Sengoku Brings Blue Chips, Broken Hips to Saitama Sunday

Maybe you've still got your tinfoil hat strapped on tight, trying to unravel the conspiracy and subsequent cover-up surrounding Kimbo Slice's win over James Thompson (Pictures). Or, maybe you're just relatively excited for the UFC to hit England again this Saturday. But, it's more than likely that whatever avenue of MMA has you preoccupied, that you forgot, or flat out didn't know, that World Victory Road were serving up the third installment of their Sengoku series this Sunday.

Moreover, World Victory Road are making a bold statement with their third offering. Although Sengoku and Dream have not been cast as official adversaries in the Japanese MMA world quite yet, this Sunday's Sengoku will play out at Saitama Super Arena, the longtime homebase of the Pride Fighting Championships and the new adopted stomping grounds of Dream.

Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures) vs. Maurice Smith (Pictures)

Popular Japanese superstar and Olympic gold medalist taking on a former kickboxing kingpin and UFC champion? In a purely descriptive way, that sounds like a pretty great fight. However, at a combined 841 years old, a match-up between Hidehiko Yoshida (Pictures) and Maurice Smith (Pictures) isn't as alluring as if they had exchanged fisticuffs in their physical primes, sometime in the late Cretaceous period. Now, the bout is relegated to novelty status, in the same way you and your buzzed buddies may hypothesize the stylistic match-ups between a vampire and a werewolf, or John Rambo and Snake Plissken.

Smith, 46, is actually coming off of two wins. After a presumptive retirement from MMA competition in 2000, Smith has returned with victories over fellow old-school vet Marco Ruas (Pictures), and more recently, fellow graybeard kickboxer Rick Roufus (Pictures) last February. Yoshida, 38, had a much rougher go of things of late, fighting opponents of considerable skill and threat, and coming out on the short end.

However, to Yoshida's credit, while he was nearly crippled by Mirko "CroCop" Filipovic and, literally, endured permanent internal damage against James Thompson (Pictures), he was at least game and moderately competitive at Sengoku's inaugural event against Josh Barnett (Pictures) in March. All of which perhaps says more than Smith's stampede over animated corpses.

Even if Smith is a living ancient, he still holds the striking advantage. If he is committed to low kicks in the same fashion Mirko CroCop was, he could do considerable damage to Yoshida, whose striking defense is decidely pylon-esque. However, Yoshida is still, as unbelievable as it may seem, the fresher physical specimen, and has the ability to take this fight to the ground. Even in his physical prime, Smith struggled to stay vertical and many of those struggles came against foes with lesser takedowns than Yoshida.

Although Yoshida engaged in ill-advised slugfests in the past, expect him to look for the takedown and dominate positionally. Even if he can't submit Smith, Yoshida should still take the decision based on his work on the floor. Plus, with the necessity of gaining a television deal to ensure the future of Sengoku, would World Victory Road really want to cross their biggest crossover star? Let's just hope no one needs a new hip after it's all said and done.

Kazuo Misaki (Pictures) vs. Logan Clark (Pictures)

Thankfully, if the prospects of hip replacement scare you, or you're just put off by a main event featuring senior citizens, World Victory Road will throw a bone with one of Japan's scrappiest chaps meeting a midwestern gamer in an assuredly interesting bout.

After all, Logan Clark (Pictures) hardly has the name of Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures), Dan Henderson (Pictures), Frank Trigg (Pictures), Denis Kang (Pictures), Paulo Filho (Pictures), or some of the other recent adversaries of Kazuo Misaki (Pictures). However, in spite of regaining some hype when he came back to waffle Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures) on New Year's Eve -- fallacious overturning of the bout notwithstanding -- Misaki's rep has taken a hit since his February 2007 loss at the hands of the aforementioned Trigg, who soundly outwrestled the "Grabaka Hitman" to a decision. As a result, heading into a bout with a strong top position fighter, even a relatively anonymous one, the spotlight is on Misaki to show some kind of improvement in the defensive wrestling department if he is to be taken seriously as a top-flight middleweight.

A 23-year-old product of the Minnesota Martial Arts Academy, Clark spent his last four fights under Zuffa contract in the UFC and WEC and has quietly put together a 11-1 mark in MMA. Clark's lone loss came last August, a highly-questionable decision to Eric Schambari (Pictures), but the colorfully named "Pink Pounder" has since rebounded, punching out Scott Harper last March.

The style clash has already been characterized, and really, is what is at the heart of the fight. Clark is physically strong, and well-rounded. Although he has a very competent guard game, and has the flexibility and technique to challenge with quality submissions from the bottom, his takedowns and top-position pounding will be the focus in this bout. Misaki is the definitively better striker in all forms and fashions. Misaki's counterstriking game is among the sport's best, and is hard to attack due to its unpredictable precision.

What will really hurt Clark is the precedent already set forth by Sengoku's judging. Although no one quite knows what system or criteria Sengoku judges are adhering by, bouts such as Nick Thompson (Pictures)-Fabricio Monteiro (Pictures), and Ryo Kawamura (Pictures)-Antonio Braga Neto (Pictures), would seem to vastly favor effective striking over ground control. As Misaki's gameness is arguably his best asset, it's extremely unlikely Clark has any chance of finishing him and if he is unable to keep Misaki down for the majority of the bout, Misaki's ability to dent Clark on the feet should tell the tale. Although Misaki's underrated submission game and deceiving power could earn him a stoppage in the distance, expect Misaki's impressive counterstriking to be put on display in a well-earned decision victory.

Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures) vs. Travis Wiuff (Pictures)

One of the real tragedies of this job is that I don't have a time machine. While a bout between Travis Wiuff (Pictures) and Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures) may be still palatable due to an ever-flimsy heavyweight contingent in MMA, this would've been considerably more exciting four years ago.

Four years ago, Travis Wiuff (Pictures), looking more like a cornfed midwestern wrassler than the forgotten member of Linkin Park, was amidst an enormous 18-fight win streak that would eventually earn him another trip to the Octagon. However, his recent past has been marred by an ill-fated drop to 205 pounds and flaky losses in fights. He does deserve some credit for being arguably the only human to emerge unscathed after the Yamma debacle, in which he triumphed over three opponents, a 45 degree takedown enabler and better judgement.

Four years ago, Kazuyuki Fujita (Pictures) was still fresh in people's minds as the almost-oh-so-close conqueror of a still-mystical Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures). He still embodied the nickname "Ironhead" and had just kicked Bob Sapp (Pictures)'s head in -- back when that was still considered impressive. Now, although he isn't completely shot, the wear-and-tear of both pro wrestling and MMA have caught up with the former Inoki understudy.

Thankfully, on some level, their recent difficulties serve to make the bout more interesting from a do-or-die perspective. Wiuff should have the ability to control much of the fight, but Fujita has fight-ending ability. Although Wiuff may be more disciplined with his hands, Fujita has considerable natural power that could turn Wiuff's lights out. If Wiuff is dedicated to the takedown, he could slow the bout to a tedious pace and greatly stifle Fujita, who doesn't have much of a bottom game to speak of. However, Fujita can still scramble, and has an underrated submission game which could end Wiuff's night in the same out-of-nowhere fashion that the likes of James Lee and Alex Schoenauer (Pictures) did.

While I do see the chance for Wiuff to fight a smart albeit boring fight to decision, his erratic performances are enough to scare me into taking Fujita by a shouldn't-have-happened submission, which is a pretty sad pick if you can remember four years ago.

Rodrigo Damm vs. Jorge Masvidal (Pictures)

Finally, we have ourselves a real gem. Although this card is the weakest offering World Victory Road has served up for Sengoku this far, the line-up is saved by a clash of top-notch lightweight prospects with the winner moving up in the race to challenge de facto Sengoku lightweight king Takanori Gomi (Pictures).

A Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion with a boatload of Brazilian national wrestling titles to his credit, Rodrigo Damm has displayed his skills prominently. After a close split-decision loss to Luciano Azevedo (Pictures) in his pro debut, Damm has won his last seven bouts, including stoppages over quality opposition such as Kultar "Black Mamba" Gill and Ryan Bow (Pictures). More recently, Damm has worked dilligently to improve his hands, which paid off in the KO against Bow, as well as his most recent victory, a one-sided besting of long-toothed vale tudo standout Johil de Oliveira (Pictures).

"Gamebred" couldn't be a more apt descriptor for Masvidal, who embodies the very tenets of gameness, being able to flex a well-rounded MMA game while still showing the earmarks of a feral streetfighting background. Also enjoying a seven-fight win streak, Masvidal scored the biggest win of his career last July when he upset forthcoming Elite XC title challenger Yves Edwards (Pictures), catching the Thugjitsu rep with a nasty head kick and pouncing on him for the stoppage.

The style clash is an interesting one. While Masvidal has shown a strong technical jiu-jitsu base, Damm figures to be the more potent grappler. A great takedown finisher once he gets deep position, Damm is great on top, being able to move and pound simultaneously, achieve dominant position -- especially back mount -- and finish via submission. However, Masvidal is a great counterstriker, and although he's very right-side dominant with his strikes, he is powerful, accurate, and can vary his attack. Damm, although his striking is progressing, still has the tendency to slap and flail in exchanges, which could be a major problem against Masvidal. After all, we are talking about a guy who schooled Kimbo's top protege, Ray, twice in the Miami boatyards.

The outcome should largely influeced by Damm's gameplan. If Damm is absolutely dedicated to the takedown, he should be able to use his improved stand-up to get in range and trap Masvidal against the ropes or in corners -- which he's susceptible to. However, the matter is complicated by Damm's recent insistance to rely on his stand-up. He was tagged by Bow and could've finished de Oliveira in two minutes on the ground. Against Masvidal, who has legitimate finishing power and is far more accurate than Damm, it's not a recipe for success, especially given the aforementioned tendency for Sengoku's judges to favor the more dominant striker on the cards. While there is certainly potential for a Damm victory, I'm more expectant of a Masvidal KO or decision, which would inch "Gamebred" closer to a crack at Gomi in a fight that would be definite fireworks.

Or maybe a third match with Ray.

Fabio Silva (Pictures) vs. Kazuo Takahashi

Just a year ago, Fabio Silva (Pictures) was a moderately intriguing prospect as yet another brutish banger from Curitiba's combat capital Chute Boxe. Although his smashing of then-unbeaten Ryo Kawamura (Pictures) in the Pancrase ring helped his cause, back-to-back losses to Melvin Manhoef (Pictures) and Dong Sik Yoon (Pictures) showed quite clearly that Silva is not technical or sturdy enough to best savvy strikers, and is nowhere near able to handle an opponent with serviceable takedowns and legitimate submission skills. That's a double whammy that will halt any hope of blue-chip status rather quickly.

Takahashi, on the other hand, is a veteran of the game. A victor on the first-ever Pancrase card, Takahashi has been in the sport for nearly 15 years and 50-plus fights. Looking to get a new lease on his career, Takahashi opted to go back to his birthname, Kazuo, instead of his longtime ring name, Yoshiki. His decision was followed by two crushing KO losses to Melvin Manhoef (Pictures) and Mark Burch (Pictures). While those who have seen him recently may only know him as the bleached blonde Japanese guy who gets KO'd all the time, those who have followed his career through Pancrase can identify him as the bleached blonde Japanese guy who gets KO'd every other time.

While Silva is woefully inadequate on the ground, Takahashi doesn't have the submission skills to polish him off and Silva will likely find his way back to his feet. Moreover, when Silva does get to throw punches, Takahashi will likely find the proposition of a slugfest irresistable, and as per usual, will find himself being rescued by the referee.

In a battle of damaged merchandise and long-spoiled goods, always bet on the Brazilian who can punch.

Choi Mu-Bae vs. Marcio Cruz (Pictures)

One of the strengths of World Victory Road's MMA product thus far is that it has had some definitive strokes of a gritty, hardcore MMA realness, almost in some cases as though quality fighters were intentionally signed to make a statement about choice talent slipping through the cracks. Between the championing of underrated Japanese lightweights such as Eiji Mitsuoka (Pictures) and Satoru Kitaoka (Pictures), the willingness to import gimmickless Americans like Nick Thompson (Pictures), Mike Pyle (Pictures) and Dan Hornbuckle (Pictures) or giving deserved prospects like Jorge Masvidal (Pictures), Rodrigo Damm and KWang Hee Lee their shot on the international stage, Sengoku's sophistication has been evident in the fact that it has been booked on some measure of merit.

However, the lack of concern with cinematic aesthetics and sexy matchmaking does present problems. Let a clash between Mu Bae Choi (Pictures) and Marcio "Pe de Pano" Cruz serve as a vivid illustration of when keeping it real goes wrong in MMA.

One of the BJJ world's most accomplished competitors, Cruz's only defeats have come at the hands of quality heavyweights in Andrei Arlovski (Pictures) and Jeff Monson (Pictures), and he did spank former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir (Pictures) once upon a time. And Choi, although not the owner of a great skillset, is undeniably tough and sturdy, and is coming off of a plunking of Gary Goodridge (Pictures), who still manages to get consistant work. So, do both deserve a shot at relevant fights? Sure. But was anyone dying to see either of them? Especially against one another?

Although it may not turn into a full-on gong show, expect considerable ugliness and awkwardness in the early going. A stand-up advantage may belong to Choi, if only because he can absorb considerable punishment with his face, and can generate some power while windmilling his arms. Choi will also likely enjoy a wrestling advantage. However, given his propensity to clinch, and the fact Cruz will likely be determined to get the bout to the floor at some point, this is a bout that should favor Cruz. While his submission skills may not have been on display against the likes of Monson and Arlovski, this is Choi Mu Bae. Eventually, look for Cruz to use his ground skills and take a late submission or decision.

Hopefully, for old time sake, Choi at least accidentally punches himself in the face once.

Nick Thompson (Pictures) vs. Michael Costa

Although many of us have dreamt of the day that we would get to see a pimp fight a goat, this is probably the best we'll ever get.

Now an elite welterweight, Thompson is, along with Jake Shields (Pictures), probably the most conspicuous welterweight outside of a Zuffa contract -- certainly a far cry from the early days of his career when he was nicknamed after a fainting goat for his dubious chinny chin chin. However, while he's lost just once in his last 20 bouts - an April 2006 spanking by Karo Parisyan (Pictures) in the Octagon - Thompson is coming off of a dubious victory at Sengoku's inaugural March card. Against Fabricio "Pitbull" Monteiro, Thompson was thoroughly outgrappled and controlled by his Brazilian foe, but Thompson's spurts of striking offense were enough to get him a highly questionable judge's decision.

Costa, blessed with the sophisticated nickname "The Pimp," is a fighter in the quintessential Chute Boxe mold: an aggressive Muay Thai and BJJ game, and a penchant for the knockout. However, Costa has yet to fully capitalize on his potential, having lost a handful of bouts through his grooming process in the Chute Boxe-promoted Storm Samurai events. However, Costa's proponents feel that the 27-year-old is ready for the international stage, a claim which will be thoroughly assessed against his pasty-yet-potent adversary.

This Brazilian should prove less prickly than the last for Nick Thompson (Pictures). Although Costa has a well-rounded, powerful stand-up game, with good hands and a quality clinch attack, Thompson is well-schooled enough to not get caught, and will likely be able to take the fight to the ground, where his size, strength and competant top game will lead to a TKO or submission for MMA's foremost caprine competitor.

Chris Rice (Pictures) vs. Sanae Kikuta (Pictures)

The least interesting affair on this entire card, this may be more of a favor than a fight.

Sanae Kikuta (Pictures), leader and founder of one of Japan's premiere gyms, Grabaka, has considerable clout. A decent fighter in his own right, Kikuta is one of Japanese MMA's most thoughtful commentators, preeminent trainers and also exercises some managerial direction over his gym (which includes standouts like Kazuo Misaki (Pictures) and Akihiro Gono (Pictures) among others). With that kind of power comes some measure of persuasion, as a result, on the odd occasion when Grabaka's general does opt to get into the ring, he is prone to getting a softer touch.

In Chris Rice (Pictures), Kikuta meets an undistinguished albeit scrappy UK import. Although Rice has stopped his last three opponents, his stature can perhaps be summarized by a pair of losses to Alex Cook, a mid-level UK journeyman, and certainly not a competitor who crops up in the loss column any notable fighters.

Although Rice can bang, a situation Kikuta would certainly be adverse to, this fight will hit the ground courtesy of Kikuta's takedown skills. Rice has little to offer on the ground, and although Kikuta may be monotonous at times, his tendency to floor and bore should be hindered by Rice's lack of a submission game. There is a reason, after all, that Kikuta is still the only Japanese competitor to ever win an ADCC championship, and it should be reflected against an overmatched Rice. That will give Grabaka's leader another year or two before he has to climb back into the ring to outgrapple another outmatched European.
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