M-1 Challenge: Team Japan vs. Team Russia Legion

M-1 Challenge is the latest MMA organization to acquire US TV distribution, broadcasting 20 episodes of their 2008 international tournament on HD-Net.  And although the Russian promotion has existed for over a decade, it’s only recently gained notice in North America, mostly due to promotion head Vadim Finkelstein moonlighting as the manager of M-1’s poster boy, Fedor Emelianenko.

This year, M-1 borrows from the late IFL’s team-vs.-team format, dividing 11 different “national” teams into two different blocks (Group A and Group B) and pitting them against each other in a round-robin tournament.  The countries involved are France, Finland, Germany (aka “Team Europe”), Holland, Japan, South Korea, Spain, the United States, and Russia, which features two teams, Russian Legion and Russian Red Devil.  Currently, Team Finland leads in Group A, with a 4-1 victory over Team South Korea.  In Group B, Team Holland rules with a five-match straight sweep over Team Germany.

The rules are mostly PRIDE-based, with three judges scoring two five-minute rounds (with the possibility of a third round in the event of a draw).  Elbows to the head or the throat of an opponent are illegal, as is kicking or kneeing the head of a grounded opponent.  And much like the IFL, team rankings are based on team victories, followed by cumulative individual match victories.

We pick up tournament coverage with episode four, where Team Japan faces off against Team Russia Legion.  This event took place live at the Ice Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia, on April 3rd of this year.

This week’s show opens with a quick recap of the previous event, when Team Finland dominated Team South Korea with a clear-cut 4-1 victory.  Standing out in that clash was heavyweight Jarno Nurminen and welterweight Janne Tulirinta, both of whom who scored dominating TKO victories.

Calling the shots for M-1’s English broadcast are Sean Wheelock (Major League Soccer, PRIDE 34) on play-by-play and Jimmy Smith (Fight Nation) as color commentator.

Lightweight Division:  Daisuke Nakamura (Team Japan) vs. Yuri Ivlev (Team Russia Legion)

Nakamura is a Kiyoshi Tamura protégé who built up an impressive record in Japan’s DEEP promotion, but recently fought as a gun-for-hire journeyman since 2006, fighting in Cage Rage, PRIDE Bushido, K-1 Heros, and Dream.  Ivlev is a homegrown M-1 fighter.

Round 2 (joined in progress):

As the round opens, color commentator Jimmy Smith notes that Russia has the home team advantage, and that, going into the second of a two-round match, Nakamura should be motivated to prevent the fight from going to a judges’ decision.  Nakamura pays homage to his pro wrestling roots by sporting black trunks, shin pads, and wrestling boots with his name down the side.  The action is 90% standing, with Ivlev and Nakamura trading punches and knees.  There’s few combinations, and both fighters strangely keep their hands low.  In the last minute, Nakamura goes for a kimura, then an armbar, until the bell rings.

Ironically enough, the judges award the match to Nakamura.  Japan is up 1-0.  Nobody awards Jimmy Smith “best announcer” honors.

Welterweight Division:  Ken Hamamura (Team Japan) vs. Islam Karimov (Team Russia Legion)

Not the closest of match-ups, as Hamamura boasts a 13-4-1 record (mostly in DEEP), while Karimov comes in with a 3-1-1 record.  Sherdog has different records for them, but it still indicates a huge 13-match experience discrepancy.  Both weigh in several pounds less than the 170-pound weight limit.  Karimov is a kickboxer, while Hamamura claims a karate background (and a steady record of wins in a five-year career).

Round 1:

The first round offers a lot of solid up-and-down, back-and-forth action.  Karimov drops Hamamura with a sharp right to the temple, pouncing with right fists to try and finish the match early.  Hamamura scrambles, tries for a leglock, and eventually makes it back to his feet.  Karimov takes it to the floor again with a nice sambo throw.  Hamamura escapes again and the two trade leather.  Karimov is the proverbial house of fire, but Hamamura uses his height and a Muay Thai clinch to nullify the attack.  Another sambo hip toss from Karimov, but Hamamura transitions to a heel hook, then works his way into Karimov’s guard.  Hamamura ground-and-pounds his way to Karimov’s back, but the Russian escapes just before the bell ends the round.

Round 2

Hamamura’s style somewhat resembles Lyoto Machida’s, keeping his distance and attacking with kicks from afar.  Karimov is tired, but keeps the pressure on Hamamura, who takes the Russian down with a hip toss and gets full mount.  There’s not much behind Hamamura’s punches, but Karimov is simply covering up and not working for an escape.  Hamamura continues with his G&P assault until the ref stops the match.    Ken Hamamura wins by TKO at 3:09 in round two.  Japan is up 2-0.

Middleweight Division:  Yuta Watanabe (Team Japan) vs. Ansar Chalangov (Team Russia Legion)

Chalangov is trying to shake a three-match losing streak to Thiago Alves, Josh Koscheck, and Nick Thompson, respectively.  Going against conventional wisdom, Chalangov has moved up a weight class.  Watanabe is a Tsuyoshi Kosaka protégé and the third straight fighter to hail from DEEP.  M-1 and DEEP have a longstanding history of talent trade, which explains the Team Japan roster.

Round 1:

Watanabe and Chalangov feel each other out until Chalangov shoots for a takedown.  Watanabe drops Chalangov with a looping right, then follows-through with guillotine and triangle chokes.  Chalangov escapes with a slam.  The two struggle for ground control.  Watanabe takes Chalangov’s back and keeps control with a body triangle.  Watanabe gets a rear naked choke and finishes Chalangov in the first round.  Big upset victory for Watanabe, and just a big upset for Chalangov.

Yuta Watanabe wins by submission in 2:32 of round one.  Japan wins the team competition, 3-0.

At this point, Japan’s three straight wins earns them team victory for the night, but with individual match outcomes also affecting team standings, Team Russia Legion is still adamant about scoring a few wins before the night is done.  Fedor’s Red Devil team had the same problems in their first round meet against Team France.

Light Heavyweight Division:  Yuji Sakuragi (Team  Japan) vs. Besiki Gerinava (Team Russia Legion)

Gerinava goes into this match looking to continue his unblemished 4-0 record.  Sakuragi has four times the experience on Gerinava, but with a 9-13-1 Sherdog record, it would appear that Sakuragi is being brought in to be another victim.

Round 2 (joined in progress):

According to the announcers, Sakuragi lost the first round.  Gerinava attacks with several bombs and follows up with a judo throw that almost sends Sakuragi out of the ring.  Gerinava goes for a leglock, but Sakuragi escapes.  Referee Yuji Shimada orders a stand-up.  Gerinava takes Sakuragi down and gets full mount.  Ground & pound is in effect until Gerinava gets an armbar.  But he’s in bad position and against the ropes.  Yuji Shimada stands them up again.

Gerinava scores another takedown and goes into Sakuragi’s guard.  Gerinava pounds Sakuragi’s midsection with rough body shots.  Another stand-up, another takedown, and more G&P.  Sakuragi reverses and takes the mount, then slaps on an armbar in the last few seconds of the match.

Basiki Gerinava wins a unanimous decision, turning Team Russia Legion’s luck for the better.

Heavyweight Division:  Katsuhisa Fujii (Team Japan) vs. Akhmet Sultanov (Team Russia Legion)

Fujii is 35-years old and is 8-13-1.  Sultanov is 27-years old and 2-0.  Ahem.  Both Katsuhisa and Sultanov come from wrestling backgrounds.  Kazuhisa is a Kazayuki Fujita protégé, and is wearing wrestling shoes.  Announcer Sean Wheelock notes that kicks to the head are NOT legal if wearing shoes or boots.  That’s one weapon less in the arsenal of “the other Mr. Fujii.”

Round 1:

Mr. Fujii takes Sultanov down, but the Russian heavyweight reverses and takes Mr. Fujii’s back.   Sultanov sinks his hooks in and goes for a rear naked choke.  He steps over for an armbar and gets the tapout at 0:38 in round one.

Final team score is Japan 3, Russia Legion 2.  Team Japan scores an upset victory over Team Russia Legion with a sweep of the first three matches.  But Team Russia Legion comes back with a moral victory, stealing the light heavyweight and heavyweight bouts.

As TV programming, M-1 Challenge faces similar as the IFL: needing to edit matches down for time, a lack of recognizable (or English-speaking) fighters, little opportunity to showcase

fighters’ personalities, and as-yet unproven team-vs.-team concept.  That said, Sean Wheelock and Jimmy Smith are a very impressive team, especially considering that M-1 Challenge is their first pairing together.  M-1’s live production value, with the white ring, referee uniform, overhead lighting grid, fighter gloves, and ring entrance design clearly is PRIDE-inspired.

M-1 won’t pose any threats to the American MMA scene anytime soon, but in hosting a year-long tournament that involves 10 different countries, Vadim Finkelstein’s promotion is breaking some new ground in the international MMA scene.

Best Match: Yuta Watanabe vs. Ansar Chalangov

Worst Match: Yuji Sakuragi vs. Besiki Gerinava

**(based on footage aired)

Next week, Team USA takes on Team Spain, from Gran Canadia, Spain.

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