Tatsuya Kawajiri is a remarkable signing for One FC. The elite top 10 lightweight (only lower in the current scheme of things than Gilbert Melendez, Shinya Aoki, Ben Henderson, Michael Chandler and Frankie Edgar in my opinion) turned featherweight monster is known to fans of PRIDE FC, Dream and Shooto alike.
He was the #1 ranked lightweight in world MMA circa 2005, before losing to eventual PRIDE Grand Prix winner Takanori Gomi, and part of the Shooto “Golden Generation” of which he, Gomi, Joachim Hansen, Rumina Sato, Caol Uno, Shinya Aoki, Hayato “Mach” Sakurai , Akira Kikuchi and Vitor “Shaolin” Ribiero were part.
Tatsuya Kawajiri is an elite fighter.
There are many fans of MMA out there who have never seen Kawajiri perform, I would wager. There are many in the western world who would compile their top 10 rankings and not give The Crusher a thought. Well, that is their problem; Tatsuya Kawajiri is a top lightweight, and an even better featherweight, and he still has plenty left in his tank. Should he perform to his best abilities and continues to look as impressive as he , the former Shooto champion and Pride star has a very good shot at a dramatic career upswing.
Kawajiri has been labelled by some hardcore fans – unfairly – as a bridesmaid. The reasoning being that while he was the reigning Shooto champion, he was unable to emerge victorious in the Pride Lightweight Grand Prix, nor in his fight against fellow top 5 ranked fighter Gilbert Melendez at Shockwave 2006, nor could he win the Dream Lightweight Grand Prix in 2008, and most recently in his attempt to remove the Dream championship from around Shinya Aoki’s waist, he suffered ankle injuries after refusing for quite some time to submit to the heel hook that Aoki managed to secure on him early in the bout. These factors combine to add fuel to the fire of detractors, who say quite simply; Kawajiri is the bridesmaid, never the bride.
At featherweight, this could all change. One has to feel that with one big win, Crusher will redeem himself and launch himself back onto the world map; a map that some feel he hasn’t entirely left as it stands anyway.
I feel Kawajiri is much better than he is viewed. The man is a warrior; a ground’n’pound style wrestler, who dominated a K-1 veteran in Kozo Takeda, and shows great thai-boxing abilities and a willingness to stand and trade. He was indeed once widely considered the #1 ranked lightweight in the world for a time – something that the aforementioned detractors vehemently disagree with – when he won the Shooto welterweight (154lbs) championship, beating elite lightweight Vitor “Shaolin” Ribiero. A title defence in Shooto later, and two wins in Pride Bushido events, and DreamStage Entertainment matched the top 2 ranked lightweights in the world up, in their Lightweight Grand Prix; Kawajiri, and the Fireball Kid, Takanori Gomi.
Gomi would emerge victorious, via chokeout in round 1, but the bout was deemed Fight of the Year by most MMA outlets at the time. The two went to war, it was an exceptional showing by both men, and while Kawajiri would never again be considered the #1 to this day, he has never slipped from the top 10, and always shows up to put on a show.
Tainted victory over a legend came next, as Joachim “Hellboy” Hansen was disqualified after only eight seconds for a low blow. On paper, this set Crusher back in motion, as Hellboy was another member of that Golden Generation from Shooto, and is the only man to beat Gomi, JZ Calvan, Caol Uno, Rumina Sato and three years after this point, Shinya Aoki. Kawajiri rolled over Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett, and two wins later earned a high profile fight with the-then undefeated #2 ranked lightweight and p4p listed Gilbert Melendez, on Pride’s Shockwave 2006 card.
Again, misfortune struck. After a very close fight between the two elite combatants, Melendez got the nod unanimously from the judges; a decision that many feel should have gone Kawajiri’s way. This win would have solidified Kawajiri firmly in the top 3, and potentially earned him a rematch with Gomi for the Pride belt and the bragging rights of Japan. As it was, any momentum he may have had was once again depleted, and Kawajiri was the contender; not the champion. The bridesmaid; not the bride.
It was a year before Crusher fought again; outpointing capable Chute Boxe fighter Luis Azeredo on the Yarennokka card that was essentially a farewell to PrideFC. Then, he signed for Fighting Entertainment Group, in the fledging successor to Pride and its amalgamation of sorts with the existing Hero’s; DREAM.
Two Grand Prix preliminary wins later, and Kawajiri stood facing the American Eddie Alvarez for a shot at Aoki in the finals. With Gomi at this stage in decline, the Crusher was the clear cut #2 lightweight in Japan behind Aoki, who was consensus #1 after an incredible resume in that weight class over the last three years. It was Crushers chance to not only reclaim (or to finally earn) the #1 ranking and Japanese bragging rights, but to earn his first major championship outside of the Shooto belt. And in this consensus Fight of the Year for 2008…. he was stopped, late in round 1.
Again, he bounced back. After choking out Ross Ebanez to get back in the winners circle, Kawajiri faced off against the former K-1 Hero’s champion and still-top ranked fighter Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante. And in the fight itself, Crusher defied the tag of “bridesmaid” by dominating the fight with both his ground and pound, ground control, and in winning the striking exchanges on the feet. He proved his superiority over a champion, and once more put his name back among the very best few 155lbs fighters in the world.
He defeated Sengoku contender Kazunori Yokota at Dynamite 2009 to further solidify his standing as Japan’s #2, and waited patiently until June, when he finally got his shot; a match against former (and future) training partner and friend, Japan’s premier fighter, the Dream and WAMMA lightweight champion, Shinya Aoki.
Many felt that this was finally Kawajiri’s time. They pointed out that Melendez, whom Crusher had arguably beaten, comfortably dealt with Aoki’s takedown attempts in Aoki’s stateside cage debut, and that Melendez and Kawajiri were well-matched skillwise. They pointed out that Kawajiri could be deemed to have superior submission defence to Eddie Alvarez, also a powerful wrestler-striker, whom Aoki had surprised with an unorthodox takedown into a heel hook. The odds were even; many felt that it was Kawajiri’s time to shine.
What transpired that night, would be the worst night of his career. In a fight reminiscent of the Alvarez/Aoki fight, the Dream champion used the same leg grapevine takedown into a heel hook early in the fight, and though Crusher bravely held out for a minute, eventually the fight was called off. Kawajiri was dominated; embarrassed, and injured.
Further misfortune struck, as after a great win over Josh Thomson, he rematched the man who he’d arguably bested in PRIDE, Gilbert Melendez. This time however, he was battered and bludgeoned; the improved Melendez silenced critics (such as myself) who felt that the Crusher had beaten him, and was a stylistic nightmare for him. It ended fast and violently; be it Gilbert’s skill, jet-lag or a combination of the two, it didn’t look as though Kawajiri was at the races.
But don’t write him off. Back training with Aoki, this man has the potential to beat ANY featherweight (or even lightweight) in the world on his best day. And he isn’t done yet.
The rumour mill is swirling, and Kawajiri could go far at featherweight. All that wrestling ability and power, and his considerable standup could lead to a bad night for any 145lbs fighter on the planet. Whose wrestling is better than a motivated Kawajiri’s? Is there a featherweight outside of Jose Aldo with standup on par with a man who destroyed a K-1 veteran in Takeda, and went two rounds with the legendary K-1 MAX champion Masato?
This could be the year in which Crusher bounces back into the title mix, and earns a shot at the elites. He is 32; there is time yet. His fight against Aoki aside, Kawajiri is not yet a war-torn, battle-scarred old veteran, slowing down and at the end. He is still an elite, dangerous warrior who could give any lightweight on the planet fits. And after the Aoki embarrassment, he will be more dangerous than ever. He is on the ropes, and defeat now would be disastrous. This is his time to make a statement.
At least, this Crusher fan hopes so…. it is time he became all that he could be.
And that equates to one word; champion.
COME ON THE CRUSHER!