The most anticipated heavyweight fight of all time, the toughest tournament in combat sports and the birth of a superstar. A decade on, Fighters Only relives Pride Final Conflict 2005.
It began as the boom, boom, boom-boom of the taiko drums broke the silence in the dark, cavernous Saitama Super Arena in Japan. Then, the strings of the Pride theme song burst triumphantly into the air and 47,629 people roared with excitement. Lenne Hardt screamed the names of 14 fighters to introduce them to the masses as anticipation reached fever pitch. Pride Final Conflict 2005 had begun: one of the greatest and most significant events in MMA history.
At the height of Japan’s kakutogi boom, when fighting was just about the biggest show in town, the Pride ring rather than the UFC Octagon was where the majority of the best and most popular fighters on the planet could be found. And most of them either fought on this event or played a part in its gestation. This was Japanese MMA at its peak.
Not one, but two titles were on the line. Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ would challenge Fedor Emelianenko for the Pride belt, in what still stands as the most anticipated heavyweight fight in the sport’s history, while a field of four fighters would be whittled down to one in the culmination of the most talent-rich 16-man tournament we’d seen. Just Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, Ricardo Arona and Alistair Overeem remained from a group that featured nine former, current and future champions.
The pageantry and drama of this event captured the imagination of fans across the world like few events before or since.
Pride’s 2005 middleweight grand prix was designed to assemble the best available 205lb fighters for its most prestigious tournament yet. The Japanese promotion managed to top its superb 2003 series by expanding the field of competitors from eight to 16. It also surpassed its 2004 heavyweight competition by assembling a true murderer’s row of elite athletes.
According to Fight Matrix, 10 of the division’s top 15 fighters in the world at the time competed. The victor had to win four fights over three events in just four months to be crowned champion and become the world’s number-one 205lb fighter at Final Conflict. It all began one spring evening in Osaka...
Ricardo Arona, Rings middleweight 2001-02
Kevin Randleman, UFC heavyweight 1999-2000
Wanderlei Silva, Pride middleweight 2001-07, Pride middleweight grand prix 2003
Alistair Overeem, Strikeforce heavyweight 2007-11, Dream interim heavyweight 2010-11
Vitor Belfort, UFC 12 heavyweight tournament 1997, UFC light heavyweight 2004
Yuki Kondo, Pancrase light heavyweight 2003-08, Pancrase middleweight 2010
Dan Henderson, Rings King of Kings tournament 1999, Pride welterweight 2005-08, Pride middleweight 2007, Strikeforce light.heavyweight 2011
Shogun Rua, pride middleweight grand prix 2005, UFC light heavyweight 2010-11
Rampage Jackson, UFC light heavyweight 2007-08
The grand prix opening round took place on April 23rd at Pride Total Elimination 2005 in front of 45,423 fans at the Osaka Dome, and most of the big hitters cruised through to the quarter-finals in style. The evening’s main event was a rematch of the 2003 semi-final battle between Wanderlei and Hidehiko Yoshida. History repeated itself as the 1992 Olympic judo champion survived a relentless assault from ‘The Axe Murderer,’ but ultimately lost a decision after a close, ferocious fight.
Meanwhile, Ricardo Arona won a battle of grapplers to see off ADCC champion Dean Lister, and a then 25-year-old, slim incarnation of Overeem took out Vitor Belfort – who had returned to Pride following a five-fight, championship-winning run in the UFC – with a first-round guillotine choke.
However, the star of the show was Shogun. The young Brazilian had already made a name for himself by decapitating overmatched Japanese fighters with soccer kicks and stomps, but this announced him as an elite force.
He gave ‘Rampage’ Jackson a fearsome first-round beating and broke his rib in a performance that legitimized the 23-year-old as a real contender. The remaining seven middleweights were put on notice.
In June, the grand prix rolled into the Saitama Super Arena at Pride Critical Countdown 2005, and featured the best fight of the tournament. Shogun earned a decision win over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in an all-out striking, grappling, free-swinging, chin-testing, stamina-sapping war between two Brazilians from the rival camps of Chute Boxe and Brazilian Top Team. Both tasted the canvas during a grueling 20-minute war of attrition that earned ‘Fight of the Year’ plaudits from fans worldwide.
The other semi-final places were filled in more straightforward fashion. Overeem needed just 80 seconds to trap veteran Igor Vovchanchyn in a standing guillotine choke, and Arona gave Kazushi Sakuraba an ugly beating with knees to the head on the ground. The Japanese hero’s face was blood-soaked and misshapen by the time the fight was belatedly stopped at the end of round two.
Silva, meanwhile, predictably TKO’ed Yoshida’s protégé Kazuhiro Nakamura in a fight highlighted by one moment of stupidity, which was uniquely Pride. The Japanese judoka had worn a gi top, but when he decided it wasn’t helping him all that much, he undressed mid-fight. That gave Silva an opening to punch him in the face, which knocked him down and set up a fight-finishing flurry.
Away from the tournament, this event also saw a significant heavyweight face-off. Fresh from his first-round body-kick TKO of Ibragim Magomedov, Cro Cop invited his opponent’s teammate – heavyweight champion Emelianenko – into the ring to size him up ahead of their title clash two months later. Pre-fight hype had reached its height.
Everything would now be settled – the heavyweight and grand prix titles – just two short months later. The world waited for Final Conflict.
The final two rounds of the grand prix would take place in one night, so fans didn’t have to wait long on the evening of August 28th 2015 for the first tournament semi-final. It was a meeting of bitter rivals: Silva and Arona. The animosity between their fight teams – Chute Boxe and BTT – was amplified by the personal enmity between the two men, who had almost come to blows in a hotel restaurant a couple of years before.
The hostility increased when Arona scoffed at Wanderlei’s ground game and said he was “the least complete fighter left in the tournament.” When they finally faced off, the tension was palpable. The staredown was intense and they certainly did not touch gloves.
The bell rang, and it seemed like, for once, the pressure of the occasion had got to ‘The Axe Murderer.’ The usual murderous assault of the most violent man in MMA was stifled by the muscular Brazilian jiu-jitsu powerhouse. When Silva got to his feet, ‘The Brazilian Tiger’ quickly bustled him back to the mat and his suffocating ground game won him the first round.
The second round was even more decisive as Arona stood with Silva, then worked him over with clinical control on the canvas. As the minutes ticked by, it was clear the unbelievable was about to happen – Wanderlei, the Pride middleweight champ and world number one, was about to lose a 205lb fight for the first time in five years.
As the final bell went, the victorious Arona reveled in his triumph by keeping his opponent pinned to the mat and gloatingly spitting some choice words into his face. Humiliated, Silva jumped up in anger, but there was nothing he could do to change the result. Crestfallen, he could only watch on in frustration as his enemy advanced to the final. Chute Boxe’s hopes now rested on the shoulders of its rising star.
Early in the second semi-final, Pride commentator Mauro Ranallo remarked that it was looking like a bad night for the Chute Boxe team. Wanderlei, its figurehead, had just been eliminated and Rua, the team’s last hope, was in real trouble against an in-form Overeem.
A fast-paced brawl saw both men land early, but ‘The Demolition Man’ was in the ascendancy. He used his height, reach and ground control to handle Rua while determinedly going for another guillotine. But, as Japanese fans were beginning to find out, Shogun was made of sterner stuff.
With seemingly endless reserves of energy, he took over, jumping on the Dutchman and raining down punishment. When Overeem had a chance to recover, he could only grasp at his opponent’s legs as Rua flicked heel strikes before putting his flailing foe straight back onto his back and pounding on him until the fight was stopped at 6:42 of round one.
Chute Boxe was still alive, and would get to renew its rivalry with BTT in the final. But first, both camps were allowed to recuperate while the small matter of the world heavyweight championship was settled.
It’s easy to underestimate in 2015 just what a big deal the heavyweight title showdown between Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Cro Cop was a decade ago. It was a fight that fans had demanded for more than two years. They wanted to see the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world take on MMA’s most dangerous striker.
It was supposed to have happened before, but injuries, contract negotiations and a couple of Cro Cop losses had combined to nix it. But since then, the Croatian had set alight the fire of anticipation by winning seven fights in a row and calling the champion out every time he appeared in the Pride ring – even after he chopped down ‘The Last Emperor’s brother, Alexander, with his trademark high kick. Eventually, the match was made and the moment finally arrived.
The atmosphere around the fight could not have been more different than the one generated by the belligerent Brazilians earlier that night. Despite the challenger’s burning desire to take the title, and the champion’s commitment to keeping it, there was nothing but mutual respect between these two men. They were going to let their fists and feet do the talking. They touched gloves, and a hushed awe spread around the capacity Tokyo crowd.
Often, contests of this magnitude fail to live up to the occasion, but that was not the case this time. It was the perfect combination of carefully-planned strategy and wild violence. Fedor was prepared diligently to avoid Cro Cop’s devastating kicks and punches and return fire with heavy strikes of his own. He kept his opponent on the back foot, countered when he came under fire, and dominated on the ground when he was able to take the fight there.
Mirko had his moments though. He splattered the champion’s nose and left him as marked up as he’d ever been in the Pride ring, but ultimately he received a systematic beating across all three rounds. Cro Cop’s dream of becoming the world’s best was crushed. But he was gracious in defeat. He had lost to the better man who had proved beyond all doubt he was, at that point in history, the sport’s pre-eminent fighter.
With the most anticipated fight of the year settled, it was tournament time again. And everything was at stake: pride, bragging rights, the grand prix belt, a ¥20,000,000 (about $200,000) first-prize check – and the status as the world’s best 205lb’er.
Both camps were confident. Behind Arona, BTT standout Paulo Filho flashed two fingers, a fist and a wry smile at Chute Boxe, predicting a 2-0 night for his teammate against fighters from the Curitiba camp. Behind Shogun, his brother ‘Ninja’ was animated and looking confident. So too was Wandelei, who watched from ringside. Their man in the ring looked loose, relaxed and bounced on the balls of his feet before referee Yuji Shimada signaled the start of the fight, and it was full speed ahead.
The fight went from zero to 60 in about 10 seconds as Shogun tried a spectacular spinning Capoeira kick and opened himself up for an Arona takedown, but he immediately reversed the situation into an omoplata. Shogun then got back to his feet, landed a knee from the clinch and dived into guard to land some heavy ground ‘n’ pound following a jumping stomp attempt.
The pace was set and he was manhandling Arona. The usually stoic Saitama crowd was loving it and reacting to every moment of this one-man clinic. Everything was going Shogun’s way. Knees in the clinch, boxing, strikes on the ground. Brazilian Top Team’s great hope for glory was caught in a torrent of offense and couldn’t find a moment to breathe.
The end finally came when a Rua stomp just glanced the face of a supine Arona, but put him in the perfect position to smash four hammerfists into his face to knock him out cold after fewer than three minutes. The Chute Boxe family dived into the ring and tackled their charge to the ground in delirious celebration.
Perhaps the happiest man in the ring was Wanderlei, who saw his protégé avenge his loss. But Shogun had done more than that. He had surpassed his mentor as the world’s best. Everyone held their breath to see what he could do next.
No MMA fighter has accomplished so much in such a short space of time as Rua did for this tournament win. He dispatched four of the very best in his weight class in just four months. Whatever he did next, that would remain a career highlight, although fans expected even greater things in the future. Unfortunately, the rest of his accomplishments proved to be punctuations in a career plagued by injuries.
In his first fight after the grand prix, he suffered his first Pride loss to Mark Coleman due to a broken arm. He bounced back to win four straight, then headed to UFC when the Japanese organization imploded, and he was expected to dominate. But in his Octagon debut, he was humiliated by Forrest Griffin.
He looked shopworn and a shell of his former self, but he managed to revive his career and earn a title shot thanks to a first-round KO of fading legend Chuck Liddell. He was subsequently ‘defeated’ by Lyoto Machida, but was given a swift rematch because so many considered the decision a robbery. Just two months after having surgery to remove his appendix, he blitzed Machida to win the title with a display of passion and aggression that saw his popularity skyrocket.
However, his reign was short-lived, as Rua became the victim when another young, dangerous, 23-year-old named Jon Jones brutally took his championship from him 10 months later. The following years have been populated by crowd-pleasing wars, the highlight undoubtedly being his 2011 five-round battle with Dan Henderson, when he fought back from the brink of defeat to take the fight the distance. However, it was a war that likely took years off his life, never mind his career.
The Curitiba native has now lost four of his last five fights and, at 33, looks past his best, unlikely to climb close to the heights of his early career. Shogun is destined to be remembered as an MMA supernova – a stellar explosion that briefly shined brighter than anything else in the combat sports galaxy, before fading and providing fodder for new stars to be formed.
Outside the championship fights, the three other bouts at Final Conflict 2005 were far from filler. The event’s first fight – a tournament reserve match – between Igor Vovchanchyn and Kazuhiro Nakamura was significant because it was the last of the Ukrainian’s 66-fight career.
He made his name as an undersized heavyweight wrecking machine during the sport’s early, bareknuckle VHS days, but by now, despite being just 32, he was wracked by injuries. His points defeat was an understated end to a momentous career.
The middle of the card was populated by two heavyweight bouts. First up, was the current baddest man on the planet. A young Fabricio Werdum – Cro Cop’s training partner at the time – was paired with Emelianenko’s teammate, Roman Zentsov. The current UFC heavyweight champion was nowhere near the complete fighter he is today, but he did possess the world-class submission skills that have defined his career. He used them to surprise the Russian with a sudden, slickly-set-up triangle armbar after just six minutes to maintain his undefeated record.
Next, a true Japanese sporting hero received a royal ovation ahead of a fight that was a classic Pride matchup. Hidehiko Yoshida was Japanese box office gold thanks to his judo gold medal from the 1992 Olympics. Though he competed then at 78kg (about 172lb), he usually fought at heavyweight in MMA, and his remit was giant killing.
The goliath in question this time was David ‘Tank’ Abbott. It mattered little that he was a washed-up brawler, Yoshida had tens of thousands of partisan fans in the palm of his hand as he flexed some new-found, high-kicking Muay Thai, before locking up a single wing choke to tap his foe at 7:40 of round one.
‘The Brazilian Tiger’ went from the ultimate high to the most devastating low in just a couple of hours that night. He also went on to become a forgotten man of MMA. While the other grand prix semi-finalists went on to headline in the UFC, Arona, now aged 37, went into the wilderness.
Through a combination of self-imposed exile so he could re-evaluate his career, and recuperation time following a series of injuries, he fought just three more times for Pride before it folded in 2007. In an October 2013 interview with MMA Fighting, he said: “I was fighting five times a year and needed some rest. I decided to stop and look at the MMA market, to see where I’d fit. I fought again two years later (2009) at Bitetti Combat, but I tore the ACL in the first round. I fought two more rounds so it took me two years to heal.”
Arona also claimed to have turned down an offer from Bellator in 2014, though the promotion denied it.