When discussing possibilities for my last Bleacher Report piece, the idea which I was most taken by was that of my favorite fight. It surprised me because I reference dozens of fights in each piece I write as great examples of whatever we're talking about, but I have never actually talked about the fight which entertained me the most.
I took a good deal of time to think about this and I'm pretty confident that my favorite MMA fight is not going to be one which you would perhaps associate with my opinions. Indeed, my editor expected Fedor Emelianenko vs. Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic.
That was an incredible fight. The years of anticipation, Fedor using pressure to negate Cro Cop's kicking game, and flowing body shots in there to tire the Croat out. But it wasn't my favourite.
I work entirely in the reasoned, the calculated and the scientific—z happened because x and y preceded it—but I think that a person's favourite fight can never be reduced to a series of checked boxes. A fight is just two people having at it for money. What makes a favorite fight is the experience. I can't rationalize my favourite fight, I can only tell you how I felt when it happened.
So I would like to take you back to PRIDE Bushido 9. The fight is Takanori Gomi versus Tatsuya Kawajiri, and for me it was the most electrifying bout I have ever seen.
21st Century Boys
PRIDE's Bushido banner was designed to show off the lighter weight classes who were often overshadowed by the Japanese organization's heavyweight and light heavyweight roster. No-one stood out quite so much for the Bushido events as Japan's own Takanori Gomi.
The Fireball Kid had gone 14-0 as a thunderous ground and pounder before meeting the well-rounded Joachim Hansen and B.J. Penn. Following losses to those two men, Gomi rebounded as well as anyone could have hoped, becoming one of the best all-around fighters in the game.
Gomi had always been a numbing puncher, but from his loss to Penn onward, his boxing sharpened up tremendously. It was not in line with the best boxing in MMA today, but it was almost unparalleled at lightweight for power. More importantly, he began using body shots.
From Bushido 2, Gomi racked up a streak of seven wins over respectable lightweights, and was held in great regard by the time that the PRIDE lightweight tournament rolled around to crown a champion.
Tatsuya Kawajiri, meanwhile, was on nine-fight unbeaten streak and had captured the 154-pound Shooto title which Gomi had lost to Joachim Hansen. Kawajiri had only lost two matches in his career, the first in his professional debut, and the second a decision loss to Vitor "Shaolin"' Ribeiro. Kawajiri avenged that loss with a brutal TKO stoppage of Ribeiro in 2004.
The way that most tournaments unfold, the two favourites are placed in opposite brackets and hopefully meet in the final. Of course it never, ever happens that way as someone gets upset, or injures themselves in the course of winning a match. Occasionally, however, the opening match of a tournament could also be the final.
Gomi and Kawajiri were scheduled to meet in the first round of the tournament. The math was billed as the 21st century boys, implying that whoever won would be the future of lightweight MMA.
Kawajiri entered the ring to his trademark Water Pow by B-Dash, and the crowd erupted as Gomi entered to the Mad Capsule Market's Scary which had become his theme song. The two met in the middle of the ring for the referees instructions, Kawajiri staring Gomi down and Gomi (as was his custom) looking at the floor. The anticipation could not have been any higher.
10 Minute Attrition
The fight began and the hard-hitting Kawajiri immediately threw an overhand at Gomi, who let it fall short. Kawajiri stepped in as if to throw the overhand again but immediately shot. Gomi stuffed the shot and they returned to the centre of the ring.
Gomi found moderate success early by throwing combinations and moving into a clinch along the ropes. From here he would drive one hand into Kawajiri's hips (preventing Kawajiri from returning fire with knees) and begin striking away at Kawajiri's legs and midsection.
Something which had been noticeable throughout Gomi's entire career (and became more noticeable once he began to decline into a sloppy brawler) was his tendency to let his feet slide all over the place as he swung as hard as he could. That night, at Bushido 9, however, Gomi's feet were as good as they had ever been.
Throughout the entire fight Kawajiri was being backed into corners before being hit with combinations. More noticeable than anything were Gomi's wilting body punches in between stance switches.
Gomi would start southpaw and either come in behind a straight left and a right hook to the kidney, or counter Kawajiri with a nice southpaw right hook.
Gomi would switch to orthodox and come in behind a left hook to the body and a straight right to the head - a classic from Roberto Duran's arsenal.
Towards the end of the first round (ten minutes in PRIDE), Kawajiri got clipped with a hard counter right hook. Kawajiri immediately shot but Gomi was able to stuff it. From there on Gomi repeatedly pushed Kawajiri to the ropes and teed off with combinations.
Finally after a series of brutal body shots, Kawajiri fell (or tried to shoot) on his front and Gomi moved to the back. From here Gomi hammered Kawajiri behind the ears with short hook punches and finished with the rear-naked choke.
When reminiscing about this fight it is easy to forget that it was only the first of two which Gomi fought that evening. He went on to dominate his old nemesis Luiz Azeredo with the same body punching and ring-cutting which did Kawajiri in. A few months later he met Hayato Sakurai in the tournament final and knocked the Shooto legend out to become PRIDE's first lightweight champion.
So why is it my favourite fight? Well, in addition to the pace that both men fought at, and arguably the first effective use of attrition body work in MMA, it was simply so significant. Gomi cleared out the top ten at one point in the lightweight division and only Shinya Aoki and B.J. Penn come close to him for top ten wins at lightweight.
Gomi has had his ups and downs. He forgets that it is not how hard he throws the shots, but the fact that he lands them which makes the difference. Often he will swing like a bum nowadays. But this fight, and the Azeredo fight in the same night, secured me as a Gomi fan for life. He doesn't always fight smart, but when he does it's something to behold.
PRIDE Bushido 9 is regularly short listed as one of the greatest MMA events of all time. If you haven't seen it it is well worth the price of a PRIDE Bushido box set.