One fight after Shinya Aoki, the country's best lightweight, secured his rubber-match against Norwegian Joachim Hansen to capture the Dream 154-pound belt, Hiroyuki Takaya found himself in position to win the first Dream featherweight title.
Meeting in Yokohama for the conclusion of the 139-pound tournament, which began in March and played out over three events -- including Tuesday's final rounds that demanded the winner claim two victories in one night -- Takaya and Brazil's Bibiano Fernandes engaged in an exciting, competitive war that went to the closing bell.
Unlike his slick semifinal armbar over American revelation Joe Warren (2-1), Fernandes was unable to attack Takaya on the ground with his world class Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Twice, though, Fernandes managed to take Takaya's back while standing. Each time Takaya (12-7-1) backed smartly into a corner, where he defended his neck before referee Yuji Shimada intervened to restart the fighters in the center of the ring.
During their 15-minute bout in the finals, Fernandes (7-2) more than held his own with the heavy-handed Japanese fighter, who earlier in the evening used his power to push past Hideo Tokoro (21-15-1). In the end, one judge, Hikaru Adachi, saw fit to award a heart-broken Takaya the nod, while Matt Hume and Takeshi Kobayashi felt Fernandes deserved the victory.
It was one of those bouts that could have gone either way and wouldn't have been worth arguing about.
Had Aoki (22-4) failed to pull off a submission against Hansen (19-8) with four seconds remaining in their title fight, Japanese fans may very well have walked away empty handed.
Meeting Aoki for the third time since New Year's Eve 2006, when the second-ranked lightweight unveiled a perfect gogoplata on the unsuspecting former Shooto 154-pound champion, Hansen walked into Tuesday's fight 15 months removed from his last appearance, a stoppage of the Japanese star.
Ring rust didn't appear to bother Hansen as much as Aoki's top game. Having improved his submission grappling since their first meeting, Hansen prevented Aoki from passing the guard during the opening 10-minute round, and he even locked on an armbar that forced a grimace on the challenger's face. Eventually, though, Aoki's edge on the ground was too much to overcome.
With two minutes remaining in the second period, Aoki secured mount, where he methodically worked for a choke before neatly attacking Hansen's left arm with a straight armbar. When Hansen tapped, Aoki rejoiced as the first Japanese fighter to hold a Dream title.