Retro-Review: UFC: Ultimate Japan

UFC: Ultimate Japan

Yokohama, Japan

-Back to the old days then, right before the ‘Dark Ages’, to this – the first international show from the UFC, taking place appropriately in Japan, “the birthplace of martial arts”, as the video package puts it.

-Video package runs down the two main events, the Heavyweight Title fight between champion Maurice Smith and challenger Randy Couture, and the fight to crown the UFC’s first Middleweight Champion between Olympic Gold Medallist in wrestling, Kevin Jackson, and the debuting Frank Shamrock.

-Your hosts are Mike Goldberg and Jeff Blatnick, who talk about the title fights and then mention Vitor Belfort’s comeback fight after the disastrous encounter with Couture, and they actually question Belfort’s mental state. Even at this stage in his career I guess the guy had issues. Crazy stuff.

-Rules are as follows for anyone who needed a refresher – we’ve got a mini-tournament, one ‘Superfight’ and two title fights. Tournament fights are one twelve-minute round, with a three-minute overtime period, while the title fights are one fifteen-minute round with two three-minute overtime periods. Not sure about the Superfight but I think it’s the same as the title bouts.

Tournament Semi-Finals: Tank Abbott vs Yoji Anjo

Anjo is a pro-wrestler of some fame in Japan; I believe his notoriety in terms of MMA comes from him getting the hell beaten out of him by Rickson Gracie in an ill-fated visit to the Gracie dojo. He’s got Kanehara and Takada, two more pro-wrestlers turned MMA fighters in his corner. So to counteract that I guess, Tank has the guy known as ‘Big Al’ in his corner. You know, Big Al. That guy who fought Tank in WCW in the ‘Skins’ match that ended with Tank threatening to “f*cking kill him” with a switchblade. No joke.

They begin, and Tank grabs hold of him pretty quickly and gets a slam down to Anjo’s guard. It’s weird, but Tank’s so well known as a stand-up brawler, you forget how many times he just ended up taking a guy down and pounding on them there. Anyway, sure enough Tank drops some heavy shots, but Anjo survives despite being shoved into the fence, and Tank inevitably slows down after a while. Anjo tries an armbar as Abbott drops some more punches, but Tank avoids and the referee ends up standing them. Tank lands a right hand and pulls him down again, where Anjo gets guard, but little else happens. Anjo continually brings his legs up, but doesn’t come close with any submissions, and Tank’s only offense is a few punches. They end up being stood again with three minutes remaining, and Tank looks tired now, leaning forward with hands on his waist. Anjo throws a couple of low kicks, but catches a right hand for his troubles, and then Tank bulls him into the fence and gets a takedown again, ending the round with nothing more than a few punches.

Into the overtime period then and Tank presses forward, lands a right, and gets a takedown again, this time ending up in half-guard. He presses Anjo into the fence, but the pro-wrestler gets full guard, and little more happens from there until the fight ends.

Tank picks up the decision, but post-fight he explains to Blatnick that he thinks he broke his left hand really early in the fight. Really plodding encounter there; Tank just seemed happy to take Anjo down and punch him from the guard, while Anjo offered absolutely zero in terms of offense.

Tournament Semi-Finals: Kazushi Sakuraba vs Conan Silveira

Man, it’s SO weird to be seeing Sakuraba in the UFC before anyone really knew anything about him. From what I know this was just his second fight; the first being a possibly worked fight with Kimo a year prior. Silveira was pretty well known at this point, the former Extreme Fighting champion before Maurice Smith beat him for the title, and he’s a Carlson Gracie student.

They press the action to begin, with Sakuraba shooting in and getting the takedown, pulling quickly out of a guillotine attempt. They scramble for a second and then both fighters look for leglocks, with Sakuraba standing, but Silveira catches him with an upkick and then uses the leglock attempt to reverse position, taking Sakuraba’s back. Silveira gets a suplex and then rolls into a kimura attempt, but Sakuraba reverses out and they come back to their feet. Silveira suddenly opens up with punches, seemingly stunning Sakuraba with a combination, but as Sakuraba drops to shoot for a leg, John McCarthy steps in and stops the fight.

Sakuraba’s immediately up and absolutely livid, pointing out that he’s not hurt at all and was shooting for a takedown, but McCarthy’s having none of it and they award the fight to Silveira via knockout. Announcers are talking about fighter safety and how McCarthy probably did the right thing, but the replay clearly shows that Sakuraba took a left uppercut, blocked another one-two and then dropped to shoot for a leg when McCarthy stopped it. From one angle it does look like Sakuraba fell forwards after the punches, I guess, which is why it was stopped, but still, major refereeing blunder there.

-After a few minutes the announcers confirm that it’s been decided that because the Sakuraba fight was stopped early, and also because Tank Abbott is out with his broken hand, they’ll re-do the Sakuraba/Silveira fight in the tournament finals. Seems fair to me.

UFC World Middleweight Title: Frank Shamrock vs Kevin Jackson

With the institution of the Middleweight division (171lbs-199lbs) at UFC 14, it made sense to bring in a Middleweight Title here, but from what I know the original plan was to have Jackson – the Olympic Gold Medallist in wrestling – who won the UFC 14 MW tournament, facing Jerry Bohlander, who won the UFC 12 Lightweight (which was actually the same as a MW category at the time) tournament. There’s a bit of controversy over how Shamrock ended up in the spot, which I won’t get into because I don’t know the full story, but despite his adopted brother’s fame in UFC, the announcers barely mention Ken here. Not sure whether they were trying to avoid putting Frank in his shadow or whether they were still pissed at Ken for going to the WWF or what. Frank’s career had mainly taken place in Pancrase up to this point, with a pretty good degree of success, and he’d recently began training with Maurice Smith. Jackson, for his part, had looked really impressive in his UFC fights thus far and obviously with such a great wrestling pedigree he was seen as a guy who could be a major force in the cage.

Jackson comes forward to open the fight, and quickly gets a takedown…but almost instantly Shamrock twists his hips and gets a straight armbar from the bottom for the tapout! Shamrock is the new UFC Middleweight Champion, and with that one armbar he instantly stepped out of Ken’s shadow (if he’d even been in it in the first place) in the UFC.

Announcers are stunned and wow, that was a scary quick submission from Frank. Just an incredible way for him to announce his arrival on the UFC stage, and from here the legend of one of the greatest UFC champions of all time just grows.

Heavyweight Fight: Vitor Belfort vs Joe Charles

This is a pretty infamous fight for reasons I’ll get into after the play-by-play. Vitor, as I mentioned earlier, was coming off the surprising loss he suffered to Randy Couture at UFC 15, while Charles hadn’t been seen in the UFC for some time, I think dating back to the first five shows or something.

They press forward to open and Vitor clinches up and gets a takedown to side mount, where he quickly steps to full mount. He tries a kimura from there, but Charles avoids well, only to end up giving his back. Vitor looks to get both hooks in, but Charles reverses into top position, before Vitor reverses that, and ends up in side mount. He controls Charles from the top before spinning into a back mount with both hooks in, and from there he looks for the rear naked choke. Charles defends that too and then turns to end up mounted. He tries to reverse, but Vitor gets the mount again, and from there he gets a textbook armbar for the tapout.

Announce team talk about how this is the first time they’ve really seen Vitor’s grappling game, but here’s where the controversy comes in – this fight’s widely recognized as being one of the closest things to a ‘work’ in UFC history. Apparently while the fight wasn’t outright pre-determined like a pro-wrestling bout, Charles and Belfort had a pre-fight agreement to make it a pure grappling match with no strikes, which is why Vitor didn’t come out punching like he’d done previously. Not the most entertaining fight but the story behind it makes it interesting at least.

Tournament Finals: Kazushi Sakuraba vs Marcus Silveira

Ah, déjà vu. To say Sakuraba is happy about getting another chance in this fight would be an understatement, and he’s got a point after the horrid ending to the previous one. Anyhow, with Abbott out this is the final to decide the UFC Japan tournament champion.

They muscle into a clinch to begin the fight, with Silveira securing the takedown. Sakuraba goes for a kimura almost immediately, and then as Silveira transitions to a waistlock we see for the first time a position that would become synonymous with Sakuraba later in his career, as he hooks the arm for a kimura from around the back. Silveira pulls him down, but Sakuraba continues to hook the arm, before they come back up and Silveira finally works his arm free and tries a standing choke. That doesn’t work, so he drops to the mat for a kimura attempt of his own, but Sakuraba avoids and we get a weird position for a moment with Saku sort of crouched just outside Silveira’s guard. From there though he turns, steps over the head, and slaps on a straight armbar for the tapout!

Nice redemption for Sakuraba following the first fight, and of course following this he ended up with the new Japanese promotion, Pride, and the rest is history. So interesting to see Saku in the UFC octagon though, even if it was pre-fame. Good little grappling match too.

UFC World Heavyweight Title: Maurice Smith vs Randy Couture

As I mentioned previously, Couture became #1 contender by defeating Vitor Belfort in their famous first encounter at UFC 15, while Smith had won the Heavyweight Title by upsetting Mark Coleman in an equally famous match at UFC 14. The announcers don’t really make any predictions either way here nor mention who the favourite is or anything, just saying that Smith’s got the advantage standing, while Couture’s wrestling means he’ll probably be able to take the fight to the mat with little difficulty, although whether he can do damage there is another matter. They actually play the US national anthem prior to the introductions, which is a really cool touch I think. Always liked it when they did that for title fights in Pride. Oh, also worth noting is the fact that Couture’s wearing long tights for this fight – I believe I read somewhere the reason he did that is so that any bruises left by a Smith leg kick wouldn’t show.

They get underway, and Smith fires off a couple of leg kicks right away, and then lands a right hand as Couture presses forward. Finally Randy closes the distance and gets ahold of Maurice, lifting him up and dragging him off the fence down to the mat. Couture presses him into the fence in a sort of pseudo-side mount, almost a pin, and then goes down into the regular side mount as Smith manages to work away from the cage. Couture controls him from the top though, and lands some punches, before looking for a keylock. Smith blocks the submission but gives up mount as he does so, and it looks for a second like Couture’s going to try an arm triangle variant, but he ends up letting go and Smith manages to secure a half-guard. He works to full guard, so Randy stands and eats an upkick before dropping back down into the guard. He looks to pass, and drops some punches, before Smith almost manages to scramble to his feet. No good though, as Randy spins to the back and Smith is forced to roll back to half-guard. Couture continues to control him well, but outside of a short series of hammer fists and elbows, his actual offense is pretty minimal. He manages to work to side mount, though, and from there Smith attempts a reversal, looking to scramble to his feet, only for Couture to keep him right back down in the guard. He moves Smith to the fence and opens up with a few good punches, and Smith tries to roll, but still ends up side mounted, and the first period of the fight ends there.

They come out for the first overtime period, and Smith throws a hard leg kick, but Couture catches him stepping off and gets the takedown right away to side mount. He controls him from the top, but not a great deal in the way of offense happens, and things stay like that until the three-minute period is up.

Final three minutes then, and Smith comes out more aggressively, landing some glancing punches, but it’s to no avail; Randy gets another takedown into side mount, and then lands a knee en route to taking the north/south position. He drops some knees to the top of the head, while remaining in complete control, and the fight comes to an end there.

That has to be Couture’s decision, and sure enough it is, making Randy ‘The Natural’ Couture the new UFC World Heavyweight Champion. Pretty historic to see Randy’s first title win, but boy, compared to the others it was hardly the most riveting way to win the belt, and just shows you how much the guy has evolved since this period in terms of his all-round game. It wasn’t the worst fight I’ve ever seen or anything, and you can’t fault either guy for what they did I guess – Smith was probably looking for the same gameplan as he used against Coleman, that is, weather the ground-and-pound storm and come through when the opponent’s tired, but Couture never really opened up in the way that Coleman did, which allowed him not to gas out like the former champ, and yet sadly for Smith his wrestling skill was such that he took Maurice down practically at will and was able to keep him there with little difficulty. Still, there were a number of very slow periods where Randy was doing little but hold Maurice down, and I’m not sure why John McCarthy didn’t restart them standing, although you do notice that stand-ups were much less common in this period. So as I said, not a horrible fight, but a largely dull one all the same.

-Post-fight Couture reveals that he’s not into all of the trash talking that some other fighters do. And, we end shortly after that.

The Inside Pulse
: From a historical point of view, Ultimate Japan is a pretty interesting show. The first international show, likely the only time you’ll ever see Sakuraba in the UFC octagon, the debut of one of the UFC’s greatest champions, and the first title win for perhaps *the* greatest ever UFC champion. But forgetting history for a second, what about the fights? To be honest they’re not great. Shamrock’s lightning fast submission aside, the rest of the fights are pretty plodding, outside of the re-run of Sakuraba-Silveira. I know it’s great to see Randy Couture win his first title, but the fight is so plodding to sit through that it’s almost not worth it in the first place. Overall, even for the standards of the shows at this time, Ultimate Japan isn’t great. Worth a look for historical reasons, but don’t expect a blowaway show or anything. Mildly recommended.

Coming Soon….

UFC: Ultimate Brazil, 68, 69, 70, 71 and 72.
WEC: 10 and 11.
WFA: 1, 2 and 3.
Strike Force: Shamrock vs. Gracie.
Gladiator Challenge: Summer Slam.
King of the Cage: 23, 29, 30, 32, 33, 36, 42, 48, 52, and 58.
Best of Shooto 2003 vols. 1 & 2.

Until next time,

Scott Newman: