*I originally put this on HKL and decided to post it here, too, to give some insight into the 63kg GP for those who may be interested in it and do not know much about the fighters.*
With this weekend's K-1 -63kg Tournament, I thought it would be appropriate to rank the fighters in terms of their chances of winning the tournament. Tetsuya Yamato entered the tournament last year as a relative unknown and powered his way through the tournament, concluding with an all-action final against Yuta Kubo in one of 2010's FOTY candidates. This year's field is comprised of eight of the very best Lightweights in Japan, all of whom have the legitimate ability to take this year's throne. Who are this year's favorites? Who are this year's dark horses? Who will reign supreme? We'll find out on June 25th, but for now, here's my speculation as to who's who in the -63kg division.
1. Yuta Kubo - In the two major lightweight tournaments Kubo has been in, he made it to the finals of both. Unfortunately for him, he lost both as a result of a 3rd round knockdown and a 3rd round knockout in fights he was presumably winning, at the hands of Masahiro Yamamoto and Tetsuya Yamato, respectively. However, in the lead up to both of those finals and even in the finals themselves, Kubo displayed high level technique, accompanied with power, dispatching the likes of Naoki Ishikawa, leg kick wizard DJ Taiki, Keiji Ozaki and Yoshimichi Matsumoto, the last of which by spectacular KO. Kubo fell to Yamato in the exciting finals of last year's -63kg GP, seeming to have simply run out of steam in the third round of their fight. Despite his tournament finals shortcomings, Kubo brings to the table a variety of deceptive, powerful kicks and the hands to set them up, culminating in the ability to reach yet another tournament final. However this time, I feel it is his for the taking.
2. Koya Urabe - Just three months ago, it would seem ludicrous to not have Urabe as the tournament favorite. He was the king without a crown, being left out of last year's Final 8 despite winning his Final 22(16?) match quite handily. Then, in September of last year, after Tetsuya Yamato's tournament victory, Urabe dismantled the K-1 Champion over the course of three rounds, earning a decisive victory, leading many to call for his standing as the true K-1 Champion. After a close fight against rising sensation Sung Hyun Lee in the quarterfinals of the Krush 63kg Tournament and a relatively easy win over Takuya Shirahama in the semis, Urabe looked poised to stay atop the scene at 63kg before being upset by Ruyji Kajiwara in the finals. Urabe's strengths are his hands, which may be the best among the tournament field, and his defense, both of which make him a considerable favorite over his first round opponent Yuki. Revenge is on Urabe's mind, but will he be able to enact it? Only time will tell.
3. Ryuji Kajiwara - At age 34, Kajiwara is the resident grandfather of the tournament, being 5 years older than the next oldest competitor and nearly twice the age of his first round opponent Masaaki Noiri. However, Kajiwara's age has not stopped his success as he has scored 3 big upset wins in the past year over Naoki Ishikawa, Kizaemon Saiga and Koya Urabe, the latter 2 leading him to the Krush 63kg Tournament Championship. With the momentum from the Krush tournament and given his age, this may be Kajiwara's best chance to claim the K-1 crown. If he advances to the semifinals, Kajiwara could very well see himself with the same path to the K-1 Championship that he took to the Krush Championship, with a possible semifinal rematch with Saiga and a finals rematch with Urabe.
4. Tetsuya Yamato - He is the defending K-1 -63kg Tournament Champion, beating pre-tournament favorite Masahiro Yamamoto in the Round of 22 and dispatching three of the fighters in this tournament field en route to that Championship, yet here he finds himself at 4th. Tetsuya Yamato is the Rodney Dangerfield of the -63kg division. Despite taking last year's tournament, Yamato was embarrassed in his first post-tournament fight against Koya Urabe, being completely picked apart over the course of three rounds. Yamato followed this up with a disappointing draw against MMA fighter "Wicky" Akiyo Nishiura. Yamato got back on track last month with a TKO stoppage of Makoto Nishiyima at a NJKF event, however his reputation had already been severely diminished. Yamato may not be the most skilled fighter in this field, but he's one hell of a tournament fighter. His biggest asset is the power he possesses in his hands, and as he's shown in the past, he has the skill to compete with upper-tier fighters until he unleashes that power. Make no mistake about it, Yamato has the ability to take this tournament again and remain the only -63kg K-1 Champion.
5. Kizaemon Saiga - After leg kicking fan-favorite Fire Harada into oblivion in last year's Round of 22, Saiga shocked the world by beating Final 8 tournament favorite Naoki Ishikawa. And he didn't just beat Ishikawa, he absolutely crushed him. With a first round knockdown and a spectacular rolling heel-kick that could have ended Ishikawa's night if there were 20 seconds left in the round, Saiga made his way to the tournament semifinals with his flashy, arrogant ways. Aaaaand then he got KTFO'd by Tetsuya Yamato. A thrashing at the hands of then-unknown Sung Hyun Lee in Korea and a loss to Kajiwara in the Krush semis have significantly lowered Saiga's stock coming into this tournament. Not to mention that Ishikawa hasn't looked great recently, either, but who knows. Maybe Saiga's shellacking of Ishikawa sent him into a mini-slump and maybe Lee is the real deal at Lightweight, as his performance against Urabe would suggest. A first round matchup against my tournament favorite Yuta Kubo is the perfect chance for Saiga to show where he stands.
6. Masaaki Noiri - At 18 years of age, Noiri is both the youngest fighter in this tournament, and K-1's biggest rising star. A decision over K-1 golden boy HIROYA to advance him to the 2009 Koshien finals and ultimately, the championship at Dynamite!! vaulted Noiri into stardom, and since he has proven to have the goods, with a string of victories in Krush in 2010. Unfortunately, Noiri fell to "Crazy Fist" Yuji Takeuchi in a wild and exciting brawl in Krush's 60kg tournament in the semifinals. Despite displaying his skill and power in the fight, Noiri also displayed his lack of discipline, falling into a brawl with the more powerful Takeuchi, who has made a career of drawing more technical fighters into brawls. Noiri most definitely has the ability to win the tournament this year, however he is still growing as a fighter, and I do not believe this is his year. Barring the collapse of K-1, I see Noiri capturing multiple tournament titles in the future.
7. Yuki - While most would see Kajiwara as the dark horse despite his recent Krush tournament victory, Yuki is the true dark horse in this field. The least hyped of all the fighters, Yuki found himself in last year's Final 8 after an exciting KO victory over the previously mentioned Yuji Takeuchi. A quarterfinal knockout loss to Yamato eliminated him from the tournament, yet the fight could just have easily gone the other way. Though I feel he is not quite on Yamato's level, Yuki's key to winning this tournament is exactly the same as Yamato's; his power. So far, Japan's 63kg division has been largely unpredictable and a tournament victory from Yuki would make it even more of a mess. Things haven't been going very well for K-1 recently and this is probably the worst thing that could happen from a promotional standpoint for K-1, so it's not all that unlikely.
Toshiki Taniyama HIROYA - I feel that my opinion is shared by many kickboxing fans when I say that HIROYA is not as advertised. Pushed as the next Masato by K-1, HIROYA has failed to live up to expectations. Expected to win the Koshien title in 2007, 2008 and 2009, he was upset by YUDAI in 2007 and again by Masaaki Noiri in 2009, though he did manage to defeat Koya Urabe in 2008 to take the crown. Yes, HIROYA owns two wins over Saiga and a win over Koya Urabe. No, I don't think either are significant at this point. Since their time in the Koshien ranks, Urabe and Saiga have grown immensely into stars of the -63kg division. HIROYA has not followed suit, losing his only fight under the K-1 banner since his departure from the Koshien ranks, a clear decision against Yuta Kubo. I see his first round matchup with Yamato ending in him being planted face-down on the canvas. Maybe I'm completely underselling HIROYA. Here's hoping he proves me wrong and we get yet another star in the Lightweight division.
Feel free to share your thoughts and post your own rankings of the tournament fighters and don't forget to watch the 63kg Final on Saturday, June 25th 2:30 AM EST/Friday, June 24th 11:30 PM PST on Youtube, Ustream, K-1's Facebook Fan page and K-1's Website.