One of the lesser storylines heading into UFC 126 this weekend that had gained considerable attention among hardcore fans was the inclusion of both Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto and Michihiro Omigawa on the event's preliminary card. Both fights were featured undercard fights as Omigawa's bout with Chad Mendes aired on Spike TV while Yamamoto fought Demetrious Johnson on the free Facebook stream on the UFC's fan page. It was an opportunity for these prominent Japanese fighters to showcase their skills and prove they were legitimate challenges for their American counterparts, and unfortunately -- they faltered in carrying Japan's torch stateside.
We've seen the same outcome in other high-profile fights in the past. Takanori Gomi was bested by both Kenny Florian and Clay Guida, and Shinya Aoki succumbed to the tactical distance striking of Gilbert Melendez. Those are the two most well-known Japanese fighters who have had storied success in the Land of the Rising Sun, and the lesser known Japanese fighters who have made their way stateside haven't had much success either. The only man to beat the odds is Yushin Okami.
There is some truth to the idea that Japanese mixed martial arts is dying. With the reports of capital being ripped away from the prominent promotions in Japan, it won't be long before mixed martial arts in Japan will be at a grassroots level once again, hoping to build its way back into popularity. Some of the issues revolve around what the casual Japanese fan wants to see versus what the sport produces today. Silly celebrity fights and freak show David vs. Goliath showdowns are few and far between in today's sport, and it seems that Japanese culture, at least in the casual scene, isn't keen on legitimate match-ups between some of the best fighters in Japan.
Saturday night was a chance for two of Japan's best to prove that Japan still has legitimate fighters who can challenge the perceived best MMA has to offer in North America. Once again, it was proven that they were the lesser fighters as Demetrious Johnson used blazing speed to frustrate Yamamoto while Mendes bombed Omigawa with powerful combinations and well-timed takedowns. The outcomes weren't as definitive as some fans would have hoped, those fans being the delusional breed who believe Japanese mixed martial arts must die to prove the UFC is the best. As Luke Thomas might say, those fans should step in front of a bus.
Omigawa's run of success ended on Saturday night, but his late third round attempts to press the action and finish the fight were honorable and a far cry from the performances some of his fellow countrymen have put on inside the Octagon. For Omigawa, fighting with pride and honor have been of the utmost importance in his battles in Japan. Omigawa showed off a granite chin in his fight with Mendes, and he is one of the only fighters to press Mendes hard enough to expose a weakness in his conditioning late in the fight. Despite those small successes, Omigawa failed in effectively striking with Mendes, and that weakness proved to be his undoing.
For Yamamoto, he learned the valuable lesson that speed kills. Worried about the takedown for much of the fight, Yamamoto's counter striking was never a concern for the speedier Johnson. Brilliant footwork and exceptional timing with his takedowns proved to be Yamamoto's crutch, and by most fans' predictions in the lead-up to this fight -- it was the expected outcome. Despite being dominated by Johnson, I don't think it proves that Yamamoto is completely washed up just yet.
In fact, both Omigawa and Yamamoto still have opportunities to prove they can hang with the best in the UFC. Mendes is well on his way to becoming a future champion, and Johnson has the potential to be a contender in the 135 pound weight class despite being much more well-suited for the non-existent 125 pound weight class. To say that these outcomes are broader proof that Japanese mixed martial arts is finished is ridiculous.
Japanese mixed martial arts is dying for all sort of other reasons, and we don't need to connect these losses to a point that suggests their skills are the reason that the sport, as a whole, is dying in Japan. In terms of skill, we've gone over the basics in detail in the past. A lacking amateur wrestling circuit, aging stars who aren't being replaced, and a shortage of training facilities that house experts in multiple areas of the sport are more harmful to the development of the sport than actual results inside a cage in Las Vegas.
Obviously, Japanese fighters are at a disadvantage due to their lack in wrestling knowledge, but I've grown tired of the attempts to connect these losses to the death of MMA in Japan. Fans aren't incorrect in assuming that a wrestler will beat a Japanese fighter making his way overseas. It's the smart pick, but I think both Omigawa and "Kid" Yamamoto will prove their worth in 2011. They aren't done yet.