Josh Gross sets the stakes:
The no-frills Kawajiri, Japan's best incarnation of a strong Western-style grappling-based mixed martial artist, went from war to war since his days as Shooto 154-pound champion in the middle part of the decade, fighting everyone save Aoki. His most compelling bouts manifested in losses to Melendez (18-2) and, in the semifinals of the Dream tournament two years ago, to top-five ranked lightweight Eddie Alvarez (20-2).
Who will emerge as Japan's best lightweight?
Beyond tactics and techniques, it's a question whose answer could lift a stagnating promotion, division and sporting environment. A victory for Aoki would seem, on the surface, to do nothing but affirm the status quo -- that in a global sense Japanese mixed martial artists can't hack it against Americans, Brazilians, et. al. That may or may not be fair, but it's certainly how the result would be perceived, until Aoki redeemed himself internationally.
A Kawajiri win, however, immediately engages some compelling opportunities. He's already shown himself capable of competing against strong wrestlers, and a rematch against the likes of Melendez in a cage in the U.S. would be a fight worth Strikeforce's and Dream's efforts.
Sherdog's Tomas Rios talks about Kawajiri:
"Crusher" has the rare combination of cinderblock fists and erudite submission defense that gives Aoki fits. Further complicating matters is Kawajiri's superior wrestling, particularly his gyroscopic takedown defense, which will make gaining top position a nightmarish proposition for Aoki.
Normally working from the guard is no big deal for Aoki. His tentacle-like limbs and all-universe technique are simply too much even for well-respected grapplers like Joachim Hansen and Gesias Cavalcante. Where Kawajiri differs is that he has near impregnable submission defense and the ground striking to make life hard on Aoki. Melendez proved that Aoki can be vulnerable to ground-and-pound as long as you avoid getting sucked into his closed guard, and that game plan is one Kawajiri can easily replicate.
Obviously any deviation from a disciplined approach could easily end with the "Tobikan Judan" entrapping Kawajiri in some horrifically painful contortion or compression. That scenario is an unlikely one, however, as Kawajiri has never been some brain-dead slugger, especially against opponents who pose a serious threat to him on the mat. When he knows that discretion is the better part of valor, Kawajiri stays on his toes and rocks a steady 1-2 while leaning on his wrestling to avoid the ground game.
That is exactly what Melendez did for 25 minutes against Aoki, and it left the precocious grappling ingénue in tears. Kawajiri has the added advantage of being the kind of heavy-hitter that can expose his national rival's notoriously fragile chin and questionable fighting spirit.
Kawajiri is ranked #8 at lightweight in the USAT/SBN Consensus MMA Rankings and Aoki is #7.
Gross is dead right that a Kawajiri win has the chance to revitalize DREAM's international reputation. Gilbert Melendez beat Kawajiri by the narrowest of margins in their first meeting on NYE 2006. Kawajiri vs Melendez 2 would be a great fight and an odd's maker's nightmare.
Gifs by Chris Nelson -- who insisted I do this post! These are from Kawajiri's Dynamite!! 2009 bout with Sengoku fighter Kazunori Yokota.
This wasn't Kawajiri's greatest performance, it's just an example to show the state of his game. Many consider it a subpar performance by the Crusher, bitter that he was kept out of a well earned title shot while Aoki got a second bite at the apple after losing in the Grand Prix. Here's Headkick Legend talking about the fight:
Kawajiri entered the Kazunori Yokota fight visibly angry. He was angry before the fight, during the fight and after the fight. During the pre-fight Press Conference Kawajiri was the only fighter to not pose for pictures with his opponent. It showed his level of disgust and disapproval with FEG matchmaking and wanted no part of it. His performance reflected that. He had no charisma. No spirit. Nothing extra. He just came did his job and quickly disappeared. A very lackluster and uninspiring performance for Kawajiri.
Expect a motivated Kawajiri on Saturday.
Here we see Kawajiri's wrestling prowess as he ducks Yokota's lunging right hand, locks on over-unders and spins, using Yokota's own momentum to drive him to the ground. Note Kawajiri's left arm begins as an underhook then drops down to wrap Yokota's waist as Kawajiri drives into his guard.
In a similar situation against Aoki, expect Crusher to just stand back up rather than driving forward to guard.
Here we see Kawajiri catching a teep kick from Yokota, fire a right hook to the body and then drive forward into a double leg. He locks his hands together behind Yokota's thighs and we're ready for lift off.
It will be very interesting to see if Kawajiri will have the discipline to avoid taking Aoki down. Crusher has long been one of the best lightweight ground and pound artists from inside the guard and he's tended to lose his big fights by choosing to fight in his opponent's wheelhouse rather than favoring his strengths. Of course, that was against Gomi and Alvarez and Kawajiri chose to stand and bang with those KO artists.
More vintage punching to set up a double leg from Kawajiri. He takes a stutter step, fakes a left, fires a right to the jaw and drives forward into a double leg take down. Note how he stacks Yokota up against the ring post, pulling his hips way up high and robbing his foe of any leverage from the guard.
It really makes you wonder what he could do in the cage.
On the right we see some of the Crusher's battering style. He's still got Yokota pushed up against the post, almost a minute after the gif above. But Yokota has regained a position affording some leverage and is threatening to stand. Kawajiri responds by freeing his right hand and firing a series of uppercuts to Yokota's face and chest. He's working to get an underhook with his left arm for positional control as he assaults and batters.
Kawajiri's physical style is the perfect antithesis of Aoki's slick grappling.
On the left we see some of Crusher's trade mark ground and pound. He's got mounted position -- something I don't expect to see agaisnt Aoki. Kawajiri posts up with his left arm and fires a series of shots to Yokota's face: three uppercuts inside Yokota's left arm then three hooks outside it.
This is exactly the kind of sustained beating to the face that Aoki has shown he does not care to endure. We'll find out Saturday morning if Kawajiri can put a beat down on Aoki or if the Crusher will get tapped out.
Here's Kawajiri's classic bout with Gilbert Melendez:
Kawajiri vs Eddie Alvarez