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Tuesday, April 26, 2005
Mixed Martial Arts--- Bracketology and The Pride Grand Prix

by Ivan Trembow for MMAWeekly.com

With the first round of the 2005 Pride Grand Prix in the books, it's now time for a little "bracketology," and in this case I'm not referring to college basketball. Pride doesn't have pre-set brackets going into a 16-man tournament of this nature; specifically, so that they can mix and match the remaining fighters as they see fit. Since Pride is going to make the quarterfinal match-ups primarily from a marketing perspective in the Japanese marketplace, that's how we have to think of it when speculating on possible quarterfinal match-ups.

At this point, the remaining fighters in the tournament are Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Kazushi Sakuraba, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Igor Vovchanchyn, Ricardo Arona, and Kazuhiro Nakamura. That's four Brazilian fighters, two Japanese fighters, one Dutch fighter, and one Ukrainian fighter. The American fighters went 0 for 4 in the first round, so there are no Americans left in the tournament.

There are three "absolute truths" that you have to consider when thinking about the possible quarterfinal match-ups:

Truth #1--- Pride does NOT want to put themselves in a position to potentially have four Brazilian fighters in the final four, so that means we have to have at least one Brazilian vs. Brazilian match-up in the quarter-finals.

Truth #2--- Pride definitely wants to have at least one Japanese fighter in the final four so that they can sell more tickets in Japan for the final event with the semi-finals and finals (this isn't necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it's just the way it is from a business standpoint).

Truth #3--- You can't put Nogueira against Arona in the second round because they're teammates on the Brazilian Top Team, and you can't put Silva against Shogun in the second round because they're teammates at the Chute Boxe Academy. If there is going to be a teammate vs. teammate battle in this tournament, it won't be until the finals.

With those parameters in mind, the quarterfinal brackets could breakdown in a different way depending on whether or not Wanderlei Silva and Kazushi Sakuraba meet up in the second round.

Scenario #1--- Silva and Sakuraba Have to Meet in the Quarterfinals
If Sakuraba wants this fight, it's very likely that Pride will give it to him. Despite the fact that Silva obliterated Sakuraba in their three previous meetings, a fourth Silva vs. Sakuraba fight would still be a big money draw in Japan. Being matched up against Silva would also give Sakuraba the "out" that he could be eliminated from the tournament (possibly even knocked out again), and there's no shame in losing to the top 205-pound fighter in the world. So, assuming for the purposes of this scenario that Silva vs. Sakuraba does happen in the second round, how would the other six fighters be matched up?

The most obvious thing is that they would want to give the other remaining Japanese fighter, Kazuhiro Nakamura, the best chance possible to advance to the final four. Looking at the list of possible second-round opponents, there are no "easy fights," but I don't think many people would dispute that Alistair Overeem is the least difficult match-up of the remaining fighters in this scenario. Overeem is no easy opponent (as Vitor Belfort quickly found out), but he's also probably not on the level of Nogueira, Arona, Shogun, and Vovchanchyn. So, if you're Pride and you want to get a Japanese fighter into the final four, you make the match-up of Overeem vs. Nakamura and cross your fingers that Nakamura pulls out the victory (which he very well could). I think it would be similar to the Nogueira-Overeem fight that took place in February, and it's just a matter of whether Nakamura would be able to hang on and get the decision victory like Nogueira did.

So, at that point the four remaining fighters would be Nogueira, Arona, Shogun, and Vovchanchyn, and you can't put Nogueira against Arona because they're teammates. If you think about who is the biggest marquee name out of those four fighters that Pride would want to "protect" if they could, it would have to be Nogueira. Then if you're thinking about Nogueira going up against either Shogun or Vovchanchyn, both of those fights are extremely hard match-ups for any fighter, but I think it's safe to say that there are a lot more people picking Vovchanchyn to win the whole entire tournament than there are people picking Shogun to win the whole tournament. Shogun is still so young and inexperienced, and despite his one-sided destruction of Quinton Jackson, most people would consider Shogun to be a slightly less difficult match-up than Igor Vovchanchyn. So, if Pride wants to protect Nogueira as much as they can in an attempt to get the most marketable final four they possibly can, they would match up Nogueira against Shogun. That would be an explosive fight and has "Fight of the Year" candidate written all over it.

That would leave the final two fighters as Igor Vovchanchyn and Ricardo Arona, both of whom are on a lot of people's lists as their pick to win the entire tournament. Pride would probably root for Vovchanchyn to win here because he has a more exciting style than Arona, and he's a bigger name than Arona in Japan. I think Vovchanchyn could beat Arona if he accepted the fact that he's not going to out-grapple Arona and instead decided to keep the fight in the stand-up. Whether Igor would succeed at his goal of keeping the fight in the stand-up against Arona is a different matter entirely.

Scenario #2--- Pride Plays it Smart and Avoids Silva vs. Sakuraba in the Quarterfinals
But what if Silva vs. Sakuraba doesn't happen in the second round? From the perspective of needing to have a Japanese fighter in the final four if you want to sell out an arena in Japan, it really doesn't make sense to match Sakuraba against Silva. Sakuraba would be extremely likely to lose for a fourth time, and then you would be dependent on Nakamura beating Overeem in order to have a Japanese fighter in the final four. Sure, a fourth Silva vs. Sakuraba match would draw money in Japan, but does that benefit really out-weigh the risk of having a final four without a single Japanese fighter in it? I don't think so.

If Pride plays it smart and avoids the temptation of matching up Silva and Sakuraba in the second round, the obvious match-up would be Sakuraba vs. Nakamura. No matter who wins that fight, it ensures that a Japanese fighter makes it into the final four. It's also a marketable match-up in its own right with the small rivalry that exists between Sakuraba's camp and Yoshida's camp (which Nakamura is a part of). If Nakamura wins, it could make him a huge star in Japan. Even though Sakuraba is a physically broken-down version of his former self (and he would be the first to tell you that), his name value in Japan is still so huge that it would make an instant star out of Nakamura if he were to beat Sakuraba.

So, if Pride decides to match up Sakuraba and Nakamura in the first round, what do you do with the remaining six fighters? The fighter with the most marquee value out of the remaining six is easily Wanderlei Silva, and as discussed above, Alistair Overeem is the least difficult match-up out of the remaining fighters. He's not an easy match-up by any means, but he's an easier match-up than any of the other remaining fighters, so Silva vs. Overeem would be the smart match to make and could also be an exciting slugfest in its own right.

At that point, you would have the same four remaining fighters as in the previous scenario: Nogueira, Arona, Shogun, and Vovchanchyn. And for the same reasons discussed in the previous scenario, the two match-ups that make the most sense in this group of four are Nogueira vs. Shogun, and Arona vs. Vovchanchyn.

Scenario #3--- Pride Insists on Having Two Brazilian vs. Brazilian Matches in the Quarterfinals
The two scenarios above are the two most likely scenarios that could play out, with the "Silva vs. Sakuraba scenario" being the most likely. However, there is another scenario that is less likely but still a legitimate possibility. With Pride president Nobuyuki Sakakibara reportedly saying after the first round that it was time to match the Brazilians against each other, there is a possibility that not only does Pride not want to put themselves in the position of possibly having four Brazilians in the final four, but that they also don't even want to have the possibility of three Brazilians in the final four. If that's really the case, that would require two different Brazilian vs. Brazilian match-ups in the quarterfinals.

If you're going to have two Brazilian vs. Brazilian match-ups, you first have to remind yourself that team affiliations prevent you from being able to put Nogueira against Arona, or from being able to put Silva against Shogun. Then you have to ask yourself, "Who are the two biggest marquee names among the Brazilians that Pride would ideally like to still have on the marquee for the final event?" The answer to that question is easy--- Silva and Nogueira. If you want to give yourself a chance to have both Silva and Nogueira in the final four, you can't match them up against each other in the quarterfinals. That would mean the two Brazilian vs. Brazilian match-ups would have to be Wanderlei Silva vs. Ricardo Arona, and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, both of which are extremely intriguing match-ups.

With four non-Brazilian fighters remaining in this scenario, it still makes the most sense to ensure that you move a Japanese fighter into the final four, and that means putting Sakuraba against Nakamura. The only two fighters remaining at that point would be Igor Vovchanchyn and Alistair Overeem. Overeem would have a huge height advantage in that fight, but Vovchanchyn would have a very good chance to be able to out-grapple Overeem and win by ground-and-pound.

There are other possible scenarios, such as Yoshida's student Nakamura going against the man who beat Yoshida in the first round (Silva), but none of those scenarios really make sense from a business standpoint because Pride needs to give itself the best possible chance of getting a Japanese fighter into the final four. Many of the mainstream newspapers in Japan that normally cover MMA didn't even acknowledge the results of the first-round match-ups that didn't have Japanese fighters in them. So, as I stated earlier, it's not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing that Pride wants to have at least one Japanese fighter in the final four, it's just the way it is.

To summarize, here are the three quarter-final scenarios that make the most sense from a business standpoint.

Ideal Quarter-Finals If Silva vs. Sakuraba Has to Happen in the Quarter-Finals:
-Vanderlei Silva vs. Kazushi Sakuraba
-Alistair Overeem vs. Kazuhiro Nakamura
-Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
-Ricardo Arona vs. Igor Vovchanchyn

Ideal Quarter-Finals If Pride Plays it Smart and Avoids Silva vs. Sakuraba in the Quarter-Finals:
-Vanderlei Silva vs. Alistair Overeem
-Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Kazuhiro Nakamura
-Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
-Ricardo Arona vs. Igor Vovchanchyn

Ideal Quarter-Finals If Pride Insists on Having Two Brazilian vs. Brazilian Matches in the Quarter-Finals:
-Vanderlei Silva vs. Ricardo Arona
-Antonio Rogerio Nogueira vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
-Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Kazuhiro Nakamura
-Igor Vovchanchyn vs. Alistair Overeem

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