It's been a few years since the days of Japanese mixed martial arts where people clamored for a spectacle like Daiju Takase against Emmanuel Yarborough in PRIDE. While the popularity and growth of the sport has been hindered for various reasons, fans are now treated to competitive fights between high-caliber athletes instead of circus affairs of the Bob Sapp/Kid Muscle nature.
That's not to say that DREAM: New Year! 2011 is without it's own little gimmicky flair. Fans accustomed to seeing Tim Sylvia, Josh Barnett, Peter Aerts, Kazushi Sakuraba and others compete will still get to do so. But this time, it's of the pro-wrestling variety. Even the fabled Yuichiro "Jienotsu" Nagashima will square off with talented lightweight Katsunori Kikuno in a mixed rules bout that will be sure to please.
However, at the end of the day, it's the MMA fights that really make the DREAM: New Year! 2011 offering worthwhile. Here is a look at the MMA portion of the DREAM fight card, with analysis and picks.
Fedor Emelianenko (32-4) vs. Satoshi Ishii (4-1-1)
Why You Should Care: Fedor is (and will always be) one of the most beloved fighters in the game. His run of success in PRIDE is unparalleled and he's widely regarded as one of the two best heavyweight mixed martial artists walking the earth. Despite the setbacks he faced in Strikeforce over the past 18 months (losses to Werdum, Silva and Henderson), he's still one of the best heavyweight strikers in MMA and one solid win away from being back on everyone's pound-for-pound radar. Recently, he notched a victory over journeyman submission grappler Jeff Monson at an M-1 Golbal event over in Moscow during November.
A diminutive heavyweight and a 2008 Olympic judo gold medalist, Ishii is fresh off a shocking draw with former WEC champion Paulo Filho in September. While what seemed like a straightforward 30-27 decision was botched, Filho acknowledged after the fact that Ishii should have, in fact, won the fight. The ceiling for Ishii has yet to be determined. Loaded with a unique skill set and some talent, Fedor marks an important measuring stick for the 25-year old judoka. A win for Ishii puts his career on a completely different path and subsequently, a loss for Fedor probably marks the end.
Who Should Win: Whatever is left of Fedor more than likely possesses enough to stifle Ishii's takedowns and trip attempts for the duration of the fight. If the fight doesn't find itself on the ground after the first initial minutes, Fedor's striking poses a myriad of problems for Ishii. Expect Ishii to look for the clinch early where he can use his judo in an attempt to drag the fight to the ground. But in unsuccessfully attempting to do so, Ishii will wear down and be forced to trade with Fedor. That task proves a fool's errand as Fedor mounts enough offense to get a late first round TKO as he breathes new life back into his recently shaky MMA career.
Ryo Chonan (20-12) vs. Hayato Sakurai (35-12-2)
Why You Should Care: Once upon a time, "Mach" Sakurai was thought to be one of the finest welterweight combatants on the planet. Even a loss to Matt Hughes at UFC 36 in 2002 could not deter people from holding onto that sentiment. He was 19-2 with losses to Anderson Silva and Matt Hughes, he'd just demolished Frank Trigg and he had owned Shooto competition for the better part of a half-decade. A few fights later, Sakurai would meet up with Ryo Chonan for the first time at a DEEP show in 2003. Sakurai would lose via doctor stoppage and from there, he would make his ascent up the PRIDE lightweight ladder, knocking off foes like Shinya Aoki, Jens Pulver and Joachim Hansen. But those days were a long time ago and most recently, "Mach" has dealt with his current four-fight losing streak. For a fighter that's been in the business for 15 years, a fifth-straight loss could spell the end of the road for Sakurai.
While Chonan never had the career or legacy of Sakurai, he does have the distinction of pulling off one of the greatest upsets in the history of mixed martial arts when he defeated Anderson Silva on New Year's Eve of 2004 with a flying scissor heel hook. Since then, it's been a mixed bag of wins and losses for the "Piranha." In 2011, he's riding a two-fight winning streak with wins over Naoki Samukawa and Shigetoshi Iwase.
Who Should Win: If recent form is any indication of who wins, it would be fairly obvious to suggest that Chonan would pull off the victory. But it was just two years ago that Sakurai defiled Shinya Aoki with punches in just 27 seconds. It's an extreme apropos matchup for Japanese fighters in their mid-30's looking to settle a score and one that could provide a bit of entertainment. Expect Sakurai to get takedowns, use his ground and pound and either pull out a decision victory or a late stoppage.
Shinya Aoki (29-5) vs. Satoru Kitaoka (29-10-9)
Why You Should Care: Because Aoki and Kitaoka represent some of the finest Japanese submission grappling imaginable and it should come as no shock that the pair are teammates. They both will also be competing for the DREAM lightweight championship. Aoki has been extremely active since his 2010 loss to Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce lightweight championship taking six fights and racking up six victories. He's currently on a three-fight streak of neck crank submission victories over Rob McCullough, Rich Clementi and Lyle Beerbohm. If you can't get psyched up about a Top 10 lightweight fighting in Japan during the prime of his career, "Tobikan Judan" has all the tools to change that.
Conversely, if achilles locks and heel hooks are your cup of tea, Kitaoka has you covered. Riding a current four-fight winning streak, "The Crazy Koala" is renowned for his submission grappling abilities and is the reigning BJJ and No-Gi open champion in both the 79.7-kilogram (176 lb) and Absolute divisions. Unsurprisingly enough, neither fighter has ever been submitted.
Who Should Win: Styles make fights and though the premise of this fight is worthy of a smile, the actual pace and action during the fight might be cringe-worthy. While neither fighter possesses the skills to hurt the other on the feet, their ground skills almost totally negate themselves as well. If Satoru Kitaoku were five inches taller, slightly more athletic and blessed with long limbs, he would be Shinya Aoki. In a fight with this high-level of BJJ, anything is possible. But bank on a few Aoki takedowns, a lot of pawing in the stand up and some slick submission attempts before the judges fill out their scorecards and they declare Aoki the victor and DREAM lightweight champion by decision.
Hiroyuki Takaya (16-9-1) vs. Takeshi Inoue (21-5)
Why You Should Care: The DREAM featherweight strap is on the line in what should be an eventful display of striking from two men that put food on their tables with their fists. The 34-year old Takaya will be making his first defense of his title since beating Kazuyuki Miyata in July. "Streetfight Bancho" has defeated some of the top stars of the 145-pound weight class with victories over Bibiano Fernandes, Joachim Hansen and Hideo Tokoro and he's also had stints on American soil going 0-2 in the WEC and losing a fight to Robert Peralta at a Strikeforce event in early 2011.
"Lion Takeshi" has been a Shooto star since 2003 by defeating the likes of Cole Miller, Antonio Carvalho, Hideki Kadowaki and Rumina Sato. Takeshi has put together an undefeated 2011, going 3-0 and earning his way to a title shot with a vicious head kick of Caol Uno at DREAM 17 in September. In 26 professional fights, Inoue hasn't ever been finished before the final bell.
Who Should Win: In what should be a fun, entertaining slugfest, pace is going to play a major role. Takaya will have to be more aggressive (since he's giving up a few inches of height) and stalk Inoue down for most of the fight. While there's no evidence to suggest he can finish "Lion Takeshi," the aggressive style will more than likely be rewarded at the final bell. It should be a hellacious fight with plenty of clean, crisp punches and some solid kicks mixed in for good fun. Expect Takaya to retain his title with a decision victory in what should be a pretty close, competitive affair.
Tatsuya Kawajiri (29-7-2) vs. Kazuyuki Miyata (11-8)
Why You Should Care: Upon first glance, records would indictate that Kawajiri was all set to steamroll another middling Japanese opponent sent to slaughter. But judging a book by it's cover doesn't always yield the correct results in MMA. Kazuyuki Miyata, known for his "Little Hercules" moniker, is a mountain of a featherweight who has had his career slightly mismanaged and his record slightly tainted. Even at 35 years of age, there's only a handful of more talented featherweight wrestlers on the planet that have the abilities Miyata brings to the table. During the time when he was, in fact, the lamb sent to slaughter, he found himself at 5-7 following a submission loss to Luiz Firmino in 2008. From there, he took a year off from fighting and then went on a six-fight winning streak against really solid opposition before dropping a title fight to Hiroyuki Takaya earlier this year in a fight he arguably won. Needless to say, Kawajiri is a pivotal fight in Miyata's career arch and a winnable one as well.
"Crusher" Kawajiri is widely thought of as one of the best lightweight fighters to come from Japan in the last decade. That was until he decided to make the featherweight division his home. It's almost shocking to see Kawajiri make the 145-pound limit needed to compete because he's a goliath of a featherweight with imposing wrestling and world class ground and pound to go with that size. Barring a few setbacks to Shinya Aoki and Gilbert Melendez in 2010 and 2011, Kawajiri has been extremely solid in wins over Drew Fickett, Joachim Hansen and Josh Thomson.
Who Should Win: Anyone that enjoys wrestling will benefit from watching two high-level wrestlers try and take the fight to the ground. Miyata's success depends heavily on it whereas Kawajiri has enough of a standup game that he won't have to rely on his ground dominance unless it falls in his lap. Miyata has the takedowns, talent and the size to win a round but Kawajiri's striking should mark him up on the feet and he should secure a few takedowns of his own before earning himself a decision victory.
Rodolfo Marques Diniz (14-1) vs. Bibiano Fernandes (9-3)
Why You Should Care: This fight represents one of two fights in the Bantamweight Grand Prix set up to determine a bantamweight champion. It pits two Brazilian fighters against one another to determine who will fight in the GP final. Diniz is a relatively unknown Brazilian coming off a recent win over Yusup Saadulaev at DREAM 17. The majority of his career victories come by way of decision and he's yet to face a fighter in the same class as Fernandes.
Bibiano "The Flash" Fernandes is a former featherweight star with wins over Joe Warren, Joachim Hansen, Hiroyuki Takaya and Masakazu Imanari. His only career losses come from Takaya, Urijah Faber and Kid Yamamoto. At 31 years old, Fernandes represents the class of the tournament and big wins get him one step closer towards something like a lucrative UFC contract.
Who Should Win: Talent wins the day in this fight. Diniz just hasn't seen anyone with Fernandes' skills and the step up in class should look very apparent in the early goings. Expect "The Flash" to get a round under his belt before securing takedowns in round two that lead to a submission victory and a spot in the Bantamweight Grand Prix Final.
Antonio Banuelos (19-7) vs. Masakazu Imanari (24-9-2)
Why You Should Care: Because Banuelos should be a household name for his appearances in the WEC and UFC. Over the course of his career, Banuelos has competed in the now-defunct WEC a total of 14 times and also competed against Miguel Torres at UFC 126 before being let go by the promotion. At 5'3," Banuelos represents one of the smaller bantamweights out there and his time spent fighting East of the Pacific could make him a surprise star of the grand prix.
Imanari is a 35-year old submission war horse that earned his way into the grand prix with a submission victory over Abel Cullum at DREAM 17. "Ashikan Judan" has long fought some of the best competition on the planet in spirited contests with Doko Mishima, Mike Brown, Jorge Gurgel and Yoshiro Maeda among others. In 2009, he dropped a decision loss to Bibiano Fernandez and there's potential for him to avenge that loss in the grand prix final if he can get by Banuelos.
Who Should Win: A submission specialist against a guy used to going the distance. Banuelos hasn't been submitted since 2002 but Imanari isn't your run-of-the-mill submission fighter. Banuelos will have to look for toe holds, arm bars, heel hooks and a plethora of other submissions from Imanari over the course of three rounds. My money is on Imanari taking the fight into deep waters before Banuelos makes a crucial mistake that "Ashikan Judan" can capitalize on. Imanari pulls out a nice looking third round submission and books himself a rematch with Fernandes in the GP final.
Megumi Fujii (24-1) vs. Karla Benitez (6-1)
Why You Should Care: If you have to watch a women's MMA fight on a DREAM card, it can't get much better than two fighters with a combined 30-2 record. Fujii represents the very best of women's MMA having gone undefeated before losing a split decision to Zoila Gurgel in 2010 in Bellator. Since then, she's rattled off two straight wins and, at 37, finally gets her shot to compete on a big stage in DREAM.
Benitez is coming off of a loss in her last bout and will be competing in her fourth bout in 2011.
Who Should Win: Fujii all day. In her three victories under the Bellator banner, Fujii finished all of her opponents and looked good doing it. This fight should be no different. Fujii by second round armbar.
Hideo Tokoro (30-24-1) vs. Yusup Saadulaev (8-1-1)
Why You Should Care: It's not the sexiest fight DREAM has ever put on but hey, who isn't keen on watching two bantamweights compete in a grand prix reserve bout? Tokoro is a staple of DREAM's product going all the way back to 2008. He's competed over ten times, he's always reliably entertaining and strung together a four-fight winning streak before losing to Antonio Banuelos at DREAM 17. And if nothing else, even the most ardent Zuffa shill can give mad props to a guy that beat UFC bantamweight Brad Pickett by armbar.
Saadulaev is a different cat entirely. His only career loss also came at DREAM 17 to Rodolfo Marques Diniz, who was probably his toughest opponent to date. That will change when he faces Tokoro.
Who Should Win: There's no guarantee's in this fight. Hideo Tokoro, resume aside, is just a different class of fighter than Yusup Saadulaev. And perhaps that looks ridiculous if you just stare at their records but Tokoro has soundly pieced together wins over Pickett, Imanari, Darren Uyenoyama and Yoshihiro Maeda. No one is going to pat his backside for a win over Ken Kaneko but 55 fights into an MMA career, Tokoro has seen better talent standing across the cage than Saadulaev possesses. In textbook Japanese fashion, look for Tokoro to take a majority decision and standby if someone falls out of the grand prix.
DREAM: New Year! 2011
Date: Dec 31, 2011
Location: Saitama, Japan
Venue: Saitama Super Arena
Fedor Emelianenko vs. Satoshi Ishii
Ryo Chonan vs. Hayato "Mach" Sakurai
Champ Shinya Aoki vs. Satoru Kitaoka (for lightweight title)
Yuichiro Nagashima vs. Katsunori Kikuno (mixed-rules bout)
Champ Hiroyuki Takaya vs. Takeshi "Lion" Inoue (for featherweight title)
Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Kazuyuki Miyata
Rodolfo Marques Diniz vs. Bibiano Fernandes (bantamweight grand prix semifinal)
Antonio Banuelos vs. Masakazu Imanari (bantamweight grand prix semifinal)
Hideo Tokoro vs. Yusup Saadulaev (bantamweight grand prix reserve match)
Karla Benitez vs. Megumi Fujii
Yuta Kubo vs. Nils Widlund (kickboxing match)
Masaaki Noiri vs. Kengo Sonoda (kickboxing match)
Kazuyuki Fujita vs. Peter Aerts (pro-wrestling match)
Atsushi Sawada and Shinichi Suzukawa vs. Kazushi Sakuraba and Katsuyori Shibata (pro-wrestling match)
Josh Barnett vs. Hideki Suzuki (pro-wrestling match)
Jerome Le Banner vs. Tim Sylvia (pro-wrestling match)