The last time the UFC was in Japan Chuck Liddell was fighting middleweight. In the eleven years since UFC 29, the UFC- and MMA in general- has undergone a renaissance, becoming a big player in the sports and entertainment worlds. And although no Japanese fighter has reached superstar status here in the States- and most have fallen short of the expectations set by hardcore fans- Japanese fans remain loyal. And, like the UFC’s Brazilian cards, Dana White and Joe Silva have sent over a card stacked with local favorites. Here’s my preview of the pay-per-view section of the card:
Lightweight Title Fight
Benson Henderson (15-2, 3-0 UFC) vs. Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar (14-1-1, 9-1-1 UFC)
The lightweight division was stagnant when it took Frankie Edgar almost two years to finally lay Gray Maynard to rest. But while Frankie Edgar kept shocking experts and casual fans alike, Benson Henderson was dispatching some of the best lightweights in the world. Coming off a winning streak that includes Top 10 fighters like Clay Guida, Jim Miller, and Donald Cerrone, Henderson deserves this title shot. And you better believe that he will use his relentless pace and well-rounded attack to try to stop- or at least outpoint- the champ. Edgar’s gameplan should be similar to his previous title fights: footwork, footwork, footwork. He’ll use his lightning quick hands and feet to stop Henderson’s takedowns and keep the fight on the feet where Edgar can outbox anyone in the division. I would love to call for the upset here, but I’m tired of picking against little Frankie, who has the tools to neutralize Henderson’s attack.
Prediction: Edgar by TKO in Round 4
Ryan Bader (13-2, 6-2 UFC) vs. Quintin “Rampage” Jackson (32-9, 7-3 UFC)
A homecoming of sorts for Rampage- he tore through the Pride Fighting Championship before joining the UFC and became famous for his slams and his wolf howl. Jackson looks to rebound from his loss to Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones and get back into contention to fight Jones again. Bader comes off a spectacular KO of Jason Brilz but suffered losses at the hands of Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz in 2011, so the wrestler would love to add “finished Rampage” to his resume. Both fighters have similar gifts and styles- they can wrestle, they love to stand and trade, and both have elite strength for the division. I think it comes down to which shows up mentally strong for this fight, as both guys struggle with the mental aspect of MMA. This fight seems primed for Knockout of the Night. And I’m giving it to Rampage. OOOOWWWW!!!!
Prediction: Rampage by KO in Round 2
Mark Hunt (7-7, 2-1 UFC) vs. Cheick Congo (17-6-2, 10-4-1 UFC)
This is a fight between two very talented but flawed fighters. The kickboxing Hunt lacks a ground game but Congo’s non-existent submission skills will prevent the Frenchman from doing anything but laying on his opponent. Hunt, another Pride veteran, would rather keep the fight standing as his strikes pack more power than the less versatile Congo. Thus, Congo would be best served grinding on Hunt from the top, where he has more ways to win the fight, boring as they may be.
Prediction: Congo by Decision
Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-4, 1-3 UFC) vs. Jake Shields (26-6-1, 1-2 UFC)
Let’s start with the local boy, Sexyama. In four UFC fights, Akiyama has only managed one victory- a split-decision win over Alan Belcher. That and his winning persona are not enough to keep him in the company if he loses to Shields. Jake is in less dire sorts but still comes off two losses, one to Welterweight Champ GSP and the other to Jake Ellenberger. This match-up is enticing, with Shields’ wrestling ability seemingly countered by Sexyama’s submission skills. But Shields’ submission defense is top-notch, having never lost a fight via submission. Only two of Akiyama’s fights have ever gone to decision, but that’s exactly where Jake will try to take it, using his elite top control to notch a must-needed win.
Prediction: Jake Shields by Decision
Tim Boetsch (14-4, 5-3 UFC) vs. Yushin Okami (26-6, 10-3 UFC)
In his second stint in the UFC Boestch is 3-1, having only lost to Phil Davis. Okami’s only fight in 2011 was an unsurprising loss to Anderson Silva, but the Japanese middleweight had an impressive 2010 where he beat Mark Munoz and Nate Marquardt. Okami will use his knack for keeping people against the cage to neutralize Boetsch’s takedowns. If Boetsch can get on top, he can easily grind out a decision. But I’m putting faith in Okami to do some damage in the clinch and not disappoint the local fans.
Prediction: Okami by Decision
Hatsu Hioki (25-4-2, 1-0 UFC) vs. Bart Palaszewski (36-14, 1-0 UFC)
Both fighters’ resumes are longer than guys a decade their elder, with Palaszewski having first fought just after his 18th birthday. To add impressiveness to that long resume, Bartimus has only been stopped once since 2004. However, Hioki has been fighting Japan’s toughest for years, with his most impressive win being over Takeshi Inoue in May 2010. This fight matches toughness with slickness, and I think that toughness wins out on Saturday night. But if Hioki lands the W, look for him to be in the conversation for a title shot.
Prediction: Palaszewski by Decision
Anthony Pettis (14-2, 1-1 UFC) vs. Joe Lauzon (21-6, 8-3 UFC)
Joe Lauzon stunned a showboating Melvin Guillard out of title contention with a vicious punch at UFC 136. He looks to repeat that against someone famous for a vicious strike, former WEC fighter Anthony Pettis. For those of you who don’t remember the Showtime Kick, get the hell off my web site. A win for J-Lau would vault him into the Top 10 in the lightweight division and a similar outcome for Pettis would certainly have him climbing the ladder toward a title shot. Fights like these between two elite submission artists tend to go two ways- they battle it out on the ground or respect each other’s skills and duke it out on the feet. I think Pettis takes is either way.
Prediction: Pettis by TKO in Round 1
I’ll take the Japanese guy in every preliminary fight. There are fights where both guys are Japanese, you say? Looks like I can’t lose. For reals though:
Takanori Gomi over Eiju Mitsuoka
Kid Yamamoto over Vaughan Lee
Riki Fukuda over Steve Cantwell
Takey Mizugaki over Chris Cariaso
Tiquen Zhang over Issei Tamura
Come back Tuesday morning for a wrap-up of UFC 144