On Thursday word came down that DREAM has added 4 new matches to their Dream 9 lineup. These aren't just any matches, they are part of the "Super Hulk Tournament" or "World Superman Championship" or "Super Freakshow Tournament." While I made the last one up, that is exactly what this tournament is...and I love it.
This is billed as an Open-Weight Tournament, and that is pretty accurate. You've got Gegard Mousasi who is moving up from Middleweight, Sokodjou a natural Light Heavyweight and Ikuhisa Minowa who usually fights around Middleweight and probably could make the cut to 170. On the heavier side of things, you have Mark Hunt, Bob Sapp and others. However, this is actually not a new concept.
Back in the tournament days of the UFC, the UFC had a tournament very much like it. It was UFC 8 in Puerto Rico and was billed as "David vs. Goliath" featuring 4 first round matches with one opponent being considerably larger than the other. This was the UFC debut of Don "The Predator" Frye, who won the tournament besting a Goliath, Gary Goodridge. However, what sticks out for me at this event was not the final, but the first round encounter between Scott Ferrozzo and Jerry Bohlander. Ferrozzo was an absolute tank of a man, short and stocky and outweighed Bohlander by at least 100 pounds. However, the scrappy Bohlander managed to tire out his larger opponent and get the submission before losing to the aforementioned Goodridge in the semi-finals.
And I think the matchmaker did indeed channel the spirit of UFC 8 as these matchups do fit the bill of a "David vs. Goliath" event. Minowa (David) takes on Sapp (Goliath), Mousasi (David) will battle Hunt (Goliath), Sokodjou (David compared to this guy) squares off against Jan Nortje (Goliath) and of course, the real freakshow fight of the night...Hong Man Choi (The biggest Goliath of all), most recently seen getting his knee shattered by Mirko Cro Cop battles against your favorite juicer...Jose Canseco (No matter how big he is, he is David in this bout). Yes, that Jose Canseco. As of this writing, Canseco's status has been downgraded from "Confirmed" to "Probable." I could write a whole article on Canseco in this event, but let me make some quick points.
1. If Canseco does fight, there is a decent chance he will get seriously injured. Choi, the "Goliath" in this matchup has experience in both MMA and K-1, and should absolutely handle the man who couldn't even defeat Danny Bonaduce in a boxing match.
2. I have no idea how the drug testing works in Japan these days. Many have discussed how PRIDE was lax in their testing for performance enhancing drugs, so do you really want a known juicer fighting in a somewhat unregulated organization. Someone is bound to make this an issue.
3. However, I think this is great. I want Canseco to fight. This is going to get publicity on ESPN, and that means pub for DREAM. Right now, the casual to somewhat knowledgeable MMA fan knows the UFC, maybe the WEC, maybe Strikeforce...and that is it. Having some pub for Japanese MMA could really help things over there, as the MMA scene is not what it was in PRIDE's heyday. You know what they say, any publicity is good publicity.
Off the cuff, I like Sapp, Hunt, Sokodjou and Choi to advance. While Mousasi is very talented, I think he has something of a little man's complex. This will be his first fight since making the jump up from MW, and while Mark Hunt has been up and down in his MMA career, this is a stiff test for the current and soon to be former DREAM MW champion. Hunt is incredibly athletic for a man his size, and if he connects with Mousasi, it will be night night Gegard. If my predicted winners came to form, I could see DREAM going with Sapp v. Sokodjou and Hunt v. Choi as Semi-Finals. We shall see.
The new of this tournament probably leaves many of you scratching your heads. I mean, DREAM will be hosting the second round of their Featherweight GP that night, is hosting a Welterweight GP as well and is crowning a new MW champion...so why this? Because in the bitter end, this is what Japanese MMA is all about. It is about freakshow fights, because that is what Japanese fans love to see. Why do they love seeing these fights? That is easy...because of their love of pro wrestling, known in Japan as "puroresu."
Pro wrestling and MMA in Japan are as intertwined as you can be. In fact, it was pro wrestling that gave birth to Japanese MMA. Look at your more popular organizations:
-Shooto was formed in 1985 by Satoru Sayama, who was a Japanese pro wrestler who wrestled under the name "Tiger Mask".
-RINGS was formed by legendary Japanese pro wrestler, Akira Maeda in 1991 from the remnants of a pro wrestling organization known as the UWF.
-Pancrase was founded in 1993 by, you guessed it, Japanese pro wrestlers Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. Pancrase's early years featured rules more in tune with pro wrestling as well as some shady results, but became more in line with traditional MMA in the late 90s.
And of course, there is PRIDE. What was PRIDE's first main event? It featured Rickson Gracie submitting Nobuhiko Takada, who was and still is a very popular pro wrestler in Japan and owns the pro wrestling organization known as HUSTLE. This main event was so successful and drew such good ratings that KRS (then parent company of PRIDE) began producing more events and moving into pay per view. I mean, this main event was so popular, they staged it again at Pride 4. Takada was helpless against Gracie, getting submitted in under five minutes the first time...so what person with good sense wanted to see this again? Apparently millions of Japanese fans. A rumored bout between Gracie and Maeda was much talked about, but PRIDE held this event instead. Maeda would face Aleksandr Karelin in his final bout. Karelin, for the saavy fan, is most famous for having his 13 year, 3 consecutive gold medal streak stopped by Rulon Gardner, who would later compete in a freakshow match against Hidehiko Yoshida at Shockwave 2004.
Takada proved to be so popular that after losing to Kiyoshi Tamura in his retirement, he became either "Executive" or "General" Director of PRIDE...often sporting nothing more than an extra-large diaper and banging on even larger drums to kick off certain PRIDE shows. Takada would make speeches after the matches and present championship belts...all under the guise that he was in charge of PRIDE, when in fact he was nothing more than a figurehead. Dream Stage Entertainment CEO Nobuyuki Sakikbara was the real man in charge, and while seen at PRIDE events, did not have nearly the popularity that Takada did.
The problem that the pro wrestling influence had on Japanese MMA is that while many of the aforementioned MMA founders wanted to get away from scripted matches, that did not always happen. Early Pancrase isn't even considered true MMA to some, partly because of its rule-set but also because it is heavily believed that some matches were fixed. In addition, Takada's victory over Mark Coleman is generally regarded as a worked fight. Coleman, while he had fallen off his UFC level at the time, still should have mauled Takada. In fact, he was beating him, until he happened to "get caught" in a Takada leglock.
Funaki, Suzuki, Tamura, Takada, Kazushi Sakuraba...all incredibly popular and have historically been huge ratings draws. Ken Shamrock, Goodridge, Coleman, Frye and yes, even Quinton Jackson...all popular in Japan, and all have wrestled professionally for different Japanese organizations. Who can forget Antonio Inoki (former figurehead of PRIDE before having a falling out with DSE) taking on Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant and Ric Flair. (Note: Inoki faced Flair only once, at the conclusion of a two day event held by the governments of Japan and Korea to promote peace. The two day event drew almost 350,000 people). Who can forget maybe the ultimate freakshow fight...Inoki v. Ali in 1976 which saw Inoki lay on his back for 15 rounds and kick repeatedly at Ali's legs after rules for the bout kept getting changed.
Want to know how immensely popular freakshow fights are in Japan? Check out these stats...
-Bob Sapp defeated sumo wrestler Akebono and drew 54 MILLION viewers and a 42.5 share, the highest amount of viewers since the previously mentioned Inoki/Ali fight.
-Cyril Abidi is stunningly upset by Bobby Ologun and draws a 28.1 rating. Abidi is a decent kickboxer who is heavily favored over the debuting Ologun. Why is this so popular? Because Ologun is a COMEDIAN who was popular in Japan. Check out his fightfinder record and you will see he fought only on New Year's Eve (the biggest night for MMA in Japan) for four consecutive years (including his awful victory over Akebono the following year which draw a 25.8).
-The previously mentioned Yoshida/Gardner fight drew a 25.9 rating.
-Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett defeats Ken Kaneko at Shockwave 2005 to the tune of 27.7 rating. Kaneko of course is a famous actor making his debut.
-Also on the same Shockwave card was the "epic" re-match of Yoshida and Naoya Ogawa. (Note: Ogawa of course was and still is a professional wrestler, most famous for not usually appearing in the parade of fighters to open a show, for getting housed by Fedor Emelianenko and for defeating Dan Severn...and ending Severn's 4 year reign as NWA Heavyweight Champion...and yes, the NWA is a pro wrestling organization.) Yoshida and Ogawa had fought in Judo with Yoshida besting him there. Now, as the main event of Shockwave 2005 (Note: On the American telecast and DVD, the bout order was changed to show this as a mid-card fight when it in fact was the main event in Japan over CroCop/Hunt, Silva/Arona II and the crownings of a new MW and LW champions...see what I mean?) it drew a "disappointing" 25.5 ratings. Why is this "disappointing"? Because Ogawa demanded $2 million to fight Yoshida, knowing he had no chance of winning. Yoshida demanded the same amount of money, and at that point it was the richest purse ever for an MMA fight. Yoshida tapped out Ogawa with a choke, but not before breaking Ogawa's ankle with a lock that Ogawa refused to tap to.
You get the point...and for those of you who don't understand ratings and shares, put it this way...the fights which top the American list of most-watched ever (Kimbo/James Thompson, Jackson/Dan Henderson and Tito Ortiz/Shamrock III) don't even come close to the top ten in Japan. I mean, look at what we already saw this week...Fedor v. Shinya Aoki in an exhibition grappling match...I mean seriously?
The goal here was to give you fans a little insight into Japanese MMA and delve into why FEG is staging this tournament. The Japanese love their nonsensical matchups, and for that I love them. Between that and their fascination with pro wrestling and its undeniable impact on MMA, this makes complete sense. In addition, Sapp has always been a huge ratings draw in Japan, and with Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto on the card, you have two of, if not the biggest draws in Japanese MMA right now. The Japanese fans will come out for this, I assure you. Not to mention, the card was already stacked. You've got the quarterfinals of the FWGP including Kid making his return to MMA after a long layoff....a tremendous re-match for the MW title with Jason Miller taking on Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and a #1 contender's match for the lightweight title with Gesias "JZ" Calvancante battling Tatsuya Kawajiri. That fight could be the best and most anticipated lightweight fight of the year, beyond even BJ Penn v. Kenny Florian.
Overall, the card is stacked. It is the first Prime-Time event for DREAM this year, and will be broadcast live on HD-Net here in the states...so you know its big because HD-Net usually runs a multi-day tape delay for DREAM events. Bottom line is...you should have been checking this event out before, but you definitely need to check it out now.
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