There was some doubt whether Shinya Aoki would attempt to stand and bang with former WEC lightweight champion Rob McCullough in the lead-up to their DREAM 17 main event showdown on Saturday night at Saitama Super Arena. Aoki had been training at Evolve MMA months ahead of the match-up, and there were significant improvements reported in his historically weak stand-up game. Fortunately for those who nervously thought Aoki would abandon the very skills that got him to where he is today, his trip to Singapore also helped solidify his grappling skills. Those skills, like many times before, were on full display on Saturday night.
Aoki immediately took it to McCullough from the opening bell, moving inside on the WEC veteran, taking him down, and working from top control for most of the fight. McCullough briefly scrambled to his feet for a few moments before being dumped back down to the floor, but that was the only opportunity he had in the entire fight to lay waste to Aoki's consciousness. Aoki eventually blasted McCullough with knees to the skull when he attempted to stand back up. From there, Aoki moved to back control, cranking McCullough's neck until he tapped with only two or three seconds left in the round.
The victory marks Aoki's sixth straight following his beatdown at the hands of Gilbert Melendez at Strikeforce: Nashville in April of last year. With a little more training and some luck, it isn't unfathomable that Aoki finds himself stateside again in the next year.
Tatsuya Kawajiri made a successful featherweight debut in vintage 'Crusher' fashion as he submitted Joachim Hansen in the third round via arm triangle. Kawajiri survived an early scare in the first round after he was tagged moments after the opening bell, and the ensuing scrambles provided an entertaining pace for fans. It wasn't something Kawajiri wanted to continue to gamble in however.
The second and third rounds were more 'Crusher'-like. The Japanese wrestler took down Hansen at will, smothering him in ground and pound from the top side and winning the war of attrition. He eventually slipped underneath Hansen's neck in the final round from half guard, passed to side control, and squeezed for the tap. Impressive performance from Kawajiri at featherweight, sparking some discussion whether he can make a run in the UFC's ranks at the new weight class.
Takeshi Inoue's year has been going well as he knocked off touted Japanese prospects Taiki Tsuchiya and Koichiro Matsumoto earlier in the year. He can now add UFC veteran Caol Uno to that list after mesmerizing him with flashy hand movement and shuffling feet. The quick movements distracted the veteran so much, in fact, that Uno didn't see see a brutal head kick sailing at his face.
Inoue also caught Uno in the early minutes of the round, wobbling Uno and putting him imminent danger of being finished. Uno survived only to have his Nike's nearly knocked off his feet by Inoue's kick. The win puts Inoue at 3-0 on the year, and it's clear he needs to step up the ladder in terms of competition. Hiroyuki Takaya? Yes please.
In what ended up becoming an embarrassing and sad situation, Japanese MMA pioneer Kazushi Sakuraba was dominated bell to bell by Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu whiz Yan Cabral. Cabral worked over the Japanese legend in every area of the fight, eventually submitting Sakuraba via arm triangle choke, a submission Cabral predicted in the lead-up to the fight. Sakuraba covered his face with a t-shirt in disgrace after the loss, and an entire arena of fans sat in silence. A sad day for Sakuraba as he continues his downward spiral past mediocrity and into embarrassment.
More analysis and results after the fold...The World Bantamweight Grand Prix quarterfinals provided solid entertainment on the early portion of the DREAM 17 card. WEC veteran Antonio Banuelos weathered Hideo Tokoro's reach in the stand-up department over the course of three rounds to narrowly edge the exciting Japanese fighter. Banuelos was being beaten on the feet for most of the fight, but he did manage to land more powerful shots throughout. At one point, Tokoro nearly knocked Banuelos' block off, glancing a head kick off his dome at the end of the second round. It apparently wasn't enough, however, as two judges awarded Banuelos the victory.
Bibiano Fernandes destroyed Takafumi Otsuka in their encounter, submitting the Japanese striker quickly after the opening bell. Otsuka landed a few stiff punches early after Bibiano missed his attempts. Naturally, Fernandes blasted through Otsuka's takedown defense, took his back, and choked him out in one foul swoop. Impressive stuff from the Brazilian.
Masakazu Imanari put on an impressive performance against Abel Cullum, flexing some power on the feet while putting on a grappling clinic for most of the fight. Cullum deserves some praise as well, making it down to the contracted weight limit after coming in four pounds overweight. He didn't look affected by the drastic weight cut and jet lag in this fight, avoiding most of Imanari's attempts on the ground.
Imanari dominated Cullum in the opening round with a bevy of submission attempts. Armbars, triangle chokes, omoplatas, and a gogoplata attempt kept Cullum at bay for a lengthy period of time. Cullum edged Imanari in the second on my scorecard as he was able to avoid getting controlled by Imanari for the most part, delivering some punishing ground and pound to the midsection. The third round wasn't as close. Imanari opened the round by uncorking a left hand that wobbled Cullum. A few choice shots later, Imanari blasted through Cullum's defenses, took him down, and transitioned to an armbar while rolling Cullum forward. Cullum tapped furiously as Imanari overextended his arm.
The first quarterfinal of the World Bantamweight Grand Prix tournament was a pleasant surprise for fans eyeing future prospects. Rodolfo Marques won an unanimous decision over Scouting Report rankee Yusup Saadulaev, but it was a surprisingly entertaining affair on the ground. Saadulaev's poor strength of record didn't seem to be a factor as he gave Marques problems, and he was able to escape Marques' grips on the ground in some creative ways, nearly catching Marques in the third round with a leg lock after being mounted. Unfortunately, he was unable to produce much offense as he was on the defense for most of the fight. A solid win for the Brazilian.
In the opening bout of the evening, the legendary Ikuhisa Minowa put on a vintage performance as he quickly dispatched of two-time Mongolian wrestling champion Baru Harn with a scarf hold armlock submission. Harn came out aggressive, trying to drive through Minowa's takedown defense to gain the upper hand. Minowa slyly evaded the takedown, however, and reversed the position, landing in top control. Moments later, Minowa was in full mount. After an armbar attempt failed, Minowa locked down the scarf hold as he slid up to the head of Harn from side control. Harn tapped immediately.
Shinya Aoki def. Rob McCullough via submission (neck/face crank), Round 1.
Tatsuya Kawajiri def. Joachim Hansen via submission (arm triangle), Round 3.
Takeshi Inoue def. Caol Uno via KO (head kick), Round 1
Yan Cabral def. Kazushi Sakuraba via submission (arm triangle), Round 1
Satoru Kitaoka def. Willamy Freire via split decision.
Gerald Harris def. Kazuhiro Nakamura via split decision.
Antonio Banuelos def. Hideo Tokoro via split decision.
Bibiano Fernandes def. Takafumi Otsuka via submission (rear naked choke), Round 1
Masakazu Imanari def. Abel Cullum via submission (armbar), Round 3.
Rodolfo Marques def. Yusup Saadulaev via unanimous decision.
Ikuhisa Minowa def. Baru Harn via submission (scarf hold), Round 1