The UFC’s return to what some people regard as the spiritual home of all Martial Arts, is looking like the best top-to-bottom card in quite a while. There are excellent matches from the prelims all the way to the main event. This will be the first time in over eleven years that the UFC has put on an event in the land of the rising sun. Back in December 2000 at UFC 29, Chuck Liddell fought at middleweight and Matt Hughes was just beginning his path to Welterweight domination. Now in 2012 the UFC are back and they are pulling out all the stops to make sure it their return is suitably epic. With a seven fight main card and a four hour pay-per-view slot scheduled, Zuffa will be hoping that they can fill some of the void that was left in Japanese MMA when Pride folded.
Admittedly they won’t have fully ingratiated themselves to the Japanese fans by choosing to schedule the event so that it falls on the Saturday evening for viewers in the USA. What this means for the fans who attend the event live, will actually be an early start at the Saitama Super Arena to watch fights that start at around 9:30am local time. Not exactly your regular slot for an MMA show! Obviously that start-time will mean alterations to the preparations for the fighters themselves. Where they would normally have most of the day to get ready for a match in the evening, they will instead need to ensure that their body is primed and ready to fire on all cylinders at a much earlier hour. Poor preparation by those competing at this event, may have a huge impact on the outcome of their fights.
The headliner is the Lightweight title match between the dynamic Benson Henderson and the champ Frankie Edgar. There can be no doubt amongst fans that this fight will deliver and it is a fantastic main event. Rampage returns to his spiritual MMA home where he is a legend to the fans after his career in Pride. He will face Ryan Bader who will look to continue his resurgence at 205lbs after his shock loss to Tito Ortiz. Another Pride veteran – Mark Hunt – faces man mountain Cheik Kongo in a big fight for both men. Hunt has 2 wins in 2 and Kongo is unbeaten since 2010. This one will certainly draw the appreciation of the fans who love to see the big guys at it.
Other highlights for me include an awesome match between Pettis and Lauzon which is a potential contender for fight of the night if both men get into their stride. There are 9 Japanese fighters on the bill with JMMA favourites like Akiyama, Okami, Gomi, Kid Yamamoto and Hioki all fighting.
The lone UK fighter on the bill – Vaughan Lee – faces arguably the biggest test of his career fighting in the backyard of a true superstar of Japanese MMA in the shape of Kid Yamamoto.
Onto the fights then, and here’s how I see the action playing out this weekend:
Frankie Edgar 14 – 1 – 1 vs. Ben Henderson 15 – 2 – 0 – UFC Lightweight Championship
After losing the lightweight title in the last ever WEC (and being subjected to THAT kick from Pettis), Henderson went has strung together three decision wins in the UFC to get to this shot. With Clay Guida beating Anthony Pettis in Pettis’ debut, Henderson faced him in the title eliminator and handed him his first loss in 5 fights.
Although many doubted his ability to defeat BJ Penn, a man who had lost only once at 155pounds, Edgar did the unthinkable not once, but twice. With his second win against the former champion being far more convincing than the first, Edgar laid claim to the belt legitimately in many fans eyes. Having now defended the title three times in a row, he is in a position to surpass the achievements of Penn with a win over Henderson making him the most successful 155lb champion ever in the UFC.
Both men are lightning fast, keep a high pace, excel in wrestling and striking and are very hard to put away. This has all the hallmarks of being an excellent title match. While Edgar is the more credentialed wrestler, Henderson has the better JiuJitsu pedigree having medalled at the IBJJF Worlds in 2011 and winning numerous state championships at Purple and Brown belt. Henderson has also managed to finish 10 of his 17 opponents, with Edgar only managing 6 out of 16.
Edgar will look to get this done with his usual combination of excellent footwork, crisp boxing and quick takedowns. Hendersons boxing lacks the polish and finesse of Edgars, but he arguably throws with more power and his kicks make him a little more dangerous at range. In the clinch Henderson will look to transition quickly to his favoured guillotine choke but Edgar is very adept at hitting the takedowns off the knee tap and avoiding getting drawn in to the danger zone for that particular submission. A brown belt in JiuJitsu himself and student of Renzo Gracie, he will be confident that he can deal with the JiuJitsu of Henderson but will look to play to his own strengths and avoid that phase of the fight if he can.
Henderson wins fights by outworking his opponents. No other fight demonstrates this better than his most recent one against Clay Guida. Guida himself sets a frenetic pace and to have that fight in the bag will only benefit ‘Bendo’ when he faces the champ. With Edgar he is in danger of being outworked himself and that for me is what makes this fight really interesting.
Edgar is an expert at sticking and moving and joins his boxing to his takedowns almost seamlessly. He also never deviates from the plan. Even though since 2009 he has really only fought two opponents (albeit multiple times) we can see in all those fights the blueprint of the Edgar style, and he imposed his plan brilliantly on two top fighters. If Henderson has an answer to this then he may find he can take Edgar apart. The one thing Henderson needs to do is start fast, Edgar only gets better as he gets into his stride. In my preview posts I have come back to kicking many times as being something which can turn the tide of a fight. Henderson is a much better kicker than Penn and Maynard and if he can use his kicks well to disrupt the momentum of the champ, this could be the key to him winning.
As I alluded to in the pre-amble, a major factor in this fight will be the adjustment to timings. Henderson cuts weight to make the 155 limit: If he doesn’t get everything spot on in the run up to this fight – right down to his food (which will be vastly different to what he is used to in Japan) – then the seemingly inconsequential things can make a difference to the way the fight goes. Edgar has a slight advantage in that he doesn’t cut to make 155. Great comfort to him I’m sure, knowing he will be in peak condition and won’t have to worry about having a bad weight-cut.
All things considered, this is an incredibly tough pick to make. You can count on two incredible fighters going at it all guns blazing, in all likelihood for the full 25 minutes. I genuinely have no idea who takes this and can make a strong case for both guys to win, but I’ll go out on a limb and say we’ll have a new champ this weekend. Henderson decision
Quinton Jackson 32 – 9 – 0 vs. Ryan Bader 13 – 2 – 0 – Light Heavyweight
Rampage returns to Japan and will look to impress the adoring crowd, who will love having the former Pride superstar back in Tokyo. In Ryan Bader, Rampage is fighting almost a prototype of his younger-self: Sure Bader lacks the snarling swagger that Rampage has, but he packs power in his punches and has great wrestling. This won’t bother Jackson though, who is fixed on putting on a fight of the night performance for the fans he holds dear.
Jackson shouldn’t overlook Baders power, but he is more than capable of dealing with it as he has a great chin. Jackson is easily the more polished striker as well. Bader will need to rely on his wrestling as his best asset in this match. In the past Rampage has showed how good his takedown defence is – like in his fight against Hamill – but many would argue Hamill wasn’t firing on all cylinders in that fight. Against Rashad, ‘Page was taken down with ease after being tagged early and this will be the route to victory for Bader.
Rampage is so set on putting on a show for the Japanese fans that he is in danger of losing focus on the danger in front of him. Make no mistake Bader is a legit threat to Jackson and the younger, hungrier upstart could cause a big upset in front of the Japanese fans this weekend. His wrestling is powerful and explosive and he has jack-hammers for hands, but he is still relatively green despite some impressive performances.
In Jacksons favour is that he has fought longer than Bader and he has fought better than Bader. If he is truly on his game, he has the tools to win this. Bader was shocked by Ortiz and wasn’t prepared for the veteran to start that fight with a bang so early on. Jackson needs to come out swinging, press the action and make sure he is hitting those sprawls when Bader shoots in on him. If he does this, I feel sure he can put on a crowd-pleasing win.
I really think Rampage still has one of those unforgettable Pride-era performances in him. Maybe we won’t see any Arona-esque powerbombs but I believe we will see a trademark KO. What better stage to prove it than in the Octagon, in Tokyo. The jury is out on whether this will be his final fight, but if it is, what a way to go out! Rampage KO rd 2
Mark Hunt 7 – 7 – 0 vs. Cheick Kongo 17 – 6 – 2 – Heavyweight
An intriguing piece of matchmaking this. Kongo is the de-facto gatekeeper for the upper echelons of the Heavyweight division. He is capable of spectacular KO’s but has also put in some pretty uninspiring shifts in the Octagon. Hunt with his world class K1 pedigree should bring the best out of Kongo though and I can’t see this one going the distance.
Hunt seems to have had a resurgence in confidence after posting wins in his last two performances, snapping a 6 fight skid. He is more than capable of knocking out anyone on his day, but Kongo has never been stopped by strikes in 25 matches and has a pretty decent world class striking pedigree of his own. Hunts best chance in this one is to mix up punches and leg kicks and keep working to find the opening, but I fear his cardio means he will struggle to keep any decent pace in this one and a busy 1st round could see him fade away for the rest of the fight.
Kongo has a clear advantage in the wrestling and on the ground and will be confident he can do the business here, but he mustn’t be complacent. Hunts power means he is always a danger, even when hurt. Kongos best chance to win this is to get Hunt on the ground and unleash some of his fearsome ground and pound. He may be tempted to trade on the feet and has all the tools to do so, but why play to your opponents biggest strength? He is able to dominate the clinch and bully Hunt against the fence while hunting the takedown and fighting that fight is a sure path to victory for the Frenchman.
A huge KO win is never beyond the realms of possibility for Hunt here, but Kongo is the more complete fighter and should be able to impose his will on his veteran opponent.
Kongo TKO rd 2
Yoshihiro Akiyama 13 – 4 – 0 (2 NC) vs. Jake Shields 26 – 6 – 1 – Welterweight
Jake Shields is in unchartered territory in this one, he faces a fair trek to get back to the top of the welterweight pile after recent fights in the 170lb division and his own unsuccessful outing against the champ and subsequent crushing loss to Jake Ellenberger. Understandably, many felt that Shields was not himself against Ellenberger having lost his father and manager only weeks before the fight. However credit should be still be given to Ellenberger and who’s to say a top condition Shields could have dealt with that onslaught any better. Two losses on the bounce though, regardless of the circumstances, make this a must win fight for Shields.
Akiyama also badly needs a win here, with 3 big losses in his last three fights. 3 fight of the night bonuses in his last 4 matches shows why the UFC have kept him around. He makes his welterweight debut in this match but to do so against a fighter like Shields is a huge test. In his favour though is the fact he is fighting in his home country and he will enjoy massive home-town support. He has only ever lost once in Japan and will be doing he can to ensure things stay that way.
Shields is a heavy favourite here and rightly so, he has never been submitted and only 2 men have ever
stopped him with strikes. Whilst Akiyama is almost certainly the better striker of the two, Shields is smart enough to avoid taking too much damage on the feet. The interesting part of this fight will be in Shields ability to get this to the ground. Akiyama is a high-level Judoka with an excellent base and he is going to want to avoid the ground at all costs. The problem for Akiyama is that Shields has 15 minutes to get it there and with a grappler of his level, you have to figure in that time he will get it to the floor at least once.
If Chris Leben can submit Akiyama then I would bet my house that Shields can. Sexyama has previous of struggling with his cardio in fights and if Shields can tire him out in the first half of the fight – especially if the cut doesn’t go so well for him – the local hero will really struggle here.
I really like Shields in this match. He is no stranger to Japan having competed 3 times in Shooto much earlier on in his career and while Akiyama will definitely be the crowds favourite, he is looking at a 4th straight loss here. Shields may just stifle him for 15 minutes, but I think fatigue from making his new weight will lead to Akiyama making a mistake and hand Shields a submission late on. Shields Submission rd 3.
Yushin Okami 26 – 6 – 0 vs. Tim Boetsch 14 – 4 – 0 – Middleweight
The move to middleweight has been an excellent one for Tim Boetsch, he is now looking like a potential prospect whereas at 205 he was always going to be a middle-of-the-pack fighter. This rise in potential comes with a health warning though, as he now has to start swimming with the big fish in the 185lb shark tank. In Okami he faces a really tough test.
Okami has the better striking of the two men. Although Boetsch is able to pack a lot of power into his strikes, he isn’t as polished as his opponent, who works his game behind a really nice jab and utilises his judo to great effect to get the takedown. Once the action hits the mat, Okami has excellent top control and although he is a grinder with few finishes to his name, you can’t argue that his style isn’t effective. He will have the reach advantage over Boetsch and this spells bad news for the barbarian if he is going to eat that jab coming forward all night.
Boetsch is a powerful wrestler with an aggressive style, but bull rushing Okami is not his best strategy here. He has to be patient and set up his takedowns with his striking by working to get inside. This won’t be easy, but if he is able to put Okami on his back, he could pull off the upset. Okami has been susceptible to being dominated off his back in the past and following the Sonnen loss – to his credit – he actually went out to team quest to learn more about he was beaten the way he was by Sonnen. He has definitely improved his game since that loss, as demonstrated in his wins over Munoz and Marquardt.
This another really hard fight to call, I think Boetsch has found his home at 185lbs and save for a few of the really elite guys in the division he should give everyone a run for their money. But in his first ever fight outside the US, against a fighter like Okami who is so hard to put away, I think it is a stretch too far for him this time. This fight will be ugly in parts and probably isn’t going to win any fight night bonuses, but a win for Okami will definitely please the Japanese crowd nonetheless.
Hatsu Hioki 25 – 4 – 2 vs. Bart Palaszewski 36 – 14 – 0 – Featherweight
Heavy handed veteran Palaszewski broke his half-century of fights with a spectacular KO of Tyson Griffin in his UFC debut. This fight will be his first ever fight outside of the US. Palaszewski is a finisher who is rarely finished, only 8 of his 36 wins have been by decision and 10 of his 14 losses have been at the hands of the judges rather than his opponent. Safe to say then that he will pose a tough test for Hioki. Palaszewski is a Jeff Curran Blackbelt and his coach is very familiar with Hioki, having lost to him in 2006 in Pride Bushido 12.
Hioki has won 13 in 15 and is a top 3 ranked fighter on most of the accepted Featherweight world listings. At nearly 6foot he is a large featherweight and counts GSP among his training partners when he is at Tristar. With two wins over former title contender Mark Hominick, you cannot question the quality of his opponents, despite him plying his trade mostly in Japan and thus far avoiding most of the top American fighters at the weight. He chalked up a split decision win in his Octagon debut, but will look to make a more emphatic statement on his home turf this weekend. One of the top grapplers in MMA today, he slices through his opponents guard and is incredibly dynamic on the ground. He absolutely needs to take this one to the ground to win as, although he is competent on the feet, standing too long with “Bartimus” will likely see him go the same way as Griffin.
This one comes down to the classic striking vs. grappling debate then. Palaszewski is no slouch on the mat but will want to play to his obvious advantage on the feet. While he will have to work to get through the reach of Hioki, once inside he can wreak havoc with his explosive combinations. For his part Hioki is an expert at working his takedowns off the clinch and will latch onto every opportunity to do so. This should be an exciting fight with a potential KO of the night or Sub of the night at the end of it. Expect a tentative start but when Palaszewski opens up to look for the fight ending punch, I think Hioki has enough about him to get the action to the mat where he should secure a win with dominant grappling. The last time Palaszewski was submitted was way back in 2007 and Hioki won’t have an easy time finding the finish, but he should get there eventually. Hioki Submission Rd 3
Anthony Pettis 14 – 2 – 0 vs. Joe Lauzon 21 – 6 – 0 – Lightweight
The opening fight of the main card is virtually assured of being an absolute stormer. On one side you have Lauzon who has won an unprecedented 6 fight night bonuses in a row. On the other you have one of the most dynamic strikers in the 155lb division and the man who will forever be known as the originator of the showtime kick, Pettis.
The first round of this one will be a don’t-blink affair as both men are quick starters. Lauzon especially is at his most dangerous in the opening minutes of the fight when he comes out blazing. Although his submissions are his bread and butter, he has shocked a few fighters (standup Pulver and Guillard) with his striking and Pettis would be wise not to underestimate the threat here.
On the feet, Pettis is most dangerous at range. A 3rd Degree Taekwondo black belt, his kicks are some of his best weapons and he uses them extremely well. Since coming to the UFC he has been a little more tentative with his flashy and outlandish moves, but you know at any moment he could pull something spectacular out of the bag. Both men are BJJ purple belts with aggressive and smooth ground games, transitioning between sweeps and submission attempts effortlessly. Both men always look to improve their position when on the mat and if this develops into a ground battle, it will be awesome to watch and interesting to see who comes out on top.
I think the advantage will start to swing Pettis’ way as the fight goes on and if Lauzon is going to get the win here it will almost certainly be in the first half of the fight. Pettis may be content to sit back a bit and let Lauzon burn himself out, but this is always dangerous when you have a fighter like Lauzon throwing everything at you. If Lauzon can navigate the kicks of Pettis safely and get on the inside he will be a real threat and with the kind of momentum he has behind him right now another spectacular win will surely put him line for the next title shot.
A title shot is what Pettis thought he was in line for after beating Henderson in the WEC, but rematches, injuries and Clay Guida put paid to that. If Pettis wins in style and Henderson pulls out the win I expect him to, this sets up a mouthwatering rematch that will surely be a ratings winner.
Another impossibly close fight to call, and every time I have bet against Lauzon he has won. Both fighters must be pretty sure that there is a title shot at stake after this match and so the stakes are high. Lauzon has all the tools to get it done and plenty of money will go on him to take home another fight bonus, but I think Pettis might nick this one. Maybe my decision is influenced slightly by how bad I want to see Pettis vs. Henderson 2 for the UFC title, but I am going to take a punt on Showtime to take the win here. Pettis Decision
Takanori Gomi 32 – 8 – 0 vs. Eiji Mitsuoka 18 – 7 – 2 – Lightweight
In the last of the Undercard matches, the only all Japan fight on the card takes place. Gomi was at one time universally acclaimed as the greatest Lightweight on the planet. Back to back losses to Hansen and Penn snapped a 14 fight streak but Gomi then moved to Pride and ruled the division posting 10 consecutive wins with 8 finishes. His fortunes have taken a downturn recently though and he is 1-3 in the UFC albeit facing only top contenders in those 4 fights (Florian, Griffin, Guida and Diaz).
His opponent comes in as a replacement for Georges Sotiropoulos. Mitsuoka is 2 years older than Gomi, but far less experienced and certainly lacks the high level pedigree of his superstar foe. This makes it even more of a must-win-fight for Gomi as defeat to a less prestigous opponent to make it 3 in a row in the UFC may see him get the infamous pink-slip from Zuffa.
Mitsuoka is a submission specialist, with 11 of his 18 wins coming that way and Gomi has lost his last 2 by submission, so an upset is a distinct possibility. Gomi isn’t looking much like the superstar of his glory days and if there was ever a time for Mitsuoka to pull off a shock win, that time is now.
That said, even this shell of the Pride-era Gomi should have more than enough for Mitsuoka. He proved against Tyson Griffin that there is still dynamite in his fists. Mitsuoka has only been finished on one occasion, but I would expect that a return to fighting in his homeland will be all the motivation Gomi needs to find a little form. With the records suggesting that Mitsuoka is one hell of a tough opponent to put away, this one will probably go the distance. There is an outside chance that Gomi’s notoriously dodgy sub defence will let him down, but in order to take advantage of that Mitsuoka has to get Gomi to the mat. I’m not sure he will be able to do so easily and Gomi will outpoint him on the feet. Gomi Decision
Norifumi Yamamoto 18 – 5 – 0 vs. Vaughan Lee 11 – 7 – 1 – Bantamweight
I’m sure there can’t be many people reading this who haven’t heard of Yamamoto, but if you are one of them you need to first: Hang your head in shame and second: Go watch a highlight on youtube. “Kid” is another superstar of Japanese MMA but just like his compatriot Gomi, his star is shining a lot less-brightly nowadays. With 4 losses in his last five, Kid is another fighter who given his past accolades is in a very unfamiliar position of being ousted from the UFC altogether should he lose at the weekend.
Vaughan Lee was signed to the UFC base purely on his standout performance at the TUF trials where he impressed with his submission game. He didn’t make the house, but making the jump straight into the UFC is reason enough for anyone who holds the same ambition to just go for it and get to those auditions! Lee’s submission game is his biggest threat, but he is pretty well rounded. His wrestling let him down against Chris Cariaso last time out, but in the first round he looked a real force on the ground. Yamamoto has only been stopped once in 24 fights and has never been submitted so the odds are stacked against Lee in this one.
Kid posted 14 wins on the bounce between 2002 and 2007 and all but 2 of those fights were finishes. He then took some time out ot pursue his dream of Wrestling in the Olympics and then it all fell apart and he now finds himself battling for relevance in the lighter divisions he once ruled.
Maybe this is all nostalgia but I think, like Gomi, that Kid has enough of his old spark to deal with the threat of his opponent here. Yamamoto will see how Caraiso handled Lee with his wrestling in the later rounds of their fight and look to do the same. But the threat of a stoppage from strikes will be much greater from the Japanese mega-star and we might just be treated to a fleeting glimpse of the old Kid en-route to a TKO stoppage. Yamamoto TKO rd 2
****************** UPDATED WITH ACTUAL RESULTS ***************************
Norifumi Yamamoto vs. Vaughan Lee – My Pick: Yamamoto TKO rd 2 Actual: Lee Submission (armbar) Rd1
Takanori Gomi vs. Eiji Mitsuoka – My Pick: Gomi Decision Actual:Gomi T/KO rd 2
Anthony Pettis vs. Joe Lauzon – My Pick: Pettis Decision Actual: Pettis KO rd 1
Hatsu Hioki vs. Bart Palaszewski – My Pick:Hioki Sub rd 3 Actual: Hioki Decision
Yushin Okami vs. Tim Boetsch – My Pick:Okami Decision Actual: Boetsch TKO rd 3
Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields – My Pick:Shields sub rd 3 Actual: Shields Decision
Mark Hunt vs. Cheick Kongo – My Pick: Kongo TKO rd2 Actual: Hunt TKO rd 1
Quinton Jackson vs. Ryan Bader – My Pick: Rampage KO rd 2 Actual: Bader Decision
Frankie Edgar (c) vs. Benson Henderson – My Pick: Henderson Decision Actual: Henderson Decision