The Pride Fighting Championship has an outsized place in mixed martial arts history. It didn’t last quite 10 years – born on Oct. 1, 1997, and ended on April 8, 2007, with an event at the Saitama Super Arena in Japan.
Yet, a loyal group of hardcore fans won’t let it fade into oblivion, nearly a decade after the company was sold to the UFC and most of its fighters absorbed into what is now the sport’s dominant promotion.
For several of those 10 years, particularly when Fedor Emelianenko was at his peak, Pride had the best roster of fighters in MMA.
“There was always a debate, UFC or Pride, but in the early 2000s, Pride was the organization,” said Dan Henderson, who held two weight class titles in Pride and competed in both leagues. “Pride had a lot more depth at its peak than the UFC because they had a lot less weight classes. They weren’t worried about weight classes. They just wanted the fights to be entertaining and the fans loved it.”
It paid the fighters in cash, despite purses in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, which made for some interesting conversations at immigration.
Pride’s pre-show and its pyrotechnics matched the best of what might be found on the famous Las Vegas Strip. That began with the first bout in 1997, when the legendary Rickson Gracie faced pro wrestler Nobuhiko Takada in the main event of Pride 1 on Oct. 11, 1997.
As a nod toward the showmanship of pro wrestling, there were dancers, pyrotechnics and elaborate choreography to welcome the fighters into the ring. That became Pride’s signature. And despite the fascination with exceptionally large people and pro wrestlers, it staged some of the greatest fights in the history of mixed martial arts.
“It was a tremendous show,” said Bas Rutten, the former UFC heavyweight champion perhaps best known for his long stint as Pride’s color analyst.
It remains so beloved by the fans that UFC Fight Pass, the company’s online streaming service, has created a week’s worth of programming to commemorate its nearly 10-year run.
Nearly every MMA promotion that has ever existed resorted to gimmicks to find fans, and Pride was no exception. But when looking back on its history, its biggest mark was the quality of its fights.
Emelianenko, now long past his prime, remains one of the significant figures in the sport’s history. Though he never fought in the UFC, he built his reputation with a long undefeated streak in Pride.
The Russian began his career in Rings in 2000, and debuted in Pride at Pride 21 on June 23, 2002, when he defeated Semmy Schilt. He fought 17 times in Pride, going 16-0 with one no contest, and impressed nearly everyone who saw him.
“I think he was the best in the world, no matter the organization,” Henderson said of Emelianenko. Henderson defeated Emelianenko in 2011 when Emelianenko was nearing retirement, but he said the man who dominated the promotion from 2002 until 2006 was on a different level.
“He was so quick, he moved well, he had good hands, he had good power for a heavyweight, he had good Sambo skills and he scrambled well,” Henderson. “I don’t think he got old; I think he lost his motivation.”
Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira faced Emelianenko twice. The first was a no contest when an accidental head butt forced a doctor’s stoppage. Emelianenko defeated Nogueira in the second bout, a match for the Pride heavyweight title.
“He could do everything,” Nogueira said. “He could hit hard – oh, did he hit hard. He was good on the ground. He was good everywhere.”
Rutten, though, believes its following grew because of promotion. The Japanese television network that broadcast Pride fights – 66 of the 68 events in the promotion’s history were held in Japan – created fighter profile packages that Rutten said captured the fans in a way that nothing else he’s seen has done.
“They weren’t shown in America, but they were shown to the Japanese audience, and if you didn’t know that fighter, from the time they first showed it until it was over, you would say, ‘Wow, I love that guy,’ ” Rutten said. “They were great. They added drama to it and just made you want to watch. I think if they were able to do that for the American audience, it would have been even more amazing and the sport would have gotten a lot bigger a lot sooner.”
Nick Diaz hit one of the few gogoplatas in MMA competition in 2007 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, the first Pride show held outside of Japan when he tapped Takanori Gomi with UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta seated ringside.
The show, on Oct. 21, 2006, featured most of Pride’s biggest stars. Emelianenko submitted Mark Coleman in the main event and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua defeated Kevin Randleman in the co-main. In one of the best matches on the card, Henderson defeated Vitor Belfort.
Despite the strong card, it wasn’t enough to help save the promotion. Belfort and Pawel Nastula failed their post-fight drug tests and Randleman was accused of using a “Whizzinator” to provide either a non-human sample of urine or urine from a dead person.
There were only four more events after that, including another in Las Vegas, before the company went under. The UFC purchased Pride in March 27, 2007, and announced plans to run it as a separate promotion.
Pride 34 was held on April 8, 2007, and the company officially folded on Oct. 4, 2007.
“It was sad to see it go away, because the people loved it so much,” Nogueira said. “It had a huge impact on this sport. You can never talk about the history of our sport without talking about Pride.”