He may not have walked out with the title, but Yoshiro Maeda (Pictures)'s effort against WEC bantamweight kingpin Miguel Torres (Pictures) on June 1 may have improved his stock.
In a fight that many fans have tabbed as frontrunner for fight of the year, Torres and Maeda fought at a torrid pace in every position, producing the sort of action suitable of a world-class bantamweight bout. After three breakneck rounds, Maeda was halted on the advice of the cageside physician due to a brutally swollen right eye. However, in defeat, Maeda may have done more for his career than in any of his previous 29 bouts.
The 26-year-old Maeda, who still reigns as the featherweight King of Pancrase, burst onto the Japanese MMA scene in 2003 and quickly emerged as one of the circuit's best young prospects. A dynamic talent and an explosive finisher, he went undefeated through his first 14 pro bouts and brought considerable hype into his Pride Bushido debut in May 2005. However, after a brutal knockout at the hands of the ever-dubious Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett, questions began to surface about the actual upside of the Osaka native.
A loss to Masakazu Imanari (Pictures) in a bout he was otherwise winning and a shocking upset loss to Daiki "DJ.taiki" Hata seemed to help the idea that Maeda was a flaky fighter, but, when he ran head first into a guillotine choke against Joe Pearson (Pictures) in his second Bushido go-around in November 2006, Maeda was branded a big-fight choke artist.
In his bout against Torres, an emerging star who seems poised to rule over the bantamweights with impunity, Maeda showed both the guts and skill that were conspicuously absent in his past losses. Maeda fought tooth-and-nail with the king of the bantams and with a world of unfamiliar eyes on him, impressed North American fans by showing the skill and guts that had earned him the hype as one of the next great Japanese talents to begin with.
"Until now, it's been my most tiring match yet," Maeda told Sherdog.com, after arriving home in Osaka. "Once I returned backstage, I was tired to the point that I couldn't move. It's regrettable that I lost the bout, but as I'd taken a fair amount of damage, I'm thinking that I'll recover for a bit."
Following the bout, Maeda was handed a 180-day suspension by the California State Athletic Commission due to a right orbital bone injury. However, CSAC assistant executive officer Bill Douglas confirmed to Sherdog.com that Maeda can be approved to compete before the six months is up as long as an ophthalmologist provides clearance to the CSAC.
"He was strong, and his grappling and striking were superb," Maeda said of Torres. "I felt that he was very hungry and that he believed that he couldn't be beaten. I felt the strength of his refusal to hold back. He was, to me, like a champion should have been, I think. I really respect him."
So, what's next for the star Pancrasist, who has emerged as a bona fide contender at 135 pounds?
"Of course, I'd like another go at the belt if the WEC gives me the chance. This time, I went out, fought, and now I want to measure the feedback and see what the small difference between us was," said Maeda. "Of course, there's a definite difference between a winner and a loser, but I want to find out what that difference is in my own particular way, think about it, then conquer it by putting on a stronger, better performance for the American fans."
Retirement bug bites several stars
Japanese MMA has already seen a handful of high profile retirements in 2008, and the list just got quite a bit longer. Former Shooto world champions Akira Kikuchi (Pictures) and Akitoshi Hokazono (Pictures) hung up their gloves to pursue their private interests and, last month, tough veteran Miki Shida (Pictures) decided to call it a career also. The retirements have continued to roll in, as UFC veteran Keita "K-Taro" Nakamura, flyweight firebrand Setsu Iguchi (Pictures) and female star Hisae Watanabe (Pictures) have all bowed out.
Nakamura revealed his retirement plans in an interview with Japanese combat sports periodical Gong Kakutougi last month. Nakamura cited his confidence issues following his three losses in the UFC as playing a key role in his decide to end his career in prizefighting.
Nakamura, who just turned 24 years old last month, was tabbed as one of Japan's better prospects to head stateside. Undefeated through his first 15 bouts, the former Shooto rookie champion debuted in the UFC in December 2006, where he lost a controversial split decision to Brock Larson (Pictures). After dropping a decision the following April to Drew Fickett (Pictures), Nakamura looked for a cut to lightweight to get his career on track. However, in his 155-pound debut at UFC 81 in February, "K-Taro" dropped another disputed decision to Robert Emerson (Pictures).
While not stated explicitly, one factor which may have played a considerable role in Nakamura's decision to stop fighting was the status of an eye injury he sustained in his bout with Emerson. During the bout, an attempted high kick sent one of Emerson's toes in Nakamura's left eye. Following the bout, Nakamura suffered vision issues, as well as myodesopsia, or "floaters," in which individuals see shadowy threads or spots in their vision.
"K-Taro" won't entirely remove himself from training, however. The Wajyutsu product stated that he would continue to train in submission grappling, and planned to study to become a police officer.
The brash and outspoken Iguchi announced his retirement following his May 28 Shoot Boxing bout against Akito Sakimura. After dropping a hard-fought majority decision loss, Iguchi uncharacteristically took off his gloves and embraced Sakimura. The usually caustic Iguchi was even more shocking when he took the microphone and addressed the crowd at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, without his usual combative tone of voice.
Iguchi explained to the Korakuen crowd that he'd fallen in love with MMA and kickboxing, but that he felt it was time to hang up his gloves and give proper attention to his wife and child. For perhaps the first time in his career, Iguchi bowed to the crowd who sent him off with a warm round of applause.
The 34-year-old Iguchi burst onto the MMA scene with seven straight victories in GCM-promoted events. He notched the biggest victory of his career in September 2004 when he took an upset majority decision over former Shooto world title challenger Yasuhiro Urushitani (Pictures). Following the victory, fans hoped for Iguchi to make the transition to pro Shooto for a clash with then-Shooto world champion Mamoru Yamaguchi (Pictures).
While the thuggish Iguchi did make the jump to pro Shooto, expected success didn't follow. Iguchi posted only a 1-2-1 mark in pro Shooto and when he finally met nemesis Mamoru Yamaguchi (Pictures) in May 2006, he was dominated by Shooto's afroed ace and stopped by a vicious cut in the first round.
Hisae Watanabe (Pictures)'s motives for retirement weren't quite so clear, although the female star said that she's looking forward to a long break away from training and fighting due to exhaustion. However, also playing a likely role in her retirement is that Watanabe recently married comic book artist SP Nakatema, who is known for his MMA-related manga.
Watanabe, 27, first ventured into the world of MMA in April 2002 and quickly became a fixture in Smackgirl. After refining her game, the converted kickboxer went on to become one of female MMA's biggest stars, winning a nationally televised one-night, eight-woman MMA tournament on the Tokyo Broadcasting System in May 2004.
The charismatic KO queen went on to rematch rival Satoko Shinashi (Pictures) to crown Deep's inaugural 106-pound female champion in August 2006, in what was then considered the biggest match in female MMA history. Watanabe dominated from start to finish, and knocked Shinashi out in positively brutal fashion to become Deep's 106-pound queen. However, an upset loss to South Korean muay Thai champ Seo Hee Ham (Pictures) in February 2007 would tarnish Watanabe before she eventually dropped her title to current 106-pound champion Miku Matsumoto (Pictures) last August.
Takaya to face Swanson, Miura to meet Condit
The "Streetfight Bancho" will make his return to the cage in August, but finding his first stateside win might not be so easy. Hiroyuki Takaya (Pictures) will take on up-and-coming 145-pounder Cub Swanson (Pictures) at the next WEC offering in Las Vegas on August 3. A source close to Takaya confirmed the bout to Sherdog.com.
Takaya, who turns 31 years old on Tuesday, was an acclaimed signing for Zuffa and WEC late last year, as it was thought that the hard-hitting featherweight standout could provide an interesting challenge to divisional champ and blooming star Urijah Faber (Pictures). However, Takaya was upset by scrappy Leonard Garcia (Pictures), who knocked the former Shooto rookie champion out in only 91 seconds at WEC 32 in February.
Swanson, an upstart 24-year-old, suffered the second loss of his career last December when he took a step up in competition to take on Jens Pulver (Pictures) at WEC 31, which marked the former UFC lightweight champion's return to the featherweight division. Since being tapped by "Lil Evil" in only 35 seconds, Swanson has gotten back into the win column, submitting Donnie Walker at an International Fighting & Boxing League event this past February.
Takaya will join fellow countryman Hiromitsu Miura (Pictures), who has already been announced as part of the championship tripleheader for the card, taking on WEC welterweight kingpin Carlos Condit (Pictures).
Miura, a native of Fukuoka, has spent over a year training in Jupiter, Fla. alongside Kurt Pellegrino (Pictures) and the Armory team. The move has paid off for Miura. Previously an undistinguished journeyman in Japan, Muira is coming off two very impressive victories in WEC over Fernando Gonzalez (Pictures) and most recently, Blas Avena (Pictures) at WEC 33 last March.