A title shot was potentially on the line as two of the UFC's top featherweights duked it out last night (February 25, 2012) when Hatsu Hioki and Bart Palaszewski battled for three rounds at UFC 144 in Saitama, Japan.
Palaszewski, just on his second fight since cutting down to 145 pounds, was hoping to score perhaps his most significant victory under the Zuffa banner.
But instead, he found himself squaring off against a new man in Hioki, who seemed completely different and energized compared to his UFC 137 counterpart, who seemed tentative, uncertain and rather dull.
So what was the big difference for Hioki this time around? And where do both top featherweights go from here?
Follow me after the jump for our Hatsu Hioki vs. Bart Palazsewski UFC 144 post-fight review and analysis:
From the moment the fight was started, it was obvious that this was a completely different Hatsu Hioki than the fighter from his UFC debut. He was light on his feet instead of sluggish and he was confident in his striking even though he was battling a veteran stand-up fighter.
Hioki even dropped Palaszewski briefly with a beautiful left jab which caught "Bartimus" completely by surprise. He mixed in a solid array of front kicks as well to keep the American guessing.
To make matters worse, Hioki also scored a takedown and proceeded to put on a clinic against the Chicago-based fighter on the canvas, passing his guard at will and nearly finishing the fight with a vicious armbar that Palaszewski somehow endured with some Gumby-esque elasticity.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Hatsu Hioki fight without him doing something dumb, and that happened in the second round when he chose to simply stand and trade for five straight minutes without attempting to take the fight down despite his tremendous success from earlier. This actually allowed Palaszewski to build some confidence and land some nice strikes of his own.
Thankfully, he either wised up or got some good corner advice as he quickly closed on distance on the Team Curran fighter and took him down with a beautiful trip takedown, again dominating with superior ground technique over the course of the final frame to earn a unanimous decision victory.
For Bart Palaszewski, this was simply a case of stepping up against a superior opponent and getting outclassed. Hatsu Hioki was the better man last night and while "Bartimus" held his own in the stand-up, he was just not in Hioki's league once the fight went to the ground. It's tough to tell him what to do better other than work harder to keep the fight standing as one can't expect a fighter even of Palaszewski's talents to instantly be able to advance to Hioki's elite level on the ground in such a short window.
I'd like to see him square off against someone like Manny Gamburyan next. If that doesn't happen, other potential opponents include Michihiro Omigawa or George Roop. He's still a top featherweight and deserves someone in the top 20 or 25 in the division despite the setback.
For Hatsu Hioki, he showed for two rounds the type of fighter he is capable of being. That first round in particular was incredibly impressive with his ability to use his range, display some power in the stand-up as well as mixing in kicks. On the ground, he was just in an entirely different league, proving his offensive grappling is perhaps as good as it gets in the division. This was the type of performance that originally made people think he could actually put up a challenge against Jose Aldo for the belt. I don't know if it was the fact he was fighting in his home country or what, but this was a significantly improved showing for Hioki.
Best case scenario would be the UFC offers Hioki a boatload of cash and he challenges Jose Aldo for the featherweight title next as he's by far the closest to earning the opportunity. If that falls through, and he said he wanted one more fight to gain experience beforehand, then I can see him potentially battling a returning Erik Koch for number one contender in the division. Hopefully it's the former instead of the latter as I'd prefer not to see Aldo put on ice any longer.
So what did you think, Maniacs?
Should Hioki challenge for the featherweight title after his strong showing against Palaszewski? Or would you rather see him get one more fight to "gain experience?"