A look at the 10 highest rated MMA matches on New Year's Eve in Japan:
1. BOB SAPP VS. AKEBONO 42.5 RATING (K-1 2003)
The kickboxing battle of the giants drew 54 million television viewers, the biggest for a fight in Japan since the 1976 Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki boxer vs. wrestler match. Sapp, the "little guy" in the fight at 6-4 and 360 pounds, faced the 6-8 ½, 462-pound sumo legend. Sapp dominated, scoring a knockout at 2:58 of the first round
2. MASATO VS. KID YAMAMOTO 31.6 RATING (K-1 2004)
The two matinee idols, who were huge favorites with young women in particular, had not only the highest rated match of the night, but arguably the best New Year's Eve match in history with a spectacular three-round kickboxing match. Masato, Japan's best middleweight kickboxer, who had to cut to make 154 pounds, was significantly bigger than the 5-2, 141-pound member of Japan's most famous amateur wrestling family (his father was the Olympic team coach and a former Olympian, his two older sisters were both multi-time world champions), won the decision. But it was the night Yamamoto established himself as a true superstar by scoring a first round knockdown playing under his opponent's rules.
3. BOB SAPP VS. JEROME LEBANNER 28.6 RATING (K-1 2004)
Sapp faced K-1's best knockout artist in a mixed rules match. The four-round fight alternated between one round of MMA rules, which favored Sapp, and one round of kickboxing rules, which favored the 6-4, 270 pound Frenchman. Both showed guts in surviving while being destroyed under the other person's rules. The rule was that if it went the time limit, there would be no judges decision. That was lucky for Sapp, who got tired in the fourth round under his own rules and barely held on.
4. BOBBY OLOGUN VS. CYRIL ABIDI 28.1 RATING (K-1 2004)
Ologun was a Nigerian-born television comedian who was popular in Japan at the time. Abidi was a mid-level kickboxer, who was heavily favored.
However, in a match under MMA rules, Ologun was able to constantly take Abidi down and win a shocking decision. The result, and the ratings, made Ologun a fixture on these shows.
5. KEN KANEKO VS. CHARLES "KRAZY HORSE" BENNETT 27.7 RATING (PRIDE 2005)
Kaneko, a popular TV and movie actor who studied Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, followed in the footsteps of Ologun, but wasn't as successful when facing the charismatic mid-level MMA fighter. Bennett won with an armbar in 4:14.
6. RULON GARDNER VS. HIDEHIKO YOSHIDA 25.9 RATING (K-1 2004)
Billed as the battle of the Olympic gold medalists. Gardner was a 300-pound American who defeated the legendary Alexander Karelin to win Gold medal in Greco-Roman wrestling as a superheavyweight in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Yoshida won the gold medal in judo at 172 pounds in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. Yoshida by this point weighed 220 pounds and was an experienced MMA star, while Gardner was in his first match and expected to lose via submission soon after it went to the ground.
The big question was when they locked up, which style of grappling – Greco or Judo – would win out. The answer was never given. Gardner stayed outside and was content to box. While he had only two months of training, he had too much size and in an ugly match, outstruck Yoshida for three rounds to win a decision. Gardner never fought again.
7. BOBBY OLOGUN VS. AKEBONO 25.8 RATING (K-1 2005)
The comedian was simply too fast for the overfed sumo, who by this point was up to 500 pounds. A travesty of a match, which by the third round saw Akebono standing and unable to move at all. Ologun threw a few punches, made funny faces, and hit a few leg kicks to win a decision in one of the worst matches in New Year's Eve history.
8. HIDEHIKO YOSHIDA VS. NAOYA OGAWA 25.5 RATING (PRIDE 2005)
This was the battle of Japanese gold vs. silver medalist in judo from the Barcelona Olympics, as Ogawa captured the silver as a superheavyweight. Fourteen years later, Yoshida was an MMA star with Pride while Ogawa had become even more famous as a pro wrestler. Reputedly, this fight had the richest purse up to that point in MMA history as both fighters received $2 million, since Ogawa, with little chance to win, demanded the payday knowing he'd lose to his old judo rival. This was a disappointment in that it was expected to be second only to Sapp vs. Akebono in the ratings, Yoshida won in 6:04 with an armbar, and earlier, used an ankle lock that Ogawa didn't tap from, but left Ogawa with a fractured left ankle. Ogawa never fought again.
9. KAZUSHI SAKURABA VS. YOSHIHIRO AKIYAMA 25.0 RATING (K-1 2006)
Sakuraba, a pro wrestler who put MMA on the map in Japan in 1999 and 2000 with wins over four members of the Gracie family, was Japan's first legend in the sport. But by this point, he was long past his prime, and the match was designed for him to lose and pass the torch to a popular former judo champion of Korean ancestry. That is hardly what happened. Every time Sakuraba went for a takedown, he slipped off. Akiyama destroyed him on the ground with punches, and it was stopped in 5:37. However, backstage cameras shows that before the fight, Akiyama rubbed lotion all over his legs. In Japan, the only thing worse than fighting without honor, is cheating to beat an aging legend. The result was changed to a no contest. Akiyama's popularity was destroyed in the fight that was supposed to make him the new hero.
10. KID YAMAMOTO VS. ISTAVAN MAJOROS 25.0 RATING (K-1 2006)
In 2006, at the peak of his popularity, Yamamoto's father shamed him into quitting MMA, which he didn't consider a sport, to try to win an Olympic gold medal. Because he was needed for ratings, K-1 made a huge money offer to bring him back for the big show, and did a wrestling theme. Majoros, from Hungary, who had never fought before, won a gold medal in the 2004 Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling and was World Cup champion in 2006 in Yamamoto's weight class. Everyone figured Yamamoto's wrestling would be good enough to keep it standing, and he'd use his punches and kicks to take the measure. Yamamoto connected with a knee to the liver in 3:46 and Majoros went down. Yamamoto had the opportunity to follow up, but backed off, and when the ref was slow in stopping the match, he punched slowly on the ground out of respect for his foe's wrestling career.