Saturday, January 21, 2012

Keeping The DREAM alive

When PRIDE died, part of me died. The presentation was amazing. Lenne Hardt screaming her lungs out, the Japanese ring announcer with the sunglasses, the entrances…it all set the tone perfectly. It produced some of the best fighters and fights the world has ever seen, and put on some of the most memorable tournaments the MMA world has known. When the UFC bought a financially ailing PRIDE in 2007, they decided it was better to shut it down rather than keep it alive. PRIDE was dead. However, in 2008, the proverbial Phoenix rose from the ashes. Many former PRIDE staff members teamed up with K-1 parent organization Fighting and Entertainment Group (FEG) to form DREAM. I thought there was a chance that DREAM could live up to the luster that PRIDE once had.

In the beginning, it seemed it could be that way. It had some great moments: Eddie Alvarez blasting his way through the lightweight tournament, Melvin Manhoef’s brutal KO of Sakuraba in the middleweight tournament, Overeem dominating Cro Cop, Manhoef cracking Mark Hunt’s granite jaw, Maruis Zaromskis putting on a striking clinic to claim the welterweight title, and there’s probably more I’m missing. The point is that there were compelling fights and storylines initially in DREAM, much like its predecessor.

However, things began to unravel at some point. I think it was somewhere around the time they signed Jose Canseco to fight Hong-Man Choi. I’ll say it again because this bears repeating: DREAM signed former baseball star and steroid junkie Jose Canseco (yes, that Jose Canseco) to fight 7’2 kickboxer Hong-Man Choi. If that doesn’t make you lose credibility, I don’t know what will. Then, there was the Jason Miller/”Jacare” Souza middleweight title fight that ended in a no-contest. There is still no middleweight champion, and no known plans to do anything about it. That’s still not the biggest problem that's effecting the organization.

The biggest issue the organization is facing may be that DREAM just doesn’t have good talent and the fans are beginning to realizing it. Eddie Alvarez left for Bellator. “Jacare” found success in Strikeforce. Look at their current champions. Their only heavyweight champion was Alistair Overeem, and we all know where he is now. Their light-heavyweight champion is Gegard Mousasi. While he was also a former Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion, he lost the belt when he was outwrestled by King Mo. Since then, he’s looked good in DREAM, but not so good in Strikeforce. To put into perspective as to why that may be, his first (and only, thus far) title defense in DREAM was against a 4-1 Hiroshi Izumi. Worthy contender, huh? Their welterweight champion Marius Zaromskis was signed to Strikeforce as part of their talent exchange agreement. He went 0-2 with one no-contest in that organization, both his loses coming by knockout in the first round. Featherweight champion Hiroyuki Takaya has been impressive in DREAM, working his way up to the title with KO victories over Joachim Hansen and Chase Beebe. He won the title by avenging a previous loss to Bibiano Fernandes, and has defended it twice. However, he went 0-2 in the WEC, losing by knockout to Leonard Garcia and dropping a decision to Cub Swanson. He also fought for Strikeforce, losing a decision to Robbie Peralta.

Then, there’s Shinya Aoki. Considered one of the best fighters Japan has left, Aoki can really impress, and then highly disappoint. Following a successful but short stint in PRIDE, Aoki entered the DREAM lightweight tournament. Considered the favorite after Eddie Alvarez withdrew, largely due to him taking out Gesias “JZ” Calvancante (who was on a tear at the time) in the first round, Aoki lost in the finals to Joachim Hansen. After rebounding by forcing Alvarez to submit to a heel hook in less than two minutes, he entered the welterweight grand prix. He was expected to make a decent run in the tournament, but lost in the first round when he was KO’ed by Hayato Sakurai in less than 30 seconds. After defeating Hansen in a rematch to claim the DREAM title, and beating Sengoku Raiden Championship lightweight champion (or World Victory Road, whatever it was called) Mizuto Hirota, he challenged Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce lightweight title. What was supposed to be a competitive bout and chess match turned into a lopsided decision win for Melendez. Oh, and let’s not forget the Yuichiro Nagashima incident on New Year’s Eve 2010. In a “mixed-rules” bout, the first round was supposed to be under K-1 rules, but with 4oz gloves. That round was largely a joke, featuring Aoki running around the ring like a first grader at recess and doing pro-wrestling style drop kicks while Nagashima was actually trying to play by the rules. As they say, Karma is a bitch. Four seconds into the MMA round, Aoki was knocked unconscious with a flying knee. He has since been impressive again, reeling off submission wins over tough American veterans Rob McCullough and Rich Clementi in DREAM, and even tapping out Lyle Beerbohm in Strikeforce. While Aoki shows flashes of absolute brilliance at times (look at all of his wins by gogoplata), he has also shown flashes of overconfidence and carelessness.

DREAM is in trouble. Financial woes are a big part of it, but it all boils down to the product. The fights and fighters aren’t filling the hefty shoes of its legendary predecessor one bit. Just look how their top fighters have fared outside the organization. How can DREAM make fans believe Gegard Mousasi is the best light-heavyweight in his class after he got laid on by King Mo and gassed out so bad he drew with Keith Jardine? The fans aren’t even buying the gimmicks anymore. Sure, it may be a guilty pleasure to see if Ikuhisa Minowa can take out a man three times his size, but what does it mean in the big picture? Nothing. Bibiano Fernandes may be the real deal at 135lbs, but we’ll never know since the best DREAM can do for him is WEC castoff Antonio Banuelos. They don’t need to use a cage for certain shows. What they need to do is carve out a niche somewhere. We all saw how the WEC blew up when it became the home for the top feather and bantamweights. Every hardcore MMA fan couldn’t wait to find the next internet stream of a Tachi Palace Fights event to see the top flyweight action stateside. Strikeforce has the women. Shooto, and Shooto Brazil for that matter, have recently instituted a 115lb weight class. That’s something NOBODY else has (I’m pretty sure that weight isn’t even allowed in the unified rules). Why not assemble some talent at that weight and do a grand prix tournament? It would draw interest from fans for a legitimate reason. I know there’s all-female promotions in Japan, but maybe bring some of that talent in for a women’s grand prix tournament. Getting good fighters to put on exciting fights that actually mean something is what DREAM needs to do to stay alive. Wanderlei, Rampage, Hendo, and Shogun aren’t coming through those doors anytime soon. It’s time to move on, and forge a new path ahead.

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