Originally published at https://www.postwrestling.com/2018/09/03/exclusive-excerpt-from-before-a-fall-a-history-of-pride-fc/
Lee Daly has been working extensively on “Before a Fall: A History of Pride FC”, a book project that outlines the history of the Pride Fighting Championship. This is the final week of his Indiegogo campaign to finance the book, which you can support at this link.
Lee has been gracious enough to provide the following excerpt from the book for readers of POST Wrestling. This is a sample of what you can expect in his book, “Before a Fall: A History of PRIDE FC”:
Entitled Championship Chaos, PRIDE 17 was earmarked for the coronation of two different champions, the first non-Grand Prix title holders in the history of PRIDE. The sold out Tokyo Dome was the venue for the card, with its success owing to huge public interest in the second match between Kazushi Sakuraba and Wanderlei Silva. The Brazilian becoming middleweight champion as a result of a crushing victory might have ended PRIDE’s biggest rivalry for the time being, but the exposure their match up had brought allowed others to shine.
Chief amongst these was the participants in a further fight on the card for the heavyweight championship, which saw Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira face-off against Heath Herring. One of two twin brothers with incredibly similar names, with Antônio Rogerio Nogueira being the smaller of the two, “Big Nog” overcame a childhood accident where he was run over by a truck at age 10. Still bearing visible scars, he trained in boxing, judo and jiu-jitsu with Brazilian Top Team, being mentored by Mario Sperry, who was in turn a protegee of Carlson Gracie.
“I consider Minotauro like my younger brother. I always give him a lot of advice not only on the ring, but also in his private life. We respect each other as close friends” said Sperry before Nogueira’s PRIDE debut against Gary Goodridge in July 2001 at PRIDE 15. Sperry would also pay tribute to Big Nog’s abilities in the ring saying “he is an all-round fighter to be a model for 21st century. He is good at both standing and ground work. He is in a good condition, and besides he can hold on against punches.”
Sperry’s words would prove to be particularly prophetic, as Nogueria was to be the initial leader of a new generation of well rounded fighters who would sweep away the old guard built up from the early days of the UFC, when specialisation was the name of the game. Based on the gameplan Carlson had tested out with Vitor Belfort, Nogueria was to take things to even greater heights, and fight successfully well into the modern era of MMA.
He first demonstrated his abilities in Akira Maeda’s RINGS promotion, losing to Dan Henderson in their 1999 King of Kings tournament before winning the tournament the following year, wit hall but one victory coming via submission. He made short work of Goodridge on his debut, who was filling in for the injured Mark Coleman on ten days notice, by submitting him in just under three minutes via a triangle.
At PRIDE 16 in September 2001, he eventually faced off against Coleman. Although he was to find the going tougher against Coleman’s wrestling, he again caught his opponent in a triangle, drawing the tap with a straight armbar from the position after six minutes. He made good on his boasts of having the best submission game of any heavyweight and his strategy of avoiding attempting to take Coleman down and working for submissions even under the threat of kicks and knees was successful.
For the PRIDE 17 card, he was matched with Heath Herring, an American who had beaten Mark Kerr at PRIDE 15. Even though he was just 23, Herring was already a veteran with an 18-7 record, his only lose within PRIDE coming at the hands of Vitor Belfort, and the victory over Kerr, at the time considered one of the best heavyweights ever, earned him his spot in the title match up.
Bas Rutten, who had played a role in guiding Herring’s career, was confident about the American’s chances. “I first met Heath at the Bas Rutten Invitational in Colorado. He won his fight and asked me what he should do. So I told him to go train with the gym I was a part of in Eindhoven and work on your striking, because if you put everything together, you’ll be a hell of a fighter. And that’s exactly what he did. He even speaks really good Dutch with almost no accent!”
In addition to his precocious skill, Herring was aware of the importance of personality in being a successful MMA fighter, calling himself the Texas Crazy Horse whilst also wearing a cowboy hat to the ring and sporting a wild haircut.
The fight started with the two trading furiously, before Nog caught one of Herring’s kicks and took him to the ground. A side control from Nogueria was reversed by Herring and when Nogueria tried to triangle him from the bottom, Herring then threw a number of furious fists before standing up and beckoning Nogueria to also stand, drawing a massive reaction from the crowd.
The wild punches on the feet were to continue, with Nogueria getting the better of it before Herring went for and completed a takedown, before he once again stood up. A punch from Nog and a single leg takedown quickly followed, and he was to establish a period of firm control of Herring from the top. Even when the two reversed positions, Nogueria was able to impose his game from full guard, in a manner almost unthinkable in modern MMA, where fighters are so much more experienced with positions and submissions.
Further standing exchanges and another takedown from Nog lead to more grappling, with Nog once again being comfortable with going for submissions, confident that even if he ended up on the ground, he would have dominance anyway, even if he was unable to convert his dominance into a finish.
For the start of the second round, Nogueria hit another double leg takedown before dominating Herring on the ground. An attempted back take and choke was defended by Herring lead to a mount for Nogueria and another transition to the back, with Nogueria managing to secure a full body lock. Herring was barely hanging on but escaped and was clearly exhausted as well as bloodied with the fight ending after he was able to land one or two punches on Nogueria, himself becoming tired from his dominant efforts.
A unanimous decision victory for Nogueria, the only sane decision to make, followed and he was crowned heavyweight champion. His dominance of the fight was even more impressive considering he had suffered a leg injury from a low kick by Herring. Herring admitted he was surprised at how good Nogueria’s stand up was, which goes some way towards explaining his somewhat confused actions, when he was clearly keen to avoid takedowns given Nogueria’s record of submission victories, but began to instigate them to escape a barrage of accurate punches from the Brazilian.
Also on the card at PRIDE 17 was a match between Nobuhiko Takada and a debuting Croatian called Mirko “Cro-Cop” Filipovic. Cro-Cop, so called due to his membership of an elite unit of the Zagreb police, had pursued a passion in kickboxing after his father’s death in 1993 and became a star in Japan through his participation in K-1.
Growing up in the village of Privalaka, as a teen he had been inspired by martial arts movies, Bloodsport starring Jean Claude Van Damme in particular. Unable to secure proper training gear, he had bought an old speedball and nailed it to the ceiling, meaning he practiced nothing but high kicks, later to become his signature move. His high kick became infamous, with no little encouragement from Cro-Cop himself, who remarked that being hit with his two legs was a simple choice: “Right leg: hospital. Left leg: cemetery”.
In his late teens during the Croatian War of Independence, he was moved to the village of Varaždin near the Hungarian border. There he spent six months training with the local karate club, often showing up one or two hours early. A spell in the Croatian army was to be the catalyst for his career in combat sports, with a commander telling him “‘I don’t think you will be a special soldier, but I believe you will be a good fighter one day… I release you and I want you to train twice a day. And I want you to make your country and your homeland proud one day”.
Rising through the ranks of international kickboxing competitions, he had been foiled in his attempt to claim the K-1 Grand Prix title no less than 3 times by Dutchman Ernst Hoost, once in a quarter final and twice in the final. Through his involvement with K-1, he was paired up in an MMA fight with Kazuyuki Fujita, who had defeated Mark Kerr and was “a complete beast and with 130 kilograms of pure muscle. A guy without a neck…he was all connected” according to Cro-Cop. “I knew he was going to take me down and that what I was training for. I would counter with the knee and exactly that happened. I caught him with a good knee to the head and the fight was finished and that’s how everything (in his MMA career) began”.
This all meant he was a fearsome opponent for Takada, even though it was his only his second MMA fight. Unlike Rickson or Royce, Cro-Cop’s strikes carried a much higher risk of injuring the wrestler. Takada was also coming off the back of a three fight losing steak after his questionable victory over Mark Coleman, losing to Igor Vovchanchyn, Royce Gracie and Mark Kerr.
Takada nevertheless retained an important backstage role with the company, and in order to protect his own increasingly diminished standing as PRIDE’s supposed golden goose, special rules were agreed that forbid kicks to the head on the ground and removed judges’ decisions, with the fight branded as taking place under a K-1 vs PRIDE ruleset and split into four rounds of three minutes each.
Cro-Cop was bullish in the build up, stating that he felt he was at an advantage as it is easier to learn grappling as a stand up fighter than for a grappler to become competent in striking and that he knew nothing of, and didn’t care about, Takada’s role in establishing PRIDE.
During the fight, Takada did not show any serious competence in striking or grappling, and he was to exploit the ruleset with a huge degree of cynicism. From the opening bell, he skipped around the ring looking to get as far away as he could from Cro-Cop, until the Croatian cut the ring in half, forcing him to attempt a single leg takedown which he completed.
They were to stand back up and repeat the exact same sequence, only this time Takada fell directly to his back, whereupon Cro-Cop delivered kicks to his outstretched legs, bringing the first round to a close. Cro-Cop’s frustration became clear at the beginning of the second, placing his hands on his hips in response to another bout of skipping from Takada.
A takedown attempt by Takada led to him falling to the ground, where he would steadfastly refuse to stand up despite Cro-Cop’s encouragements before the referee interjected and ordered Takada to his feet. Further stalling from Takada closed out the second and third rounds, with Cro-Cop growing increasingly more infuriated and desperate to knockout a clearly inferior opponent.
After the fight Cro-Cop verbalised his disgust at Takada, telling a press conference he was a coward and “shouldn’t be allowed fight in my village in Croatia in front of 20 people” much less in front of the large audience at the Tokyo Dome . He was even to say Fujita and Sakuraba, who he credited as real fighters, shouldn’t fight under the Takada Dojo banner, given Takada’s clear lack of any pedigree.
In response to a question about Cro-Cop not taking the fight to Takada when he did go to the ground, echoing the Gracie family’s criticism of Sakuraba after his fight with Royler, the Croatian and his team replied that it was up to a grappler to take down a striker rather than expect engagement on his terms.
If Cro-Cop had been unaware of the nature of Takada and PRIDE, the ordeal left him under no illusions according to Bas Rutten. “I think he regretted it (not finishing Takada) and from that moment on he started finishing everybody. He finished a lot of people in K1 too. He knows when it goes to the ground that he’d be in trouble so maybe he was tentative.”
After PRIDE 17, both Cro-Cop and Nogueria went on undefeated streaks which would last the better part of two years. The two were to be on a path towards each other, but not before they were joined in the title picture by an even more mercurial heavyweight talent in Fedor Emelianenko.
The Indiegogo campaign for “Before A Fall: A History of Pride FC” concludes this week and can support the project at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/before-a-fall-a-history-of-pride-fc#/.