Some time ago, in a fanpost on Watch Kalib Run, I expressed my disappointment of Yushin Okami being matched up with Mark Munoz. I felt that Munoz, who in his most recent fight rallied from behind to secure a devastating TKO, was a step in the wrong direction for Okami, who I believed should be fighting someone of higher prominence in a bid for title contention.
Then, a couple days ago, it dawned upon me that this match-up could be of more importance than I first perceived. For Okami, a win over Munoz would put him 5 - 1 in his last 6 fights, with his only loss coming from the current #1 contender, Chael Sonnen. The UFC could favour his overall record in the company, an impressive 8-2, over the quality of his opponents (no disrespect to them), and fast-track him to #1 contender status. For Munoz, a win would speak volumes, and would propel him to the upper echelon of the middeweights. Obviously, the reward that comes with a victory would be greater for Munoz, but should Okami emerge victorious, his only reward would be more than just a pat on the back from Joe Silva and Dana White.
However, despite the relevance of the fight for both athletes, It struck me that this fight is of most importance to one party: the UFC.
Firstly, the question: 'Who is fighting?' If we take a step back, away from the micro-analysis of the fight and what it means to each fighter, we can answer that this is a match-up between a Japanese fighter and a Filipino-American fighter.
But why is this important?
Because of the UFC's plans to expand into Asia, which began in March, when they secured a deal with ASN, Asia's HD Sports Channel, and strengthened when they hosted UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, and more recently, accumulated in the establishment of an office in China. Furthermore, slowly but steadily, Zuffa has been snapping up prominent an/or emerging East-Asian fighters; Takeya Mizugaki, 'Korean Zombie' Chan Jung Sung, Takanori Gomi, and recently, Korean middleweight Dong-Yi Yang have all crossed the ocean and entered Zuffa's ranks.
The Okami v. Munoz match also has increased importance following the events of UFC 116, which undeniably dented Zuffa's hope of capturing the Japanese market. By matching national hero Akiyama with the popular Wanderlei Silva, the UFC had hoped to attract more fans from the East-Asian region, who are familiar with both fighters. However, Silva was sidelined with injury, and Akiyama fought and lost to Chris Leben. Whilst the UFC richly rewarded Leben for accepting the fight on short notice, their attempt to preserve Akiyama (by giving him a fighter who fought two weeks previously) failed, and as a result, dented their hopes of building a mega-fight that would appeal to the Asian masses.
However, not all is lost. With the Okami-Munoz fight, the UFC could still continue to progress in the Asian market. All they need to do is play the race card, and promote the fight correctly. And until the UFC host an event in Eastern Asia, the most they can do to capture the regional audience is to build super-fights such as Akiyama v. Silva, or present more all-Asian fights. Whilst this option is currently limited due to the small number of Asian fighters fighting for Zuffa, the likelihood of all-Asian matches will increase in the future as they continue to recruit more fighters.
In the mean time, as the first option is, I guess, unavailable for a while, it will be up to Zuffa to try and make do with the other.