Biggest Fight Week of the Year: New Year's and MMA Tradition Continues

Photo courtesy of: Blog.sosonko.com

For years the NHK Network in Japan captured that country's imagination in New Year's Eve with their famous concert "The Red and White Song Battle." Ratings were at a Super Bowl level as nearly the entire country tuned in for a night of live music as female and male competitors squared off. Other channels didn't even bother to compete as millions watched the world's biggest acts on the stage. In 2001, everything changed.

At the height of its popularity, Japanese MMA promotion PRIDE teamed with top kickboxing promotion K-1 and professional wrestling legend Antonio Inoki to deliver Inoki BOM BA YE. This followed a test run the year before, available only on PPV in Japan, featuring pro wrestling matches starring MMA stalwarts like Bas Rutten and Mark Coleman. The show in 2001, given the big stage on the TBS network delivered. The next year even more so, as pro wrestler Yoshihiro Takayama and kickboxer Bob Sapp delivered an astounding 24.5 rating.

Soon there was a new tradition on New Year's in Japan. In 2003, Sapp's success saw three networks compete for the MMA action. K-1 and Pride went their separate ways and Inoki produced his own show, poaching Fedor Emeliananko to fight pro wrestling star Yuji Nagata and inadvertently causing the demise of PRIDE. Yakuza members associated with PRIDE threatened the Inoki show's promoter, scandalous allegations that eventually caused PRIDE to lose its television deal in Japan.

The New Year's MMA boom hit its apex in 2004 with NFL washout Bob Sapp beating sumo star Akebono in a one sided match. While people talk about the popularity of Alistair Overeem in Japan, comparisons to Sapp are crazy. Sapp Mania was running wild in 2004. You couldn't go an hour watching Japanese television without seeing Sapp hawking product and there were shops in Tokyo devoted strictly to selling his merchandise. More than 54 million people tuned in to watch him fight Akebono - more than half the country of Japan. In front of a smaller, but still huge audience on TBS, Fedor Emelianenko beat Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira to cement his status as the best heavyweight on planet Earth. It may have been the greatest night in MMA history, certainly the most watched by far.

As the years have gone on, as MMA has become a struggling and pathetic thing in Japan, the tradition of New Year's supershows has continued. A good thing got better in 2006 when the UFC made the decision to hold a show on the weekend closest to New Years. Every year since, they've delivered show after show of excellent MMA. A legendary week just got better and better.

The narrative this year was that MMA in Japan was dead. Would this be the last New Year's to feature MMA in the country? The stars had long ago departed to America and even the top Japanese fighters like Kid Yamamoto were making the jump to the UFC. But like a Phoenix, Japanese MMA rose from the ashes last week, with both Sengoku and DREAM delivering at least one more superlative night of fights. When the lightly regarded UFC 125 turned into a great show headlined by one of the greatest fights of all time it was official: New Year's MMA will always be special. It's destined and so it will be.

The top fights, submissions, and moments of a great fight week after the break.

Best Fight:

 

Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar had shut the door on their Japanese competition by round three. By round five they weren't competing with New Year's 2010 fights, they were making a case for best fight ever. Period. After being decimated by Maynard for the entire first round, Edgar manufactured a comeback for the ages. Fittingly, this closely contested fight ended in a draw. Pressure from the fans convinced Dana White to scrap a planned title shot for Anthony Pettis and grant Maynard an immediate rematch. Everything was right in the world.

Best Knockout:


There were a lot of great ones. Brian Stann testing the chin of Chris Leben and finding it wanting. Alistair Overeem showing Todd Duffee that it takes more than swollen muscles to be a great fighter.But I loved the simplicity of this one.  Ryo Chonan, a journeyman with a submission win over UFC champ Anderson Silva, circled left against Taisuke Okuno, moving right into his power hand. This is what happens when a veteran makes rookie mistakes.

Best Round:

 

Maynard and Edgar was a fight for the ages, but for a single round Japanese featherweights Masanori Kanehara and Yoshiro Maeda couldn't be matched. The stoppage may have come early, but watch and enjoy the furious action that preceded it.

Best Upset (Tie):

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Photo via God Bless the Ring

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Photo by Scott Petersen for MMA Weekly

Days after we speculated Josh Grispi and his MMA centric style of training was the future of the game, unknown Dustin Poirier sent the Boston fighter back to the drawing board. Poirier blistered Grispi standing and defended his submissions with ease, shocking us and the world.

In Japan, Shinya Aoki was supposed to struggle with the colorful Yuichiro Nagashima during the kickboxing portion of their special rules match. Once the fight went to full on MMA rules, it was supposed to be the submission ace's bout. Instead, Aoki awkwardly survived the kickboxing only to be nailed by a knee as he shot in for a takedown the moment the rules were in his favor. After his horrific display of sportsmanship last year when he broke Mizuto Hirota's arm with a hammerlock and then flipped him off, a lot of fans were smiling as Aoki hit the canvas.

Best Submission:

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Clay Guida was supposed to be the kind of opponent Takanori Gomi feasted on. Instead, the Japanese slugger was befuddled by Guida's movement and then outclassed on the mat. In truth, Gomi hasn't been a great fighter in years. A win over an outsized and out thought Tyson Griffin didn't change that. But it was great to see Guida eschew the straight ahead brawling and wrestling attack that has become his trademark. This was a very smart fight by a crowd favorite who is suddenly a win away from a potential title challenge.

Best Photograph:

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For the first time in ages, the superlative Josh Hedges wasn't cageside for the UFC. It's fitting then that Esther Lin came up with this gem in Japan for Fanhouse. Lin will take over for Hedges as the MMA photographer of record and stunning shots like this show why. Kazayuki Miyata, a 2000 wrestling Olympian, did what he does best against veteran Caol Uno. Ringside, Lin did what she does best as well. Excellent stuff.

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