The final MMA event of 2009 drew the biggest crowd of the year for the sport. The annual “Dynamite” presentation on New Year’s Eve in Japan drew a reported 45,606 fans to Saitama Super Arena and featured stalwart competitors in several divisions cement their positions in the rankings, and some fall from them.
Perhaps the biggest impact was made by No. 2-ranked lightweight and Dream champion Shinya Aoki, who ran game on Sengoku lightweight champion Mizuto Hirota and then raised a post-fight ruckus by shouting and a flipping the middle finger to his wounded opposition and the crowd. Aoki swiftly moved in on Hirota and tripped him to the canvas, where he trapped the battle-tested fighter's arm behind his back.
Aoki then gradually maneuvered into a brutal hammer lock variation that snapped Hirota's arm at the elbow, prompting the referee to step in. Hirota suffered a broken humerus, a long bone that runs from the shoulder to the elbow. The creative but hard-to-watch technique made a last-minute case for submission of the year consideration, though Aoki’s antics drew widespread condemnation. Aoki was reprimanded by Dream officials, and apologized for the display after the fight, saying it was in part motivated by Hirota being too proud to tap and direction from event producers to finish Hirota. Event producer Keichi Sasahara did say the display would lead to American fans to “embrace this illusion of Aoki” and pique interest in him fighting stateside.
Strikeforce has been recruiting Aoki to come to America to face Gilbert Melendez, perhaps on an April CBS card. After his victory, Aoki talked up a fight with Tatsuya Kawajiri, who grinded out a forceful decision victory over Kazunori Yokota earlier on the card. Kawajiri, who has been fighting on an injured leg, said he was unsure when he’d be in proper shape for an Aoki fight.
Another Japanese divisional force, featherweight Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, suffered a loss he could ill afford on the card, dropping his second straight MMA defeat to scrappy Sengoku featherweight champion Masanori Kanehara.
Yamamoto, whose chin has withered a bit, was knocked loopy on several occasions by Kanehara punches despite Yamamoto’s higher-level credentials in pro kickboxing. Yamamoto did make a decent accounting for himself in dropping the unanimous decision, coming on very strong in the third. Once the world's No. 2 featherweight, Yamamoto, who lost a decision to MMA newbie Joe Warren in May, now likely falls out of the Top 10.
The Aoki and Yamamoto bouts were two of the more relevant contests on an eclectic 17-fight bill from Fighting Entertainment Group, the parent company of the K-1 kickboxing promotion and the Dream MMA promotion.
Seats sold out a week and a half ago for a card that, on paper, appeared one of the weaker of the annual Japanese New Year’s Eve fight spectaculars, which date back to a combined Pride/K-1 card in 2002. That event drew the all-time record MMA attendance of 91,107. In 2003, a K-1 fight between Bob Sapp and Akebono drew 54 million viewers on Tokyo Broadcasting System, the biggest television rating to date for MMA in the country. The Saitama Super Arena was opened to full capacity for the event, the first time that had been done since a 2006 basketball championship game.
This year's presentation drew a solid 16.7 percent share rating on Tokyo Broadcasting System for the portion of the broadcast featuring Masato's retirement and Satoshi Ishii vs. Hidehiko Yoshida. That's higher than the past two New Year's Eve MMA broadcasts. The show, broken into three segments and aired out of sequence in Japan for ratings purposes, saw an 11.8 rating for the first portion (including Yamamoto vs. Kanehara, Gono vs. Sakurai and Takaya vs. Omigawa) and a 10.6 rating for the third (including Aoki vs. Hirota, Overeem vs. Fujita and Manhoef vs. Misaki).
The program came in second in network ratings to the 37.1 for the annual Red and White concert, which always draws the biggest rating on New Year's Eve in Japan.
The card was the first "Dynamite" event to air live in the United States, broadcasting in the wee hours on HDNet with broadcasters Michael Schiavello, Guy Mezger and Strikeforce middleweight Jason “Mayhem” Miller.
The crowd was largely drawn by the retirement match of Masato, one of the best 154-pound kickboxers in K-1 history and one of the biggest combat sports attractions in Japan of the past decade. Masato, 30, defeated Andy Souwer, who had defeated him twice prior, via decision in an emotional five-round main event.
Another promotional hook for Dynamite were nine bouts pitting MMA fighters contracted to the Dream promotion against fighters signed to the struggling Sengoku promotion, whose future is uncertain after a failed attempt to launch their own New Year’s Eve super show. In the final tally, Dream fighters took five wins to Sengoku’s four.
In addition to Aoki and Kawajiri, victorious Dream fighters were Melvin Manhoef, who earned a questionably called first-round KO stoppage over Kazuo Misaki; Hideo Tokoro, who took an eventful decision over Jong-Man Kim; and Alistair Overeem, who delivered a crushing knee to the face of Kazuyuki Fujita for a first-round stoppage. Overeem, the Strikeforce heavyweight champion, said after the fight that he plans to fight another K-1 kickboxing fight in March and then look to face Fedor Emelianenko in the United States for Strikeforce in May or June.
Victorious Sengoku fighters were Kanehara, Hiroshi Izumi (decision over Katsuyori Shibata); Michihiro Omigawa (first-round knockout over Hiroyuki Takaya) and Akihiro Gono (second-round submission over Hayato "Mach" Sakurai).
Dynamite’s MMA fights were contested under a different rule set than has been typical for New Year's Eve cards. Bouts were contested under American-style five-minute rounds on a 10-point must system, compared to the 10-minute first rounds and “must decision” style to which the major Japanese promotions have often adhered. Stomps and soccer kicks were illegal.
In addition to Masato, also attracting some headlines in Japan was a battle of two Olympic gold medalists in judo. Pride veteran Hidehiko Yoshida, the 1992 medalist, edged out the debuting 2008 Beijing medalist Satoshi Ishii via decision. Ishii, who trained with several notable camps for the MMA debut and was courted by the UFC, struggled with Yoshida's overhand right in the first round, and struggled to implement his judo throughout the next two rounds.
In the finals of Dream's "Super Hulk" tournament -- a medley of mismatches involving fighters of all weight classes including several super heavyweights -- Ikuhisa Minowa, the smallest fighter in the bracket, scored an eyebrow-raising knockout over heavy favorite Rameau Thierry Sokoujdou. Minowa hit a left hook that buckled the Cameroonian in the third round, and a jumpy referee, who'd issued the fighters two yellow cards for stalling earlier, immediately stepped in and called the fight. Sokoujdou still appeared lucid.
In a rather pointless last-minute addition to the card, top-shelf light heavyweight Gegard Mousasi dispatched early-era UFC and Pride fighter Gary Goodridge with some quick ground-and-pound in the first round.
This article was updated at 1:20 p.m. ET with info on the show's rating in Japan.