SAITAMA, March 8, 2009 -- Japanese mixed martial arts fighter Masakazu Imanari, 33, prevailed by the narrowest possible margin of victory against Atsushi Yamamoto in the Main Event tonight at the DREAM.7 Featherweight Grand Prix 2009 1st Round. Held before a sellout crowd of 19,528 at the futuristic Saitama Super Arena, the FEG mixed martial arts production featured a dozen of the world's best under-63kg/139lbs fighters in a sextet of elimination matches. The winners earned the right to advance toward the ultimate prize -- the first-ever DREAM Featherweight GP championship belt.
Imanari, known for his leg submissions, had his hands full with speedy countryman Atsushi Yamamoto, who fights out of the revered Kid Yamamoto's Krazy Bee gym. (The Kid will join tonight's winners in the next round of the Lightweight GP.)
The contest started with Yamamoto bouncing on his toes, and Imanari standing center ring with open arms, inviting his peppy opponent to close before finally affecting a mocking bounce of his own. Imanari rarely raised his guard through the entire bouts, and Yamamoto passed early on, to smack him in the face with a right. Imanari then took the fight to the mat, where, characteristically, he would spend much of the bout working from the guard. While Yamamoto pestered his opponent's head and body with close punches, Imanari, meanwhile inched his legs up Yamamoto's back and round his neck, looking for the elusive gogoplata choke hold. Yamamoto's defense against this maneuver was however sound.
After a re-stand, Yamamoto landed a nice left, but this did not deter Imanari from further antics -- doing the crab walk, playing the loosey-goosey, and swaggering in a manner part Ray Sefo, part Genki Sudo. The first was marked by good strikes, Yamamoto firing in low kicks and Imanari putting the foot to the body; studied groundwork by Imanari; and a number of dramatic reversals, including Yamamoto twisting his way out of an armbar. In the second again the confident Imanari goaded his opponent, and although he never did manage the gogoplata or the omoplata armlock, two judges saw the serious attempts as worthy of a win (the third liked Yamamoto) and so Imanari walked away on the good side of a split decision.
"I couldn't finish the fight early, and I got tired," said Imanari afterward. "Yamamoto is cool, I did mean to focus on leg attacks, I just went with the flow of the fight. Afterward, Kid Yamamoto came over and said it was a good fight!"
In another Featherweight GP elimination contest, world-class striker Hiroyuki Takaya of Japan stepped in against Korean MMA fighter Jong Won Kim.
The boys stayed on their feet through most of the first, trading punches while Takaya launched the occasional low kick, both connecting but neither bringing the hurt. Finally Kim grabbed a leg and pushed for a clumsy takedown, wrapping his arms round Takaya's waist and pushing to the corner where Takaya forced a stalemate. More sparring after the restand, as Takaya landed a hard low kick and some solid tight hooks.
And then, early in the second, both fighters threw right straight punches at the same moment. Both were on target, but Takaya's hit the bull's eye. Kim stumbled backward, and likely would have fallen if not for the ropes. Takaya closed quickly with more fists to put the Korean was on the mat, then came in from above, firing punches to prompt the referee to stop it. An aggressive fight and KO finish from Takaya.
"I've been having a hard time finding my distance lately, and I couldn't find it tonight in the first round," said Takaya in his post-fight interview. "So, I just fought my own fight, and I was able to get inside with punches, so this was a good step toward my future!"
Twenty-seven year-old Japanese Pancrase fighter Yoshiro Maeda was a high school table tennis whiz who found his MMA calling late but has since excelled in the sport. Tonight he met Micah Miller of the USA, who fights for the celebrated American Top Team. After an early exchange on the ropes that landed him outside the ring, the lanky Miller settled in ably, holding his own in guard, threatening on occasion while suffering minimal damage from Maeda's strikes. A lack of action here prompted the referee to show the boys the yellow card. The second started with Miller using his reach to throw a couple of promising punches, but by consensus the fight soon returned to the mat to suffer again from a lack of action. Judges regarded Maeda as more aggressive, and gave him a unanimous decision.
"I was nervous," admitted Maeda later, "because it's been a while since I fought in Japan. I tried to use the experience I gained fighting abroad, which helped me, but I wasn't aggressive enough so I'm not satisfied. I feel bad that I couldn't show the audience a more exiting fight."
A highly-anticipated matchup pitted slugger Akiyo "Wicky" Nishiura of Japan against American submission master Abel Cullum. The pair's contrasting styles was reinforced at the press conference, when Nishiura pranced in with pink hair, and Cullum sidled up in a black cowboy hat.
And aggressive Cullum charged in from the bell with a straight punch before manhandling his opponent to the canvas. Nishiura ended up on top, but could do little to gain an advantageous position, and soon the pair were scurrying around the ring in the clinch. Cullum got another takedown, going to half mount, but Nishiura twisted a tumble, and came out on top once more. Here, Cullum patiently worked an armbar, but could not finish against the wily Wicky. Terrific action, plenty of ups and downs and reversals on the ground, Cullum thrice failing in the armbar, Nishiura landing a number of solid punches and knees, both fighters indefatigable, showing excellent agility in both attacks and evasions. Late in the round, Cullum took a full mount and scored with punches before Nishiura could wrap his legs round in defense. Cullum persevered, moving to side mount them back to full mount, slamming in more big fists to end the round.
In the second, Cullum again initiated, charging in with punches before getting a takedown and partial back mount. Nishiura rose and slammed to briefly reverse, but Cullum worked harder -- positioning better, threatening and landing more on the mat. Spirited action right to the final bell, Nishiura scoring promisingly with a late right hook, but Cullum's go-to style earning the cowboy the decision.
"I was only looking for a KO or submission," said Cullum in his post-fight interview. "Wicky is great fighter, both physically and mentally, and I know he's good with counters, so I stayed close and tight to avoid them. I was happy to fight in front of Japanese fans, now I'll go back to New Mexico and train even harder, so I can come back even stronger."
American choke sleeper specialist Chase Beebe battled compatriot Joe Warren, a wrestler making his mixed martial arts debut. Beebe connected with punches as the two stayed on their feet in the early going, but Warren did better with a savage right, and then kept the initiative, throwing the fight's first takedown. Beebe wrapped round a high guard before deftly kicking his opponent back and off. After short time on their feet, Warren again took the action to the mat, but the experienced Beebe dominated from guard. They got to their feet late in the round, where a Warren right knee caught Beebe hard on the face, opening a gruesome gash. The first ended soon afterward, but the ringside doctor would not clear the hemorrhaging Beebe to continue, and Warren had the win.
"I'm a wrestler, so this was all new to me, but now I'm very confident, and I believe in myself." Warren told the media afterward. "My mind is very strong and my techniques will be 100% better next time. I'm here for the belt, and anything that gets in my way now is just an obstacle I'll overcome!"
In the last of the Featherweight GP matchups, Japanese wrestler Takafumi Otsuka took on accomplished Brazilian jujitsu fighter Bibiano Fernandes.
The pair went to the mat early, where Fernandes landed a few fists to the head from half mount before standing to pass with punches. The boys fought on their feet through the remainder of the first, Otsuka evading most of his opponent's roundhouses, hot-dogging, and sinking some decent counters, also scoring by foiling Fernandes' leg takedown attempts. After piggybacking in rear mount for a spell, Fernandes pumped up a knee that was the strike of the second round and stunned Otsuka. Fernandes unfortunately did not exploit, allowing the Japanese fighter to ride out the round. A unanimous decision in favor of Fernandes.
"He was strong, and a good fighter," said Brazilian afterward. "I trained a lot for striking, I trained with Black Mamba and his team. And in the next lightweight Grand Prix event, it doesn't matter at all to me who I fight, I will fight whomever I face."
There were three other bouts on the card.
In a Welterweight Superfight, Japanese MMA ace Shinya Aoki tangoed with American wrestler David Gardner.
From the opening bell, Aoki went for the leg takedown. But Gardner caught an arm, twisted his opponent to his side, and delivered a number of rights. Unfazed, Aoki twisted round to a back mount, whereupon the pair bobsledded uneventfully for a time. Gardner escaped a triangle attempt, and the fighters started again on their feet. In no time Aoki had another takedown and another back mount. When Gardner curiously raised one of his arms as if to signal or wave, Aoki wrapped round the rear naked choke for a submission victory.
"I think David was waving his hand to the audience, saying 'Hello Japan' during the fight," speculated Aoki. "Maybe he thinks he's on vacation? But I'm here to get the job done, so I choked him and finished him. Hello Japan!"
In a Lightweight Superfight, it was a couple of experienced and competitive Japanese -- Mitsuhiro Ishida and Daisuke Nakamura. After a bit of sizing up, Ishida executed the first takedown, but found his right arm locked up. Ishida finally got free to take a back mount, hammering the recently-liberated right into his opponent's head. Nakamura again went for the arm, but now suffered a cut over his eye, which prompted a doctor check. Upon resumption the boys fell to north-south, Ishida continuing to slam the knee into his opponent's head, before both fighters got to their feet to ride out the round. An acrobatic takedown by Nakamura early in the second, the fighter then landing a number of punches from a high guard. Ishida finally assumed a controlling position, tying up his opponent while landing blows from a back mount. A unanimous decision for Ishida.
"It was not a brilliant fight," said Ishida afterward. "In the second round, Nakamura was aggressive but I couldn't find my form. I wasn't happy with that."
Also at Lightweight, Tatsuya Kawajiri of Japan met Ross Ebanez, an American muay thai fighter who had had spent the previous two days working on making weight. All the sweating must have taken something out of Ebanez, who never found his form here. Kawajiri, meanwhile, was more than ready, and in minutes had put on the rear naked choke for a submission win.
"I know that my opponent got this fight only a week ago, but once you take an offer, as a professional you should be able to make the weight. He weighed in over, and it was a very slow, boring fight. I won but it finished before I was able to explode."