The “Fireball Kid” got his first taste of the UFC hype machine Monday when Takanori Gomi shared a conference call with Kenny Florian, his opponent for Ultimate Fight Night 21 on March 31. The fight will be Gomi’s first with the UFC and second in the U.S.
His last U.S. appearance was disastrous. The former Pride and Shooto champion was considered to be one of the top three lightweights in the world and a marquee attraction at Pride 33 in Las Vegas in February 2007. But Gomi (31-5) was outclassed by Nick Diaz and submitted via gogoplata. The bout was later ruled a no-contest when Diaz tested positive for marijuana, but Gomi’s star continued to fall. After signing with Sengoku, he was upset by to Sergey Golyaev and Satoru Kitaoka in just over two months; Gomi is 4-3 in the ring over the last three years.
The fight will be the sixth UFC main event or co-main event for Florian. He is 3-2 in the previous headlining bouts, losing championship matches to BJ Penn and Sean Sherk. Cerebral and respectful, Florian admitted an interest in Japanese culture, an attempt to learn the language and showed encyclopedic knowledge of Gomi’s career.
Here are the condensed thoughts of the fighters. Gomi spoke through and interpreter, who at times, needed some interpretation herself.
Gomi began his career 27-3 with two losses against larger fighters and the other to UFC lightweight champion BJ Penn. He rose to prominence in 2004 and 2005 when he won 10 straight fights, eight in the first round and seven by knockout or TKO. Included in the run: a six-second win over Ralph Gracie in 2004 (check it out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfnMA0hiKQQ).
On Florian – “Kenny’s kicks and punch are so strong. His defense is outstanding. I am studying his style right now.”
Rule difference in American MMA – “This is the first time in the Octagon and under the new rules. I am a little concerned. There is no elbow fighting in Japan and that makes me most concerned.”
On coming to the UFC – “I have fought more than 30 times. I am still looking for a challenge in my career. That is my main reason to move onto the UFC. My challenge is to be a champion in the UFC.”
On the UFC’s struggles to establish itself in the Japanese market – “I don’t know why. The UFC is broadcast on TV in Japan. There are so many UFC fans. I don’t have a specific answer why.”
On America – “I like professional athlete’s status. Everybody looks up to the professional athletes in the United States.”
A former Division-I soccer player at Boston College, “KenFlo” (12-4) has to rank as one of the UFC’s most improved fighters during his career. A win over Gomi should put him back in the title picture.
On preparing for Gomi – “Gomi is very, very fast. He has knockout power in both of his hands. You always have to prepare for the worst case scenario. I’ve been able to train with dangerous and expert strikers in my sparring. I’m prepared to go all 15 minute standing if I need to.”
On earning another title shot – “Right now I am concerned with winning. Right now that is the most important thing. Any time you look too far ahead you get into trouble.”
On headlining again – “It’s always awesome to be fighting on Spike. You get such a great audience, such a large audience. It’s just another fight for me. Obviously it’s a big fight, but every fight is big.”
On facing a legend – “With Gomi, he has been one of the best fighters in the lightweight division for many years. He has been at the top of the food chain for a long time. As fighters we all want to fight the best, but I never thought it would happen. I think it shows how he is looking for a big challenge in his career right now and that’s exciting. It’s a huge treat for the hardcore fans. Some fans ask who I am fighting and say, ‘Takanori Gomi? Who’s that?’ Obviously they haven’t been following the sport for a long time.”
On being a fight commentator – “I love to do it. I love the sport. If time allows I would definitely be open to doing that.”
On his improvement as a fighter – “Sean Sherk… was very early on in my career. There was a tremendous difference in experience. Maybe that was the same thing with BJ (Penn). BJ is a great fighter and you’d better be on your game. I should have performed much better, but I still feel BJ Penn was just the better fighter that night. Now I feel I have the skills needed to face the elite of the elite.”
On his favorite Gomi moment – “He’s remembered for Nick Diaz because it was here in the U.S. But there have been a lot of great fights. The ones against Chute Box (Jadson Costa, Luiz Azeredo and Jean Silva) were my favorites because (Chute Box) were deadset on beating Gomi. But Gomi was still able to beat them. That was the most impressive.”