Genki desu ka!
For the first time in more than one decade, Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is heading back to the "Land of the Rising Sun" with some stars, old and new, leading the way at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on Feb. 25, 2012.
UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar will return to the cage for the first time since his knockout win over Gray Maynard, taking on the surging Ben Henderson in his fourth title defense. In addition, PRIDE superstars like Quinton Jackson and Mark Hunt will return to their old stomping grounds, while Anthony Pettis vs. Joe Lauzon square off in a lightweight tilt with serious title implications on the line.
Before all that, however, we have a solid set of "Prelims" bouts on the under card, which is filled to the brim international talent, including former Pride FC lightweight champion, Takanori Gomi.
Join us after the jump for part one (of two) of our UFC 144 "Prelims" breakdown, including the two of the four fights that will be shown on FX -- Riki Fukuda vs. Steve Cantwell and Takeya Mizugaki vs. Chris Cariaso -- and the one the will start the Facebook portion of the telecast (Tiequan Zhang vs. Issei Tamura).
Check it out:
185 lbs.: Riki Fukuda vs. Steve Cantwell
Wrestling specialist Riki Fukuda (17-5), who fights out of the Grabaka gym that famously produced the great Kazuo Misaki, looked like he had broken the curse of Japanese fighters failing in their Octagon debuts in his UFC 127 scrap with Nick Ring, having soundly controlled "Promise" with his relentless takedown attack. Bafflingly, the judges sided unanimously with Ring, and a car accident shortly thereafter has left Fukuda out of the cage for almost a year. One of the grittiest fighter you’re likely to find, Fukuda’s incredible toughness and relentlessness make him a joy to watch, and both he and his countrymen would be greatly pleased to see him score his long-overdue first Octagon victory.
At 7-1, with a win over Brian Stann and a disturbing technical submission of Razak Al-Hassan in his UFC debut, Steve Cantwell (7-5) looked poised to make a name for himself in the division. Unfortunately, things soon went about as south as you can go without hitting Mexico, and he now finds himself winless (0-4) since 2009. After getting embarrassed by Cyrille Diabate back at UFC on Versus 3, "Robot" was soundly outstruck and outgrappled by Mike Massenzio in his middleweight debut, and will most likely be fighting for his continued employment against the hometown favorite.
Fukuda isn’t a world-beater, but he’s an incredibly tough, entertaining fighter with a solid wrestling game and some decent stand up. His fight with Ryuta Sakurai was one of the more entertaining in recent memory, and I don’t think anyone should hold the Ring fight against him.
Cantwell, well, he’s lost four straight. He had absolutely nothing to offer Diabate, didn’t present the mid-tier Massenzio with any issues, and just doesn’t seem to possess any one great ability he can use to overcome Fukuda. While Fukuda has been out for almost 12 months, there’s still enough of a disparity in his and Cantwell’s abilities that he should be fine regardless.
Cantwell’s tough enough to survive whatever Fukuda throws at him, but not skilled enough to stop it. Fukuda by dominant, wrestling-centric decision.
Prediction: Fukuda via unanimous decision
135 lbs.: Takeya Mizugaki vs. Chris Cariaso
Highly-successful on the Japanese circuit, Takeya Mizugaki (15-6-2) came out of nowhere in his WEC debut to give then-king Miguel Torres everything he could handle. Since then, he’s gone 4-3, defeating the likes of Jeff Curran and Rani Yahya, while falling to division elite Urijah Faber, Brian Bowles and Scott Jorgensen. Most recently, he scored his first ZUFFA finish, knocking out Cole Escovedo with a nasty punching onslaught. In what is sure to be a barnburner against fellow striking enthusiast Cariaso, Mizugaki has the chance to put together his first winning streak since 2008 in front of his countrymen and will look to make the best of that opportunity.
Nobody can accuse Chris Cariaso (12-3) of walking an easy road. After decisioning Rafael Rebello in his WEC debut, he was matched up against Brazilian super-prospect Renan Barao, falling via submission. After defeating Will Campuzano in his UFC debut, "Kamikaze" was paired up with another top-tier prospect: Michael McDonald ... and he very nearly defeated him. Like Mizugaki, Cariaso will be fighting to establish his first win streak in years and make a significant step up the rankings at the same time. With his varied striking arsenal and effective ground game, Cariaso is a migraine in the making for a large portion of the division and would certainly be discussed as a member of its upper echelon with a win on Saturday.
It’s interesting to see how their records parallel one another. Every other fight, they get paired up with some top-tier wrecking ball, and since both of them are coming off a win, one has to break his streak of consistent inconsistency.
And it’ll be Mizugaki.
All four of Mizugaki’s losses have come to title contenders or champions, while he’s beaten solid fighters like Yahya and Curran. Cariaso is undoubtedly skilled and his losses were also to serious competition, but he’s struggled against mid-tier fighters like Campuzano and Lee. As good as he is, the speed and tenacity of Mizugaki will be too much for Cariaso, who doesn’t have the wrestling that has proven necessary to stifle the Japanese dynamo.
This has the potential to be "Fight of the Night," and after three entertaining rounds, Mizugaki will find himself with his hand raised and his first two-fight streak in his ZUFFA career.
Prediction: Mizugaki via unanimous decision
145 lbs.: Tiequan Zhang vs. Issei Tamura
The first of his countrymen to earn a purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the first to fight for the UFC, Tiequan Zhang (15-2) raised eyebrows in his World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) debut, choking out Pablo Garza with his patented guillotine in the first round. Roufusport product Danny Downes, however, played spoiler in his second go-around, surviving a hairy first round to decision a fading Zhang. The latter bounced back with an instant submission of Jason Reinhardt in his UFC debut, but fell once again to Darren Elkins at UFC 136.
"The Mongolian Wolf" will look to prove himself more than just a marketing tool with a nice guillotine against late replacement Tamura.
The 2008 Shooto Rookie champ, the hard-nosed Issei Tamura (6-2) will be entering the Octagon on the heels of second career loss, a narrow decision defeat to veteran Guy Delumeau at Shoot the Shooto 2011. In fact, Tamura is 1-2 in his last three, having lost to well-regarded Taiki Tsuchiya two fights prior. Tamura fights out of the vaunted Krazy Bee gym, home of "KID" Yamamoto and bantamweight wunderkind Kyoji Horiguchi. With Horiguchi having recently suffered his first loss at the hands of Masakatsu Ueda and "KID" struggling, Tamura, who is replacing the injured Leonard Garcia, will look to make the most of this opportunity and bring glory to Krazy Bee.
There are several things working in Zhang’s favor -- Tamura is taking this fight on two weeks notice, he’s 1-2 in his last three, and he’s never fought in the cage before. Further, he has less than half the experience of Zhang and has only one finish to his credit.
But, styles make fights, and Tamura’s looks to me to be just what the doctor ordered to beat Zhang.
Tamura isn’t a complicated fighter -- he throws hard, bulls you over for a takedown, and doesn’t do much once he’s there. He’s perfectly willing to sit in the guard of a high-level grappler, as demonstrated by his victory over Gustavo Falciroli. While Zhang is no slouch on the ground, his fight with Elkins proved that he can be overwhelmed by determined wrestlers, which pretty much describes Tamura.
Zhang is completely capable of latching onto Tamura’s neck when the latter inevitably shoots and choking him out, but if that fails, he doesn’t have the takedown defense to stifle Tamura. Further, with Zhang’s cardio issues, his window of opportunity pretty much consists of one round, while Tamura can easily go hard through three. It won’t be pretty, but Tamura will buck the curse of Japanese debutants with a grinding decision victory.
Prediction: Tamura via unanimous decision
Stop by tomorrow for a look at the last two bouts on the undercard, featuring two of the greatest Japanese in modern history, "The Fireball Kid" and "KID" Norifumi Yamamoto.
See you then!
Remember, too, that MMAmania.com will provide LIVE blow-by-blow, round-by-round coverage of UFC 144, beginning with the "Prelims" bout on Facebook scheduled for around 7:30 p.m. ET. In addition, we will also provide LIVE, real-time results of the main card action as it happens throughout the evening this upcoming weekend.