Tonight, the UFC brings a live event to Japan for the first time in over 11
years. UFC 144: Edgar vs. Henderson invades the Saitama Super Arena with a colossal
seven-fight main card. Alex Donno, BlackSportsOnline.com MMA Insider, breaks down the night on pay per view. Also, you can listen to a special Saturday Night Edition of Donno’s MMA radio show at
Saitama was home to many of the most memorable Pride FC
fights, making it a venue that hardcore American fans, most of which haven’t actually
set foot inside the facility, hold near and dear to their hearts. For Japanese fans, UFC 144
offers a chance both to reminisce about the glory days of MMA in their country, and to
get an inside look into the UFC-dominated modern era of the sport.
In the early 2000’s, the Pride Fighting Championships, based in Japan, were viewed as
the Mecca for MMA competition. Stars like Mirko Cro Cop, Wanderlei Silva, Shogun
Rua, and Rampage Jackson, just to name a few, built their names and reputations in Pride
before they ever stepped into the UFC’s Octagon. During Pride’s heyday, the general
public in Japan became fanatical about MMA. But that fanaticism disappeared as quickly
as it grew. Public knowledge about Pride’s ties to the Japanese mob led to the loss of
their TV deal in 2006. By 2007 they were forced to sell out to the UFC. Many hoped the
UFC would keep Pride running in some form, but UFC President Dana White announced
that doing business in Japan was simply too difficult. Pride was dead. As a result, many
Japanese fans abandoned the sport of MMA entirely. This decline in popularity is
evidenced by the difficult time that Japanese promotions have had finding success since
Pride’s demise. The question is: will they support a foreign promoter this weekend?
Most reports indicate that UFC 144 is already sold out. That’s a good sign, especially
since the event will begin at around 10am local time on Sunday morning in order to
accommodate the regular Saturday night start time in North America. The event is
stacked with Japanese talent, plus a handful of former foreign Pride FC superstars. The
lightweight title will be on the line in the main event, and although neither Frankie Edgar
nor Benson Henderson has any roots in Japanese MMA, they should put on an excellent
In his past four fights, lightweight champion Frankie “The Answer” Edgar holds two
wins over BJ Penn to go along with a draw and a win over Gray Maynard. He played
the role of underdog in each of those daunting challenges, but even after rising to the
occasion time and again as champion, he doesn’t appear to be receiving an overwhelming
amount of respect. That could be a consequence of his come from behind style. In each
of his recent battles with Maynard, Edgar survived brutal beatings early in the fight
before coming back to finish strong. Or maybe the doubts stem from the fact that he’s
undersized for a lightweight. Despite his 3-title defenses at 155 lbs, many still feel he’d
be better suited to drop town to 145. In short, he seems destined to be an underdog.
Finally this Saturday, Edgar is considered a betting favorite, but only slightly. Challenger
Ben “Smooth” Henderson will offer a tough challenge with his size, strength, and
endurance. This five round title fight could end up an instant classic.
Edgar’s biggest advantage on fight night lies with his footwork and movement. His
constant movement makes him extremely hard to hit and difficult to take down. His
boxing is sharp. His hands are accurate and he’s found great success in mixing things up
with strikes to the body, legs and head. Despite Henderson’s larger stature, Edgar will
hold a 2-inch reach advantage.
For Henderson to have success, he needs to complete takedowns and force scrambles.
While both men thrive in a scramble, it’s safe to assume that Henderson’s size would
give him at least a slight advantage in close quarters. Taking Edgar to the ground won’t
be easy, but the even tougher part will be keeping him there. The champion typically
pops back to his feet immediately after being taken down. The good news for Henderson
is that his upper body strength should give him a good shot in holding Frankie down.
When on top, Henderson transitions very well and presents a constant submission threat.
And his submission defense is even better than his submission offense. His flexibility
and sheer perseverance make him seemingly impossible to tap out. While Henderson’s
striking has improved in each of his fights, his best route to victory would be to force
the fight to the mat and grapple. Edgar’s accuracy and speed in the striking range would
likely be too much for him. Once Frankie finds his rhythm, he’s very tough to figure out.
The only time he’s vulnerable in the striking range seems to be in the early minutes of
a fight. In both of his 2011 fights with Maynard, he got cracked early. Henderson will
look to start quickly and take advantage of these possible openings. Overall, fans should
expect a fast fight. The pace should be high enough to keep the attention of even the most
A.D.D. fans. Both Edgar and Henderson should have more than enough cardio to stay
sharp for five rounds if it goes that far.
In the co-main event, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson meets Ryan Bader in a light
heavyweight bout. Rampage built his stardom in Japan, so this one should hold special
significance for those in attendance at the Saitama Super Arena. Rampage openly
admitted that he would have likely retired last September had he defeated Jon Jones for
the UFC title. He came up short, and then immediately began campaigning for a fight
in Japan. Fighting in front of the Japanese fans again means a lot to him. Win or lose,
there’s a chance this showdown with Bader could be Rampage’s final fight. Against
Bader, he will hold a striking advantage with his brutal power and effective counter-
punching. It’s no secret that Bader’s best strategy will be to employ his wrestling. The
former Arizona State standout could grind out a victory if he puts Rampage on his back.
It’s worth noting, though, that Rampage comes from a strong wrestling background,
but merely prefers to strike. His greatest highlight reel victory came from a body slam
knockout over Ricardo Arona in the Pride Fighting Championships. Expect Bader to
work for takedowns but have a hard time getting them. In the standup range, Bader
holds great power in his right hand. But against an experienced striker like Jackson, he’s
unlikely to have a great deal of success landing it.
In another fight with special appeal to the Japanese audience, Mark Hunt will take on
Cheick Kongo at heavyweight. Hunt is a veteran of Pride, Dream and K-1 in Japan, and
has a cult following among Asian fans. Although his best days may be behind him, his
K-1 level striking is still dangerous. Kongo should hold the overall physical advantage,
though. His reach is eight inches longer than Hunt’s, and his ground game should be
superior. Hunt has looked incredibly one-dimensional throughout his career, although
he did show improved takedown ability in his 2011 victory over Ben Rothwell. Even
so, six of his seven career losses have come by submission, and Kongo is no slouch on
the ground. His takedowns are underrated and his ground and pound is brutal. He also
has stellar knees from the clinch. Kongo can’t match Hunt’s striking credentials, but
kickboxing is also the bread and butter to his game. If both men decide to stand and trade,
this fight will be a knockout of the night waiting to happen.
In a welterweight bout, Japan’s own Yoshiro Akiyama will meet former Strikeforce
champion Jake Shields. Akiyama is a huge celebrity in Japan. Nicknamed “Sexyama,”
I often refer to him is the John Stamos of Asia. Like Stamos, he’s handsome, and has
found success in multiple areas of show business. In addition to his success in Judo and
MMA, Akiyama has found fame as an actor and recording artist. And he’s married to
a popular Japanese model (remember when Stamos was married to Rebecca Romijn?
Yeah, this is just like that.) After some struggles in the UFC as a middleweight, he drops
down to welterweight for the first time. Meanwhile, Shields comes off two straight
losses: a failed title bid against Georges St-Pierre and a surprising knockout loss to
Jake Ellenberger. Keep in mind the Ellenberger fight took place just three weeks after
the death of Shields’ father. In this contest, Shields will have the submission grappling
advantage. His takedowns aren’t always explosive, but once he drags you to the ground,
his control and transitions are relentless. Having Shields on top of you is like being
covered by a wet blanket. Akiyama will look to avoid falling into Shields’ spider web on
the mat. With his strong judo base, “Sexyama” possesses great core strength and balance.
He will be difficult to take down. Neither man is considered an elite striker, but Akiyama
has shown time and again that he holds great power in his hands. If he can crack Shields
early, he could seize control. That’s likely his best chance at victory. Although Shields
has occasionally shown a tendency to fade late in fights, the cardio of Akiyama could be
an even greater concern due to the fact that he’s cutting down to 170 for the first time.
Such a change presents great uncertainty for him if the fight goes into a third round.
In the remaining bouts of this seven-fight mega PPV card, Yushin Okami takes on Tim
Boetsch at middleweight, Hatsu Hioki meets Bart Palaszewski at featherweight, and Joe
Lauzon fights Anthony Pettis in a pivotal lightweight bout. It’s very possible that the
winner of Lauzon vs. Pettis could be the next number one contender at 155lbs. The same
could be said for Japan’s Hioki when he takes on Palaszewski at 145. Meanwhile, Okami,
another Japanese star, looks to bounce back from his failed middleweight title bid against
Anderson Silva, while Tim Boetsch looks to emerge as a true contender in the division
with a third straight win.
UFC 144 takes place Saturday night, February 25th at the normal 10pm EST start time on
pay per view. You can watch two hours of preliminary fights on FX from 8-10pm.