There at Last: The Career of Joachim Hansen

By Tim Leidecker Jul 22, 2008
Joachim Hansen (Pictures)’s journey to capturing the Dream lightweight grand prix began in Turku, Finland, almost 10 years ago. At just 20 years of age, he traveled there from his hometown of Oslo, Norway, to take part in one of the most brutal and grueling events in the history of MMA: FinnFight.

In a time when gloves and time limits were completely out of the question and head butts were the favorite move of any strong wrestler, Hansen, with only a little bit of grappling experience, entered the ring against local fighter Marcus Peltonen. Although Peltonen already had a fight under his belt, Hansen stomped him for a technical knockout in 98 seconds.

Hansen then made his way around the local Shooto circuit. After just one fight, a submission victory over Sami Hyyppa in October 2002, he was invited to Japan for Shooto’s big year-end show. His opponent there was Takumi Nakayama (Pictures), an eventual King of the Cage lightweight champion and a veteran of 14 fights, including a win over Tatsuya Kawajiri (Pictures) and a draw with legendary shooter Rumina Sato (Pictures).

After going the distance with the Paraestra Osaka fighter, Hansen was awarded a split decision -- something that was quite a rarity for a foreign fighter at the time. Sato, who was present at the show, was amazed that a European nobody managed to do what he had not and therefore wasted no time challenging the Norwegian.

The two met three months later, and Hansen stopped Sato minutes into the opening round. A star was born.

The win over Sato propelled Hansen to an immediate title shot against Takanori Gomi (Pictures). Gomi had won the vacant title in a fight against Sato and was on an unprecedented 14-fight win streak that spanned four and a half years. Even though Gomi was not yet the exceptional phenomenon he would become during his stint with Pride between 2004 and 2007, it was already clear that the “Fireball Kid” was poised for superstardom.

Hansen had other plans, though. He dominated Gomi on the ground, putting him in one awkward position after another. At the end of the fight, the judges were left with no other choice than to award the challenger another majority decision.

Now the champion of the oldest fighting promotion in the world, the “Hellboy” had completely arrived in the homeland of “Kakutō.”

Despite dropping the belt in his first defense to Brazilian Vitor Ribeiro (Pictures) -- an even more advanced ground fighter than himself -- Hansen became the nightmare of numerous Japanese champions in the years to come. He posterized both Caol Uno (Pictures) and leglock specialist Masakazu Imanari (Pictures) with his patented knee strike. He also went to war with Hayato Sakurai (Pictures), a fighter who had competed two weight classes higher than Hansen for the majority of his career, losing only a razor-thin unanimous decision to “Mach” in the semifinals of the 2005 Bushido lightweight tournament.

With the loss, Hellboy’s first in almost two years, doubts began to arise about his skills. Due to bad luck, the downfall of Pride and a subsequent eight-month layoff, Hansen dropped to the status of a .500 fighter in 2006-2007. If he had won the previous fight, it was a safe bet he would lose the next. In those years, inconsistency characterized his career.

Having put those troubles behind him, however, Hansen began proving his critics wrong. He started out with a slick submission over Japanese Olympic wrestler Kazuyuki Miyata (Pictures) on New Year’s Eve 2007 and carried that momentum with him into the Dream lightweight grand prix.

In the opening round, longtime Shooto companion Kotetsu Boku (Pictures) fell prey to Hansen’s superior striking and grappling. In the quarterfinals, Hansen was matched with American Eddie Alvarez (Pictures). For 15 minutes the pair traded punches, knees, takedowns and submission attempts in a fight that reminded fans of what’s so great about the sport. Despite delivering a fight-of-the-year type of performance, Hansen had to let Alvarez, who was just a little better, move on to the semifinals via unanimous decision. Hansen was out.

Then three weeks ago, Joachim received a call from manager John Benjamin. Dream promoter FEG had been so impressed with his showing against Alvarez that the promotion wanted to bring him back for an alternate match.

The rest is history: Hansen stepped up his game Monday at the grand prix final and dispatched of Kultar Gill (Pictures) via armbar 2:33 into the first. With little hope of getting back into the tournament, it was the irony of fate that he got to take Alvarez’s place when the American couldn’t continue due to a nasty cut.

Well knowing that this was a chance that was unlikely to happen again anytime soon, Hansen seized the opportunity and brought his A-game against fellow finalist Shinya Aoki (Pictures). The only stumbling block was the fact that the Japanese grappling ace with the flamboyant spandex pants had embarrassed him in their previous meeting 18 months earlier, schooling him on the ground before finishing with a gogoplata submission.

Hansen proved that he had learned his lesson from that defeat. He stayed out of the lanky judo star’s submission attempts, instead using ground-and-pound to stop the pre-tournament favorite for the win at 4:19 of the opening round.

Now the Dream lightweight grand prix winner as well as the first Dream lightweight champion, the Norwegian obviously has a bull’s-eye on his back. But with four wins in his last five fights and a fight-of-the-year performance in losing to Alvarez, Hansen has brought his career full circle. He’s been in the best shape of his life and can kick back and wait for New Year’s Eve, when he is likely to fight again.

FEG could match him with Aoki for a third and final time, or give fans the pleasure of experiencing Hansen-Alvarez II, or even pair Hansen with Tatsuya Kawajiri (Pictures) and hope for a more conclusive ending this time. Regardless, 2008 has been Joachim Hansen (Pictures)’s year so far, and another win will make him an even stronger candidate for fighter of the year.
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