Back in November 2011, I wrote about MMA hype in Asia growing to a crescendo. DREAM confirmed a New Years Eve show under sponsors FeILDS and IGF and started releasing fights on the card. As if in an effort to try and trump the Japanese promotion, the UFC confirmed a return to Japan in February and released its own card, stacked with almost every Asian on the promotion's roster. ONE FC finally announced its schedule of events in Southeast Asia for 2012, and then dropped a bomb to counter the UFC news: a fighter-sharing agreement and a co-sponsored promotion in Singapore with DREAM.
The fight cards on both promotions seemed to read like a who's-who of JMMA. Both positive and negative assessments were made regarding both cards (I wrote an analysis of the UFC's here). When faced with the decision of traveling to Japan to see which fight, for me, DREAM totally captivated my interest. The previews they produced for the bantam-, feather- and lightweight matches had me on the edge of my seat screaming at the computer, my neighbors banging on the walls for me to keep it down. And then came the final cog in the machine that set my DREAM trip into motion:
Evolve MMA's head honcho would realize his mistake ("Oh, that's not MMA Japan ") and rescind the invitation!
And now, PART 1 - Before the Fight! PART 2: Fight Day will be posted in a few days.
Please allow me the guilty pleasure of slipping into fan mode for the remainder of this article. This event was just too exciting for me personally to be able to share it in a purely informational context. There may be moments of clarity in which I assess certain things objectively, but for the most part, I was a "full-on MMA fanatic" for the entire course of events.
Arrival to Tokyo.
On December 29th, I awoke at the hellish hour of 5am in order to make an 8am flight. I am NOT one of those people who do the morning session on the mats and then post pictures of it on Facebook to make everyone else feel inadequate. As I checked in and was handed my boarding pass, the nice USA Delta agent politely informed me that my flight was delayed. Okay, no problem, how long? Seven hours delay. Okay, problem. I went back home (and yes, back to sleep), and began to feel sorry for myself. I'd asked Chatri if I could have the chance to watch Shinya Aoki's final workout before the fight, and he'd given me the time and place - Shinya's DEEP Impact official DREAM gym! Epic stuff goes on at that gym. If I had made the 8am flight, I would have been able to make the last session. Later, my disappointment was compounded when friends told me that Bibiano, Chonan and a few other fighters were also on hand. Woe was me!
This was also my first time meeting Evolve MMA Founder Yodchatri Sityodtong in person as well. We'd both been at the mammoth Sheik-sponsored Art Of War events in China, yet never crossed paths. And because of that, I felt especially honored and compelled to take up Chatri's kind invitation to attend DREAM. It was very motivating to hear how he first developed and instituted the concept for Evolve MMA, and the story he told me deserves an article all by itself. Stay tuned! Suffice to say that he defied the belief of his friends and colleagues when his budo brainchild was born. Chatri was most quick to say the success of Evolve has been determined by his coaches; however I give him the most credit for being not only an excellent entrepreneurial visionary, but a highly supportive and motivational coach in his own right.
Meeting Muay Thai legends Orono and Namsaknoi was a real treat as well. As is typical of the lovely Thai culture, they were so polite and cheerful. Their whirlwind week included training at some of the Thai boxing gyms in Tokyo, and thereby leaving a huge mark on the Japanese scene and earning utmost respect. This was probably the first taste that Shinya's compatriots got of what his training in Singapore is like. A funny incident of note: apparently the restrooms were decorated the same as the restaurant, with low lighting, full windows, and deceptive partitions. Orono said that while visiting, there was a Japanese man who couldn't find his way out, and Nansaknoi showed him by saying "Follow me, sir." Chatri joked that he'd just lost a coach to the Peninsula; Namsaknoi is now a professional bathroom concierge!
Shinagawa Prince. Back in the day, it was home away from home for people like Bob Sapp, although since I could almost touch the ceilings I felt it humorous to imagine him making his way down one of the corridors. It must have looked like a rugby tackle in a row of lockers! When PRIDE was in its hayday, this was the defacto fighters' quarters. And for reasons only known to those revelers back in the day, PRIDE was finally kicked out.
Day two: Weigh ins and rules meeting.
I am a good map reader. No, I am a spectacular map reader. I have led troves of friends and family through territories unknown with just a little bit of advanced study and a tourist map. Armed with a train map, a street map, GPS, and a Japanese language reference book, I set out on the 20 minute trip to the Shinjuku hotel where the weigh ins were being held. To provide a cushion for unforeseen delays, I left my hotel around 11am - a full 2 hours before the start. I arrived at Shinjuku station, and... whoa. Tokyo train stations = my kryptonite. They are incredibly efficient and incredibly confusing. I became a little disoriented when I couldn't find the proper exit on my map, so decided to follow the exit most obviously labeled "South East" since the hotel was to the south west. The "South East" exit is indeed to the east. However, it is also in the north.
As I walked through the clean and flashy streets of Shinjuku, my superior internal GPS became dulled by, well, the niceness of it all. There was some guy rapping on a microphone and handing out coupons - nicely. There were smiling waiters bowing and handing out coupons. There were telephone service salesmen saying "excuse me", bowing, smiling, and handing out coupons. I'm from Hong Kong - I thought coupon passer-outers were supposed to give you body checks and paper cuts. Just wow, Japan, you are so nice! But with all that respect for personal space, it makes mental practice of throws, take downs, rib shots, and elbows in crowds a lot more difficult.
An hour later - after doubling back, around, and over the station to some 'sky terrace' level - I picked some stairs back to street level and miraculously stumbled upon the hotel. It was fifteen minutes after after the 1pm weigh ins start and they were PROMPT. I found the conference room with the Japanese-only "Genki Desu Ka!" signage on it, and proceeded to the only open door. And right inside the door was a seated Masakazu Imanari. I did what any fan would do: I freaked out and ran the other way. Now, I've been to plenty of weigh ins and fighter meetings, what was wrong with me? Well, seeing Imanari RIGHT THERE was like a movie come to life. I also thought he must be sitting at the front of the room, like other presser putures I've seen. So I finally chose Door Number Two for minimal embarrassment. Turns out he was all the way in the back!
Ryo Chonan and Hayato Sakurai were weighing in. Chonan looked like a tough nutjob with those insane eyes, and Sakurai was grinning and laughing. Next up were the kickboxers: 2011 K-1 -63 champ Yuta Kubo versus the newly-signed 2009 K-1 WTKA champ Nils Widlund; K-1 youth fighter Kengo Sonoda versus Krush Youth GP winner Masaaki Noiri and his team of cornermen pimped out in gold-emblazoned Lonsdale white track suits. Then came the bantamweight finalists: Bibiano as smooth and unruffled as ever versus a Rodolfo Diniz looking like he wanted to share a sandwich; a stoic Imanari versus cocky Banuelos, fist raised, seeming to want to make the point that he was going for a KO. The last staredown I caught was a rather unemotional one between Yusup Saadulaev and Hideo Tokoro for the bantamweight reserve bout. You can see the complete event album on my Facebook. The much better professional DREAM official weigh in photos are on the official website.
After the weigh ins and before the rules meeting with Matt Hume and Yuji Shimada, DREAM owner Hiroyuki Kato gave a speech of encouragement to the fighters. Here's a simple translation of what I jotted down:
"For Fedor and Ishii: I was on the founding board of PRIDE and I've been in contact with Fedor since then. We've finally got him back to Japan. I've known Ishii for a long time. He's been training overseas and fighting tough opponents. I hope Mr Ishii will show a fight worthy of a main event tomorrow.
"The Japanese MMA environment is very difficult right now. But we are not ready to tap out. Just like the fighters: if you win, you still train, and it's the same if you lose. Just like you, we will not give up. I hope New Years Eve will be the opening for a great new year. Before the bell rings tomorrow, we will have done all the work, have done everything for you. After the bell rings, it's all up to you. Give fans all over the world courage."
Crusher - hung around for a bit.
Then I sat down to watch the parade of over-enthusiastic fanboys twitching every time the elevator opened. I watched as an unnamed reporter began trying to scoop Satoshi Ishii's coach Ed Buckley of Team Quest. After she vamanosed, I chatted with Coach Ed for a while, in between both of us checking Facebook. I brought up the breaking news of Heath Simms joining Evolve, and Ed was disappointed to lose him, but happy he took a big opportunity. There was a Japanese guy standing near him showing off his Fedor jacket, and I thought Coach Ed would blow a fuse. I called the guy a traitor to his countrymen. Of course I was smiling and he didn't understand - crisis averted.
Public Press Conference in Shinjuku Square
Next up on the whirlwind DREAM tour was a public presser in Shinjuku Square. In the freezing cold. Being press, I tried to get on the bus going to the press conference and was ironically turned away, with another press guy, Matt (I lost your card when my fingers froze). So we got directions and hoofed it back over to the "South East" exit of Shinjuku station in the north. Along the way we were joined by Black House Team's Alex Palma. Then a couple of Swedes, Mikael and Fredrik, from Nils Widlund's corner. Then K-1 kickboxer and actor mammoth Hayes Jemide. It could have been a very destructive version of the Wizard of Oz, traveling to see Inoki appear from behind a 2-story high effigy of Fedor and Co to tell us that JMMA is Genki Desu Ka! Seriously, I can't make this stuff up. Try saying 'follow the yellow brick road' with a Japanese accent and it gets even more awesome.
Packed like sardines in corralled sections of the square, we waited for an hour and a half as darkness fell and the wind picked up. Disco music infused with the single word 'Fight!' was looped until we began liking it, almost as a throwback homage to 'YMCA'. The announcer kept telling us it would 'soon begin', and 'boy isn't it cold out here?' FI NAL LY Inoki emerged with his iconic red scarf. Then when Sasahara came out, I was assured the fighters were soon to follow. The promoters of this event were major masochists to hold a weigh in and then a suits-only, outdoors-in-the-freezing-cold presser only a few hours apart.
Karla came out with typical sexy Brazilian flare, and was met by a stone-faced Megu. Intense! Josh Barnett is a rockstar here, and the ladies were giddy. Then it was Cosplay versus the Kickboxer. Cosplay had a robe on and carried an oversized chopper. The crowd loved it and Katsunori couldn't contain himself either. The puroresu guys came out next, including the only ones I know - Tim Silvia and Peter Aerts. While Tim looks like he'd rather be in line at the deli counter, Aerts is a PR machine. Everywhere the man went he was stopping to greet people and posing for pictures.
And then.... drum roll... Sakuraba! He has the kind of demeanor that makes you think that at any moment, he could go for a double leg or tell you a joke. They finished with some all-hail-King-Inoki swearing in thing. Suzukawa's cornrows reminded me of Andy Wang's bad hair period.
The excitement built to a crescendo (mostly excited mumbling and camera clicking) when Lion came out all suave and debonair - he must wear suits often. Then came Kitaoka and Shinya, obvious favorites. Kitaoka seemed, well, not happy, and Shinya still refused to look at his opponent. Or maybe he liked his shoes? Or maybe he just wanted to pimp his Evolve cap some more?
Satoshi Ishii versus Fedor - epic! People finally went nuts. Ishii held himself steadfast while Fedor looked at him like Fedor looks at a sandwich.
As I had been packed in tight with the other lemmings, I couldn't really assess the size of the crowds, but DREAM stated the turn out was around 5,000. I don't know about that, but as we left, a huge mob of people was across the road from the bus waiting to get photos.
I was able to hop on the last bus back to the fighters' hotel, ironically with the fat man who denied me entrance on the way over. The bus took forever, and then we realized it was a local, and we were dropping off some of the fighters to their neighborhoods. I took my map out too late!
After missing lunch and waiting in the cold all day, I was famished. Nils' camp kindly invited me to sushi around the corner. So our merry little Wizard of Oz group ventured back out into the streets of Tokyo.
The sushi place was great! Only 130yen a plate, and I was famished. Then I found out my beer was 525yen, more than all the food combined. Whoops. It was good fun to see how much these big guys could put away. More than once we had to move so a chef could enter and leave the bar through a little hole under our counter. The guys thought that was hilarious. There is an article from the Swedish Kronika about the event here.
MMA Asia meets MMA Japan
After chatting and walking around a bit, it was time to venture back to Ginza to meet Chatri for a proper dinner with the world-renowned reporter Mike Hackler of MMA Japan. Mike is an unassuming, genuinely nice guy. He'd probably kick ass in the ring simply because he's got what I called 'the Fedor Face': he is so calm that it's a bit disconcerting. And how he manages to get the scoop on all the major happenings on JMMA and MMA in Asia all the way from where he lives with his family in Oklahoma is amazing. He told me "I don't know how I get everything first; lucky I guess." No Mike, it's not luck, you're DA MAN. He's extremely knowledgeable (as you'd expect) about JMMA and shared with me the history of Saitama Super Arena, and a little about some of the fighters he has grown to become good friends with. Stylistically, we are polar opposites in journalism, and I hope I bring something beneficial that's even a fraction of what Mike does for the readers of MMA happenings in Asia.
A learned a little bit more about the background of these champions as well. Orono Por (Petchpun) Evolve comes from a family of 10 children. He's one of the rare group of successful fighters not only started into Muay Thai competition rather late, in his teens, but he also is a university graduate. He beat Yodsaenklai TWICE. He beat Buakaw TWICE. This man is a three time Thailand Champion, Lumpini legend, and world It's Showtime champion. What else can you possibly add to that?!
Here's a video of the fight.
Thus, my epic day spent talking to and hanging out with fighters, coaches, journalists, fans, martial artists and friends came to a close. With a grin on my face and way too much excitement in my heart for the following day, I made my way back to my PRIDE encampment. And I didn't get lost.
You can continue to read about fight day in DREAM Part 2.