Dream 15 Preview

Aoki vs. Kawajiri

Jul 8, 2010
Aoki file photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

This Saturday marks the latest offering from the fine folks at Dream, and while it may be short on hype, it’s long on quality fisticuffs in the making.

The card, which airs live at 3 a.m. ET on HDNet, is headlined by an epic lightweight title bout between national rivals Tatsuya Kawajiri and Shinya Aoki. After the recent binge of UFC and Strikeforce mega-shows, Dream 15 is a worthwhile chaser. For more on this slate of across-the-Pacific bouts, read on and get your knowledge right.

Shinya Aoki vs. Tatsuya Kawajiri

A disastrous stateside debut against Gilbert Melendez as well as a sub-Little League grasp of sportsmanship has made 2010 a trying year for Aoki. His hotly anticipated Dream lightweight title defense against Kawajiri may be the fight that Aoki’s dream of leading a Japanese MMA renaissance lives or dies on.

As with any fight involving Aoki, it comes down to whether or not he can flash his stellar grappling skills before his laundry list of flaws come to light. Making that happen against Kawajiri is a task fraught with concussion potential, as “Crusher” has the rare combination of cinderblock fists and erudite submission defense that gives Aoki fits. Further complicating matters is Kawajiri’s superior wrestling, particularly his gyroscopic takedown defense, which will make gaining top position a nightmarish proposition for Aoki.

Normally working from the guard is no big deal for Aoki. His tentacle-like limbs and all-universe technique are simply too much even for well-respected grapplers like Joachim Hansen and Gesias Cavalcante. Where Kawajiri differs is that he has near impregnable submission defense and the ground striking to make life hard on Aoki. Melendez proved that Aoki can be vulnerable to ground-and-pound as long as you avoid getting sucked into his closed guard, and that game plan is one Kawajiri can easily replicate.

Obviously any deviation from a disciplined approach could easily end with the “Tobikan Judan” entrapping Kawajiri in some horrifically painful contortion or compression. That scenario is an unlikely one, however, as Kawajiri has never been some brain-dead slugger, especially against opponents who pose a serious threat to him on the mat. When he knows that discretion is the better part of valor, Kawajiri stays on his toes and rocks a steady 1-2 while leaning on his wrestling to avoid the ground game.

That is exactly what Melendez did for 25 minutes against Aoki, and it left the precocious grappling ingénue in tears. Kawajiri has the added advantage of being the kind of heavy-hitter that can expose his national rival’s notoriously fragile chin and questionable fighting spirit. A well-known drama queen come fight time, Aoki’s habit of conjuring imaginary fouls could easily mar this bout and lead to a scenario where the battle for Japanese lightweight supremacy ends with the Yuki Nakai protégé writhing on the mat like a drive-by victim.

For all his foibles, it’s still hard to pick against Aoki because he is one of the very best submission artists this sport has ever seen. However, Kawajiri has all the tools that have given Aoki problems throughout his career. This just isn’t a fun stylistic matchup for the master limb manipulator and will end with the crown of Japan’s lightweight monarch resting on Kawajiri’s head.
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