The dozen entrants offer very little surprise, as the vast majority of the participants were well speculated on and all but official for several weeks. The domestic side will feature Deep champion Masakazu Imanari, popular janitor-turned-MMA superstar Hideo Tokoro, 2008 Cage Force featherweight tournament runner-up "Wicky Akiyo" Akiyo Nishiura, WEC veteran Hiroyuki Takaya, Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto protégé Atsushi Yamamoto and well traveled prospect Takafumi Otsuka. Former lightweight King of Pancrase Shoji Maruyama will take on charismatic firebrand "DJ.taiki" Daiki Hata on Deep's Feb. 10 card with the winner gaining a spot in the bracket.
The announced foreign contingent features former WEC bantamweight champion Chase Beebe, WEC veteran Micah Miller and Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace Bibiano Fernandes. It will also mark the MMA debuts of two grappling sports stars in South Korean judoka Jong Won Kim and 2006 Greco-Roman wrestling world champion Joe Warren, who was slapped with a two-year suspension from wrestling after he tested positive for marijuana a second time in May 2007.
Still unconfirmed for the grand prix is Dream superstar Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, who the tournament was originally slated to be built around. Dream event producer Keiichi Sasahara said that while "Kid" will not be featured on the March card, Yamamoto's participation is still undecided.
FEG and Yamamoto have cited continuing issues with knee injury, although there are further complications in the matter due to many of Dream's event sponsors being reluctant to champion Yamamoto's return due to lingering public relations issues. In July, Japanese tabloid Shukan Gendai linked the 31-year-old Yamamoto to "marijuana parties" in Tokyo, a serious allegation given the strict cannabis control laws in Japan.
If Yamamoto does participate in the tournament, he will be seeded into the second round of the tournament in May, after the seven tournament bouts play out in March. Should "Kid" not be part of the bracket, a full slate of 16 fighters will square off on March 7.
In another curious on-going saga, FEG still has yet to officially announce the weight contract for the tournament. Thus far, Dream's featherweight bouts have been held at catch weights of 139 and 141 pounds. Yamamoto, who was to be the cornerstone of the tournament, was originally given input into the weight structure and suggested a 135 or 137-pound cutoff. Now, Sasahara has announced that the official weight will be announced in the coming days, and will likely be between 139 and 143 pounds.
Sengoku and Shooto join forces
World Victory Road hasn't been limited to featherweight tournament announcements, as the Sengoku parent company has revealed the formation of a cooperative partnership with the world of Shooto.
WVR director Takahiro Kokuho met with Japanese Shooto Association head Taro Wakabayashi and leading Shooto promoter Sustain's chairman Kazuhiro Sakamoto over the winter holiday to discuss forging a relationship between the Shooto system and the upstart Sengoku. While the finer technical details of the arrangement have yet to be ironed out, it is the hope of WVR to use Shooto's well-developed amateur system to groom their developmental prospects, while allowing for established pro Shootors to earn more lucrative purses in the Sengoku ring.
"We will consult with the Shooto commission and Sustain about the definite cooperation structure [soon]," WVR representative Tomohiro Iida told Sherdog.com. "The reason we've formed the partnership with Shooto is to revitalize MMA in Japan."
"It is not financial sponsorship," elaborated Iida. "Basically, it is to exchange fighters in promotions like Pancrase, DEEP, and Cage Force. We will provide the opportunity to compete in Sengoku for the fighters in amateur and professional Shooto, and Sengoku fighters will also compete in professional Shooto."
In July, WVR announced the signings of developmental talents Maximo Blanco, a Pan-American games bronze medalist in freestyle wrestling, and Shigeki Osawa, an All-Japan University champion and World Intercollegiate champion from wrestling powerhouse Yamanashi Gakuin University. Blanco has already gone on to compete in Pancrase and Sengoku, while Osawa is expected to begin his MMA training after graduating from YGU in March.
On Feb. 1, WVR staged their first open tryout in which some 70 applicants worked out, and a total of 14 fighters were chosen by prominent gyms Grabaka, Shooting Gym Tokyo, P's Lab Tokyo, Wajyutsu Keisyukai, and the Yoshida Dojo. WVR will be paying these developmental fighters' gym dues and looking to foster their growth toward Sengoku, meaning many will likely cut their teeth in the amateur Shooto system, fighting in regional amateur tournaments in the near future.
While WVR and Sustain have designs a large-scale co-promotion in 2010, the relationship between the two promotions may be on display sooner than that, as Sustain is already looking toward its major 20th Anniversary event on May 10, which may feature Sengoku talent.
Ueda-Tazawa, BJ-Shoujou title tilts for 3/20 Shooto
Apart from firming up cooperative deals with other promotions, leading Shooto promoter Sustain has been busy announcing its headliners for March 20's "Shooto Tradition 6" card at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo.
In a pair of Shooto world title bouts, unbeaten Shooto world 132-pound Masakatsu Ueda will stake his championship against former foe So Tazawa, while in the main event, mercurial 123-pound king Shinichi "BJ" Kojima will make the third defense of his crown against fiery free-swinger Yuki Shoujou.
Ueda, 31, took the vacant Shooto world title last March with a unanimous decision victory over Koetsu Okazaki, and retained his title in his first defense in September in a draw with Brazilian standout Marcos "Louro" Galvao. The 26-year-old Tazawa is unbeaten in his four bouts since March 2007, when he was submitted by Ueda with a third-round brabo choke.
The wildly inconsistent Kojima returned to the 123-pound division after a disastrous attempted run as a bantamweight in July, and submitted rival and former champion Mamoru Yamaguchi via a guillotine choke with 78 seconds to spare in the bout to retain his title. However, on Jan. 18, "BJ" turned in a lackluster draw against Guam import Jesse Taitano in a non-title affair. The 28-year-old Shoujou pulled off a thrilling last-minute guillotine of his own in September, when he upset perennial divisional star Yasuhiro Urushitani, choking him out with 81 ticks left in the fight.
The March 20 bill will also feature a pair of 115-pound contests with Noboru "Shinpei" Tahara taking on Takehiro Harusaki and 2008 rookie champion Mikitoshi Yamagami tangling with "ATCH Anarchy" Atsushi Takeuchi.
Kanehara, Yamada and Jon join Sengoku tourney
World Victory Road has expanded its own line-up for March 20, as Sengoku's featherweight tournament will open up at the Yoyogi National Stadium Second Gymnasium in Tokyo.
Adding to the five confirmed fighters announced last week, WVR confirmed ZST standout Masanori Kanehara, undefeated 18-year-old prospect Tetsuya Yamada and upstart South Korean Chang Son Jon for the bracket.
Kanehara, 26, sealed his bracket berth by blasting brawler Kenji Arai in the Pancrase ring on Feb. 1 in what was essentially an elimination bout for the WVR tournament. Another ZST notable, the precocious Yamada has finished all three of his opponents, polishing off Makoto Toriumi in September in under two minutes. The 21-year-old Jon burst onto the scene in August, where he took a unanimous verdict over UFC veteran Michihiro Omigawa before destroying hard-nosed Fanjin Son in just 17 seconds this past December.
The trio join previously announced Hatsu Hioki, Marlon Sandro, Ronnie Mann, Nick Denis and Chris Manuel as announced participants, totaling eight of the scheduled 16 entries.
Lightweight tourney on tap for Deep 40 Impact
On the topic of tournaments, Deep has announced a bracket of their own as the promotion seeks a new lightweight champion.
Already with heavy title implications on the card, Deep's 40 Impact at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo on Feb. 20 will now feature the semifinals of a four-man tournament to crown their next lightweight king. Former champion Seung Hwan Bang was stripped of his title in October after defecting to Sengoku without the consent of Deep, with whom he had an active contract.
The championship quartet will feature veteran and former Deep welterweight king Jutaro Nakao, as well as once-beaten upstarts Katsunori Kikuno and Koichiro Matsumoto. Deep boss Shigeru Saeki stated that he is currently scouting for strong international talents to fill the fourth slot.
The lightweight tournament will be featured alongside welterweight champion Seichi Ikemoto defending his title against Hidetaka Monma, and the middleweight title eliminator between Riki Fukuda and Ryuta Sakurai. The winners of the lightweight semifinals will meet in April to crown the promotion's new lightweight king.
Sato, Miku and “the Afro” look to shine in Shoot Boxing
The next major Japanese combat sports card will feature three MMA stars, but in a different kind of vale tudo: standing vale tudo.
Japanese promotion Shoot Boxing will open their 2009 campaign at Korakuen Hall on Feb. 11 with a card featuring Shooto icon Rumina Sato, afroed flyweight star Mamoru Yamaguchi, and Deep 106-pound queen Miku Matsumoto all in stand-up affairs. Shoot Boxing, which is an offshoot from the same family tree as Shooto, promotes "standing vale tudo" events that feature the full complement of punches, kicks, elbows and knees in addition to throws and standing submissions.
Sato will take on Australian Mike Campbell in a 143-pound affair, while Matsumoto, who took out experienced Shoot Boxer Lena in at the S-Cup 2008 in November, will meet Misato Tomita in a 112-pound affair. The most sternly matched of the three, the former two-division Shooto world champion Yamaguchi will take on Shoot Boxing 122-pound provisional champion Noriyuki Enari in a non-title affair.