DREAM 17: World Bantamweight Grand Prix Preview and Predictions

DREAM 17 will air LIVE on HDNet at 3 AM ET on Saturday, September 24 from Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan.

It's a historic evening here at BloodyElbow.com. After months of starvation, the BloodyElbow.com Night Crew returns. DREAM 17 will air LIVE on HDNet at 3 AM ET on Saturday, September 24 from Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. The event will feature the quarterfinal round of the World Bantamweight Grand Prix along with seven non-tournament bouts. The main event, as you might expect, will feature Japanese lightweight Shinya Aoki taking on former WEC lightweight champion Rob McCullough. Japanese MMA staples Tatsuya Kawajiri, Joachim Hansen, Kazushi Sakuraba, Caol Uno, Kazuhiro Nakamura, and Ikuhisa Minowa will also make appearances.

Join us at BloodyElbow.com for live results and commentary of DREAM 17 at 3 AM ET, and follow me (@lelandroling) on Twitter for instant analysis and updates. On to the fights!

Lightweight: Shinya Aoki (28-5-0-1) vs. Rob McCullough (19-7): Japanese lightweight kingpin Shinya Aoki has been working diligently to improve his stand-up game in the lead-up to this weekend's DREAM card by training at Evolve MMA in Singapore. Reports from BloodyElbow.com's own Anton Tabuena suggest that he's improving in those areas considerably. I'd wager that in this instance however, it would be a bad idea for Aoki to attempt to prove he's more threatening these days on the feet.

Former WEC lightweight champion Rob McCullough is a five-time World Muay Thai champion, and his style relies heavily on those skills to bring him to victory. No matter how much Aoki has improved over the last couple of months, there isn't confidence he can score a head kick knockout or brutalize 'Razor' Rob in the clinch. Nothing has changed. Aoki remains in a familiar role as an underdog on the feet.

Fortunately for 'The Baka Survivor', he's still one of the most creative and threatening submission artists in the sport. Most fans automatically hinge their bets on Aoki because of that notion, and against McCullough -- those assumptions are no different despite the fact that McCullough has never been submitted. McCullough could provide an unique challenge if he can maintain his legs, but Aoki finds a way to bring this to the ground where he threatens McCullough constantly and submits him. Aoki via submission

Featherweight: Tatsuya Kawajiri (27-7-2) vs. Joachim Hansen (22-10): After losing the DREAM lightweight title at DREAM 11 in late 2009, Hansen made the drop to featherweight with mixed results. He lost in his debut to Bibiano Fernandes at DREAM 13, and he was at the end of a knockout punch from Hiroyuki Takaya at DREAM 14 two months later. The two losses created a feeling that the Norwegian mixed martial artist may be heading down a path that takes him to retirement.

Wins over Hideo Tokoro, Sami Aziz, and Mitsuhiro Ishida bought him some time, but he'll meet a major obstacle in Tatsuya Kawajiri on Saturday. Kawajiri has long been considered Japan's only shot at penetrating the dominant lightweight scene stateside, and he failed miserably against Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez in April. He returned two months later on home soil to defeat Drew Fickett, then made the progressive decision to drop down to featherweight for Saturday's showdown.

Hansen has always been a very well-rounded fighter. He's tough, durable, can win either on the feet or on the ground. His takedown defense is his biggest crutch, and unfortunately for him -- Kawajiri is a nightmare in the wrestling department. While 'The Crusher' has counterparts in America who can beat him at his own game, Hansen is the furthest from mimicking those fighters. His porous defenses to the takedown will get exposed consistently in this fight, and Kawajiri should take home a decision by controlling Hansen from the top. Kawajiri via decision.

Featherweight: Takeshi Inoue (20-5) vs. Caol Uno (26-13-5): Losses to Hatsu Hioki and Kazuyuki Miyata didn't deter Takeshi Inoue from getting back up on the horse in 2011. He returned at Shooto Tradition 2011 in April, knocking off 2011 World MMA Scouting Report rankee Taiki Tsuchiya, then crushed Koichiro Matsumoto, another Scouting Report rankee, exactly one month later at DREAM: Fight for Japan. The impressive string of wins has given Inoue some new life at 31 years of age, perhaps enough to help him make an appearance stateside. 

Caol Uno stands in his way however. The UFC veteran is fresh off a decision win over Akiyo 'Wicky' Nishiura at DREAM: Fight for Japan in May. He previously lost to Olympic wrestler Kazuyuki Miyata at Dynamite!! 2010 and Gleison Tibau at UFC Fight Night 21. He currently 1-4-1 in his last six appearances.

The lazy pick here would be Inoue due to his recent success and Uno's terrible record as of late. Uno's record is deceiving, mostly due to the tough competition he faced in the UFC. On paper, Uno has the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu skills and boxing to give Inoue problems, and Inoue's propensity to strike wildly has cost him fights in the past. Uno strategically weathers any storm Inoue brings, picks his shots, and finds a way to the ground where he dominates. Uno via decision.

SBN coverage of DREAM 17: World Bantamweight GP

Welterweight: Kazushi Sakuraba (26-15-1-2) vs. Yan Cabral (9-0): The 42-year-old Japanese legend Kazushi Sakuraba is knocking on the door of retirement, or a more accurate picture might be that he's being sucked into that door while desperately clutching the frame. He still has the submission savviness to defeat ill-advised opponents, but his age has left him outclassed in many of his latest encounters. His bout with Jason 'Mayhem' Miller at DREAM 16 in September of last year was cringe-worthy.

Yan Cabral is a Carlson Gracie-trained Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt who currently trains at the famous Nova Uniao camp in Bazil. He's undefeated at 9-0, submitting all challengers. The match-up is sort of a head scratcher, mainly because of the dire state of DREAM itself. Is this an attempt to set Sakuraba up to win? Surely it can't be, right? Are they attempting to bulk up a prospect? 

Sakuraba is on his last legs. I suppose the only intrigue here is that Sakuraba likely won't have his head caved in during the opening minutes of the fight. This will be a strategic fight battled on the ground, and there is some hope that Sakuraba can work some magic. I'm not buying into that happening however. Cabral smothers Sakuraba in his youth and grappling abilities, winning via decision. Cabral via decision.

Lightweight: Satoru Kitaoka (28-10-9) vs. Willamy Freire (18-4): I really don't know how to feel about this fight. Freire failed miserably in the UFC because his takedown defense is atrocious. Kitaoka likes to shoot for takedowns incessantly, sometimes at moments in a fight in which it's obvious he'll be stuffed and beaten for his efforts. He also possesses a brutal submission game that features Achilles' locks, heel hooks, and the occasional choke. Unless Freire has improved his takedown defense enough to utilize a similar gameplan to that of Mizuto Hirota back at Sengoku 9, he'll find himself on his back in precarious positions that Kitaoka will take full advantage of. Kitaoka via submission.

Middleweight: Kazuhiro Nakamura (15-10) vs. Gerald Harris (18-4): UFC veteran Gerald Harris hasn't been able to pad the win column since being released from the UFC after his loss to Maiquel Falcao at UFC 123 in November of last year. He's amassed a 1-1 record with a surprising loss to James Head in February. Head was subsequently signed by the UFC. He rebounded with a decision win over Anthony Ruiz at Tachi Palace Fights 9 in May. 

PRIDE veteran Kazuhiro Nakamura is 2-2 in his last 4 fights, defeating Karl Amoussou and mentor Hidehiko Yoshida in his most recent bouts. He heads into Saturday's match-up riding a two-fight win streak. Unfortunately, it doesn't look favorable that he'll continue his winning ways, that is unless Harris continues to slide.

On paper, Harris should win this tilt. He has the power to crush Nakamura on the feet, and his wrestling should be enough to take Nakamura down. The key verb here is "should". James Head proved that Harris has major problems in his wrestling game, and he can't deal with better strikers. Head worked a Muay Thai clinic all over Harris' midsection, bombarding him with knees and taking the wind out of his sails.

The only comfort for Harris in this showdown is that Nakamura isn't a striker of that caliber. In fact, he's not known for being a threatening pugilist at all. Nakamura's Judo base could give Harris problems if he hasn't brushed up on his takedown game. I'll have a little faith until proven otherwise. Harris will likely use his wrestling to maintain his feet, gunning for a massive knockout for most of the fight. I doubt he gets it, but I think he'll do more damage over the course of three rounds. Harris via decision.

Bantamweight Grand Prix Quarterfinals: Hideo Tokoro (30-23-1) vs. Antonio Banuelos (18-7): Get a camera and take a picture. It's a crossover battle that we can use to create ridiculous arguments about where bantamweights stand in the rankings five years from now!

Tokoro is an exciting fighter who can pull off some amazing feats on the ground, but WEC veteran Antonio Banuelos is a legit talent on the feet. It's too bad he's so damn small and has genetically limiting reach. Looking across the field however, he may have a great chance at taking the crown. Bank on Banuelos moving constantly and lighting up Tokoro on the feet. Banuelos via decision.

Bantamweight Grand Prix Quarterfinals: Bibiano Fernandes (8-3) vs. Takafumi Otsuka (12-8-1): Fernandes continues to improve in the stand-up department, and Otsuka has underwhelmed standing in the latter portion of his career. His defense is far too porous to battle the elite, and it wouldn't surprise me to see Fernandes showcase his improved stand-up. On the ground, Takafumi doesn't stand much of a chance other than defending to get back to his feet. Fernandes via decision.

Bantamweight Grand Prix Quarterfinals: Masakazu Imanari (23-9-2) vs. Abel Cullum (18-5): Any high-level fighter has a chance at defeating Masakazu Imanari, mainly due to Imanari's bizarre waiting game on the feet. He barely produces enough offense in the stand-up department to keep boredom from setting in for many fans, but once he's hit the ground -- don't blink. 

King of the Cage veteran Abel Cullum is a submission savvy challenger. He lacks the strength of record that would indicate he can hang with Imanari on the floor however. Unless he can maintain a gameplan involving ranged offense, he'll eventually find himself in Imanari's powerful grips. It doesn't help that Cullum came in four pounds overweight and struggled to make it to Japan due to the typhoon. Imanari via decision.

Bantamweight Grand Prix Quarterfinals: Rodolfo Marques (13-1) vs. Yusup Saadulaev (8-0-1): Saadulaev was ranked at #4 on the 2011 World MMA Scouting Report at bantamweight. Marques should have probably made our list. At the time of publishing the report however, we weren't convinced he had the potential to cut it in the big leagues, and I'm still very skeptical. He looked impressive at Shooto Brazil on August 25, manhandling Jesse Brock to a decision victory. 

For both fighters, this is a major litmus test. Saadulaev produced highlight reels of action during his nine-fight career. Unfortunately, all of his wins came in the lowly Illinois regional scene. I would know, I live there. Marques has the clear advantage, more experience, and has battled against stiffer opposition. The Brazilian should beat the Russian in Japan. Marques via decision.

Openweight: Ikuhisa Minowa (49-32-8) vs. Baru Harn (1-1): The glorious red tights return, accompanied by techno music and fist pumping. Nope, not Jersey Shore. It's Minowaman. Back to prove that David beats Goliath as he battles Baru Harn, a former bouncer and two-time Mongolian wrestling champion. Harn isn't very experienced, and he's obviously being brought in as fodder for Minowaman. Minowa via toe hold.

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