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Homecage won't help one bit

Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Dana White said it all just before UFC 134 in Rio de Janeiro when he uttered the words "best fighter to ever come out of Japan" before Yushin Okami's name. This led to a few snickers and some loud mumbling from MMA historians. And then that finally gave way to some uncomfortable contemplation.

Could that actually be an accurate assessment? What about Kazushi Sakuraba? Shinya Aoki? A young Takanori Gomi? Right? Maybe. The thing that unexpectedly dawned on people was -- maybe Okami was the best.

Maybe this wasn't just PPV hyperbole.

This weekend, the UFC returns to Japan for the first time under Zuffa ownership. Unlike the UFC's return to Brazil, when 11 of 12 bouts featured Brazilian fighters, four of the seven fights on the UFC 144 main card will go off without Japanese fighters, including the three at the top of the card. Why? Because right now, there isn't a Japanese superstar -- at last not a trans-Pacific one. And if we're being real here, none of the Japanese fighters on the UFC 144 card -- aside from Okami -- has shown enough for anybody to be excited about potentially becoming a trans-Pacific star. Even with the UFC holding the event in Saitama, here's guessing geography doesn't play the kind of role it did for UFC 134 in Rio, when a Brazilian had his hand raised in all but one bout.

It doesn't help that Yoshihiro Akiyama, who has lost three straight fights, will draw a disgruntled, refocused Jake Shields in the highest profile bout. Needless to say, Shields is not who you want to see in front of you when trying to get off the schneid, even if you're dabbling in a new weight class and with reinvention. And if you don't like Akiyama's chances, you might not like the chances of his countrymen, either.

Take a look at all the Japanese fighters' records in their time with the UFC, and you'll glean why there won't likely be a sudden change of events come Saturday. Akiyama is 1-3-0 in the UFC, and the one win was a very close split decision over Alan Belcher. Hatsu Hioki is 1-0, but it didn't come easy against George Roop, and it won't be an easy night against Bart Palaszewski when he goes fishing for a title shot at featherweight. Gomi is 1-3 in the UFC after losing only five fights in the first 40 of his career. Norifumi Yamamoto is 0-2; Riki Fukuda is 0-1; both Issei Tamura and Eiji Mitsuoka are debuting at UFC 144.

Of all the Japanese fighters going, only Takeya Mizugaki (2-1) and Yushin Okami (10-3) have truly done well in the UFC. Mizugaki is fighting a very tough Chris Cariaso (remember the Michael McDonald fight?), and Okami faces Tim Boetsch, who is 2-0 as a reborn middleweight. These guys have the best chances Saturday night to represent Japan's MMA scene well.

Yet, looked at as a whole, UFC 144 could be a bitter homecoming for the Japanese fighters.

Japanese fighters match up well

Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Regardless of where its flag is planted, the Octagon, UFC's eight-sided proving ground, is home for the best in mixed martial arts to do their thing. For years, Japanese fighters have attempted to excel at the top of the sport, yet, with few exceptions, they found hard times inside its cold steel gates. But not this Saturday, my friends: I'm here to tell you the UFC's return to Japan will be a banner day inside the Octagon for men representing the host nation.

While UFC 144 features four Americans at the top, not-quite half of the 12-fight card is populated by Japanese fighters. Two, Takanori Gomi and Eiji Mitsuoka, face one another, so it's best to leave them out of this little debate.

Who's left?

Yoshihiro Akiyama takes on Jake Shields, no stranger to fighting in Nippon.

Yushin Okami meets powerful Tim Boetsch.

Hatsu Hioki has a championship shot riding on his bout with Bart Palaszewski.

Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto could use a pick-me-up against England's Vaughan Lee.

Riki Fukuda meets Steven Cantwell, loser of four straight.

A Takeya Mizugaki victory over Chris Cariaso would lift him from an eight-fight win-loss pattern that stretches to 2009.

And late replacement Issei Tamura faces an uphill battle against China's Mongolian Wolf, Zhang Tiequan.

I'm calling it like this: Japan goes 5-2, with Akiyama and Tamura falling short. I don't like "Sexyama" against Shields. The weight cut down to 170 for a 36-year-old loser of three straight is a giant red flag. And the fact that Akiyama is tasked with fighting Shields -- a dominant, savvy grappler -- seals the deal. The losers aren't the story, or, so far as I'm concerned, won't be.

Okami owns an edge over Boetsch in experience, technique and, yes, size. He's also a tremendous step up in competition from Boetsch's two middleweight conquests, Kendall Grove and Nick Ring. The top-five middleweight gets it done.

Hioki is No. 2 in the world at 145 pounds for a reason. Though Palaszewski has enjoyed a nice run, Hioki will be too much for him, especially on the ground.

"Kid" is an enigma. Even though he lost four of five, I can't picture him falling on home soil to the unspectacular Lee.

Fukuda will out-tough and out-work Cantwell.

And Mizugaki should skate past Cariaso, though it will be competitive.

So there you have it, fight fans. Japanese MMA might be in the dumps, but its fighters won't be after the weekend.

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