As Jim Nantz would say, “It’s a tradition unlike any other.” No, I’m not talking about The Masters, Dick Clark’s New Years Rockin Eve, or even the Philadelphia Eagles once again collapsing in the playoffs. I’m talking about New Years Eve MMA in Japan. K-1 started running New Years Eve shows in 2001, PRIDE started the MMA tradition in 2003, and now in 2010 K-1 and MMA work together to bring us “Dynamite!! Power of Courage 2010”. It’s a card that features title fights, highly ranked fighters, MMA legends, and of course the always entertaining freak show fights. Ring in the New Year with Japanese MMA because by the looks of it, it might be the last time we get the chance.
DREAM Featherweight Title Fight: Hiroyuki Takaya vs. Bibiano Fernandes
Ever since Bibiano Fernandes defeated Hiroyuki Takaya by split decision in the finals of the DREAM Featherweight Grand Prix at DREAM. 11, fans have been begging for a rematch. We finally get our wish on New Years Eve.
Even though he lost the first fight, Takaya has a lot to build on from that fight. Granted the fight happened over a year ago but they’ve only had four fights between them since then so it’s tough to gauge just how much they’ve improved. Takaya is the better technical striker of the two. He flicks a good jab to set up his left hook, throws good leg kicks, likes to attack the inside of the leg, and puts together good combinations. He has a tendency to slip to his left and counter with a left hook, but that also leaves him open for right hooks. He’s very willing to stay in the pocket and engage, which is either a smart strategy or a dumb strategy depending on whether or not he gets the knock out or gets knocked out. He has good takedown defense and when he does get taken down, he’s quick at getting up. Fernandes is better in the scrambles though and every time he tries to get up, he runs the risk of giving up a bad position. Takaya has to sprawl and brawl to win this fight. He has the faster hands and is overall the better striker. On the feet he should throw a lot of body kicks to not only take away some of the questionable conditioning of Fernandes but also to set up a head kick or possibly catch Fernandes leaning. Takaya has the knockout power to finish Fernandes but if he can’t put him away, he could win the striking battle on the feet en route to a decision.
Along with Marlon Sandro, Fernandes is considered one of the two best featherweights not named Jose Aldo. He’s a good striker, a solid wrestler, and an excellent grappler. He’s very basic on the feet. He throws leg kicks with no set up, doesn’t really throw more than two strikes at a time, and looks to set up his big right hand. He throws good feint takedowns but doesn’t do anything with them. In the first fight, Takaya was always worried about the takedown and bit on a couple of takedown feints but Fernandes let him get away with dropping his hands without throwing a strike. Fernandes is at his best striking when he’s countering. He throws a very good winging right counter with a lot of power behind it. Fernandes’ strength is his grappling though. His top game isn’t as good as it probably should be, mainly his control, but his bottom game is top notch. He’s willing to pull guard and he’s very active off his back. He’s also quick in the scrambles and had the back of Takaya a couple of times in their first fight but was forced to relinquish the position due to some questionable ref breaks. Fernandes can survive on the feet because he has good power and a solid chance but his best chance to win this fight is on the ground. Look for Fernandes to mix in a lot of takedown feints, get Takaya guessing on the feet, and set up his right hand. If the takedowns come then he’ll take them and look to work his ground game but Takaya isn’t easy to put down and keep down and Fernandes would be wise to not blow out too much energy on something that might not be working for him. Fernandes can win this fight in any fashion. He has the power to score the knockouts, he has the submission skills to tap Takaya, or he could impress the judges enough to win a decision.
This is a really tough fight to call because these two are evenly matched. I think Fernandes does enough to the win the decision though and it will come down to takedowns. I know Japan doesn’t put as much value into takedowns as America but if Fernandes can manage a couple of takedowns, control things in the clinch, get some better positions, and keep things relatively even on the feet then it should be enough to sway the judges in his favor.
Prediction: Bibiano Fernandes to defeat Hiroyuki Takaya by Decision
DREAM Welterweight Title Fight: Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Marius Zaromskis
Looking for one last shining moment, Kazushi Sakuraba drops down to 170 to challenge Marius Zaromskis, who is back in Japan after a failed stint in Strikeforce, for the DREAM Welterweight Title.
I’m not going to give the “plea for Sakuraba to retire” spiel in this column. I’ll save that for After Party if he happens to lose. That said, we know Sakuraba isn’t even close to what he once was and people have been calling for his retirement since he lost to Ricardo Arona in 2005. Yet here we are in almost 2011 and Sakuraba is challenging for a title. We all know what to expect from Sakuraba in this fight. He’s going to try his best not get knockout out on the feet, shoot for the single, get things to the ground, and then work for a submission. Ten years ago it probably would have taken Sakuraba a minute to do all that and pick up the victory. But today’s Sakuraba just doesn’t have the explosiveness and skill to get it done. One thing he does have though is plenty of experience and the benefit of the doubt. There is nothing Zaromskis can throw at him that he hasn’t seen and even if he looks like he’s out of the fight, the ref will give him every opportunity to mount a comeback, which is likely more to his detriment than his benefit. Sakuraba is competent on the feet. He stands southpaw and throws a good overhand left but he’s rather gunshy in his old age and his chin is long past shattered. He needs to desperately get this fight to the ground, which could mean getting into a clinch situation if he can’t get the takedown off his shot. A clinch would allow him to pull guard and try to pull off a kimura or roll for a kneebar. Not only that but Zaromskis often looks very uncomfortable in the clinch and doesn’t seem to know how to spin out when he’s trapped. Even if Sakuraba can’t get Zaromskis down in the clinch, he could at least wear him down with knees to the body and legs. One “x factor” in this fight is the fact that this will be the first time that Sakuraba will be fighting at 170. He’s always seemed to fight guys bigger than him but now he’s going to have to cut weight, something I’m sure not he’s ever done in his career. Sakuraba can win this fight with a submission or possibly a decision if he’s able to score a couple of takedowns and survive on the feet.
Zaromskis hopes to return to form now that he’s back in Japan because the guy we saw in Strikeforce wasn’t the guy we fell in love with during his DREAM Welterweight Grand Prix run. He’s still a good, quick striker with power in his hands and feet. He likes to start fights by throwing some sort of jumping strike, whether it be a knee, a kick or a punch. He throws relatively straight punches, except when he’s countering, then he’s looking for hooks. He’s known to switch stances in his fights but he usually stands southpaw more often than not. He’s known for his kicks but he falls into a pattern with them. If there is no set up then he’s usually kicking to the body or legs. If he strikes with his hands first, then he’s looking to finish with the head kick. And nine out of ten times, the hand that he finishes with, will be the leg that he throws. Meaning if he throws a right jab followed by a left straight, he’ll throw a left high kick and if he throws a left straight followed by a right jab, he’ll throw a right high kick. All of his five MMA losses have come by (T)KO so it’s fair to question his chin but unless his chin is made of Styrofoam, he should be able to handle the punches of Sakuraba, who has never shown knockout power. While his ground game isn’t up to Sakuraba level, he does have good takedown defense and a quick ability to get up after being put on his back. Zaromskis needs to keep things within a striking distance. Throw some leg kicks to slow Sakuraba down even more and use them to set up his head kick. Usually throwing kicks against a grappler is an easy way to find yourself on your back but I don’t believe Sakuraba has the reflexes to catch up to the kicks of Zaromskis. If he’s going to win this fight, Zaromskis is going to win by TKO. I don’t see him submitting Sakuraba and I’d really be shocked if he won a decision simply because his best chance to win a decision is to win a striking battle and I figure he’ll KO Sakuraba if it stays standing long enough before the 15 minutes is over.
My heart wants Sakuraba to win the title and retire as a champion but my head is telling me that my heart isn’t working properly following Christmas. I think the weight cut will affect Sakuraba as he’ll be drained, Zaromskis will be out to prove that he’s better than what we saw in the United States, and Zaromskis will continuing to make Sakuraba look like he’s 41 going on 75.
Prediction: Marius Zaromskis to defeat Kazushi Sakuraba by TKO in Round One
Lightweight Fight: Josh Thomson vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri
On loan from Strikeforce and returning to Japan for the first time since PRIDE Bushido 8 in 2005, Josh Thomson takes on Tatsuya Kawajiri, who is looking to bounce back after a disappointing loss to Shinya Aoki in his last fight.
Even though he cares far too much about rankings, Thomson is one of the top lightweights in the world. He’s well-rounded with his strength being his technical striking and catch wrestling. On the feet he throws good one-two combinations and keeps a good distance with push kicks and lead leg high kicks. He ducks his head when he strikes though, which can actually work as a takedown feint but can also leave him open for uppercuts. He also has a tendency to get into a brawl when he doesn’t have to, which does him no favors due to his relative lack of power. He’s a good wrestler although he uses his wrestling more in reverse. He’s controlling on top, uses head control to pass, and likes to set up the arm triangle from the top position or force their opponents to give up their back. Off his back he has a very good and underrated guard. He controls the head of his opponents well, gets himself to guard, and then uses a butterfly guard to push out and up or uses the rubberguard to use an omaplata sweep. Thomson almost needs to replicate his first performance against Gilbert Melendez to win this fight. Use a lot of push kicks to keep Kawajiri away, put together two and three punch combinations, sprawl if Kawajiri decides to go for a takedown, and mix in some takedowns of his own. He can’t get into a brawl with Kawajiri because he doesn’t have the power to go punch for punch with him. If Thomson is going to win, it will likely be by decision but he does have the grappling skills to finish with a submission or he could overwhelm Kawajiri with strikes on the ground.
Kawajiri is coming off a loss to Aoki where he was caught in the opening moments in an Achilles lock. After every loss in his career, Kawajiri has always bounced back to string together no less than a three fight win streak. He’s a well-rounded fighter who doesn’t mind standing and trading but usually likes to put his opponents on their back and pound them out. He’s a powerful striker who throws crisp hooks but is open to leg kicks and usually moves straight back when pressed. His takedowns usually come from clinch situations so if Thomson wants to keep the fight standing, he’ll need to avoid the clinch. Gesias Cavalcante scored his takedowns against Thomson from the clinch so I would suspect that Kawajiri will be looking to do the same thing. Kawajiri’s top control is outstanding. He’s always in a good position, he sets up his strikes well, uses head control to pass, and looks for submissions. If Kawajiri can’t takedown Thomson or keep him there, he’ll need to bait him into a brawl on the feet. He can’t stand in front of Thomson and get into a technical striking contest because Thomson’s kicks and jabs are going to bet his hooks to the punch every time. But if he can pressure Thomson and get him into some wild exchanges, his power could easily put Thomson down. If he’s able to get Thomson down then just look for him to grind things out. Thomson is very tough to finish but he can be neutralized on the ground. Kawajiri can knock out Thomson if he catches him in an exchange but chances are he’ll win by grinding him out to a decision.
This should be a great fight. Thomson rarely has boring bouts and Kawajiri is a very game opponent. Both men are relatively even matched but I’m leaning slightly towards Thomson, as long as he fights a smart fight. If he uses his kicks, keeps a distance, and gets some timely takedowns then he should win. But if he gets over aggressive or caught playing Kawajiri’s game, he’ll find himself heading back to Strikeforce for a loss.
Prediction: Josh Thomson to defeat Tatsuya Kawajiri by Decision
Heavyweight Fight: Todd Duffee vs. Alistair Overeem
After weeks of discussion and speculation on who Alistair Overeem would face, Todd Duffee finally stepped up to the plate in hopes to score the biggest win of his career.
Duffee suffered a very disappointing loss in his last fight but for 12 and half minutes, he was dominating Mike Russow until he got tired and caught with a straight right that put him out. Duffee is a quick striker who uses a good stiff jab, throws a heavy overhand right, and loves his right uppercut after the jab. The Russow fight shouldn’t sour you on his power because that seemed to be more the case of Russow having a hell of a chin rather than Duffee lacking power. Mike Whitehead claims that Duffee has excellent kicks but he’s yet to really show them off. Maybe Duffee and Whitehead are cut from the same “gym champions” cloth and they just can’t put it all together in the actual fight. Duffee trains at Xtreme Couture so I’d like to believe that he has decent wrestling but it may not be wise to use it in this fight simply because having decent wrestling against a guy like Overeem gets you caught in a guillotine or ending up in a clinch. If Duffee is going to win this fight, he needs to pressure Overeem and try to end things quickly. Not only did Duffee take this fight on short notice but his cardio is also questionable so he needs to get in and get out like The Ex-Presidents robbing a bank. Like Overeem, Duffee seems uncomfortable when pressured so he needs to be the one doing the stalking. He can’t like Overeem dictate the pace because that means Overeem will be the one moving forward or they’ll be engaged in a technical striking contest. Neither of those benefits Duffee. If Duffee is going to win this fight, it’s going to be with a right hook. There is an outside chance that he puts Overeem on his back and grinds him out en route to a decision but I wouldn’t count on that one happening.
Overeem is without question the best heavyweight striker in MMA. Just a few short weeks ago he won the K-1 World Grand Prix by notching three victories in one night. You can say that the tournament isn’t what it used to be or that he benefitted from the tournament format but he still won and you can’t take that away from him. He’s very technical with his strikes, throws nice straight punches, has chopping leg kicks, a nasty overhand right, and some of the deadliest knees in the sport. If Duffee has plans to get into a pure striking contest with Overeem then he’s in for a short night. There are two drawbacks to Overeem’s K-1 brilliance though. First off, the gloves in K-1 are larger than the gloves in MMA. That means that Overeem’s high double forearm guard isn’t quite as effective in MMA because punches can slip though a bit easier. Second, due to his focus on K-1, it’s fair to question just how much MMA training Overeem has done. He hasn’t fought MMA since May and over the past couple of years he’s dedicated a lot of his training to K-1 and not MMA. The other knock on Overeem is his mental toughness. He doesn’t react well to getting hit and he’s faired well when pressured. Obviously Overeem is going to look to stand and trade with Duffee. He’s the superior striker and he’s larger and stronger than Duffee. He’ll likely look to use his jab to set up his right hand, clinch, and then throw some nasty knees to the body and head of Duffee. I don’t think this fight is going to a decision so if Overeem is going to win, he’ll win by KO or possibly a guillotine if Duffee tries to shoot in.
A lot of people are writing Duffee off but I think he has slightly more than a punchers chance but when it comes down to it, Overeem is the better fighter. Unless all the K-1 training has set Overeem back in the MMA world or he gets caught early, he should win this fight. Look for him to take away the legs of Duffee with leg kicks and then rough him up in the clinch with knees before putting him away.
Prediction: Alistair Overeem to defeat Todd Duffee by TKO in Round One
Welterweight Fight: Jason High vs. Hayato Sakurai
Trying to snap a three fight losing streak, Hayato Sakurai battles Jason High, who is trying to redeem himself for the last time he fought in DREAM, when he was knocked out by Marius Zaromskis in the finals of the Welterweight Grand Prix.
High is a good fighter but doesn’t quite have that signature win on his record unless you count his twitter victories over Muhamed Lawal. He’s a solid striker who stands southpaw and throws some very good body kicks. His main strength is his wrestling. He doesn’t set up his takedowns as well as he probably should but he’s very aggressive on his takedowns and drives through his opponents. He has a solid top game, throws heavy ground and pound, and is quick in the scrambles. On weakness he has though is that he’s not good off his back. He doesn’t get up as quick as he should and he seems rather content on staying on his back, especially if his opponents aren’t doing anything to him. He has excellent submission though, really some of the best submission defense in MMA, so maybe that’s why he’s so comfortable on his back but it’s still not a good way to win fights. He’s also a very smart fighter. He knows what’s working for him and what’s not and he doesn’t get caught up in his opponents game. Expect High to throw a lot of body kicks in this fight to take away from the questionable conditioning of Sakurai and expect him to set up his straight left hand, which is his best punch and something that Sakurai has problems with. If the striking battle is even then he’ll look for the takedowns in order to score points on the cards. If he is put on his back, he’ll likely go for a guillotine but hopefully he’s been working on armbars as well because Sakurai loves to leave his right arm dangling on the ground. High has the power to finish Sakurai, the submission skills to catch him, or could win a decision by being more active and just controlling the fight.
Sakurai is going through a slump right now but when he’s committed, he has the skill to beat anyone. He’s a good striker with power in his hands. He likes to lead and counter with the left hook and he throws a lot of inside leg kicks. He likes to catch opponents coming in by grabbing them in the plum clinch and looking for the knee to the head. He’ll go for takedowns although he shoots higher than he needs to and leaves himself open for a guillotine choke. He’s active off his back with hammerfists but doesn’t really go for submissions. He’s also active on top with hammerfists but has a tendency to leave his arm dangling for a submission. He seems most comfortable in half guard where he can continue his hammerfist onslaught and look to drop knees if his opponent turns into him. The problem with Sakurai nowadays is his commitment to MMA. He’s getting up there in age and he’s had a lot of fights in his career so maybe things are catching up to him but he’s also been going through some personal issues over the past couple of years. In his last few fights he’s looked slow and just not all there. If he comes into this fight and tries to give the same lackadaisical effort, he’s not going to win. Sakurai will likely look to keep things standing. He has KO power and High’s chin has been cracked before. Look for him to use his left hook to set up the overhand right, which the kryptonite of southpaw fighters. If he can’t put High to sleep, he could win a decision by keeping things on the feet and outstriking his American opponent.
This is a close fight that really comes down to Sakurai’s mindset. If he’s out there and just going through the motions again, he’s going to lose. But if he fights like he has something to prove then he has a very good shot at winning. In close fights, it’s never smart to take someone who has a history of mental weakness so I’ve got to go with High, who I know will show up mentally prepared and looking for that signature win. I think High does enough to win the decision, which means he’ll have to do more than enough since they’re fighting in Japan.
Prediction: Jason High to defeat Hayato Sakurai by Decision
Other Fight Predictions:
*Satoshia Ishii to defeat Jerome Le Banner by Submission in Round Two
*Sergei Kharitonov to defeat Tatsuya Mizuno by TKO in Round One
*Caol Uno to defeat Kazuyuki Miyata by Decision
*Hideo Tokoro to defeat Kazuhisa Watanabe by Submission in Round One
*Ikuhisa Minowa to defeat Hiroshi Izumi by Submission in Round One