A conversation about the top Middleweight mixed martial arts (MMA) fighters in the world is never quite complete without mentioning Yushin Okami. His professional career started nearly 11 years ago, and yet he's still floating around near the top of the 185-pound ranks at 32 years old.
"Thunder" has competed in many different organizations, but for the better part of his career, he's been a key member of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) roster, which is truly a big accomplishment.
His tenure with the promotion began at UFC 62 back in 2006, and since then he has competed under the UFC banner 17 times, suffering only four defeats in that span. He holds victories over high-caliber opponents such as Alan Belcher, Evan Tanner, Mark Munoz, Nate Marquardt and Hector Lombard, among others, with his only losses coming to top-level opposition.
Unfortunately for Okami, he has only had one title fight, and it is pretty well-documented how that panned out. Anderson Silva coasted for one round with and then did away with Okami in the second, winning via technical knockout in brutal -- and dominant -- fashion to retain his 185-pound title.
That put Okami even (1-1) with the division champ, and with his "win" being a strange disqualification victory at Rumble on the Rock, a third match up between the two was something very few fight fans would care to watch even if "Thunder" went on a tear through the division.
But now, with Silva's recent loss to Chris Weidman, the landscape of the division has changed. Okami has quietly produced a three-fight win streak, and could make it four tonight (Weds., Sept. 4, 2013) if he beats "Jacare" Ronaldo Souza in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 28, which takes place at Mineirinho Arena in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.
Indeed, a four-fight win streak that includes names like Alan Belcher, Hector Lombard and "Jacare" -- a former Strikeforce champion -- could mean a claim to contendership. And with the end of Silva's invincible reign, Okami could find himself in a title fight in the near future.
Even if Silva defeats Weidman when they face off in their scheduled rematch, Okami's claim to a title shot wouldn't take too big a hit because now that "The Spider" has been beaten, their rubber match could be a more interesting affair than their last outing. If Weidman retains his title at UFC 168 in December, a bout with Okami could be a fun stylistic clash and provide a fresh match up in the Middleweight title picture.
Of course, this all depends on Okami winning his fight tonight, which is certainly a tall order. Heading into hostile territory, he will facr an elite grappler with a constantly developing game. Okami has experience on his side, and he has undoubtedly fought the tougher opposition in his career than "Jacare."
However, he will need to be prepared for a fighter who can bring the fight to him from anywhere. The speed at which Souza moves is a rarity in weight classes above 155 pounds, and Okami will be unable to rely on the jab-first gameplan he used against Lombard in his last outing because Souza is just too explosive and long to fall for that.
In essence, this fight is where Okami needs to prove that he is still a contender in the weight class against a fresh, formidable face. A loss here would relegate him to a murky spot in the division's Top 10, where he would be very unlikely to ever make a push toward the top again.
In other words, a win would pave the road to a possible title shot, while a loss could effectively end his relevance as a top contender at 185 pounds, making him the "Fighter To Watch" tonight on FOX Sports 1.