Japanese favorites Shinya Aoki and Tatsuya "Crusher" Kawajiri scored big wins, but Saturday night's fight card only served to show just how far MMA has fallen in a former hotbed.
Dream 17 at the Saitama Super Arena, the building in which so many of the greatest MMA fights of the past decade have taken place, drew only a small crowd in what at times felt like nostalgia night.
With no network television deal, a must for any level of mainstream interest, it has become almost impossible for Japanese promoters to make new stars. So Dream brought out the established stars, mostly fighters either past their prime or those who haven't been lured away to America and the UFC.
Dream lightweight champion Aoki (29-5, 1 no contest), the biggest of the country's remaining stars, was able to finish former World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion "Razor" Rob McCullough in the main event of a show that aired in the U.S. on HDNet. It was Aoki's sixth win in a row since he was unable to mount any offense in losing a five-round decision to Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez on CBS in the U.S. 17 months ago.
In an obvious striker vs. grappler matchup, Aoki kept McCullough (19-8) on the ground for almost the entire first round before finishing him at the 4:57 mark with a neck crank facelock combination.
"I've been away from my family for two months in Singapore," Aoki said. "I haven't seen my wife and child for two months. I'm really sad and lonely. It's not just me, but everyone is doing their best in Japan in this dark time. I think we're going to make it."
Aoki talked about a prospective New Year's Eve show, a Japanese television tradition for a decade. But at this time, there is no television deal in place, nor is there an announcement for the next Dream show.
Kawajiri (29-7-2), who was also hammered by Melendez this past April when he came to the U.S. to challenge for the Strikeforce belt, moved down to the Japanese featherweight division, which is 65 kilograms (143 pounds).
Kawajiri had almost no body fat as a lightweight, so he had to sacrifice musculature to cut down. He didn't appear to have the same power that he did as a lightweight, but he was able to finish popular Norwegian fighter Joachim "Hellboy" Hansen with an arm triangle at 2:30 of the third round in a back-and-forth fight.
Hansen (22-11-1), who has been fighting in Japan since 2002 and was part of the sport's heyday, scored a first-round knockdown, but most of the fight was spent with him on his back after being taken down.
With finances down, the level of pageantry wasn't nearly at the level that people would expect at a major Japanese show, but they did bring in a rock band to play Kawajiri's entrance song.
Still, that couldn't counter the crowd sentiment in seeing two legends of the early days, Kazushi Sakuraba and Caol Uno, in a sport that is unforgiving to athletes past their prime. Sakuraba's wins over four members of the Gracie family in 1999 and 2000, including a 90-minute epic with Royce Gracie, was the building block of the sport's heyday. His biggest fights, most notably his second fight with Wanderlei Silva, sold out the 53,000-seat Tokyo Dome. His fight with heavyweight Mirko Cro Cop in 2002 at an outdoor soccer stadium in Tokyo drew 71,000 fans, still the all-time attendance record for the sport.
His opponent, Yan Cabral (10-0), a Brazilian who had finished all nine of his previous foes by submission, mostly competing in Europe, was brought in because he didn't have much of a reputation as a striker. Cabral idolized Sakuraba when he started in the sport in 2007. Sakuraba, now 42, competed at 167 pounds after spending the bulk of his career as an undersized light heavyweight. Sakuraba (26-16-1) did get some punches in during Round 1 but he was mostly dominated, getting hurt both standing and on the ground.
It wasn't just the age that was the problem, as Sakuraba took horrible beatings once he became a top drawing card. In an unregulated industry where the fighting spirit is revered, referees would give him every chance to win fights and he would never quit from a beating.
Sakuraba should have retired years ago, but he is brought out because his name still draws fans. This week he said he wanted to fight three more years, citing former opponent Royler Gracie, who just retired earlier this month at the age of 45. Sakuraba also said he was addicted to fighting and didn't know when to quit.
Cabral, in a measure of respect, wore a Sakuraba T-shirt after the fight.
Caol Uno (26-15-5), who had two UFC lightweight title matches with Jens Pulver and B.J. Penn a decade ago, was knocked out in the first round by "Lion" Takeshi Inoue (21-5). Uno was never a mainstream star like Sakuraba, but he became a big name among hardcore Japanese fans as the country's top lightweight fighter in 1999 and 2000 with his two wins over the previous king, pioneer submission ace Rumina Sato. Uno lost a close decision to Pulver, and he lost once and drew once with Penn right after the UFC introduced the lightweight division. And he was considered slightly past his peak then.
He was hurt early by Inoue and knocked down. Later in the first round, a right high kick turned his lights out instantly at the 4:18 mark. Inoue, like Cabral, noted he grew up idolizing the opponent he just defeated.
"Twelve years ago, I was a really big Shooto fan," said Inoue. "I watched the Rumina Sato vs. Caol Uno fight. After 12 years, when I was able to beat both Rumina Sato and Caol Uno, I want to thank my family and friends who supported me."
The other popular Japanese favorite on the show, Hideo Tokoro (30-24-1), lost a split decision to former WEC fighter and former Chuck Liddell roommate Antonio Banuelos (19-7) in a bantamweight match that was a part of a tournament that began on the show.
Because of his aggressive style, constantly going for submissions on his back, Tokoro had the reputation for years as being one of the world's most entertaining fighters. But his fight with Banuelos was not the exciting ground battle that people expected. It was mostly standing, and the first round was so bad that the referee at one point stopped it and warned both fighters about the lack of action. There was a flurry in the third round when Tokoro went for a Kimura and a kneebar while Baneulos landed punches, but that was really the only display of the old Tokoro.
In other first-round tournament matches, Brazil's Rodolfo Marques (14-1) won a decision over Russian Yusup Saadalaev (8-1-1); Masakazu Imanari (24-9-2) put on a submission clinic before finishing Abel Cullum (18-6) with an armbar at 0:46 of the third round; and tournament favorite Bibiano Fernandes (9-3) choked out Takafumi Otsuka (12-9-1) in just 41 seconds.
No dates have been announced for the tournament semifinals and finals.
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