Hellboy steals Dream crown
After losing in one of this year’s best matches to Eddie Alvarez on May 11, Joachim “Hellboy” Hansen returned to Japan this past weekend for a prelim match. And when the show ended Monday, Hansen had become the first champion of Dream, Japan’s biggest MMA promotion.
Hansen (19-7-1), subbing for an injured Alvarez before a primetime network TV audience in Japan, defeated Shinya Aoki (17-3) in the finals of the lightweight championship tournament that started in March with the debut of the new promotion.
Philadelphia’s Alvarez and Japan’s Aoki, the former a hard striker and the latter one of the world’s best grapplers, seemed on a collision course for the title going into the final four. En route to the final, Aoki, considered one of the top three in the world in his division, won a decision against Caol Uno (21-11-4) after the Dream-style 10-minute first round and five-minute second round of the mostly one-sided match.
With his trademark long striped pants that give him added traction in trapping arms and legs for submissions – pants which are illegal under North American rules – Aoki was considered by the crowd at Osaka Castle Hall as the show’s biggest star.
Alvarez (15-1), meanwhile, reached the final of the tournament by finishing off Tatsuya “The Crusher” Kawajiri (22-5-2) in a slugfest in 7:35. Alvarez, with his right eye swelling and starting to shut as a result of a Kawajiri elbow in a standing exchange connected with a right straight and a left hook that won the fight and appeared to send him to the championship.
But after being examined, doctors refused to allow him to come out for the championship match.
Hansen, unaware of this development when he got into the ring with Kultar “Black Mamba” Gill (10-8), finished his foe with an armlock from the bottom in just 3:23. He suffered virtually no damage in the fight. The Hansen-Gill winner was to determine a substitute fighter in the event of injuries preventing two fighters from the final four to be able to advance.
Japanese tradition has been that with an injury to the winner, the loser can advance to the finals – a situation that most recently took place in PRIDE’s 2006 middleweight tournament where Kazuo Misaki submitted to Paulo Filho in the semifinal. But with Filho injured, Misaki came back for the final and beat Denis Kang.
But with Kawajiri knocked out and Alvarez’s eye swollen shut, Hansen got the call.
“What happened tonight is very unfortunate,” said Alvarez, who fights for Elite XC in the United States but was not a major star stateside when the tournament began and was sent to Dream for the tournament. “I wanted to fight for everyone here. I begged the doctors to let me fight, to let my try, but they said no.”
Hansen enjoyed an advantage heading into the final, having had a short match against an easier foe. Aoki endured a grueling ground battle with Uno that went the distance.
The final ended up unspectacular, as Hansen, standing, connected with a devastating punch to Aoki’s temple as his foe laid on the ground. After a few more punches on the ground, the bout was waved off in 4:19.
“I had a good night,” said Hansen in the ring immediately after winning. “I will have my first title defense against Eddie Alvarez.”
The usually nationalistic Japanese crowd reacted big to Hansen’s proclamation, and to Hansen and Alvarez hugging in the ring, since Alvarez has quickly become a cult favorite after his war with Hansen.
Alvarez expressed major disappointment, almost in tears, in the ring when he had to address the audience that he wasn’t going to fight in the final, but made a point of saying there was nobody he would rather have replace him than Hansen.
He also noted on the American live broadcast of the show on HD-Net that he had looked up to Hansen as a fighter, and that after their fight, had gone out with him for drinks and the two had become good friends.
Dream took its name for the ability to put together dream matches featuring the stars of the defunct PRIDE group along with what was Japan’s No. 2 MMA promotion in recent years, the K-1 sponsored Hero’s group.
But if anything, the tournament-style event showed the major weakness when it comes to determining a rightful champion, a tradition stemming from both the early days of MMA in the country as well as popular kickboxing events.
For the Dream promotion, there had been a lot of bad news in the weeks leading up to the fight. The major MMA groups in Japan derive a large percentage of their money from network TV rights, but it’s imperative they draw strong ratings in primetime to continue that level of backing.
The first Dream show, built around the return of Mirko Cro Cop from UFC, opened with a weak rating, and subsequent shows have not aired in primetime. The combination of Aoki going for the company’s first title, along with matches featuring longtime major draws Cro Cop and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, the most popular of the Japanese MMA fighters, made this show primetime fare. But Cro Cop pulled out due to injuries, and it was announced just days before the show that Yamamoto had torn his ACL in training.
The injuries saw the company put together two fights just days before the show. Alistair Overeem (28-11), the Strikeforce heavyweight champion, giving up 50 pounds to 290-pound New Zealander Mark Hunt, finished the popular former K-1 Grand Prix champion with an armbar in just 1:11. In the other late-planned match, Andy Ologun, a kickboxer best known because his older brother is a famous comedian who sometimes fights, was submitted quickly by Daisuke Nakamura in Ologun’s first match against a real fighter
Joseph Benavidez, the only other U.S.-based fighter (he now fights out of Sacramento, Calif.), quickly submitted Junya Kudo with a guillotine in 2:42. Benavidez, a protege of Urijah Faber, was scheduled to face Yamamoto . Faber came with Benavidez to Japan with the idea of teasing an elusive Yamamoto-Faber featherweight dream match.
But even if Yamamoto had beaten Faber’s protege and built up more Japanese interest in the match, it would have been politically difficult to put together, as Faber has an exclusive deal with Zuffa while Yamamoto is exclusive to Dream.