This Saturday night (May 24, 2014) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) bantamweights Takeya Mizugaki and Francisco Rivera will square off on the main card of UFC 173, airing live at 10 p.m. EST on pay-per-view (PPV) from MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
No. 6-ranked Mizugaki was last seen defeating Nam Phan via unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 33 in December 2013. The nine-year mixed martial arts (MMA) veteran has won four straight bouts on the judges' scorecards.
He'll face a fighter with similar momentum in Rivera, who is unbeaten over his last six bouts. He'd have a six-fight win streak intact if not for his UFC 149 knockout of Roland Delorme being changed to a No Contest after he tested positive for a banned substance.
Rivera's last appearance was a second round stoppage of George Roop at UFC Fight Night 31 in November 2013. Unlike Mizugaki, No. 10-ranked "Cisco" has shown an uncanny ability to finish fights as of late.
He can make a big statement in a relatively shallow division by defeating Mizugaki, but the Japanese talent has a way of shutting down his opponents' strengths. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Mizugaki vs. Rivera:
Record: 19-7-2 overall, 6-2 UFC
Key Wins: Nam Phan (UFC Fight Night 33), Erik Perez (UFC Fight Night 27), Bryan Caraway (UFC on Fuel TV 8), Jeff Curran (WEC 42)
Key Losses: Urijah Faber (WEC 52), Scott Jorgensen (WEC 45), Miguel Torres (WEC 40), Chris Cariaso (UFC 144), Brian Bowles (UFC 132)
Keys to Victory: Mizugaki needs to make this bout play into his strengths by turning it into a long, grinding affair.
Neutralizing Rivera's explosive striking power will be one of his top priorities, and he can potentially do so by beating "Cisco" to the punch. Getting into a slugfest with Rivera isn't likely to end well.
With one submission on his record, Mizugaki isn't widely known for his mat skills. However, he has been training with Brazilian jiu-jitsu master Eddie Bravo, and could surprise Rivera with some grappling exchanges. Rivera has fire in his hands, so making this fight ugly will favor Mizugaki in a major way.
If he can mix up his game with some good combinations, kicks, and level changes while avoiding the big shot, the tide will begin to turn in Mizugaki's favor.
A finish won't be easy to come by, but if Mizugaki can somehow pull it off, he'll be on the short list of legitimate contenders to dominant champion Renan Barao's title.
Record: 10-2-1 overall, 3-1 UFC
Key Wins: George Roop (UFC Fight Night 31), Edwin Figueroa (UFC 156)
Key Losses: Erik Koch (WEC 52), Reuben Duran (TUF 13 Finale)
Keys to Victory: Rivera has looked like an absolute buzz saw recently, plowing through foes with a lethal blend of power and aggression. But it's going to take a special effort to put out Mizugaki's lights, as the Japanese veteran has only been knocked out once in his entire career.
Still, Rivera will be looking to do just that from the bout's outset, and it would probably be his finest finish if he can accomplish that feat.
To get there, Rivera can't let Mizugaki dictate the pace on the feet. Making the stand-up into more of a brawl will favor Rivera, as it's more than likely that Mizugaki will have to win a decision to come out on top.
Rivera should focus on winning the clinch battle and not getting tied in any disadvantageous positions on the mat. He can't simply look for the jaw-dropping knockout with every punch against a seasoned fighter like Mizugaki.
If Rivera can get inside and land some power shots, his coming out party on a major PPV card should be at hand. However, if he gets overemotional on the grand stage, he could come out too aggressive and succumb to Mizugaki's gameplan.
Implementing his thunderous power in a calm and calculating fashion will be crucial to a Rivera victory. The Californian is on the cusp of stardom, but a very tough test awaits.
Bottom Line from Las Vegas: The bottom line for this fight is that a bantamweight title contender will emerge. With Barao cutting a path through the division's Top 5 heading into his UFC 173 main event against No. 4-ranked TJ Dillashaw, only No. 3-ranked Raphael Assuncao will await if the champion wins on Saturday.
That means Mizugaki will be tantalizingly close to a title shot should he defeat Rivera, but it's going to be hard to solidify that case with five straight decision wins.
Bantamweight may just be a division where he could do it, so this is the biggest fight of Mizugaki's life.
The same can be said for Rivera, who has looked nearly flawless during his recent string of knockout wins. This bout is going to show us whether or not he can do it against truly top-level competition.
Another emphatic finish would have Rivera knocking on the door of his own championship opportunity, but he'd likely need one more high quality win after defeating Mizugaki.
Regardless, Mizugaki and Rivera are fighting for high stakes at UFC 173. In a lower weight class starving for stars, Mizugaki can become the highest-ranked Japanese fighter in MMA, while Rivera can arrive on the title scene by knocking out his iron-chinned opponent.
Expect the best versions of each fighter, making this contest an early "Fight of the Night" candidate from Las Vegas.
Takeya Mizugaki and Francisco Rivera have looked impressive during recent win streaks. Will it be Mizugaki's cerebral strategy or Rivera's fight-ending power that proves best at UFC 173?