Photo via Scott Petersen
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.
Ask anyone who was a mixed martial arts (MMA) fan before the boom created by The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) for a list of all-time great events and one name will surely find itself on each and every list.
Final Conflict 2005 at the Saitama Super Arena.
PRIDE Fighting Championships (PRIDE) had, the year prior, collected some of the world's best heavyweight and pitted them against each other to decide who among them was the best. It was Fedor Emelianenko who rose to the top after defeating the likes of Mark Coleman, Naoya Ogawa and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
It should have come to no surprise to anyone as "The Last Emperor" was the reigning heavyweight champion with only one murky loss attached to his name. He had already defeated "Big Nog" to win the title and it seemed the only other heavyweight who could potentially challenge the champion was Mirko Filipovic.
But "Cro Cop" was brutally knocked out by Kevin Randleman in the first round and missed his date with destiny. Eager to get back into the title shot hunt, the Croatian went to work. In the 16 months between the Randleman loss and his fight at Final Conflict 2005 with Emelianenko, the kickboxer fought seven times, finishing all but one of his opponents.
Aside from the most anticipated heavyweight bout in the sport's short history, the event only presented the last three fights in the 203-pound grand prix. Four men -- Mauricio Rua, Alistair Overeem, Ricardo Arona and current champion Wanderlei Silva -- looked to emerge as the tournament winner. Silva had won the previous in 2003 but Brazilian Top Team rival Arona was looking to unseat him.
Little did anyone know it would end up being "The Axe Murderer's" own teammate who would emerge the world's best light heavyweight.
Let's take a closer look.
The show opened up with a tournament reserve bout between quarterfinalists Kazuhiro Nakamura and Igor Vovchanchyn. The battle-worn Ukrainian fought valiantly but Nakamura proved to be too much of a challenge. The judoka took the decision after 15 minutes of action.
"Ice Cold" would never step inside the ring again. His body was too tired, after 10 years of fighting, to continue. Vovchanchyn was an MMA original before the phrase MMA had even been created. He simply was born too soon, arrived in the sport too early to truly be recognized as one of the greats.
The next bout, the grand prix semi-final between Arona and Silva, was the 2005 equivalent of the Carlos Condit/Nick Diaz fight. Arona played the role of Condit, a sometimes overlooked but extremely talented fighter to Silva's Diaz, violent, exciting and popular.
Like "The Natural Born Killer," Arona stuck to his gameplan. He avoided prolonged striking exchanges and kept Silva on his back as much as possible. It worked. After two rounds, the bell sounded and everyone in the arena and watching at home -- including Arona who laughed in Silva's face -- knew the champion had finally been defeated.
Hoping to salvage some honor for their training camp, "Shogun" took on Overeem in the next semi-final bout. Early on, it didn't look good for Chute Boxe. A pre-Ubereem "The Demolition Man" took the fight to his Brazilian opponent and nearly finished him off with his infamous guillotine choke. "Shogun" survived and ended up pounding Overeem out a little over halfway through the first round.
The finals were now set. An all Brazilian affair between the two biggest and most honor training camps in the country. Ricardo Arona representing Brazilian Top Team (BTT) taking on Mauricio Rua backed by Chute Boxe.
The next two fights saw Fabricio Werdum and Hidehiko Yoshida each pick up submission wins over their opponents. The Brazilian sunk a triangle choke in on Emelianenko training partner Roman Zentsov while the Japanese judoka used his gi to smother and choke out original Ultimate Fighting Championship bad boy David "Tank" Abbott.
It was finally time for Fedor versus "Cro Cop."
Nearly 50,000 fans packed into the Saitama Super Arena to see the fight. And not a single one was disappointed.
From my History in the Making on the historic bout:
The champion is still controlling the pace of a fight where Filipovic has looked as timid as most of his own opponents have looked in the past. But a stiff jab from "CroCop" later and Fedor's leg buckles slightly underneath him and the crowd erupts.
Mirko, with fire in his step for the first time in the fight, throws one, two, three jabs as Fedor begins to back up. A wild, looping hook from Fedor causes Mirko to duck and he loses his balance. He continues to press the fight and unexpectedly tries to take the Sambo Grand Master down. Fedor reverses this and ends up standing in Mirko's guard.
The Russian would prevail leaving "Cro Cop" to once again play second fiddle. He came up short againt "Big Nog" two years before and it wouldn't be until 2006's grand prix where the Croatian would be recognized as the champion he truly was.
The show closed with the grand prix finals. Less than three minutes into the bout, Arona narrowly avoided getting stomped in the face by "Shogun" but Rua's hammerfists would find their mark. Clubbing the BTT member in the jaw until unconscious, the young Brazilian went from promising prospect to number one light heavyweight on the planet.
Legends rising and fall, mere men ushered into MMA immortality ... all in a night's work for the Saitama Super Arena.
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
- Ghosts of Saitama: ROMANEX, Hero's and DREAM all make their debut at the Saitama Super Arena