The last day of 2011 was cold and gray in Tokyo. There was nothing to distinguish it from any other: no snow, earthquakes, celebrity gossip or political upheavals. My alarm didn't play "Baka Suvivor" when it woke me up. The hotel staff didn't deliver a newspaper to my door heralding the return of the Last Emperor. Nobody greeted me in the lobby with "Genki Desu Ka!" Come on Japan, you're letting me down, I thought. Guess I'll have to do this 'excitement' thing on my own.
The second stop proved more challenging: exchanging money. My hotel didn't take HK dollars. The banks were closed. Uh oh. Fortunately a friend's hotel was able to make the exchange. And they only took a 20% commission. What, Japan, are you going to tell me it's more expensive here because you have to import your yen too? Happy New Year. Have a couple of beers on me. Or a Mercedes.
The third and final stop turned into five stops and produced nothing. In Japan, supposedly you can rent mobile wifi, or you can rent a data-only sim card. You can rent one for the duration of your trip at the airport for only one million dollars, or go to an outlet to rent by the day. As I chose the latter, I was left literally out in the cold once again. Three shops were closed. Two did NOT rent by the day, as advertised. I spent the final day of 2011 and the biggest MMA event of the year without internet access for the first time. Genki Desu Ka? Not quite yet, but thanks for asking.
And then I heard that voice. The PRIDE Lady! Lenne Hardt was getting the fans into the mood with her trademark screeching and extraordinary lung capacity. I began to feel like a teenager again, ready for a rock concert to begin. The excitement was that palpable from the crowd as well.
I found the entrance to Spaceship Saitama! After about thirty minutes of enjoying the festival atmosphere, the crowds began to quietly assemble a few meters from the gates. It was quite surreal, almost like some sort of flash mob without a cause, or as if dad had told them all, "Get closer and I'll smack you." Excitement in Japan is so much more reserved than in other countries;disconcerting, but rather enjoyable.
When the gates opened, I was one of the first people through - YES! We were politely ushered through a wide passage wrapping around the main hall to sections marked VERY LARGELY and clearly. It was quite well-organized and un-chaotic. I found my section and entered, and was stunned by my first glimpse insde. I had no idea I'd be entering at the top tier and the sheer volume of the arena surprised me. It was shaped like a very deep bowl with rows of seats stretching high and affording spectacular views of the ring to almost every section.
The stage backdrop was easily four stories high, and the walkout ramp looked a mile long!
My seat was all the way down at ringside, just on this side of the ramp. Every time I needed a drink or the toilet, I had to walk alll the waaaay back uuuuup. The show was nine hours long so I got a good workout. Yes, I know I shouldn't be complaining. Not with a view that close to the action.
Hi, Imanari! Why won't you wave back? When the first group of fighters came out for the opening ceremony, there wasn't much of a crowd yet - it was only 3pm - but the people near the ramp went nuts. Yes, I was one of those near the ramp. They replayed the montages about the epic Bantamweight tournament that had been circulating for months before hand. The PRIDE Lady was making fighter introductions. It was one of those 'pinch-me-I'm-DREAMing' moments. I have to attribute most of the excitement to being able to see these athletes in person; the outside world gets JMMA from the broadcast medium, rarely seeing them live. I seriously hope this is changing.
FIGHT #1, Bantamweight Reserve Match: Hideo Tokoro versus Yusup Saaludaev
The lead (if you'll pardon the pun) was a baseball-themed short with Hideo running back and forth going for a home run, and at times getting cheered by random guys or scolded by others. The music was some funky 1950s throwback. It was kooky, completely confusing, and utterly delightful. Yusup came out to some Euro techno music, which was moody, but not very exciting unless you're drinking vodka in a fur coat and dancing with Scandinavian women. Next to Fedor. Tokoro's music was a Japanese version of Bonanza or something. I felt like doing that giddy-up dance move.
Tokoro runs out of his corner at the bell, and Yusup shoots for a TD. Tokoro defends, but eventually Yusup gets him from behind, and goes for a suplex. Tokoro's left arm is trapped, so he takes the full force of the slam on his shoulder and head. The crowd gasps and even Yusup is visibly shaken. Tokoro needs to be carried out on a stretcher I can see he's holding his arm. It's not a great way to open a show, but Saaludaev earned his win in stunning fashion.
Update: Hideo wrote on his blog that he did go to the hospital, and that it looked much worse than it was.
FIGHT #2, Bantamweight Finals: Antonio Banuelos versus Masakazu Imanari.
Iron Maiden's "Aces High" begins to rock the stadium. I really, really want to do the double horns hand sign. Given the superb audio quality and light show, I fully expect a giant Eddie to lurch onstage. Instead, Banuelos bounces out; a fireball full of energy. The arena does a bipolar mood swing as Sade's "No Ordinary Love" begins to play. The crowd is actually swaying! Imanari, Helmet and all, simply walks out to the ring. He has an intensity on a completely different level.
The first round has almost no action. They stalk each other, Imanari throws a kick. This repeats six times - I know because I counted. Finally Imanari tries his signature fake-to-leg-lock-from-the bottom move. Banuelos finally gets to prove that he's not falling for it, and rains a few punches then backs out of distance. Imanari tries a head kick and Banuelos answers with a hook; they are finally loosening up and trading kicks. At the end of round one, Banuelos tags Imanari right on the nose.
With so little action, it's a hard one to call. Probably due to what gnp he was able to deliver, the judges score it a split decision in favor of Banuelos.
FIGHT #3, Rodolfo Marques Diniz versus Bibiano Fernanes: Bantamweight Finals
Rodolfo comes out to some pretty intense rap. Bibiano with his perma-grin rocks down the gangplank to the Linkin Park/Jay Z mix which the fans seem to dig.
At the bell, Bibiano launches his attack and ends with a big double leg to put Diniz back in his own corner. in the deathly quiet arena, I can hear Matt Hume giving submission directions, but Bibiano appears to be content with smothering Diniz and peppering his leg with elbows, then his ribs. Even the ref calls for him to work for a finish. Bibiano throws some knees to the chest, and Rodolfo's ribs are red at the end of round one.
Round two, and Bibiano decides to keep this one standing. He gets a nice looping right that stuns Diniz, and he follows it up with a trip. Bibiano goes for the clinch many times, alternating between knees and body shots. Rodolfo can't come up with anything to reverse the action.
Bibiano gets the win by unanimous decision.
It will be Banuelos versus Bibiano for the Bantamweight Championship later in the evening.
FIGHT #4, Masaaki Noiri versus Sonoda Kengo, K-1 rules
Noiri seems less aggressive than Kengo, but his counters are inflicting more damage throughout the first round. In the second, Kengo finds his distance and the fight gets interesting, but he seems to slip and the ref gives an eight count.
The third round sees Noiri turning it on and seriously damaging Kengo with a barrage of bombs, culminating in a flying roundhouse. As expected, crowd favorite Noiri delivers the most damage to Kengo for two out of three rounds and gets the unanimous decision win.
FIGHT #5, Yuta Kobo versus Nils Widlund, K-1 rules
Nils comes out with the 'wiggle song', the one JWP did that went viral. His whole corner is involved, it's hilarious. The crowd doesn't quite get it, but they like it and by the time he hits the ring at the end of the song, he gets a nice round of applause.
Nils sets up his low kicks with nice jabs. Nils takes a kick for the sweep. He's got a good game plan, but keeps being warned for clinching, something that may hurt his game later. In the second round, Kubo decides to fight and all Nils can answer with is a knee from the clinch - illegal under K-1 rules. Yuta turns it on in the third round, blasting Nils with some flying knees that do some serious damage, and KOs him with a head kick.
FIGHT #6, Ryo Chonan versus Hayato "Mach" Sakurai.
This is a rematch eight years in the making. Mach attacks Ryo and he goes down - may be a slip - Mach ends up in half guard. He wastes no time going to gnp then gets side control. It takes Chonan almost three minutes to power out. Back to standing, Chonan throws some nice punches and kicks. They clinch and Mach goes for a TD that Chonan defends.
The second round opens and Mach goes for a TD that Chonan punches his way out of. Chonan comes on strong and knocks Mach back into his corner, but Mach reverses and scores a big TD into side control. both are using knees. Mach throws some big knees at Chonan's big head and tries to mount, but Chonan is able to recover half guard, so Mach ends the round with some brutal elbows. Chonan just doesn't seem to have game on the ground today; don't know what's wrong.
The decision goes to Hayato Sakurai, and it's universal. Chonan scored with some stand up, but the amount of time Mach spent in better position on the ground must have swayed the judges in his favor.
FIGHT #7, Tatsuya CRUSHER Kawajiri versus Kazuyuki "Little Hercules" Miyata
Miyata's entrance music? Epic! Dun. Dun, dun, dun. Dun, dun, dun. Dun, dun, daaaaaaaaaaa. 2-Pac does "Eye of the Tiger"! Crusher came out with crushing J-punk/rock/hard core.
Crusher comes out with a big TD and works to full mount. There he crushes Little Herc but he doesn't do much gnp from the position. Finally he gets an arm triangle choke, but it's not tight. Jumps to the other side, gets it deeper and - the bell rings.
Round two, a battle of strength. Crusher takes Miyata down. Miyata drags Crusher down. Miyata tries to take Crusher's back, but he powers out and back to standing they go. Crusher with another huge TD. He gets another arm triangle and sinks it deeper... ten seconds left... and Miyata taps! The guys in black Fendi sweaters, black Calvin trousers, black LV belts and shiny pinkie rings sitting behind me are going nuts.
Crusher by tapout at 4:54 of the second round.
FIGHT #8, Megumi Fujii versus Karla Benitez
Karla. Dances. All. The. Way. Down. The. Runway. It's entertaining, but someone forgot to tell her that in Japan, 'sexy' is out; fluffy pink skirts and cat ears are in. Megu walks in as if she's waiting in line to punch a time clock and start working.
Round Megu - I mean One. Megu punch. Megu TD. Megu knee. Megu single leg from sitting, sweep from the bottom, side control (I think). It was all so fast I really couldn't say what the heck she did, but it was amazing. Megu gnp. Megu armbar. Karla sexy tapout.
Puroresu time: Josh Barnett versus some big Japanese guy. Do you know what that means? Time for a beer. Back just in time for Antonio Inoki to make his grand entrance... on a cross. For Mr Inoki's sake, I sure hope all of the television monitors backstage in Fedor's dressing room went black.
Some Middle-eastern guys with turbans and , weapons holding a photo of another guy in a turban come down to meet Inoki in the ring to do some sort of something or other. Oh good, they're leaving.
FIGHT #10, Katsunori Kikuno versus "Cosplay" Nagashima, Mixed rules (1 kickbox, 1 MMA)
At this point, I am quite ecstatic and my notes get interesting. For the first round, I wrote "Kazu beat the shit outta Cos" which is more or less what actually happened. Cosplay's harem of girls are next to me - all ten of them - squealing in desperation; one is even crying. At the end of the round Cosplay gets a lucky left that floors the Kickboxer.
In round two, Katsunori muscles Cospayer down, but he powers out. Katsunori wastes no time getting inside and landing loads of combinations. Cosplayer is just relying on wild shots, but one must have connected as Katsunori's eye is swelling shut. Again Katsunori drags Cos to the canvas and then takes his back and blasts his head - no thoughts of a submission attempt here!
The win in this one-sided war goes to Katsunori Kikuno.
FIGHT #11, Bibiano Fernandes versus Antonio Banuelos, Bantamweight Championship
Banuelos comes out looking like he wants to trade with Bibi, and Bibi schools him with a big right. Stumbling away from the barrage, Banuelos goes down and Bibiano follows him, raining down gnp until the ref steps in.
The new Bantamweight Champion! Bibiano by ref stoppage at only 1:21 in the first round.
Time for more puroresu. Peter Aerts versus Fujita. Then it's Jerome Le Banner and Tim Sylvia, who ironically takes the plank in a shirt that says "Lean Body". It is a pretty nice review of jiujitsu technique with a lot of crazy overreacting thrown in, but not too horrible.
Sakuraba and a bunch of other guys were next. Sakuraba is hilarious! I can see why he was so popular in his beginning days in puroresu. Still, it's beer time.
FIGHT #15, Hiroyuki "Streetfight Bancho" Takaya versus Takeshi Lion Inoue, Featherweight Championship
Entrance music? What?
Bancho is the aggressor and Lion is being very evasive. Bancho cuts off the ring and tries to stop Lion from doing his funny footwork stuff. Bancho gets in some kicks, but it's a very uneventful first round and Takaya shows his frustration by ending it with a TD.
Round two, and Lion looks fearful. Bancho begins stalking him again. Lion should be deducted! Yuji Shimada finally gives him a warning. Three minutes in and Lion finally decides to stand and trade. The round ends the same as did 1, Bancho with a TD.
Round three and Bancho knows Lion's game. He stalks him and takes him down. Lion eats a few on the ground before he's able to get up. When Lion tries to come in again, he eats Bancho's fist again. But it doesn't deter him, and he's starting to trade, as evidenced by Bancho's bloodied nose. Bancho's eye is also closing - impossible, was it a head butt?
Round four. More stalking by Bancho and he throws some hard rights. Lion sneaks in a couple too, at great cost. Bancho gets some nice kicks, but after all of Lion's evasiveness, he finally gets a much-deserved yellow card. Bancho proceeds to muderize him, but Lion somehow hangs on.
The final round is more of the same, until Lion grows a lionheart and the fight ends in an all-out brawl. It's too little too late and Lion knows it.
Hiroyuki Takaya remains the Featherweight Champion by decision.
FIGHT # 16, Shinya Aoki versus Satoru Kitaoka
You can read the entire recap here at the beginning of my interview with Shinya Aoki.
Aoki Shinya is still the Lightweight Champion of DREAM.
FIGHT #17, Satoshi Ishii versus Fedor Emelianenko
Satoshi said he had a game plan for dealing with Fedor, and to his credit, he showed up in the ring willing to execute it. He doesn't hesitate to feel out distance, and even tries for a TD, which Fedor stuffs like a beer can. As Fedor engages, Ishii defends well, with hands high and tight; he looks for combos and even kicks. My final note of this bout reads "Fedor lands a". It was at this point that I could see Ishii's face as he ate Fedor's jab and it almost knocked him out, which woke him up. Fedor shortly followed with a jab and a right that sent Ishii to the canvas out cold.
And as if by divine intervention, while Fedor was holding his arms up in triumph, the arena screens burst into a final countdown for the stroke of midnight. It was so perfectly timed. The only person who didn't ring in the New Year in the entire stadium was Ishii; his bell was already rung.
The entire cast of fighters took to the ring and wished everyone Happy New Year.
Then a line of fans formed on the runway, and it was then I learned they were all waiting to get a good luck slap by Inoki himself. One kid was wearing PRIDE gloves, and when he got in the ring, he bowed to all four corners, got his slap and tumbled to the mat in an obviously much pre-rehearsed KO. That probably made his entire year. The slapping went on and on and on.
New Years in Shibuya
The night continued its epicness until the early hours. I met a guy in the train station who is a reader of this site, Chris Vote. We quickly became good friends because he had a bottle of whiskey. We shared the train ride to Shibuya with a couple of HUGE puroresu gangsters who were happy to inform Chris - who kindly translated - that they wanted to take me partying. Maybe another day, my ham-fisted friends. In Shibuya, I saw a group of Spaniards in Pikachu outfits on skateboards, glass littering the streets like confetti, very drunk girls in shorts sitting on said glass, and lots of friendly Japanese guys wanting to speak English. Of course my huge red and gold Genki Desu Ka! program book drew some attention, and I got to give good luck slaps to the 'crew' of another guy dressed all in black with pinkie rings. I can't make this stuff up. Epic, my friends, epic.
A big Genki Desu Ka to you and yours! Ganbatte! Fight for Japan!
In memory of Tomoya Miyashita
In Hideo Tokoro's personal blog, he made light of his own injury, and focused on preserving the memory of a friend and fellow MMA fighter, Tomoya Miyashita. Miyashita had been stricken with leukemia and fighting it for a year. On the day of the event, he emailed Tokoro from his hospital room, giving him words of encouragement. Following the New Years Eve countdown, we learned of Miyashita's passing. Hideo writes that Miyashita was watching the event live on television, and passed away in the middle of the tournament. A smile was on his face.