Yahya is an experienced ground technician, having showcased his talents under the Zuffa banner for nearly six years now. Since returning to the featherweight division for his UFC debut, he's experienced some solid success inside the Octagon, most recently choking out Josh Grispi. He'll be trying to repeat that success against Hirota this weekend.
Hirota has a long resume as one of Japan's finest talents in the lightweight division, having performed admirably in DEEP and Sengoku for years, winning both promotion's titles. He made his Strikeforce debut last year and gave top contender Pat Healy his toughest fight in years before dropping a controversial decision. Now, he's hoping to capitalize on fighting in his home country against a foreign invader.
Will Yahya be too much for Hirota on the canvas? Will dropping down to featherweight give Hirota the advantage he needs? What's the key to victory for both men?
Record: 17-7 overall, 2-1 in the UFC
Key Losses: Chad Mendez (UFC 133), Takeyea Mizugaki (WEC 48), Joseph Benavidez (WEC 45)
How he got here: Rani Yahya is one of the most accomplished grapplers to ever enter the UFC. He competed in the ADCC competition three times from 2003-2007, eventually taking home the gold medal in his last year.
All-the-while, Yahya was also fighting in mixed martial arts, fighting in his native Brazil and in Japan and building up an 11-2 record and only losing to top talents like JZ Cavalcante and Freidson Paixao. He would make his WEC debut in '07 and he made a huge splash, submitting eventual title challenger Mark Hominick in just 79 seconds.
Yahya could never really get anything going in WEC, trading wins and losses and only ever going on one three fight winning streak. After losing his last two fights in the WEC at bantamweight, he decided to make the move back up to 145 pounds for his UFC debut and he's experienced his best run of success, defeating former champion Mike Brown and most recently knocking off former top contender Josh Grispi with a first round submission.
He'll be hoping to showcase those skills in full form this weekend.
How he gets it done: Yahya possesses some of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu in all of the UFC, really being able to dominate all of his opponents on the canvas. He'll want to get this fight to the canvas in a hurry and really try to put Hirota in a precarious position immediately.
Look for Yahya to close the distance immediately and try to avoid letting Hirota get any offense off on the feet. If he can take Hirota down, he'll be in really good shape. Yahya can be very smothering on top with his hip pressure and he is very aggressive in not only guard passing but also with attacking openings for submissions.
Hirota is not the type of fighter that will tap out as evidenced by his loss to Shinya Aoki back at the end of 2009 so if Yahya catches him in something, he'd better be prepared to either choke him unconscious or break some joints.
Record: 14-5-1 overall, 0-0 in the UFC
Key Losses: Shinya Aoki (Dynamite! 2009)
How he got here: Mizuto Hirota got off to a quick start in his MMA career, winning his first six fights under the Shooto banner. He rose up the ranks, progressively fighting stiffer and stiffer competition and compiling an impressive resume that included wins over the likes of Ryan Schultz and Satoru Kitaoka, the latter of which was for the Sengoku lightweight title which he won via TKO in the fourth round.
His victory in Sengoku earned him the biggest fight of his life against Shinya Aoki, but he was no match for the grappling wizard, not only losing in the first round, but having his arm brutally broken via hammer lock in one of the most violent submissions in MMA history.
After nearly 20 months off, Hirota returned to the ring, this time under the DEEP banner where he won and defended the promotion's lightweight title. This drew the eyes of Strikeforce, which signed him to fight Pat Healy last August. In that bout, despite being severely undersized, he more than held his own and actually took the powerful wrestler down several times and outstruck him on the feet.
Despite that, he would go on to lose a close decision to "Bam Bam" but he impressed the UFC brass enough to give him a shot in the promotion where he'll be making his featherweight debut this weekend.
How he gets it done: Hirota's advantage in this fight will be his size and his fists. He's a competent grappler, but he wants to avoid being put on his back by Yahya, which is something he can actually pull off considering he was actually able to fend off the significantly larger Pat Healy's takedowns.
The Japanese powerhouse possesses some pretty solid striking skills but where he's best is his ground and pound. His best plan of attack is going to be to try to hurt Yahya on the feet, land that heavy combination of punches and then try to follow him to the ground if he's hurt and finish him off with some heavy punches and elbows on the canvas.
As long as Hirota can avoid being dumped on the canvas and potentially outgrappled, he has a very good chance of utilizing his size to outwork Yahya.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight other than the Hirota fighting in his home country will be Mizuto Hirota making the cut to featherweight for the first time in his career. He's the type of fighter who has never had to cut much weight and still been able to hold his own at 155 pounds, winning multiple titles along the way, but now that he's stepping up his game at the top levels, being a scrappy undersized lightweight just isn't enough.
If his body reacts properly to the cut, he's going to be significantly bigger and stronger than Yahya, who has competed at bantamweight several times in his career. If he's not used to cutting weight and his body doesn't react properly to the cut, he could be drained both physically and mentally on Saturday night. How the weight cut goes is a huge factor in who wins this fight.
Bottom Line: This fight is fascinating simply because you've got a fighter who likes to ground and pound opponents from top control fighting an ADCC world champion submission specialist. Hirota came up short the last time he was paired off against a grappler with Yahya's overall skills, but he's also pounded out knockouts against top submission specialists in the past. We've all heard the story about how if a black belt eats a big punch, they become a brown belt, then a blue belt, then a white belt. All it takes is a few really good strikes and the odds on the ground can be completely evened out. This one should be very fun.
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