Shooto’s Mamoru-BJ Trilogy Worth a Look

By Jordan Breen Jul 14, 2008
This weekend is already being hailed as a historic weekend for mixed martial arts with promotional war set between Affliction and the UFC. However, the weekend is even larger for the sport than people realize, as leading Shooto promoter Sustain continues with its "Road to 20th Anniversary" series, bringing "Shooto Tradition 2" to Japan's fight Mecca, Korakuen Hall in Tokyo Friday.

Mamoru Yamaguchi (Pictures) began his reign as Shooto 123-pound world champion in 2003, in a time where the UFC struggled to replace Jens Pulver (Pictures) as lightweight champion, and few fans believed 155-pounders, let alone anyone below that, could ever be worthy of interest. Now, Shooto's only two-division champion will try to regain his world title from the man who defeated him, Shinichi "BJ" Kojima, in a radically different MMA world that has embraced the lighter likes of Urijah Faber (Pictures) and Miguel Torres (Pictures).

The good folks at Sustain would never give you just one fight, of course.

Friday will also feature lightweight prospects Yusuke Endo (Pictures) and Shinji Sasaki (Pictures) trying to get their groove back, featherweight wildchild "Wicky Akiyo" Akiyo Nishiura (Pictures) staging both an art exhibit and in-ring battle, the possible second coming of Ryota Matsune (Pictures), and a sampling of some of 2008's most interesting Shooto up-and-comers in rookie tournament action.

Shinichi Kojima (Pictures) vs. Mamoru Yamaguchi (Pictures)

In seemingly no time flat, Miguel Torres (Pictures) and Urijah Faber (Pictures) have broken down major barriers for the 135- and 145-pound divisions. Shooto's 123-pound division doesn't have that star.

While accessibility is an issue, in an MMA climate where sub-lightweight is now all the rage and Youtube has brought every flavor of international MMA to your front door, MMA's hardcore contingent may now be ready for a third champ to put this division on the map. That fighter will either be Mamoru Yamaguchi (Pictures) or Shinichi "BJ" Kojima, as the two turn their rivalry into a trilogy over the Shooto 123-pound world championship.

The division's first-ever champion, Yamaguchi (who goes by his first name only) was already two years and change into his reign when he first met Kojima in March 2006, and the two battled to a competitive majority draw, allowing Mamoru to retain his title. When they met seven months later in October, Mamoru turned his back for a fraction of a second and Kojima capitalized, jumping on the champion's back, and choking him unconscious in only 98 seconds to claim the crown.

Since the win, Kojima left the Abe Ani Combat Club and turned in repeated lackluster performances, including a horrific first title defense against Yasuhiro Urushitani (Pictures) in March 2007 where Kojima received an unjust draw. Kojima, nicknamed "BJ" in reference to BJ Penn for his prodigious natural talent, also followed in the footsteps of his namesake and campaigned at 132 pounds, which resulted in embarrassing losses to Eduardo "Dudu" Dantas and So Tazawa (Pictures). Meanwhile, apart from a razor-thin loss to the aforementioned Urushitani, Mamoru has dominated talented up-and-comers Yusei Shimokawa (Pictures), Masaaki Sugawara (Pictures) and Yuki Shoujou (Pictures) in impressive fashion.

Although in the strictest sense, Kojima is still the better grappler in the bout, it's unlikely we'll see a replay of their second bout. This time around, Mamoru will likely be acutely aware of turning his back when scrambling to his feet. Moreover, since his departure from AACC, Kojima has shook up his training routine, laboring under the delusion that he's a fantastic striker. This self-delusion gives Mamoru a distinct edge in the bout.

The biggest problem for Mamoru in the past is that despite developing fantastic muay Thai skills, he has been largely a counter-striker. Although it serves him well against aggressive go-getters like Shoujou and Sugawara, against more conservative, measured opponents -- like Kojima and Urushitani -- it leaves him standing around, feinting, and not producing offense. If Kojima shows the willingness to strike that he has recently, there's no reason Mamoru can't put his foot on the pedal and use his punch combinations, kicks to the body, and even the Thai plumb to seize control of the bout.

If Mamoru is plagued by the same inactivity of the past, it's unlikely he'll be able to do better than the draw he got in their first fight. However, if he's tucked that lesson away in his afro, he should be able capitalize on Kojima's delusions of striking grandeur and take a close decision in the biggest fight of his career. If the afroed ace can make history, becoming the first fighter in Shooto history to lose and regain his world title, the division may have the fighter necessary to spark some interest the way that Faber and Torres have done for the feathers and bantams abroad.

Yusuke Endo (Pictures) vs. Kenichiro Togashi (Pictures)

Takashi Nakakura (Pictures)'s sudden rise to prominence as Shooto world champion provides at least one interesting lightweight still central to Shooto. In this bout we have a pairing of former Nakakura victims who would love to clear their recent hurdles and get another crack at Shooto's 154-pound king, and in the process, pick up the vacant and ever-useless Shooto Pacific Rim title which Nakakura left in the garbage can when he won the Shooto world title.

Kenichiro Togashi (Pictures) met with Nakakura back in October 2004, and lost a pedestrian decision. Since then, Togashi's crisp boxing and slick submission game have allowed him emerge as a game gatekeeper; he's been a difficult test for Mitsuhiro Ishida (Pictures), Joachim Hansen (Pictures) and Kotetsu Boku (Pictures). However, Togashi's physical flimsiness and shoddy wrestling have left him unable to get over the hump despite his skills.

Yusuke Endo (Pictures) emerged in 2004 where he took the Shooto 154-pound rookie tournament by storm. Following that performance, there was hope that he could be the next in a long line of great lightweights from the Shooto system. However, after big wins over Clay Guida (Pictures) and the first man to defeat him, Ganjo Tentsuku (Pictures), Endo's hype was crushed as he was completely master-classed by Takashi Nakakura (Pictures) last November, getting thumped over fifteen lopsided minutes.

If Togashi wants to shake his gatekeeper status, he'll have to be flawless on the move, picking off winging punches and putting together slick combinations of his own on the wide-open Endo. However, Endo is of the Kiguchi wrestling lineage, and since he's likely going to be frustrated on the feet, he'll be inclined to test Togashi's notoriously weak wrestling, which is a test he should be able to pass. The style match could make for an ugly draw if neither fighter can adequately make their mark on the fight, but look for Endo to spend enough time on top pounding, and defending Togashi's high guard to take a close and competitive decision.

"Wicky Akiyo" Akiyo Nishiura (Pictures) vs. Matteus Lahdesmaki

Although he'll begin the evening with an exhibition of his paintings in the lobby of Korakuen Hall, "Wicky Akiyo" Akiyo Nishiura (Pictures) will have to switch canvasses and get into the ring to display a different kind of artwork.

After being crowned Shooto's 143-pound rookie champ in 2006 and being named rookie MVP, 2007 was a fairly pedestrian year for Wicky Akiyo. After a highly debatable split decision win over now-Shooto world champ Hideki Kadowaki (Pictures), an ill-conceived move up to lightweight saw him turn in an awful performance against Joe Camacho (Pictures) in a dismal draw. However, 2008 is shaping up to be a solid year for the Shooting Gym Yokohama wildchild, who starched South Korean slugger Jong Man Kim in February in the opening round of the GCM Cage Force featherweight tournament, where he may now be the lead dog in the bracket.

In an in-between bout as he awaits Fanjin Son (Pictures) in the next round of the Cage Force tourney, Wicky meets Finland's Matteus Lahdesmaki. A veteran of mostly Scandinavian Shooto events, Lahdesmaki hasn't fully distinguished himself on the European scene, but may have some offensive grappling weapons which could serve him well against the slang-and-bang style of Nishiura.

As Nishiura still has shoddy takedown defense (which is only exacerbated by his recklessness on the feet), there will be opportunities for Lahdesmaki, who has respectable takedowns. The major problem with Lahdesmaki's game is that he too himself is reckless in pursuit of the submission, which makes him very easy to sweep and escape from. Nishiura may be a weak wrestler, but he's more than capable of squirming out of any position, including fully locked submissions. Lahdesmaki's inability to keep Akiyo on the mat for any length of time will force a standup battle and give Shooto's favorite scamp the opportunity he needs to clunk his Finnish foe in the middle stages of the fight.

Hiroyuki Tanaka (Pictures) vs. Hiromasa Ogikubo (Pictures)

Even if you saw last month's fight of the year candidate between Miguel Torres (Pictures) and Yoshiro Maeda (Pictures) and raced to your PC to figure out everything you could about the bantamweight division, it's unlikely you would've came up with anything on Hiromasa Ogikubo (Pictures) and Hiroyuki Tanaka (Pictures). All the more reason for you to read on.

Ogikubo in a whole host of ways bears a striking resemblance to another Shooto standout, his very own Paraestra Matsudo teammate and trainer Ryota Matsune (Pictures). Apart from sharing the same mat space, both Ogikubo and Matsune both became All Japan amateur Shooto champions at only 18 years old, both at 132 pounds. Matsune went on to become Shooto world champion at only 21 years old in 2003. Easily the most impressive of all last year's rookie tournament champions, Ogikubo turned 21 this past April and now will have to step up his game to rival his mentor Matsune.

While hopes are high for Ogikubo, Hiroyuki Tanaka (Pictures) may be one of the most anonymous and unknown Class A Shooto fighters. Loser of three of his last four bouts, Tanaka's inability to get the job done against some of the division's more talented fighters such as Koetsu Okazaki (Pictures), Tetsu Suzuki (Pictures) and So Tazawa (Pictures) has slotted him into a role as a gatekeeper. A win over Ogikubo would go a considerable way toward losing that unfortunate status.

Unfortunately for Tanaka, Ogikubo happens to fight a bit like Matsune as well. Tanaka's only real strong suit is his guard game, where he can use different variations like butterfly and spider guard to threaten with submissions. However, Ogikubo prefers to be on top where his powerful and technical game shines through. This will likely be, in some measure, a replay of Tanaka's last fight, where he simply couldn't offer anything off his back to the better grappler on top of him, Tetsu Suzuki (Pictures).

Expect a clean sweep on the cards in rather easy fashion for Ogikubo. Shooto enthusiasts can only hope that if Ogikubo is the next Ryota Matsune (Pictures), that the fight gods built him sturdier than the fine china that the perpetually injured Matsune was crafted from.

Shinji Sasaki (Pictures) vs. Jin Kazeta (Pictures)

MMA is full of clichés, and "striker versus grappler" may be among the most irritating. Yet, even in the first truly "mixed" era of MMA, the idea persists and this fight is a good example of why.

With the aforementioned struggle for pro Shooto promoters to find talented lightweights, Shinji Sasaki (Pictures) seemed like a breath of fresh air. With colorful entrances, a heavily tattooed aesthetic, and a nasty submission game, Sasaki was both entertaining and talented and seemed like he could offer something to the next generation of Shooto lightweights. However, this past May, he ran into talented Frenchman Bendy Casimir (Pictures), whose power on top and ability to sweep from the bottom proved too difficult for the Hiroshiman, who dropped the unanimous decision.

Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Kazeta remains both an easy mark and a dangerous task in the world of pro Shooto. Blessed with arguably the most vicious knees to body in all of MMA and almost nothing else, Kazeta really never got his career on track until he was 34 years old and stepped up from featherweight to lightweight. However, the former Niigata firefighter hasn't seen action since November 2006, when he was handled soundly by lightweight prospect Yusuke Endo (Pictures).

At this point in time, Kazeta is what he is. He will stumble across the ring with his arms out in Romero zombiesque fashion in pursuit of the Thai plumb. If he gets it, and puts his knees to Sasaki's body, he could very well win. However, Sasaki always finds a way to suck his opponents to the mat, and unlike Bendy Casimir (Pictures), Kazeta doesn't have the grappling chops to sweep from the bottom. Sasaki may not offer anything to a lightweight resurgence in Shooto, but he will get the submission victory here when he taps Kazeta in the first seven minutes of the fight.

The Undercard

In the evening's first Class A bout, 115-pounders Takehiro Harusaki (Pictures) and Shinya Murofushi (Pictures) will square off with the winner taking a major leap ahead in the developing division. The fight pits the absurdly gangly submission savvy of Murofushi against the stumpy ruggedness of Harusaki. Although Murofushi -- who will be approximately 17 feet taller than Harusaki -- has struggled with some shorter opponents in the past, his improving standup and slick submission game should be enough to generate more offense than Harusaki and take a close decision after three rounds.

A curious bit of matchmaking is on tap as Akihiro Yamazaki meets Naoki Hirayama in a 168-pound scrap. Yamazaki was last year's Shooto rookie champion in the division, and is a well-rounded talent with a dozen fights already on his CV. Meanwhile, Hirayama, despite being an All Japan amateur champion last year, has only one pro fight and will be thrown into the deep end here. Since Hirayama's grappling is his strength, he should be able to avoid the submission, but will still be outgrappled and outworked as Yamazaki takes the decision.

The mediocre Takahiro Hosoi (Pictures) originally seemed set for loss when he was slated to take on up-and-comer Teriyuki Matsumoto (Pictures). However, with Matsumoto forced out of the bout with a knee injury, Hosoi will now meet Matsumoto's far less talented Shooting Gym Osaka teammate Nobuhiro "Mike" Hayakawa in a 138-pound catch-weight bout. Coming in on just under two weeks notice and the fact he's far tougher than he is capable, Hayakawa is unlikely to win the bout.

In what should be a featherweight fire fight, top Rumina Sato (Pictures) pupil Daiki Tsuchiya (Pictures) takes on Purebred brawler Naohiro Mizuno (Pictures) in a 143-pound Shooto rookie tournament quarterfinal. Tsuchiya was the victor in the year's best Class B Shooto bout in his debut against Hidenori Nishino (Pictures), where he showed himself to have rabid dog intensity, a powerful striking and pounding game, and the ability to defend submissions technically on the floor. If he can stay off his back against Mizuno, Tsuchiya should take a decision if not a KO in exciting fashion.

This year's 132-pound Shooto rookie tournament maybe the deepest of the rookie brackets, and tourney favorite status may be up for grabs when Yuta Nezu (Pictures) and Haruo Ochi (Pictures) meet in a quarterfinal bout. Nezu has already grabbed a 4-1 in his career, while Ochi's February debut produced a horrifying moment when a sky-high waistlock slam left his opponent Masumi Tozawa (Pictures) looking near death on the canvas. If the fireplug Ochi can use more slams and his power game to ground Nezu he could win on the cards. Nezu, who has already beat some experienced fighters, is more likely to steal the decision by grabbing the judges' eyes with his great counterstriking and combinations.

And in the evening's curtain jerker, Junpei Konno and Ikuo Usuda will square off in a 154-pound rookie tournament quarterfinal. Word around the figurative Japanese MMA campfire is that Usuda, a Kiguchi wrestling disciple like Takanori Gomi (Pictures), Hayato Sakurai (Pictures), Norifumi Yamamoto (Pictures), Rumina Sato (Pictures) and Genki Sudo (Pictures), is a serious manchild who has already earned the attention and respect of established pros in training. Look for Usuda to bash up Konno and potentially emerge as the 154-pound rookie tournament favorite.
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