The match-up between Yoji Anjo and Ryan Gracie was announced at the DSE office on December 17. Anjo, the Gracie family and PRIDE have a long history together and another chapter will be written when they face each other again at Saitama Super Arena on December 31st in the PRIDE 2004 New Year's Eve event.
"In my mind, Anjo and the Gracies have long had a connection in the martial arts world," Pride General Director Nobuhiko Takada explained. "Many people talk about Takada vs. Rickson, or UWF International, being the origin of PRIDE, but going further back in history, there was an incident where Anjo went to Rickson's dojo to challenge Rickson. I think this will be a good opportunity for the younger generation of fans to better understand the origins of PRIDE and MMA in Japan."
In December of 1994, Anjo, a wrestler with UWF International at that time, traveled to Rickson Gracie's academy, in order to challenge him to a fight. Gracie Jujitsu was an enemy that must be confronted in the opinion of UWF International, based on Nobuhiko Takada's motto that "pro-wrestlers are the greatest." After Royce Gracie won the UFC and declared that Rickson is "10 times stronger than me" and Rickson himself came to Japan in the same year, people began to question whether there were any pro-wrestlers willing to fight a Gracie. It was UWF International that answered the call.
"There's no need for Mr. Takada to go. If it's just Rickson, I'm 200% confident I can beat him." Anjo made that declaration at a press conference just before the decision was made to actually challenge Rickson at his academy. The challenge, however, did not go as expected. The doors to the academy were locked during the fight and when they were opened, Anjo was found sitting on the floor, his face covered in blood. Following this, Rickson released a videotape of the fight to the media. After throwing only 2 low-kicks that missed, Anjo was taken down, controlled and Rickson rained downed punches on Anjo's face from the mount position. It was through this incident that Rickson's name was spread through the pro-wrestling community, and he became an international star.
Following Anjo's loss, calls for Takada to face Rickson began to appear. It was that match-up led to the birth of PRIDE.
"After having wrestled with Anjo in UWF International, I know better than anyone what his potential is," Takada rated Anjo as the UWF's secret strongman. "He and I share something in common. Everyone became strong by sparring with Anjo, including Sakuraba and Kanehara. Anjo isn't finished. I want him to lace up his gloves again and step into the world's toughest ring. I want him to take full advantage of this chance. We believe that this fight will also be a 'main event' on New Year's Eve."
Anjo then explained that he decided to fight after Takada convinced him that this fight was about destiny. "ABC. My role at UWF International was to protect Nobuhiko Takada. Fighting, and losing, to such a great opponent as Rickson is a blemish on my life. Because of my loss, the Nobuhiko Takada vs. Rickson Gracie match had to be fought. I didn't fulfill my role as protector. I couldn't bring myself to talk with Mr. Takada face-to-face for a long time due to my failure. 10 years later, Mr. Takada spoke to me. Now I feel that if I'm going to bring out what's been hiding inside of me, if I'm going to look a man like Nobuhiko Takada in the face, then I also have to look destiny in the face and put my martial art's life on the line."
Overcome with emotion, Anjo began to cry as he continued, "PRIDE has grown up, Takada Dojo was created and produced Sakuraba, an incredible fighter. It's regretful and sad that I'm not a part of it. Even now, the level of training at Takada Dojo is high to me. If I'm going to get in the ring, I will give it everything I have."
To Anjo, this fight is both about making amends to his mentor Takada and for purifying himself of his past failings. This fight has a strong connection with PRIDE itself as DSE President Nobuyuki Sakakibara explained, "If Nobuhiko Takada and Yoji Anjo didn't exist, PRIDE would have never been born."
"I have to do everything that I can," Anjo said. "The PRIDE ring is a very tall mountain to climb. The only way for me to find out whether the current me can survive it is to fight there. I'm active in my own way and my training has been going well." Currently, Anjo is training with his friend Daijyu Takase and a fellow former UWF International wrestler, Kenichi Yamamoto. Additionally, he began training in kickboxing at the Fujihara Dojo from this summer. Asked if he's going to train at Takada Dojo, Anjo declined, "I'm not good enough yet." Takada, however, has recommended that he hold a special training session with fellow UWF International members, including Sakuraba.
Of course, there has been a long interval since his last fight. Anjo has fought vale tudo matches against big names such as Tank Abbott, Matt Lindland and Murilo Bustamante in the past but his last match was nearly 4 years ago (Jan., 2001) in DEEP's first event. Anjo, however, seems confident. "I'm training hard in striking. I don't feel nervous at all now regarding grappling. I've improved my techniques since I was in UWF International." "Ryan's coming to kill him," Takada added, "That's certain but Anjo seems to be in surprisingly great condition."
When Takada went on to declare that Anjo is "100%, no, 300% confident of winning", Anjo corrected him, "No, you must be thinking of someone else. I'm only 200% confident." Asked about his opponent, Ryan Gracie, Anjo replied, "He's aggressive and he has a lot of skill on the ground. That's what I'm training for now. It's been a long time since my last fight but I don't intend to embarrass myself. I will give it all I have."
Anjo used to be called the "2nd UWF Leader" by the media and a "technical wonder" by Takada during their UWF International days. He was the first pro-wrestler to win in K-1, under K-1 rules. Kazushi Sakuraba said that his best bout was with Anjo during their match in the Kingdom organization. There's little doubt that this will be a tough fight for Anjo but Anjo cannot face his destiny, the theme of this event, unless he fights a Gracie.