It’s not surprising that Dream’s bracket has the lion’s share of fan attention. It has a cast of more established characters: legit Japanese stars that have piqued the interest of western fans, like Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto and Hideo Tokoro, some interesting prospects, like Bibiano Fernandes and Joe Warren, mixed martial arts cult heroes like Masakazu Imanari and Akiyo "Wicky Akiyo" Nishiura, and well-reputed World Extreme Cagefighting veterans, like Yoshiro Maeda, Chase Beebe and Micah Miller.
That’s not to say Dream’s GP is big on name recognition and low on relevance. The tournament features legitimately outstanding featherweights and will finally allow -- or force -- Yamamoto to face elite-level opposition inside the division in which he belongs. On top of that, there are some fun ways to match up the remaining fighters, which could provide for some crackling bouts. Who wouldn’t be hip to a Yamamoto-Hiroyuki Takaya banger, an Imanari-Abel Cullum scramblefest or even a Daiki “DJ.taiki” Hata-Maeda rubber match?
Having established that Dream is hosting a tourney with legitimate fighters, marquee value and the flexibility to create appetizing matchups, it may be a bit hard to understand why I'm so adamant that Sengoku's tournament is somehow superior. Allow me to elucidate.
Let us first set aside the fact that Sengoku has some ace-in-the-hole production assets that give it a natural leg up on Dream: the feudal era visual motifs, the hilariously over-the-top vocal potency of ring announcer J. Maxwell Powers and the fighter parade theme song (a track so ferocious even the most snobbish pitchfork-types would be forced to recognize). Plus, now that parent company World Victory Road has realized it can’t sell out venues like the Saitama Super Arena and has moved to cozier locales like the Yoyogi National Stadium Second Gymnasium, there will be no deflating images of empty seat seas to ruin the ambiance. All these things are fabulous, but they don’t get to the heart of why Sengoku’s GP is superb.
First, I’ll admit I’m a staunch mixed martial arts rules imperialist, and I feel much better about any Japanese operation that uses something resembling a real weight class. Yes, 145 pounds would be better than 143, but I will tolerate the tidy metric-near equivalents. Not only is 63 kilograms/139 pounds not an actual weight class -- not even in Gary Shaw World -- it’s made all the more frustrating by the fact that Dream backer Fighting and Entertainment Group let poster boy Yamamoto pick the tournament’s contract weight to suit his fancy. Plus, politics have allowed Yamamoto to be seeded into the tournament’s quarter-finals. Meanwhile, Hata had to fight in February to get into the tournament, sustained and eye injury that will force his bout with Tokoro to happen in April and will be expected to fight in the May quarter-finals. There’s a difference between tournament favorites and tournament favoritism.
Apart from using a real weight class and even fight scheduling, Sengoku’s tournament serves the best interests of MMA in a quaint and crucial way. While Dream’s lineup may have the more familiar faces, WVR’s selections for its tournament reaffirm its own fantastically intriguing approach to matchmaking. The Sengoku product, thus far, has made great use of underappreciated, under-the-radar fighters, both foreign and domestic, who deserved chances to fight elite opponents. It is overwhelmingly apropos that the first two champions the promotion crowned were Satoru Kitaoka and Jorge Santiago, two fighters who deeply reflect the sort of athletes WVR has coveted.
Sengoku has been a venue in which excellent but underexposed fighters can earn quality purses and face quality opposition. Using a deserving talent like Hatsu Hioki as the domestic poster boy and incorporating outstanding international prospects that have had few opportunities to face top talent thus far -- such as Marlon Sandro, L.C. Davis, Nick Denis and Ronnie Mann -- is masterful. What is also engrossing about the lineup is that any -- or many -- of these prospects may soon be primetime players in the division when you consider the youthful exuberance of the tournament.
The average age of a Dream featherweight tournament competitor is 27.33 years old. For Sengoku’s 16-man field, it’s 25.5 years, and if you remove the four mid 30s reps -- Hideki Kadowaki, Jong Man Kim, Michihiro Omigawa and Sandro -- the average age of the remaining 12 is a fresh-faced 23.25 years old. Nine of Sengoku’s entrants are 25 years of age or under; it would have been 10 if Nam Phan had not turned 26 on March 13. Dream’s filicidal bracket only had four fighters under 25, and three of them have already been eliminated.
Better still, Sengoku’s older entrants still have relative youth on their side. A 28-year-old Davis may be a middle-aged man by the tournament standard, but he’s still a young prospect in the sport who’s just hitting his stride. Likewise, 32-year-old Sandro may be on the wrong side of the big 3-0, but he, too, is a prospect, still improving his overall MMA game and finally getting the chance to face A-level opposition.
That potential for development creates the final and most critical differences between the two tournaments: progress and predictability. Because Sengoku’s tournament features so much excellence-in-chrysalis, four rounds over several months will allow many of the bracket’s featherweights to develop and emerge as premiere fighters as they square off with one another. Perhaps the best subplot of Dream’s tournament is the development of Fernandes, who I earnestly believe will be the GP’s breakout star and a future top 10 fighter. However, the only other serious prospect in that tournament is Warren. In spite of clear natural gifts that may make him a great fighter in time, he’s going to be overmatched against any remaining possible opponents -- other than maybe Hata -- should he beat Tokoro next month. Where Sengoku has multiple possibilities for creating prominent fighters, Dream has only two, one of which is about to be railroaded in short order.
That’s the most definitive difference. If I were assured they would not be matched up against one another beforehand, I would consider a Yamamoto-Fernandes rematch in the Dream GP final inevitable. That’s not to say there aren’t action-packed matches to be made over the next few months, but any pairing of the remaining Dream fighters has a seemingly obvious winner, and even those that seem more hotly contested would likely result in the winner losing to Fernandes or Yamamoto.
Conversely, Sengoku’s tournament has both action and intrigue. First-round fights like Shintaro Ishiwatari-Chang Son Jon and Seiya Kawahara-Denis are guaranteed fisticuff fireworks, while a bout like Kadowaki-Phan should be a pleasure to watch on the mat. The inclusion of developing and untested prospects adds the brand of drama and unpredictability that befits a major tournament.
Hioki, the designated tournament star, is a notorious flake with a spotty past of bad fight strategies. The very question of whether he can overcome his history of in-fight ineptitude is a story in and of itself. Meanwhile, the exotic combinations of international prospects not only produce action-filled fights with less obvious outcomes but allow future featherweight stars to emerge.
Thankfully, MMA is not about having to choose; all fans should be keeping keen eyes on both tournaments. However, when the GP season is over, trophies are awarded and belts are strapped on, Sengoku’s draw will have served as a brilliant coming-out party for sterling divisional stalwarts, while Dream’s tournament will have served as an entertaining but largely predictable coronation. After all, there’s more to a fine bird than fine feathers.