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Former K-1 World Grand Prix finalist and Glory heavyweight kickboxing champion Gokhan Saki will make his eagerly anticipated Ultimate Fighting Championship debut at UFC Fight Night 117 on Friday at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. On an otherwise below-average fight card, Saki provides a much-needed sprinkle of star power for a kickboxing-friendly crowd at an area that played host to countless historic battles under the Pride Fighting Championships banner more than a decade ago.
However, Saki’s signing in May and his pending arrival could have an impact that stretches beyond this one event. The UFC light heavyweight division finds itself in a state of flux following former champion Jon Jones’ failed drug test, which resulted in his being stripped. The title has since been returned to Daniel Cormier, its previous owner and the man Jones defeated in July.
With the division’s future muddied, the current pack of title contenders is littered with aging fighters who have been handily beaten by Jones, Cormier or both. The fact that little-known Swiss kickboxer Volkan Oezdemir -- he did not even have a Wikipedia page until this year -- managed to propel himself up the ladder with three victories over middling competition is emblematic of the issue surrounding the 205-pound weight class.
Saki is no spring chicken at 34 years of age, and he has not competed in kickboxing in over two years -- a period of inactivity that saw him stripped of the Glory heavyweight title. He has an MMA record of 0-1, losing his first and only fight to James Zikic in 2004. However, the Dutch-Turkish striker’s renowned fighting style, which earned him the “Turkish Tyson” moniker thanks to his relatively small stature and penchant for vicious punching combinations, could prove to be a hit among MMA fans and help invigorate an ailing division, provided his wrestling and ground skills hold up. Should those untested facets of Saki’s game withstand an opponent aiming to exploit them, he has the kickboxing skills to strike fear into his opponents. Saki faced a murderer’s row of kickboxing standouts: He lost to Rico Verhoeven, Semmy Schilt, Badr Hari, Peter Aerts and Alistair Overeem while defeating the likes of Tyrone Spong, Daniel Ghita, Melvin Manhoef, Ray Sefo and Magomed Magomedov. He has compiled a record of 83-12-1 with 59 knockouts at the sport’s highest levels.
Long suffering from a shallow talent pool, the light heavyweight division has needed a boost of adrenaline for some time now. Win, lose or draw, the mystique surrounding Saki’s abilities in a new environment -- this harkens back to the style-versus-style matchups of old -- should be enough to provide some much-needed excitement to a suffering weight class where the shadows of Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and others loom large.
The UFC Fight Night 117 headliner, a makeshift main event between Ovince St. Preux and Yushin Okami, further illustrates the issues within the division. Okami last competed as a welterweight for the Professional Fighters League and will jump two weight classes as a short-notice fill-in for the injured Mauricio Rua. St. Preux has lost three out of four but remains relevant at 205 pounds. Just more proof of the shallow nature of the division.
Saki will take on Brazilian slugger Henrique da Silva in his first Octagon appearance. With a known preference for keeping the fight standing, da Silva and his three-fight losing streak could prove to be the ideal dance partners for an accomplished kickboxer looking the make a big splash in the UFC. Given the recent success of decorated muay Thai practitioners Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Valentina Shevchenko and Germaine de Randamie in the UFC, that does not seem beyond the realm of possibility for Saki.
Saki in May called his signing “the best investment the UFC has made since Conor McGregor.” We may soon find out whether those words ring true.