This Sunday marks the second big K-1 event of the year, the 70kg MAX Japan tournament. Last year's tournament featured Yuichiro Nagashima and Hiroki Nakajima scoring knockouts in their quarter and semifinal bouts which culminated in a dramatic 3rd round knockout by Nagashima in the finals in a wild brawl. This year's tournament is extremely interesting because, for the first time, K-1 has placed a former K-1 MAX World Champion into the field in Albert Kraus. It is also interesting because of the new blood brought in by K-1. They have brought in young prospects in RISE Middleweight champion Takafumi Morita, Krush 70kg tournament champion Kenta and K-1 Koshien 2009 70kg champion Shintaro Matsukura. Returning from last year's tournament are 2010 Japan MAX tournament finalist Hiroki Nakajima, 2009 K-1 World MAX semifinalist Yuya Yamamoto, 2008 Japan MAX tournament winner Yasuhiro Kido and Yuji Nashiro. Despite losing tournament mainstays Ryuji and Tatsuji as well as last year's winner Yuichiro Nagashima and semifinalist Hinata, the tournament field is as strong as ever and could produce a couple new stars for K-1. I have decided to rank the fighters in this tournament by their likelihood of winning to give people who may not know much about some of the participating fighters an idea as to where each fighter stands entering the tournament.
1. Albert Kraus: I doubt there are many people who don't have Kraus as a big favorite to win this tournament and for good reason. Despite winning his K-1 MAX World championship back in 2002, Kraus has stayed an elite fighter. He is coming off a controversial loss to Yoshihiro Sato in which Sato got a bit of a gift from the judges and it would be hard to argue that Sato isn't the best fighter at 70kg in Japan at the moment. Outside of an upset loss to Batu Khasikov in March, his only other losses in the past two years have come in the quarterfinals of the K-1 MAX World tournament to eventual champion Giorgio Petrosyan. In the past two years' Final 16s, Kraus absolutely dominated last year's Japan MAX tournament's finalists Nagashima and Nakajima. Upsets can happen, but Kraus is well above the competition in this field.
2. Yuya Yamamoto: Upsets happen. Despite the loss to Shintaro Matsukura in Krush, I still feel Yuya is the #3 fighter in Japan behind Sato and Hinata. Outside of the knockdown, Yuya was outworking and outlanding Matsukura. While his aggressive, brawling style may not fare too well against the elite fighters in the division, it should hold up well in this tournament which features a few fighters who haven't shied away from slugfests. I don't doubt that I could be completely wrong in placing him this high, but I don't think Yuya's lack of defense is going to hold him back in this tournament. A quarterfinal rematch with Matsukura will be telling of Yuya's success. If he is able to impose his will, Yuya could find himself in the finals. If not, it'll be a long road ahead for the former World MAX tournament semifinalist.
3. Kenta: I can't get over how good Kenta looked in the Krush 70kg tournament. He was accurate, he beat Nakajima and Yamauchi to the punch consistently and rarely got hit. Kenta has the most momentum heading into this tournament and if he looked as good as he did in Krush, I can definitely see him making it to the finals. Kido is a difficult first round matchup and Kenta likely won't be able to put him away, but his defense should be strong enough to stay away from a knockdown or a knockout.
4. Hiroki Nakajima: Despite being a finalist last year, Nakajima could very well be out of this year's tournament in the quarterfinals. It's hard to say if he's improved much since last year's tournament as he looked to be way in over his head against Kraus and Buakaw Por Pramuk. His loss to Kenta doesn't help much either. Nakajima has the offensive tools to be a threat, but until he puts his defense together, I can't see him doing much at the higher levels of the sport. His quarterfinal matchup with the surging Takafumi Morita has upset written all over it, but a win and a good showing against Kraus may well earn him a spot in this year's Final 16. We'll have to wait until Sunday.
5. Takafumi Morita: Morita is definitely the biggest unknown in the tournament, but I am riding very high on this prospect's talents. At 10-0-1 (5 KOs), Morita has the opportunity to be the biggest spoiler in this tournament in his quarterfinal matchup with last year's finalist Hiroki Nakajima. In just his 10th pro fight, he took a decision off of then WBC Japan champion Soichiro Miyakoshi and two months later claimed the RISE Middleweight title with a knockout of Yukihiro Komiya. He has fought mostly in RISE throughout his career, including winning a Rising Rookies tournament, so he shouldn't have trouble fighting under K-1 rules. His quarterfinal matchup with Nakajima should be a good litmus test to see where he stands in Japan.
6. Yasuhiro Kido: Kido has fallen on hard times inside K-1 lately, going 2-7 in his last 9 under the K-1 banner including losses in the quarterfinals of the Japan MAX tournament the past two years. However, Kido had shown his worth in K-1 before that, going 4-1 in his first 5 fights under K-1 including a win in the 2008 Japan MAX tournament as well as qualifying for the Final 8 that year. He has picked up 4 straight wins over the past year which should give him some confidence heading into the tournament, but a quarterfinal matchup with arguably the hottest fighter at 70kg in Japan will be a very difficult task. Kido definitely has the skills to win a one-night tournament, but it all depends on whether or not he can put it together.
7. Shintaro Matsukura: At 19, Matsukura is the youngest fighter in the tournament by nearly 4 years, but his win over Yuya Yamamoto earned him this spot and showed that he belongs. However, he will have to upset Yuya again if he wants to go anywhere in this tournament and that will be a difficult task as Yuya is likely more determined than ever and knows what to expect from Matsukura. While I'm not ruling out another win for Matsukura, I don't think it is likely and his tournament longevity is extremely questionable as he was visibly tired in rounds 3 and 4 against Yutaro Yamauchi in Krush. If K-1 is around for years to come I can definitely see Matsukura winning a Japan tournament in the future, but for the time being it is highly unlikely.
8. Yuji Nashiro: Nashiro isn't here because he's the worst fighter in the tournament, a distinction that would be hard to make as you could argue the talent of any fighter not named Albert Kraus in this field, but because he's the most unlucky fighter in the tournament. His first round matchup with Kraus is the worst thing that could've happened to any of the fighters in this field. He bounced back from his quarterfinal loss in last year's tournament with back to back wins over Krush 70kg tournament finalists Yutaro Yamauchi and Kenta, but took setbacks in losses to Sato and in a rematch with Yamauchi in the first round of the Krush tournament. Had Kraus been left out of this tournament, Nashiro could be seen as a dark horse, but he'll need to pull off a huge upset over a fresh Kraus to even have a chance to win.
I don't see reserve fighters Takeshi "Go" Yokoyama or Yoshi doing much should they be inserted into the tournament. Yoshi was blown out by Nakajima in Krush and Yokoyama hasn't faced great competition, though he did manage a draw against Yutaro Yamauchi.