by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
(Photo courtesy IFL)

Going from worst to first, it’s something that’s rare, but it does happen in sports.

From time to time a team rallies together and puts the sins of the past behind them and rises up and shocks everyone by working their way to a first place finish, and perhaps even a championship.

This is the case for the Tokyo Sabres of the IFL.

After being shut out 0-5 in their one and only IFL team battle last season, the Sabres were in desperate need of change.

Enter in Ken Yasuda as the team’s full-time Head Coach [after a brief experiment where pro wrestling legend Antonio Inoki essentially acted as nothing but the team’s figurehead] and a retooling of the team’s line-up. The next thing you know, the Sabres capped off an undefeated 2007 regular season, defeating the Portland Wolfpack 3-2 in Everett, Washington this past weekend.

With the win, the Sabres have assured themselves a spot in this season’s World Team Tournament and should they continue their rapid upward rise, could very well find themselves with championship rings on their fingers when all is said and done.

“I’m very happy at this point, but still the most important fights are coming up,” said Yasuda of the Sabres’ transformation this season. “I know some guys want to celebrate, but I think I’m maybe, to that point, Japanese – very thorough and still careful, so I can’t loosen up my own tension yet.”

“When we win the championship, then I think I can celebrate for real,” continued Ken.

One of the main reasons for the Sabres’ success in 2007 is Yasuda’s ability to implement his own gameplan for the team, after essentially having his hands tied when it came to last year’s squad.

“Basically last year, what was happening was I was notified to organize the team at the very, very last minute,” explained Ken. “This year, compared to that, I put everything I could do and I think I was on top of everything.”

Not coming from an MMA background was also a challenge, but Yasuda was able to overcome that by bringing in veteran fighters such as Antonio McKee and Vladimir Matyushenko, both whom has replayed their coach by going undefeated so far in IFL action.

“Actually I think one of my abilities is to organize a team and bring in fighters who can do their jobs,” commented Ken. “Fighters who were out there already established, already veterans and they know how to get ready for a fight, and then they can do their job.”

“Basically what they’ve been doing hasn’t surprised me, I’ve expected them to do that from the beginning,” continued Yasuda.

Early on in the IFL’s young history it seemed that it took teams who trained together full-time outside the promotion to achieve any kind of success. However, this year both the undefeated Sabres and L.A. Anacondas have shown that you can draw from a diverse pool of athletes, as long as everyone is on the same page come fight time.

According to Ken, it’s the flexibility he’s given his fighters to have in their own training which has placed them into a comfort zone that’s allowed them to perform as well as they can.

“My guys come from different places, and about half of them are veterans, they’ve fought in MMA [for a while] and they know to get ready and have developed their philosophy,” explained Yasuda. “So as long as they’re doing their job, I don’t need to touch anything.”

Ken added, “I don’t force one style, one way to do it, and if it works for them and they feel comfortable in the way they have been doing [things] and can do their job, then that’s fine with me.”

Barring a major upset at the next IFL event in Las Vegas, Nevada on Jun 16th, it appears that the New York Pitbulls will be joining the Sabres and Anacondas in the 2007 World Team Tournament.

And surprisingly it’s the Pitbulls, not the top-seeded Anacondas that Coach Yasuda is worried about.

“Basically the Anacondas are the easier ones for the Sabres than the Pitbulls,” said Ken. “We’ll probably face the Pitbulls in the semi-finals, and they’re tough.”

“I spend a lot of time watching the actual fights, and they do a lot of ground work. I know what kind of fighters the Pitbulls have. I’ve done all the analysis, everything – picked up each fighter’s behaviors and habits – so we’ll be ready to go [if we face them],” continued Yasuda.

With the IFL Semi-Finals set for this August in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Coach Ken Yasuda cannot quite yet be proud of the great accomplishments the Tokyo Sabres have made in 2007, not at least until they get a chance to get some revenge and take home some gold.

“We are planning to go all the way in the [World Team Tournament] Championship,” exclaimed Ken. “Most likely we will face the Anacondas in the finals and that’s where the Sabres will take revenge. We got killed by them last September, so this September we have to give it back. We’ll be 100% ready.”