“The Last Emperor” and “Rampage” are coming home.
It’s been a lifetime since Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton Jackson emerged as superstars in Japan’s hallowed PRIDE Fighting Championships, though the two have made the occasional return to the country. It was in Saitama that Emelianenko ended a three-year retirement to defeat Jaideep Singh at a 2015 RIZIN show, and also where Jackson fought Ryan Bader at UFC 144 in 2012, which would be one of his last appearances for that promotion.
Now under the Bellator banner, the two former champions headline a joint Bellator-RIZIN show that looks to be both rich in nostalgia and also a chance for some of the promotion’s best to get their long-awaiated taste of JMMA glory.
Three-time Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler competes in Japan for the first time, as do welterweight contenders Lorenz Larkin and Michael “Venom” Page. The main card also features Ilara Joanne facing the undefeated Kana Watanabe, and what should be a thrilling contrast of styles as Goiti Yamauchi meets Daron Cruickshank in a lightweight bout.
What: Bellator 237
Where: Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan
When: Saturday, Dec. 28. The six-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET on Paramount Network and the DAZN streaming service, with postliminaries taking place after the main event (North American broadcast information pending).
This was probably more of a dream match 15 years ago, but better late than never, right?
Neither Fedor Emelianenko nor Quinton “Rampage” Jackson have any illusions about chasing major championships anymore, and if their goal is to simply seek fun fights on big stages, they’d be hard-pressed to do better than a main event spot against one another at Saitama Super Arena. This is the kind of fight that North American fans might scoff at, but that Japanese fans will appreciate for what it is: another chance to see two legends shine in the twilight of their careers.
As for who will shine brighter, I’m leaning towards the younger Jackson, who at a spry 41 years old has a little more left in the tank than Emelianenko, 43. Emelianenko actually hasn’t fared too badly since joining Bellator with wins over Chael Sonnen and Frank Mir, but his losses to Ryan Bader and Matt Mitrione tell us everything we need to know. He can’t deal with quicker fighters anymore, especially when they have power in their hands, and while Jackson isn’t exactly flowing like a flyweight these days, he still has the kind of hand speed that will give Emelianenko problems.
It’s unclear if Emelianenko’s grappling—which could be Jackson’s foil—is up to par. It’s been a long time since Emelianenko has showed off the ground skills that made him one of the most feared submission artists of his day and hey may not have the capability nor the will anymore to battle through Jackson’s stout takedown defense. This will likely be a stand-up affair with Emelianenko looking to give his Japanese fans one more highlight to savor.
They’ll get one, he’s just going to be on the wrong end of it.
Michael Chandler vs. Sidney Outlaw
Michael Chandler should be wary here as Sidney Outlaw is a live underdog. He’s stepping in for an injured Benson Henderson and will present Chandler with an entirely different puzzle to solve.
Fortunately for Chandler, Outlaw’s greatest strength is one that he has dealt with on countless occasions. Wrestlers simply don’t fare well against Chandler. He’s an absolute stump when it comes to takedown defense and while Outlaw will be wise to push the pace and tire Chandler out, he’s going to have to get past Chandler’s power punches to do it and there’s only so much he’ll be able to take before wilting.
I’m predicting a first-round knockout for Chandler as he spoils Outlaw’s Cinderalla hopes and sets himself up for a bounce-back in 2020.
In his 16-year MMA career, Keita Nakamura has seen it all. He’s well-rounded with an emphasis on grappling and he’s also tough to finish. This is not just a showcase fight for Lorenz Larkin, who will have to be at his sharpest to avoid being dragged into Nakamura’s world.
The question is whether Nakamura has enough offense to really trouble Larkin and take a decision, as there’s a good chance this one goes the distance. Even if he takes Larkin down, keeping him on the mat is a major challenge and when they’re not tied up, it will be Larkin who is doing the damage in the striking exchanges. He’s quick and has great footwork, so as long as he sticks with his game plan, he’ll be in the driver’s seat.
Larkin by decision.
This is some great matchmaking pitting two aggressive flyweights against one another, the hard-hitting Ilara Joanne and the submission-minded Kana Watanabe. Neither will be looking to take a step back in the early going, nor are they going to play things safe if they think there’s a chance to finish. Watanabe is an aggressive guard passer on the ground and Joanne’s stand-up occasionally shows flashes of vintage Wanderlei Silva, which should endear her to the Japanese crowd.
I actually like Watanabe’s chances to get Joanne to the ground, where she can neutralize the Brazilian’s potent punches. Joanne, just 25 years old, is rapidly improving when it comes to her patience and cardio, but Watanabe’s grappling is going to give her a headache. As long as she can avoid the flurries of Joanne and times her takedowns properly, this is Watanabe’s fight to lose.
There’s no kind way of putting it: Daron Cruickshank has always struggled with grapplers and they’ve matched him up with one of Bellator’s best here. Goiti Yamauchi has 19 career submission victories, Cruickshank has suffered seven of his 12 losses by submission. The math is not in Cruickshank’s favor.
As long as this one is on the feet though, Cruickshank has a chance of landing a spectacular strike. “The Detroit Superstar” will throw anything at any time and he’s produced some of RIZIN’s best highlights over the last few years. It is by no means out of the question that Cruickshank knocks Yamauchi out. If Yamauchi isn’t careful, he’ll find himself going viral overnight.
On the ground though, the gap between the two is enormous and Cruickshank won’t last long down there if he can’t stay off his back. It will be elementary if Yamauchi gets his hooks in, with a rear-naked choke all but guaranteed in that scenario.
This should be fun while it lasts, but Yamauchi should impose his will on this matchup and snag submission No. 20.
Michael Page vs. Shinsho Anzai
Shinsho Anzai has no chance.
Okay, this is MMA, so saying anyone has no chance is not only disrespectful, it’s also foolish as the list of epic upsets in fighting is a long one and nobody, not even Michael Page is above the whims of the often cruel MMA Gods. And how merry they would be having “MVP” slip on the proverbial oil slick in his first-ever appearance in Japan.
Still, let’s not overthink this. Anzai is a strong wrestler with a hard head, but he’s also a target, which is to say he’s the kind of opponent that Page has built his career on. Page will be wary of Anzai’s takedown game and adjust his style accordingly, eschewing his kicks to focus on using his considerable reach advantage to box Anzai to bits. If Anzai dares to get wild and fire back, he’ll play right into Page’s hands.
Page has yet to meet a wrestler who can assert themselves against him and after Saturday that will still be true.