The roar of the crowd ... the sound of bare feet shuffling against canvas ... the unexplainable electricity inside the building. They are all mere echos today as crowds in the tens of thousands have dwindled down to a fraction of that amount. The Saitama Super Arena, host of this Saturday's (Feb. 25) UFC 144 event, has been home to some of the greatest mixed martial arts (MMA) events in the history of the sport. "Ghosts of Saitama" will take a look at some of those moments, forever preserved and never forgotten.
We all assumed it would never end.
Beginning in 2003, Japanese combat sports -- both mixed martial arts (MMA) and kickboxing -- shone brightest on the last day of the year. Events clocking in at five, six or even seven hours full of pomp and pageantry ushered tens of thousands of fans into the New Year each and every December 31.
As the years passed, the MMA boom across the Pacific went from a sizzle to a simmer. The amount of New Year's Eve (NYE) events went from three to two and then finally to one in 2007, with Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, being its home beginning the following year. As fans and fighters entered 2012, it wouldn't seem remiss to even question if there was any heat left at all in what appeared to be a corpse. DREAM, the last bastion of the spectacular heights the sports reached in Japan, promoted only three shows last year, down from four the year prior.
But, it seemed there would always be NYE.
It was a tradition, dagnabit. And resources were frantically pooled to ensure the show would see the light of day. Less than eight weeks ago, Fighting and Entertainment Group (FEG) -- promoter of DREAM and K-1 -- held what very well may be the last NYE card fans will get to enjoy. Quite a few of them -- myself included -- realizing this might be the final chance to see MMA as what it once was gave their DVR the night off and stocked up on the energy drinks and junk food. They prepared for an all-nighter just like in the old days.
After all the joy NYE had given fans, it was the least that could be done in return.
Even before it began, a somber tone surrounded the event at the Saitama Super Arena. After the previous year's incarnation drew such poor ratings, television powerhouse Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) opted -- for the first time since the NYE events began in 2003 -- not to carry the show. Without TBS' muscle, FEG and Japanese legend Antonio Inoki struggled to garner much interest.
Undaunted, they pressed forward and continued with the "Fight for Japan" theme DREAM had started earlier in the year. Stateside, the event began a little past midnight on Dec. 31, 2011, and continued into the morning light. For the Japanese fans in attendance, they made their way into Saitama Super Arena in the early afternoon only to see the show's conclusion -- the dawning of the New Year -- mere moments after the main event of Fedor Emelianenko taking on Satoshi Ishii ended.
"The Last Emperor" scored a quick knockout against the overmatched Japanese judoka and in doing so, picked up his second straight win after dropping three fights for Strikeforce.
Hours earlier, the festivities began with a brutal knockout slam courtesy of Yusup Saadulaev. He put Hideo Tokoro to sleep in a reserve bout for the one-night grand prix to crown DREAM's first bantamweight champion. In the tournament proper, former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) star Antonio Banuelos and Bibiano Fernandes each earned the judges' nod to advance to the finals where the Brazilian became a two-division champ after stopping Banuelos in less than 90 seconds.
Two K-1 MAX kickboxing bouts took place as did two DREAM MMA fights. Japanese stalwarts Tatsuya Kawairi and Hayato Sakurai each picked up a win that night. The two sports were -- like they were last year -- fused together when DREAM and DEEP veteran Katsunori Kikuno took one cosplay aficionado Yuichiro Nagashima. The anime-loving kickboxer had score an impressive knockout over Shinya Aoki seconds into the MMA round the previous year after the submission wizard spent the entire kickboxing round fooling around and killing time. Nagashima wouldn't be so lucky this year as Kikuno took the bout much more seriously than his predecessor and scored a second round technical knockout (TKO) for MMA.
The most dominant women's MMA fighter showed up to do her thing, too. Megumi Fujii added another arm to her trophy case after picking up a quick submission win over her opponent. Meanwhile, two DREAM champions made successful title defenses. Hiroyuki Takaya -- who had won the featherweight title from the aforementioned Fernandes -- retained against Takeshi Inoue while Aoki kept his stranglehold on the Japanese lightweight scene by outpointing Satoru Kitaoka.
The highlight of the evening for many were the Inoki Genome Federation (IGF) rules bouts that took place. IGF is Inoki's professional wrestling promotion and as such, each of the four bouts was a display of Japan's take on the sport otherwise known as puroresu.
There was the wacky -- Kazuyuki Fujita submitting Peter Aerts with a Boston Crab and Jerome Le Banner pounding out former UFC champ Tim Sylvia -- and then there was the awesome. The latter comprised a tag-team match between the team of Kazushi Sakuraba and Katsuyori Shibata taking the team of Atsushi Sawada and Shinichi Suzukawa. Then there was the insanely fun catch-wrestling display Josh Barnett and Hideki Suzuki put on, which delighted old school fans of Pride Fighting Championships' predecessor Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi).
On top of all that, you had Inoki coming out on a cross during an intermission performance that only the giant-jawed legend could have dreamt up. It was that type of showmanship and over-the-topness that NYE was known for.
And we may never see it again.More from the "Ghosts of Saitama" series: