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Seventh Heaven: A look back at Sengoku VII

The road to world victory is rarely a path one takes without encountering at least a few bumps along the way, so perhaps the figureheads of Japan’s alternative to FEG’s DREAM promotion anticipated such to be the case when they put together the “Land of the Rising Sengoku.”

Since its creation, the company has received a fair amount of criticism for bypassing deserving contenders in favor of protected superstars, having a controversial finish or two, and embracing competitors who have previously tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in the United States. However, as point-on as many of those verbal darts have been, it should also be said that WVR has also delivered memorable match-ups, jaw-dropping upsets, and the elevation of a few young mixed martial artists’ careers.

“Seventh Battle” was a fun card from top to bottom, featuring a number of entertaining fights and giving fans of Mixed Martial Arts a chance to see a handful of future superstars attempt to continue their ascension up the ranks and live up to the potential attached to their names. One such individual seeing action at the event was Dave “Pee-Wee” Herman. Entering “Sengoku VII”, the colorful Heavyweight was undefeated with a 13-for-13 fight/finish ratio. He appeared ready to start the new year out on the right note by facing 38-year old PRIDE veteran Mu Bae Choi, a favorite in his native Korea with career wins over both the infamous Gary Goodridge and “Giant” Silva and, as MMA enthusiasts familiar with his trademark disco-posing can attest to, a few slick dance-moves in his arsenal as well. It seemed Choi would be lucky to “stay alive” against Herman, who was labeled as a clear favorite going into the match-up based on his advantages pertaining to size, athleticism, youth, and the overall promise he’d shown prior to the contest. However, as is so often the case in Mixed Martial Arts, the betting lines were not necessarily indicative of the fight’s outcome.

Herman and Mu Bae Choi both showed a tremendous amount of heart in their clash. “Pee-Wee” clearly had the striking advantage, even dropping Choi early in the first round, but the Korean (who is known for his wrestling) was able to win most of the grappling exchanges and took the 240-pounder down on more than one occasion. The determining factor in the fight was primarily the size of each man’s gas tank. Both exerted a great deal more energy in the first round than is typically the case in most Heavyweight bouts and were quickly running on fumes as the second frame unfolded. Herman’s hands dropped and Choi made him pay the price for it with a series of moderately sharp rights that eventually left the American hunched over one of the ring-ropes. The two may not have painted a technical masterpiece between the ropes but their clash was absolutely an entertaining one – a Jackson Pollack if you will.

Given his showing up until the point of exhaustion, Dave Herman should rebound quite easily from the loss, and he will hopefully use the defeat as a learning experience pertaining to the importance of pacing and cardio in general. Then again, “Pee-Wee” doesn’t need the advice espoused in these pages. He’s a loner… a rebel.

Not to be outdone by Mu Bae Choi’s twinkling toes, another fighter possibly auditioning for a future season of “Dancing with the Stars” cut the canvas at “Seventh Battle” and found success along the way. Thus far, Mo Lawal‘s transition from amateur wrestling to mixed martial arts has been as smooth as the top of his noggin’. His opponent, Yukiya Naito, was only able to land some timid leg kicks before succumbing to the former Oklahoma State Cowboy standout’s stand-up.

Another win in the Sengoku ring ran Lawal’s professional win streak to 3-0 with three TKOs against vastly more experienced opponents. His showmanship, coupled with his grappling base, are reminiscent of Quinton Jackson‘s emergence in PRIDE. If “King” Mo is able to continue learning the finer points of MMA, especially in regards to jiu jitsu, and tighten up his striking, there is no reason his reign shouldn’t one day extend over the Octagon. Given his world-class wrestling history, his apparent interest in soaking up as much information as he can alongside respected competitors like Dan Henderson, Jason “Mayhem” Miller, Dean Lister, Vitor Belfort, and Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira, and the skills he’s exhibited thus far, it appears as though Lawal shouldn’t be relinquishing his crown anytime soon.

In proper World Victory Road fashion, Antonio Silva made a controversial appearance on the card while suspended by the California State Athletic Commission for submitting a dirty urine sample (Boldenone) last August. While the ATT heavyweight called foul on the lab’s testing, stating steroid use would potentially be fatal for someone with a medical condition he has, his appeal fell on deaf ears and forced him to choose between sitting on the sidelines for a year or risking the possibility of a lifetime ban in the States by fighting overseas. He chose to do the latter, eliciting both disappointment from those feeling Silva wasn’t being accountable for his actions and support from people compassionate towards the financial plight of fighters.

Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on in the debate, the favorable opinion on the 300-pound Brazilian’s talent and upside is generally one of a consensus nature. “Bigfoot” is incredibly strong and extremely athletic for someone of his physical stature. He has the mass of Brock Lesnar complimented with crisp, diverse striking and surprisingly good submission skills.

Both characteristics of Silva’s game were on display against Yoshihrio Nakao under the WVR banner though neither were responsible for his eventual win. Nakao circled throughout the bulk of the fight, preventing Silva from working in more than a handful of punches and knees. At one point Antonio was able to stuff a desperation single-leg takedown attempt from Heath Herring’s least-favorite opponent, the result of a well-placed side-kick to the body followed by a quick punching combination, and nearly worked the position into an Anaconda Choke. It’s exactly that type of multi-faceted attack that makes “Bigfoot” such a huge threat (pun not intended) in a Heavyweight Division primarily featuring slower, singular-minded athletes. It’s also the very thing making his alleged steroid use and resulting punishment so extraordinarily frustrating.

Unfortunately, as stated earlier, the American Top Team product wasn’t able to utilize his abilities to finish Nakao who instead fell victim to the injury bug. During a sequence where the Japanese fighter was backed into a corner, he leaned forward to throw a large overhand left, locked the toe of his shoe on the canvas in the process, and buckled his knee due to the momentum created by the punch. He quickly called for time, and, at least based on his behavior and the doctors’ subsequent actions, it appeared as though “Kiss” might have torn ligaments as a result of the errant strike.

While Nakao probably has rehabilitation in his immediate future, it’s hard to say what Silva’s forthcoming months will bring other than another fight at a different Sengoku event. With Josh Barnett also under contract to World Victory Road, a bout against “The Babyface Assassin” seems to be the most logical bout the promotion can make from a marketability standpoint as well as where equitable talent is concerned.

While eight other men emerged victorious at Saitama Super Arena this past weekend, it wouldn’t be hard to argue that there was only one actual winner at “Sengoku VII” – Jorge Santiago. Few fighters can claim to be as hot professionally as the often underrated teammate of Antonio Silva at ATT. Were fans of mixed martial arts asked to name a Brazilian middleweight who hasn’t lost in more than two years and has nine straight finishes, many of which came against respectable opponents, the answer would undoubtedly come back “Anderson Silva” 99% of the time. However, “The Spider” is not alone in recent dominance of his peers, as Santiago hasn’t fallen in defeat since December 2006 and laid waste along the way to the likes of Jeremy Horn, Trevor Prangley, and Kazuhiro Nakamura, and most recently Kazuo Misaki in winning World Victory Road’s Middleweight Championship. Santiago has finished 20 of the 21 opponents he’s beaten in his career with nearly an equal number of knockouts and submissions to his credit. Any fighter able to end his opponent’s night no matter what direction the bout takes is a dangerous individual to contend with and the 28-year old from Rio de Janeiro has shown himself to be that breed of competitor.

Choking out “The Grabaka Hitman” at “Seventh Battle” cemented the young athlete’s place among the top Mixed Martial Artists at his weight class and should earn him a trip back to the Octagon as soon as he’s contractually able to compete for them. In the meantime, while World Victory Road’s 185-pound division is rather thin, both Strikeforce and Affliction have reputable Middleweights like Vitor Belfort, Matt Lindland, Gegard Mousasi, Frank Shamrock, and Cung Le who would not only be suitable foes for Santiago when it comes to overall skill but also carry with them the potential for putting on an extremely exciting fight.

Where “Sengoku VII” added thrust to the rocketing careers of Mo Lawal and Jorge Santiago and provided a forum for Antonio Silva and Dave Herman to at least display their talents en route to disappointing outcomes, the show was not wholly positive and further tarnished the reputation of two former PRIDE standouts. Hidehiko Yoshida is as close to a national hero in Japan as there is for both his gold-medal winning performance in judo at the 1992 Summer Olympics and his early success in Mixed Martial Arts. Yoshida’s record is highlighted with some of MMA’s best and brightest both past and present; names like Royce Gracie, Don Frye, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Filipovic, and Josh Barnett. However, he’s lost four of his last five fights and turns 40 this September. His inability to beat fellow Japanese journeyman Sanae Kikuta at “Seventh Battle” was simply another indicator that the judoka’s best days are long behind him. Joining Yoshida at a crossroads in his own respective career is none other than the all-too-often coddled Takanori Gomi.

Given his recent struggles in the ring, “The Fireball Kid” has been anything but hot lately. Whether it is due to a lack of dedication to training (as he’s been accused of before), a gross underestimation of his recent opponents, or perhaps a lingering “contact high” after the his encounter with Nick Diaz at PRIDE 33, Gomi has been anything but the knockout artist fans became acquainted with between 2004-2006. In the Japanese star’s defense, he dominated the first ninety seconds of his “Sengoku VII” bout and only got caught in an Achilles Lock after taking Satoru Kitaoka down and working his back. Kitaoka was then able to reverse Gomi and quickly latched onto an exposed leg before his opponent had a chance to gather his bearings. After defeating Eddie Alvarez on New Year’s Eve with a heel-hook, DREAM dynamo Shinya Aoki alluded to the danger of a fighters familiar with similar submissions due to the difficulty in defending attacks on the leg/ankle.

Takanori Gomi’s loss seems to lend weight to Aoki’s claims given how quickly it changed the momentum of the match. Still, the uber-popular Japanese fighter was essentially handed the World Victory Road Lightweight Championship on a silver platter by company executives and remained unable to seal the deal, so it’s important to avoid dismissing Kitaoka’s accomplishment at the event. He withstood everything Gomi threw at him, took advantage of an opening, and in less than two minutes joined B.J. Penn and Marcus Aurelio as the only mixed martial artists to ever finish “The Fireball Kid.” Not bad company to be in, eh?

It’s hard to say what’s next for Takanori Gomi. His star still shines bright in Japan but his standing in the fight community is rapidly declining. While the “Rascal” representative may make a great deal of money from merchandising and other marketing opportunities in Asia, there’s something to be said for a man’s reputation and the pride of a fighter. Losing back-to-back-fights cannot sit well with a man accustomed to demolishing his opponents. Whether he decides to remain in World Victory Road, subject to scrutiny from American fans for facing (and potentially losing to) subpar competition, or tests his worth in the UFC where he his stand-up prowess will benefit from use in a more-confined area, it’s clear the next twelve months will be as important a year in Gomi’s career as he’s experienced thus far. His next few fights will determine whether or not the one-time posterboy is still the warrior fans saw in PRIDE or on the verge of fading into relative obscurity.

Based on the above descriptions, and the labels World Victory Road has earned over its nine months of existence, “Sengoku VII” personified the promotion in more ways than one. The card featured quality talent, intriguing match-ups, highlight finishes, and multiple memorable moments. That being said, it was also a show playing home to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva who is currently suspended from competition in America based on a positive drug test, as well containing a Lightweight Championship affair where one of the contenders was coming off a loss but was still given the opportunity anyways due to his popularity in the region. The “yin” and “yang” of WVR were both very present at “Seventh Battle” and made for a balanced, entertaining event. If the company’s executives are able to build on their recent successes, limit the repetition of their previous mistakes, and find that MMA fans will accept a higher number of promotional shenanigans than they might typically be used to, World Victory Road could very well be on its way to becoming DREAM’s nightmare – the premier Mixed Martial Arts provider in Japan.

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