PRIDE FC was the height of mixed martial arts spectacle and pageantry. Through the event's decade long run, the UFC look like a poor second place in the contest for greatest fighting organization on earth. When PRIDE held an event at Saitama Super Arena, it could easily draw an attendance of forty or even fifty thousand. The UFC's return to Saitama Super Arena, in the three events it has hosted there since 2012 has drawn attendances of 21,000, 14,600, and 12,395 in chronological order. When PRIDE teamed up with K-1 to host Dynamite!! in 2002, they managed an attendance of almost a hundred thousand spectators.
Japanese fans are remembered fondly by nostalgic MMA aficionados for their respectful silence during slow bouts, and their siding with the fighter who showed more heart, regardless of nationality. What this nostalgia overlooks is how readily Japan turned its back on MMA after the death of PRIDE. The spiritual successor to the organization, DREAM, had a cracking lightweight roster and put on one of the best mixed martial arts tournaments the sport has ever seen, yet quickly sputtered and died.
The Japanese MMA scene has been forced underground somewhat in recent years with a lack of public interest in events, but it has always had a remarkable way of breeding oddballs. The men who have gaping holes in their game that you could drive a truck through, but who excel in some strange, unusual facet of the martial arts. Over the next week I want to celebrate some of these wonderful weirdos who might never win the gold in the big leagues, but from whom any fighter can learn something quirky.
The title of Ashikan Judan, or 10th dan in leg locks, is reserved for one of Japan's most successful freaks, Masakazu Imanari. With his record currently standing at 29-14-2, Imanari is a far less frightening prospect on paper than he is in the ring. The vast majority of Imanari's losses are decisions because of the way in which he opts to fight. Diving underneath his opponent in the hopes of entangling a leg, Imanari will either catch a heel hook or toe hold, or end up in guard. From guard Imanari will consistently attack with rubber guard and a high guard from which he sets up omoplatas.
In an era where Eddie Cummings, Garry Tonon, and Rousimar Palhares are consistently proving that legs can be attacked from almost everywhere, its far easier to understand Imanari's tactical decisions, but in the early noughties Imanari seemed like a head case. And in truth, Imanari wasn't getting the results to justify his decisions—when Joachim Hansen hit his signature intercepting knee on Imanari in July 2005, the Japanese submission artist's record moved to just 6-4-2.
From then on, however, Imanari went on to compile a tremendous series of submission victories, looking more dangerous with each bout he took. Training with a terrific stable of grapplers including Shiyna Aoki and Satoru Kitaoka, he'd lose the odd decision, because of how he chose to fight, but he wasn't finished again until 2014. Take a look at his submission victory over Mike Brown, who soon went on to become the WEC featherweight champion by besting Urijah Faber twice.
It was a nightmare to deal with—Imanari would dive in with crazy kung fu kicks and if you resisted the urge to jump on him, he'd suddenly be entangling one of your legs. If you pounced on him as soon as he threw these piss poor strikes, you were jumping into his guard on his terms. Robbie Olivier quickly discovered that, seconds into his Cage Rage title bout with Imanari.
To witness Imanari at his best, his bout with Chute Boxe's Jean Silva displays all of his craft from guard and his leg locking game. Far from a one-dimensional threat from the guard, Imanari has had tremendous success with upkicks, which Japanese MMA promotions often allow even when the top fighter has his knees or a hand down. Imanari's omaplata victory over Justin Cruz nicely demonstrates his use of upkicks and application of the 'Crippler Crossface' made famous by a professional wrestler who I can't... quite... remember.
One of my favorite oddballs to come out of the JMMA scene, and whose recent reappearance on the new Ultimate Fighter Japan promos prompted me to write about some of the stranger fighters to come out of Japan is 'Wicky' Akiyo Nishiura.
Truly a bizarre man to watch in the ring, Akiyo is recognizable for his enormous power in his southpaw right hook, and his strange, glitch-in-the-game style jigging to hide them.
While he's never had the science to put opponents away consistently, he still has the tremendous speed and power necessary to knock out anyone at featherweight. While Akiyo is very much a B-league fighter, his victory over the great Hideo Tokoro, Japan's favorite featherweight, was a true career high point.
What I particularly like about Wicky, however, is that he embodies the art in 'mixed martial arts'. Nishiura does things because he wants to, and he fights like that because he enjoys it. A fairly accomplished artist, Wicky Akiyo also designed his own shorts for much of his career and his penchant for electric pink often brought some much needed flare to proceedings. In an age of dull shorts, I can't help but feel fighters could benefit from some freedom in designing their own.
While Nishiura leaves himself open a lot, and runs himself onto takedowns, you get the feeling that as he's got the kind of power to lift opponents off the floor with punches even at such a low bodyweight, if he could find the right coach to rein in some of his antics and bad habits, Wicky Akiyo could be a legitimate force.
We'll continue our look at Japanese oddballs tomorrow, but in the meantime here's a bizarre tag-team, gloves vs. no gloves bout featuring Masakazu Imanari and 'The Oriental Mystery', Takumi Yano. It's as frustrating as it is strange.
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