Following the emotional and physical beating that Shinya Aoki suffered back in April against current Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez, most fans felt that the question had been answered as to whether Japan's top lightweight talent could compete with the West. In fact, many fans felt the outcome supported an overall idea that the UFC simply had the best talent in the world, mainly because Melendez had fought a majority of his career in the same talent pool as many of Japan's elite fighters and as we see here everyday -- most fans believe anyone outside of the UFC in the lightweight ranks is second rate in comparison.
While I don't think it truly answered that question, there were some sad realities for Japan that came from the loss. The creative, often beautiful jiu-jitsu transitions that have popularized Aoki in Japan couldn't compete against a sound, fundamental North American wrestler. Instead of Aoki's style of fighting being a silver bullet, it proved to be more effective in adding damage to Aoki's cheek structure rather than putting Melendez in any danger. Technique alone couldn't overcome strength, technique, and intelligence molded into one, and it hinted at a more broad possibility that Japan's future fighters may lack the diversity that many of the West's up-and-coming talents had obtained through amateur sports like collegiate wrestling.
So, why should anyone care about a fight between two of Japan's top lightweights when they've been all but proven to be obsolete at the hands of any lightweight in Strikeforce or possibly the UFC? Interestingly enough, one fighter remains a question mark, and his exam comes at DREAM.15 against Shinya Aoki, airing LIVE at 3:00 AM EST on Saturday, July 10th on HDNet.
Tatsuya Kawajiri doesn't exactly embody excitement, but he has had his fair share of unpredictable, edge-of-your-seat battles in the ring. One achievement not found on his decade-long list of bouts is a showdown with Shinya Aoki, and it's surprising since both men have been at the top of the division for a very long time. Aoki threw down with Joachim Hansen and Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante in the days in which many fans felt they could be the best in the world, and Kawajiri has done the same while also battling Takanori Gomi, Gilbert Melendez, and Eddie Alvarez.
Most would say the relevance of this bout is minuscule due to the fact that Kawajiri has lost to fighters like Melendez and Alvarez, but Kawajiri remains the very best "wrestleboxer" that Japan has ever produced. He can fight within the exact mold that has foiled the great Shinya Aoki, and I think we're kidding ourselves if we think Kawajiri can't be effective against some mid-echelon UFC fighters in that mold.
It remains to be seen if Kawajiri has improved enough over the years to compete with Gilbert Melendez in a Strikeforce lightweight championship showdown, but I'd be the first to tell you that I'm interested in the prospect of the fight happening on U.S. soil in the cage. DREAM 15 is the first hurdle, and Aoki will be a huge obstacle, especially after the severe drubbing he took at the hands of Melendez and the motivation to win again stemming from that loss.
Lightweight Championship Title Bout: (#7) Shinya Aoki (23-5-0-1) vs. (#8) Tatsuya Kawajiri (26-5-2): I'd be lying if I wasn't thinking about a potential upset bid by Kawajiri here. His style of fighting along with the five-round tape of Melendez basically maintaining range and using his strikes to keep Aoki at bay should be a blueprint for Kawajiri to win. Furthermore, Kawajiri's strength is something most of Aoki's opposition hasn't possessed, and it could very well be the difference maker in eluding Aoki's creative grappling on the ground. The only unfortunate circumstance is that Aoki is very dangerous on his back, an area in which Kawajiri normally puts his opponents.
With that said, I'm still banking on Kawajiri to "crush" Aoki in this fight. If Hansen's horrible takedown defense was able to scramble away from Aoki on multiple occasions, I think Kawajiri has the strength to maintain his feet and pepper Aoki with overhands. My only real concern is Aoki's creativeness and the possibility that Kawajiri hasn't seen a whole lot of inventiveness from the jiu-jitsu grapplers he's faced. That unfamiliarity could be his demise in this fight.
Light Heavyweight Grand Prix Opening Round: (#9) Gegard Mousasi (28-3-1) vs. Jake O’Brien (13-3): Mousasi's Fedor-esque stoicism and his ability to make a fight look rather easy against top competition certainly created a huge amount of hype around him in the lead-up to his Strikeforce light heavyweight title showdown with Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, but Lawal completely neutralized the Armenian-Dutch kickboxer's striking prowess while pounding on him continuously over five rounds. While the loss certainly derailed his momentum, he hasn't shied away from fighting someone who embodies the exact style that dominated him three months ago.
Former UFC fighter Jake O'Brien doesn't have the credentials, nor does he have as dominant of a wrestling base as Muhammed "King Mo" Lawal, but he does offer a similar style to Lawal in that his primary attack will involve takedowns and control. Unfortunately, he's nowhere near as strong as Lawal or as technical in controlling opponents on the ground. For the most part, O'Brien likes to use size to smother and tire out opponents, but his lackluster punching ability and awful defense on the feet have really been his means to being cut by the UFC.
Mousasi should win here. While O'Brien does offer a threat in smothering Mousasi for the entire fight and taking a decision, Lawal offered a much more threatening takedown game as his strength and experience was enormous. O'Brien doesn't really have a huge edge as he has a quite large hole in his game on the feet. Mousasi happens to be quite good on the feet, and I'd wager hard earned dollars that he's been learning the wrestling game following his loss to Lawal. Mousasi puts away O'Brien in this contest.
Lightweight: (#23) Gesias Cavalcante (14-3-1-1) vs. Katsunori Kikuno (13-2-1): One of the most intriguing bouts on the card is a lightweight tussle between the crescent kicking Kyoshukin Karate fighter Katsunori Kikuno and former top ten lightweight Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante. Kikuno knocked out former UFC fighter Kuniyoshi Hironaka at DREAM.13, but he succumbed to Eddie Alvarez's arm triangle submission at DREAM 12 in his first major step up the ladder in the worldwide division. Cavalcante is MMA's version of Pavel Bure as he's suffered knee problems throughout his career, and it's one of the sole reasons why Cavalcante's scorching streak in 2006 and 2007 came to a halt.
With his knees repaired, Cavalcante has been making an attempt to become relevant once again as he battled Shinya Aoki and Tatsuya Kawajiri at DREAM 2 and DREAM 9 respectively, but he came up short in both fights, losing via decision. He has signed a four-fight contract with Strikeforce, but I'm a bit hesitant to believe his health will prevail through the entire length of that contract.
The intrigue in this fight stems from Cavalcante's potential to be a real wrecking ball in the worldwide lightweight division. As Kid Nate pointed out, he does have almost a mirror-image style to that of Gilbert Melendez, but he can produce ferocious finishing power that Melendez has lacked in his arsenal. But the book is still out on whether Cavalcante will suffer the same fate as the aforementioned Pavel Bure, who was forced to retire early due to his knee problems.
Tough fight to call. Cavalcante has the edge on the ground, but he's not one to use it as he's more comfortable with punching opponents out over the transition to a submission. On the other hand, Kikuno's conditioning is a question mark that makes me believe Cavalcante can take this fight to the ground and tire him out. On the feet, anything could happen, but I like Kikuno's speedy delivery and kicking prowess. With that said however, I think Cavalcante has what it takes to avoid the big blows and bring Kikuno into a ground battle that puts Kikuno on the defensive for far too long. Gesias Cavalcante via decision.
Light Heavyweight Grand Prix Opening Round: (#21 MW) Melvin Manhoef (24-7-1) vs. Tatsuya Mizuno (7-5): Well... I think you know who wins this fight. I think you also know that in my deranged thinking, Melvin Manhoef could also beat Brock Lesnar. Okay, probably not, but Melvin Manhoef embodies everything that is entertaining about mixed martial arts. The Suriname-born Dutch kickboxer possesses Herculean power, a massive physique, and incredible dance moves that make women swarm to his side. Yes, they swarm. Phil Baroni says he's the best fighter eva! Recognize.
Tatsuya Mizuno is the well-known lamb who was brought in to get trounced by Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic at DREAM.1, but he has managed to amass a 4-2 record in his last 6 bouts against relatively unknown competition, which gets you murdered in Japan. Mizuno has apparently been training with Matt Hume for this match-up, but in all honesty -- Manhoef is probably going to knock Mizuno out in the first round in incredible, epic fashion. Don't blink!
Middleweight: Kazuhiro Nakamura (14-10) vs. Karl Amoussou (11-2-2): If you loved vintage Wanderlei Silva, Karl Amoussou is a 24 year old re-incarnation of the wild veteran without so many blows to the head. Highly aggressive and entertaining to watch, he'll have his hands full as he takes on PRIDE and UFC veteran Kazuhiro Nakamura.
Most fans who've actually watched Nakamura over the years would probably say he's rather boring to watch, and the prospect of his face being trounced by Amoussou's craziness would be awesome. The fact of the matter is that Nakamura's Judo is a real danger to Amoussou here, and aggression isn't exactly the solution. Sure, Amoussou could potentially come out firing on all cylinders and blast Nakamura into retirement, but it's tough to fathom that happening when he has been put into tough spots on the floor in the past.
Amoussou also owns a black belt in Judo, but I'd be willing to bet Nakamura is the more accomplished grappler. He's also faced far tougher competition. But something in my mind still looks at Amoussou as the winner in this fight. Perhaps it's nostalgia seeping into my analytical brain matter, but I think Amoussou has power to put away Nakamura. If he can't, Nakamura takes the decision.
Featherweight: (#8) Michihiro Omigawa (10-8-1) vs. Young Sam Jung (0-2): When I saw that Yoshida Dojo had resolved their issue with DREAM, I became a bit excited at the possibility of seeing Omigawa fight much sooner rather than later. And then I saw this terrible match-up. Jung is known as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter out of South Korea who's been knocked out twice in two professional fights. Need I say more? I didn't think so. Let the Omigawa fist pumping commence.
Featherweight: Mitsuhiro Ishida (18-6-1) vs. Daiki Hata (11-6-3): A little off-the-radar, but that's okay. Ishida will finally make his move down to featherweight as he takes on a solid mid-echelon talent in Daiki Hata. I won't delve too deep into this bout as I'm already burned out on trying to explain to myself why Omigawa is fighting Jung, but I like Ishida here. Ishida's frame is small, but at the very least -- he'll be able to actually compete with the slightly bigger frame of the featherweight division versus some of the lengthier limbs he's had to deal with in the past. Hata can be dangerous from the top, but I see Ishida controlling him with his relentless wrestling and conditioning in this fight.