If you are planning on spending nine-straight hours watching Dream’s New Year’s Eve event on HDNet the night before the big holiday, then you need to check out ProMMANow.com’s guide. We get you ready for the event by breaking down all the night’s fights and given some historical context to the biggest night in Japanese television viewing. Also don’t forget to check out ProMMANow.com starting at 1 a.m. ET. Some unknowing volunteer will live blog the entire event.
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Satoshi Ishii
Some people believe that “the universe tends to unfold as it should.” Those people must not be MMA fans. A fight between these two was always in the cards, but now it seems like too little too late.
After winning an Olympic gold medal in the 2008 Games in judo, Satoshi Ishii announced his intention to begin an MMA career. Rumors began to circulate almost immediately that FEG was working towards a fight with then-number-one heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko for New Year’s Eve. Of course, the fight never materialized… until now.
At the time the fight seemed like it could be a catalyst to reignite the kakutogi boom in Japan. If anything could excite the public, it would be a recent Olympic hero taking on the man who lorded over Pride’s heavyweight division for years. However, now the fight has lost almost all of its glow.
Emelianenko needed a decision victory over journeyman Jeff Monson to stop a three-fight losing streak. Ishii hasn’t completely bombed as a prospect. He has not lost since making his debut, and he certainly deserved the decision against former WEC champion Paulo Filho in his last outing. However, his personality has not reasonated with the Japanese public. Last Spring, he even announced that he wanted to pursue American citizenship to represent a different country in the 2016 Olympics.
Would the MMA landscape in Japan be different if Ishii made his debut on New Year’s Eve 2008 and pulled a dramatic upset over Emelianenko? It is impossible to know. At this point even a dominate victory will not be nearly enough to move the needle.
Ishii has a bullish clinching style on the feet. Once he drags an opponent to the ground, he has a heavy top game, but not a lot of finishing power. This is not the right style to upset the former champion. A lot of fans have given up on Emelianenko, because of his three losses. However, Fabricio Werdum caught him in a submission, Antonio Silva knifed through his guard and Dan Henderson blasted him on the feet. The only gameplan Ishii can hope to duplicate is Silva’s. With that being said, Ishii could not finish Ikuhisa Minowa or Jerome Le Banner on the floor. Emelianenko should have more than enough game to survive and possibly win off his back.
Emelianenko has always been hard to pull down from the clinch. He should be able to keep the match on the feet. Ishii has worked dilligently to improve his striking game, but it is not there yet. Look for Emelianenko to pick up a victory with some of his trademark Sambo-style casting punches.
Dream Lightweight Championship Bout
Shinya Aoki vs. Satoru Kitaoka
When MMA was the hip thing in Japan, prime real estate on big cards was reserved for oddball fights featuring the likes of Akebono, Bob Sapp and Bobby Ologun. Even though the decline of the sport has been detrimental, it has at least opened more doors for fighters of merit.
MMA commentators are always hesitant to give Shinya Aoki proper praise. Last year, he did get knocked out by a guy who lives life like every day is Comic-Con, but his accomplishments are truly quintessential. Very few lightweights have the names on their resume that Aoki does. On top of that, he seems to understand that defeating top fighters is what it is all about. Aoki actively seeks out tougher fighters whenever possible. This bout against Satoru Kitaoka is another example of that.
The two fighters have trained together in the past. By all accounts, Aoki and Kitaoka are actually friends. At the same time, this fight is a very interesting style match up. Neither fighter is especially effective on the feet. Believe it or not, Aoki might actually have the advantage in a stand up fight. The Dream champion had a tricky kicking game even before training with Evolve MMA in Singapore. Kitaoka seems diametrically opposed to striking and has never finished a fight with strikes in 48 tries.
The ground battle is where this one gets really interesting. Kitaoka is a dynamite grappler. A few years ago a training video of him absolutely dummying Caol Uno circulated the net. It was certainly something to see. However, he has never been able to pair any cardio to his submission game. He comes out on fire and fades quickly.
Aoki’s submission skills are legendary. Even if Kitaoka is able to take him down, the champion will not have to deal with the type of punishment that gives him trouble. After the first couple rounds, Aoki’s superior lunges will take over. He will be able to score a position based decision. It might not be the prettiest thing in the world, but it will be anther former champion added to his list of defeated opponents.
Dream Featherweight Championship Bout
Hiroyuki Takaya vs. Takeshi “Lion” Inoue
For years it seemed like “Lion” Takeshi would be relegated to wearing Shooto pants and continually blasting the likes of Rumina Sato and Alexandre Franca Nogueira. However, after dropping the Shooto 143-pound title to Hatsu Hioki and dropping a decision to Kazuyuki Miyata, he has been on a tear. In 2011, he put together a 3-0 record which includes first-round pastings of Deep champion Koichiro Matsumoto and former UFC title challenger Caol Uno. He even scored a majority-decision win over Hiroki Shishido under Shootboxing rules.
As unlikely as it seemed a year ago, “Lion” is only one fight away from holding a major MMA title. While Inoue’s stock has risen, Takaya’s has slightly declined. Dropping a split decision to the then-unheralded Robbie Peralta dropped him from any top-ten considerations. Then again, the “Streetfight Bancho” was able to defend his title against Miyata last July.
Inoue has always been a bit of a slow starter, which could really hurt him considering Takaya’s noted power shots. However, Dream announced this fight would be five five-minute rounds. That can only favor the challenger. He should also have a big reach advantage since Takaya has always been trapped in a bantamweight’s body. Look for the Shooto product to come on strong in the last few rounds and take the decision. In a minor upset, Inoue will go home with the Dream belt.
Ryo Chonan vs. Hayato “Mach” Sakurai
Back in 2003, Ryo Chonan defeated Hayato Sakurai via cut stoppage at Deep 12th Impact. On New Year’s Eve, the two will face off again, and both fighters badly need a victory. Sakurai has not won since his stunning Shinya Aoki in less than 30 seconds in 2009. He has since lost four-straight fights including losses on the last two New Year’s Eve cards.
Since receiving his walking papers from the UFC in 2009, Chonan has gone 5-2 in Japan. Both his losses came against relatively unknown fighters, and he has failed to capture a signature win.
With Sakurai it has always been a lack of motivation. His last win came against Aoki, and that also happened to be the last time he faced an opponent he genuinely despised. He did not come close to making weight for his tournament fight against Marius Zaromskis. Against Akihiro Gono and Nick Diaz, he might as well have stayed in the dressing room.
At this point in Chonan’s career, he is just an okay striker with a chin that can let him down. If “Mach” comes at least a tad bit prepared, he should be able to pick up his first victory since 2009. However, there is always a possibility that he looks like the non-intimidating sort of zombie and gives Chonan his biggest win since 2004…
On New Year’s Eve Chonan will be celebrating the anniversary of what now seems like one of the biggest upsets in MMA history. Back at Dynamite!! 2004, he shocked current UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva with a flying heel hook. Since then, Silva is 17-1.
K-1/Dream Mixed Rules Bout
Yuichiro Nagashima vs. Katsunori Kikuno
For the second year in a row, “Jienotsu” will take part in a mixed-rules contest (1 round of kickboxing and 1 round of MMA). Of course last year, the cosplaying K-1 fighter shocked the world with a knock out of Dream champion Shinya Aoki in the MMA portion of the bout. Just like last year, the MMA fighter is the clear favorite. Katsunori Kikuno‘s karate style should be enough to keep Yuichiro Nagashima at distance and take a decision.
Dream and fellow Japanese fighters were clearly grooming Kikuno to be the next big prospect at lightweight. However, his losses to Gesias Cavalcante and Mizuto Hirota how set him back a bit. A win here could go a long way towards reigniting the hype around Kikuno.
Could Nagashima make it work as an MMA fighter? K-1 is clearly on its last legs. This will be only his second fight in 2011. He went 3-2 between 2005-2006 in MMA.
Mixed rules fights have been a staple of New Year’s Eve in Japan. At K-1 Premium Dynamite!! 2004, Bob Sapp and Jerome Le Banner engaged in a four-round fight that was half MMA and half K-1. The fight automatically ended in a draw when the final bell rang, but Le Banner easily dominated the stand-up portion of the fight. In the process, he contributed heavily to the infamous “Bob Sapp Lowlight Film.”
Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Kazuyuki Miyata
The story of Tatsuya Kawajiri has been the same for years. He is a good enough wrestler to take down strikers and a good enough striker and defensive wrestler to best grapplers. If he can keep the fight on the feet, he should have little trouble busting up Kazuyuki Miyata. The Olympian appeared to have finally turned the corner with a six-fight winning streak. However, in his title fight against Hiroyuki Takaya his dominate wrestling disappeared, and he seemed lost on the feet.
For years Kawajiri had a permanent spot in the lightweight rankings. Now, a pair of title-fight defeats to top-five fighters, Shinya Aoki and Gilbert Melendez, have chased Kawajiri not only from the rankings but also from the division. The devastation Melendez put on the “Crusher” evaporated all his hype. However, he could easily make an impact as a featherweight. A win here would be another step towards establishing himself at 145 pounds. On the other hand, this would easily be the biggest win of Miyata’s career.
Expect a stalemate in the wrestling game, which should open the door for Kawajiri to dominate with crisp boxing.
Bantamweight Tournament Bout
Rodolfo Marques Diniz vs. Bibiano Fernandes
Perhaps Bibiano Fernandes turned the corner with his last fight. Despite having earned the nickname “The Flash” with his quick finishes in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu world, Fernandes only had one submission victory in MMA, a quick armbar against Bellator champion Joe Warren, prior to his last fight. In his first encounter with Takafumi Otsuka, the Brazilian seemed to play it safe and take a decision. The next time, he finished the fight in less than a minute.
He will need to flex more of his new-found finishing skill if he wants to defeat Rodolfo Marques. The Shooto Brazil graduate is a better striker than Fernandes and should be able to hold his own on the ground. If this fight goes to the judges the most recent Nova Uniao prospect will certainly have his hand raised. Of course, there is always a chance that “The Flash” could strike and finish the fight via submission
Bantamweight Tournament Bout
Antonio Banuelos vs. Masakazu Imanari
Predicting Masakazu Imanari fights is always a difficult task. He could easily dictate the fight with his dangerous and varied submission game. However, it is equally likely that Antonio Banuelos will keep the fight on the feet and chase an uninterested Imanari around the ring.
Even though Banuelos has not been facing grapplers at Imanari’s level, he has not been submitted since 2002. When he has struggled in recent outings, he has been soundly outstruck. That is not going to happen here. Look for Banuelos to use his wrestling in reverse and take a striking based decision while Imanari flops around.
Bantamweight Tournament Reserve Bout
Hideo Tokoro vs. Yusup Saadulaev
After back-to-back losses in 2010, it seemed like it might be the end for Hideo Tokoro. However, he returned and surprisingly won the Dream Japan bantamweight tournament. Despite the victories, he is still the same flawed fighter he has always been.
Normally Tokoro fights are relatively easy to predict. Against grapplers, he can put on exciting fights and win scramble battles, but against wrestlers he struggles. Yusup Saadulaev should have enough game to pin Tokoro on his back and keep him there. On the feet, Saadulaev might have enough power to put his opponent on roller skates, but that is less likely. With a win here, Saadulaev could catch on with either Bellator of the UFC. He looked solid even in his only career defeat.
Karla Benitez vs. Megumi Fujii
For years fans despised the fact that Tsuyoshi Kohsaka held a dubious victory over Fedor Emelianenko. The lone blemish on the then “undefeated” fighter’s resume questioned his greatness and place in history. Now, the same is true with Megumi Fujii‘s lone loss to Bellator champion Zoila Gurgel. Their 2010 fight was close, but pretty much everyone knows “Mega Megu” should still be undefeated.
Karla Benitez is mostly a striker, so it is safe to say she will have trouble dealing with the ground wizardry of Fujii. The real victory here is that Fujii gets the chance to display her skills under full MMA rules and on a national stage. Considering the shrinking Japanese MMA scene and the evaporating support of women’s MMA by Strikeforce and Bellator, this may be one of her last chances.
K-1 MAX Rules Bout
Yuta Kubo vs. Nils Widlund
In 2011, Yuta Kubo was one of the few K-1 fighters that got steady work. He defeated Kizaemon Saiga, Masaaki Nori and Koya Urabe to win the K-1 MAX under 63kg Japan tournament. Nils Widlund is a mostly unheard of Sanshou fighter from Sweden. He has competed several tmes in the World Wushu Championships. Kubo is currently riding an eight-fight winning streak and should be able to stretch it to nine here. K-1′s unique rule set, which forbids almost all clinch strikes, should hold back a Sanshou fighter. Plus, it is pretty obvious that the promoters are trying to set up a hot prospect with a win.
K-1 MAX Rules Bout
Masaaki Noiri vs. Kengo Sonoda
Masaaki Noiri put his name on the map during Dynamite!! 2009. He bested FEG bonus baby Hiroya and went on to win that year’s K-1 Koshien tournament. This year, he continued his winning ways by taking the Krush Supernova tournament. Kengo Sonoda is also a product of K-1 Koshien system, but he never advanced past the round of 16. This should be a relatively soft touch for Noiri. The continued development of the young fighter would be very interesting if K-1 was still a viable career path. At this point, all young Japanese kickboxers should serious consider an MMA career like the previously mentioned Hiroya.
A few words about the night’s professional wrestling
This year’s New Year’s Eve show features a few professional wrestling matches. A large portion of Western MMA fans have not missed the opportunity to jump on the absurdity of having staged fights on a supposedly major fight card. I could go on a long tirade about how the history of MMA and professional wrestling are intertwined in Japan, but I will abstain. Instead, I will remind fans that they should be thankful that long-time veterans Kazuyuki Fujita and Kazushi Sakuraba are performing and not getting blasted by the current generation of top fighters. If only Gary Goodridge could make a bit of money without sacrificing brain cells…
Also, if you have not seen Josh Barnett in the professional wrestling ring before you are in for an oddly flavored treat. It is like watching a high school play performed by a bunch of high schoolers forced to act in lieu of detention, while one kid thinks it is an audition for Second City. The term “overacting” does not really do it justice.