(“You’ll never get me Lucky Charms!”)
For nearly four years, the Japanese MMA promotion DREAM did its best to carry the mantle of PRIDE, presenting the same mix of top international talent and freak-show comic relief, all inside of a traditional ring, rather than a filthy American cage. But we were hit with some sad news this weekend as multiple sources reported that DREAM has ceased day-to-day operations, and will no longer be producing events. So as we like to do when great MMA traditions die, let’s take a look back at some of the fights that made this promotion so unique, so entertaining, and so balls-out insane…
Though Kazushi Sakuraba‘s fame was partly based on his willingness to absorb damage from larger fighters, the level of savagery that Melvin Manhoef inflicted on him during their meeting at the Yokohama Arena probably should have convinced Saku to walk away from the sport. The moment when Manhoef drags Saku away from the ropes by his leg so he can dive in to continue the assault (see the 2:43 mark above) remains one of DREAM’s most indelible and brutal moments.
#7: Shinya Aoki vs. dumb-ass gaijin
Another tradition that DREAM inherited from PRIDE? Absurd mismatches. At the time of this fight, Aoki was widely considered to be a top-3 lightweight, while Gardner was an obscure 13-7 journeyman who was coming off a loss to Brian Cobb. Aoki’s domination on the mat was no surprise, but the fight became legendary for how it ended. Stuck with Aoki on his back, Gardner took advantage of a brief pause in the action — and the near-silence in the Saitama Super Arena — to wave to the crowd and shout “Hello Japan!” Aoki immediately wrapped up Gardner’s neck and choked him out, causing the crowd to break out in laughter and Bas Rutten to cry “Oh my God it is so dumb! So dumb! Why?!” Some things just can’t be explained, Bas.
#6: Marius Zaromskis scores two head-kick KO’s in the same night
“The Whitemare” had already been drawing hype in Europe as a human highlight-reel when he entered the DREAM Welterweight Grand Prix in 2009, but it was his performance in that tournament which launched him as a worldwide sensation. Between his Street Fighter cosplay and in-ring acrobatics, it was clear we were dealing with a special individual. In the final two rounds of the GP, he met Hayato Sakurai and Jason High on the same night, and knocked them both dead in the first round, one with his left leg, and one with his right. Zaromskis took home the DREAM welterweight belt and did it to another poor bastard three months later.
#5: Jose Canseco is not “Super Hulk” material
DREAM’s Super Hulk Tournament was a bizarre convergence of veteran freaks, imposing big-men, and an off-his-rocker baseball player who was only there to make guys like Bob Sapp and Hong Man Choi look legitimate by comparison. The opening round featured Canseco vs. Choi, which has to be the most inexplicable pairing in MMA history. Canseco actually lands first with a big overhand right followed by a body kick, but eventually he remembers that he’s just there to collect a paycheck. Canseco grabs his knee at the 1:12 mark to signify that the dive is coming, then falls down after throwing one more kick and gets pounded on for a TKO loss. After the fight, Nick Diaz did his best to shore up the holes in Canseco’s game, but Jose has yet to take the MMA world by storm.
#4: Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Zelg Galesic — back from the dead, once again
On paper, it’s another dramatic example of Sakuraba’s unbreakable spirit, his resilience, his heart. Much like his infamous 2006 fight against Kestutis Smirnovas, Sakuraba survived a terrifying beating — with Galesic smashing him in the head with blows that would have removed most fighters from consciousness — and went on to win by kneebar. Following this victory, Sakuraba went on a four-fight losing streak, including two losses by arm-triangle choke and a TKO loss to Marius Zaromskis that cost him his ear. But the Galesic fight was Sakuraba’s final triumph…if you really want to call it that.
#3: Gegard Mousasi submits a striker and knocks out a grappler
Just like Zaromskis, Gegard Mousasi put his name on the map with two first-round stoppages on the same night in a DREAM tournament. His moment came during the final night of their Middleweight Grand Prix in 2008, where he first faced Melvin Manhoef, who was coming off of his previously-mentioned destruction of Sakuraba. Manhoef’s intimidation factor was at an all-time high, but Mousasi out-grappled the Dutch dynamo and secured a triangle choke submission in just 88 seconds. Next, Mousasi faced BJJ stud Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, who was closing in on a top-ten ranking at middleweight. True to form, Souza put the Armenian Assassin on his back and tried to turn it into a grappling match. Mousasi defended the ground-attacks, kicked Jacare off, then landed a knockout upkick when Jacare tried to dive in with a punch — a wild stoppage, which showcased Mousasi’s versatility and unshakable coolness under pressure.
#2: Shinya Aoki breaks an arm, acts like a dick about it
Dynamite!! 2009, 12/31/09
Technically, the 2009 New Year’s Eve show was a co-promotion between DREAM and Sengoku — with a handful of K-1 matches thrown in on the undercard — and featured nine different DREAM vs. Sengoku bouts. For DREAM lightweight champion Shinya Aoki, there was clearly more at stake than just bragging rights. Stepping into the ring with Sengoku champ Mizuto Hirota, the Tobikan Judan wanted to exterminate with extreme prejudice. It took just over a minute for Aoki to prove that Hirota wasn’t on his level. Shattering Hirota’s arm with a hammer-lock was the exclamation point, and sticking his middle finger in Hirota’s face and then at the crowd was the unnecessary bcc to your entire Gmail address book. Aoki’s mounted gogoplata win over Katsuhiko Nagata the previous year seemed downright merciful by comparison.
In May 2008, Eddie Alvarez fought a 15-minute war against Joachim Hansen that had many observers calling it a strong front-runner for Fight of the Year. Two months later, Alvarez topped it. The wild pace, the heart shown by both fighters, the shifts in momentum, and the astounding final sequence (skip to the video’s 7:20 mark) made this match, in my opinion, the single greatest fight in the promotion’s history, and one of the purest examples of the sport that you’ll ever see.
DREAM neva die.
- Ben Goldstein