23 February 2007

Pride 33 Preview


I have had the strangest feeling since the calendar flipped over to the two-double oh-seven. Maybe it’s just me, but this year so far has felt slightly bereft of MMA action. Perhaps this is due to the anti-climax of the debut EliteXC show, or because UFC 67 was as good as we were expecting, and that very lack of surprise made it less memorable than it perhaps should have been.

That is definitely weird, because the EXC boasted some good matches, as well as something of a spotlight for female MMA; similarly, the UFC show was good. Jackson and Filipovic got their stoppages (omission of cemetery kicks and massive slams should not detract from the important fact that they did not ‘do a Herring’), and we got to see the excellent Griffin-Edgar bout.

Perhaps this feeling of MMA-lnutrition is a subconscious reaction to the masses of shows we were fortunate to witness in the glorious-for-business 2006. I know that getting two major shows in under a month and a half would have felt like manna from heaven just a few short years ago.

I have come to the conclusion that perhaps what my traditionalist mind has been missing is a good old Pride show to warm the cockles in this bleak midwinter. Granted, recent months have seen talent poached by other organisations, and the grim spectre of death stalks the apparently moribund promotion at every turn. Even that most energising of theme tunes has echoed out over the PA system at Zuffa-owned shows.

Call me an old romantic, but there is nothing quite like a promising Pride card to get me excited about people fighting each other for pecuniary advantage. And call me a sucker for hype but Pride 33, taking place in Las Vegas this weekend, is what I would call a promising card. Let’s face it, I would probably be happy if the card consisted of Dan Henderson vs. Wanderlei Silva, Takanori Gomi vs. Nick Diaz and little else. And that’s a good thing, because that is pretty much the crux of the matter. Still, we do get to see Hayato Sakurai, the ever-exciting Joachim Hansen (win or lose, and thankfully it is usually the former, his fights are never boring) and a heap more.

The main event is, of course, a rematch between two of the fightingest fighters in the world of fights. Wanderlei Silva is pretty much as brutal as it gets, as he made his name destroying Kazushi Sakuraba at a time when people just didn’t destroy Sakuraba. Silva, in fact, seemed to make a living stomping holes in natives, as the likes of Yuki Kondo and Kazuhiro Nakamura took pretty immense beatings from the flagship fighter of Curitiba’s Chuteboxe academy. A recent jaunt to the heavyweight division saw mixed blessings, as he stopped the previously pretty immovable object that was Kazuyuki Fujita, before falling to Mirko ‘Cro Cop’ Filipovic; no source of shame to get beaten by the most dangerous striker in MMA.

Back at middleweight (205 lbs, which is obviously light heavyweight for most of us Westerners), and Silva is matched against the smaller Dan Henderson. Rumours once abounded that Silva would face the ever-excellent Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, but the decision was made that an American might be more pertinent to headline a card in America, and so Hendo was the bookers’ choice.

Of course, I would never say Team Quest stalwart Henderson is chopped liver in this fight; before Dream Stage Entertainment created a 183 lb division, he made a very nice living fighting larger men than he. ‘Hollywood’ Henderson went up against both Nogueira brothers, and even Wanderlei himself, in the past. While not victorious, his quality as a fighter shone through. Suffice it to say that when he got a weight class he could be comfortable in, he took the title.

Yes, with Silva still middleweight champion (partly because he has been fighting at heavyweight, partly because he and Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua won’t fight each other, partly because his tournament loss to Ricardo Arona was non-title), this is a champion vs. champion bout. I can’t really see Henderson winning this, to be honest.

Not only is Silva naturally larger than Henderson, but he seems to be a bad fit for the American. A wrestler who is comfortable on his feet, Henderson likes to wait for a chance to land his famed right hand on unfortunate jaws. Unfortunately for him, Silva is a striker by trade and, unless Hendo has been working diligently on a jab to distance the two and set up his killer shot, it seems he will just be out-gunned when it comes to the striking game.

With Silva enjoying a striking advantage, and pretty decent when it comes to grappling (let’s face it, he’s gone to two decisions with Hidehiko Yoshida without being tapped, so he must be doing something right – even if Yoshida does like to stand and trade), Henderson’s major advantage in this fight is in the wrestling. The brace of fights Silva had with Arona (the latter being Silva’s successful defence of the title in a ridiculously close fight) evince an issue Silva has with good wrestlers who can control their opponent. That said, I don’t see that being such a major factor this weekend; this will be where the Brazilian’s size advantage will really benefit him.

Probably the most intriguing fight of the card for this particular correspondent features the Pride lightweight (that’ll be about 161 lbs then) champion in action against traditionally welterweight (that being American welterweight, 170 lbs) warrior Nick Diaz. Objectivity aside, I love Diaz. I liked his UFC debut against Jeremy Jackson, but it was really his (at the time) shocking knockout win over then-UFC golden boy Robbie Lawler (and I say that in a non-derisory manner; I am glad that Lawler seems to be somewhat back. I shall have to find out what he has been doing since claiming victory over Joey Villasenor, actually) that really woke the world up to his quality.

Since that fight, Diaz has been considered one of the best welters in the game, and with good reason. He has also been regarded as something of a loudmouth which, as far as I’m concerned, is excellent. Diaz is a vibrant personality, who I find compelling at every turn. Sometimes his cocky demeanour seems to over-ride his focus (he really should have knocked out Joe Riggs in the first round, when he had the chance. Silly loss) but, having recently beaten Josh Neer, it’s not like he is slacking too much.

UFC was apparently thinking about giving him a slot on the Ultimate Fighter: The Comeback show but decided against it. It wouldn’t really have been a comeback anyway, but he probably would have steamed through the competition. Seriously, and with all due respect, what exactly would have Matt Serra have done to him?

Funnily enough, Diaz’s opponent on this card is someone who Serra beat in grappling competition (though Serra would likely vanquish Diaz in a pure grappling contest too): Takanori Gomi.

I have gone on at length in the past about Gomi, how unstoppable he once seemed, and how that perception was apparently permanently besmirched when he was choked unconscious by Marcus ‘my favourite lightweight’ Aurelio. I don’t really need to add anything other than the basics: he had ten straight wins in Pride’s super-competitive lightweight division. He avenged his loss last year to Aurelio, and then absolutely steamrolled the other recent victor over Aurelio, Gomi’s compatriot Mitsuhiro Ishida. That would all put him firmly back at the top of the Pride heap (and just in time for this year’s lightweight tournament. Super).

That this fight is apparently playing out at lightweight has to put a smile on Gomi’s face. Naturally smaller than the rangy, six foot Diaz, he will be far more comfortable at the weight than a Diaz who might resemble a skeleton when he fights. While Gomi likes to pound out victories and also occasionally choke victims out, he would be advised not to go to ground against the Cesar Gracie-instructed Californian.

Indeed, while Diaz has made a habit of smacking opponents’ lights out, he entered the UFC with a reputation as a pure grappler. While not quite a B.J. Penn or Marcus Aurelio (two men who gave Gomi pretty humbling losses) on the mat, he is still someone the Japanese warrior will not want to mess with. So that leaves the stand-up battle. As aforementioned, Diaz is taller, and has a history of knocking people out. Still, it is hard to bet against Gomi in this one.

Not only should the lightweight status of this fight favour Gomi, but he is ostensibly a more diligent fighter in terms of getting the job done. His fondness for body shots might also be a telling factor. One thing is for sure: neither fighter is likely to back down, or give his opponent any more respect than is absolutely necessary. This has the potential to be a war. It wouldn't surprise me if Diaz caught Gomi with a couple of hard early shots, then spent the rest of the fight smugging his way to a decision loss.

Thoughts and hopes (though not necessarily predictions) on some other bouts on the card:

Shogun should duplicate his 2005 victory over the frustratingly under-achieving Alistair Overeem; the latter really needs a win, but it will be hard to attain. Both pale Europeans Sergei Kharitonov and Joachim Hansen should brutalise their adversaries (Mike Russow and Jason Ireland, respectively) with respective fists and knees. Mach over Mac, probably via first-round KO. I will be rooting for Renaissance man Trigg over Kazuo Misaki, but the Japanese fighter has tamed the likes of Phil Baroni, Dan Henderson and the excellent Denis Kang, so I see him getting a snidey decision. Whatever happens, this show promises much. Let’s hope it does not disappoint.

By the way. If you liked this article (or even if you didn't), be sure to check out the newsletter I write for, Total MMA. It's really good.

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