Frankie Edgar's UFC lightweight title defense in Tokyo against Benson Henderson, the main event for UFC 144 on Saturday, screams "action fight."
While we've heard that tune aplenty in the run-up to UFC events, including, disappointingly, the recent Carlos Condit-Nick Diaz tilt, there's every reason to suspect these two 155-pound mixed martial artists will make good on expectations. Presuming that happens, Edgar-Henderson would join a distinguished list of high-paced, meaningful lightweight fights that graced Japanese soil.
The division has long been one of Japanese MMA's strongest points. Built during the early days of Shooto and given the light of day when Pride adopted the class (technically, that was 160 pounds), lightweights have long looked to Japan as the place where they could get a tough fight against world-class opposition. In part that was due to Zuffa axing the lightweights in the mid-2000s, but that doesn't paint a complete picture. The division has produced many world-class Japanese fighters, and would have done so regardless of what was happening in the States.
With Zuffa's wrong having long been righted, it's fitting Edgar-Henderson will go down on the island nation's shores.
My expectation is the fight will join the pantheon of top lightweight bouts we've been fortunate to see unfold in Japan. If so, Edgar-Henderson would join these bouts -- most replete with major stakes, all delivering high drama -- as the best of the bunch.
Why six? Because I couldn't bring myself to cut one from the list.
Caol Uno SUB3 Rumina Sato (Shooto: 10th Anniversary Event, May 29, 1999)
Sato was Shooto's golden child, the man fans and promoters hoped (and dreamed) could grab hold of the sanctioning organization's 154-pound title (a welterweight title in Japan) and become a star. It was never meant to be.
The first sign Sato, whom many considered the most exciting fighter in the world at the time, was snake-bit came in his endeavor against the gritty Uno, who later went on to fight multiple bouts for the UFC.
Headlining an event that included eventual UFC champions Dave Menne, Matt Hughes and Carlos Newton, Sato-Uno opened at a frenzied pace. Sato scored early control, nearly finishing Uno by rear-naked choke. But as was proven throughout his career, Uno is exceedingly difficult to finish this way. Sato failed to finish and eventually succumbed to Uno's tenacious takedowns and solid ground-and-pound.
Late in the third round, with Sato fading, Uno sprawled his way out of a single-leg takedown, took Sato's back and, to the roar of a small but passionate hard-core audience in Tokyo, forced a tap by rear-naked choke.
Uno defeated Sato a second time a year and a half later, then departed Shooto for a UFC lightweight title shot against Jens Pulver, the co-headliner on Zuffa's first card since purchasing UFC from Semaphore Entertainment Group.
Takanori Gomi TKO2 Dokonjonosuke Mishima (Shooto: Year End Show 2002, Dec. 14, 2002)
A slept-on fight pitted Gomi, the undefeated heir apparent to Uno and Sato, against eccentric grappler Dokonjonosuke Mishima. Gomi, Shooto champion after out-pointing Sato (his third try at winning the 154-pound title), faced his first defense of the belt -- and what a test it was. Gomi's mode for victory early in his career was control. But against Mishima, he showed flashes of the heavy-fisted brawler who would go on to become Pride champion and No. 1 ranked lightweight in MMA.
Mishima put Gomi on the canvas and landed a series of strong punches to earn the first round. But at the start of Round 2, Gomi countered a wild punch with a perfect left hook that dropped the challenger. Shooto's rules included standing eight counts and breaks on knockdowns. Gomi was in destroy mode. When Mishima stood, "The Fireball Kid" swarmed, scoring with punches and knees leading to Mishima nearly being driven out of the ring.
Joachim Hansen KO3 Caol Uno (Hero's 1, March 26, 2005)
Japanese MMA was on the rise in 2005, and K-1 stepped in the game with their own brand of the sport labeled "Hero's." That first card was mashup of kickboxing, MMA and the Bob Sapp circus. Hansen and Uno, both former Shooto champions, put on a war that, even if it had not ended by spectacular knockout, would be among the best fights the division has put together.
This bout had it all, especially when it came to grappling, and was extremely competitive until the end, when "Hellboy" Hansen slammed his knee into Uno's jaw. The cold knockout was brutal and capped what was arguably the best display of mixed martial arts in 2005.
Takanori Gomi SUB1 Tatsuya Kawajiri (Pride: Bushido 9, Sept. 25, 2005)
If you were a top lightweight in MMA, the Pride Bushido 9 tournament was where you wanted to be in 2005. The three-round event, which featured quarterfinals and semifinals on the same night, brought some of Japan's best against the likes of Yves Edwards and Jens Pulver. The highlight of the night, without question, was the quarterfinal bout between Gomi and Kawajiri.
Gomi was on a seven-fight roll, all under the Pride banner, while Kawajiri, then the Shooto champion, hadn't dropped a bout in his last nine. This was the big one among Japanese MMA circles in the lightweight division, and it did not disappoint.
All action from the start, Gomi made Kawajiri feel his power early, and chopped away at "The Crusher" throughout the 10-minute opening round. "The Fireball Kid," in perhaps his finest performance, finished in high style. Body shots led to combinations to the head, and though Kawajiri was game, he simply had no answer.
Gilbert Melendez UD2 Tatsuya Kawajiri (Pride Shockwave 2006, Dec. 31, 2006)
Melendez, the current Strikeforce champion, ranked No. 2 in the world by ESPN.com, went to war with Kawajiri, who had recovered from the loss to Gomi by winning four straight. If you haven't seen this fight, do yourself a favor and find it online. Of all the fights listed here, this stands out most for its ferocity. Both men moved forward. Both threw punches and knees as hard as they could, and both connected. The grappling exchanges were solid. There's no downtime in this fight. An incredible display by both.
Eddie Alvarez UD2 Joachim Hansen (Dream 3, May 11, 2008)
In 2008, Alvarez joined Dream, the promotion that sprang out of Pride's demise, and engaged in a hellacious series of fights. The middle of that stretch matched the Philadelphian against Hansen.
It was a stylistic bonanza.
Alvarez's first punch dropped Hansen, setting the tone for the fight. In a bit of a miracle, the Norwegian survived, recovered, gave back as good as he got, threatened Alvarez numerous times with submissions, and participated in one of the most frenzied decisions you'll ever see. Neither man backed down for 15 minutes. Truly impressive.
Alvarez followed up with another war against Kawajiri, but fell short of going 5-0 that year when he tapped to a Shinya Aoki heel hook on New Year’s Eve.