Looking at the Top 10 year-end matches

Looking at the Top 10 year-end matches
By Dave Meltzer, Yahoo Sports
December 28, 2007

Dave Meltzer
Yahoo Sports
"Save the Best for Last," may be the title of a Vanessa Williams love song, but for mixed martial arts, a tradition set years ago continues over the next few days with some of the most important shows of the year.

UFC 79, with arguably the company's strongest double main event of the year, Wanderlei Silva vs. Chuck Liddell and Matt Hughes vs. Georges St. Pierre, takes place Saturday night before a sold-out crowd of more than 11,000 at the Mandalay Bay Hotel Events Center in Las Vegas. The event will be closed-circuited both at the hotel, as well as at Madison Square Garden in New York, and air at 10 p.m. ET on pay-per-view.

The IFL will crown champions in five weight divisions at about the same time at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. That show airs live on HD-Net starting at 9:30 p.m.

The Japanese New Year's Eve fighting tradition goes into its eighth year with two major events. Yarennoka! will air live on the morning of Dec. 31 in the U.S. at 6 a.m. on HD-Net from the Saitama Super Arena just outside of Tokyo.

K-1, the first martial arts company to really hit it big in Japan as prime time network fare, has its traditional New Year's Eve Dynamite! show from the Kyocera Dome, in Osaka, a 42,000-seat indoor baseball stadium. It's not available on TV in the U.S. In Japan, it will be a lengthy prime-time TV spectacular. Last year's version drew more than 20 million viewers in Japan, and was also a major event in South Korea.

The two Japanese shows are not competing, as in the Kyocera Dome, they will broadcast the Yarennoka! matches live on the big screen. The two main matches at Yarennoka! will air on the K-1 network broadcast.

The mastermind behind K-1, Sadaharu Tanikawa, was a pro wrestling magazine writer in his youth, and idolized Vince McMahon as a promoter.

Here's a quick look at 10 biggest and most important matches of the week:

1. CHUCK LIDDELL (20-5) VS. WANDERLEI SILVA (31-7-1) at UFC 79

Although billed as the semi-main event on the UFC show, this clearly has more worldwide interest than any other match. Liddell, up until May, was the face of the UFC, holding its light heavyweight title for just over two years. The Brazilian Silva, with the exception of Mirko Cro Cop, had become the most famous serious foreign fighter in Japan, holding Pride's title in the same weight class for a record setting six years and at one point going 18 matches without a loss. But the fight is very different from what it could have been. Liddell, 38, and Silva, 32, are both coming off two devastating losses. The winner redeems himself and the losers' future becomes very much in question.

What makes this fight so intriguing is not just who it is, and the stakes, but more, the questions. Liddell's TKO loss to Quinton Jackson can be explained that he simply got caught. At some point it happens to almost everyone. His loss to Keith Jardine was, in his words, a bad night. Silva's loss to Mirko Cro Cop saw him bulk up to 225 pounds for an open weight tournament, which slowed him down and he got hammered by a naturally bigger man. His loss to Dan Henderson came when he was sick, and likely hadn't recovered fully from the Cro Cop loss.

Has age caught up to Liddell? Is Silva shot after so many brutal wars? Has Silva reinvented himself in leaving Chute Boxe in Brazil and training at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas with a whole new camp? Will either man change their generally predictable style?

This is close to a pick-em fight because there are too many variables. Liddell is bigger, punches harder and probably can take a better shot as well. He also has the home-field advantage, fighting in a cage where Silva has largely fought in a ring. They are also fighting under rules Liddell is more familiar with, as Silva's brutal stomps, knees on the ground and soccer kicks aren't legal in the U.S. Silva is quicker and far more aggressive, but that's a style that suits Liddell well, as he's a strong counter puncher and Silva's aggression leaves himself open.

The fight should be two guys slugging it out until one goes down. And a year ago if they fought, most likely one would be going down. Both are great finishers when they get their opponents in trouble. But the question is, for the first time, both are in a situation where losing is more than just a momentary setback. Will one, or both, knowing they can't afford a loss at this time, fight conservatively to win?

2. MATT HUGHES (43-5, No. 9 in Y! Sports Top 10) VS. GEORGES ST. PIERRE (14-2, No. 4 in Y! Sports Top 10) at UFC 79

You can make a strong case for this being a match of the two best welterweights in the world. The winner becomes the interim UFC welterweight champion and will go on to be heavily favored against injured champion Matt Serra in the spring.

Both men say this match will be completely different than their most recent meeting last year, but when you examine it, it looks like more of the same. Barring the punchers' chance, standing is St. Pierre's game.

He's far better with boxing, and has a secondary weapon with kicks, winning their second meeting with a head kick early in the second round. Hughes has to take it down, and even there, there's no guarantee that's to his advantage. St. Pierre outwrestled Josh Koscheck, a younger and better wrestler than Hughes. Unless St. Pierre has miscalculated and hasn't had time to get in condition for a five-round fight, and Hughes can take it long, the odds favor St. Pierre's second title reign.

3. FEDOR EMELIANENKO (26-1, No 1 in Y! Sports Top 10) VS. CHOI HONG-MAN (1-0) at Yarennoka!

The man generally considered best fighter in the world is facing the biggest fighter in the world in the main event of Yarennoka! Choi is 7-2½ and weighed a muscular 367 pounds when he fought in the K-1 Grand Prix kickboxing tournament earlier this month. That means he'll have roughly 14½ inches and 135 pounds on the top heavyweight fighter.

Emelianenko is a 17-to-one favorite, considering Choi never had a serious MMA match, his lone win coming against a well-known Japanese TV comedian. Choi was a star in Ssirum, a South Korean sport that is a little like judo or sumo, so he may have some balance. When that sport folded in South Korea, he was recruited and taught kickboxing, and with almost no experience, has been able to at least hang with the biggest names in the sport. He's not a KO artist but his reach is ridiculous, and if he hits a knee coming in, he can cut Emelianenko, who does cut easy.

He also has a good chin, as he took lots of solid shots from Jerome LeBanner, a much harder puncher than Emelianenko, in his last kickboxing match. But he'll fade if the match goes past a few minutes, and if it goes to the ground, he'll likely be submitted easily, which is the most likely finish. What makes this match important is the entire M-1 organization is largely dependent on Emelianenko being the No. 1 heavyweight in the world, and because of the size difference, it would be difficult to get a rematch sanctioned in this country.

4. NORIFUMI "KID" YAMAMOTO (16-1) vs. RANI YAHYA (11-3) at K-1 Dynamite!

This is the first matchup of a star from Hero's, K-1's MMA branch, against a Zuffa contracted fighter. At 5-2 and 138 pounds, Yamamoto, 30, at one point may have been the best fighter per square inch on the planet, and is currently Japan's biggest fighting ratings draw. He combines the wrestling skill of a college champion, which he once was, with top level ability in both kickboxing and submissions. Yahya, who fights for the WEC and most recently lost a decision to Chase Beebe in challenging for the bantamweight belt, is even better at submissions. As long as Yamamoto keeps it standing, he should knock Yahya out.

5. KAZUO MISAKI (18-8-2) VS. YOSHIHIRO AKIYAMA (10-1) at Yarennoka!

This, for Japan, matches Pride's middleweight tournament winner in 2006 against K-1's best middleweight. Misaki won his tournament beating Denis King via decision. Akiyama's biggest career win was on Oct. 28 in Korea against Kang. Akiyama was groomed by K-1, given a diet of stand-up fighters to take down and submit, including easily beating former world heavyweight boxing champion Francois Botha, who he gave away considerable size to. But when he greased up his body to avoid takedowns against legend Kazushi Sakuraba, he became branded as the man who tried to cheat against an aging legend, which in Japan is considered the lowest form of low. Akiyama has looked far more impressive, but Misaki has been tested by tougher competition. It should also be noted Akiyama has never had a long fight, whereas Misaki has gone the distance 17 times in 28 fights.

Akiyama is the favorite, but going the distance may be the key, and he's untested.

6. LYOTO MACHIDA (11-0) VS. RAMEAU THIERRY SOKOUDJOU (4-1) at UFC

If you remember the Houston Alexander story, just multiply it for Sokoudjou. Sokoudjou is an unknown fighter who walked in and destroyed two name opponents, except Sokoudjou beat two of the world's best light heavyweights in Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona. Like Alexander, the wins looked great, but you have no idea of his ground game and stamina. Machida has never tasted defeat, and rarely even been on the defensive as a pro. Sokoudjou has quick explosive fights and punches and kicks with major power.

Machida has long boring fights, and specializes in moving in and out, and not getting hit. Whomever imposes their game plan is the likely winner, and should be in line for a title shot. Sokoudjou is the emotional pick, and with a win establishes himself as a superstar. He punches and kicks harder. His background is actually judo, not striking, but he's never been to the ground with a top fighter, so that aspect of his game is untested.

7. MITSUHIRO ISHIDA (15-3-1) VS. GILBERT MELENDEZ (13-0, No. 10 in Y! Sports Top 10) at Yarennoka!

Ishida is a takedown, and ground and pound guy, often winning by decision. Melendez, one of the best lightweights in the world, is great at avoiding takedowns, and knocking around wrestlers in the stand-up. An on-paper similar fight to this took place last year with Melendez beating Clay Guida. Melendez stopped every takedown and won every standing exchange. It was also among the most exciting fights of the year.

Melendez has been plagued with injuries this year, but if he's healthy, he should take the decision. It figures to be one of the best fights of the week.

8. TATSUYA KAWAJIRI (19-4-2) VS. LUIZ AZEREDO (11-6) at Yarennoka!

Another lightweight battle that on paper figures to a show-stealer. Both are aggressive exciting fighters. Azeredo, in particular, is actually only 2-3 in Japan, but is a big favorite because of his two losses to Takanori Gomi in 2005. The Japanese are fans of great fights, win or lose, than just winning. Kawajiri, fast and well-rounded, figures to take it, probably by decision.

9. CHRIS HORODECKI (11-0) VS. RYAN SCHULTZ (17-9-1) to determine the first IFL lightweight champion

Horodecki, who just turned 20 but looks 15 or 16, is the IFL's biggest star, and the cause of major frustration throughout the league. He looks anything but tough, but he not only wins, he wins in exciting fashion. He's 4-0 this year, and three of those wins, two against Bart Palaszewski and one against Shad Lierley, were among the most exciting fights of the year. What sets him apart is the quickness and accuracy of his kicks as they are almost like third and fourth arms, and his ability to stay out of trouble. Schultz is a late replacement, who has only had a few weeks to train. They fought a year ago, with Horodecki finishing Schultz. The book on Horodecki is he can be beaten on the ground, and Schultz is a good wrestler, but the odds are that Horodecki will catch Schultz with kicks he doesn't see coming.

10. MASAKATSU FUNAKI (38-11-1) VS. KAZUSHI SAKURABA (22-10-1) at K-1 Dynamite!

This probably won't be a great match. Both are 38 and long past their prime. Funaki hasn't fought since 2000, and hadn't looked good since 1998. Sakuraba has taken horrible beatings in recent years. But they are legendary names in the Japanese MMA world, both having come from pro wrestling, where both are Hall of Famers. Funaki was the country's MMA star before there was such a term, as the first star of Pancrase from 1993-98. It was a form of fighting using pro wrestling rules. No closed-fist punching to the face, and if you got to the ropes in a submission, the hold would be broken. Frank Shamrock, one of its original stars, tabbed it as "a game" rather than a fight.

At the time Funaki retired, Sakuraba's star exploded in Japan as he became the country's MMA hero with his 90:00 win over Royce Gracie. This is a match that would have been gigantic if it was held a few years back. With New Year's Eve in desperate need of a ratings gimmick, Funaki was brought out of retirement after 7½ years – a long layoff. But Sakuraba is broken down as well. A fight like this may have been best left to the imagination of the Japanese public. As with the Vanessa Williams song, perhaps one or the other can turn back the clock, and save the best for last.

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 on Friday, Dec 28, 2007 11:43 am, EST

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