By Monti DiPietro, pictures by K-1
Sato Wins K-1 Max Japan, Masato Beats Schaffa

TOKYO, February 4, 2006 — Scarcely a week after his 25th birthday, former All-Japan Boxing Welterweight Champion Yoshihiro Sato picked up a present well worth waiting for — the K-1 Max Japan Belt. Sato looked smart dispatching three challengers en route to victory tonight at the Saitama Super Arena just north of Tokyo.

To kick off the Year of the Dog, K-1 unleashed 14 World Max fighters in an event that included the Japan Max Tournament and a trio of Superfights. The World Max Class has a weight limit of 70kg/154lbs. All bouts were contested under K-1 Rules, 3Min x 3R with a possible tiebreaker round, two in the final.

The first tournament quarterfinal pitted the experienced Seidokaikan fighter Kazuya Yasuhiro, an early favorite, against kickboxer Hayato. Yasuhiro looked confident from the start, connecting with good straight punches and snapping in the low kicks and knees while displaying superior evasions to take control.

But Hayato burst to life in the second, getting through with a brutal left hook to stun Yasuhiro, who was only barely able to ride out the round. In the third, Hayato kept taking the fight to his opponent, snapping Yasuhiro’s noggin back with a right uppercut to make the judges’ job easy. An upset win by unanimous decision.

Bad boy boxer Tatsuji made his K-1 debut against Yuya Yamamoto, who at just 21 tears of age was the youngest fighter in the tournament.

Yamamoto, wearing a pink half-slip draped over his trunks, ate a whole lot of leather in the first as Tatsuji got antagonistic with the fists. In the second, Yamamoto hardly threw a punch, and was cautioned for repeatedly clinching. After Tsuji unloaded a barrage of unanswered blows, the referee stepped in and called for a doctor check. It was determined that Yamamoto had dislocated his right shoulder, and the bout was stopped even as an intrepid Yamamoto loudly protested that he wanted to continue.

The third bout saw the mean-looking Akira Ohigashi take Ryuki Ueyama, an amateur wrestler making his K-1 debut.

The fancy Ueyama brought flipping and spinning backhand punches and pranced in a manner suggesting Genki Sudo. Ohigashi meanwhile stuck to the basics — guard high, tossing the jab and pumping in body blows when the distance closed. In the second, Ueyama used the low and front kicks and knees to effect, and was able to duck, deke or retreat whenever the fists came.

Ohigashi seemed frustrated by his slippery opponent, and Ueyama got the knee up from the clinch in the third to open a cut over his opponent’s right eye, prompting a doctor check. The fight continued, but Ohigashi couldn’t connect, couldn’t get back into it, and Ueyama took the win by unanimous decision.

A couple of powerful kickers, Yoshihiro Sato and Akeomi Nitta, mixed it up in the last of the quarterfinals. The first round was fast and about even, the fighters trading low kicks, Nitta good with an uppercut, Sato solid with a knee to the midsection.

Throughout, Sato worked the knees with superior kill, and this was to prove the difference. Both fighters put punches through, but neither did serious damage with either the fists or the low kicks. A good, close fight that went to Sato by judges’ decision.

And so Tatsuji took on Hayato in the first semifinal. The spunky Tatsuji outworked his opponent here, connecting with a high kick and a right straight in the first. Again in the second Tatsuji was aggressive, always moving in with body blows, answering Hayato’s attacks with stinging low kicks.

The final round was fast and furious, a desperate Hayato stepping in to throw the right, Tatsuji again punishing with the body blows and low kicks. Tatsuji put his opponent off balance with a low kick late in the round, then quickly followed up with a hard right to score a down. An impressive performance to earn Tatsuji a well-deserved place in the final.

The second semi pitted Ueyama against Sato. Ueyama’s dancing-out-of-harm’s-way tactic wasn’t working here, as an aggressive Sato did an excellent job of cutting off the ring. Both fighters got low kicks in, but Sato’s had more on them. By the end of the first Ueyama was limping and wincing in pain. During the break the ringside doctor stepped up to have a look, and decided to stop the fight, putting Sato into the final.

Sato and Tatsuji made a war of the final. The height differential (Sato stands 185cm/6’1″; Tatsuji but 174cm/5’9″) meant that Tatsuji had to get past Sato’s jab and low kicks in order to get anything going. This he did surprisingly well in the first — getting in on Sato with two good left straight punches and a right that was the best strike of the round. Sato had the low kicks, but when the pair went toe-to-toe, which they did for a good long while, it was Tatsuji who got the better of the exchanges.

But the second evidenced Sato’s technical prowess, as the fighter began to throw the knee whenever Tatsuji stepped forward. Midway through, a knee to the midsection dropped Tatsuji, and the fighter was lucky to have this ruled a slip. Sato rattled his opponent with a right hook, and was now taking control of the fight. A never-say-die Tatsuji strove to work the punches, and while you had to admire his gutsy effort, the tide had turned.

A worn out Tatsuji took a truckload of punishment in the third — more knees, a high kick and a right hook, but to his credit never went down. A unanimous decision for Sato to cap an exciting night of action.

With his tournament victory, Sato earns five million yen and a spot at this April’s World Max Final Elimination — a one-match tournament which will determine the World Max ’06 Final Eight.

“My technique got me through,” said Sato post-tournament. “I feel no pressure for the April tournament, the only adjustment has been familiarizing myself with the K-1 rules. In April, I would want to fight Buakaw, as I think he is the strongest Max fighter out there!”

Asked what he planned to do with his prize money, Sato said he would use it to repay his student loan.

Overall, a good tournament that showcased some emerging talent. In the hard-fought reserve bout, Yasuhito Shirasu edged Hakuto by judges’ decision.

In Superfights on the card:

The Main Event had 2003 World Max Champion Masato of Japan step in against Ian Schaffa of Australia. Masato fired in more than a dozen hard low kicks in the first, while Schaffa seemed unsure how to get in with his punches, attempting instead (and missing with) a spinning back kick.

It was more of the same in the second. Although Schaffa’s ambitious flip kick made partial contact this time and he got a brief volley of punches through, Masato had the better stuff with his low kicks, and unloaded some good punches on Schaffa in the corner.

Dominating in every aspect of the bout, Masato gave the partisan crowd plenty to cheer about, showing good technical skill and flying in with a knee in the third. Schaffa missed with his big hooks and winced when he caught Masato’s kicks on the counter. It was clear that although Schaffa has speed and power, as a jiu-jitsu man fighting one of the world’s best kickboxers under K-1 rules, he was out of his league. A unanimous decision for Masato.

“I am happy with the result,” said Masato afterwards, “although I have to say I would have preferred to win by KO! In any case, I’ll keep working and win again in April, just you wait and see!”

Full-on fighting machine Remigijus Morkevicius of Lithuania had won both his K-1 bouts coming into his Superfight against Japanese fighter Shingo Garyu, a 30 year-old J-Net Welterweight Champion making his K-1 debut. Garyu got a laugh at the pre-event press conference by announcing, “I want to win this fight because I really really want to become famous!”

There’s an adage — “Be careful what you wish for, you might get it.” Somewhat ironically, Garyu did indeed become famous tonight: His name will go into the record books on the wrong end of the quickest-ever KO in World Max history.

At the bell, Morkevicius snapped in a low kick that turned Garyu round. Straightaway, Morkevicius leapt up with a flying knee to KO the Japanese fighter. The whole thing took eight seconds.

Buakaw Por Pramuk of Thailand, who won the Max Final in 2004 and was runner-up last year, is one of the world’s best kickers. In the card’s third Superfight, he tested his skills against Mike Zambidis, a squat Greek slugger who had won three of his last four K-1 bouts by KO.

After a slow start, Zambidis got a high kick up that glanced off Buakaw’s head. Buakaw was quick with his legwork, but Zambidis’ defenses were sound. In the second, Buakaw tossed in more low kicks to control the distance, and went to the clinch-and-throw when Zambidis attempted to close with the fists. Zambidis did get a body blow through on a counter, but that was about it.

The third saw more body blows from Zambidis, which Buakaw coolly answered with middle kicks. The Greek launched several roundhouse rights, but Buakaw always got beyond the arc then darted back in with the magically lethal legs. The skill was incredible, as Buakaw was able to both position and punish his opponent with his legwork. Buakaw simply landed more strikes, and took a unanimous decision.

The K-1 World Max Japan ’06 Tournament attracted a sellout crowd of 13,927 to the Saitama Super Arena. The event was same-day broadcast in Japan on the TBS Network — in other locations check with local broadcasters for time-delay scheduling. As always check the K-1 Official Website (www.k-1.co.jp) for complete coverage.