In April, the highest-ranked Japanese fighter in mixed martial arts turned down a shot to fight for Aldo's UFC featherweight title. He was 2-0 in the UFC, looking better in his second bout against Bart Palaszewski than his first versus George Roop, and everything was lined up for him.
Then he said "no" to Joe Silva's perfectly reasonable and expected matchmaking. Was this smart? Turns out, no, it wasn't. Regardless of how much Hioki felt he lacked for Octagon experience, no matter how much he may have wanted to tighten up his game, in spite of any lesson he could have learned that could have helped him defeat Aldo, history dictates fighters must say "yes" to such proposals.
"A title shot? Well of course I'll do it, Mr. Silva."
MMA is an unruly sport. Sure-fire things do not exist. As dangerous as Aldo looked since he emerged in the WEC and later bloomed in the UFC, Hioki wasn't going to uncover the mystery to beating the Brazilian by taking a fight against Ricardo Lamas. Or anyone, for that matter. His chances weren’t going to improve. All Hioki could have accomplished was logging more cage time, landing another victory against a solid fighter, and finding himself in pretty much the exact same scenario he was in April.
There wasn't upside in fighting anyone other than Aldo -- only a giant too-easy-to-fall-over cliff. Like Homer Simpson failing to jump a canyon on a skateboard, such was the looming potential of his decision. And so you have to wonder what the view looks like from the bottom, which is where Hioki (26-5-2) is tonight as he managed to regress during the points defeat.
The 28-year-old, well-traveled Japanese fighter opened adequately enough, utilizing his length and leverage to score takedowns and threaten with submissions. Two similar rounds seemed a reasonable enough expectation, but then Hioki wilted. He shied away from the fight. He made mistakes. This was not the execution of a man who has fought tough opponents all over the map, which, by extension, means he was not remotely capable, in body or mind, of defeating Aldo.
After losing the second, Hioki essentially disappeared in the third. With all he stood to gain, Hioki couldn't bring himself to go after Lamas, a solid though wholly unspectacular featherweight.
Hioki, as his reputation goes, fights smart. He maintains dominant positions, advances to better ones on the floor, and if he doesn't submit you, he'll ride out a decision win.
He didn't do any of that in Atlantic City. Instead, Hioki put his head in position to be guillotined. He did so several times in the final round and found himself in trouble, which he deserved.
As the moved closer to the cliff's edge, there wasn't an obvious sense of self preservation kicking in. Hioki did not react as if everything he'd worked so hard for since 2002 was slipping away. He just let it slip, which should be his biggest disappointment.
Being honest enough with oneself is a noble thing. He didn't believe he could beat Aldo -- that's the bottom line (which is fine, I guess). But somehow that disbelief soured his performance against Lamas, or at the very least colored it.
I criticized Zuffa for putting this fight on Fuel TV as opposed to the night’s main card on FX. How could they not want to expose a guy who could get a crack at Aldo to as wide an audience as possible? Maybe the thinking was Hioki wasn’t ready for prime time, not in any sense. He sure didn’t look like it on Friday.
Fighters should come to call the decision whether or not to take a title fight in the UFC a "Hioki." That ignoble distinction once belonged to Pete Spratt, who declined a welterweight shot against Matt Hughes in 2003. That ridicule belongs to Hioki now.
He needed to trust his skills, trust the experience he brought, and trust the plan he intended to implement. He didn’t trust these things and fight Aldo.
Fighters be warned: Don't pull a Hioki.