It’s been more than eight months now since PRIDE Fighting Championships hosted ‘Kamikaze’ and what now appears to be the final event the all-but dead promotion will ever put on. Sadly, PRIDE is something that the new generation of MMA fan never had a chance to directly enjoy. By the time the UFC had began cultivating new fans in droves through the TUF series, PRIDE was blacklisted from mention and was basically left to Asia, over half a world away. Regardless of the Dream Stage Entertainment Company’s scandalous collapse, the fighters that were developed in the promotion are still entertaining fight fans around the globe. K-1 Heroes, M-1 Global, EliteXC, WEC and UFC all sport a roster of fighters that has been significantly bolstered by PRIDE refugees. Following the Zuffa initiated purchase of PRIDE, the Fertita’s inked a number of the A-list fighters to UFC contracts, deposing the now seemingly worthless PRIDE deals. Dana White and the boys have proved both unwilling and unable to nab every top talent, most notably Fedor in the ‘exclusivity’ fiasco. Emelianenko has landed the large contract but other champs and top-10 combatants haven’t, even as we approach a year since the MMA world shook with disbelief. Before the announcement of the New Year’s Eve event “Yarennoka” this list was longer than anyone could have ever possibly expected it to be. The event will host the first fights for Shinya Aoki, Kaz Misaki, Mitsuhiro Ishida and Ricardo Arona since the PRIDE days. In short, this article could’ve been and would’ve inescapably been much longer. Aren’t you lucky.
Below are six fighters that remain unsigned by a major MMA organization or have had their careers significantly impacted by the influx of PRIDE vets into their respective divisions. There is a myriad of reasons why all are still unsigned, and each case is unique. However, one thing rings true in each instance: these guys should be signed by now. Maybe Santa will bring us one more thing to cheer about before 2008 is upon us.
1. Takanori Gomi
It seems like yesterday that Gomi was on top of the world, doesn’t it? Gomi was PRIDE’s; well; pride and joy. He was the Japanese homegrown star in the Lightweight division. The 160lb Champ was on everyones shortlist of desired talent and MMA megastars. But, here we are in mid-December, and still no Gomi sighting beyond FSN re-runs. The only thing keeping Gomi from being remotely forgotten by now is the persistent rumor mill that has churned out more false predictions that your local weather lady. First, we heard the UFC for a BJ Penn rematch, something everyone and their grandma would pay top dollar to see. After that dissipated, naturally focus shifted to K-1. Geographically, it made sense, and another dream match-up awaited ‘The Fireball Kid,’ this one with the legendary Norifumi ‘Kid’ Yamamoto. Then, word got around that a K-1 deal was unlikely, and fans scratched their heads in confusion.
Some have speculated that Gomi’s loss to Nick Diaz (yeah it was changed to a No Contest because Diaz was apparently stoned, but c’mon, it was a loss) is hurting his asking price. Perhaps the most logical fight for Gomi would be an immediate rematch with Diaz in EliteXC; you’d think he would desire one anyway. Still, nothing has panned out. The latest word is that former DSE executive Keiichi Sasahara tried to convince Gomi to participate in the Yarennoka card, but he apparently declined.
This forces me to ask what the hold-up really is. Is it money? Certainly after being courted by the four largest and wealthiest organizations in the business, someone would have paid the price if it was reasonable. Is it mental? Gomi has often been criticized for his work ethic, and he has turned in some sub-par performances in the cardio department lately. If he was willing to cut to 155 lbs, he would be a HUGE lightweight whose size would be tough for the division to handle.
One last rumor I will address is one that I see as most likely being the outcome of Gomi’s odyssey. There is a ‘new’ PRIDE in the works, backed by a company called World Victory Road Inc. There has been talk that Gomi is in negotiations with them, and is likely to be the main event at the promotions debut in February ’08. It all makes sense to me; Japan + being the #1 draw + fresh organization…I have my fingers crossed.
2. Mark Hunt
At different stages in his life, Mark Hunt has repeatedly shocked the fighting world, becoming a heralded and lethal striker. When Mark was 16, a doorman at a club saw him get attacked by a soon to be unfortunate patron. After Hunt handled him, he talked to the New Zealander and got him his first organized fight, and the rest is history. After conquering the kickboxing world and becoming the first non-European K-1 grand prix champ, Hunt made his ‘MMA name’ in PRIDE. After losing his debut to Hidehiko Yoshida, the giant ran off five straight wins that placed him near the top of the Heavyweight division. It was the Samoan’s back to back wins over Wanderlei Silva and Mirko ‘Cro-Cop’ Filipovic that made everyone stop and think. Two of the world’s best strikers were survived and outstruck by a chunky MMA newbie. Wow.
And that weight may be the largest issue for Hunt. At about 300 lbs, Hunt qualifies as a Super Heavyweight in most organizations. As you probably understand, Super-heavies with talent and five minutes of wind are ostensibly non-existent. Outside of the weight issue, Hunt is picture perfect for the UFC. He throws bombs, he’s tough, and the division is in disarray. If Hunt is willing to cut the pounds down to 265 again, he could be the darling of the UFC heavyweight division. Could be, could be. What ultimately may determine where Hunt lands is his desire to fight the best of the best, or if he’d prefer to grow smaller local shows in New Zealand. Lets hope for the former.
Hunt is rumored to be on the upcoming Yarennoka card with a number of names being dropped as a possible opponent. Roman Zentsov and Josh Barnett have entered the picture. A fight with Aleks Emelianenko seems very possible since Aleks is already on the card, but his foe has yet to be announced.
3. Josh Barnett
Barnett may have surpassed Bas Rutten in the last year and become the world’s busiest man. The Former UFC champ and two-time King of Pancrase is all over the globe coaching, analyzing, wrestling…but not fighting. Barnett is a consensus top five Heavyweight, and his record of 20 wins and five losses is deceivingly excellent. Three of those five losses are to Cro Cop; no slouch right? The other two are just as respectable, the first coming against a Pedro Rizzo in his prime, and a loss to Minotauro last New Years at Shockwave ’06.
Barnett is a true wild card free-agent. With so many different endeavors at the moment, the man has his hands full. In addition, over a long and lucrative career the affable Barnett has been a most marketable individual, and has purportedly done very well for himself financially. He’s in no need of money.
The UFC is certainly out of the picture as a result of the infamous blowup with his former employer’s management. There really isn’t much there for Barnett to accomplish anyway, beyond Nog and the belt itself. What does make sense is M-1. M-1 has the Fedor fight, and possibly Couture too. They’ve shown a willingness to pay well and won’t have any trouble with Barnett coaching in other promotions, such as Ring of Fire, where “The Babyface Assasin’s” squad has been successful.
The latest rumors are (by now it’s a theme) that he may be on the Yarennoka card, with the announcement possibly being withheld until Barnett competes on the 22nd in a
catch-wrestling match under the Pancrase banner.
4. Randy Couture
Randy Couture captured the heavyweight belt then PRIDE folded, making Fedor a free agent. Every fan in the world; in unison; began licking their chops at the prospect of “Cold War II: the Great Russian Emperor vs. Captain America.” Alas, it wasn’t meant to happen under the guise of the UFC. Randy’s jettison from Dana and Co. has left the UFC’s Heavyweight division alarmingly bare. Nobody ever, EVER saw this one coming. Couture was the UFC and as an indirect result of PRIDE’s demise the nightmare that was his unscheduled departure became reality.
If the tune Fedor’s people are singing is true, the UFC brass must be wishing they had consented to the Sambo matches the Russian wanted permission to participate in. They went from possibly having Couture – Emelianenko and the two top Heavyweights today, to having neither. They can spin it however they wish, but they lost out big time.
5. Andrei Arlovski
Before Cro Cop, before Minotauro, Fabricio Werdum and Heath Herring, Andrei was a forethought; a primary component of the UFC heavyweight title picture. He now looks to be an afterthought. The Belarusian last fought at UFC 70 and finished the night with little fanfare. His somewhat uneventful win over Werdum was entirely outshone by Gabriel Gonzaga’s universe altering KO of Cro Cop. Gonzaga grabbed his spot in line and became yet another fighter who is more relevant to the UFC than Arlovski. It wasn’t long ago that Arlovski was the king of the UFC castle, but that was before the haircut, and the disappointing and lackluster losses to Tim Sylvia.
Arlovski has only one fight remaining on his UFC contract and sources close to “The Pitbull” have stated that he is merely waiting for his contract to expire so that he can fight elsewhere. Andrei’s management team has said otherwise, recently hinting at an upcoming bout in March at UFC 82.
Regardless of where the truth lies, it’s no secret the two sides have been at odds recently. Add this experience into the poor negotiations with Brandon Vera, the Couture debacle and Fedor talks, and it seems likely we’ve already seen the last of Andre in the octagon. A logical fight for Andrei would’ve been Gonzaga, but that went to Werdum instead; who Arlovski beat. That says something. Unless we see him battle Vera at 82, he’s on his way out.
Where will Arlovski turn up after his contract expires in April? I really don’t know. M-1 would make sense, and Elite-XC could definitely use the guy. I just want see him fight again, I don’t care where. Arlovski vs Kimbo anyone? Yes please.
6. Kazuyuki Fujita
‘The Fooj,’ as I like to call him, is a grossly underrated Heavyweight. His right hand came closer to ending Fedor’s reign than anything, even Randleman’s slam. His battles are legendary in Japan, wars with Cro-Cop, Silva, Mark Coleman and Ken Shamrock. His signature victory over the larger than life Bob Sapp is still very impressive when watched.
Fujita may not be championship material, but he’s a solid veteran with dynamite in his hands and an unnaturally thick cranium. His ability to take a punch combined with his hands makes him dangerous for everyone.
The Fooj’s ability to draw a crowd in Japan makes me believe that we will see him in the new Japanese promotion, World Victory Road. Fujita vs. the already signed Hidehiko Yoshida is both logical and dynamic contest. Kazuyuki is no spring chicken and in his late thirties I doubt that we’ll see him try to make a name for himself in a new world market.
I, for one, have heard no mention of Fujita going anywhere, but again, am confident we’ll see him in the next major Japanese organization, or even K-1.
In closing, all of these six will end up somewhere. A solid MMA heavyweight is a rare bird, and the fact that five of the six I’ve discussed are ‘big boys’ is strange. That should guarantee them all a seat at the table somewhere. Someone should get the message and sign them sooner, rather than later.