TOKYO -- After a successful opening round of the lightweight grand prix on Sunday and the requisite appearance of Japanese lightweight star Takanori Gomi (Pictures), Sengoku may be on its way to finding its feet in the ever-shrinking Japanese MMA market.
A Japanese champion is guaranteed at the conclusion of the lightweight tournament, which now features an all-Japanese final four. Sengoku is the only major Japanese promotion in recent memory to have had such hometown success in a tournament, and the task of drumming up interest for the MMA dark horse has become that much easier.
“When I got home, I checked my computer and saw e-mails from several television companies regarding broadcasting,” said World Victory Road’s Takahiro Kokuho.
Takanori Gomi (Pictures), who defeated Seung Hwan Bang (Pictures) by unanimous decision in the main event, also voiced his feelings about the successes of his lightweight peers.
“I assume that my fight didn't feel like a main-event fight, but I feel that last night’s event was for all the fighters in the lightweight grand prix,” Gomi said. “This was the last fight of my 20s. I wanted to go forward to KO my opponent, but I felt I was maybe too passive. I will condition myself for the finals of the tournament to do better, and I am determined to win that belt. I can't wait until the tournament finals.”
Three of the final four speak
Mizuto Hirota (Pictures) (10-2) defied expectations by knocking out IFL lightweight champion Ryan Schultz (Pictures) with a superman punch in the first round of their tournament bout.
“I noticed that Schultz's guard on the left side was down, so I was thinking, 'I can maybe get in.' I tried it out, and it worked,” said Hirota, whose right hand was visibly swollen, though he added that he’ll be OK for the next round.
Praise for Hirota’s performance came from across the country as well, according to WVR’s Kokuho.
“I believe that Mr. Hirota’s popularity throughout the world will grow for defeating Ryan Schultz,” he said. “In my e-mails last night, there was a lot of appreciation for him. I think there will be many foreign fighters who will aim for him in the future, so I hope he will continue to do his best.”
Hirota’s response to the praise also answered the question as to whom he’d prefer to face in the tournament’s next round, despite the fact that it would be impossible given the current circumstances.
“All the fighters victorious in the tournament are Japanese, which I'm happy about, but I still want to fight foreigners in the next round,” said Hirota. “As Mr. Kokuho said, I feel that I could be victorious against strong fighters. However, I've never lost to foreign fighters yet, so bring it on."
Eiji Mitsuoka (left) embraces with his target, Sengoku ace Takanori Gomi.
Eiji Mitsuoka (Pictures), the Japanese tournament favorite, stunned prospect Rodrigo Damm (Pictures) -- a grand prix favorite as well -- on the feet before submitting the jiu-jitsu ace by rear-naked choke in the first round.
“He’s good at wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and actually really good at striking, I thought,” said Mitsuoka of Damm. “I'm glad that I could put together some good punches to counter. I was initially on bottom, but I felt that I was in control, so it was all right. I train with big guys like Yushin Okami (Pictures) and Hidetaka Monma (Pictures) all the time anyway, so I was confident in my abilities.”
Upon hearing that fans and pundits had originally tabbed him and Damm as tournament favorites, Mitsuoka replied with a smile.
“I'm so happy to hear that fans thought of me as one of the favorites,” he said. “I was initially shocked to hear it, but I'll continue to do my best to live up to it.”
The reputation isn’t undeserved, however. Mitsuoka holds wins over such fighters as UFC veteran Gleison Tibau (Pictures), Spirit MC 154-pound champion Kwang Hee Lee (Pictures) and, most notably, a recent win over Dream lightweight champion Joachim Hansen (Pictures).
His win Sunday, though, thrilled him to the point of making some vague comments about getting married soon.
“I have a girlfriend who I've been living with for four years, and I haven't spoken to her parents yet,” he said later with a laugh. “They know about 'this guy’ who she's with, but they don't know who I am or my name. I was so high after the fight that I said that I wanted to marry her in the ring, so I can't go back on that now.”