Call it jiu-jitsu mastery, wizardry, or brilliance. Call it whatever you like, but the final minutes of the Sengoku Soul of Fight featherweight title tilt between Shooto lightweight champion Hatsu Hioki and Sengoku featherweight champion Marlon Sandro was nothing short of spectacular. After a round after round beating at the hands of Hioki, Sandro lunged at his opponent with his only sight set on knocking out the Nagoya-born grappling whiz kid. Sandro's desperation attempt to put Hioki on his back while avoiding damage failed miserably, and Hioki turned his defense into a glorious opportunity to close out a fantastic clash of great featherweight fighters.
Hioki worked methodically from the sprawl, securing a tight hammerlock that would have likely tapped a lesser fighter. Sandro sat calmly, knowing that he only needed a small opening to escape, but Hioki smartly grabbed Sandro's foot as he began to roll away from the hold. As Sandro moved to his back, Hioki kept a tight hold on his arm, transitioning to the scarcely utilized kimura. Moving to a north-south position, Hioki cranked the arm while Sandro desperately jostled his body to escape by any means necessary. Sandro miraculously escaped, and the immediate danger of being submitted looked as if it had be subdued.
Within a split second, Hioki secured an armbar and held it, giving his opponent one last chance to tap before he cracked it in half. Hioki seemed to show mercy, but in the final moments -- stuck Sandro's arm under his armpit and pushed his weight downward. The bell rang just in time.
The performance was career-defining, and a small period in time in which Japan could celebrate the fact that they had bested one of the Western Hemisphere's elite. Hioki has never been a popular fighter in Japan, and his inclusion on Sengoku's final card of 2010 wasn't going to push their viewership over the top. But Hioki, for one fight, united a crowd, chanting his name as he beautifully executed transition after transition on what many believed was an indestructible fighter.
A little over a year ago, Hioki was a footnote in the Sengoku featherweight grand prix's play-by-play. A fighter who was "injured, and unable to continue" after he dominated Masanori Kanehara in a semi-final match-up in August of 2009. Kanehara went on to shock many fans as he defeated surging featherweight star Michihiro Omigawa, the former UFC lightweight who gained the interest of World Victory Road's brass. Omigawa was their next great Japanese superstar, and Hioki remained in the shadows.
Watch the video of this instant classic bout in the full entry.
In November of 2009, Hioki battled Omigawa in what was perceived as the "real" Sengoku featherweight grand prix final, but lost a close and controversial split decision. With the rising status of both Omigawa and Sandro, the loss kept Hioki away from the highly-regarded battles against the top stars. A close split decision win over Takeshi Inoue in May of this year helped his cause, but Sandro's crushing knockout of Masanori Kanehara overshadowed his successes. If Sandro can defeat Kanehara in thirty-eight seconds, what chance does Hioki have?
I've been a fan of Hatsu Hioki for a very long time, and I'm generally a man who supports those he loves till the very end of their careers. Melvin Manhoef. He isn't the best fighter in the world, and his chin is as suspect as Chuck Liddell's these days. But he's a fighter that I love to watch and want to win.
For Hioki, I gave him no chance against Sandro, and it kills me to admit it. While Sandro was incapacitated due to an infection in his hand during training camp, it doesn't take away from the fact that Hioki did what many believed he couldn't do. He avoided being laid out ferociously in the first round, and he was surprisingly effective in the striking department, two ideas that never dawned on me when analyzing how this bout would go down.
In a tale of triumph, there is a sadness to this story. For everything that Hioki has accomplished, he remains a rather unpopular figure in Japanese mixed martial arts. He can't draw thousands of fans to an arena. If a hammerlock to kimura to armbar transition doesn't put you on the edge of your seat, perhaps Japan is on the brink of death. But Hioki will remain.