When the calendar turned over to 2007, the first story to emerge from the Japanese fight scene was the enormous scandal involving Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) and Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures). Moreover, through the first two weeks of the new year, it seemed like the ONLY story that would emerge.
However, in the last week, the new year has taken hold, and finally, happenings are happening. If there is a prevailing motif for the week's news, it is change and transformation, which has twisted it's way through the stories of fighters, gyms and promoters.
Gym changes have marked January, as many fighters have began to find new homes, including one of Shooto's world titlists. While Shooto standouts are turning over new leaves in the dojo, the story of one of Pancrase's heroes, Yuki Kondo (Pictures), has taken another turn for the worse.
If there is a citadel of fightsport in Japan, it is surely Korakuen Hall. Nearly 50 years in the history of combat have been forged inside Korakuen's walls. But, just around the block from the iconic venue, plans are in motion for a new event hall that already has fight fans buzzing. How will the fight community greet MEETS PORT?
One individual who is interested in MEETS PORT is DEEP boss and PRIDE public relations officer Shigeru Saeki. But, that is not the only new plan that the portly promoter is forging. Saeki has revealed that he's interested in running something new and unique this August, in a 10,000-plus-seat arena, much roomier than the typical digs of DEEP. What does one of kakutougi's hardest working men have in mind for the dog days of the Japanese summer?
Caol Uno (Pictures) made a big change six years ago when he vacated his Shooto world title and crossed the Pacific in hopes of becoming UFC champion. Now, talks have emerged that "Uno Showten" is interested in stepping back into the Octagon with one of the UFC's hottest emerging contenders. So, will it happen? And when? And what does it mean for last year's HERO'S tournament runner-up, with this year's HERO'S bracket not far off?
Pancrase is in a state of flux, with young up-and-comers attempting to fortify themselves as the new stars in the organization where the hybrid wrestlers once roamed. The Japanese media has already paid some special attention to Yukio Sakaguchi, and now he's scheduled to finally make his pro debut. Will the son of the legendary pro wrestler Seiji Sakaguchi provide a spark of interest for Pancrase over the course of their 2007 RISING TOUR?
And speaking of competitors emerging in Pancrase, stocky submission stalwart Satoru Kitaoka (Pictures) has become a favorite of the Pancrase faithful. Kitaoka is scheduled to step back into the ring on Feb. 28, when the 2007 RISING TOUR stops at Korakuen Hall, and may face a Brazilian looking for a chance to prove his worth.
Finally, one of the biggest changes of 2006 was "KID" Norifumi Yamamoto (Pictures)’s decision to take a hiatus from the ring in order to pursue his Olympic wrestling dream. While he did make a brief return on New Year's Eve, "KID" has maintained focus on qualifying for the 2008 Beijing Games. He can earn an Olympic berth this weekend at the Emperor's Cup, where the Tokyo Metropolitan Police are sending more than 30 officers and guards to ensure to maintain the order amongst what is sure to be a raucous pro-Yamamoto crowd at the Komazawa Gymnasium.
The gyms, they are a-changin'
The new year has brought with it a bevy of gym changes in Japan. Most prominently, Shooto 123-pound world champion "BJ" Shinichi Kojima (Pictures) has officially transferred from the Abe Ani Combat Club, to officially represent the Katsumura Dojo alongside friend and training partner Shuichiro Katsumura (Pictures).
Kojima, the 2004 Shooto rookie tournament champion at 123, began his training at Abe Ani Combat Club under longtime Shooto veteran Hiroyuki Abe. It was Abe who gave him the moniker "BJ" in honor of B.J. Penn (Pictures), referencing to Kojima's natural prodigious talent. In recent months, Kojima has traveled outside of AACC to train with the former Shooto competitor Katsumura, who now is a regular in ZST.
However, despite the loss of Kojima, AACC will welcome a new face to the team in 2007. Canadian Antonio Carvalho (Pictures) has made residence in Tokyo, and has already spent time with "Abe Ani" both in the gym, and in sightseeing around Tokyo. Carvalho, who states he is still at least three months away from being healthy and ready to compete, plans to continue to represent Shah Franco and Behring Jiu-Jitsu while training at Abe Ani Combat Club.
Also, young Class B Shooto competitor Atsushi Asano (Pictures), also known as "Atsushi13," has officially left Paraestra Tokyo. Fittingly, Asano will take his bad boy persona to KILLER BEE, to train with "KID" Norifumi Yamamoto (Pictures), Koutetsu Boku (Pictures) and Akira Kikuchi (Pictures).
Fractured fist is five months on the shelf for Kondo
2006 was a disappointing year for Pancrase hero Yuki Kondo (Pictures), and the early months of 2007 won't be much better.
Coming off of a lackluster split decision loss to Akihiro Gono (Pictures) on New Year's Eve, Yuki Kondo (Pictures) underwent surgery on Jan. 10 to repair a fractured right hand. Kondo had a wire inserted into the damaged hand, which will be removed in approximately two months time.
After the wire is surgically removed, the expected rehabilitation time for the hand injury is approximately three months. All together, Kondo is expected to miss five or six months of action, making his return possible for May or June.
Meet MEETS PORT
Korakuen Hall has long been tabbed the Fight Mecca of Japan, and with good reason. Opened in 1962, it was boxing world champions like Yoshio Shirai and Fighting Harada who gave a pulse to Korakuen Hall, igniting an interest in fightsport in a country with a rich history of combat.
While Korakuen Hall began as primarily a boxing venue, professional wrestling soon followed, as did kickboxing, and finally, mixed martial arts. Today, nearly every night of the week, someone is getting punched, kicked, suplexed or submitted inside Korakuen Hall.
However, plans have begun taking shape for a new venue, which many fight promoters are already eyeing. Inside the confines of Tokyo Dome City, where Korakuen Hall already resides, will be the home of MEETS PORT.
MEETS PORT is designed to be a multi-purpose facility in the Tokyo Dome City entertainment complex. However, beyond the lush gardens and street savvy ambiance of the design models, what has fight promoters excited is the event hall, which has plans for 3,120 spectators, almost 1,000 more than Korakuen Hall. Moreover, despite the extra seats, the design indicates that comparatively, most seating will be as close to ringside as at Korakuen Hall.
DEEP boss Shigeru Saeki has already expressed an interest in running shows at MEETS PORT when it opens in Spring 2008. DEEP routinely sells out Korakuen Hall for it's bigger cards, and Saeki would like to be able to fill another 1,000 or so into the stands for the DEEP Impact series.
Saeki eyes big venue for summer blockbuster
Despite being the architect behind DEEP, and playing an active role in the public relations and matchmaking of PRIDE, Shigeru Saeki is not quite content, it seems.
Word is that Saeki is very enthused to promote an event this summer, separate from DEEP, at a larger arena. While DEEP typically hosts its cards at the Fight Mecca Korakuen Hall, which holds just over 2,000 spectators, Saeki wants to hold a larger scale card in a 10,000 plus seat venue likely in August.
Saeki hasn't revealed what fighters would be featured on such a card, though given his access to the rosters of DEEP, the fighters whose PRIDE participation he has facilitated, as well as his interest in promoting South Korean and Brazilian talent, it’s reasonable to predict a card may look like. While Saeki has been tightlipped on details so far, he has assured that in discussion with his associates, that they felt such a card as he has envisioned would "absolutely succeed."