes, aiming to take his opponent’s head clean off early. An inside leg kick from Sakurai caused a moment of discomfort for “The Fireball Kid”, but as professionals do, he battled on. Both men exchanged leather when possible, showing no respect for defense or one another’s power.
While Sakurai was focused on the kicking game, Gomi was trialing his straight left and its effect; feints early on allowed him to begin finding the chin ever so subtly. A brief clinch battle resulted in a takedown for the young southpaw, who went to work immediately with his ground and pound.
Rather than remain fixated on punching Gomi assessed the situation and took the back, sinking in both hooks. 10 seconds of solid ground and pound, as well as a quick glance at the referee, were not enough to warrant a stoppage, and Sakurai was able to pop his opponent into half guard. Gomi regained his footing, forcing the wounded vet to arise.
Sakurai was visibly wobbled as he got back to his feet, albeit his foe showed no remorse. One failed takedown attempt later and he was met with a short lead hook, soon rounded off by two straight punches. The former Shooto champion quite literally crumbled to the canvas, half-asleep after absorbing sheer ferocity and might.
Takanori Gomi was the new, first, and last lightweight champion in PRIDE history.
Following his first-round demolition of Hayato Sakurai, Gomi continued repping the PRIDE banner. Despite losing his next outing, his assault on the lightweight division never slowed an inch, as he avenged that very same loss months later.
Just as he had compiled three straight wins — with a return to his old form looking imminent — he ran into Nick Diaz; that defeat officially ruled as a no-contest stands as one of the sport’s most exciting and action-packed fights. Unfortunately for Gomi, that was his very last performance as a member of the PRIDE roster.
Years later, no longer so youthful, he found his way into the now premier destination for all martial artists: the UFC. Now considerably past his prime and often fighting much craftier opposition, he was unable to make an impact. After assembling a lackluster record within the company of 4-9 he was released in late 2017.
The final bout of his career came the ensuing year for RIZIN FF, where a slow and depleted Gomi rendered Melvin Guillard unconscious in under three minutes. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize that the aging Gomi no longer had “it”. A combination of age and mileage had taken its toll on him.
Although he is not officially retired, the world of mixed martial arts has seen enough from Takanori Gomi. The truth of the matter is, the Japanese fighting icon has nothing left to prove; further competition would only result in unnecessary damage.
The legacy of Takanori Gomi is securely fastened. He will go down as one of his nations, and era’s, greatest.