It’s a curious place for a fighter to be in the top 10, even top five, of a weight class, knowing he’s nowhere close to getting a title shot. But when you’ve been drubbed by an existing champ, or even lost to him twice, it’s a tough proposition to ask for another crack at the crown.
Even if you have the chops and resume to make you an odds-on favorite against most of the rest of the top 10.
Years ago I dubbed this curious position as "Rich Franklin Territory." After Franklin had been demolished twice by Anderson Silva, he remained a top five fighter at middleweight, but had no hope whatsoever of getting a title shot. Henceforth, necessity became the mother of invention, and "Ace" found a career niche in shuttling between 185 and 205 pounds as a kind of reliable commodity the UFC could use when it needed a name guy to check off a box on a card.
However, when you’re unable to do that, being eminently dull to the casual fan, to say nothing of at odds with the UFC in a general sense, it’s a tough position. Stuck in a weight class where you’re probably good enough to beat most of the top guys is exactly where Yushin Okami is. And after Saturday night’s steamrolling of Alan Belcher (for the second time, no less), Okami’s decision win was equal parts one-sided and boring.
It’s not that the guy isn’t talented. It’s just that when he loses, such as against Silva or when hopelessly behind Tim Boetsch landed a miracle finishing barrage to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat – Okami is just a lot more exciting to watch.
He’s pretty much the middleweight version of what Jon Fitch used to be. Until Fitch resurrected his prospects with a thrilling, gut-check win over uber-talented Erick Silva. As a reward, Fitch got Demian Maia, which is no accident, because Maia’s ground-savvy style is the exact kind of match-up that could defuse Fitch’s own ground-based approach.
It will probably be a lot more exciting than most of Fitch’s fights.
I’m not sure where Okami’s equivalent is – perhaps a head-cracker like Hector Lombard, or Lombard’s latest victim, the leg lock specialist Rousimar Palhares. It’s hard to imagine anyone holding Palhares down for long without some sort of exciting developments, given his penchant for finding leg-lock attempts even while he’s getting bashed into the mat, so maybe the UFC can roll the dice there and give Okami the chance to generate excitement.
The tough thing about being Okami – or Fitch – is that the relative upside of their win compared to someone beating them is grossly disproportional. Take Johny Hendricks, for example. He wasn’t really in the title shot conversation until he blitzed out Fitch. Besting the former title challenger showed Hendricks could succeed at a new level.
The same could have been said for Chael Sonnen, whose brilliant, smash-mouth decision win over Okami teed him up for a title-eliminator showdown against Nate Marquardt. Beating the likes of an Okami or Fitch does a lot more for most opponents then they’ll do in losing to either guy.
Begrudgingly, over a long enough timeline, even a Fitch – who in my opinion is 10 times more exciting than Okami – will get an opening in the title queue. His recent victories over Silva, and B.J. Penn, were masterpieces of hard-nosed grappling, intensity, and dramatic displays of resilience where he closed both bouts with big-time third round onslaughts.
Okami seems content to ride out fights, occasionally nipping from top position to strike and maintaining his advantages. And given the dreary showings of the other five middleweights on the UFC 155 card, I’m not sure than any of them would be favored against him.
In a perverse way, I’d love to see him in against a Palhares, or even Vitor Belfort if "The Phenom" loses next month against Michael Bisping. Everyone deserves the right to be exciting in victory, and for Okami, that’s probably the only way he’s going to get a crack at the title as long as Silva is champion.
Belfort would be a particularly intriguing matchup, given his record of early-rounds explosions (he’s won all of his UFC bouts inside of five minutes, and never won a fight that went beyond that) and great takedown defense.
It’s doubtful the UFC would risk contender Chris Weidman against Okami at this point, either.
For while the "All American" would surely be favored, the downside is that Weidman loses, it’s a fight that’s not terribly exciting. Fitch had Penn and Silva to turn his career trajectory around, and in a way the loss to Hendricks probably opened up some manager’s eyes, who mistakenly saw him as a fighter in decline, instead of a guy with a dinged-up shoulder who probably shouldn’t have been fighting.
Saturday night probably reminded many of them why Okami is a rough assignment and one they’d rather steer clear of.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst