New Year’s Eve events have always had great significance in Japanese MMA, and perhaps none more so than it does this year for Dream.
Having seen some decline in popularity and the defection of some stars to the U.S., Dream’s bad luck compounded further by the tragic natural disasters – earthquakes and tsunamis – that struck its homeland earlier this year.
Still, the promotion did not pack it in and instead has rebounded with its Fight for Japan series, which is set to culminate in a re-launch of their previous Dynamite shows under the new banner of “Genkidesuka!! Oomisoka!! 2011” from the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on Jan. 31.
MMAWeekly.com caught up with HDNet commentator Michael “The Voice” Schiavello to discuss the upcoming event and its importance on the future of its fighters and Dream itself.
MMAWeekly: With all that has happened not only in Japanese MMA, but in the country as a whole, what makes this NYE show different than what we had come to know as Dynamite?
Michael Schiavello: The fact that this New Year’s Eve show is happening at all, and the massive proportions of it, is testament to Japanese resolve, character, spirit, and love for combat sports. The Japanese are a tremendously proud people and this event is, I believe, their signal to the watching world to say “Hey, we’re here, we never went away, we’re still strong. We’re okay!” Just like the title of the show asks: “Japan, are you okay?”
MMAWeekly: Along with a mixed-fight bout (combining MMA and K-1 rules in alternating rounds), this year’s New Year’s Eve show features pro wrestling bouts put on by former Pride associate Antonio Inoki’s Inoki Genome Federation. How do you think that will fit in with the rest of the action that night?
Michael Schiavello: Pro wrestling fits in perfectly with a Japanese New Year’s Eve event. The now-defunct Dynamite event was always first and foremost a celebration of fighting and fandom. (Different style) matches were made in the past because on New Year’s Eve in Japan anything goes. It has always been the one fight event where rankings and reputations are put on the shelf in favor of fun and pure entertainment.
To see (Kazushi) Sakuraba, (Katsuyori) Shibata, (Kazuyuki) Fujita, and (Peter) Aerts all pro wrestling on New Year’s Eve makes me giddy with excitement. It’s going to be fun! Fun is what New Year’s Eve in Japan is all about.
MMAWeekly: Undercard MMA bouts include Tatsuya Kawajiri, Hayoto “Mach” Sakurai, and Megumi Fuji. How important was it to the promotion to secure major Japanese stars like this to fill out the card, and for each individual to win their bout?
Michael Schiavello: The entire card is very Japan-centric, which had to happen. This is Japan’s true return to the combat world, in the biggest gala fight event of the year. It is not just about Japanese MMA as a whole; it’s also about the individual fighters we have all come to love, coming back and saying “We’re okay. The sport’s okay. We’re going to fight on.”
Kawajiri, Sakurai, Fuji, these are legends. These are the type of fighters Japanese MMA fans want to see and want to make sure they will continue to see. It’s imperative for each of these three to win their bouts because doing so sends a strong, positive message to the world about Japanese MMA.
MMAWeekly: While some have overlooked the Bantamweight Grand Prix, so far it has produced some very solid, entertaining bouts. What do you think of the final four and who ultimately takes the Grand Prix crown?
Michael Schiavello: To be honest with you, when I was set to commentate the quarterfinal round of the Bantamweight Grand Prix, I wasn’t that excited. I had to eat some humble pie afterwards and admit it was a brilliant series of fights! Perhaps the most entertaining Dream Grand Prix series we have seen yet.
The final four has no weak links, and for me Bibiano Fernandes is the favorite. His 41-second win over Takafumi Otsuka at Dream 17 was a delight to watch. How many times have you seen an opponent just get put to sleep like that so quickly that the fighter tells the referee he’s out? Hardly ever. So look out for Fernandes and for (Masakazu) Imanari, two master submission fighters.
MMAWeekly: Tell us your thoughts on the evening’s two championship bouts between Hiroyuki Takaya vs. “Lion” Takashi Inoue for the featherweight title, and Shinya Aoki vs. Satoru Kitaoka for the lightweight belt.
Michael Schiavello: Aoki vs. Kitaoka has the potential to be a classic. I don’t think either man knows how to have a boring fight. It will be a battle between Aoki’s sublime submission skills and Kitaoka’s wrestling power.
The featherweight title fight on paper is a very good match-up. Inoue comes in off three wins in a row, including a solid decision over Caol Uno last time out. Takaya is a demon who has given us some of the best knockouts ever seen in Dream over the last 18 months. These are two matches that MMA purists should be salivating over.
MMAWeekly: The main event sees Fedor Emilianeko returning to Japan after a very tumultuous recent run in Strikeforce and M-1 to face Satoshi Ishii. Will he return as a hero and star like he was in the Pride days, or has his time in Japan passed?
Michael Schiavello: You ask the questions that I myself want to find out the answers to! New Year’s Eve used to be THE event for Fedor every year in Japan. Japan loves Fedor and even though his stock has diminished from the last time he fought there in 2007 at Yarrenoka, I believe he will be embraced by fans and media as he always has.
Ishii is taking a big step up in class for a guy who has not proven himself at all in MMA. It’s a clever fight for Fedor to take for several reasons: Ishii is not a tomato can, but he also doesn’t have overwhelming experience. Ishii is young and hungry, not old and over the hill. Ishii can attract great media attention and knows how to talk up a fight. He doesn’t have great hands, so no chance he will knock out Fedor. All in all, he should be the perfect opponent for Fedor to beat and give us a fitting finale to a great night of fights.
MMAWeekly: All things considered, is this a make-or-break show for Dream? How will either the success or failure of this show determine what will happen in 2012? Will Dream survive make it to another New Year’s Eve show?
Michael Schiavello: Every show Dream does these days is a make-or-break show, but this one is the true test. Dream has pulled out all the stops for this one: They have star-power in Antonio Inoki as the public face for the event. They have brought Fedor back to Japan. They’ve stacked the cards with Japanese MMA fighters all of Japan wants to see including Aoki, Kawajiri, (Ryo) Chonan, Kitaoka, Sakuraba, Fuji, Shibata, and Ishii. And they’ve gone back to Saitama Super Arena, which, at full capacity, can hold around 45,000 people.
All this has been done without the partnership of (K-1 parent company) FEG this year. So it looks like Dream is sending a message saying (that) Japanese MMA is here and is not going anywhere. And yes, they will do another New Year’s Eve show in 2012… The Mayans were wrong!