Let the Debate Begin: Dream 11

The Yokohama Arena was the center for a day full of surprises from Dream’s latest offering.

While crowning the promotion’s first featherweight champ was set in stone, the appearance of Kazushi Sakuraba at the last minute did somewhat balance out the absence of Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, who was rumored to be on the card during the final weeks before the show. However, to most MMA fans, the show’s main attraction was a title match, but of the non-tournament variety with Shinya Aoki and Joachim Hansen finishing their trilogy off in grand style. The trilogy may be complete, but the rivalry may not.

Shinya Aoki won his second career title (I’m guessing nobody really recognizes WAMMA) by submitting then-Dream lightweight champ Joachim Hansen with only four seconds left in the second and final round of their title fight. The loss did bring the title itself full circle as Hansen TKO’d Aoki last summer in the final of the lightweight Grand Prix to win the tournament and the title. Aoki won the first meeting between the two in quick fashion via submission at Pride’s Shockwave 2006 show. The fight itself didn’t have the action or quickness that the other two had with Aoki opting for a more slow-paced approach, one that played to his best better than it did for Hansen who relies on his striking much more than Aoki. What transpired was next to fifteen minutes of grappling and mat work with little standing action. However, the final twenty seconds is what made the fight noteworthy: with both men on the mat and doing little, Hansen decided to try and earn an escape before the final seconds ticked off, made his move to break free, and Aoki caught him in the exact position needed for an Armbar and got it.

Aoki is not nearly as respected as he should be because of his tendency to be boring at times and his reliance on his ground game (I coin this “Nogueira syndrome”). However, the fact remains that this guy is the best lightweight in the world that doesn’t fight in UFC, and the only two UFC lightweights that may be better than Aoki could be fighting each other for the title before the year is out. Aoki did get TKO’d real, real quick against Hayato Sakurai earlier in the year, but that was in the welterweight division as Aoki apparently thought he could pull a B.J. Penn and attempt to become a title holder in two weight divisions; like Penn, his quest ended in embarrassing defeat. Despite losing to Sakurai and Hansen in the last year, Aoki has in that same amount of time avenged the loss to Hansen in the best way possible (he lost to and beat Hansen in title fights) and gained wins against Vitor Ribeiro and Eddie Alvarez along with a few other wins against less noteworthy fighters. Even if you look at Aoki’s 2008 before the Hansen loss, there were wins with Gesias Cavalcante after a long wait for the fight and a no contest in their first meeting of ’08, Katsuhiko Nagata courtesy of a reverse Gogoplata (Aoki on top), and Caol Uno in one of the more entertaining fights of 2008. With a record of 8-2 with 1 NC in the last 19 months, it seems that Aoki is easily the best lightweight outside of UFC. Now with the title to back it up and a potential meeting with Tatsuya Kawajiri on New Year’s Eve, this could be the time in his career where Aoki truly becomes the phenom he was primed to be just a few years ago.

Dream crowned its first featherweight champ and to most people’s surprise it was Bibiano Fernandes who survived two fights and took home the gold. To say he survived would be an overstatement from the overall standpoint of Fernandes’ two fights that day. Fernandes’ first win was the shocker of the night as he demolished Joe Warren—the favorite going into the show after his win over Yamamoto—in only 42 seconds. Fernandes won the title later in the night with the polar opposite: a decision win over Hiroyuki Takaya in a fight that was as close as the split decision verdict would indicate.

Fernandes does have the world at his feet so to speak being that he is not only the champ, but the promotion’s inaugural champ in the weight division. What Fernandes has more than anything is time; he’s only 29, he’s still early into his career, and has the credentials to make an impact in the sport with a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—always an asset in MMA. As for his title reign, Fernandes also is pretty lucky in that his two career losses were two Urijah Faber and Norifumi Yamamoto in consecutive fights in 2006 and 2007 respectively. While Faber fight ranges somewhere in between probably won’t happen and never will happen, the Yamamoto fight is almost a definite for his first title defense. I say almost because Yamamoto is still a HUGE draw in Japan and would be a perfect opponent to help Fernandes’ gain some name value, but Yamamoto having his first legit MMA loss come in his comeback fight and then be destroyed in what was supposed to be a tune-up kickboxing fight for the big one with Masato New Year’s Eve both hurt Yamamoto’s case as a legit challenger for the title. A win on New Year’s Eve for Yamamoto against whoever he ends up fighting may soften the blow of his less than stellar 2009, but Fernandes’ future and the future of the title likely won’t be in the cards until we ring in 2010.

The Openweight or “Super Hulk” tournament was the third focus of his packed show from Dream. Compared to Pride’s 2006 Openweight tourney, this one has been vintage K-1 from the participants to the pairings. Bringing Bob Sapp back into the tourney as a replacement was something right out of K-1’s rule book for the World Grand Prix, but even if that were the motivation, the rule is that a fighter can come back if the guy he lost to can’t continue. In this case, Sapp didn’t lose to Gegard Mousasi (Sokoudjou’s original semifinal opponent), he lost to Ikuhisa Minowa who was still in the tournament; if the rule was to be implemented correctly, they should’ve gone out and got Mark Hunt—the guy who Mousasi beat in the first round—to come in and face Sokoudjou. And by the way, Hunt would’ve taken that fight if offered because there likely aren’t going to be many fight offers in his near-future.

The final of Minowa/Sokoudjou was one yours truly expected the moment the fights were announced. Despite the fact that Sapp/Choi would do a much better rating on New Year’s Eve for K-1, it wasn’t going to happen. Putting a once devastating striker in Sapp against a devastating when he wants to be striker in Sokoudjou was a mismatch despite Sapp having an over 100 pound weight advantage. Minowa ended up hitting the replay button on his approach and for the second straight fight it worked against a much bigger, much stronger, but far less talented fighter. It should be noted that the surgery to remove a brain tumor from Choi was also one that seems to have killed him as a fighter considering he lost a massive amount of weight and the subsequent fights showed that his killer instinct or even his motivation to fight seemed to have gone with it, something his fights this year have only confirmed.

Finally, I’d like to touch on a fight that was supposed to be part of the Super Hulk tourney, but is now part of Strikeforce’s CBS show in a few weeks: Mousasi vs. Sokoudjou. This was scheduled and on the card for Dream 11 until a few weeks ago when Mousasi had to opt out of the fight because of an injury apparently suffered in his grappling match against Fedor Emelianenko. It would appear that the injury—if one even existed—wasn’t as bad as initially thought and he was given the ok to make the fight with Sokoudjou happen. I don’t hate the fact that this fight is happening, but I do take issue with where it’s happening. If this fight had been on a Dream card last year or earlier this year, I wouldn’t have a problem with it as I was glad that Mousasi/Babalu happened after the Barnett/Affliction debacle this past summer. However those were different circumstances; in this case, the fight was part of a tournament and wasn’t just a regular fight. For Mousasi to be forced to back out of a tournament fight, but be able to fight that same person in a different promotion a month after the fight was originally scheduled to take place is incredibly fishy. I’m not going to doubt there was some injury as Mousasi doesn’t have the reputation as someone who uses doublespeak or is perceived as someone who is full of shit most of the time. I’m going to give Mousasi the benefit of the doubt on this one, but it does irk me just a bit to see this fight happen with the background that it now possesses.

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