When the UFC went to Rio de Janeiro in August, it was a spiritual homecoming. A lot of time had passed since the salad days of 1998, and a grown-up UFC was crashing back triumphantly to the land that bore its earliest fruits.
That meant UFC 134 -- more commonly referred to as UFC Rio -- became a celebration of Gracie genealogy, of the Nogueira’s, of assorted Silva’s, of Chute Boxe, of the entire neglected culture of limb origamists everywhere who were so instrumental in changing the way people approached fighting. There were a dozen bouts on the card. Only one fight didn’t have a Brazilian in it, an out-of-place clash between Yves Jabouin (French-Canadian) and Ian Loveland (American). Smartly, that was the first prelim of the night, designed to play out while people found their seats.
Otherwise, it was Brazilian pandemonium. In a Brazil against the world scenario, a Brazilian had his hand raised in 10 of the remaining 11 bouts. It was all about Brazil and its best fighters. The Cariocas were whipped into a frenzy that night.
UFC 144 is official for Feb. 26 at the Saitama Super Arena, and it’s been simplified to UFC Japan. This, too, is a homecoming of sorts to the native roots. As Lorenzo Fertitta talked about the old recipes in a press release, saying, “Japan is the spiritual home of martial arts -- the world has learned from the Japanese many aspects of how to compete in hand-to-hand combat with respect and honor.” This parlays nicely with the UFC Rio vibe, which courted a similar muse. If there’s a difference, it’s this -- Japan may be a spiritual home of martial arts, but not its best practitioners. There are scant few Japanese fighters on UFC Japan’s main card.
In fact, there’s only one: Yoshihiro Akiyama. And he’s on there because he’s fighting a big name in Jake Shields in a new weight class (170 pounds) after losing three in a row as a middleweight. This is a curiosity bout for a man in search of lost mojo.
Otherwise, UFC Japan’s main card is all about the imports. Why? Because it has to be. Frankie Edgar from Jersey, against Colorado's own Ben Henderson for the lightweight belt. Pride star Quinton Jackson returns to Japan to fight wrestler Ryan Bader, who jumped at the opportunity to fight in Japan (just as he did in 2010 when the opportunity to do battle with Keith Jardine in Sydney arose). A re-imagined Mark Hunt takes on Frenchman Cheick Kongo in a heavyweight fight. Americans Anthony Pettis and Joe Lauzon round out the card in a lightweight bout.
Where’s Yushin Okami, the man Dana White called “the best fighter to ever come out of Japan” ahead of his fight with Anderson Silva in Rio? He’s on the prelims against revivalist Tim Boetsch. Okami headlines a fight in Rio as a stranger in a strange land (read: as prey for Anderson Silva), yet can’t crack the main card in his native Japan. It doesn’t help that there’s a very real chance of a stylistic stalemate in this one, but the point is this -- the best fighter to come out of Japan doesn’t exactly carry the importance that the imports do.
Same goes for the “Iron Broom” Hatsu Hioki, who underwhelmed in his debut victory against George Roop. He’s on the prelims, even if it is a No. 1 contender spot he’s fighting for against Bart Palaszewski. Ditto the “Fireball Kid,” Takanori Gomi (1-3 in his last four), Norifumi Yamamoto (1-4 in his last five), Riki Fukuda (coming off a loss to Nick Ring) and Takeya Mizugaki (who has traded wins and losses in his last eight bouts). All of these guys had successful careers in Japan that haven’t yet translated to the Octagon. In fact, some of them wouldn’t be on the roster if there wasn’t going to be such a thing as UFC Japan, so there’s no room for quibbling about placement.
Unlike with UFC Rio, UFC Japan won’t (and can’t) be painted as "Japan Against the World." It’s more like the world coming to Japan for an exciting visit. If the UFC dotted the main card with the best Japanese fighters -- which taken as a collective, would look like wholesale mediocrity -- it wouldn’t be fit for pay-per-view. And, as Dana White reminds everyone whenever possible, this is pay-per-view business.
Therefore, Frankie Edgar and Quinton Jackson will fetch the PPV buck as the UFC forays into Asia, and the local fighters will try and change a few notions in the relative quiet of their own backyard.