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Looking at Japan in 2010

Alistair Overeem and Badr HariNew Year's Eve is the biggest day on the Japanese MMA and kickboxing calendar, and then the month of January is when the Japanese fight scene takes its biggest respite. So that makes now a good time to take a breath and consider what 2010 will bring in Japan.

Today I'm taking a look at Japan in 2010 with Michael Schiavello, the voice of K-1 and Japanese MMA on HDNet.

Michael David Smith
: Let's start with K-1. I think 2010 will be the year Badr Hari finally wins the K-1 World Grand Prix after losing in the final the last two years. What do you think? Is this going to be the year of Badr Hari?

Michael Schiavello: As you know, I am a massive Badr Hari fan, and there is nothing I would want more than to see the most exciting fighter on the planet win the K-1 Grand Prix. However I have to admit that having watched him take the runner-up position two years consecutive now, I can't help but to wonder if Badr is this generation's Jerome LeBanner. The way Badr fights is reminiscent of a young LeBanner who had a ferocious kill-or-be-killed style, combining raw power in every shot with a high level of technical ability. That is what made LeBanner K-1's most popular commodity and fans still cling to that old image of the rampaging LeBanner. The only problem is that LeBanner never captured the K-1 crown. The closest he came was in 2002 when he was about 90 seconds away from winning the title before Ernesto Hoost shattered his arm. While I think Badr Hari is the type of fighter who can produce miracles and set our hearts and imaginations on fire as fans, I can't help but to have that niggling thought in the back of my mind that he may be the modern day LeBanner. I hope not. Badr is young enough to dominate K-1 for many years to come and he has shown that he can beat Semmy Schilt. I guess this is part of the attraction of Badr too -- you just never know what's going to happen!

Michael David Smith
: I think that's exactly the attraction of Badr Hari -- fans like him because they feel like every time he steps into the ring just about anything can happen. A big part of the fun of K-1 is how unpredictable it is, but do your best to predict what we're going to see on the K-1 front: Overall, what do you think the big stories are going to be for K-1 in 2010? Which K-1 fighters are due for big years?

Michael Schiavello: I think 2010 will be a resurgence year for K-1. We'll see K-1 do some big things in Europe, such as the rumored four European shows including possibly a European Grand Prix in a major European city (I can't say which city just yet, but if the rumor comes true, it's a city K-1 hasn't been in yet and one that would be very exciting). Also I believe we'll see K-1 return to mainland USA this year, with at least one show but maybe as many as three, which is big in itself and has a lot to do with the enormous popularity K-1 has garnered on HDNet.

Michael David Smith
: I'd love to see K-1 do a card in the continental U.S. this year. I'm not sure what kind of crowd they'd draw in an American arena, but I think it would do big things for the sport in this country, and for HDNet.

Michael Schiavello: As far as individual fighters go, you can't look past the big three of Semmy Schilt, Badr Hari and Remy Bonjasky as the men to beat this year. Also let's not forget about Alistair Overeem. We keep hearing different reports that Alistair will continue fighting in K-1 and then that he won't continue in K-1. If he does continue he poses a major threat to everyone. I would look for his rivalry with Ray Sefo to come to a head this year and soon. They had "words" in Tokyo before Dynamite at their hotel and let me tell you, Ray is psyched to fight Alistair and Alistair says Ray is on his "hit list." I also think we'll see the further emergence of talent discovered in 2009 with Daniel Ghita and Hesdy Gerges being the two front-runners of the new generation fighters.

Michael David Smith: Dream and Sengoku operated as rival promotions throughout the year, and then they got together at Dynamite. I thought that arrangement worked pretty well, and it added some intrigue to Dynamite. Will we see the same in 2010?

Michael Schiavello: At this stage I don't believe we'll see any joint shows in 2010 however we may very well see a "reunion" of the two come Dynamite next New Year's Eve. I agree with you, I thought the New Year's Eve merger was a fantastic idea and extremely exciting for fans. The DREAM vs SENGOKU team challenge came down to the wire and ended in spectacular fashion with Aoki winning the challenge for Team Dream by breaking Hirota's arm. Sengoku have scheduled their first show of 2010 for March 7 in Tokyo and Dream is yet to release their schedule. As a fan I'd like to see the two organizations keep running instead of merging into one. I think this gives opportunities to more fighters, gives more events for fans and keeps both organizations on their toes. They could build rivalries and storylines as competing organizations throughout the year and then climax these storylines on NYE at Dynamite. Of course all this speculation relies on FEG as they are the power in this relationship.

Michael David Smith
: You mentioned Alistair Overeem. There's probably no fighter I've gotten more e-mails from fans about than Alistair Overeem: He's the Strikeforce heavyweight champion and he keeps saying he wants to defend his belt against Fedor Emelianenko, but he hasn't fought in the U.S. since 2007. What do you think we're going to see from Overeem in 2010? K-1 or MMA? US, Japan or the Netherlands?

Michael Schiavello: Yes, Alistair is a bit of a riddle, isn't he. The thing with Alistair is that he is an awesome fighter and an incredible physical specimen. I don't think anyone denies how talented a fighter he is but what frustrates is him not fighting top ranked competition in MMA. How can you not defend the Strikeforce title for two years? It's ridiculous and cheapens the title, which is a shame when that division includes such names as Fedor and Werdum and Bigfoot and Brett Rogers. I could speculate as to why Alistair hasn't fought in the USA for two years but I prefer not to. All I know is that Alistair versus Fedor would be insane and needs to happen. As for 2010 with Alistair, I think we'll definitely see him fight in Japan. I just hope the competition stiffens up a bit. His last two MMA fights were against James Thompson and Fujita, who are hardly top competition. It's frustrating seeing how much talent and size and aggression Alistair has and not seeing all those attributes get tested in his MMA career.

Michael David Smith: You're absolutely right about that: Overeem really, really needs to start taking on elite opposition in MMA, the way he has in K-1. One thing that frustrated me about Japan in 2009 is that most of the heavyweight MMA fights we saw were freak shows and mismatches. There were some great fights in Japan at the lighter weights, but all the great heavyweight action was in the American promotions. Speaking of American promotions, Strikeforce has said it might do a show in Japan in 2010. Do you think Japanese fans would show up to a card staged by an American promotion?

Michael Schiavello: I don't think it's easy for anyone to do a show in Japan unless you're working in with FEG. They're the big power in Japan. They hold all the aces in their pockets with television, marketing, the best fighters, venues, etc. Scott Coker is a smart cookie and has tremendous experience with the Japanese market from his many years working with K-1. A Strikeforce show in Japan done with the blessing and partial assistance of FEG could be successful depending on which fighters were utilized. The key to capturing the Japanese fans is using Japanese fighters, not American fighters. Strikeforce and FEG have a working relationship which I believe is very healthy. My dream scenario would be for a joint Strikeforce/Dream series doing one show a piece in the USA and in Japan, not unlike Dynamite was a DREAM/Sengoku series.