Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Aren't Japanese Fighters Succeeding in the UFC?


 Fighter X vs. Japanese fighter X, on UFC card X. What do you think of when you read the previous sentence? I could never hypothesize the feelings of the kinds of MMA fans that read my blog, but allow me a feeble attempt. You think the Japanese guy is going to get owned. You think he's undersized, and you think he's overhyped. You think to yourself, "Damn, another Japanese guy getting a shot at the big time? When is the UFC going to realize that JMMA is dead and that these guys, ultimately, aren't capable of competing at the highest level?"

Frankly, I can't blame you for thinking this. Over the past few years, the UFC has signed enough Japanese busts to put on an entire Sengoku show. But was this due to Japanese fighters simply not being good, or because Joe Silva's eye for Japanese talent isn't that sharp? Let's take a look at 6 random signings ...

Kazuhiro Nakamura (0-2 UFC)

Signing Kaz was purely a "look, we just bought PRIDE, so now we can use whatever fighters we want to put our guys over!" signing. If you don't believe me, check out Kaz's previous fight prior to making his UFC debut. He was thoroughly dominated by Shogun Rua, and his skill set was not fit for UFC staying power, even then. His striking never fully developed, and his judo credentials ignored how truly awful of a ground game he had (and has). Joe Silva hates signing guys after a loss. You know, unless the UFC wants to wave it's dick around. Like this.

Yoshihiro Akiyama (1-3 UFC)

Even though he took an impressive decision over Alan Belcher in his UFC debut, Yoshihiro Akiyama is more "solid acid test for good middleweights" than "legitimate contender."

Speedy note on the Belcher fight: it's a fight that people swear was a robbery. People bitch and moan about how Akiyama couldn't see by the letter parts of the fight, and how Belcher's leg kicks were more than effective enough to earn him the nod. Here's a message to all of those people ... watch that fight again. Who is the more effective boxer? Who scores takedowns and does damage whenever he's down there? And who not only lands more strikes, but more effective strikes? It's Yoshihiro Akiyama.

After that fight, though, the UFC threw Yoshi to the wolves. After a sub loss to Chris Leben and unanimous decision loss to Michael Bisping, Joe Silva made the completely inexplicable decision to make a fight between Akiyama and Vitor Belfort. Hah? You're not going to believe this, but he was knocked out quickly.

However, a recent "test cut" to 170 pounds is an encouraging sign for Akiyama, as he was always a small middleweight. I question his ability to thrive at a lighter weight class, though. It's 170, a much deeper division than 185. At the same time, Akiyama was getting the toughest possible fights at 185, so you never know.

In conclusion, I think Yoshi is a good boxer, and a good judo guy, but overall, his game lacks when it comes to cardio, and he seems like another overmatched Japanese guy to me.

Takanori Gomi (1-3 UFC)

Takanori Gomi was signed because he was formally the #1 ranked lightweight the world had to offer, with dominant wins over Tatsuya Kawajiri, Luiz Azeredo, and Hayato "Mach" Sakurai, consecutively, being the best examples of his prowess. 

However, after the UFC bought PRIDE, Gomi neglected his training. Today, he is the exact same fighter that he was in 2006: he paws with his lead hand, wings bombs (he DOES have amazing power), and hopes for the best.

You can't just stay in your basement in Japan, teaching wrestling classes to 6 year olds, and expect to win at the highest level anymore. You can't coast. That is what Takanori Gomi has done, and the only reason the UFC would consider keeping him around at the point is to give him one more fight at their Japan card in February. Gomi, the former #1 lightweight in the world, can't defend submissions, and doesn't seem interested in trying. Peace out, Gomi.

Ryo Chonan (1-3 UFC)

The last man to truly defeat Anderson Silva, I really thought Ryo could have success in the UFC. One of the few Japanese fighters that openly criticized the way MMA training is in Japan, Ryo came stateside to get high quality training, and on top of that, his awkward striking style and above average ground and pound seemed to spell some measure of success. But, it wasn't meant to be. After dropping close decisions to T.J. Grant and Brad Blackburn, Ryo was turned loose from his UFC contract.

One last thing: the Chonan-Silva fight is a very interesting re-watch. This is because, flying heel hook aside, this was not a lucky fight for Ryo Chonan. He avoided being subbed early in the first round, swept Silva, got on top, landed some nice ground and pound, and had already begun to take the fight over with leg kicks even before lacing one of the most spectacular submissions we've ever seen. This was a complete mixed martial arts performance from start to finish.

To watch this and think "4 years from now, Anderson will be undefeated in the greatest promotion in the world, he'll be their middleweight champion, and he'll also be well on his way to becoming quite possibly the greatest fighter any of us have ever seen" ... well, what can I say? It's crazy. Anderson looked so ordinary in PRIDE. He really did.

Michihiro Omigawa (1-4 UFC)

A solid judo practitioner, Omigawa seemed to enter the UFC firmly entrenched in the "Kazuhiro Nakamura Zone". He had his moments in losses to Matt Wiman and Thiago Tavares, but overall, he looked to be just another overmatched, undersized Japanese castoff with limited MMA skills.

After getting cut because of his loss to Tavares, Michihiro Omigawa was literally one of the last Japanese guys I EVER expected to make it back to the UFC. The skill and acumen, especially fighting on the feet, just wasn't there.

He lost to the Korean Zombie, and then, two strange things happened:

1. Omigawa, practically out of the blue, made massive improvements in his boxing, developing a herky-jerky, change-stances-every-two-milliseconds style that confused and destroyed multiple (and respectable) opponents, including Nam Phan and Hiroyuki Takaya.

2. Omigawa started winning fights, a clear deviation from early in his career.

After losing to an on-his-game Chad Mendes, Omigawa was completely ripped off against Darren Elkins, and that's a big reason why he generally played it safe and decided to dominate striker Jason Young from the top position, scoring a couple of beautiful trip takedowns along the way. My take: we haven't heard the last from Omigawa as a player at featherweight. He just needs to keep doing what he's doing. This turned out to be a solid "second chance" gift from the UFC.

Hatsu Hioki (1-0 UFC)

All of these entries bring us to Hatsu Hioki, who is as highly touted as you can be as a featherweight. Despite this, he still arguably lost a decision to George Roop in his UFC debut at UFC 137. In a roundabout way, he showed what he is good at, and where his skills lack. He's good (exceptionally so, even) at jiu-jitsu, most notably his rubber guard and positioning skills. He falters when he trusts his chin too much and elects to kickbox against guys with good kicks and knees (one George Roop).

We haven't heard the last from Hatsu Hioki as a player at featherweight. He showed glimpses of his grappling brilliance when he fought Roop, but unfortunately, those glimpses were overwhelmed by stretches where he looked incredibly ordinary. Hatsu even admitted as much.

So, what does this all mean? We have six guys with a combined UFC record of 5-15, and only one of those six guys didn't deserve to be there in the first place. The other five, upon making their debuts, ranged in potential. Anywhere from "He's definitely worth a look" to "He's going to fight for a title someday." What is the similarity that causes the Japanese to fail? Is it that the Japanese MMA scene is in shambles after the fall of PRIDE and K-1? Are they too undersized (They're known for not cutting much weight)? Do they have an inferiority complex when it comes to hanging with the best fighters in the world?

They don't gameplan. I really think that's what it is. Every single one of the guys I just described stands up and tries to throw bombs when he should probably look to take the fight to the ground where he has both a tactical and cerebral advantage. Sort of like Yushin Okami, who would single-handedly take our selected Japanese fighters record to a much more respectable 15-18 (Okami is 10-3 in the UFC). Try to get it to the ground, guys. Or you'll be back in DEEP before you know it. There's nothing wrong with this ... but some of you are above it. Show us.

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