Known for his excellent skills in catch wrestling, he is considered to be one of the greatest mixed martial art fighters of all time, and also holds notable victories over 7 UFC champions, 3 Pancrase Champions, a DREAM champion, a King of the Cage champion and Battlecade Extreme Fighting champion; former Welterweight Champion Carlos Newton, two former Light heavyweight champions Vitor Belfort and Quinton Jackson, former Heavyweight Champion Kevin Randleman, 3-time UFC Tournament champion Royce Gracie, former Superfight champion and King of Pancrase Ken Shamrock, former UFC Tournament champion and King of Pancrase Guy Mezger, former King of Pancrase Masakatsu Funaki, DREAM Super Hulk Tournament Champion Ikuhisa Minowa, former King of the Cage Light Heavyweight champion Vernon White, and former Battlecade Extreme Fighting champion Marcus Silveira. He is also the first of only two Japanese champions in UFC history.
Sakuraba began his career in amateur wrestling at the age of 15. A high school stand-out, he finished as high as second in the nation before joining the wrestling squad of Chuo University, a team which had counted Olympic gold medalists Shozo Sasahara and Osamu Watanabe amongst its ranks. He won the East Japan Freshman championship in his first year and served as their team captain thereafter. In his senior year, he finished fourth place in the All-Japan tournament. Amongst his notable wins was a defeat of future Olympic bronze medalist Takuya Ota.
Upon graduating from the university, Sakuraba had initially thought to remain with Chuo University as a coach. However, at the last minute he decided to pursue a career as a professional wrestler. According to Sakuraba, the impetus for this stemmed from a childhood dream of one day emulating Satoru Sayama, a professional wrestler who portrayed in real life the famous Japanese anime and manga hero Tiger Mask. He also stated in an interview with Scramble TV that as an amateur wrestler, he weighed 68 kilograms (about 150 pounds.) He was encouraged by his peers to gain weight as it would be difficult to compete as a smaller fighter in 'puroresu', and after working to gain the weight needed to compete, he never wanted to lose it anymore, something that would be reflected in his MMA career.
After considering the mixed martial arts organization Pancrase, he ultimately chose the shoot wrestling promotion Union of Wrestling Forces International, a professional wrestling league that was nonetheless known for its highly technical and realistic-looking bouts. His time in the UWFI would prove to be a formative experience for Sakuraba; it was there under the tutelage of Billy Robinson that he received his initial instruction in catch wrestling. It is catch wrestling that would serve as the base of the unorthodox ground-game that would later lead him to success in the Pride Fighting Championships. He also trained in muay thai under master Bovy Chowaikung, the main UWF-i striking teacher, and refined his training under the UWF International leader Nobuhiko Takada, becoming one of his four main trainees along Kiyoshi Tamura, Yoshihiro Takayama and Masahito Kakihara.
In spite of his amateur pedigree, Sakuraba was forced to work his way up from the bottom of the UWFi's rung, as it is traditional in puroresu. Sakuraba lost his debut in 1993 to Steve Nelson and went winless through his rookie year with the league. It is also popularly alleged that under the eye of Kiyoshi Tamura, he was made to perfectly perform menial chores about the dojo. Still undeterred, Sakuraba steadily built a working knowledge of submission holds upon his freestyle wrestling base until his efforts were at last rewarded with a win over Mark Silver in October 1994.
Though his record remained below .500, Sakuraba continued to edge his way closer to mid-card status through the rest of the year. Then, in 1995, the UWFi began an interpromotional feud with New Japan Pro Wrestling. The vast majority of UWFi workers came out on the losing end of the booking to the larger and more mainstream promotion and Sakuraba was no exception. He was defeated in high-profile bouts to Tokimitsu Ishizawa, Koji Kanemoto and Shinjiro Otani, bringing Sakuraba a new level of exposure to the public. The ring psychology and technical prowess he displayed in the bouts also impressed the management of the UWFi enough that he was finally pushed towards main event status.
New Japan's dominance in the feud injured the marketability of the UWFi promotion, which had pressed the perception that their athletes boasted legitimate skill in catch wrestling and kickboxing. In a bid to regain credibility, Yoji Anjoh travelled to California to challenge Rickson Gracie in the latter's own dojo, only to be swiftly and brutally defeated before the assembled Japanese press that had followed him there. With the UWFi's formerly fearsome reputation in tatters, its attendance numbers swiftly decreased, with the federation closing its doors once and for all in December 1996. In their final show it was Sakuraba who at long last headlined, defeating Anjoh by submission.