This weekend, while fans are busy ignoring and/or complaining about UFC 96, Fighting & Entertainment Group will be jumpstarting the most thrilling year of fights for sub-155 weight classes in MMA history.
The next 30 days will see DREAM and Sengoku each open their own year-long 16-man featherweight grand prix. Both are absolutely thick with talent from Japan, Korea, America, Brazil and beyond, featuring a total of 8 of Bloody Elbow's Top 25 Meta-Ranked Featherweights as well as several highly-touted debuting prospects. All this is not to mention the (mostly) exciting night of action at WEC 39 last weekend, a great looking lineup for WEC 40 on April 5th, and the upcoming 145-pound bracket of the ESPN Deportes-televised Bellator FC.
This started as a preview post, but I figured it might be nice to make some predictions too, since we generally only get around to prognosticating UFC PPVs and Fight Nights 'round these parts. I've spent the last few days submerged in stats and watching every piece of tape I could find, and I've emerged even more geeked than before about this unprecedented period of featherweight activity.
Leave your thoughts and picks in the comments section - I'll be back tomorrow with Part 2, featuring the rest of the FWGP opening round as well as the night's superfights.
Fight of the Night pick #1. DEEP's former featherweight and current bantamweight champ, the leglock master Imanari reversed his fortunes last August with a 30-second submission of Hiroshi Umemura just three months after a demoralizing title loss to Dokonjonosuke Mishima (his first in three years). The "Ashikan Judan" - ranked #10 in Bloody Elbow's February featherweight meta-rankings - is also the last fighter to defeat current WEC 145-pound beast Mike Thomas Brown, and has to be considered the #2 seed in this unbelievably stacked bracket.
Presumptive #1 seed "KID" Yamamoto's pupil Atsushi (no relation) has also shifted between the 62 and 65kg classes and boasts the solid wrestling pedigree you'd expect from a Krazy Bee, along with a strong defensive ground game. Last September, Yamamoto looked extremely impressive in decisioning the veteran Hideo Tokoro - who coincidentally will face the injured Daiki "DJ.taiki" Hata in the remaining opening round bout at DREAM.8.
Yamamoto has never been submitted in 18 fights, but I have a strong suspicion think that streak ends here. Imanari is bigger and stronger, and has to know that his middling stand-up won't do the trick against the tough Yamamoto. Disclosure: the last time I predicted a first-time submission -- McCullough vs. Cerrone at WEC 36 -- I was completely wrong. Nonetheless...
Masakazu Imanari via Submission, Round 1
Fight of the Night pick #2. 22-year old Abel Cullum battled his way into MMA's collective consciousness last September, stunning every fight fan outside of New Mexico with his gutsy bantamweight title bout performance against Wilson Reis. It wasn't that Cullum bested the still-undefeated Brazilian - he lost a unanimous decision after five rounds - but that the virtually unknown, cowboy-hatted fighter who'd replaced Bao Quach on three weeks' notice was able to hang tough on both the feet and floor for 25 minutes with EliteXC's most hotly tipped prospect. It was his first defeat since February of 2006, snapping an 11-fight win streak. In December, the versatile Cullum retained his King of the Cage flyweight belt in front of a hometown crowd by submitting recent WEC signee Brett Roller in under two minutes.
Cullum will have his work cut out for him once again as he faces the 2006 Shooto Lightweight Rookie Champion and #21 meta-ranked featherweight Nishiura. (Curiously, Nishiura and Imanari are the only two meta-ranked competitors in the tournament, perhaps due to the fighters' fluctuating weights, but more likely because most sites fail hard at ranking anything under 170 lbs.) Nishiura is a flamboyant personality outside the cage (check his paintings if you haven't had the pleasure) with an unorthodox kickboxing style to match.
I've yet to see tape of "Wicky's" December Cage Force Featherweight Title loss to Yuji Hoshino, but from all reports it was a rather one-sided ground'n'pound beating precipitated by Nishiura's insistence on only throwing flashy power strikes. Hoshino is a larger and vastly more experienced fighter than Cullum, however, and I don't think Abel will take this to the ground with ease. I expect this to go the distance with Nishiura winning narrowly on points.
"Wicky Akiyo" Nishiura via Split Decision
The maddeningly inconsistent though clearly talented brother of TUF 5 alum Cole Miller makes his international debut on the big stage, and with a massive step up in competition. A submission-minded fighter training with Florida's American Top Team, the younger Miller has flitted in and out of the WEC since 2007, most recently losing a controversial TKO stoppage to Massachusetts-based upstart Josh Grispi. In December, he captured the Close Quarters Combat (what?) featherweight belt with a second round RNC submission of Pancrase and IFL veteran Jason Palacios.
An explosive striker with one of the deepest (no pun intended) resumes in the bracket, Maeda is one of three FWGP participants who enters the tournament on the back of two straight WEC losses. While there's certainly no shame in losing to Miguel Torres (in what many considered the Fight of the Year for 2008, no less) or Rani Yahya, many fans predicted that the 27-year-old Featherweight King of Pancrase would be the next big thing in the States' premeir lightweight organization. He's also been beaten soundly by two other GP fighters in Imanari and Hata, though he would avenge the Hata loss five months later, and has KO'd Imanari's opening round opponent.
A year or two from now, I'd be all over Miller to win this fight, and maybe even the tournament. He's long and rangy, and he's shown excellent fundamental BJJ along with knockout power in the short time he's been fighting. But his boxing still looks very raw, and Maeda is too powerful and too experienced to be kept at bay.
Yoshiro Maeda via Unanimous Decision
Fight of the Night pick #3. I'm genuinely surprised DREAM matched up these two studs in the opening round, but it's a very appealing Japan vs. Brazil pairing which fans will eat up.
Fernandes is a fast twitch Brazilian jiu jitsu wizard with a deceptive 3-2 record in MMA; deceptive because those two losses came by way of Top 3 featherweights Urijah Faber and Norifumi Yamamoto in his second and third fights, respectively. (He actually took Urijah down and was controlling his back within the first 30 seconds of their bout; a minute later, Herb Dean was forced to call the fight due to a gushing forehead cut from a Faber elbow, despite Fernandes' vehement protests.) Last year "The Flash" went 2-0 with the Calgary-based Raw Combat promotion.
Otsuka, meanwhile, has amassed a 8-1-1 record in his last ten bouts. In the past five months, he's bested highly regarded Japanese fighters Shoji Maruyama and Masanori Kanehara with decision victories in DEEP, leading many to believe that he's destined for the finals of this tournament.
This may be the toughest bout of the opening round to pick. Otsuka lacks size and reach, but has decent stand-up and dominant wrestling, and has bested far larger fighters than himself in both Japan and Brazil. He's also demonstrated an uncanny ability to power out of nearly any submission his opponent throws at him. While Fernandes is imbued with lightning speed, he has not, to date, shown any great ability to effectively transition his Mundial-winning BJJ skills to suit his MMA career.
Takafumi Otsuka via TKO, Round 1
#27 FW Hiroyuki Takaya (9-6-1) vs. Jong-Won Kim (0-0)
The brawling "Streetfight Bancho" Takaya returns to his homeland after being bounced from the WEC with tough back-to-back losses to Leonard Garcia and Cub Swanson.
Before I started digging last month, I knew nothing anything about Takaya's opponent, though I was intrigued by the fact that he was a highly accomplished judoka (1997 Pacific Rim and Asian Judo Champion) who retired from competition in his prime to become a professional golfer. For the past two years, Kim has been a training partner and cornerman to good friend Dong-Sik Yoon, who claims the 33-year old's striking (as taught by K-1 standout K.MAX) will surprise fans.
I'm going to trust the Donger on this one, especially considering Kim's strong judo background; double especially because I didn't like at all what I saw from Takaya in his lone televised stateside bout, and it's difficult to train specifically for an 0-0 opponent with no footage to watch. Upset pick of the night for "The Man In The Background" via all-night judo throws.
Jong-Won Kim via Decision