Two of the UFC's most prominent featherweights will wage war this Saturday night (February 26, 2012) as former Shooto and Sengoku featherweight champion Hatsu Hioki takes on IFL and WEC veteran Bart Palaszewski on the UFC 144 main card in Saitama, Japan.
Hioki is widely regarded as one of the best featherweights on the planet. He shook off the Octagon jitters in squeaking past George Roop for his UFC debut last fall and he's hoping to score an impressive victory and potentially earn a title shot if he can get past Palaszewski.
Bart Palaszewski, just 28 years old, has faced a who's who of the top lighter-weight fighters in the world. He dropped down to featherweight in his UFC debut and crushed former top prospect Tyson Griffin via first round knockout at UFC 137 to emphatically make his mark on the division. If he can upset Hioki, he could find himself thrust into the title picture.
Will Hioki put on a stronger showing in front of his native Japan? Can Palaszewski play spoiler and potentially steal that title shot? How does each talented featherweight secure a victory on Saturday night?
Let's find out:Hatsu Hioki
Record: 25-4-2 overall, 1-0 in the UFC
Key Losses: Michihiro Omigawa (Sengoku 11)
How he got here: Hatsu Hioki spent much of the beginning of his career competing in Japan's Shooto organization, where he eventually rose to be featherweight champion. During that run, he also competed in Canada's now defunct TKO promotion, defeating eventual UFC title challenger Mark Hominick twice to win and defend the company's featherweight title.
The Japanese grappler also competed in Sengoku, where he would advance to the finals of a 16 man tournament before withdrawing due to injury.
Hioki would have his defining moment last year when he earned a title shot against the knockout machine Marlon Sandro and he showed he wasn't afraid to stand with the powerful brawler, winning a hard-fought unanimous decision and handing the Brazilian just the second loss of his professional career.
After one more fight in Shooto, Hioki signed with the UFC after Sengoku went belly-up. He made his promotional debut against George Roop and won a very close decision against the lanky American, winning the grappling exchanges while having trouble dealing with Roop's range in the stand-up.
How he gets it done: Hatsu Hioki has competent stand-up skills, but his biggest weapon is his incredible ground game. He might stand and trade with Palaszewski for a bit because he's not scared of anyone, but what he really wants to do is get inside, clinch up with the Polish-American and either drag him to the ground or work his trip takedowns.
If Hioki can get Palaszewski on the ground, keep your eyes open. He's one of those fighters that makes the ground work incredibly entertaining even for those uneducated on ground-fighting. He's constantly looking to pass guard, apply submission holds and his transitions are as smooth and seemingly effortless as anyone in MMA right now.
Palsaszewski is no newbie on the canvas, either, but he's no Hioki. The Japanese grappler is very dangerous with his guard passes and can pass to mount as quick as any featherweight in the world. He'll be looking to for a submission the moment he gets the fight to the ground, although he's a big preacher of "position before submission," so an attempt is most likely to come after he has advanced as far as he can go.
Hioki will need to get this fight to the ground if he wants a decisive victory.
Record: 36-14 overall, 1-0 in the UFC
Key Wins: Anthony Pettis (WEC 45), Tyson Griffin (UFC 137), Karen Darabedyan (WEC 47)
How he got here: You never would have thought Bart Palaszewski would be a UFC fighter, whether alone a budding contender if you saw the first four fights of his professional career where he went 0-4 from January 2002-January 2003.
Undeterred, "Bartimus" bounced back in a big way, winning 29 of his next 33 fights including big streaks of eight and 11 and holding notable victories against the likes of Ivan Menjivar, Kyle Watson and former IFL champion Ryan Schultz. Palaszewski became a staple of the IFL, competing 12 times with the promotion before joining up with the WEC.
While he didn't get off to the best start in the WEC, losing two of his first three fights, he went on a torrid four fight winning streak in the promotion which included a split decision victory against eventual lightweight champion Anthony Pettis.
The proud Polish-American was brought into the UFC following the WEC merger and after being delayed by an injury, he dropped down to featherweight and made an immediate impact, knocking out Tyson Griffin in the first round at UFC 137. With the victory, the 29 year old will now get a tremendous opportunity against Hioki, the number two ranked featherweight on the planet.
How he gets it done: Palaszewski is a scrapper. The veteran has been in there against some of the toughest fighters in the world and came out the other side. He's going to need to draw on all of that prior experience to defeat Hioki, a fighter with a very awkward style.
"Bartimus" has some big power in both hands, so most importantly, he should be looking to keep this fight standing and be cautiously aggressive with his punches. While he's got a good ground game, he doesn't want to overcommit to a blow and find himself in a perilous situation on his back against someone as dangerous on the canvas as Hioki.
Look for the Chicagoan to work angles, and try to remain in the pocket without giving Hioki an opening to clinch or put him in a body lock. It's a small window of opportunity, but Palaszewski has enough experience to pull it off. While Hioki has been able to stand and survive against powerful strikers, that doesn't mean he's invincible.
If Palaszewski lands a big right hand, he could very well finish this fight.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight absolutely has to be whether or not Hioki can take it to the ground. If he's forced to stand and trade with Palaszewski, he could get put in a rough position as the Chicagoan is very nuanced on his feet and could potentially overwhelm him.
It's not just about if Hioki can get the fight to the ground, it's just as important that he get inside Palaszewski's punching range, closing the distance and securing a clinch or body lock position. That's where he's most dangerous as he can score all kinds of takedowns, but he's going to have to wade through some heavy fists to get to where he needs to be. That could make all the difference.
Bottom Line: While Hioki's last fight against Roop was a snoozer, this one is seething with possibilities. He's going to be in danger of eating huge punches from the onset of the bout as Palaszewski hits incredibly hard and even if Hioki gets the fight to the ground, expect the Team Curran fighter to put up a ton of resistance against him. There is potential for excitement in the striking, in the clinch with the threat of a takedown always present and especially on the ground where Hioki can pass through strong guards like butter. These guys are too experienced and the stakes are too high for this not to be a fun battle.
Who will come out on top at UFC 144? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!