by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
It’s been a busy month for the Pride Fighting Championships. Not only did they finalize the line-up for Pride 31: Unbreakable, their first show of the year this upcoming Sunday, February 26th, they also revealed plans for an upcoming Open Weight Grand Prix to start in May.

To not only breakdown the major bouts on the upcoming show, but also discuss year to come for the company, MMA Weekly caught up with play-by-play commentator Mauro Ranallo as he prepared to head to Japan for the first Pride PPV of 2006.

MMA Weekly: First off Mauro, last year was such a huge year for both yourself and Pride FC. How are you feeling heading into the first show of the new year?

Mauro Ranallo: I’m very much looking forward to it, especially reuniting with “El Guapo” Bas Rutten. I think this is going to be our best year and I’m looking forward to continuing our working relationship. We make a unique and entertaining combination and we’re looking forward to bringing the fans of Pride FC the best commentating in the world.

MMA Weekly: All right, let’s get to the upcoming Pride 31 show and first discuss the major match-ups on the show starting with ex-Pride Heavyweight Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira taking on former 2003 Middleweight GP participant Kiyoshi Tamura. What do you think about this bout?

Mauro Ranallo: I think these two will showcase their ground fighting skills and put on a submission smorgasbord if you will. I know Nogueira is obviously working on his striking skills with the Cuban National Boxing Team and he’s becoming an all-around fighter. Tamura is kind of an enigma, but dominated the world of submission fighting there for a while in Japan and not much of a striker per say minus his kicking. I think Nogueira will have the advantage in power and boxing, and is the Submission Magician of heavyweights.

MMA Weekly: Next up we have former UFC Heavyweight Champion Josh Barnett going up against Hidehiko Yoshida prodigy Kazuhiro Nakamura. What should we be looking for in this fight?

Mauro Ranallo: On paper this is a size mismatch, but this is what this event is all about, a precursor to the Open Weight Grand Prix. Josh Barnett came back off the shoulder injury he suffered in October of 2004 but rehabilitated and came back to fight Mirko Cro Cop last year and went the distance. Conditioning always to has to be an issue when you miss that much time, but he’s a warrior, a hard hitting wrestler and former Champion so he knows how to win. Nakamura has beaten some of the best middleweights and yes he’ll give up the size and weight to Barnett but will give Josh a very tough test. This one will showcase more than maybe the other fights on the card what the upcoming GP is all about, not the size of a fighter’s body, but of a fighter’s heart and fighting spirit.

MMA Weekly: Okay now let’s discuss Russian sniper Sergei Kharitonov taking on the Dutch kickboxer supreme Alistair Overheem. What are your thoughts about this one?

Mauro Ranallo: This one has show stealer written all over it. Sergei Kharitonov is coming off a lackluster win over Fabricio Werdum, but he suffered a shoulder injury early in the fight, and when he’s healthy he’s got natural boxing talent and is the total package. He’s good on the ground, very entertaining, and has phenomenal stand-up. You saw what he did to Pedro Rizzo, who’s also fighting on this card, he just walked right over Pedro. Alistair Overheem really put himself on the map in last year’s middleweight tournament. He’s the tallest middleweight and of course comes from the striking factory of Holland and has won six or seven fights via guillotine, so that’s always an option. I predict this one will showcase fireworks and I’m really looking forward to seeing how these two handle each other in the squared circle.

MMA Weekly: Finally we have 2000 Open Weight GP Champion Mark Coleman going up against 2005 Middleweight GP Champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. What do you see in store for this battle of tourney winners?

Mauro Ranallo: Mark Coleman has a very impressive career in his MMA tenure, but I think he’d be the first to admit or should perhaps, heading into the age of 40, that he’s in the twilight of his career. Maurico Shogun is coming off one of the most impressive years of any Mixed Martial Artist has ever had and I think he won the toughest tournament possibly in MMA history. You look at the four opponents he beat and it’s a virtual who’s who in MMA and he’s yet to lose in Pride and is definitely the face of the company for years to come. Coleman had problems establishing his bread and butter, the takedown, against Cro Cop and I think it will be the same thing with Shogun. I think Mark will give him a good run for his money but in the end I think it’s going to be Shogun’s fight to lose.

MMA Weekly: All right let’s move onto the upcoming Open Weight GP. The main question would be, why now, why an open weight tournament after the successes Pride has had with divisional GPs?

Mauro Ranallo: Pride FC always looks to be innovative and in the vortex of the evolution of the sport and have now decided that it’s time to find out who is the best fighter in the sport period, regardless of weight. I know there are some critics out there that question the nature of this style of event, but I assure you the best 16 fighters will be participating. It will be largely the heavyweights and middleweights, but no one is to say that maybe some of the welterweight and lightweight fighters might want to get in there and test themselves against the bigger fighters.

MMA Weekly: It’s been six years since Pride last held an open weight tournament and rules have changed since then. I hear there may be some issue with what exactly the rules are going to be this time around?

Mauro Ranallo: I understand there may be special rules for the tournament that begins May 5th in Japan. Right now I can’t confirm that but I know the promoters of Pride are looking to even the field regarding the four-point attacks and such. As of this time I don’t know exactly what the rules will be, but they will take it in to consideration that there will be smaller fighters involved and as you know safety is paramount in Pride FC.

MMA Weekly: Another possibly big issue heading into the tournament is the participation of Pride Heavyweight Champion Fedor Emelianenko. Can you give us your thoughts on that?

Mauro Ranallo: As you know he’s had surgery on his injured right hand and his participation in the tourney is in doubt. You can look into that two ways, obviously without the most dominant fighter in the world possibly not being involved it could take away some of the momentum of the tournament. However if someone should emerge as a dominant force in the tournament it could set up a showdown later in the year with Fedor perhaps at Shockwave 2006. So while his possible non-involvement may be an issue with some fans, it will open doors for other fighters and ultimately I feel could culminate in some good coming out of it.

MMA Weekly: Having said all this, what is your outlook for the company this year?

Mauro Ranallo: I think Pride FC continues to outdo itself and continues to raise the bar in terms of what’s expected from MMA events. Of course the Shockwave 2005 show beating the competition in the ratings was a monumental victory for the company. All the credit for the success of the company of course goes to President Nobuyuki Sakakibara, Nobuhiko Takada and everyone involved in Pride FC. There’s a great comrodary among the Pride family, and yes there are rivalries amongst some of the fighters, but Pride is a juggernaut and I believe that everyone involved is going to make this our best year ever.

MMA Weekly: All right, before we head out I want to get your thoughts on the retirement of someone you’ve commentated with in the past, Randy Couture, from MMA competition. Would you like to say anything about his retirement?

Mauro Ranallo: I think Randy Couture embodies all that is right with MMA. He’s one of the sport’s greatest ambassadors and one of the classiest individuals you’ll find anywhere. I had the honor and pleasure of commentating with Randy at Shockwave a couple years ago and you talk about someone that’s a natural, pardon the pun, at commentary, I think someone should definitely utilize his talents there. He’s a first class act all the way and one of the greatest champions ever. And while I’m sad to see him go, I’m glad he is retiring healthy and I hope he enjoys the remainder of his life and I look forward to his future involvement with MMA whatever it may be.

MMA Weekly: Thanks as always for your time Mauro. Is there anything you’d like to say as we head out?

Mauro Ranallo: This is our first kick of the canvas of the year so to speak, Pride 31: Unbreakable, and I think it will wet the appetite of fans for the upcoming tournament and will provide some very interesting match-ups as we’ve discussed here. I remind newer fans that if they haven’t tried Pride FC before, I strongly urge they check us out on PPV. The crowd is always huge, the electricity is always buzzing and of course we have the greatest collection of international fighters anywhere in the world.