Minute by Minute: Bellator Japan

By: Ben Duffy
Dec 30, 2019
Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com illustration

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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All timestamps reflect Texas Standard Time.

8:40 p.m.: Good evening, weirdoes! Please climb into the time machine with me, single file, as we head to the fabled Saitama Super Arena with a main event that seems plucked right out of an MMA fan’s dreams circa 2004, in the form of Fedor Emelianenko vs. Quinton Jackson. Kindly keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times.

8:43 p.m.: Fifteen years ago, this would have been one of the highest-level matchups Pride Fighting Championships could have made. “The Last Emperor” was at the height of his powers, while “Rampage” was second only to his tormentor Wanderlei Silva in the worldwide light heavyweight pecking order.

8:47 p.m.: However, it feels as if our time machine glitched out and dropped us in some kind of bizarre alternate timeline. Sure, we have our early-00s dream matchup, but the Saitama spotlights are shining not on a white Pride ring, nor even the trademark eight-sided enclosure of their eventual conqueror, the UFC, but the round cage of Bellator MMA, which is bringing us this event as part of their ongoing co-promotional relationship with Pride descendant Rizin Fighting Federation.

8:49 p.m.: Yet in the booth, we are treated not to the wired enthusiasm and geeky culture drops of Mauro Ranallo, but the malapropism-laden delivery of Mike Goldberg, an inflection and set of catchphrases as intrinsically associated with the UFC as the “gladiator man” chorus. It’s fair to say that what we’re experiencing tonight is more fever dream than wet dream.

8:50 p.m.: Before the main card kicks off, we need to address the elephant in the room, and by that, I of course mean Quinton Jackson. The former light heavyweight standout weighed in this week at the heavyweight limit of 265 pounds, and by his own admission had to cut some pounds to get there. At the weigh-ins on Friday, Jackson left his shirt on, stood with his back to the room, refusing to face the audience, and said, “I’m ashamed of myself.” I don’t want to make a bigger deal of that than it is, but “Rampage” is one of the most shameless high-level fighters ever to grace this crazy sport, so it’s saying something when he’s embarrassed to show his face. A list of things Jackson has done with less apparent shame would include motorboating a reporter, redecorating several blocks of Newport Beach, California, with his truck and [checks notes] oh, that’s right: mercilessly mocking 250-pound Darrill Schoonover on Season 10 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” repeatedly calling him “titties” and “fat piece of s---.”

8:57 p.m.: I almost never change my mind on a fight based on the weigh-ins, but I just flipped my pick from Jackson to Emelianenko. Jackson has seemed disinterested in his fight career for almost a decade now—certainly since his release from the UFC in early 2013—but coming in so heavy, and reacting the way he did, it feels as though he’s checked out to a greater extent than ever before. And that’s saying a lot, considering that it’s been over two years since his rematch with Muhammed Lawal, a fight where it became obvious in a conference call a week before the event that Jackson didn’t know what weight class the fight was contracted for.

9:05 p.m.: But enough about “Rampage” for now. After all, that fight is several hours away, at the end of a six-fight main card featuring several mismatches so egregious that Goldberg and color commentator “Big” John McCarthy are trying to prepare you by dressing like funeral directors.

“Goldberg & McCarthy: Because your favorite fighters deserve the best.”

9:08 p.m.: First fight out of the gate is surging lightweight Goiti Yamauchi, representing Bellator, against Daron Cruickshank, representing Rizin, 1890s facial hair trends and 1940s racist humor. Cruickshank is also walking out to Hulk Hogan theme song “Real American,” which makes him the third fighter this month to do so, after Tito Ortiz and Billy Quarantillo both did so on the same night a few weeks ago. While Yamauchi should be the righteous favorite, this isn’t the same kind of squash match as some of the others on the card tonight. Cruickshank, who has carved out a nice second career for himself in Japan since being dropped by the UFC, at least has some plausible avenues to victory here.

9:08 p.m.: Not that he finds any of those avenues, as the Japanese-born Brazilian avoids Cruickshank’s bull rush on the feet, takes his back standing, and then sinks a rear-naked choke slick and tight enough that the American passes out as he taps. Impressive stuff from Yamauchi, who has stepped up seamlessly from featherweight contender to lightweight contender in Bellator.

9:48 p.m.: Ugh. Kana Watanabe pets Ilara Joanne to death with mild ground-and-pound in the last minute of a back-and-forth matchup, preserving her undefeated record in the process. I had Joanne in this one. I thought I was going to be so smart. I was like, "I've watched several of Watanabe's fights and she's just not that good at this point.” And I was right! I am right! But I forgot the other thing: Joanne isn't very good either. Nobody is good, and nothing means anything. What am I doing with my life?

9:58 p.m.: Lorenz Larkin gets to fulfill a dream tonight by fighting in Saitama Super Arena, a great moment for the longtime K-1 and Pride fan. Goldberg and McCarthy have already said “bucket list” approximately a dozen times in connection with this. Kudos to the guy who got Larkin talking about it almost three months ago, before this fight was even booked.

9:59 p.m.: I absolutely love that Larkin just stopped on the ramp, turned around and looked at his own entrance backdrop before making his way to the cage. Seeing a fighter take in a once-in-a-lifetime moment like that carries more weight than 50 repetitions of “bucket list.”

10:26 p.m.: Larkin puts Keita Nakamura through the wood chipper on his way to a lopsided unanimous decision that includes two 30-26 scores. I’m frankly surprised “K-Taro” made it to the final horn; Larkin was investing in body kicks early that left me thinking he would be able to go upstairs at some point for a highlight-reel killshot. Larkin has always been inconsistent, capable of building a masterpiece or laying an egg in any given fight, and more than that he’s the slowest of slow starters, but when he starts rolling downhill on someone, it can be breathtaking. His destruction of Neil Magny is still about as wrong as I have ever been proven in my prediction of a high-level fight.

10:30 p.m.: Speaking of guys who are breathtaking when they kick it into high gear on the right opponent, let’s all give a big Saitama welcome to Michael Page.

10:34 p.m.: Here to make sure the fans all get what they paid for is the right opponent: Shinsho Anzai, a gritty wrestler, MMA veteran and dead ringer for 1950s children’s toy Wooly Willy. Oh, for that happy bygone era, when beards were a disguise and iron filings were the cutting edge of entertainment technology.

10:37 p.m.: “MVP” walks out to the cage dancing as usual, but tonight sporting the trademark black satin coat and headband of Itachi, popular villain slash anti-hero from the “Naruto” comic books and animated TV series. Page even has a little ninja throwing knife just like one of Itachi’s, held in his teeth. He has crossed all the way over from spectacle walkout to actual cosplay, and I kind of love it.

10:47 p.m.: And that’s a wrap. Page completely blanks Anzai for a round, hitting him with absolutely anything he wants while leaving Anzai charging and swinging at air, before blasting him at the beginning of the second. Page is back dancing with the kunai in his mouth, which is probably the most danger he’s been in all evening.

10:51 p.m.: I know I’m out of step with most hardcore fans, the rest of the media and even my own usual preferences in saying this, but I could watch “MVP” style on overmatched opponents every weekend forever. I don’t care that Bellator is “protecting” him, to the extent they even are. Most of the fighters Page has beaten—David Rickels, Fernando Gonzalez, Nah-Shon Burrell—weren’t top-10 guys, but they were good, solid, veteran fighters, not considered easy outs for anyone. Page overwhelmed and embarrassed all of them—in the case of Rickels, to the point of verbally submitting while standing and not under immediate attack. On the other hand, we now know what it looks like when he takes on a champion, as Douglas Lima ignored the smoke and mirrors, put “MVP” ass over teakettle with a well-timed low kick and then sent him to the Land of Fire with a single ground punch. Page has only had one close fight in his career so far, against Paul Daley, and it also happened to be kind of dreadful to watch. It all boils down to what you want from him, I suppose. I don’t see any reason to rush the man back into the title picture, and while Page himself has plenty to say, please note that he’s never claimed he’s the best fighter in the world; in fact, he more or less comes right out and says he’s here to entertain you. Let him do the robot and ice solid journeymen with bolo punches and side kicks until there’s no excuse not to have him fight another contender.

10:52 p.m.: Of course, after saying all that, I now want to see Page and Larkin fight for the No. 1 contender spot. Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.

10:55 p.m.: Oh, man. So here I’ve just gone on record as saying I’m fine with MVP’s unique and meandering career track so far, but McCarthy just said that Page has fought better competition to this point in his career than Anderson Silva did. No, just… no. Page is 18 fights into his career. He has fought exactly one top-10 opponent, Lima, losing badly, and has otherwise looked great against a slate of pretty good fighters. Through 18 fights, “The Spider” had fought Jeremy Horn, Carlos Newton, and Lee Murray just to name three much better fighters. Oh, and in contrast to Page’s misadventure against Lima, Silva had fought the top welterweight in the world at the time, Hayato Sakurai, and beaten him handily, handing “Mach” his first career loss and taking his Shooto 167-pound title. It pains me to hear McCarthy say stuff like this because he damn well knows better, and unlike Goldberg, whom you expect to toe the party line at this point in his career, McCarthy used to be a pretty straight shooter even in the Bellator booth.

11:00 p.m.: Anyway, enough about that. On to our co-main event, and with all due respect to the other mismatches on this card, Michael Chandler vs. Sidney Outlaw is the real reason Goldberg and McCarthy are dressed for a funeral. Note that none of this is Outlaw’s fault, or Chandler’s, or even Bellator’s, really. Original opponent Benson Henderson got injured three weeks ago, so in stepped Outlaw, who’s on a nine-fight winning streak, most recently handling Roger Huerta in his Bellator debut last month in Tel Aviv.

“Would anyone like to say a few words about Sidney?”

11:08 p.m.: Yow. Chandler punishes Outlaw repeatedly to the body, appears to have him hurt, then puts him down for good with a blistering right hand upstairs. Complete domination by “Iron Mike.”

11:12 p.m.: Now this is awkward. Outlaw is talking through the cage at Scott Coker, practically pleading for his continued employment. “You see what I’m willing to do? I’m willing to step up!” The Bellator honcho looks as uncomfortable as I feel. I just realized that I haven’t mentioned yet how dead quiet the arena has been all evening, in spite of being pretty full. Of course, that’s no surprise if you’re at all familiar with Japanese MMA, but the difference between tonight and any Pride, Rizin or Dream event is the number of live mics outside the cage. We’ve already overheard Goldberg on what sounded like a phone call with the production truck, and now this. At any rate, Outlaw hopefully doesn’t have anything to worry about in that regard, as he did in fact step up, and to his credit, was attacking and trying to win a fight in which he was ridiculously overmatched.

11:13 p.m.: While Chandler gives his victory interview, both Pitbull Brothers are cageside. Not gonna lie, part of me could use a Strikeforce Nashville-type moment right now. Both Patricio Freire and Patricky, who will be fighting here on New Year’s Eve on loan to Rizin, seem to legitimately despise Chandler and vice versa. It’s rare that one fighter takes an entire mantle from another just by defeating him—Chris Weidman didn’t instantly become the greatest middleweight of all time by beating Silva—but you could make a solid case that Patricio Pitbull replaced Chandler as the greatest Bellator fighter ever the night he knocked him out. Chandler could also claim that distinction back by winning a rematch.

11:19 p.m.: Well, it’s the moment we all hopped in the time machine for a couple of hours ago: Fedor vs. Rampage. As I said earlier, I slightly favor Emelianenko based on just how bad Jackson looked at the weigh-ins yesterday, but given the state of the Russian’s chin, Jackson’s power and generally solid boxing, this could go the other way in seconds. Mostly, I’m just reflecting that all of the most plausible outcomes are some flavor of depressing.

11:20 p.m.: However hard I have been on them this evening, Goldberg and McCarthy are a great pair to have on the mic if you want people to feel just how much legacy is walking into the cage tonight. They’re both about as old-school as it comes. However, in the Sherdog staff Slack chat, associate editor Jay Pettry notes, “I am enjoying how they can talk about Fedor and his Pride career, but can't show any of it.” Hooray, hostile promotional climate at the top tier of the sport.

11:30 p.m.: “There’s nothing more we can add,” says Goldberg, before continuing to talk.

11:33 p.m.: It could be 10 years from now, he could be 53 years old with a record of 38-38, and a Fedor walkout would still give me goosebumps. That feeling is the most enduring legacy of the Pride era.

11:34 p.m.: My goodness, “Rampage” looks terrible. I feel bad for continuing to bring it up, but it’s just shocking. Even having seen him fight at 217, 235, 254… this is a whole different level of evident lack of preparation. Meanwhile, Emelianenko is a heavy-for-him 240.5, but he always looks about the same.

Pictured: the bad Tinder profile of fight posters

11:36 p.m.: In the Sherdog Slack, veteran reporter Mike Sloan notes, “Both guys look nervous. That was NEVER the case ‘back then.’” I agree. Neither of these guys wants to get embarrassed here, in this arena. It matters more than they thought it would a month or three ago.

11:38 p.m.: Holy hell, Jackson looks slow.

11:38 p.m.: Fedor just threw a kick for what feels like the first time in 10 years.

11:39 p.m.: And it’s over. Emelianenko tags Jackson with a right hand that crumples him, face down, still totally conscious but done fighting. Jackson is shaking his head and the ref is waving it off at 2:44 of the first round.

11:41 p.m.: Well, that managed to be every bit as depressing as I feared, but in a way that surprised me. Maybe that’s all we could reasonably ask of this fight.

11:51 p.m.: What did we learn tonight? Not much, but maybe we learned to be kind with our words today, because who knows how well today’s hijinks will age a few years from now. Also, no matter what they say in the next 24-48 hours, neither of these cats is retiring. Good night, weirdoes.

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