UFC 144 is significant on a number of fronts.
It marks the promotion’s return to Japan after an 11-year absence and the first Japanese show of the Zuffa era. While Japanese MMA has experienced a well-publicized decline in popularity, the UFC has flourished on the other side of the Pacific. Will the event serve as a springboard to entice a population previously enchanted by the extinct Pride Fighting Championships, or is the culture not yet ready to accept another mixed martial arts giant following the scandal that spelled Pride’s demise?
Either way, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Mark Hunt on Saturday will once again set foot in the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, albeit this time within the confines of a cage and with considerably less theatrics. Though their bouts are not the most significant when it comes to rankings, both men seem eager to recapture a little of that old blue-gloved magic that made them fan favorites overseas.
A handful of men with their backs against the wall will also compete on the undercard, including former Pride lightweight ruler Takanori Gomi. A dominant force in his heyday, “The Fireball Kid” shared “Fighter of the Year” honors with Mauricio Rua in 2005, winning Pride’s lightweight grand prix by knocking out Hayato Sakurai on New Year’s Eve.
Now 33 and with his best years behind him, Gomi has struggled in his brief time with the UFC, losing three of his last four fights. Despite a vintage performance that saw Gomi level Tyson Griffin with a single punch, one-sided losses to contenders Kenny Florian, Clay Guida and Nate Diaz have left some questioning the validity of his status as a UFC lightweight.
UFC 144 is geared for a Gomi victory. The murderer’s row of previously mentioned fighters is now behind him, and 36-year-old injury replacement Eiji Mitsuoka now stands in his path. Gomi has said he feels obligated to make an impact and produce a performance that will help reinvigorate MMA in his homeland. Will he deliver?
That question is certainly one reason to care about the UFC 144 “Edgar vs. Henderson” prelims, which air live on FX and Facebook prior to the four-hour pay-per-view broadcast. Here are four more:
Return of the ‘Kid’
Much like the aforementioned Gomi, Norifumi Yamamoto was once one of Japan’s top MMA products. Unlike Gomi, however, Yamamoto’s prime years came during a time when he was forced to fight above his natural weight class.
“Kid” diced his way through the K-1 Hero’s 2005 lightweight grand prix as part of a 14-fight winning streak that saw him finish the likes of Royler Gracie, Caol Uno, Genki Sudo, Kazuyuki Miyata and Rani Yayha. Following a two-year hiatus, however, the 34-year-old has lost four of his last five fights, posting losses in both of his UFC appearances. According to Yamamoto, injuries hindered his preparation in the two bouts.
Now apparently healthy, the Krazy Bee representative must get past British fighter Vaughan Lee on if he aims to climb the ranks and become a serious bantamweight contender. Will Yamamoto show why he was so highly regarded for so long, or has time truly gotten the better of the once dynamic “Kid?”
It was not so long ago that Steve Cantwell was regarded as a promising light heavyweight. “The Robot” posted a 4-1 record within World Extreme Cagefighting, avenging a 2007 defeat to Brian Stann to capture the WEC title.
After a fortuitous UFC debut that saw Cantwell mangle the elbow of Razak Al-Hassan with an armbar, the fighter hit hard times, dropping three consecutive decisions during which time he dealt with an undisclosed medical condition and then a knee injury.
Following Octagon defeats to Luiz Cane, Cyrille Diabate and Stann, Cantwell made the cut to 185 pounds in 2011. The newly christened middleweight looked as if he had made the right decision in the opening round of his UFC 136 clash with Mike Massenzio, rifling off effective combinations with ease. However, it would not last, as Cantwell fatigued noticeably in the second two frames and Massenzio poured it on, handing “The Robot” his fourth loss in as many fights.
Still only 25 years old and with only 12 professional bouts to his credit, Cantwell should still have plenty of tread left on his tires, but he will have no gimme in former Deep middleweight champion Riki Fukuda.
Has the sun prematurely set on Cantwell’s UFC career, or will the fighter find his way back on track? One thing is for certain: few, if any, have maintained a UFC roster spot after suffering five straight losses.
Consistency for Mizugaki
Where does Takeya Mizugaki fit in the UFC bantamweight division?
A former Cage Force grand prix winner, Mizugaki, 28, rose to prominence after the fall of Pride, challenging Miguel Torres for his WEC championship in 2008. Following his unanimous decision defeat to Torres, the Shooting Gym Hakkei fighter alternated between wins and losses in his next seven bouts, struggling to find consistency in a burgeoning division that will likely only become tougher.
In Mizugaki’s defense, he has not exactly fought scrubs. Losses to Torres, Scott Jorgensen, Urijah Faber and Brian Bowles are nothing to be ashamed of. Mizugaki remains a talented fighter, and few could argue otherwise. However, he has yet to achieve a signature victory -- a win that will show fans he is ready to take the next step toward another title shot.
In Chris Cariaso, Mizugaki will not find his signature victory, but he could gather some momentum toward that end. Cariaso is also a veteran looking to string together back-to-back wins after splitting his last four fights. At 30 years old, the former Strikeforce talent could find himself climbing the bantamweight ladder after a win over a fighter the caliber of Mizugaki.
The Chinese Connection
As the only Chinese citizen on the UFC roster, Tiequan Zhang is important, not only to the world’s largest promotion but also to the entire MMA community.
The problem is that outside of a nifty guillotine choke, Zhang does not appear to have the required skills to do any meaningful damage to the featherweight rankings, as exhibited in his October defeat to Darren Elkins.
At 33, the odds of Zhang revamping his career and becoming something other than the UFC’s resident Chinese ambassador are slim, but that does not mean “The Mongolian Wolf” should be ignored. He is playing a critical role in representing Chinese MMA, as the UFC is attempting to break into one of the largest markets in the world.
As the niche sport continues to grow into a global commodity, Chinese MMA will most definitely play a part in the process. Bluntly put, Zhang’s in-cage successes are good for the MMA business.