September 24, 2005

by Mick Hammond
(Photo of Naoyuki Kotani courtesy of www.zst.jp)

It would be easy to overlook the upcoming bout between Luiz Azeredo and Naoyuki Kotani at Bushido’s Lightweight GP this weekend. With six other fighters who have garnished top ten rankings and media attention, Azeredo and Kotani are flying very low under the MMA community’s radar. But to underestimate the skills of either Azeredo or Kotani would be a mistake, and that could lead to them playing a much larger role in the tournament’s outcome than most people think.

There have been few fighters to ever give Takanori Gomi a run for his money like Luiz Azeredo did in their match-up this past May. For most of the bout Azeredo was the quicker and more precise striker and he kept Gomi off his game for 3:45 of the first round. It looked like if Azeredo could keep it up, he could score one of the year’s bigger upsets, that is until the 3:46 mark when it all went south.

It just took one second for Gomi to hit a wicked left-right combo to put Luiz down and out. Of course after the bout the most talked about thing was Gomi going ballistic and continuing to attack the down Azeredo after the fight was stopped, but still, no one can deny the fact that up to that point Luiz was winning the fight.

While his success against Gomi came as a surprise to many, throughout his career Azeredo had been the dominant fighter more often than not. Starting with his upset win over top-ranked middleweight Anderson Silva, Luiz proved to be a most difficult opponent for anyone that stepped into the ring with him.

Prior to his bout with Gomi, Azeredo had gone 7-2 and had only lost via decision to MMA veterans Hayoto Sakurai and Tony DeSouza. In his last win before facing Gomi, Azeredo faced off against fellow rising Brazilian star Luis “Buscape” Firmino in a three round war that was controlled by Azeredo for most of the fight resulting in a unanimous decision victory for the Chute Boxe star.

So to underestimate a fighter that has clearly proven himself over his five year career such as Azeredo would be a major mistake for any fighter. But if there is one fighter within the main draw of the tournament who could be more underestimated and possibly a more dangerous opponent, it would be Naoyuki Kotani.

Kotani could best be summed up as the tournament’s wild card. He’s unknown factor whose record at times speaks both of a fighter on the cusp of breaking through to the big time and a fighter who gets easily overwhelmed at times by quality talent. You’re never sure which one of the two will show up, but when he’s on his game, Kotani can give anyone a run for their money.

Starting his career in the now defunct Rings organization, Kotani kicked things off in decisive fashion, going undefeated in the company quickly amassing a 6-0-1 record. His submission skills and conditioning allowed him to easily outclass his opponents, including the man who would go onto hand Alexandre “Pequeno” Nogueira his first ever loss, Hideo Tokoro.

After surprisingly losing his first bout out of Rings, Kotani went on to win his next two before joining the company that he would spend the majority of his career with, ZST. From 2002-03 Naoyuki dominated ZST like he did in Rings, only failing to win one time due to a draw. It seemed as if Naoyuki would be on the fast track to stardom, but sometimes at the height of greatest success we have our greatest fall.

Over the last two years Kotani has gone 2-4-1, starting with a loss in ZST’s 1st Grand Prix Finals to Rich Clemente in January of 2004. Following that loss Naoyuki was defeated by Marcus Aurelio before pulling off back to back impressive wins against old nemesis Tokoro and 2005 ZST GP winner Remigijus Morkevicius. Then he reverted back to inconsistency as he lost two in a row again, this time to established star Yves Edwards and rising youngster Roger Huerta.

Now after drawing in his last bout Naoyuki is getting a chance to get back to his consistent winning ways in a tournament format, the kind he has flourished at in the past. If the Kotani of old shows up then he could make a serious run for the finals, but first he has to get past Azeredo.

Both of these fighters are well-rounded athletes. Kotani is a bit more submission oriented, but he will throw if he has to and has the stamina to possibly go 30 minutes should he distance his way to the finals. Azeredo is a product of Chute Boxe, so he is a strong striker, but as he showed against Buscape he can work the ground game just as furiously as anyone else. The key to this fight is as many others in the first round of the tournaments, conserve energy but still put on a good enough show to take the match should it go the distance if your opponent doesn’t make mistakes.

To many people Azeredo and Kotani are “the other” fighters that fill out their 8-man tournament, but be rest assured they can deliver the goods. They are the underdogs and it can be easy to overlook them and if one of them breezes past the first round they could be serious trouble for someone who may have gone the distance in their first fight. And that could just make them the fighters to watch in the race to crown the first ever Pride Lightweight Champion.