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.
Fighting and Entertainment Group (FEG) built its empire out of bruised shins, swollen faces and 10 ounce gloves.
Through K-1, FEG became one of the premier combat sports promoters. It sold out its live shows, packing arenas with 30, 40 or even 50 thousand people and its television broadcasts raked in viewers by the millions. As human nature tends to be, FEG officials wanted a bit more. PRIDE Fighting Championships (PRIDE) was at the top of the mixed martial arts (MMA) food chain but maybe, just maybe FEG could sneak in and take itself a small slice of that very lucrative pie.
It was content to only dip its toes in at first with the one-off ROMANEX show before they dove head first into the MMA playing field with a new company known as Hero's. Despite PRIDE's already established foothold in Japan and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) gaining steam stateside, the fledgling company was still able to build an impressive roster of fighters. Alistair Overeem, Lyoto Machida, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Jake Shields and B.J. Penn were just a few names that fought under the Hero's banner.
But, the promotion wasn't long for this world and within three years, the name was dropped and DREAM took its place when FEG brought aboard a bevy of former PRIDE employees looking for work. Armed with a wealth of MMA promotion knowledge, they became a valuable asset to their new company.
Aside from FEG's involvement, one common thread ties the three names -- ROMANEX, Hero's and DREAM -- together. Each held their first -- and in ROMANEX's case, the only -- show at the Saitama Super Arena. It was almost as if FEG knew they would need to christen their MMA ventures in that particular building if they wanted them to be taken seriously by fans and pundits.
This installment of "Ghosts of Saitama" will take a look at the trio of shows, ROMANEX and Hero's as substitutions for PRIDE and DREAM as its successor.
Unfortunately, none panned out as well as anyone -- FEG, fighters or fans -- would have hoped.
In May 2004, 20 fighters descended upon the Saitama Super Arena. Among them were former and future UFC champions Machida, Penn and Josh Barnett. Don Frye, Gary Goodridge and Duane Ludwig, all Octagon veterans, also made appearances.
ROMANEX wasn't meant to be an ongoing affair. It was an MMA fling for FEG to see how they would do in the market. While MMA bouts had littered kickboxing-centric K-1 events before, this was the first all-out effort to challenge PRIDE. And judging by the lackluster attendance -- around 15,000 fans showed up -- it was obvious trying to loosen PRIDE's grip on the Japanese MMA landscape would be easier said than done.
Those fans in attendance did, at least, witness a good show. Machida came the closest he had or would -- until being knocked out by Mauricio Rua -- to losing when he earned a split decision victory over kickboxer turned part-time MMA fighter Sam Greco. Meanwhile, Penn made his first post-welterweight title win appearance when he stepped inside the ring opposite Duane Ludwig. "The Prodigy" made quick work of "Bang," submitting him in less than two minutes.
Goodridge and Barnett each took home technical knockout (TKO) wins but Frye left the Saitama Super Arena empty-handed, neither with a win nor with a loss. His opponent, Yoshihiro Nakao, -- best known for planting a kiss on Heath Herring's lips and subsequently being knocked out for getting so fresh -- shot in for an immediate takedown and the two clashed heads. A river of blood began to pour out of "The Predator's" face so the fight was stopped and ruled a No Contest.
Internet favorite and pop locking extraordinaire Genki Sudo continued what countryman Kazushi Sakuraba started when he brutally knocked out Royler Gracie, further removing any mystique the Gracie clan may have had left.
The main event saw Kazuyuki Fujita kick the ever-loving snot out of Bob Sapp. At this time, Sapp still seemed damn near invincible. A kickboxing knockout at the hands of Mirko Filipovic and a submission loss to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira aside, "The Beast" was still thought of as a viable force when he stepped inside the ring. "Ol' Ironhead" changed that when he continuously booted Sapp in the head while the American basically just curled into a ball on the canvas and said uncle. "The Beast" went from contender to cartoon overnight.
10 months later, FEG's full-time MMA banner debuted. Hero's was the company's answer to the overwhelming success PRIDE was enjoying. Several fighters from ROMANEX transitioned to Hero's including Machida and Penn who faced off against each other in the inaugural event. The overly plump Hawaiian couldn't overcome the size difference and "The Dragon" took home the decision.
SHOOTO's past and present met that night as well when Joachim Hansen took on Caol Uno. The former UFC lightweight contender and "Hellboy" nearly made it to the judges before the Norwegian landed a thunderous knee with seconds remaining in the bout. ROMANEX veterans Goodridge, Sudo and Greco also competed and each came up with a stoppage victory. Even Sapp showed up and performed well, knocking out Min Soo Kim in a little over a minute.
The main event saw K-1 legend Jerome Le Banner and Japanese/Korean judoka Yoshihiro Akiyama each competing in only their second MMA bouts. Le Banner had plenty of kickboxing experience but the grappling chops of "Sexyama" were thought to play a factor. They didn't. Akiyama was only to get his opponent on the mat momentarily before Le Banner buried two knees into the judoka's skull.
As fun as the fights were, another paltry attendance was FEG's reward. They plugged along with Hero's until late 2007 when they joined forces with several of the minds that made PRIDE the success it was. A new name was needed for a new beginning. Thus, DREAM was born.
A lightweight grand prix was the selling point of the new promotion's first show. Japanese MMA heavy hitters like Hansen, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Mitsuhiro Ishida and Shinya Aoki were all featured. Each man won their first round bout -- Aoki did so at the next event after a No Contest the first time around -- with "Hellboy" eventually being crowned the champion at DREAM 5.
More of a card catered to hardcore fans, the event drew less than 20,000 people to the Saitama Super Arena. The latest event, DREAM 17, did half that number. UFC 144 is nearly a sellout, looking to bring the number baack up to PRIDE era numbers.
We can only hope. Saitama Super Arena deserves better.
More from the "Ghosts of Saitama" series:
- Ghosts of Saitama: After nearly a decade, the traditional New Year's Eve MMA event in Japan likely comes to an end in 2011
- Ghosts of Saitama: In 2004, the world's greatest heavyweights descended upon Saitama Super Arena
- Ghosts of Saitama: Pride FC wastes no time making its debut at Saitama Super Arena in Japan
- Ghosts of Saitama: The Japanese New Year's Eve war starts with three blockbuster shows