This Saturday (Jan. 4, 2014) two featherweights will make their Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debuts when Tatsuya Kawajiri faces Sean Soriano in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 34, which takes place at Marina Bay Sands in Marina Bay, Singapore.
Kawajiri was originally slated to face Hacran Dias, but an injury forced the latter out and Soriano stepped in as a replacement. Despite both fighters never having fought in UFC, their respective bodies of work are far from similar.
With 41 professional mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts under his belt, many feel that Kawajiri's Octagon debut is long overdue. "Crusher" has won five consecutive fights after losing to Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce Lightweight title in April 2011. He has won all four of his fights since dropping down to 145 pounds in Sept. 2011.
Kawajiri was last seen edging Michihiro Omigawa via decision at Dream 18 on Dec. 31, 2012. After fighting four times in 2011 and twice in 2012, Kawajiri went without a fight in 2013. That could definitely come into play against unknown, but undefeated prospect Soriano.
Blackzilians team member Soriano sits with an impressive undefeated (8-0) record. He enjoys the benefits of training with a surging squad of notable fighters like Rashad Evans, Eddie Alvarez and Michael Johnson, among others, at South Florida's Jaco Hybrid Training Center. Soriano last fought in May, winning a decision over Elvin Leon Brito at Championship Fighting Alliance (CFA) 11.
He's shown a ton of promise at 145 pounds but Kawajiri is undoubtedly his stiffest test yet. Soriano has a golden opportunity to announce himself as a dark horse in the crowded UFC 145-pound arena.
Unfortunately for him, he'll have to climb a mountain to do it. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Tatsuya Kawajiri vs. Sean Soriano:
Record: 32-7-2 overall, 0-0 UFC
Key Wins: Josh Thomson (Dynamite! 2010)
Key Losses: Gilbert Melendez (Pride Shockwave 2006, Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley), Eddie Alvarez (DREAM 5), Shinya Aoki (DREAM 15)
Keys to Victory: Kawajiri is a talented combatant who made a name for himself fighting mainly in Japan. He brings a good balance to the Octagon, having won 12 bouts via knockout, nine by submission, and 10 on the judges' scorecards.
With three choke victories in his recent five-fight win streak, it appears as if Kawajiri is leaning heavily on his grappling. Since he didn't fight during 2013, that may have changed by now; we'll just have to wait and see. Soriano has neither been knocked out nor submitted but Kawajiri is a new level of opponent.
"Crusher" should look to use his boxing to set up various takedowns and gain an advantageous position on the ground. From there, he'll look to finish the fight with either a submission or ground and pound. Soriano has shown that his mat skills are rather proficient so he won't tap easily.
However, Kawajiri has the huge experience advantage here. That will be the main feather in his cap. "Crusher" has faced some of the best lightweight talent in the world during his lengthy career. The main knock on him was that he failed against truly elite competition like Melendez, Alvarez, and Aoki.
But Soriano is a far cry from those names.
Kawajiri needs to keep his wits about him and avoid a case of the Octagon jitters. Thankfully he's been fighting for almost 14 years, so that should help him deal with the pressure of finally fighting in UFC. His opponent will also be debuting and will be much more susceptible to a flop from inexperience.
Kawajiri has a very winnable fight at UFC Fight Night 34. Dias would have been a tougher match but at least he should be able to get his Octagon stint kicked off right.
The burden is on him to avoid a monumental upset from young upstart Soriano.
Record: 8-0 overall, 0-0 UFC
Key Wins: None
Key Losses: None
Keys to Victory: Soriano is set for the biggest fight of his life against Kawajiri. He can absolutely make a huge statement by defeating one of the most well known Japanese fighters on the planet.
He'll have to be extremely sharp to do it.
The best way to accomplish that will be to capitalize on Kawajiri's recent inactivity. Soriano should look to get in "Crusher's" face from the opening bell and not allow him to get into any kind of comfort zone. The wily veteran won't budge easily but Soriano should be prepared for wherever the fight goes with three knockouts, three submissions, and two decision wins on his record.
Soriano has shown excellent Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, and his wrestling should be top notch thanks to his time-spent with the Blackzilians' wrestling coach, Olympic gold medalist Kenny Monday. He's going to need every ounce of skill he can muster for this fight.
Soriano may be comfortable going to the ground with "Crusher," and there's a chance that he can shock the world with a fight-ending submission. It's just not that likely given the vast experience edge Kawajiri holds over him. Kawajiri has tapped out three times in his career, but one was against legendary grappler Aoki and another was in his very first MMA bout.
Soriano has more than just a puncher's chance here. He has to avoid letting the bright lights of the Octagon get to him and stay focused. If he can keep his mental faculties about him, he could end up notching the biggest victory of his career.
His Blackzilians team has been on a tear as of late; Soriano can add a huge contribution to that surge with a win at UFC Fight Night 34. Pushing the pace and keeping his foot on the gas pedal will provide him with the best chance to do so.
Bottom Line From Singapore: The bottom line for this fight is that it is Kawajiri's fight to win ... at least on paper. The discrepancy in number of fights between Kawajiri and Soriano is almost laughable. Soriano is definitely off the radar right now, but the undefeated prospect does have the talent to surprise in Singapore.
Kawajiri should win this fight, and if he does so impressively, a long list of potentially exciting fights in the stacked UFC featherweight division will await him. He's looked great so far at 145 pounds, albeit against less-than-stellar competition.
This is "Crusher's" chance to shine. If he fails against Soriano, he won't have too many more chances to prove himself in the cutthroat world of UFC. A win here is absolutely crucial for Kawajiri to prove he belongs amongst the best in the world.
At 35-years-old, Kawajiri may only have one legitimate run left in him. It's time to sink or swim in the dangerous UFC waters.
On the other hand, Soriano has a tantalizing best-case scenario. A win will sustain his undefeated record while instantly getting people to start talking about him. If he loses it will be just be chalked up to the expected outcome. He has a lot less to lose than Kawajiri ... and he needs to fight like that's the case.
Even if he does lose, he has plenty of time to get better after tasting his first defeat. Experiencing defeat at the hands of a veteran like Kawajiri could be a great learning experience for Soriano, so he's in a sort of win-win proposition right now. The future will be bright for Soriano regardless of the outcome at UFC Fight Night 34.
After taking 2013 off, the debuting Tatsuya Kawajiri will look to win six in a row against late replacement Sean Soriano. Will "Crusher" make a successful splash in the Octagon?