Grand Prix: MMA’s Sweetest Two Words

Sweetest Words

By Jordan Breen Jun 14, 2008
In a world far removed from any super duper, life-altering announcements that Dana White may or may not make any time soon, Fighting and Entertainment Group will take their show on the road Sunday, when their new, shiny, revamped and vacuumed MMA promotion Dream touches down at the Yokohama Arena for its fourth installment. It's a throwback card really, to a simpler time, when Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) was a legitimate main eventer, when people got excited about Brazilian jiu-jitsu phenoms crossing over into MMA, when people still cared about dudes named "Gracie" and when the sweetest two words in the MMA lexicon were "grand" and "prix."

That's right, kids: grand prix action!

Everybody loves those bad boys.

You can't even say "grand prix" without smiling.

Go on. Try it.

If you're one of the protectionists who labors under the delusion Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) will die in the ring, if you're a Mayhem Monkey or a fan of the alligator crawl, if you're down with young European prospects, or old Korean dudes or you just want to learn what the hell "ssireum" is, read and rock on to the Dream middleweight quarterfinals.

Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) vs. Melvin Manhoef (Pictures)

It's no secret that MMA fans are fickle. MMA has perhaps become the foremost athletic venue where you're only as good as your last fight. Bandwagons are constructed and combusted in a heartbeat and a handful of losses in a row will have fans telling you that you should hang up the gloves and find a new way to pay the bills. One only need to look at the current predicament of Matt Hughes (Pictures), who -- after falling prey to some of the best young fighters in arguably MMA's finest division -- is being told to call it a day.

However, Sakuraba gets his own special sort of fabulously absurd treatment from MMA fans. One of MMA's most iconic figures and arguably its most widely beloved, years of wear and tear in addition to some dramatic drubbings have led many MMA fans to watchdog for the wellbeing of the "IQ Wrestler." Exacerbated by Sakuraba's infamous fainting spell in training and subsequent claims of vertebrobasilar damage, there are now many a Saku lover who genuinely think that the "Gracie Hunter" will drop dead in the ring.

If there was someone in MMA who seemed poised to kill an opponent in the ring on account of sheer freakish power and brutality, it might just be Melvin Manhoef (Pictures). Naturally, you can understand the outcry.

FEG opened up fan voting to determine the middleweight tournament's quarterfinals, and fans voted on the epically elusive Sakuraba-Kiyoshi Tamura (Pictures) showdown which hardcores have wanted for a decade. However, in a pro wrestling-esque twist, Tamura pulled out of the proposed shoot-wrestler showdown with the ever-dreaded finger injury. As a result, the monsterish Manhoef, a middleweight tournament reserve, slid into the bout, sparking a four-alarm blaze among the Saku savers.

There can be no doubt Sakuraba isn't exactly in peak physical shape. He's nowhere near the dynamic competitor he was 10 years ago, waddling around held together by medical tape. The phenomenal single-leg takedowns and inventive grappling game are a tad past their expiration date. However, Sakuraba still possesses the technical skills to be an interesting adversary for Manhoef, who in spite of being a certified power keg, is still Dutch, and thus genetically predisposed to being exploited on the ground.

The bout will be decided by how quickly Sakuraba can get his old engine moving. As he has physically eroded, Sakuraba has become a slower and slower starter. In April, in his gimme-bout tournament opener against novice karateka Andrews Nakahara (Pictures), Sakuraba took over eight minutes to submit the kyokushin convert who had virtually no skills on the floor. Moreover, Sakuraba was rocked on more than one occasion by his green adversary. Against Manhoef, the chance of being rocked is very slight; it's more likely that a flush shot will be a brutal kiss goodnight.

Even if he's a shell of his former self, Sakuraba has pulled off some impressive performances. His zombified comeback to submit Kestutis Smirnovas (Pictures) will forever reign in the pantheon of fortitude. However, the fact remains: he got clobbered by Kestutis Smirnovas (Pictures)! While one vintage single-leg could put Sakuraba on the road to victory, Manhoef doesn't hit like a Lithuanian judoka. In an outcome which will surely galvanize the Sakuraba Saver Squad, the destructive Dutchman will put Saku to sleep in a fashion befitting a grown man bold enough to wear Gladiator shorts.

Jason "Mayhem" Miller vs. Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza (Pictures)

MMA's foremost cult hero against one of the world's finest grapplers, poised for imminent impact in MMA? It's not exactly a tough sell. It should then come as no surprise that this clash of monkey and alligator may prove to be the entire weekend's best bout.

Without the aid of a big money promotion, Jason Miller has effectively managed to build himself into one of the sport's more popular fighters based on over-the-top self-promotion and wackiness generally unseen in the sport. However, apart from his lone appearance in the Octagon against Georges St. Pierre (Pictures) and bouts with Robbie Lawler (Pictures) and Frank Trigg (Pictures), his rabid fanbase has not equaled major fights. A contract with a major Japanese promotion seems long overdue for Miller, whose gimmicky sensibilities make him the kind of character coveted by promoters in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Although he has yet to be develop his own zany fan club, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza has developed considerable hype and buzz on his own. With countless laurels in both BJJ and no-gi grappling, Jacare shares the same rarified air with the likes of Roger Gracie (Pictures) and Marcelo Garcia (Pictures). Moreover, while Gracie and Garcia have both began respective MMA careers, pundits have long opined that with his explosive takedowns -- thanks to a judo background -- and freakish athleticism, Jacare would be the major grappling star who could become an elite MMA fighter. After an initial misstep in his September 2003 MMA debut, where he was clunked by fellow standout grappler Jorge Patino (Pictures), Jacare has gone 8-0, destroying all of his opposition inside the first round.

Miller will be a step-up in competition for Jacare. Although he's looked incredibly impressive thus far, Jacare hasn't faced a remotely quality opponent other than Alexander Shlemenko. Although it may be laughable that Mayhem punched his ticket into this round by beating Katsuyori Shibata (Pictures) in May, Jacare's route was even less challenging: Ian Murphy (Pictures), a collegiate wrestler with no MMA experience.

Despite hardly facing sterling opposition thus far, the step up in competition is negotiable for Jacare. Miller's bread-and-butter is an aggressive grappling game in which he's usually forced to escape some precarious positions before seizing control of the bout. Although likely better than Souza on the feet, Miller isn't going to turn into a major league sprawl and brawler just for this bout. Moreover, the wrestling advantage lies with the Brazilian. With potent takedowns and just as about as good of a technical top game as you can ask for, Jacare will have considerable stylistic advantages in this bout.

The physicality of Jacare figures to be too much for Miller, whose jiu-jitsu is normally enough to carry him through. Jacare will command the takedowns, dominate position and -- unless Miller is able to harness the power of all the Mayhem Monkeys to survive for 15 minutes on the floor -- it'll be time for Souza to do the alligator walk while Mayhem is in la-la land.

Zelg Galesic (Pictures) vs. Taiei Kin (Pictures)

Eight months ago, Zelg Galesic (Pictures) and Taiei Kin (Pictures) squared off when FEG brought their Hero's program to South Korea. I was rather excited to see the bout, which seemed to be a well-paired match-up of savvy strikers with developing ground games. The two came out, traded strikes, and I was excited to see what was going to unfold.

Then a completely ineffectual Galesic strike cut Kin's eyelid, and ended the bout in 36 seconds.

And it sucked.

Thankfully, there is some cosmic justice in the world, and now we have a quality little rematch. Not only will we get the resolution we didn't get in October -- short of another unceremonious ending -- we should get the fun scrap that likely would've unfolded the first time if not for Kin's eyelid getting slashed in half. Moreover, these two deserve each other, not only as well-matched exciting adversaries, but also to save them from the other fighters in this tournament who can wrestle.

Galesic, a hotshot Croatian striker whose game and nationality earned him the moniker "Lil Mirko," garnered considerable hype in 2006 via his run in England's Cage Rage. However, when the Pula native got a chance to show off his skills in the last days of Pride, it was very obvious in his losses to Makoto Takimoto (Pictures) and Dong Sik Yoon (Pictures) that his armbar victory over Curtis Stout (Pictures) was not indicative of any considerable growth on the ground.

Taiei Kin (Pictures)'s emergence into a decent and improving MMA fighter is somewhat improbable. After a career as a full-contact karateka and undersized K-1 competitor, Kin fought his first MMA bout at the age of 36, and seemed to simply be a sacrificial lamb for Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures). Not only did he acquit himself well in the Akiyama bout, he actually continued showing marked improvement each time out. Although Kiyoshi Tamura (Pictures) and Ikuhisa Minowa (Pictures) will not be mistaken for top-flight middleweights, Kin's winning performances against each showed a natural acumen for the sport. The real tragedy is that he didn't jump into this sport a decade ago.

Employing a point-fighting style but delivering those strikes with some legitimate power, Kin is probably the better technical striker. What makes the bout interesting is that Galesic can offensively grapple even if he has some defensive liabilities. If the Croat has decent takedowns, he could find solid strategy in top control.

However, I can't go against the elder statesmen on this card in every case. Furthermore, Lyoto Machida (Pictures) has unleashed a potent strain of Karate Fever. Let's assume Galesic keeps his word and makes good on the promise of stand-up affair which will provide both excitement and a Kin decision victory via point-fighting supremacy. Hi-ya.

Dong Sik Yoon (Pictures) vs. Gegard Mousasi (Pictures)

They aren't stars. They don't have Affliction deals and the MMA expert at your local frat party probably doesn't know either. But that doesn't alter the kernel of truth: this is a pretty damn good match-up.

You would be hard-pressed to find two more polar opposite paths to prominence. With a fairly gaudy 21-2-1 record, Mousasi has been schooled and groomed to maximize his considerable physical potential over the last five years, improving bit by bit as he's stepped further onto the international stage. Moreover, the Dutch-bred Armenian is still only 22 years old and has only began to scratch the surface of said potential, a prospect which has earned him considerable buzz, especially after his snappy submission of the well-regarded Denis Kang (Pictures) last April.

At 35 years old, Dong Sik Yoon (Pictures) has a mere .500 record through eight pro fights. After a sensational international judo career, albeit one stymied by the politics of the South Korean judo world, Yoon was baptized by fire when he was thrown into the deep end of the Pride ring immediately. After a horrendous knockout loss to Sakuraba in his debut, few would've anticipated success. However, spirited performances in losses to current light heavyweight kingpin Quinton Jackson (Pictures) and savvy vet Murilo Bustamante (Pictures) showed some measure of upside, and last June, judo's "King Without a Crown" withstood a nasty beating from Manhoef to come with a triumphant armbar for his first pro win. Since then, it's been full speed ahead as Yoon has matched the four losses to start his career with four straight wins, looking more and more the part of a mixed martial artist each time out.

None too surprisingly, the gameplan for Yoon will be simple. He will have to contend with Mousasi's reach advantage and range and, even when he does close the distance, he will have to contend with Mousasi's potent knees. While it is not hard to imagine Yoon securing top position and getting the submission, he is still prone to being bashed up from the outside. Even if he is able to weather the initial salvo, Mousasi is not nearly as easy to exploit on the ground as Manhoef and Fabio Silva (Pictures). In spite of his gameness and grappling finesse, Yoon will be outgunned on the feet and go down to the fast-rising Mousasi, who will validate his hype and march into the middleweight final four.
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