Michihiro Omigawa deserves an honorable mention in the "Best Worst Record" and "Toughest Early Opposition" categories. The Yoshida Dojo product oozed budo by kicking off his career against Aaron Riley (at Pride Bushido 7) and Gesias "J.Z." Cavalcante, which remain the only two opponents to ever finish him.
Then a lightweight, Omigawa got his first win over welterweight Jason Chambers in his third fight, but once again suffered back-to-back losses to wily DEEP veteran Yoshihiro Tomioka, a.k.a. "Barbaro44", and Kazunori Yokota, the Sengoku lightweight that eventually cracked the top-25 world rankings in 2010. Having lost four of his first five, Omigawa responded with gritty determination and reeled off three in a row to earn a stateside shot in the Octagon.
Unfortunately, the opportunity proved fruitless. Crafty grapplers Matt Wiman and Thiago Tavares offered an unfriendly reception, out-scrambling Omigawa for consecutive decision losses, discontinuing his UFC contract in the process.
Omigawa then underwent a transformation that many speculate to be the biggest influence on the success of Japanese fighters crossing over to the states: he maximized his potential by shedding pounds and dropping to a lower weight class.
Though his first featherweight encounter turned out to be another loss to lurking superstar Chan Sung Jung, Omigawa then blasted upward in the 145-pound rankings with phenomenal wins over the likes of Nam Phan, ultra-elite featherweights Marlon Sandro and Hatsu Hioki, DREAM featherweight champion Hiroyuki Takaya, former WEC fighter Micah Miller, and recent UFC addition Cole Escovedo.
The stellar sequence inspired another invitation to the big leagues, where he gave top-ranked Chad Mendes of Team Alpha Male a good run despite losing the decision.
Sticking with Omigawa's theme for UFC opponents, another powerful wrestler awaits in Darren Elkins. The former lightweight was a four-time freestyle and two-time Greco Roman state wrestling champion. Elkins pieced together a strong rep by coming out of the gate strong with six straight stoppages, all but one coming in the first round.
The Indiana native then set his sights on bigger targets, scoring a win over current Bellator standout Pat Curran, and continued to roar in smaller venues until he toppled former UFC welterweight Gideon Ray. This was enough to attract Joe Silva's attention.
Elkins split fights in the Octagon after injuring Duane Ludwig's ankle on a takedown for a TKO by "Hey, I'll take it" and finding out the hard way how deadly Charles Oliveira's sub-game is. Elkins will now be making his featherweight debut at UFC 131 versus Omigawa.
We'll run through the phase-by-phase dissection of how the pair contrasts in the full entry.
Free Movement / Striking Phase
Omigawa is one of the rare few to adapt the Peek A Boo boxing style to MMA. Keeping his elbows tight and chin tucked for sturdy defense, he employs animated head and upper-body movement.
The Peek A Boo style is phenomenal for defense and protection, but the upright style gives him a little less distance on his punches and more range for him to cover, and requires a dramatic dedication to constant movement that could become tiring.
I would consider him a highly technical boxer, but not consistently, as he had some odd departures in tenacity and concentration in his last outing.
Against Mendes, his stance, combinations, and movement looked sharper than ever before, but he went through some lulls later in the fight where his activity decreased and he just marched straight forward into a few punches. He was also pelted with low kicks to his lead leg that he never even bothered to check, and just let a few errors slip into his production throughout the fight.
The animation to the right captures these technical lapses. Omigawa lumbers straight ahead with no set up and little movement, and throws a lazy, half-speed punch. Mendes capitalizes, as he does in the following sequence with Omigawa's refusal to check consecutive leg kicks.
I don't know if Elkins can replicate that type of offense because we haven't seen much of his striking game, and for the best reason possible: his takedowns are so damn good, the fight usually ends up hitting the floor seconds after it starts.
In his two UFC fights, he planted Duane Ludwig and Charles Oliveira viciously on the canvas less than a minute in. Ludwig was able to catch Elkins with a stiff left hand before sprawling off the first attempt, but then folded his ankle backward on the second attempt and couldn't continue, while Oliveira snaked a silky triangle to elicit a quick tapout in Elkins' last appearance.
Omigawa should have a clear advantage standing. He's got an iron chin and has thrown hands with some of the best in the game, so unless Elkins is about to pull the curtains back to reveal a high octane standing game ...
Here's where it gets interesting, because we have a clash between a highly accomplished Judoka and a Greco Roman and freestyle wrestling whiz.
While Omigawa's crafty clinch game and lengthy experience against superior competition is stately, Elkins was a monster at lightweight. The Indiana native will also have a significant height advantage and will probably be more physically imposing, so this will be a classic duel of the size and strength of Elkins versus the creative technique of Omigawa.
That's not to indicate that Elkins won't be relying on technique as well, but Omigawa's clinch game is highly artistic in that his rapid footwork is critical to his powerful clinch presence.
Instead of taking a smaller number of long, heavy strides, Omigawa has a unique blend of a strong base mixed with very nimble footwork, chopping his movements up into a smattering of short, precise, and angled steps.
Mendes did himself a huge favor by disguising his other takedown attempts amidst flurries of strikes with excellent timing. If Elkins doesn't do the same, I see much of the fight playing out like the sequence to the left.
I imagine Elkins will press forward and clinch offensively to ground the fight, while Omigawa will know his biggest advantage is striking and will play a defensive clinch to remain upright.
I think the formidable prowess Elkins showed at lightweight and his size should compensate for Omigawa's vast experience and skill. Footwork will be critical to whoever wins this battle, as being hammered into the cage will drastically dwindle Omigawa's options if Elkins can pin him there.
Omigawa was able to ward off Mendes effectively when he anticipated the advance; it was timing that was his undoing.
Whenever Mendes set up his takedowns by first committing to punches, he was able to time his lunge to land just when Omigawa was planted and covering up to defend. In the event of a grappling battle, I envision Elkins on top.
Omigawa's favorite catch from guard is the shoulder-post armbar or Ude Gatame, more casually categorized as an inverted armbar.
Anytime his opponent leaves an arm wide and outstretched or pursues anything close to a can-opener position, Omigawa will overhook the arm and pinch it between his neck and shoulder while simultaneously hitting butterfly guard.
When caught in the set-up, the natural defensive reaction is to pull yourself out and posture up, but the catch (actual relevant pun there) is that Omigawa will retain control of the arm and tweak the joint after it's stretched out.
To the right is star grappler Cole Escovedo in his only career submission loss, who tries to sneak out backward but underestimates Omigawa's grip and is forced to tap when the Judoka shifts his hips to apply downward pressure.
Omigawa also peppers with the beautiful spiked elbows to the top of the head, retains excellent defense to strikes, scoots back to his feet well with a resilient butterfly guard, and overall, just keeps his hips extremely busy and active.
We all know what Elkins has to do, as the overwhelming burden in an MMA grappling match lies on the guard player. Elkins has to stay fairly busy with strikes and avoid submission attempts. Omigawa is prolific enough off his back that Elkins might not even look to pass and just prey on any openings from his diligent work rate.
This is not to demean or gloss over the abilities of Elkins, but his strategy should be more straight-forward, while Omigawa must draw upon the deep dynamics of his guard game to balance the scales. Without a sweep, a finish, or something dramatic, the edge goes to the top player.
Advantage: Elkins (slight)
From a straight technical and experience standpoint, all signs point to Omigawa. Not only has he faced the greater number and better quality of opposition, but he's proven himself in more areas. Elkins has shown fewer dimensions, but that was enough to hold his own a weight class higher.
The entire thrust for picking Omigawa is mostly attributed to unknowns about Elkins, so while he may end up proving me wrong, Omigawa has undoubtedly demonstrated his top-shelf status. If Elkins can consistently hit takedowns, it will shift the momentum his way, but I think Omigawa can shuffle out of danger and exploit his boxing advantage.
My Prediction: Omigawa by decision
Gif of Mendes defending armbar via Zombie Prophet of IronForgesIron.com
Escovedo vs. Omigawa gif via Chris Nelson
All other custom gifs via Caposa