Overeem win highlights traditional NYE show

The great debate of where Strikeforce champion Alistair Overeem ranks in the heavyweight division is only going to get louder after “The ‘Reem” added both the K-1 World Grand Prix kickboxing and Dream interim heavyweight titles to his collection in the span of three weeks.

Some believe the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Overeem, who destroyed Todd Duffee in 19 seconds on Japan’s annual New Year’s Eve event at the Saitama Super Arena to capture the Dream belt, is the best heavyweight MMA fighter on the planet.

In fact, when he entered the ring for the annual Dynamite! show held just outside of Tokyo, the graphic on the screen listed him as the toughest man out of seven billion on the planet. It was a graphic similar to what used to be reserved for Fedor Emelianenko, for years considered by most as the king of the division.

Strikeforce heavyweight champ Alistair Overeem has added K-1 and Dream titles to his collection.
(MMAWeekly photo)

Others will argue vehemently, and with merit, that ranking Overeem in the top five is ridiculous – even allowing for the fact he clearly has great overall talent. Overeem (34-11, one no-contest) has yet to beat a top-level MMA heavyweight. Duffee (6-2), who was recently cut from UFC and took the fight on a few days’ notice, hardly qualifies.

In his past ten fights as a heavyweight – comprised of nine wins and a no-contest (with Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic in a fight Overeem was dominating until it was stopped when Cro Cop couldn’t continue after a low blow) – the only thing close to top-level wins were Paul Buentello in 2007 and Brett Rogers in May.

Overeem’s K-1 tournament, the biggest heavyweight kickboxing event of the year, was impressive – particularly considering kickboxing is not his primary sport. But in that tourney, he had a tough win over a much-smaller Tyron Spong by decision in his first match in the first round, then beat Gokhan Saki and Peter Aerts by first-round stoppages. Each of the latter fighters, however, had come into their fights injured.

In theory, 2011 will be the year Overeem gets tested. Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker, who was at ringside for the show, has talked of wanting him to face several of his stable’s top heavyweights – including Emelianenko, Fabricio Werdum, Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, Josh Barnett and Andrei Arlovski over the next year. But because of scheduling issues with Overeem, an injury to Werdum, a licensing issue with Barnett and continual contract problems with Emelianenko, none of those bouts have taken place and there are no concrete matches made.

Duffee, who holds the UFC record for quickest knockout with a seven-second win over Tim Hague in August 2009 in Portland, Ore., came out for the evening’s opening ceremonies with the look of someone who was about to go to the electric chair. When the match began, Duffee immediately went for a takedown. Overeem blocked the move and landed a hard knee to the body, following with a right and a left. Duffee went down and it was over.

“This year, I won three world titles – Strikeforce, then K-1 and now Dream – and I promise you all I’m going to keep giving you great fights.” Overeem said afterward.

The match, thought to be non-title since it was announced about a week ago, was announced at Thursday’s preshow press conference as an interim heavyweight title fight.

The tenth annual New Year’s Eve show, a television fixture which has clearly seen better days, was called “Dynamite!” – but compared to previous years, it was short on explosiveness.

A series of matchups involving several major Japanese MMA stars who appear to be on their last legs; Olympians from judo and wrestling; former champions in boxing and kickboxing; and even the MMA debut of a Japanese professional baseball player didn’t combine for the kind of killer matches of years past.

The night started off badly for Japan, as most of the country’s favorite MMA stars – such as Kazushi Sakuraba, Ikuhisa Minowa, Shinya Aoki, Caol Uno and Hayato Sakurai – all fell.

But fans left the main event happy as Hiroyuki Takaya (15-8-1) won a unanimous decision over Bibiano Fernandes (8-3) to capture Dream’s featherweight title. The two had an exceptional match in October 2009: Fernandes won via decision in a match that was tight enough it could have gone either way in the finals of a tournament to crown the first champion. This match was slower, with Takaya winning the first round and Fernandes seemingly having a slight edge in the second.

The key point of the fight occurred in the third round, when Fernandes opted to pull guard to get it to the ground. That ended up winning the fight for Takaya, who in the last several minutes of the fight connected with solid ground and pound while Fernandes never really threatened off his back.

The most shocking moment of the 14-match show came in a mixed bout, with kickboxer Yuichiro Nagashima (16-4 in kickboxing) – best known for dressing up like a schoolgirl for his ring entrances – facing Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki (26-5, one no-contest). The rules: The first round would be a kickboxing match, and if Aoki survived the three minutes, the second round would be under MMA rules.

Aoki shocked everyone with a unique first-round strategy. He tried to kill time by wrestling, earning a warning from the referee for his approach.

As part of his stalling tactics, Aoki went for crazy kicks which he either missed or landed ineffectually. By design, the kicks would end with him landing on his back. He would then slowly get up, all the while killing time in the round. At one point, he threw three pro wrestling-style dropkicks.

When the MMA round (the one he would figure to win easily) started, Aoki shot in for a takedown, took a hard knee to the face and was knocked out cold, stunning the crowd.

Japanese celebrity fighter Bob Sapp’s opening match with Shinichi Suzukawa, a disgraced sumo caught in a drug scandal who is being groomed for pro wrestling stardom, never happened. It was announced to the audience that Sapp “had lost his will to fight.” In reality, there was some sort of a last-minute contract dispute, which may signal the end of Sapp’s career as a fighter in Japan.

Another involved Japan’s most legendary MMA star, Sakuraba (26-15-1), who fought most of his career in the 185-190 pound range. The 41-year-old dropped to 168 to challenge Dream welterweight champion Marius Zaromskis (14-5).

The fight wasn’t going well for Sakuraba, who, after a punch, was bleeding from his right ear. He then shot in for a takedown and nearly had his ear torn off his head in the attempt. The match was immediately stopped at 2:02, when he was bandaged up. Though Sakuraba was the featured fighter in preshow video packages, most of the match was edited out of the Japanese network broadcast in light of the gruesome injury.

Former Strikeforce and current Dream light heavyweight champion Gegard Mousasi (30-3-1) faced K-1 heavyweight champion Kyotaro (18-4 as a kickboxer), giving away 16 pounds and fighting under kickboxing rules. However, Kyotaro, who was banged up in a kickboxing match three weeks ago, was not himself and lost a three-round decision.

Another former Strikeforce champion, Josh Thomson, came into the fight as the top contender for Gilbert Melendez’s lightweight title. Thomson lost a three-round decision to Tatsuya “The Crusher” Kawajiri in the fight most anticipated by hardcore MMA fans in the United States.

The fight was good but didn’t quite live up to expectations, as Kawajiri used takedowns and ground-and-pound to win all three rounds. This was a major win for Japanese MMA since the stars of Dream have been dominated in this year’s battles with Strikeforce fighters, making the Japanese side look inferior. The result would appear to set up Melendez vs. Kawajiri for the Strikeforce title in a rematch of a close decision win by Melendez on the 2006 New Year’s Eve show.

Katsuaki Furuki, who in 1998 came out of high school as the top overall pick in the Japanese baseball draft, ended his mediocre career on the diamond last year. Friday, he lost via decision to Andy Ologun, whose main claim to fame is being the younger brother of a well-known Nigerian-born Japanese comedian who has fought on these shows in the past.

Kazuhisa Watanabe, a former Japanese featherweight champion in boxing, showed shocking submission defense in lasting three rounds with submission star Hideo Tokoro. It appeared it would be a replay of the Randy Couture vs. James Toney fight, as Tokoro took Watanabe down in 10 seconds. But while Tokoro controlled most of the fight on the ground, Watanabe blocked and escaped one armbar and choke attempt after another – even twice powering out of armbars with what is known in Japan as “Gotch-lifts,” a one-arm power clean named after wrestler Karl Gotch.

Watanabe, with no prior MMA experience, became an instant crowd favorite by surviving all the submission attempts. But finally, at 2:50 of the third round, Tokoro got Watanabe to tap to an armbar.

Both former Olympic judo medalists on the show came out with wins. Hiroshi Izumi, a 2004 silver medalist, beat Minowa via third-round ground-and-pound stoppage. Minowa was, along with Sakuraba and Aoki, the most popular fighter on the show. But he looked to have little left in the tank in this – his 87th – MMA fight.

Satoshi Ishii, the 2008 super heavyweight gold medalist, defeated much larger kickboxing legend Jerome LeBanner through three rounds of takedown and ground control. Though Ishii clearly won the fight, his victory was booed by fans because he did little with his advantage position. In Japan, the most important battle is becoming a star to the public, and Ishii – who has been promoted like a big star – lacked charisma and appears to have failed in the big picture.

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Dec 31, 2010