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They've always done things differently in Japan. From tag team grappling matches (they did it first) to the "king of the mat" style tournament that is Quintet, Japan's vibrant and unique grappling scene has long offered plenty of entertainment for the hardcore fan.
But sometimes the line between sport and entertainment is hard to define.
Sakuraba had a special match with Takanori Gomi as part of the recent Quintet event. Saku is the founder and figurehead of Quintet, and the 50-year-old has competed on a handful of their events.
The bizarre bout was billed as an "Iron Man" match and the winner would be whoever scored the most submissions in five minutes. It was quite clearly designed to look like a real grappling match, but it was far from it. Gomi, 41, clearly worked with Saku and gave up takedowns and put himself in submissions so the beloved fighter could win two subs to one.
Sakuraba gets the "tap", or, Gomi gifts Saku a made-up submission in a fake match. pic.twitter.com/cfCWN1TcR1— Hywel Teague (@hywelteague) December 2, 2019
Before we throw Sakuraba under the bus, it's important to understand that things work differently in Japan. Very differently.
In Japan, there is a huge amount of crossover between the worlds of real fighting and pro wrestling. MMA fighters of the 1990s and 2000s would often moonlight in scripted bouts that barely resembled real contests. Pro wrestlers would occasionally make the jump into the world of real fighting, usually with disastrous results, although shady MMA promoters in Japan weren't above fight-fixing to give the impression these pro wrestlers were as tough as their characters.
Only Sakuraba, Minowaman, and Kiyoshi Tamura were pro wrestlers who were genuinely successful in both worlds – capable MMA fighters with real grappling skills, who made their names in pro wrestling first and would regularly return to perform for huge crowds.
Old habits die hard, so it's a little easier now to see why the showman Sakuraba dusted off his grappling gear for the "match" with Gomi. This wasn't the first time legit MMA fighters put on a show – check out this bizarre tag team match that was meant to look like a real grappling bout.
Watch the match below: