“Long live your idols, may they never be your rivals” are some of the first words uttered at the beginning of J Cole’s ‘Let Nas Down’, perfectly encapsulating the mindset of sporting brains across the world. Every sportsman has an idol, and while they dream of one day playing alongside them, standing toe-to-toe in a ring is not a reality commonly visualized.
In the realm of combat sports playing alongside your idols is unachievable due to the individuality aspect; rather than passing a ball to them, you fight. This has been the tale of many mixed martial artists who have been pitched against those who used to feed them all sources of inspiration. If you’re a victim of recency bias, you should vividly remember Israel Adesanya’s triumph over the legendary Anderson Silva at UFC 234, where the Nigerian defeated his idol. However, Adesanya lacked the killer instinct usually exhibited due to the deep, mutual respect present. After all, greatness does recognize greatness. Or perhaps you recall Joe Lauzon smoking Takanori Gomi in less than a round – he too looked up to his opponent.
The fact of the matter is, punching a hole through the skull of one of your lifelong inspirations is an essential task if they stand in your way. MMA is a harsh and very much merciless game that takes zero prisoners, therefore it does not take into account one’s preference over who they idolize.
On September 25, 2010, one of the sport’s more famed cases of clashing with idols took place, when infamous middleweight Jason “Mayhem” Miller collided with Kazushi Sakuraba, plausibly Japan’s most crucial fighting icon.
Sporting a confident swagger along with orange and black hair, Jason Miller (28-10-1) quite literally danced his way from the ramp into the ring. His silver tracksuit reflected off the light as Dizzie Rascals 2009 hit “Bonkers” deafened the Nippon Gaishi Hall Arena. The song was fitting, as Miller is best described as just that – bonkers.
Longtime MMA fans know of the aura surrounding “Mayhem” and his questionable antics. Besides countless run-ins with the law, he has accumulated his fair share of incage controversies which includes the notorious Nashville brawl, where Miller stormed the cage demanding a rematch against Jake Shields. This abrupt interruption caused Shields’ teammates, which included Nick and Nate Diaz, to throw hands, soon erupting into an all-out brawl. In spite of the brawls excitement and overall impact on Strikeforce, that’s a conversation for another day.
At DEEP 16, the crowd roared as their national hero Kazushi Sakuraba emerged from backstage, set to face a man who had revered him for so long. Nerves cascaded out of the American as the magnitude of this contest hit him harder than any punch could; he was fighting the Sakuraba.
In the build-up to their encounter, Miller had stated multiple times that he was aiming to submit the fellow submission machine, a task easier said than done. Sakuraba hadn’t been submitted since his professional debut 14 years prior and had survived the ground game of five Gracie jiu-jitsu members, defeating four of them. This impressive feat earned him the label of ‘The Gracie Killer’.
And the Gracie Killer he was, for quite some time. Entering the bout with Miller, Sakuraba had dropped a decision loss months prior to Ralek Gracie, who became the first member of his illustrious family to conquer Japan’s tap out king. Despite sitting in the losing column and competing at the tender age of 40, Sakuraba had plenty of fight left in him.
Although he had competed in the UFC once before and beaten notable names such as Tim Kennedy and Robbie Lawler, this fight was by far the most important in not only the career, but life of Miller. As the two locked eyes in the center of the ring, this became conspicuous.
DREAM’s ruleset appeared on the broadcast for fans watching at home, reminding them of what regulations were in place: the first round would be ten minutes long, the second five, and if there was no clear victor, a third and final round would betide. Yet Jason wouldn’t need that long.
The ringing bell indicated that the fight had begun, with Miller immediately taking the center of the ring. Neither man possessed the striking to trade blows with the sports upper echelon, albeit their equally fierce submission threats were among the division’s best at the time. Sakuraba’s low defensive guard made him susceptible to eating shots, and this was evident from the outset, as the American landed a few straight rights followed by a head kick. Miller’s greatest success on the feet came in the Thai Clinch as he quickly wrapped his opponent up and fired a knee, landing clean. After a minute of exchanging on the feet, Sakuraba shot in for a takedown, to which “Mayhem” denied with ease.
Rather than disengage and continue trading in the striking department, Miller opted to unload harsh ground and pound to the face of his friendly foe, visibly scoring with every attempt. This prompted Sakuraba to roll for a leg lock, a common and extremely sought after submission in today’s modern era of mixed martial arts. When used correctly, maneuvers such as heel hooks, kneebars and the Achilles lock (which all fall into the leg lock category) can end a fight in a matter of seconds, and do a great deal of damage in the process. To defend the submission Miller forced the opposition to remain on his front, taking advantage of the position by hurling more ground and pound. This never stopped him from taunting however, as a swift peace sign garnered a positive reaction from the audience.
As Sakaruba rolled onto his back, Miller continued his relentless pursuit of scoring damage, connecting with more fully loaded right hands. When an opportunity presents itself, you take it. That is exactly what Miller did. After noticing that his counterpart was beginning to sweep, Miller spotted an opening for the arm-triangle submission, the exact same chokehold Sakuraba had tapped to in his aforementioned debut loss. Mere seconds after securing the arm-triangle choke, his fellow combatant tapped.
Jason Miller had defeated his sporting idol, Kazushi Sakuraba, by submission in just over two minutes. He did the unthinkable, which was beat ‘The Gracie Hunter’ at his own game. A kid from Fayetteville, North Carolina had just achieved what five Gracie’s were unable to.
Instantly after rising to his feet, Miller bowed down over his opponents vanquished body as a sign of respect. When it’s all said and done, mixed martial arts is a beautiful journey full of admiration, discipline and growth, to name but a few things. Even though he had bad-mouthed numerous rivals and would later be arrested a number of times, Miller did anything but cause mayhem on September 25. That night, he showed the best of what MMA has to offer.
“He’s old but it still didn’t change the fact that I got to beat up one of my heroes. It was badass. I was excited to have that whole crazy experience. It was cool [because] I have been watching him since I was a kid and I was early in my fighting career when he broke Renzo’s arm” said Miller, weeks after the biggest win of his career.
“His style totally changed my style. It [stopped] me from doing jiu-jitsu all the time and [made me] wrestle more and get more creative with my fights. Its cool to achieve a dream.”