For the hardest of the hardcore fans out there in the MMA community, this weekend is quite special. Not only will UFC 114 go down in Las Vegas on Saturday night, but the Japanese MMA scene will serve as the perfect appetizer.
DREAM 14 will air live on HDNet at 3:00 AM EST from Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. The event will feature the return on the White Cage along with a battle between current Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz and Japanese MMA legend Hayato "Mach" Sakurai. The card will also include Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, Kazushi Sakuraba, Ralek Gracie, Joachim Hansen, and Ikuhisa Minowa.
Yes, that's right. Set your alarms. Minowaman is about to invade your living room in HD. Before my wild fandom for all things mullets and muscle-riddled Dutch kickboxers gets out of hand, here's a brief rundown of what to expect at DREAM 14:
Welterweight: Nick Diaz (21-7, 1 NC) vs. Hayato "Mach" Sakurai (35-10-2): The real attraction for casual American fans will likely fall on the hands of Nick Diaz as he clashes with Japanese MMA legend Hayato "Mach" Sakurai in welterweight action. Diaz is currently sidelined in the United States due to the post-fight altercation following Strikeforce: Nashville's main event, but he believes Strikeforce will probably offer him catchweight fights due to their lack of depth at welterweight. For the time being, a bout against Sakurai, a fighter that Diaz believes is far better than Takanori Gomi or Shinya Aoki, will feed his appetite to brawl.
Coming off two straight defeats, Sakurai will try to rebound in a bout that would probably shock most of the MMA world if Nick Diaz actually lost. Sakurai's poor performance against Akihiro Gono at Dynamite 2009 and knockout loss to Mariusz Zaromskis during the DREAM Welterweight Grand Prix have only further led fans to believing he's on the downside of his career. He did manage to beat Shinya Aoki down relatively easily in a welterweight battle, but most fans have chalked that up to the strength and size difference as Sakurai was heavier.
Diaz is better on the ground than Sakurai, and Sakurai's major offense is going to come from heavy overhand combinations. If Diaz tries to stand in front of Sakurai and leave his chin open, perhaps Sakurai could miraculously finish off the granite chin of Nick Diaz. I'd bet against that happening, however, as I think we'll see a typical Diaz clinic of a dizzying display of countless punches landing on Sakurai's face in combination with heavy body shots. Nick Diaz will finish off the 34-year-old veteran, pushing his record to 0-3 in his last three fights and making him wonder if he should simply retire.
Middleweight: Kazushi Sakuraba (26-11-1, 2 NC) vs. Ralek Gracie (2-0): The "Gracie Hunter" moniker will be brought out of the closet once again as Japanese legend Kazushi Sakuraba will enter the cage against Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Ralek Gracie. Ralek is fairly green in the sport with only two victories at the young age of 24. The 40-year-old Sakuraba has over forty fights under his belt, and he still remains a dangerous submission threat to the unfortunate strikers who can't hang on the ground.
Sakuraba will need to rely on his striking to win him this battle, and historically -- he's always been great at avoiding takedowns and submissions. I fear Sakuraba's days are coming to an end in the sport as a competitor, but I can see him keeping this fight on the feet and battering Ralek on his way to a decision victory.
Featherweight: Joachim Hansen (19-9-1) vs. Hiroyuki Takaya (12-8-1): This should be one of the more interesting battles on the DREAM 14 card as former DREAM lightweight champion Joachim Hansen will battle within the confines of the featherweight division once again as he takes on powerful striker Hiroyuki Takaya. Hansen is coming off a narrow split decision loss to Bibiano Fernandes at DREAM 13 while Takaya was defeated by both Fernandes and Michihiro Omigawa in his two most recent bouts.
Takaya likes to brawl with his opponents, and Hansen will be more than willing to do so as he is definitely one of the few lighter weight fighters in Japan who can produce knockout power in one punch or knee. The biggest weakness for Hansen, however, is his takedown defense. It's horribly lacking, and Takaya could take advantage from top control with his punishing strikes. Hansen isn't completely susceptible on the ground as his jiu-jitsu ground game is dangerous, and I think he has the more well-rounded skill-set to give Takaya problems in multiple ways in this fight. I'll take Hansen to the bank in this one.
Featherweight: Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto (17-3, 1 NC) vs. Federico Lopez (4-2): The dominance of "Kid" Yamamoto came to an abrupt halt over the last year. Both Joe Warren and Masanori Kanehara were able to defeat Yamamoto via decision while Jae Hee Cheon crushed Yamamoto with a left hook in a K-1 MAX event in July. Three straight defeats and passing the age in which athletes begin to slow down, Yamamoto is out to prove he's not irrelevant yet.
DREAM has matched him up with the relatively unknown Federico "Kiko" Lopez for his debut in 2010. The Team Quest member is coming off two consecutive losses, and I'm going to assume DREAM feels this is the perfect fight for Yamamoto to get some confidence back for a run toward the top in 2010.
Yamamoto should win this match-up, but it'll be interesting to see if he's improved his training after his loss to Masanori Kanehara. Yamamoto will be the better striker, and his wrestling is good enough to stop Lopez. Realistically, he should stop Lopez in his tracks. If he can't, it might be time to finally write off Yamamoto for good.
Featherweight: Yoshiro Maeda (26-8-2) vs. Kenji Osawa (15-9-2): Both of these fighters had unsuccessful stints with the WEC as Osawa dropped decisions to Antonio Banuelos and Scott Jorgensen while Maeda was stopped by Miguel Torres and Rani Yahya. Osawa was more than likely dropped to due his uneventful style while Maeda was simply overwhelmed by more talented fighters, but both fighters were unable to hack it against better competition in the States.
Maeda is definitely more of the power puncher in this showdown, and Osawa has been caught being lazy in his defense on the feet in the past. Osawa does like to move to the clinch in situations in which his chin has been exposed, and I'm sure he'll look to put Maeda on his back via the clinch once he feels his power. Osawa can probably win here if he keeps his range and uses front kicks to keep Maeda from getting inside, but I think Maeda will punish Osawa standing and tire him out on his way to a TKO victory.
Featherweight: Hideo Tokoro (26-21-1) vs. Akiyo Nishiura (10-5-1): Interesting style clash here as the always-exciting Hideo Tokoro brings his high-flying submission skills into the White Cage against striker Akiyo "Wicky" Nishiura. With hair that Jordan Breen would appreciate, Nishiura will look to stand and trade while Tokoro will more than likely seek a quick transition to the floor for the submission.
I've never been a huge fan of Wicky as his stand-up defense has always been lacking. He keeps his hands down low to his hips, and it really opens him up for better strikers to land consistently. Fortunately for Wicky, Tokoro isn't much of a threat in that department. Tokoro's route to victory will more than likely need to be from a positionally dominant gameplan rather than submission as Wicky is very tough to finish on the floor, but Tokoro is heavily susceptible to the knockout. I'll be rooting for some creative grappling from Tokoro, but I think Wicky will probably land more punishing blows and stop Tokoro.
Featherweight: Kazuyuki Miyata (8-7) vs. Takafumi Otsuka (10-4-1): Moving down to featherweight may be Miyata's key to a consistent run toward the top despite looking like a dried up prune at weigh-ins. This should be a pretty tough test for Miyata, however, as Otsuka has one of the more successful Japanese fighters on the international scene. He was narrowly defeated by current UFC fighter Rafael Dos Anjos at Fury FC VI, and he dropped a decision to Bibiano Fernandes at DREAM 7. Those are his only two losses since his two initial fights in the sport back in 2006.
With that said, I think Otsuka edges out Miyata here. Miyata's wrestling has the opportunity to be a real menace and give him the win, but I think Otsuka's overall skill will allow him to come out on top in this contest. Despite my prediction, Miyata is definitely a solid underdog pick.
Openweight: Ikuhisa Minowa (45-30-8) vs. Imani Lee (1-2): Red wrestling shoes, red tights, and red knee-pads in perfect unison with the Kentucky mullet. It's tough not to love Ikuhisa Minowa, am I right? The pro wrestler turned Goliath killer may not have the record or impressive victories to turn heads, but he certainly gets the attention he deserves in his masterful performances that cater to the fan wanting to be entertained.
Imani Lee shouldn't provide much of a challenge here. He's a neophyte in the sport, and Minowa's ability to pull off rather obscure submissions that most fighters really don't train to stop will surely put Lee away here. Be ready for some Minowa fist pumping in this one.