By Mick Hammond, MMAWeekly.com
It could be said that with some irony that possibly the biggest match up this coming New Year’s Eve will be held between two of the smallest fighters. At Pride’s Shockwave 2005 show the finals of Pride’s Lightweight Grand Prix will be held between Hayoto “Mach” Sakurai and Takanori Gomi in a match that could be the most hotly contested of the evening.
Both fighters are among the best pound for pound in the world, both have devastating stand up, solid wrestling, and very diverse ground games, and most importantly to Pride, both are Japanese. This fight will mark the first time in Pride’s 8-year history that they will crown a Japanese Champion.
It’s been a great year for Hayoto Sakurai, he showed signs of what made him an international superstar years earlier and the same dominance he once ruled the welterweight division with. From his Shooto debut in 1996 through 2000 Sakurai racked up an undefeated record in his first 16 bouts. He became the face of the company and a symbol for Japanese fans to rally behind.
Then things changed for Mach after 2001 when he lost his first ever bout, and the Shooto title, to Anderson Silva. After rebounding with a win at the end of the year, Mach headed to the US where he was defeated by Matt Hughes at UFC 36. Returning to Shooto, Sakurai then lost to Jake Shields in what would be his last bout near the 170lb mark.
Moving up in weight, Mach left Shooto for Deep and took two of three bouts there before joining Pride in what many thought would be his last hurrah after a very highly regarded career. After debuting successfully at Shockwave 2003 over Daiju Takase, Sakurai went 1-2 in Bushido, losing handily to Rodrigo and Crosley Gracie.
After going 14-0-2 in his first sixteen fights, Sakurai would have a disappointing 6-6 record over his next twelve fights. It became clear that a change was needed if Mach would ever hope to returning to the form that made him a champion and hero to the Japanese fans.
So the move was made to head to AMC Pankration in Seattle, Washington and let trainer Matt Hume help rebuild the quickly fading career of Sakurai. Coming back at Bushido 7 now at a slimmed down 160lbs, Sakurai outmatched Milton Viera and after returning to Shooto for a one-off bout, Sakurai would be invited to participate in Pride’s first ever Lightweight GP tournament to crown their first champion at 160lbs.
If there had been any doubt that Sakurai’s rejuvenation was indeed for real, Mach would put those to rest at Bushido The Tournament this past September. After knocking out a smaller Jens Pulver in the first round of the tournament, Sakurai would face a fighter generally regarded as one of the top three in the division, Joachim Hansen in the semi-finals.
Many felt this would be the end of a great run for Sakurai, but again he defied conventional wisdom and stifled Hansen over two rounds. Joachim, used to being able to adapt to beat his opponents, couldn’t figure out how to apply himself against Hayoto and in the end Mach’s better performance earned him a unanimous decision and a birth in the finals at Shockwave 2005.
If Sakurai’s return to dominance meant there was a time when he was “away” from being the best Japanese fighter around, then that time was definitely filled by his opponent on New Year’s Eve, “The Fireball Kid” Takanori Gomi.
It was clear from his debut in 1996 in Shooto, the same organization that Sakurai was dominating at the time, that Gomi was something especial. Like Sakurai, Gomi went undefeated over the first fourteen bouts of his career for the company, capturing the Welterweight Championship in the process.
Over this time, Gomi showed he was solid on all areas of the fight game. He could trade with fighters, using very accurate and hard punching to put them in bad positions where his natural wrestling skills would take over if need be before finishing someone off on the ground. If opponents hoped to exploit a weakness in their fights with Gomi they would be sorely mistake, as it appeared he had none.
Matched up against Scandinavian standout Joachim Hansen in what would be his last Shooto bout, Gomi was outclassed for the first time in his career. The resilient Hansen was able to match Gomi in ever aspect of the fight and in most instances, gain the advantage. Gomi would lose the fight via majority decision and leave the company understandably disappointed.
Gomi’s chance for redemption would come at Rumble on the Rock 4 against UFC star BJ Penn. Again Gomi would be involved in a tougher battle than he had faced earlier in his career and against the BJJ Prodigy Penn; Takanori would succumb to a rear naked choke half way through the third round of their bout.
After facing his second straight disappointment, Gomi would refocus himself as he signed with Pride to become the company’s signature attraction for the company’s fledgling Bushido series. With renewed vigor and a determination to prove himself again, Gomi would completely dominate his first six bouts for Pride.
Then earlier this year it appeared as if success had gotten to Gomi as he was scheduled to face Jean Silva at Bushido 8. Coming in overweight and noticeably lacking conditioning, Gomi survived to a decision, his first for the company. People began to wonder if he had fallen to the excesses of superstardom and if he’d be ready for one of the toughest fields in MMA history at Bushido’s The Tournament show to crown a 160lb champion.
Surprisingly matched up against fellow Japanese superstar, and current Shooto Welterweight Champion, Tatsuya Kawajiri in the first round of the tournament it was clear that Gomi had taken his criticism to heart and came into the fight in shape and ready.
In one of the best fights of the year, Gomi and Kawajiri traded punches, blow for blow Takanori matched his opponent, as it became increasingly clear that Gomi’s strength was too much for Tatsuya. Late in the first round during a scramble Gomi was able to get Kawajiri’s back and locked in a choke to finish the fight. Takanori followed up that performance by outclassing a Luiz Azeredo in the semi-finals to set up a match against Sakurai at Shockwave 2005.
The fight between Sakurai and Gomi for the 160lb Championship may be one of the closest fights on paper this year. Both can out-strike, out-wrestle, and submit anyone in the division. Both are big at the weight and posses a lot of power and a surprising amount of speed.
Both are veterans and have faced some of the best talent in MMA, so in a match like this it comes down to the mistakes. Simply, whoever makes the first mistake will be one to lose this bout. They are just too evenly matched and too good for one not to be able to take advantage of an opening if it is presented to them.
This is the biggest bout on the card for both the Japanese fans and Pride. For the fans this is an opportunity for them to see one of their native sons become a champion and that is something they have thirsted for since Pride’s inception. For Pride this match-up represents an opportunity to overtake K-1’s stronghold on the coveted Japanese TV ratings and set the stage for next year’s campaign.
Rarely do fights like this live up to the hype, but with Sakurai and Gomi you’re almost always guaranteed a good show. Both fighters know that there is more than a trophy and a belt on the line, there’s an opportunity to become even larger than life in Japan than they already are and give the fans something special. With that much on the line you know that Mach and Takanori will deliver, and when that happens, everyone will be in for the possible fight of the year.