Photo by Daniel Herbertson of Sherdog
When Takanori Gomi and Shinya Aoki land Stateside, they will represent the pinnacle of the Japanese lightweight division past and present. Gomi ruled PRIDE from 2004 to 2007, becoming the face of the Bushido series in the process. When the "Fireball Kid" flamed out with the death of PRIDE, Shinya Aoki emerged as heir to his throne.
Aoki's fight with Gilbert Melendez will be his first outside Japan and his first in a cage. Gomi's UFC debut will be his second foray onto mainland American soil (previous being PRIDE's first Las Vegas show) and in a cage (Gomi fought B.J. Penn in a cage in Hawaii).
The death of PRIDE neutered Japan as a hotbed for mixed martial arts. Gone was the monolith organization capable of delivering world class shows. In its wake, DREAM and World Victory Road have had to contend with a diminishing fanbase and wavering television ratings. As a result, fighters previously content to stay home and make a very comfortable living have been attracted to the bright lights and fat wallets of American MMA.
So how have they done?
- Kazuhiro Nakamura - Along with Gono and Chonan, Nakamura represented the first wave of Japanese talent that the UFC picked from PRIDE's remnants. The UFC took no pity on him, and Nakamura lost his UFC debut to Lyoto Machida at UFC 76 in a one-sided affair. Zuffa then cut him after a loss to Rameau Theirry Sokoudjou at UFC 84.
- Akihiro Gono - Gono won his UFC debut (and Submission of the Night) over Tamdan McCrory at UFC 89. Two straight losses to Dan Hardy at UFC 89 and Jon Fitch at UFC 94 sent Gono packing back to Japan.
- Ryo Chonan - Chonan latched on to Dan Henderson's Team Quest and racked up the most UFC fights of PRIDE refugees. Chonan went 1-3 in his UFC run, with losses to Karo Parisyan at UFC 78, Brad Blackburn at UFC 92, and T.J. Grant at UFC 97. His lone victory came against Roan Carneiro at UFC 88.
- Kazuo Misaki - On loan from World Victory Road, Misaki defeated Joe Riggs by controversial TKO at Strikeforce's second Playboy Mansion show. He has not fought in the States since.
- Caol Uno - Uno had issues with Dream Stage Entertainment (PRIDE's parent company) staff. When K-1's HERO's show merged with the leftover DSE staff, Uno finished out his contract and bolted to the UFC, where he had last competed in September of 2003. He lost a close decision in his first fight back to Spencer Fisher at UFC 99 and then drew Fabricio Camoes at UFC 106. He fights Gleison Tibau on the Florian vs. Gomi undercard.
- Mitsuhiro Ishida - A result of the initial talent exchange agreement between Strikeforce and DREAM, Ishida was TKO'd in a rematch with Gilbert Melendez at Strikeforce: Carano vs. Cyborg. He earlier submitted Justin Wilcox for Strikeforce in 2008, earning one of the first Judo Chops in the process.
- Yoshihiro Akiyama - Akiyama's signing was a major coup for the UFC as the judoka is a huge draw in both his native Korea and adopted home of Japan. He defeated Alan Belcher in a close decision at UFC 100 and is scheduled to fight Wanderlei Silva at UFC 116.
That adds up to a combined record of 5-9-1. Yikes. What's to blame? Japan's fighters have shown two major weaknesses: an unwillingness to transplant and train Stateside and a tendency to forego the intense weight cuts typical of American fighters.
Gomi and Aoki are both among the bigger Japanese lightweights, with Aoki having competed above lightweight in the past. While Gomi spent some time at both AKA and Xtreme Couture in the past year, it seems to be business as usual with their camps for their respective fights. Can Gomi and Aoki buck the trend or will Kenny Florian and Gilbert Melendez extend America's dominance?