The Year in European MMA

By Tim Leidecker Dec 25, 2007
2007 was an outstanding year for European MMA. The UFC returned to the U.K. for the first time in almost three years. Meanwhile Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures), arguably the strongest fighter to ever grace a ring, was scarce inside the squared circle but still dominated the headlines.

Last but not least, there was a tremendous power shift on the European scene when longtime powerhouse promotions Cage Rage and M-1 Mix-Fight Championship were sold to American companies ProElite and Sibling Entertainment Group respectively.

Read on for the most comprehensive roundup you'll find on the year in European MMA.

Winter

The year kicked off with a couple of smaller shows that featured fighters who would become important later in the year. In the Netherlands, Siyar Bahadurzada (Pictures) won the Shooto Europe middleweight title and with it the right to challenge Shikou Yamashita (Pictures) for the Shooto world championship. The "Afghan Killa" would eventually become the Japanese promotion's 183-pound champion via unanimous decision.

In Croatia undefeated middleweight Maro Perak fought the first of his four fights this year. At Anno Domini, HERO'S veteran Zelg Galesic (Pictures)'s promotion, he went the distance the only time. Perak is a judoka dubbed "Mean Machine" by his teammates at the Trojan Gym in Cheltenham, England. He added three first-round knockouts before the end of the year to become one of the hottest middleweight prospects in Europe.

At the WFCA Grand Prix in Latvia, Polish knockout artist Tomasz Drwal (Pictures) returned to action for the first time in more than a year after recovering from persistent knee problems. The "Gorilla" from Krakow knocked out Lithuanian Valdas Pocevicius and added a submission win over Andre Fyeet before being drafted into the UFC.

Even though Drwal lost his debut against Chute Boxer Thiago Silva (Pictures), the defeat was nothing to be ashamed of. The Brazilian would later beat rising star Houston Alexander (Pictures) as well.

The first big show of 2007 was Cage Rage 20 in London. Masakazu Imanari (Pictures) caught Robbie Olivier (Pictures) in a flying armbar to add the Cage Rage championship to his DEEP featherweight title; British heavyweights Dave Legeno (Pictures) and Mustapha al Turk (Pictures) taught UFC legends Dan Severn (Pictures) and Mark Kerr (Pictures) two painful lessons; and Tengiz Tedoradze (Pictures) won the British heavyweight title from Rob Broughton (Pictures). In the main event, Butterbean knocked out James Thompson (Pictures) after "The Colossus" had just destroyed Olympic judo gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures).

In March, Paul Daley (Pictures) underscored his supremacy in the welterweight division in Europe when he knocked out challenger Daniel Weichel seconds into their FX3 title bout.

Meanwhile Switzerland-based Brazilian Augusto Frota (Pictures) and Italian welterweight Ivan Mussardo (Pictures) tried their luck in Shooto but were stopped by legendary Rumina Sato (Pictures) and Tsudanuma Dojo's Yoshitaro Niimi (Pictures). Top light heavyweight Mikko Rupponen (Pictures) defeated PRIDE veteran Hirotaka Yokoi (Pictures) in Finland, but he lost to American Sean Salmon (Pictures) six months later.

Spring

The sale of PRIDE Fighting Championships to UFC promoter Zuffa made a huge impact on the MMA landscape not only in Japan but also in Europe. Many of the continent's top stars, who had been contracted with previous owners DSE, were virtually locked out of fighting. As a result popular fighters like Joachim Hansen (Pictures), David Bielkheden (Pictures) and Sergei Kharitonov (Pictures) were sidelined for most of the year.

For a couple of months, it appeared as if upstart promotion Bodog Fight might be able to fill the void PRIDE had left. The promotion, which is backed by billionaire Calvin Ayre, even put together a formidable show in St. Petersburg that had Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) against Matt Lindland (Pictures) in the main event.

After a fallout with co-promoter M-1 and a subsequent budget reduction, however, Bodog lost traction in the European market. The company returned to Russia in November with Oleg Taktarov's comeback as the headliner, but the show was merely a footnote.

A week after the "Clash of Nations," Cage Rage returned with arguably its strongest show of the year. At "Judgment Day" James Zikic (Pictures) came out of quasi-retirement to defeat Chute Boxer Evangelista Santos (Pictures) for the vacant light heavyweight belt. Vitor Belfort (Pictures) was also in action, knocking out Italian Ivan Serati (Pictures) in the first round.

In the main event, English kickboxer Gary Turner (Pictures) did the same with legendary brawler David Abbott. Undercard action featured Cyrille Diabate (Pictures), Paul Daley (Pictures) and Murilo Rua (Pictures) among others.

In a bold move to challenge longstanding U.K. top dog Cage Rage on its home turf, the UFC scheduled a return to England on the same date as Cage Rage's show. The fans in Manchester were treated to a very good card that saw the likes of Cheick Kongo (Pictures), Ryoto Machida, Michael Bisping (Pictures) and Andrei Arlovski (Pictures) prevail over opposition.

In the headliner, Brazilian grappler Gabriel Gonzaga (Pictures) surprisingly knocked out PRIDE Grand Prix winner Mirko Filipovic (Pictures) using Cro Cop's own patented high kick.

May was a double-edged sword, particularly for followers of Scandinavian MMA. On one hand, the Swedish government legalized the sport after initially banning it at the end of 2006. Even though fans were unable to enjoy another edition of the hugely popular European Vale Tudo series, the lifting of the ban at least allowed a couple of amateur shows to take place.

On the other hand, Martin Kampmann (Pictures), Denmark's No. 1 MMA fighter, tore all of his knee ligaments and cancelled his UFC middleweight title elimination bout against Rich Franklin (Pictures). The fight would have also been the main event of UFC 72, a show that could have used the crisp punching and precise kicking of the "Hitman."

Meanwhile in Poland, Konfroncacja Sztuk Walki established itself as the premier organization when it comes to pitting promising newcomers against one another in an old-school tournament format.

Brazilian Muay Thai fighter Antonio Mendes, the marathon man of 2007 with a total of nine fights in seven months, won the KSW 7 light heavyweight tournament. Ukraine's Alexey Oleinik (Pictures) won the middleweight tourney. The promotion also staged a fight between red-hot youngsters Mamed Khalidov and Martin Zawada.

Summer

M-1 Mix-Fight Championship kicked off a period of hot events with a unique show on board the "Flying Dutchman," a reproduction of the Dutch three-master from 1748, which lied at anchor in the harbor of St. Petersburg. The event, which practically was a trade fair for the promotion, featured the Russian Red Devil team against some of Europe's better opposition.

In the main event, Aleksander Emelianenko (Pictures) made quick work of Dutchman Jessie Gibson, who had stepped in for his countryman Gilbert Yvel (Pictures) on short notice.

Two days later the annual K-1 World Grand Prix in Amsterdam took place. On a card that was heavy on kickboxing and light on MMA bouts, Bob Sapp (Pictures) returned to his place of last year's disgrace but was quickly dispatched by the "Dutch Lumberjack" Peter Aerts (Pictures).

In a bout under K-1 rules, Melvin Manhoef (Pictures) brutally knocked out Russian Ruslan Karaev with a vicious combo that was arguably the knockout of the year. Eventual champion Semmy Schilt (Pictures) eliminated Europe Grand Prix winner Paul Slowinski.

At the end of July, English promotion Cage Wars joined forces with Finland's FinnFight, Shooto Switzerland and Holland's Ultimate Glory to form the G4. Contrary to the Cage Force Network that was founded in September 2006 with the goal of supplying the UFC with fighters that are tested inside the cage, the G4 is close to Shooto. The move ended FinnFight's three-year hiatus, and Ultimate Glory boomed with five shows this year.

In another business move, EliteXC promoter ProElite added the U.K.'s top promotion, Cage Rage, to its portfolio of King of the Cage (California), ICON Sport and Rumble on the Rock (both Hawaii) and Spirit MC (Korea).

The deal cost ProElite a reported $5 million ($2.2 million for the acquisition and the remaining $2.8 million to pay off existing debt). While the quality of the shows has not been visibly improved, it appears that the total number of events per year may be reduced for 2008.

August was the month in which a Swedish delegation headed off to Canada to conquer opposition at the season six tapings of Bodog Fight's weekly show. Diego Gonzalez, Sami Aziz and Per Eklund (Pictures) all won their bouts. Only Piotr Jakaczynski came up short.

Gegard Mousasi (Pictures) also made his successful North American debut at the Vancouver tapings. The Armenian veteran of PRIDE would remain in Canada and fight in Canadian promotion Hardcore Championship Fighting.

In early September the UFC returned to the U.K. for the second time in 2007. The fans at the state-of-the-art O2 Arena witnessed the rise of Houston Alexander (Pictures), who knocked out Italian pro boxer Alessio Sakara (Pictures) in just more than a minute. Fans also saw another drab performance from "Cro Cop" and Michael Bisping (Pictures) receive a very generous split decision after his fight against Matt Hamill (Pictures).

In the main event, Quinton Jackson (Pictures) battled Dan Henderson (Pictures) for five rounds to unify the UFC and PRIDE light heavyweight titles.

Autumn

In fall the action shifted away from the rings and cages and to the negotiating tables. After months of negotiations, Russian emperor Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) turned down a UFC offer and instead signed a two-year, six-fight deal with upstart promotion M-1 Global. The newly founded league had only existed for a few weeks when it signed the much sought after PRIDE heavyweight champion.

Fedor's decision to turn his back on the UFC resulted in a chain reaction that ultimately led to the UFC heavyweight championship once again becoming vacant. When Randy Couture (Pictures) learned that the negotiations with the Russian had broken down, he handed in a letter of resignation.

For Couture a fight with the widely considered No. 1 heavyweight in the world was the only meaningful and logical bout at this advanced stage of his illustrious career.

While the leaves were turning different colors, a "Tiger" was missing in Japan: Kestutis Arbocius (Pictures) failed to show up for his Pancrase heavyweight title fight against Assuerio Silva (Pictures). Also in Japan, Dutchman Andy Souwer (Pictures) captured his second K-1 World MAX tournament, defeating Masato in the final. In the United States, Belarusian wrestler Vladimir Matyushenko (Pictures) proved that there's still life in the old dog by winning the IFL light heavyweight title.

In November, Fedor won his fourth sambo world championship practically by default after two opponents chickened out of facing the 31-year-old juggernaut. Joachim Hansen (Pictures) returned to Shooto and Alistair Overeem (Pictures) stopped Paul Buentello (Pictures) to win the Strikeforce heavyweight title.

At UFC 78 Michael Bisping (Pictures) had to lose to Rashad Evans (Pictures) to realize that his frame is better suited for fighting at middleweight, and Karo Parisyan (Pictures) defeated Ryo Chonan (Pictures) in an uneventful unanimous decision -- the seventh time the Armenian had gone the distance inside the Octagon.

Outlook

M-1 Global immediately made good on its promise to cooperate with other promotions by co-promoting the Yarennoka! New Year's Eve event in Japan with former Dream Stage Entertainment staff members and K-1 promoter Fight Entertainment Group. After some speculation, the heavyweight encounter between Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) and Korean "Techno Goliath" Hong Man Choi (Pictures) was confirmed as the main event.

K-1 Premium 2007 Dynamite!!, the New Year's Eve spectacle of DSE's longtime promoting rival Fighting Entertainment Group, also features two European fighters. In a middleweight bout, Dutch knockout king Melvin Manhoef (Pictures) will square off with former WBF cruiserweight champion Yousuke Nishijima. Two weight divisions lower, Norway's "Hellboy" Joachim Hansen (Pictures) is set to take on Japanese wrestler Kazuyuki Miyata (Pictures).
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