Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A sense of PRIDE at UFC 144

As we all know, PRIDE went out of business in 2007, and the landscape of MMA in Japan hasn’t been the same since. The theatrics and style may still be alive in DREAM, but the fighters and fights fail create the aura that made PRIDE so special. The fighters in PRIDE knew that the Japanese fans would love and appreciate them if they fought with every ounce of energy they had. It didn’t matter if they won, lost, or drew; if they left it all in the ring on a given night, they would be invited back to fight another day. At UFC 144 this past weekend, it felt like that aura was in the air of the Saitama Super Arena once more.

It started from the very first prelim fight between Tiequan Zhang and Issei Tamura. The fight started with the two fighters rocking each other before two minutes passed in the first round. The ending was even more spectacular, as a thunderous Tamura right hand left Zhang flattened and unconscious on the canvas. Takeya Mizugaki vs. Chris Cariaso brought back one of the memories of PRIDE many fight fans try to forget: horrible decisions. Though it was a very close and entertaining fight, it seemed that Mizugaki had done enough to walk away with his hand raised that night. However, the judges disagreed with everyone else and gave the decision to Cariaso. A fun fight was marred by an extremely questionable decision once again. During the Fukuda/Cantwell fight, the crowd shouted “AAAYYY!” in unison, much like they did in the old days, when Fukuda was landing sharp ground strikes on Cantwell. Though “The Robot” threatened with submissions and strikes throughout, Fukuda stayed out of trouble and seized victory.

Comebacks were a big theme of the night, and Kid Yamamoto vs. Vaughan Lee and Takanori Gomi vs. Eiji Mitsuoka were two prime examples of that. Kid looked like his old self in the beginning of his fight with Lee, dancing around and beating the British fighter up on the feet. However, Lee was able to land a flurry of strikes that wobbled Yamamoto, and then locked up a fight ending armbar. Gomi was getting beat up by Mitsuoka in the first round of their fight, but Gomi was able to find a home for his powerful strikes and finish Mitsuoka in the second. The TKO finish likely saved his job in the UFC. Still, all the action wasn’t relegated to the prelims.

In the first main card fight, Anthony Pettis returned to “Showtime” form with his head kick KO over Joe Lauzon. Hatsu Hioki also returned to form, dominating Bart Palaszewski for three rounds to earn a unanimous decision victory. Going back to the comeback theme, Tim Boetsch pulled off perhaps the biggest comeback of all-time. After being dominated by Yushin Okami on the feet and on the ground for the first two rounds, Boetsch was told by his corner to go for broke in the third. As Joe Rogan said, Tim Boetsch is an animal. He came out swinging, and landed several power shots on Okami, earning a TKO victory before a minute passed in round three. Yoshihiro Akiyama was introduced by Bruce Buffer only as “Sexyama,” and he did look good in the first round of his fight with Jake Shields, landing some good strikes and an impressive unorthodox trip technique. However, Shields proved he’s got some of the best intestinal fortitude in the business. Though his takedowns weren’t very successful, he was able to land a multitude of crisp, accurate strikes on the feet. Though they lacked any finishing power, the accumulation of strikes in the last two rounds was enough to earn Shields a hard fought decision win.

Mark Hunt looked like he did in his heyday in Japan, defeating tough striker Cheick Kongo via punches just over two minutes into round one. Though he didn’t look good at all during most of his fight with Ryan Bader, Quinton Jackson did deliver us a special moment. In the middle of round two, he caught a knee attempt by Bader, picked him up, and slammed him to the canvas. Though Rampage lost the fight, he reminded us of what got him to this point in the first place. The main event lived up to the hype as well. It was an extremely close fight for four rounds, but Ben Henderson had likely done enough to win them. At the start of round five, down on the scorecards and with his eye almost swollen shut, Frankie Edgar once again reminded the MMA community why no one can ever count him out of a fight. He dropped Bendo in the fifth frame, and definitely did enough to win the round. Though Ben Henderson is the new UFC lightweight champion, it is clear that Frankie Edgar’s heart is twice the size of his body.

All of this brings me to my point: the warrior spirit of the fighters that was showcased in PRIDE was found once again on the UFC 144 card. It truly had it all: amazing comebacks, brutal knockouts, technical fights, crazy techniques, and gutsy performances. From the first fight to the last, it was undoubtedly one of the best cards the UFC has had in recent memory. Also, I believe it proved that there will always be a home for MMA in Japan. All of the fighters that night gave everything they had in that cage, and it rekindled some of the magic we had all loved watching PRIDE fights in the Saitama Super Arena. Zuffa’s return to the land of the rising sun should be considered nothing less than a success, if not one of the best cards of all-time.

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