by Al Yu for MMAWeekly.com
Anticipation was high as Pride’s “Critical Countdown Absolute” event got underway. Dream Stage Entertainment, the parent company of Pride Fighting Championships, managed to put on another excellent production despite the recent setbacks caused by Fuji TV’s cancellation of their television contract.

In the opening fight, Polish Judo legend Pawel Nastula finally got his first win in Pride. After losing his debut against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and a tough fight with Aleksander Emelianenko, Nastula defeated the debuting Edson Drago by armbar in the first round. Pawel punished Drago with accurate punches from the mount and was impressive in victory. The smile on his face was comparable to a child receiving a year’s supply of candy bars. This was a solid win for the Judoka, and hopefully fans will get the opportunity to see him fight again in Pride.

Yoshihiro Nakao made a successful transition from the K-1 Hero’s promotion to Pride when he defeated Korea’s Lee Eun Su in the first round. With a new nickname of “Kiss” and his cornermen jokingly holding him back during the pre-fight staredown, the referee actually said, “No kissing.” Once the serious business of the actual fight began, Nakao controlled the entire bout, using his superior wrestling skills and punishing the taller Korean with an array of punches and hammer fists. The end of the bout came when the doctors stopped the fight due to a massive hematoma under one of Su’s eyes.

Vitor Belfort rebounded from his recent loss to Alistair Overeem by knocking out Pancrase veteran Yoshiki Takahashi in the first round Having fallen on hard times personally and professionally, Belfort gave his loyal fans a glimpse of the “old Vitor.” Takahashi started the fight by throwing low kicks. The first time that the two fighters engaged, Belfort landed a left hook that dropped Takahashi into the corner of the ring. The ref immediately stepped in to stop the fight, and a sigh of relief could be felt amid Vitor’s excitement. Though this was just a tune-up fight for Belfort, the victory was a confidence booster and a positive mark in Vitor’s recently inconsistent career.

With Linkin Park’s “In the End” serving as his entrance music, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira walked into the Pride ring for the first time in just over a year. His opponent was Alistair Overeem, who previously lost to Nogueira via unanimous decision at Pride 29 in early 2005.

This time around, Nogueira looked a little tentative at the beginning of the fight, showing some signs of ring rust. On the other hand, Overeem started more aggressively than he did in their first fight, throwing high and low kicks. The fight remained competitive until Nogueira landed a left hook in the second round that staggered Overeem to the corner. Sensing that Overeem was hurt, Nogueira unloaded with a barrage of unanswered punches, causing Overeem’s corner to throw in the towel. The win could very well make Nogueira in the number one contender for Wanderlei Silva’s Pride Middleweight (205-pound) Title.

The debut of Cage Rage veteran and Chute Boxe fighter Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos was spoiled when he was submitted by Kazuhiro Nakamura. Nakamura took Santos down early with a single-leg takedown, and that’s where the fight remained until Nakamura secured a keylock. Santos had the opportunity to throw just one punch in the fight.

In the first of the four Grand Prix tournament match-ups on this card, former Pride Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira faced off with fellow Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner Fabricio Werdum. Given the fact that both of these fighters are so talented in BJJ, this match-up had “stalemate” written all over it once the fight hit the ground. However, it was apparent that Nogueira’s boxing was more refined when the two fighters were in the stand-up position. Nogueira dropped Werdum with big punches on two different occasions in the first round, though Werdum did work his left jab and throw some nice punches of his own.

For the remainder of the fight, Werdum was reluctant to exchange and was more focused on scoring takedowns. After three competitive rounds, Nogueira earned a unanimous decision. In an act of respect to Mauricio Pereira, Fabricio’s late BJJ coach, Nogueira and Werdum stood in the ring after the fight and held up a t-shirt remembering their fallen countryman. The shirt had a picture of Pereira and the following words written: “His energy is our power.”

Josh Barnett moved one step closer to the Grand Prix title by submitting former K-1 kickboxing champion Mark Hunt. Shortly after the start of the fight, Barnett took Hunt to ground and used his wrestling skills to gain side control. Hunt’s inexperience on the ground showed, as he succumbed to a kimura shortly after the fight hit the ground.

In one of the most anticipated fights of the evening, Pride Middleweight Champion Wanderlei Silva took on Japanese heavyweight Kazuyuki “Iron Head” Fujita. The initial staredown was intense, raising the excitement for fans in attendance.

The fight began with the two fighters circling and feeling each other out. A missed high kick attempt from Silva resulted in Fujita charging Silva into the ropes with a running knee. The knee glanced off of Silva’s body and threw Fujita off balance. Silva promptly chased Fujita to the opposite corner of the ring, throwing a barrage of knees and punches. Regaining his composure, Fujita secured a single leg and took the fight to the ground. Wanderlei showed great positioning and defense in the guard. From his back, Silva secured an armbar. Wincing in pain, Fujita used his strength to break out of the hold.

After another unsuccessful armbar attempt and some inactivity, the fight was stood up and both fighters received a yellow card. The fight would remain standing until there was about one minute left on the clock in the first round.

At that point, Silva landed a right hook that staggered Fujita. Recognizing that Fujita was in trouble, Wanderlei landed two more vicious left-right combos that dropped the Japanese fighter to the mat for a second time. A barrage of punches, hammer fists, and soccer kicks followed until the fight was called. Fujita received more punishment than necessary, and referee Yuji Shamada clearly should have stopped the fight after Fujita slumped to the ground for the second time.

In the main event of the evening, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic faced off against Judo Gold Medalist Hidehiko Yoshida. Mirko was calm throughout the fight and remained very focused. Yoshida seemed to feel comfortable exchanging with Mirko, but was unable to overcome his takedown defense and devastating low kicks. As the fight progressed, the accumulation of low kicks took its toll and Yoshida began to limp.

An uppercut by Cro Cop put Yoshida on his back, and the referee ordered a stand-up when Cro Cop elected not to enter Yoshida’s world on the ground. The damage from the leg kicks made it painful just for Yoshida to stand back up. When he did stand back up, another vicious low kick from Cro Cop dropped the Japanese star for good. With Yoshida unable to continue, the ref called an end to the fight.

Overall, Critical Countdown Absolute was a very good show. Of the nine fights scheduled, only one fight went to a decision. The production values and entertainment level remained intact, despite setbacks outside of the ring and the lack of a Fuji TV production crew.

Despite some mismatches, the undercard was decent. However, the tournament matches were the highlight of the evening, and the event surpassed my expectations. The tournament results produced a hardcore fight fan’s dream: Four world-class competitors whose fights will be eagerly anticipated no matter how they’re matched up in the semi-finals.

With another solid event under Pride’s belt, anticipation will be high for Final Conflict Absolute, which takes place on September 10th.

Full Results

Tournament Matches:

-Mirko Cro Cop def. Hidehiko Yoshida by TKO at 7:38 of Round 1

-Josh Barnett def. Mark Hunt by submission (kimura) at 2:02 of Round 1

-Wanderlei Silva def. Kazuyuki Fujita by TKO at 9:21 of Round 1

-Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira def. Fabricio Werdum by unanimous decision

Non-Tournament Matches:

-Kazuhiro Nakamura def. Evangelista “Cyborg” Santos by submission (keylock) at 4:49 of Round 1

-Antonio Rogerio Nogueira def. Alistair Overeem by TKO (corner stoppage) at 2:13 of Round 2

-Vitor Belfort def. Yoshiki Takahashi by KO at 0:36 of Round 1

-Yoshihiro Nakao def. Lee Eun Su by TKO at 4:16 of Round 1

-Pawel Nastula def. Edson Drago by submission (armbar) at 4:33 of Round 1