The state of MMA in Japan is pretty sad right now. The biggest promotion, Dream, hasn’t put on a show since since last New Year’s Eve. If there is one night a year when all eyes are on Japan, it is December 31st. It has historically been the biggest night for combat sports on the island nation for over a decade now, and even in the diminished state we are in they still manage to put on a few great matches every year. This year there are three big events taking place: Dream 18 and Glory 4 (which will happen in the same venue), and the IGF’s Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye.
Inoki Brings the Freakshows
Call them gimmics, call them novelty fights, cotton candy (lots of fun but no substance), freakshows or whatever you like. These mismatches that often disregard weight and skill level have been a part of the what makes NYE in Japan great. Carrying on the legacy that has produced such classics of combat as Nogueira vs Sapp, is pro wrestling promoter and living legend Antonio Inoki. The same guy who broke Muhammad Ali’s legs with low kicks from the turtle position always manages to find some crazy fights for us on NYE. This year he has 3 MMA matches in addition to his pro wrestling fights; Minowa Man is fighting some inexperienced guy whom he will probably heel hook, Cro Cop is fighting a disgraced Sumo wrestler who was forced to pro wrestling after getting dismissed from Sumo for a Marijuana arrest, and Tim Sylvia is fighting Olympic Gold Medalist in Judo Satoshi Ishii.
Cro Cop has a long history in these kind of matches, and he should be able to land some crushing low kicks and maybe even put his foe away with his trademark head kick. Sylvia will probably come in overweight and out of shape, but his weight advantage will be close to 100 pounds on light-heavyweight Satoshi Ishii. Ishii should be able to weather the storm and get a takedown and tap “The Maine-iac”, but Tim might be able to stay on the outside and box Ishii into unconsciousness. In fights like these though, who really knows what will happen? That is what makes them interesting.
Glory Brings the Relevance and Action
For decades K-1 has had the best kickboxers in the world, and their annual K-1 Grand Prix has been the greatest tournament in all of sports. A 16 man field narrowed to an elite 8 who compete in a one night Grand Prix to crown the greatest standup fighter in all of the world. As a result of the dying industry, poor management by FEG (Fighting Entertainment Group) and many other factors, K-1 is breathing its last breaths. They started the Grand Prix earlier this year, with a field missing most of the best fighters in the world, and it doesn’t look they will even finish the 2012 edition of the legendary tournament. In the midst of this tragic death of one of the greatest promotions of all time, a new company has emerged and brings hope to fans all over the world. Glory World Series is resurrecting the tournament format and bringing most of the greatest kickboxers alive to their Heavyweight Grand Prix in a 16 man, one night tournament. You read that right; the winner will have to fight 4 grueling matches in one evening to capture the title and the $400,000 prize.
There are many familiar faces to MMA and kickboxing fans. The favorite to win in my mind is 4 time K-1 WGP (World Grand Prix) Champion Semmy Schilt. The 6’11” Schilt is a skilled fighter with a Karate background and possess perhaps the greatest front kick in combat sports history. On the same side of the bracket is Golden Glory fighter Gokan Saki, small for a heavyweight but big on kicking power. Also on the first side of the bracket is MMA fighter Sergei Kharitonov, a man who KO’d Schilt in Pride. Kharitonov brings a powerful boxing based style and is a very big heavyweight, although his current 250+ size is drastically slower than his former 230 frame. The other side of the bracket features liver kicking machine Daniel Ghita, as well as 2-time K-1 WGP finalist Remy Bonjasky, who has lost only twice in his past 17 bouts. Also on the second half of the bracket is Dutch Kickboxing demi-god Peter Aerts. At 42 years of age, Aerts has over 100 wins in his storied career, which has seen him capture 3 K-1 WGP titles. Aerts is by no means the best kickboxer in this tournament, but his grueling style of grinding down foes and massive tournament experience makes him a super dangerous fighter in a tournament where the winner will have to fight 4 times. And he is ahead of Schilt in their storied rivalry 3-2, so a sixth match in that series in the final could see Aerts walk away a champion again. I will for sure be rooting for Aerts.
Also kickboxing on that mega even in non-tournament action is legend Jerome Le Banner who should roll over his talented but over matched Japanese foe. Then again, I’ve never seen that guy fight so I may be wrong, but Le Banner is one of the best kickboxers of all time. In lighter weight action, fireball Robin van Roosmalen, son and student of infamous grinder William van Roosmalen, will battle former Aoki killer and fellow action fighter Nagashima in what could be the most exciting fight of the whole night.
Dream is sort of like “The End” from Metal Gear Solid 3; it lays around basically dead, saving up all of its energy for important events. With it having been in hibernation for exactly 365 days, most thought it unlikely that in the midst of all of its financial turmoil that we would even see another Dream event. Like Frankenstein’s monster, the organization that early on sought to fill the vacuum created by the destruction of Pride, is risen from the grave with some assistance from Singapore based ONE Fighting Championship for the biggest night in combat sports in Japan.
Opening up the card is a dynamic stylistic clash of two fighters who were once very promising fighters in the MMA world. The luster has faded from Melvin Manhoef and Dennis Kang, however, and the two have settled into roles as exciting fighters who just don’t have what it takes to be the best in the world. That doesn’t stop this from being a great fight though. Kang rose through Pride as a talented and well rounded fighter with a firm base in jiu-jitsu and solid classic kickboxing style. He carried that style into the UFC, and though he showed flashes of potential like knocking Michael Bisping down with a crisp right hand, he always seemed to fall short when it counted. His opponent Melvin Manhoef, has a similar but different story. Melvin is one of the most explosively violent fighters to ever enter a ring. His furious style is perhaps best described as what Mike Tyson would look like in Muay Thai. There is no denying that Manhoef is one of the scariest strikers in the world, but he has one gaping hole in his game that prevents him from being one of the best in MMA; his ground game. Although his defensive wrestling did seem to have improved in his Strikeforce fight with Tim Kennedy; well, as improved it could have looked in a first round submission loss. The formula here is simple: If Kang can get Melvin down, he should submit him. If he fails to takedown Manhoef, however, it will most likely be a short and violent night for Dennis.
Bibiano Fenrnandes might be the best bantamweight outside of the UFC, and he should pick up another W here in this fight with Yoshiro Maeda. Look for Bibiano to use his formidable submission skills to roll on, and hopefully this talented fighter will make his way to the UFC soon.
In a battle of aging veterans, we will see the always quotable Phil “The New York Badass” Baroni face a seminal figure in the history of MMA in Japan, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai. Baroni once challenged for the Strikeforce Middleweight crown, and has spent most of his career facing to tier talent in the UFC and Pride. Mach was the first great welterweight in the history of Mixed Martial Arts back when he won the Shooto 167 pound title, which he maintained until he suffered the first loss in his career to Anderson “The Spider” Silva. Both are well rounded fighters, Phil being a very powerful boxer who trained with Mark Coleman’s legendary Hammer House wrestling gym for years and master of a ten finger guillotine variant known as the “Philotine”. Mach is a more diverse striker, and should posses a distinct advantage in submission grappling. To me the key factor is cardio here, as Mach is a always in good shape and god only knows what kind of a cut Baroni is putting his aging body through to make 170 at this point in his career. If Sakurai can survive the early onslaught from Baroni, he should be able to win. In a battle this well matched, however, the only thing certain is uncertainty and this match could easily go either way.
In a pair of very interesting featherweight matches Hiroyuki Takaya will battle Tachi Palace 145 champ Georgi Karakhanyan and top 10 Tatsuya “The Crusher” Kawajiri will face recent UFC cast off Michihiro Omigawa. Karakhanyan and Kawajiri are both still regarded as elite level featherweights, and it will be interesting to see if they can win their matchups and continue to rise to prominence in a young division full of talent.
And in the main event, Japanese submission wizard “Tobikan Judan” Shinya Aoki will fight veteran and talented wrestler Antonio McKee. McKee is 20-2-2 in his last 24 bouts. His style is not particularly entertaining, but his out of ring interviews always are. He is a fairly boring wrestler and 17 of those 20 wins were fairly pedestrian decisions, a fact he chalks up to not wanting to hurt his opponents. He claims that his ability to control an opponents hips while in guard make him invulnerable to submission. This will surely be put to the test if he does get top position, as he is facing the greatest submission artist perhaps in the history of the lightweight division. A disciple of Yuki Nakai, Aoki is known for his frightening hip flexibility and creative submissions. Aoki has won fights via gogoplata, hammerlock, mounted gogoplata, and flying triangle choke. Expect an Aoki win here, probably by some creative and violent joint lock.
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