If he didn’t raise any eyebrows in his Octagon debut against George Roop back at UFC 137, highly regarded featherweight Hatsu Hioki did so on his native soil against stalwart Bart Palaszewski at UFC 144.
The reigning Shooto lightweight and Sengoku featherweight champion did more than live up to his reputation and billing -- he suddenly came across like an attractive fight for UFC kingpin Jose Aldo.
This was a feat for the “Iron Broom,” who is largely considered the No. 2 featherweight in the world, including in ESPN’s Power Rankings. Though he occupies the space, it felt a little like window-dressing to UFC-centric fans who only had the Roop bout to fill in the context. But for those who have followed Hioki’s career overseas and saw him notch victories over Marlon Sandro and Takeshi Inoue in recent years, this felt more like it.
Hioki managed to dominate Rounds 1 and 3 by timing out his jab and setting up his takedowns for a unanimous decision (officially 30-27, 29-28, 29-28). Once he had “Bartimus” on the floor, Hioki dominated the position and kept him in survival mode throughout. Hioki was the quicker fighter; he reacted well to everything Palaszewski threw at him, and he capitalized on mistakes. Though he was a little tentative in the second round, Hioki was the dominant fighter throughout the bout, moving him to 2-0 in the UFC.
More importantly, it gave Hioki some wind behind his sails in his quest to face Aldo. Hioki has been a very quiet contender up until now, to the point that fellow 145ers like Dustin Poirier, Erik Koch and Chan Sung Jung (and even non-feathers like Frankie Edgar) were getting more mileage as legit threats to Aldo's belt. But it was a big statement fight with Palaszewski, which was a must for him to present himself as an imposition to Aldo. Hioki landed three takedowns, worked from dominant positions and was a tyranny when on top. It was the vintage Hioki that the UFC could use in marketing a title fight.
In other words, it was exactly the kind of fight that Hioki needed to make a case. And timing is on his side, too. If the UFC does indeed hold a card in Sao Paulo in June with Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen II as the main event, a perfect table-setter would be Hioki-Aldo.
Of all the Japanese fighters on display in Saitama at UFC 144, Hioki's showing was perhaps the most impressive. And given Okami’s loss to Tim Boetsch, the baton has been passed to Hioki to bring a UFC back to the Land of the Rising Sun.