Sengoku has put together an MMA card where newcomers fight veterans they stand a chance of beating, where the tournament fights are competitive and interesting, and where roid-added baseball stars, hyper-pituitary freaks, wannabe comic book heros, and 100-pound weight differentials are nowhere to be found.
It’s almost as if they regard this undertaking as a legitimate sporting event. Strange, that.
Every featherweight bout on this card merits one’s attention, since it’s become a real, internationally competitive division now, with the rise of the reborn WEC. Beyond the sporting and competitive importance and relevance, there should be tons of high-quality scraps on display, so be there or be square.
Hatsu Hioki (-325) vs. Ronnie Mann (+280)
Hioki is a wizard of a grappler, with the skills to completely hose even high-level submissions specialists when he’s having an on day. He even has the peripherals that make that sort of game work at a high level, with acceptable standup and enough takedowns to get the job done most of the time. His major weakness in the past has been poor game planning, fighting with the intention of adapting to the flow of the fight, rather than trying to force the type of fight that best suits his skills. This has led to decision losses in protracted standup battles, which should not happen to such a talented ground fighter without epic struggles to get takedowns.
Mann is also a grappling-focused fighter, but he wants to business with Hioki on the mat. He’s also a pretty solid kickboxer, working over the very raw Tetsuya Yamada soundly. Mann is more well-rounded than Hioki in general, with a solid wrestling edge as well as the standup, but that will likely not be enough to overcome Hioki’s ground game if Hatsu comes in like he did against Chris Manuel.
Against Manuel, Hioki seemed to have an actual gameplan and a serious desire to fight a smart fight and win. He went for takedowns early and often, and aggressively pursued a finish. Mann is a better grappler than Manuel, but if Hioki can get him down and get after his game, Mann will be hard pressed not to get submitted, let alone win rounds. Hioki’s aggression may work to Mann’s advantage, in letting him escape submission attempts and scramble back to his feet, where he should have a moderate advantage. However, Hioki will most likely prove to be too much for him. Hatsu Hioki by decision.
Mann has a legitimate shot at winning if Hioki returns to his unfocused ways and idly watches rounds slip away on the feet. At +280 I’ll take a flier on Hioki having a poor gameplan and Mann a good performance.
Michihiro Omigawa (+145) vs. Nam Phan (-170)
Omigawa has come a long way from being poleaxed by Aaron Riley all those years ago. His record sucks, but he’s a very rugged guy, and, as LC Davis found out to his dismay, not to be taken lightly. Nam Phan has improved from a tiny-market local superstar to a legitimate international competitor, with a much improved standup game added to the dynamic grappling that excited his hometown fans.
Nam will have an advantage standing or on the ground, but this fight is far from a walkover. Despite Nam’s advantages, Omigawa has a reasonably likely path to victory; if Omigawa can show the same sort of top control he smothered LC Davis with, it’s unlikely that Nam can put something together off his back or get out from underneath, and takedowns are the weakest part of Nam’s game. Additionally, Nam isn’t particularly large for a featherweight, and Omigawa is a solidly built guy for the division, with some serious judo chops.
Nam will probably still be able to win 2 out of 3 rounds, but I expect the fight to be too close to justify betting on him. Nam Phan by decision.
Take Omigawa if he climbs above 150.
Masanoru Kanehara (+115) vs. Chan Sung Jung (-140)
I don’t know the last time I’ve seen someone as aggressively dedicated to throwing haymakers as Jung. It’s not even a case of him not having real standup and just devolving to a wild brawler. He’s consciously built a style upon crazy brawling, and it’s hilarious to watch. The Korean Zombie rules the ring with a crazy machine-gun haymaker style that puts his opponents on their heels from bell to bell.
Kanehara showed a willingness to chip away with leg kicks from the outside in his last fight, but this Zombie is more Dawn of the Dead than Night of the Living dead, so Kanehara will be hard pressed to keep distance from his charges. Jung is very hittable, but he has a rock for a head, so Kanehara is going to be very hard-pressed to stop the onslaught with the traditional zombie-slaying headshot, and it’ll be a real challenge to get inside and trip Jung to the floor without having hay made out of his face. Chan Sung Jung by knockout.
Marlon Sandro (-205) vs. Nick Denis (+190)
Properly handicapping fights between two undefeated fighters is difficult, as the nature of winning in MMA often means that we’ve never seen the fighter outclassed, hurt, or in trouble. Comebacks are celebrated in MMA because of their rarity, with the fighter that starts in the driver’s seat of the match typically remaining there.
Denis has been taking his opponents to school on the feet, although only Kawahara was even expected to challenge him, and Sandro is a better striker than any of them, and is my pick to win the tournament. Furthermore, Denis remains almost completely untested on the ground, with Sandro being a real threat there. These unknowns make Sandro the logical expectation to win, although it would not be shocking in the slightest to see Denis put him down and really put himself forward as the man to beat in this tournament. Marlon Sandro by submission round 2.
Maximo Blanco (-340) vs. Akihiko Mori (+320)
Blanco is a walking explosion. The guy pulls action-movie stuff whenever he can, and loves to just bomb hapless opponents. Mori is pretty hapless as opponents go, so expect him to get his head taken off. Maximo Blanco by TKO round 1.
Don’t bet on Blanco in case he gasses and something dumb happens.
Alexandre “Xande” Ribeiro (-250) vs. Keiichiro Yamamiya (+190)
Xande is a phenomenal grappler, but he had a rocky start to his MMA career, despite getting a soft touch in his matchmaking. He’s gotten an even softer touch this time, being gifted with an undersized opponent. If he can’t overwhelm Yamamiya early for a submission, Xande should really think about how interested he really is in MMA, and either redouble his efforts or leave it behind. Alexandre Ribeiro by submission round 1.
Stanislav Nedkov (+165) vs. Travis Wiuff (-185)
Wiuff should sue Brandon Vera, because Wiuff is the real “truth”. Not that he has more potential than Vera, but Wiuff really provides X-ray vision into a fighter’s true state in the game. He’s a big, strong veteran that’s seen it all and overcome most of it. Through Wiuff we could see that Fujita and Ricco are irredeemably done for, and that King Mo will reign for years to come. Against promising Bulgarian strongman Stanislav Nedkov, we’ll see whether smashing local “talent” in Bulgarian Shooto is any indication of real international competitive ability. Because I’m a pessimist, I’ll say it’s not, and that Nedkov will gas out badly when he fails to put Wiuff away quickly. Travis Wiuff by TKO round 2.
Michael Costa (+160) vs. Makoto Takimoto (-200)
Takimoto really shouldn’t be fighting. He has physical gifts and the basic skills of fightsport, but he simply doesn’t seem dispositionally suited to it. When things go his way, he can top solid fighters like Bustamante or Yoon Dong Sik, but he can also perform completely miserably and look like he just doesn’t want to be there.
Costa can crack and is wild, but his record is full of dudes that he fought at a bar somewhere, raising real questions about the actual talents he has. If he can put fist to face on Takimoto, he could cruise to victory, but that’s not enough to merit taking the risk of an underdog bet on him. Makoto Takimoto by decision.