Much of the media coverage following this weekend's mixed martial arts action has revolved heavily around UFC 114's plethora of storylines. The stunning knockout of Todd Duffee at the hands of Mike Russow, the near-upset of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and the controversial split decision, the rise of John Hathaway, and Rashad Evans' victory over Quinton "Rampage" Jackson have all been heavily scrutinized outcomes, and writers, fans, and reporters are dissecting exactly what to make of the results. But the weekend also produced an interesting story from across the Pacific pond in Saitama, Japan.
DREAM 14 was a card that, for the most part, was designed to bring in the mixed martial arts faithful of Japan by throwing together an event packed with legendary names. Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, Kazushi Sakuraba, Ikuhisa Minowa, and former teen heart-throb Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto graced the "White Cage" in fairly irrelevant, but potentially entertaining bouts. Most of the athletes had something to prove as Sakurai wanted to smother any talk of retirement, Sakuraba wanted to prove he could still fight, and Yamamoto wanted to reclaim glory in spectacular fashion, but the results didn't bode well for the older generation of mixed martial artists.
While "Kid" Yamamoto predictably destroyed "Kiko" Lopez's chin with a ballistic missile of a right counter in the first round of their match-up, things didn't turn out so well for PRIDE veteran Hayato "Mach" Sakurai against Nick Diaz. After bombarding the Strikeforce welterweight champion's chin with heavy overhands, Sakurai looked like he may actually pull off a KJ Noons-esque upset in the early moments of the fight. A younger, unwise Diaz may have resorted to prove his mettle on the feet, but as we saw in the early morning hours on Saturday -- Diaz came to win.
After the initial flurry of solid overhands from Sakurai, Diaz's chin not only held up strong, but his strategy, normally dedicated to toughing out better strikers, completely changed and fell into the Brazilian jiu-jitsu mold. Diaz dominated on the floor, and put Sakurai into the dangerous position of rolling out of an armbar position. Sakurai unfortunately rolled right into the netting, stopping all chances of escaping. He abruptly tapped.
Joachim Hansen was also on the wrong end of a fight that he was favored to win due to his extensive experience and victories over top-flight competition. The former DREAM lightweight champion was crushed by a devastating overhand that floored him after being stunned by a previous shot from Hiroyuki Takaya. Takaya looked solid during the match-up as he kept fairly compact in his stand-up, threw crisp counters, and won most of the exchanges in the opening frame. Hansen's takedown defense was a bit improved, but his defense in the striking department was lackadaisical at best. He paid for it, and now the inevitable questions are being asked.
Has time caught up with both Joachim Hansen and Hayato Sakurai? Certainly, Hayato Sakurai falls into the category of the aging fighter who has now entered the time in his career of inevitable decline for most fighters. At age 34, can Sakurai remain relevant? I think he can, but not in a capacity that suggests he'll be a relevant top 10 or even top 20 fighter. While I think he can gain some traction with a solid combination of overhands, power, and some luck, I think Sakurai's role in the landscape of Japanese MMA should be as an ambassador to the youth who are coming into the sport.
Most fans will agree that Sakurai has been far from relevant in recent years, but I think Sakurai himself doesn't want to admit that. I do, however, think his start against Nick Diaz left a little fire to be found in future match-ups, and we just never know. He was much more fit, and landed some beautiful punches that might have floored someone who doesn't train in triathlons and laugh in the face of knuckle sandwiches.
Hansen is a tad different story. He's currently 31 years of age, and he had to make a drop down in weight for his bout with Takaya that made him look visibly withered in the cage on Saturday. The knock on Hansen has always been his atrociously bad takedown defense, but his threatening strikes and advanced ground tactics have always landed him in positions to win any fight against any opponent.
His loss to Shinya Aoki was really only the result of Hansen's desire to try to advance out of danger rather than hold position until the final bell rang. Hansen, caught in an armbar position by Aoki in the closing seconds of their bout at DREAM 11, decided not to stall to win, but try to advance and escape the bad position he was in. Unfortunately, Aoki capitalized on the escape attempt and won a fight that he may have lost had Hansen simply held to his position. Hansen did receive some respect from fans for his attitude, but it certainly didn't help his record.
Hansen's battle with Bibiano Fernandes five months later was a very close contest, but ultimately exposed Hansen's glaring weakness to takedowns. The loss on Saturday to Takaya was his first loss ever in which he was completely incapacitated by a series of punches, and it is his third straight loss.
Naturally, this stint of failure has caused fans to look not only at Hansen's career and skills, but the entire landscape of Japanese MMA in general. The fact of the matter is that it has little to do with where they fight, but rather the set of skills in their arsenals.
Hansen's weaknesses have always been his crutch, and one could say that his losses to Aoki and Fernandes were direct effects of those weaknesses. The Aoki fight is forgivable as Hansen didn't want to simply "ride" out a decision, but Fernandes took him down at will. Hansen's failure against Takaya, from a topical view, looks to be more from his extensive cut down in weight rather than his skills being taken advantage of. In the future, I expect Hansen to continue to improve his takedown defense and be potentially relevant once again, especially if Japan seeks to unify weight classes and sit featherweight on the 145 mark. It doesn't seem like much, but it matters.
Sakurai has really lacked the ground tactics to be a real threat as he's relied on his hands to do his talking. He's always been able to beat guys with solid wrestling ability because his power was so much more formidable, but against fighters like Akihiro Gono and Nick Diaz -- punching ability won't cut it by itself. Ultimately, I think Sakurai relies heavily on being an entertaining fighter versus a well-rounded athlete, and while that puts him on the map with fans in Japan -- he's now at a time in his career where he seeks relevant wins that just aren't going to happen without an increase in his knowledge.
Has time caught up with both fighters? I don't think it has profoundly, and their downward spirals could be stopped with some confidence building fights and more progressive training regiments. But there is some truth to believing these losses along with their age may be affecting their confidence. Sakurai has already contemplated retirement. Will this loss put him over that edge? I sure hope not.