There was a time when a Wanderlei Silva-headlined MMA card at Saitama Super Arena would have been earth shattering news. Today, most fans are probably still talking about Ronda Rousey.
Oh how times have changed.
I’ve written about the excellent cards the UFC has planned for Fuel TV, of which this is certainly one. Yes, Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann isn’t a world title fight. Or a number one contenders bout. Hell, neither of these guys is really “in the mix” for a title shot. But so what? Sometimes, a fight is interesting for the nostalgia, as well as the guarantee of a good time.
Cards like UFC 100, or more recently UFC 156, are like Academy Award-winning films. They’re the blockbusters everybody’s seen, filled with the big name stars we all love. Cards like last weekend’s Rousey vs. Carmouche are the equivalent of a movie like “Avatar”, which draws people in by enticing them with something new and interesting. As well as blue alien babes. Can’t forget that.
But tonight’s Silva vs. Stann card? That’s the MMA equivalent of something like “Starship Troopers”. It stars no one really famous (except NPH, or course) and really, honestly isn’t a very good movie. But you loved it as a kid, and you know exactly what you’re getting into when you watch it. And I’ll be damned if Micheal Ironside’s epic utterance of “They sucked his brains out!” isn’t the greatest line in film history.
Point is: tonight’s card is simple, nostalgic fun, headlined by a fight that, in all likelihood, is going to end dramatically. Let’s break it down, shall we?
Dong Hyun Kim vs. Siyar Bahadurzada
The show opens with a very interesting – and truly international – clash, as top Korean welterweight prospect Dong Hyun Kim takes on Afghanistan’s Siyar Bahadurzada.
By all rights, we should be talking about Dong “Stun Gun” Kim as a top welterweight contender and possible challenger to Georges St. Pierre. Instead, Dong is still on the outside of the top five looking in, mostly thanks to some bad luck.
He has two losses to two top-ranked welterweights in the last couple years. One was to Carlos Condit, who stunned Kim with a flying knee in the opening round. The other was to Demian Maia, after Kim suffered a flukey rib injury just seconds into the fight.
Really, the loss to Condit is the only legitimate defeat of Kim’s career (he lost a decision to Karo Pariysian in 2009 that was overturned when Pariysian tested positive for banned pain killers). In his last fight, Kim absolutely dominated Paulo Thiago, easily handling the BJJ black belt on the ground. He showed the kind of stifling control on the ground that’s been a hallmark of his UFC career.
Look at the fights he’s won convincingly. Against accomplished grapplers, like a Nate Diaz, he outmuscles and outworks with an efficient, grinding style. Against guys not as accomplished on the ground – such as, say, Amir Sadollah – well, they get ridden like a pony around the ring for 15 minutes.
It’ll be interesting to see how he stacks up, then, against Siyah Bahadurzada, a fighter who has spent much of his career flying under the radar. He’s a veteran of Japan’s Shooto and Sengoku promotions, so he’s a natural fit for this card. And that whole “flying under the radar” thing came to a crashing halt in his last fight, when he faced common opponent Paulo Thiago. Siyar knocked him cold in under a minute.
And that gives you pretty much all you need to know about this fight. Can Bahadurzada find a way to use his blistering power and speed Carlos Condit-style, and catch Kim with something heavy? Or will Kim’s stifling control see him through once again?
I’m excited for this fight, and I think both guys have a bright future in the UFC – but I think Kim’s doggedness and overall grappling ability will see him through in this one.
Dong Hyun Kim via Decision.
Mizuto Hirota vs. Rani Yanha
There’s at least one fight on every card that makes you scratch your head and go “huh?”
Butt he more I think about it, the more I like this matchup, which pairs a very accomplished submission grappler in Yanha against a true veteran of the Japanese MMA scene in Hirota.
Hirota’s resume reads like a laundry list of recent Japanese MMA promotions. He’s competed in Shooto, Sengoku (where he was lightweight champion), and DEEP (where he was also lightweight champion). He may be most known for his fight against Shinya Aoki on the New Years Eve mage-card Dynamite!! (yes, it has two exclamation points). Aoki infamously broke Hirota’s arm with a brutal hammerlock in that fight.
Then, even more infamously, Aoki flipped him off like a jerk after he’d already snapped his arm.
Not exactly either guys finest moment.
He’ll have his submission defence tested once again against Yanha, a well-known veteran of the submission grappling scene. Yanha won gold at the 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club submission grappling tournament, which is considered to be the most prestigious no-gi grappling event in the world. He has 17 wins in his MMA career, with 15 of them coming by submission – including guys like Eddie Wineland and Mark Hominick. So it’s safe to say he’s a very real threat on the ground.
We hear about fighters getting “Octagon jitters” for their UFC debut, but I don’t think that will be the case with Hirota. He has too much history, too much big fight experience, to be rattled here. And he’s only ever been tapped by Aoki, who’s as legit a grappler as they come.
Still, I’m going to say Rani Yanha by submission. Like Joe Rogan, I’m a sucker for truly elite BJJ players doing well in MMA. It just feels right in a Royce Gracie-sort of way.
Rani Yanha via Submission
Yushin Okami vs. Hector Lombard
This is one of those fights that makes so much sense, you almost think the fight made itself, rather than got booked as usual. This is a fight of two absolutely top-flight middleweights, to see who gets to stay in the title picture, and who’s got to go.
Hector Lombard raised a lot of eyebrows (ok, maybe just mine) when he revealed that he was afraid he might be cut after this fight – because a Yushin Okami fight would be “too boring”. That’s because Okami, like Dong Hyun Kim, has a reputation as something of a grinder. He was an absolutely dominant, controlling grappler during his initial ascent up the middleweight rankings.
Then he met Chael Sonnen, the king of the grinding wrestling game, and he learned a harsh lesson.
So he started training with Sonnen, which as you can imagine has improved his overall wrestling a teensy bit. More than a teensy bit.
But anyone who thinks Okami is nothing but a grinder hasn’t been paying attention to his recent fights. Against Lucio Linhares, Tim Boetsch, and Buddy Roberts, Okami was a striker as much as he was a wrestler – if not moreso. He might not be the hardest hitter, but he’s technical and he usually strikes with volume. He also is such a hard worker that he can wear just about anyone down with his work rate and pace.
Okami and his opponent, Hector Lombard, both have Tim Boetsch in common as an opponent. I bring it up because both men really “should” have beaten him. Okami had everything going his way until Boetsch roared back in the final round. And Lombard’s fight with Boetsch was a disappointment for either guy. Lombard just found a way to be the more disappointing of the two.
That also happened to be Lombard’s UFC debut, so that loss set him back a long way from the heavy-handed killer he had been coming over from Bellator. Luckily for Lombard, he righted his ship in his last fight with a stunning KO over Rousimar Palhares. I was excited for that fight because I wanted to see how Lombard’s Judo black belt (which we haven’t seen used a whole lot in MMA) would serve him against a BJJ ace like Palhares.
I guess this will have to be the fight to answer that question. Both these guys are pretty accomplished judo players, quite apart from being accomplished MMA fighters. This one’s tough to call. At the end of the day, I see Okami’s pace, tenacity, and gas tank carrying him past a tiring Lombard. Plus it’s Japan, so I got to make the sentimental pick.
Yushin Okami via Decision
Takanori Gomi vs. Diego Sanchez
This one’s an interesting contrast of styles, featuring two guys who are both trying to fight the perception that they’re past their moment.
What a rollercoaster ride Diego Sanchez has had over the last few years. A great run at lightweight ended in a decisive loss to BJ Penn, and a return to welterweight ended in disaster against a then-unknown John Hathaway. Then came the admission of drug addiction, the change of camps back to Greg Jackson, and a series of controversial fights at 170-pounds.
Diego’s last two fights (a victory over Martin Kampmann, and a loss to Jake Ellenberger) were both controversial decisions that ended with Diego’s face looking like a car had backed over it. They also proved, however, that Diego is one tough SOB, and that he doesn’t wear down as the fight drags on. He also doesn’t seem to care if you turn his face into hamburger meat.
Takanori Gomi has undergone a similar stretch of up and down the last couple of years. The former #1 lightweight in the world is 3-3 since coming to the UFC, with all three of those losses coming via submission.
But he’s also shown the one-hit KO power that used to be his calling card, most notably by absolutely flooring Tyson Griffin. He’s also riding a two-fight winning streak, with both those wins coming in UFC events in Japan and Macau, China, respectively. It’s clear the UFC wants to capitalize on any star power “The Fireball Kid” still has in the Orient, while hoping to build him up into a name stateside.
I want to say Gomi in this one. He has the knockout power to take advantage of Diego’s sometimes stiff, robotic stand-up. Diego’s last two fights have shown that he clearly doesn’t mind getting hit. That attitude could cost him against Gomi.
But we’ve seen too many examples in recent years of Gomi looking lethargic and unmotivated in fights. If he takes his foot off the gas in this one, a cardio machine like Diego should outwork him en route to a decision.
Diego Sanchez via Decision
Stefan Struve vs. Mark Hunt
It wouldn’t be a Japanese MMA card without a ridiculous heavyweight fight on the docket.
There was a time when Mark Hunt was all but done in this sport. He had lost in his UFC debut, and his win over Chris Tuchscherer was his first victory in half a decade. Since that win, however, Hunt has gone on a pretty impressive streak, beating perennial top heavyweights Ben Rothwell and Cheick Kongo back to back.
Now, the New Zealander finds himself as the most unlikely heavyweight contender in the UFC. Watching his career resurgence has been great fun, not just because of his past in PRIDE, but because of what the future could hold. Hunt is a K-1 kickboxer with a (nearly) unbreakable chin. Now that he finally seems to be applying himself to his MMA career 100%, the best days could yet be in store for the Kiwi.
If Hunt represents the heavyweight division’s past, then Stefan Struve is without a doubt it’s future. Standing just over seven feet all, Struve is the tallest fighter on the UFC’s roster. He’s also riding an impressive four fight winning streak, with all of those wins coming by stoppage, rather than decision.
Conventional wisdom says the young lion takes this one. What gives me pause is the many examples we have seen of Struve getting knocked absolutely silly by smaller, harder hitting guys. Struve is excellent at using his length on the mat, but it seems to me he isn’t quite as good at using his incredible reach on the feet. Too often, he lets smaller guys – like Travis Browne, or Roy Nelson – get inside and blast him with huge shots, which his chin just cannot hold up to.
For purely nostalgia’s sake, I’m picking Hunt in this one. I’m hoping he gets another statement win, energizes a Japanese crowd that still loves it’s heroes, and continues to surprise the heavyweight division that once had forgotten about him.
Mark Hunt via (T)KO
Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann
Sometimes, the only answer to the question of “Why is this fight happening?” is “Cause why the heck not?”.
Wanderlei Silva vs. Brian Stann is an unabashed “just for fun” fight, so it makes perfect sense for a headliner of a Japanese MMA card. These are the fans who once made Bob Sapp the biggest MMA star on the planet, after all. Japanese fans love guys who display true warrior spirit in their fights, so there’s no doubt they’ll love either guy in this main event.
Wanderlei Silva is an icon of Japanese MMA. His appearance atop this card is a fitting tribute to his amazing legacy as one of the greatest of all time. Unfortunately, past accolades only follow you to the cage – they don’t actually step inside there with you and help you win. And Wanderlei’s recent UFC run hasn’t been anything to equal his amazing conquest of the PRIDE organization. In fact, he hasn’t strung two wins together since coming back to the UFC.
Plus there’s the whole “he looks like Joan Rivers from the neck up” thing (thanks to plastic surgery to repair all his facial scar tissue) and it’s tough to escape the feeling that this headlining fight is his retirement tour.
If it’s a favourable matchup he’s after, then he’s got one in former U.S. Marine Brian Stann. Stann is an extremely heavy-handed slugger with good overall boxing skills and poise. In all likelihood, Stann will look to contend the fight on the feet, which is exactly where Wanderlei wants to keep it.
Look, I’d love to say Wanderlei is going to shock the world and upset Stann in this one. I’d love to say that in front of the Japanese crowd where he made his name, in the Saitama Super arena where he headlined so many cards, “The Axe Murderer” pulls it off one more time.
But I just cannt do that. Stann is too young (in terms of ring years, at least), too hungry, and too well-rounded for Silva to overcome att his stage of his career. His Greg Jackson training will give him the preperation and versatility to dictate the fight no matter where it goes, and his quicker, more technical hands will find Silva’s increasingly suspect chin at some point.
The retirement tour ends here, and the former Marine shuts off Silva’s lights and leaves PRIDE-ophiles everywhere on suicide watch.
Brian Stann via (T)KO