Kazushi Sakuraba, the latest pro wrestler turned MMA fighter to return to his roots. Photo via MMAMania.com.
Earlier today, New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) drew a sellout crowd at Sumo Hall in Tokyo for their second biggest show of the year, the G1-Climax tournament final night. American Karl Anderson, Giant Bernard's former partner before returning to WWE as Lord Tensai, had the biggest win of his career beating IWGP Heavyweight champion Hiroshi Tanahashi to make the final. The only other American to ever make the finals was Ravishing Rick Rude in 1992, which shows how big an achievement it was for Anderson. However, he wasn't able to follow it up with another upset to win the tournament, as in the finals he lost to Kazuchika Okada, who cemented his position as New Japan's youngest rising superstar with the victory.
However, the biggest surprise was Pride legend Kazushi Sakuraba appearing on the show to announce his intention to wrestle for NJPW in the future. This would be a return to his roots, as Sakuraba started his career as a pro wrestler for Nobuhiko Takada's Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi) promotion from 1993-1996, where he was a talented undercard performer. He worked several dates for NJPW in late '95 / early '96 as a part of New Japan's inter-promotional feud with the UWFi, where he was largely put over New Japan's junior heavyweights, as NJPW were calling the shots with the UWFi being on the verge of bankruptcy and indeed closed up shop soon after the feud ran its course. Sakuraba probably would have become a fairly big wrestling star in time, but instead joined fledgling MMA promotion Pride with Takada, where he found greater fame by beating the Gracies at their own game, defeating all four of Royler, Renzo, Ryan and Royce. His subsequent fights with Wanderlei Silva and Mirko Cro Cop drew huge sold out crowds at domed stadiums, and he remained a television ratings draw even as his skills started to evaporate from all the huge beatings he took during his career.
With MMA, for all intents and purposes, dead in Japan, returning to pro wrestling is the best way for Sakuraba to continue making money, which is for the best as he's completely shot as a fighter and shouldn't be taking real blows to the head anymore. He's following in the footsteps of Pancrase stars Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki, who successfully made the transition back into pro wrestling. Sakuraba may find it tougher, as he held on as a fighter for too long and took more beatings than they did.
Along for the ride with Sakuraba is Katsuyori Shibata, who started his career with NJPW and would have likely been as big a star as Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura, but he quit New Japan in 2005 to become a freelance wrestler and then quit the pro wrestling business to become a full time mixed martial artist for K-1's Hero's promotion. That proved to be a bad career decision, as he was a total washout as a real fighter, losing 11 of his 15 matches from 2007-2011. He'll likely work as Sakuraba's tag team partner in NJPW, which is a wise move, as Shibata can do all the heavy lifting, while Sakuraba can come in for shorter bursts of action.
What do you think, Cagesiders? Any of you excited at the prospect of seeing Sakuraba in a pro wrestling ring again?