When Dream rose from the ashes of Pride Fighting Championships in 2008, it made every effort to duplicate the trappings of its predecessor. From the roster of fighters to the brilliant white ring to the trademark shriek of house PA announcer Lenne Hardt, everything seemed calculated to evoke Pride nostalgia, and the choice to crown its divisional champs through single-elimination tournaments was a prime example.
Of all of Dream’s divisional grands prix, the lightweight tournament was the first, both chronologically and in terms of prestige. While the 2007 buyout and dissolution of Pride by Ultimate Fighting Championship parent company Zuffa marked the end of the sport’s greatest promotional rivalry, significantly, most of the organization’s lightweight talent had elected to stay in Japan while their heavier colleagues flocked to North America. That pool of talent was bolstered further by K-1 folding its MMA efforts into the new promotion. Thus, when the lightweight grand prix kicked off, it featured a bracket every bit as good as, if not better than the UFC would have been able to muster.
When Joachim Hansen walked into Osaka-jo Hall on July 21, 2008, for Dream 5, it was as a tournament alternate, as he had been eliminated in the quarterfinals by Eddie Alvarez in a complete barnburner of a fight. Before his alternate bout, Hansen got to watch Shinya Aoki outgrapple Caol Uno in the first semifinal, followed by Alvarez taking on Tatsuya Kawajiri in the other. Alvarez vs. Kawajiri ended up being one of the greatest fights of all time, Sherdog’s 2008 “Fight of the Year,” but most importantly for Hansen, Alvarez suffered a cut near his right eye severe enough that it merited a break in the action for the ringside doctor to check it. While Alvarez was cleared to continue and knocked Kawajiri out a few minutes later, Hansen went into his alternate match with Kultar Gill knowing that the winner might very well be called on again later that evening.
Hansen held up his end of the deal, pulling guard with a kimura before armbarring Gill in just two and a half minutes, coming out completely unscathed and largely unwinded. After the remaining prelims, it was announced that Alvarez had been pulled from the tournament final. Hansen would fight for the Dream lightweight title against Aoki, a man who had styled on him two years ago in Pride, pulling off the first gogoplata submission in major MMA history.
However, this was Hansen’s night of destiny and he was not to be denied. Hansen survived an early takedown by Aoki and, after a break for an inadvertent groin strike, ended up on top in the submission wizard’s guard. “Hellboy” showed no fear whatsoever of Aoki’s grappling acumen, pulverizing him with ground-and-pound. Under a withering stream of punches, Aoki turned his back and even appeared to tap the mat as the referee jumped in for the stoppage. At 4 minutes, 19 seconds of the first round, Hansen was the grand prix winner and inaugural Dream lightweight champion. It was the crowning moment of the Norwegian’s fight career, as well as a prime example of the pros and cons of the Pride-style tournament, which placed the semifinals and finals on the same night.