By Mick Hammond, MMAWeekly.com
With a lot of the publicity heading into K-1’s Premium Dynamite 2005 show being focused on the likes of Royce Gracie’s bout and the Middleweight Hero’s Grand Prix Finals, it could be easy to overlook what could possibly be the most entertaining fight on the show. That match being the heavyweight fight between Heath Herring and Yoshihiro Nakao.
For Herring especially it’s an opportunity to end the year on a good note after it being possibly the worst one of his professional career. Nakao on the other hand looks to continue to make his star rise and prove himself as Japan’s next best heavyweight fighter.
While there motives may be different, both are looking to use this match to gain momentum heading into next year’s expanded K-1 MMA docket. Whoever wins could put themselves instantly in contention should Hero’s take off and create a Heavyweight Championship.
For Herring, that would be nothing new. The “Texas Crazy Horse” was one of Pride’s first infusions of talent into their fledging heavyweight division when he made his debut for that company in 2000. Still in his early 20’s, Herring made a quick name for himself by handing Tom “Big Cat” Erickson his first ever MMA loss at Pride 11.
Heath’s combination of unorthodox striking and Sambo grappling skills made him one of the most well-rounded fighters in the company. His unpredictable nature made it difficult for opponents to prepare for him and he rode that success for much of 2001.
Only losing a highly controversial decision to middleweight Vitor Belfort at Pride 13 under the company’s weight difference rules, Herring would earn a Heavyweight Championship shot against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira after defeating highly regarded Mark Kerr for the slot in the title match.
After being defeated via decision to Nogueira, Herring would rebound to win his next two bouts and become a staple of Pride’s shows. Back-to-back losses to Fedor Emelianenko and Mirko Cro Cop would be offset by a three-fight winning streak that would gain him entry into Pride’s 2004 Heavyweight Grand Prix.
It was during this time that Herring would relocate from Holland, where he had trained under the Team Golden Glory banner, and relocate back to the US to be closer to his family. Choosing Nevada as his home he joined the Las Vegas Combat Club and became a renewed fighter and it showed.
After beating former Heavyweight King of Pancrase Yoshihiki Takahisi in the first round of the tournament, Herring would again fall to Nogueira, but rebound to dominate fellow tournament participant Hirotaka Yokoi at Pride 28. It looked as if Herring would remain a constant for the company and begin the long road to championship contention once again, but it was not to be.
With money being in abundance in Japan during the early days of Pride, it was easy for them to stockpile talent and monopolize the Japanese market. After restructuring though things changed and the company was forced to alter their financial outlook, thus Herring became a casualty of cost cutting and would do the near unthinkable, he left the company he’d been a reccognized star for and signed with rival K-1 in late 2004.
Heath would make his debut for K-1 at Hero’s in March of this year, but it wasn’t quite the start he was hoping for. During his fight against Sam Greco, Herring would suffer the first ever injury of his career, injuring his knee in the fight. After sitting on the shelf most of the year Heath is healthy and now finally getting a chance to show what he can do for his new company, but it’s not going to be easy.
When Yoshihiro Nakao made his MMA debut at K-1’s Dynamite 2003 show, few if any would think he’d make the kind of impact he has. Coming from wrestling, Nakao was fairly unheralded in combat sports, but he quickly made his mark as a hard punching, hard headed fighter in the form of another wrestler turned fighter, Kazuyuki Fujita.
After winning his first bout and then no contesting with MMA legend Don Frye in his second fight, Nakao was pitted against American iron head Wesley “Cabbage” Correira at Rumble on the Rock 6. Many felt that Nakao was being set up to lose to the heavier Correira, but Yoshihiro quickly disproved that notion.
After dominating the early portion of the fight, it became clear to everyone that Nakao was indeed for real. After battling through a comeback by Cabbage, Yoshihiro finished the stronger of the two fighters and earned a split decision victory. In his next fight Nakao would further establish himself by pounding out Frye in a rematch at Premium Dynamite 2004, earning a unanimous decision.
After quickly arm barring kickboxer Fia Falamoe at Hero’s 3, Nakao is riding his four-fight winning streak into Premium Dynamite 2005 and now must again slay a giant and further prove he’s a real deal and a legitimate contender in the heavyweight division. But to keep winning he has to beat the most complete fighter he’s ever faced in Herring.
While Nakao has established himself as having good hands, cardio, and a decent ground game, he’s going to have to be at his absolute best if he wishes to stand a chance against Herring. Heath has dangerous hands, kicks, and knees, plus if the fight goes to the ground there are few in the heavyweight division that work as well as Herring does there.
If anything is in Yoshihiro’s favor it is the fact that Herring hasn’t fought in nine months and his conditioning could be bit down in the fight. Nakao must utilize his speed and force Heath to waste energy and then take advantage of his larger opponent. Only then can he hope to again defy conventional wisdom and beat one of the true A-list fighters in the heavyweight division.
While the focus may be on other fights to bring in the ratings so desperately contended for on New Year’s Eve between K-1 and Pride, this is the fight that could produce the most exciting finish. Both fighters are more than willing to trade and not ones to stall on the ground. Both Herring and Nakao have something to prove to themselves and to the public, and making a statement in this fight could go a long way in making their case for a Hero’s Heavyweight Championship match in 2006.