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Aoki’s Loss to Sakurai Muddles Lightweight Rankings Further

By on April 5, 2009

While most would put Georges St. Pierre or Anderson Silva at the top of the mythical pound-for-pound rankings, Shinya Aoki was definitely in the mix until this weekend.  Many also had him at the top of the lightweight rankings, above such fighters as UFC Lightweight Champion B.J. Penn.  Of course, all that changed quickly (at least for now), with Mach Sakurai’s surprising and triumphant victory over Aoki at Dream 8.

For those who missed it, Sakurai advanced very aggressively and was taken down as he attempted to punch Aoki, and Aoki quickly took the top position and looked to control the strong lightweight fighter.  However, Sakurai was able to sneak out and to his feet, while overpowering the weaker Aoki and holding his head to the mat.  Just like that, Sakurai fired some knees to Aoki’s vulnerable cranium, then finished with a few right hands and a left while waiting for the referee to step in to save the unconscious jiu-jitsu specialist.

It was hardly the type of contest that most fans expected, especially with Aoki’s ultra-slick ground game.  When Aoki was able to take Sakurai down quickly, it looked as if Aoki was off to a great start, after all.  However, we may have underestimated the strength and most importantly, the determination of Sakurai.  Sakurai is a veteran in the mixed martial arts who was always at or near the top of his division’s rankings.  However, a KO loss at the hands of Takanori Gomi (who was viewed as the top in the weight class at the time) in 2005 kept him from being viewed as the best lightweight in the world.

More recently, a surprising submission loss to the talented but relatively unheralded David Baron, coupled with Aoki’s rise, had kept Sakurai out of the division’s limelight.  Aoki had only lost one fight since his loss to Sakurai by decision in 2005 until the other night, and he had won most of his fights by spectacular first-round submissions.  Of course, with the bout against Aoki, Sakurai had the chance to change his place in the MMA world by his own actions, and he took full advantage of the opportunity.

Aoki apologists will point to the quick nature of the victory as proof that it was somewhat fluky and a result of a positioning mistake on Aoki’s part.  However, that would be taking way too much away from the victorious Sakurai, who was able to outmaneuver and out-power Aoki where he is most comfortable and deliver the finishing blows all in under half a minute.

That is not to say that Aoki won’t be back.  He will be, and probably better than ever in the process.  No one in MMA is immune to a devastating loss, as we have seen in recent years.  Of course, this does little to change the fact that Aoki has lost his grip on his weight class, and there will now be considerable debate over who really is the top fighter at the weight.

Does B.J. Penn deserve the nod, despite his welterweight loss to Georges St. Pierre?  Should that fight factor into the rankings equation or not?  Aoki had been dominant, but now has lost two of his last five fights, being finished by Joachim Hansen and Mach Sakurai by first-round TKOs.  However, Sakurai is only a few fights removed from the Baron loss, and three fights ago Hansen was beaten by Eddie Alvarez. 

Alvarez lost his second-to-last fight against Aoki.  Then there’s Takanori Gomi, the former consensus #1 at lightweight, who lost his last two fights and can’t be considered the top guy until he stops his losing streak and gets back on track.  Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro is impressive at 20-2 but recently lost to Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante, who himself just lost to…Shinya Aoki.

Sounds confusing, right?  Clearly, the rankings need some sorting out.  Luckily, the fighters will handle that among themselves, and we’ll get a lot of great fights in the process as the best fighters in one of the best divisions in the sport handle their business.

 by Jon Hartley for Fightmania.com

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