Ladies First: DEEP'S Real Main Event

By Jordan Breen Aug 3, 2006
Their match-up was the first announced for DEEP's summer super-card. They are the best fighters in their weight class. For the last two months many hardcore fight fans have hotly anticipated their upcoming rematch.

And no, they aren't the main event.

When Hisae Watanabe and Satoko Shinashi (Pictures) step into the ring at Korakuen Hall on Friday night, their bout will be rich with the trappings that decorate your classic main event. Both, unquestionably at the top of their weight class, are two of the biggest stars in female mixed martial arts.

Anticipation for their rematch has crescendoed over the past three and a half years and the winner will be crowned as DEEP's first woman 106-pound champion.

Yet, they aren't the main event.

No, that honor belongs to the not-so-anticipated match between Xavier Foupa-Pokam (Pictures) and former DEEP 183-pound champion Ryuta Sakurai (Pictures).

Watanabe is a Rangsit Stadium Muay Thai champion in Thailand, and won a nationally televised one-night MMA tournament. Shinashi is a world sambo championships bronze medalist, an All Japan Brazilian jiu-jitsu champion, Smackgirl's 106-pound champion, and is undefeated in her 24 pro MMA bouts.

Sakurai has muscles, while Foupa-Pokam is France's answer to Gilbert Yvel (Pictures).

Watanabe and Shinashi first met on December 29, 2002, in the 110-pound final of Smackgirl's Japan Cup 2002 series. It was a classic bout between striker and grappler, as Watanabe pounded Shinashi throughout the first round with barrages of punches and heavy knees in the clinch. The second round saw Shinashi flex her grappling muscles on the mat, securing a heelhook that forced Watanabe to submit just over a minute into the round.

Since their first encounter both women paved their paths to the top of the female mixed martial arts world.

Shinashi springboarded off of her Japan Cup win and racked up wins left, right and center. She became a staple of DEEP cards, often prompting promoters to accept open applications from women willing to fight her after she had run through nearly the available competition. She appeared in Shooto under their upstart G-Shooto banner. She returned to Smackgirl and snatched their 106-pound crown last November. Shinashi's track record of sheer dominance paints a clear picture of why she is arguably the most outstanding pound-for pound female fighter in MMA.

Watanabe's road has not been without great success, either. Since her loss to Shinashi in December of 2002, Watanabe has racked up a 10-1 record, stopping six of her 10 victims. Her only loss over the 11 fight span came at a higher weight class against Yuka Tsuji (Pictures), perhaps the only woman whose claim to pound-for-pound supremacy is as valid as Shinashi's. Since then the two have become training partners.

Perhaps the biggest moment in her transformation from a kickboxer to mixed martial artist came in May of 2004, when she conquered a nationally televised one-night, eight-woman tournament put on by the Tokyo Broadcasting System as part of their Golden Muscle variety show. Watanabe dispatched Maki Sakai and Hisako Hoshino, before avenging a defeat against Mari Kaneko (Pictures) in the finals.

Shinashi and Watanabe were originally penciled in to rematch at DEEP's fifth anniversary card in February before an eye injury sustained by Shinashi forced the bout to be postponed.

On June 9, at DEEP Official Gym Impact in Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, DEEP president Shigeru Saeki announced that arguably the biggest fight in the history of female mixed martial arts would take place on August 4, as part of DEEP's premiere summer card.

Flanked by Shinashi, wearing a designer dress and gold jewelry, and Watanabe, in her full Harajuku girl get-up, Saeki addressed the media.

"We thought that we had to make a belt if these two are fighting,” said Saeki. “This fight is worth that much. I hope it'll be an important fight for female MMA."

Said Shinashi: "I want the belt too, but what's important to me is that I'm fighting Hisae. It's one on one. I want to show an intense woman versus woman fight."

And yet, despite the emphatic praise and significance put on the fight by Saeki, the DEEP president also announced at the press conference that the bout wouldn't be the evening's main event. "I'm not thinking about whether men or women are better," Saeki stated. "These two definitely have the résumés and they are exciting fighters, so it's reasonable that they will get to be semi-main eventers."

"I think it should be the main event," Shinashi dissented.

Characteristically, Watanabe was more audacious, proclaiming, "This fight is more interesting than some lame boys' MMA match. It is much more controversial.”

There is seemingly no answer as to why the Shinashi-Watanabe rematch is not the main event for DEEP's 25th Impact card. While a superficial glance at the situation may lead someone to believe that DEEP is shying away from promoting two females in the spotlight, that certainly doesn't seem to be the case.

With a main event snub on a card featuring PRIDE veterans, former, and current DEEP champions like Ryuta Sakurai (Pictures), Jutaro Nakao (Pictures) and Masakazu Imanari (Pictures), it is the faces of Shinashi and Watanabe front and center on promotional posters. The 25th Impact event banner on DEEP's official Web site features just two fighters: Watanabe and Shinashi.

Satellite television channel Samurai TV also sports a promotional banner for DEEP's 25th Impact broadcast on its Web site. Again, it is only Shinashi and Watanabe who appear on the banner. As well, both women have appeared on Samurai TV in the past two weeks to promote their upcoming bout.

As customary in the world of Japanese fightsport, both women held their public workouts for the fight media in this past week. Shinashi, who has trained for the bout with DEEP champion Masakazu Imanari (Pictures) and Shooto champion Shinya Aoki (Pictures), held her workout with Imanari at DEEP's official gym in Shinjuku-ku on July 28. As one would expect with Imanari involved, the two demoed leglocks for the cameras.

"Show me some freaky techniques!" Shinashi implored the "Ashikan Judan."

After showing off an Achilles lock to heelhook transition, it was mentioned to Shinashi that Watanabe had reportedly been working on triangle chokes off of her back. Imanari noted the modified ground-and-pound rules that prohibit strikes to the head on the ground, and advised Shinashi, "With no pounding, just get on the bottom yourself."

Watanabe spent her training camp at GUTSMAN Shooto Dojo, under the coaching of former Shooto champion Naoki Sakurada. Sakurada's progeny of Shooto competitors have become renown for superb sprawl-and-brawl tactics, racking up a combined 92 percent winning percentage in MMA competition in 2005.

Watanabe held her public workout on August 1, and much as their wardrobes contrasted the women at the fight announcement in June, their workouts contrasted them this time around.

While Shinashi showed off mostly leg-locking techniques, female MMA's premiere knockout artist showed sharp combinations in her three minutes of shadowboxing, before taking to the mitts with Sakurada.

"She will definitely throw me at least once," said Watanabe of Shinashi's sambo skills. "But, I will try to react as calmly as possible. I know she won't stand and trade because that's my strong point. My shoulders, core, and balance of my body improved."

"I have to watch my pacing,” she continued. “I can't be impatient or make one mistake, or else I'll be thrown or possibly lose. In the first round, I'm going to relax and keep my tank full for [the] last round. I won't make a mistake and I'll win because of that.”

Female mixed martial arts still has a lot of catching up to do before it before it garners the respect of its brotherly counterpart. However, the rematch between Shinashi and Watanabe is a watershed moment for female mixed martial artists and the sport in general.

On a standout organization's summer super-card, one full of quality international talent, the real main event is the women. And on August 4, when fight enthusiasts pile into the bleachers at the fight Mecca Korakuen Hall, they, just like the fighters and promoters, will know which bout boasts the biggest stakes.

Let's just hope that after the world's 106-pound queen is crowned, that people remember to stick around for the "main event.”
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