By CagePotato contributor Matthew Kaplowitz
As Japanese MMA seems to slowly dwindle away from the glory days of the sport, hardcore fans like myself shed a tear for our great loss. It wasn’t just knowing those obscure 135-pounders whose names had syllables our gaijin tongues could barely pronounce, or the fact that it was the land where stomping and soccer-kicking a human being in the face was perfected into a sweet science. More than that, it was the stars that were produced that we came to know and love, whether they were fighting someone on their level or tearing open a tomato can — and that is where this list begins.
Blatant mismatches aside, JMMA gave us so many beautiful fights with men like Fedor Emelianenko, Mirko “Crocop” Filipovic (go tell your favorite TUF noob that his last name is not Crocop and relish in their confusion), Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Ikuhisa Minowa and Kazushi Sakuraba. For every epic bout that went into the history books for their unbelievable drama, we had other fights that we remember for less than pleasant reasons. Yes, the freak show fights! What would a JMMA event be without a match worthy of a 1930′s carnival? The big question here was how do I rank something that is mediocre to begin with? Well, I’m as clueless as you are, so let’s get started on this journey down “Freak Show Lane,” across the street from “What Were They Thinking? Boulevard”…
10. Daiju Takase vs. Emmanuel Yarbrough
Pride 3, 6/24/98
This was the first freak show fight in Pride history, and earns a place on this list for that merit alone. It pit 169 lb. Daiju Takase against 600 lb. Emmanuel Yarbrough, who most fans will recall was clobbered into submission by Keith Hackney and his broken hand at UFC 3 (Yarbrough has no luck in any event associated with the number three). The sumo plodded around the ring tossing his hamhock arms at Takase, while the smaller Japanese fighter fled and slowly wore down Yarbrough.
Takase makes the mistake of going for a lazy single leg on Yarbrough, which results in the large fighter flopping onto his belly and absorbing Takase into his flesh. As Stephen Quadros lamented, “This is horrible! This is like “Jaws!” Eventually, Takase slid out from the greasy underside of Manny, and in an ending eerily similiar to his UFC 3 fight, Takase went to town with clubbing hands to his exhausted opponent’s face, leading to a tapout in the middle of the second round.
9. “Dr. Death” Steve Williams vs. Alexey Ignashov
K-1 Beast 2004 in Niigata, 3/14/04
“Dr. Death” Steve Williams remains one of my favorite pro wrestlers. He was one of the toughest men in the game, and left a huge mark in the Japanese pro wrestling scene with classic bouts against their top talent — but MMA was clearly not for him. Shoot fights rarely seemed to go his way, as in 1998 when he was brought in by the WWF for their “Brawl for All” toughman competition, resulting in a legit knockout loss in the quarterfinals by Bart Gunn. For whatever reason, in 2004, Williams decided to try his luck at shoot fighting one more time, this time in the country where his fame really blossomed, against dangerous kickboxer Alexey Ignashov.
You can literally see the fighting spirit kneed out of Williams in the first ten seconds of this fight, as Alexey crumbles the wrestler to the mats, and continues to pick his shots as “Dr. Death” stumbles around the ring resembling a drunk man trying to find his contact lens. Luckily, Ignashov is always thoughtful, helping Williams to the ground with punches and getting his face closer to the ground with soccer kicks to aid his search.
Sadly, Steve Williams passed away in December of 2009. His final pro wrestling match was two weeks before his death. Williams had been battling throat cancer for many years, and even continued to wrestle with a hole in his throat, proving he was every bit as tough as he claimed to be. Ignashov has now begun his twelfth year in pro kickboxing, and does not seem ready to stop any time soon.
8. Eric “Butterbean” Esch vs. Zuluzinho
Pride 34, 4/8/07
What better way for Pride to go out in their final show than with a crazy freak show fight featuring two equally matched… well, freaks. Zuluzinho, the son of the famed Vale Tudo fighter Zulu, who once had an epic match with Rickson Gracie, met with the king of the four-rounders, Eric Esch. Combined, these men weighed 370 kg, which when converted from metric to standard american units of measurements, equals to the weight of 80,000 unsold Elite XC Kimbo Slice t-shirts.
The impressive thing about this match is that it’s more competitive than you would suspect, and was easily the smartest Butterbean ever fought in MMA. The Bean manages to get Zuluzinho to the ground after some slugging, and maintains side control for the duration of the fight, chipping away at the Brazilian. Esch scouts an armlock, and actually manages to not just secure it, but tap out his opponent in a shocking end to a fight that most expected would be 20 seconds of punching followed by nine minutes and 40 seconds of heavy panting.
Zuluzinho had his own memorable bouts, including a relatively competitive victory over Ikuhisa Minowa in K-1 Dynamite and, less pleasant, being clobbered by Fedor and submitted by Big Nog. Another interesting fact, Butterbean’s next two wins were also by armlock. Believe it, or not! And speaking of Butterbean…
7. Genki Sudo vs. Eric “Butterbean” Esch
K-1 Premium 2003 Dynamite!!, 12/31/03
This is a classic freak show fight that served no purpose other than to give Genki Sudo a chance to live his dream of flying through the air like Liu Kang. Following a loss to Duane “Bang” Ludwig in the UFC in a fight that was very good, as opposed to this which is not, Genki returned to Japan to battle the boxer-turned-MMA-fighter in Butterbean’s first no-holds barred fight.
This is your typical Genki Sudo, dancing around the ring and frolicking without a care in the world, despite a lumbering Snorlax approaching him. Towards the end of the first round, Genki scores with a low single leg dive that makes Esch collapse like a tree, and works for a leg lock until Butterbean is saved by the bell. Early in the second round, Sudo decides to be more aggressive and starts bouncing off the K-1 ring ropes like “Macho Man” Randy Savage and gets the courage to soar like an eagle with a jumping kick at Bean’s gut. The kick only manages to enrage Esch, who clutches onto the leg of Sudo and drags him to the ground. Sadly, this would be Butterbean’s demise and first taste of true MMA, as Sudo latched on a heel hook and ended the night for Esch.
6. Shinya Aoki vs. Yuichiro Nagashima
Dynamite!! 2010, 12/31/10
The most recent freak show fight to make this list features two fighters who are far from freaks…well, except for Nagashima, whose Otaku entrance apparel would let him fit right in at San Diego Comic Con. Jokes aside, Nagashima is a great kickboxer and Aoki, an excellent submission specialist. Therefore, it only made sense that these two would met in the bizarre K-1/ MMA rules bout a few months ago for reasons that I can only assume were the demands of the young son of an FEG producer, under threat that if he didn’t book a K-1/MMA fight, he would tell his mother he was being abused. It makes sense when you look at it that way.
The first round would be a kickboxing-only round, while the second would be a straight-up shoot fight. Most people expected Aoki to dick around in the first, and he did not disappoint. He mocked his opponent by prancing around the ring, rolling around the mats like a child in kindergarten who just learned how to tumble, and broke the K-1 rule of not clinching by repeatedly clinching and tossing Yuichiro on the ground.
The crowd came to their feet as the first round ended, expecting Aoki to unleash a fancy new submission on the kickboxer. The egg was on their face as a well-timed knee to the face dropped Aoki only four seconds into the second round. Nagashima celebrated with an excitement only rivaled by Mark Coleman when he won the Pride GP 2000. It’s too bad the Japanese crowd was dead silent, in memory of their fallen hero.
Ikuhisa Minowa is truly the king of freak show fights, who has battled many of the fighters on this list and more in his long career. Truly, there was no more defining moment in his career than when he fought 7′ 2″ Paulo César da Silva AKA “Giant” Silva at Pride Bushido 10.
Leading into the fight, Minowa was performing strange training methods that included his sparring partners sitting on each other’s shoulders and attacking him with long sticks to simulate Silva’s long arms. Minowa’s highlight-reel worthy moment came with his first attack, as he crouched down and launched himself like a cannon at the pajama-pants of Silva, rolling into a single leg takedown that takes the ginormous Brazilian to the mat. From there, it was a matter of time as Minowa had completely neutralized any effective abilities Silva could have had standing, and laid some well-placed knees all over his prone body, forcing a tap out at just under two and a half minutes into the first round, and beginning the legend of Minowaman.
At 7′ 2″, “The Techno Goliath” was able to use his lanky limbs to his advantage in many a kickboxing fight, including against the equally tall Semmy Schilt and Jerome Lebanner, who he lost to twice in K-1. His skills were not the greatest, but he was a huge freak of a man, so it only made sense for him to fight similarly matched oddities in most of his fights. In 2008, Choi competed in his third MMA fight (all of them at this point had been on New Year’s shows, and this was no different) against another legend in K-1 and JMMA, Mirko “Crocop” Filipovic.
Ernesto Hoost vs. Andy Hug this was not, but Crocop and Choi gave us a decent kickboxing match to watch. In a slow-paced match (but not Jon Fitch slow), Crocop chopped away at the legs of Choi, dropping him like an axe through an oak tree by the middle of the first round. This would be Mirko’s final fight in Japan for a while, as he was bound for his return to the UFC after this, where he has gone on 3-2 in his current stint, with a tough match ahead of him in Brendan Schaub. But for one night in 2008, Crocop was back to his glory in Japan and all seemed right in the universe.
3. Don Frye vs. Yoshihiro Takayama
Pride FC 21, 6/23/02
Do I really need to write any commentary here? You guys already know this fight and know of its epicness, so just watch the highlights and get an erection that’s equal to the size of the lumps that formed on Takayama’s face.
Two things I need to get out of the way before I start writing. One, I did not choose Fedor vs. Hong Man Choi because this is a way better fight, and two, I love Semmy Schilt. He is an amazing kickboxer and MMA fighter, but at the end of the day he is also a giant among men, and in 2002 when a young Fedor stepped into the white Pride ring to meet the 6′ 11″ phenom, fireworks exploded.
Emelianenko was participating in his twelfth MMA fight here, and this was a big step up in his competition from RINGS, while Schilt was already a King of Pancrase and had fought in nearly three times as many fights as Fedor had. RINGS was being gutted at this time by Pride for their top talent, and this would be a litmus test of where Fedor belonged in the company. “The Last Emperor” showed no fear when it came to battling the more experienced Schilt, and gave us a classic fight that gave Pride fans their first glimpse of the man who would become one of the most dominant forces in the history of the sport.
It’s Sapp time! What freak show list would be complete without Bob Sapp, and truly this was the greatest freak show fight of all time.
Sapp had just begun to inexplicably make a name for himself in Pride and K-1, and was given the task of battling the inaugural Pride FC heavyweight champion, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. The two butted heads at the Pride New Year’s event, and this match immediately proved to be something to be remembered as Sapp attempted to piledrive Nog senseless in the opening seconds of the fight. Nog kept “The Beast” at bay from his back as the power in the arena suddenly died, leaving a dramatic spotlight shining into the ring on the two combatants.
Sapp and Nog had a surprisingly back and forth contest that had audiences on their feet as to who would come out on top. A battered Nogueira continued to take abuse through the first round and well into the second, with doctors having to check to make sure he could continue. As the second round drew to a close, Sapp was working his ground and pound and smothering Big Nog when suddenly “Minotauro” sat out, took mount, and wrenched one of the beefy arms away from Sapp for the armbar victory.
For better of worse, this match legitimized the freak show fights to both American and Japanese viewers, and cemented their places for the duration of the heyday of JMMA. It led to many more crazy match-ups, many of which you saw on this list as well and plenty more that were not quite as entertaining. Whether it was Jose Canseco or Ken Kaneko, or a giant kickboxer fighting an obese sumo, freak show fights may have been the mocking point of many anti-JMMA fans back in the day, but it’s impossible not to look back with nostalgia goggles on and remind yourself of simpler times when men were men, and super heavyweights fought lightweights for no reason other than why the hell not.
Honorable mentions: Giant Silva vs. Sentoryu/Akebono
PRIDE Total Elimination 2004, 4/25/04
K-1 Premium Dynamite!! 2006, 12/31/06
These two fights tie for the same spot as both end the same way, and are both equally entertaining in their own right. In the 2-6 MMA career of “Giant” Silva, his only two victories came via kimura submission. With his obvious reach advantage, you would think that Silva would hold some knockouts, or at least some TKO’s, over his opponents, but no. The dude has a 100% win by submission ratio, which would be much more impressive if it was over fighters whose limbs could actually bend.
Silva’s first victim was former sumo wrestler Henry “Sentoryu” Miller, who gave up the mawashi to strap on the fingerless gloves. Miller did not do too bad and even managed to get a dominant cross-side position on Silva. Amazingly enough, it was while being trapped under this dominant position that Silva managed his first kimura victory, showcasing a technique that only someone that tall could ever hope to pull off.
Two years later, Silva met another former-sumo, this time Chad Rowan, AKA Akebono. In a very short fight that would be Akebono’s final MMA match, the sumo rushed Silva, nearly tossing both fighters over the top rope like a WWE Royal Rumble high spot. Silva managed to break the buttery grip of Rowan and locked on a standing kimura, forcing Akebono to the ground where Silva tightened the hold to finish the night with his second MMA win.