by Ken Pishna
With Pride’s first-ever Lightweight Grand Prix, the top fighters in the division from around the world are poised to determine just who is number one; and you can take that literally. With the UFC’s lightweight division in hibernation, Pride has secured nearly all of the top contenders. But although this tournament will determine just who is number one, arguably the top two fighters in the division, will kick things off as they battle it out in the first round.
Tatsuya Kawajiri and Takanori Gomi have long been the head of the argument for number one in the lightweight division. At Pride Bushido, they will finally step into the ring together and put the debate to rest, at least for a little while. As this is a tournament format, the first TWO rounds of the brackets will take place on this first night. The winners that emerge will then return later to finish out the tournament.
Takanori Gomi (21-2) was long considered the number one lightweight in the world, mostly off of the strength of his victories over fighters like Rumina Sato, Chris Brennan, Ryan Bow, Dokonjonosuke Mishima, and an undefeated record. That is until he ran into Joachim Hansen (also in this tournament) and BJ Penn, his only losses. With Penn moving out of the lightweight division, the ranking was basically up in the air with Yves Edwards, Kawajiri and Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro all coming on strong.
Since the consecutive losses to Hansen and Penn, Gomi has been picture perfect reeling off seven straight victories against the likes of Jean Silva, Luiz Azeredo (also in this tournament), and Jens Pulver (also in this tournament). But the fight that really kicked Gomi into the spotlight after the defeats was his six-second knockout of Ralph Gracie. Yes, SIX SECONDS!
On the other side of the ring, Kawajiri had a much longer road to travel to be considered for the number one ranking. For the first 17 fights of his career, he earned his way fighting under the Shooto banner, a well-respected promotion for sure, but one that doesn’t garner much of the limelight.
Outside of the first fight of his career, Kawajiri’s only loss en route to a 15-2-2 record has been to Ribeiro and has won 8 of his last 9 fights, the only skid being a draw with Caol Uno. Among his list of victims in those 15 victories, you can count Yves Edwards (also in this tournament), revenge on Ribeiro, Jani Lax (one of only two men to defeat Joachim Hansen), Ryan Bow, and both of his Pride Bushido fights.
Obviously, the experience factor is nearly even for these fighters, although Gomi has been in more big fights, especially recently. When it comes down to styles, there is still little separation between the two. Both Gomi and Kawajiri come from strong wrestling backgrounds and it is difficult to give either the edge. Each can also count submissions among their routes to victory, but neither is a submission frantic wizard.
What they both do and do well is to throw down. Both fighters like to mix it up and have more than their share of wins from knocking out their opponent or pummeling them into submission. Again, it is difficult to separate the two when it comes to striking, but the one slight advantage may go to Gomi, as he has an affinity for brutal, accurate knee strikes.
Much like most of the fights on this card, it is challenging to call a clear-cut winner. In fact, it can’t be done, these fighters are that closely matched. You can consider the fact that they know that whoever wins will have to fight a second time on the same night, but with the Gomi and Kawajiri fighting it out for the claim to the number one ranking and to decide who is the lead home grown Japanese superstar, this won’t be a factor. They will discard any consideration for injury and look to settle the score between themselves, the rest of the tournament be damned. Unfortunately for either fighter, this means that the winner, will probably have a difficult time making it through the rest of the tournament, as this fight presumes to be an all out war.
In the end, I think it will be Gomi’s experience in the bigger fights and his striving to be considered a superstar in Pride, along with the heavier fighters, that will put him over the top and eke out a victory. As close as this fight is, I wouldn’t say to circle that pick or bet the house, but don’t miss this one, along with Yves Edwards versus Joachim Hansen, this one is sure to be a contender for fight of the night, if not the year.