Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz believes Hayato Sakurai still has some fight in him and wants whatever the Japanese legend can dish his way. The outspoken Cesar Gracie fighter faces “Mach” at Dream 14 this Saturday at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, part of a talent trade between the Japanese and U.S. promotions.
Sakurai, who began a hefty double-digit career in Shooto in 1996, is one of the standout fighters of his generation. A veteran of Deep and Pride Fighting Championships, the 34-year-old Sakurai even graced the Octagon at UFC 36 in March 2002, losing a fourth-round stoppage to then-champion Matt Hughes.
Sakurai’s career includes a lengthy 14-fight win streak, as well as three consecutive victories against Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki (who he bested a second time in April 2009), former UFC champion Jens Pulver, and top-ranked Joachim Hansen.
In recent times, Sakurai dropped his last two outings to Dream welterweight champion Marius Zaromskis and showman Akihiro Gono, leading some to believe the Japanese fighter’s best days might be behind him.
The 26-year-old Diaz is banking on Sakurai returning to old form.
“I think he’s a lot better than Takanori Gomi and the other Japanese fighters,” said Diaz. “He’s a lot better than Shinya Aoki. He beat him twice, so you’re not going to count this guy out now, are you?”
The non-title fight, which has been nearly a year in the making between the two promotions, will be held in Dream’s “White Cage,” a modified structure built from a material primarily used for Japanese tuna fishing, rather than the traditional steel or aluminum. Diaz, who fought for Dream once before in 2008, told Sherdog.com that the matchup is one that excites him.
“At the same time, though, I want to fight the best Sakurai. I don’t want to fight ‘old, washed-up Sakurai,’ as some might refer to him,” said Diaz. “He’s a Japanese superstar and I want to fight him at his best.”
Stateside, Diaz has been sidelined due to his involvement in an in-cage brawl that erupted following his teammate Jake Shields’ career-topping unanimous decision over Dan Henderson at Strikeforce “Nashville” on April 15 in Tennessee. The Tennessee Athletic Commission issued Diaz, who was licensed as a cornerman that night, and five others a formal complaint following the incident. Potential disciplinary action, which could include suspensions and/or fines, is pending. Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker has said the promotion will not re-book those cited until the TAC concludes its investigation and any potential suspensions are fulfilled.
Once Diaz does get back in play for the San Jose-based promotion, he believes Strikeforce will have difficulties finding him a strong challenge in his own weight division.
“They’ve got heavier guys than me,” said Diaz, who earned the Strikeforce title with a first-round TKO over Dream counterpart Zaromskis last January. “That’s the only thing that’s going to get people’s attention is if I’m fighting somebody either bigger than me or better than me and all they have is bigger than me.”