by Al Yu – MMAWeekly.com
With 2006 behind them, Pride Fighting Championships will face a challenging new year. Back in November, Dream Stage Entertainment announced big changes for the organization that included the discontinuation of the Bushido brand name in Japan, more title defenses from their champions and a restructuring of the Grand Prix tournament schedule. At a recent press conference, DSE CEO Nobuyuki Sakakibara commented more about 2007, “the year of change and challenge.”

Pride announced that this year’s Grand Prix will consist of lightweight fighters. With an unbelievable list of potential participants, the upcoming tournament could very well turn out to be the best in the organization’s history. Takanori Gomi, the current Pride Lightweight Champion and defending Lightweight Grand Prix Champion, is expected to participate. “We would like for him to enter the tournament. Since he holds the Grand Prix and the Lightweight Championship titles, we don’t yet know if he will enter from the opening round but at the latest, we want him to enter in the second round,” said Sakakibara.

Recently, Takanori Gomi expressed his interest in challenging the best fighters in the world and represent Pride. “It’ll be a challenging year for the promoters as well, but I hope that the fighters will also make use of their own qualities and challenge themselves,” stated the DSE CEO. “If he wants to challenge himself in the UFC, I would like to clear a path to make that possible.” Gomi is tentatively scheduled to fight at Pride 33: Second Coming and is looking forward to make his U.S. Pride debut.

As it was announced back in November, the Bushido brand name has been suspended in Japan for 2007 and will now be combined with Pride’s ‘numeric’ events. The Bushido name will still be used for events held outside of Japan and America. Sakakibara stated that all future fights in Japan will adopt Pride’s regular round system of one ten-minute round and two five-minute rounds. Under the previous Bushido rules, the round system consisted of one ten-minute round and only one five-minute round. All fights in the U.S. will abide by the rules and regulations of the athletic commission in the state where the fight occurs.

This year will see the introduction of Pride’s new super heavyweight division. Sakakibara commented more on the new weight class. “Now we have super heavyweight fighters than can compete in their own division. They’re not just big, anymore. There are also giant fighters like Mark Hunt and James Thompson that are also very skilled. We want to be a world leader in this regard and we will work very hard towards this weight class.”

After much speculation, the UFC announced the signing of Pride Open Weight Grand Prix Champion Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and signified one of the biggest star crossovers since Kazushi Sakuraba left Pride for K-1 Hero’s. As the sport of MMA continues to proliferate, more fighters will have opportunities to fight in different organizations. “While there are fighters that represent Pride, I think that other fighters are right to move towards a place where they feel they should go. While we will continue to search for new talent, there are probably fighters active in other organizations that appreciate the Pride concept, that want to be the best in the world and want to fight in Pride. While fighters will change, I just hope that the industry will maintain some discipline and not snatch fighters in a way that goes against the rules.”