Mixed martial arts may not be the hot trend anymore in Japan, but that hasn't stopped Japanese fight promotion DREAM from putting together one of the best MMA events we've seen all year in the Land of the Rising Sun. Fight For Japan: Genki Desu Ka Omisoka 2011 will air live on HDNet at 1 AM ET on Saturday, December 31, and it will feature a main event heavyweight showdown between former Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko and 2008 Beijing Olympic Judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii.
Also featured on the card, DREAM lightweight kingpin Shinya Aoki will defend his title against former Sengoku lightweight champion Satoru Kitaoka, and DREAM featherweight champion Hiroyuki Takaya will attempt to defend his crown against the resurgent Takeshi "Lion" Inoue. If that's not enough action to get you excited, check out the rest of this phenomenal card below in our complete preview of Fight For Japan: Genki Desu Ka Omisoka 2011:
Heavyweight: Fedor Emelianenko (32-4-0-1) vs. Satoshi Ishii (4-1-1)
When this fight was first announced, I was hesitant to deem the bout an easy lay-up for Fedor. For many years, Fedor's well-balanced, destructive attack dismantled any and all challengers to his title as the greatest of all-time, and once he had laid waste to the heavyweight talent pool in Pride -- he was as easy of a lock as Georges St. Pierre or Anderson Silva in beating anyone he was matched up against.
Today, that isn't the case. Three straight losses have mortalized the 'Last Emperor', and 2008 Beijing Olympic Judo gold medalist Satoshi Ishii is waiting his turn to take advantage of Fedor's fall from grace. Unfortunately for Ishii, Fedor proved that he can evolve when he beat up UFC veteran Jeff Monson at M-1 Global: Fedor vs. Monson in late November, uncharacteristically kicking Monson's leg into bits and pieces over three rounds of action. A measured approach from Fedor kept him out of harm's way while evading every attack that Monson could muster.
It's likely that a similar gameplan is in the works against Ishii. Ishii's strengths are in the clinch, and the only way he can ensure his own safety while scoring points against Fedor is if he can toss the Russian to the mat and dominate him positionally. That's going to be a tough strategy to implement if Fedor is moving laterally, popping off two-to-three strike combinations, and evading Ishii's counters. Fedor's experience and ringsmanship should assist him in maintaining that strategy. I don't anticipate him needing the entire fifteen minutes to win, and I fully expect Fedor to stun Ishii and finish him at some point. Fedor Emelianenko via TKO.
Lightweight (Title Bout): Shinya Aoki (29-5-0-1) vs. Satoru Kitaoka (29-10-9)
Strong grappling acts clash as DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki meets former Sengoku lightweight champion Satoru Kitaoka for Aoki's second title defense on Saturday morning. Kitaoka is currently riding a four-fight win streak with notable victories over Willamy Freire, Jutaro Nakao, and Kuniyoshi Hironaka. Aoki submitted former WEC champion Rob McCullough, UFC veteran Rich Clementi, and Strikeforce veteran Lyle Beerbohm earlier in the year, extending his streak to six.
Usually when two grapplers meet, the battle focuses on the secondary skills that each fighter possesses. In Aoki's case, he's worked extensively on improving his striking at Evolve MMA in Singapore while Kitaoka still sports a brutish striking style that's known in most parts of the world as brawling. On top of Kitaoka's lack of technique on the feet, he's inept at defending his face from incoming strikes, and his management skills, particularly in the cardio department, are lacking. Aoki has more than enough skill to submit Kitaoka once he tires him out, and he should be able to get there by peppering Kitaoka from range with his improved striking technique. Shinya Aoki via submission.
Featherweight (Title Bout): Hiroyuki Takaya (16-9-1) vs. Takeshi Inoue (21-5)
If I weren't such a hardcore fan of Japanese mixed martial arts, I'd probably hold a grudge against Takeshi Inoue. The 'Lion' singlehandedly beat down two 2011 World MMA Featherweight Scouting Report rankees in Taiki Tsuchiya and Koichiro Matsumoto earlier this year. As the editor of the report, I was disappointed, yet excited at the prospect of Inoue reviving his career after many thought it had been derailed from losses to Kazuyuki Miyata and Hatsu Hioki.
Inoue provided further proof that his career had only gone on hiatus after he magnificently crushed UFC veteran Caol Uno at DREAM.17 in September, extending his current streak to three and declaring himself the clear cut challenger to the featherweight crown. He gets his wish on Saturday morning against title holder Hiroyuki Takaya.
Takaya had the opposite experience of Inoue this year. A tremendous three-fight run in 2010 was capped off by an unanimous decision win over Bibiano Fernandes at Dynamite 2010 last year to win the featherweight strap. Four months later, Takaya shockingly dropped a split decision to Robbie Peralta on the Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley preliminary card. The loss was another nail in the coffin for fans hoping Japan's best could make an impact stateside.
Takaya rebounded impressively against Kazuyuki Miyata at DREAM: Japan Grand Prix Final in July. It was a redeeming win for the disgraced 'Streetfight Bancho', but it's too little, too late for the 34-year-old. It doesn't get any easier for Takaya either. Inoue's power striking should give him problems, but as Taiki Tsuchiya proved in April -- speed can beat Inoue's defenses, an attribute that Takaya has used to beat many of foes in the past.
Inoue's unorthodox Thai style of striking combined with his power has taken him to the promise land, and I fully expect him to take out Takaya, inevitably catching him at some point during the five-round affair. If he wins, it will cap off one of the most impressive runs by any fighter in 2011.
By Fraser Coffeen
K-1 Rules: Yuta Kubo vs. Nils Widlund
This is a 64kg fight that involves one of the best at that weight. Yuta Kubo is the winner of the 2011 K-1 World Max 63kg tournament, defeating Koya Urabe, Masaaki Noiri, and Kizaemon Saiga to take that crown. That's an impressive night of work. Prior to that big win, he was the runner-up in the 2010 tournament (losing in a great final to Tetsuya Yamato) and the runner-up in the 2009 Krush Lightweight tournament. Kubo is 24 years old, and his lanky frame and calm demeanor make him look like not a huge threat, but he is a very dangerous fighter, largely thanks to his ability to read his opponents and make in-fight adjustments. Kubo is an expert at finding holes, and if he can't find them, creating them. The best example of this was his 2010 win over Yoshimichi Matsumoto where Kubo drew Matsumoto into dropping his hand, then blasted him with a stiff head kick for the knock out. With a record of 30-4-1, Kubo has really come into his own in the past two years, establishing himself as perhaps THE top fighter at the weight.
Widlund is a fun opponent, but honestly, he's here to show off Kubo. The Swedish fighter has experience primarily in Sanshou (the fighting style of Cung Le), with some kickboxing experience primarily in Europe. With that Sanshou background, I would expect him to bring some flashy elements to the fight. Those moves will make it exciting, but will likely spell his demise against the more calculating Kubo.
K-1 Rules: Masaaki Noiri vs. Kengo Sonoda
Again, this is a fight primarily to highlight one man, and in this case, it's Masaaki Noiri. The young fighter made an early name for himself in K-1, winning the 2009 K-1 Koshien tournament by beating the heavily pushed HIROYA at Dynamite!! 2009. Noiri has been in a number of big tournaments in the past few years, and has been a favorite in all of them, but it was at the recent Krush Supernova tournament that he finally reigned again, defeating HIROYA again and Koya Urabe to win that event. Noiri looked good in that outing, and has always been a fighter who uses his reach to his advantage nicely. Sonoda, like Noiri, came up through the K-1 Koshien system (basically a youth league), and has since made the transition to the big leagues. He was also in this year's Krush Supernova tournament, losing in the quarter finals. I don't see him posing much of a challenge to the technically superior, and more well traveled Noiri.
Mixed rules fight (1R 3 minutes kickboxing, 2R 5 mins DREAM rules): Yuichiro "Jienotsu" Nagashima vs. Katsunori Kikuno
This isn't actually a K-1 rules fight entirely, as like last year's Nagashima vs. Shinya Aoki fight, it will be fought under mixed rules - a 3 minute K-1 round to start, and a 5 minute MMA round after that with an automatic draw if it goes the distance. Last year's fight under these rules was a bizarre affair, with MMA fighter Aoki dodging K-1 fighter Jienotsu for the K-1 round, only to be caught with a knee in the opening seconds of the MMA round and knocked out. Nagashima later revealed that he was terrified of the MMA portion, and vowed he would never fight MMA rules again, but here we are. Jienotsu is one of the most colorful figures in the kickboxing scene. The K-1 MAX (70kg) fighter is known for being a cosplayer, meaning he dresses up as typically female characters from anime. That flamboyant personality got him booked consistently in K-1 starting in 2009, but he had trouble stepping up from the smaller shows he was previously competing on, and went 1-3 in his first 4 in K-1. In 2010, things came together for Nagashima, who worked with legendary MAX fighter Masato and greatly improved his technique, focusing on his counter-punching. With his improved skills, he won the 2010 K-1 MAX Japan tournament and made his way to the K-1 MAX 2010 World Grand Prix final 8, where he was defeated by Mike Zambidis. This year, as K-1 has been closed, he has primarily been working as a professional wrestler for Inoki's IGF, where he recently had the odd honor of pinning the 300+ pound Bob Sapp.
Kikuno is an MMA fighter who started his career with great success in Japan's DEEP organization. He made the switch to Dream in 2009, turning heads with a stoppage win over Andre Dida and a tough loss to Eddie Alvarez. He's struggled to find consistency at the higher levels though. Unlike Aoki, Kikuno is more of a stand-up fighter, who likely won't be afraid to engage in the K-1 round with Jienotsu. Kikuno has an odd style to his stand-up, partially derived from his experience in Kyokushin Karate. It gives him a strange stance, that has worked for him so far, but I think will cause him troubles against Nagashima. Look for this to be primarily a K-1 fight, with Nagashima to take the win after some goofiness from both men.
Welterweight: Hayato Sakurai (35-12-2) vs. Ryo Chonan (20-12): Chonan getting knocked out cold by one of Japan's guilty pleasures in Taisuke Okuno at Soul of Fight last year only confirmed my suspicions that Chonan has faded quickly. Despite Sakurai's four-fight losing streak, all of his losses have been against legitimate competition. It could be argued that Chonan hasn't beaten a legit mixed martial artist since UFC 88. Sakurai gets back in the win column. Hayato Sakurai via TKO.
Featherweight: Tatsuya Kawajiri (29-7-2) vs. Kazuyuki Miyata (11-8): This clash of the relentless wrestlers has flown under the radar for most fans. I have a feeling it's because many fans saw pro wrestling bouts and didn't look at the rest of the card. That's too bad because Kawajiri vs. Miyata could be an epic war for the ages.
Kawajiri at 145 lbs. is a tough match-up for anyone, but Miyata has the wrestling ability to match his strength. Unfortunately, Miyata's striking is nowhere near what Kawajiri can offer. Kawajiri is from from an elite striker, but he has a strong chin and stopping power. Kawajiri can work over Miyata in all areas of this fight, but I think it's easier for Kawajiri to keep this fight standing and batter Miyata to a decision. Tatsuya Kawajiri via decision.
Women's MMA fight: Megumi Fujii (24-1) vs. Karla Benitez (6-1): Mega Megu is a -1700 favorite against Benitez. While I normally don't just run with the odds, Spain isn't a MMA powerhouse, and I actually saw Benitez lose to Katja Kankaanpaa at Cage 16 in September. How's that for hardcore? Mega Megu wins this easily. Megumi Fujii via submission.
DREAM Bantamweight GP Semis: Bibiano Fernandes (12-3) vs. Rodolfo Marquez Diniz (14-1): Marques put together an impressive performance against Yusup Saadulaev in the opening round, but he'll meet his demise in the semifinals against former featherweight champion Bibiano Fernandes. Marques has the grappling prowess to hang with Fernandes on the ground, but his striking isn't on par with Fernandes. Unless he finds a way to bring this fight to the ground, Fernandes outlands Marques and wins the two-round affair easily. Bibiano Fernandes via decision. Note: It took Marques three attempts to make weight.
DREAM Bantamweight GP Semis: Masakazu Imanari (23-9-2) vs. Antonio Banuelos (19-7): Banuelos hasn't been submitted in ten years, and his takedown defense is very good. Unless Imanari pulls out a somersault like he did against Mike Brown, it's going to be tough for him to get close. Strangely, this hasn't stopped Imanari from winning in the past. His bizarre approach usually causes hesitance from his opponents, and Imanari knows how to take full advantage.
It's difficult to see how Imanari wins here. Then again, most of his past bouts have been complete shocks to me. Banuelos is a solid underdog pick, but I'll trust that Imanari finds a way to the ground and wins. Masakazu Imanari via submission.
DREAM Bantamweight GP Semis: Hideo Tokoro (30-24-1) vs. Yusup Saadulaev (8-1-1): Despite losing to Rodolfo Marques in the opening round, 2011 World MMA Scouting Report-ranked fighter Yusup Saadulaev put on an impressive performance, threatening Marques and hanging with the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu whiz on the ground. Tokoro offers a similar style in that he's more grappling centric than a puncher. The major difference, however, is that Tokoro relies heavily on quick transitions and submissions versus the grinding style of grappling that Marques implements. That could spell disaster for Tokoro if he's too aggressive and leaves himself open to strikes. Saadulaev is no slouch on the feet, boasting a powerful Muay Thai stand-up game that has led to many of his submission wins. Since Saadulaev was one of our picks on the 2011 World MMA Scouting Report, I'll be shamefully biased and pick Yusup to win. Yusup Saadulaev via decision.
Pro-Wrestling Is Real
IGF rules match: Jerome Le Banner vs. Tim Sylvia
IGF rules match: Kazuyuki Fujita vs. Peter Aerts
IGF rules match: Atsushi Sawada & Wakakirin vs. Kazushi Sakuraba & Katsuyori Shibata
IGF rules match: Josh Barnett vs. Hideki Suzuki
Yeah right. You guys really thought I'd pick these?