I hinted at it yesterday when I stated that the only Middleweight in the UFC that's been more disappointing than Vitor Belfort has been Yishihiro Akiyama. I'll get the premise of this editorial out of the way right now so that any Akiyama fans who wish to respond can do so quickly. Yoshihiro Akiyama has been perhaps the greatest bust in UFC history, a major signing expected to set the MMA world on fire who instead shows everyone that he cannot compete at the highest level of the sport.
Prior to making his UFC debut, Akiyama was a 12-1 with a lone big win over Dennis Kang. Aside from Kang, he's never had any major wins in either Hero's or Dream. His ranking had been skewed by a pro-JMMA panel and should never had had such expectations placed on him. With the UFC rumored to make an announcement this month about a return to Japan, the pressure will be on Akiyama to come away with a win. The question for me is not only if he has the talent and skills to get by Vitor Belfort, but if he was any good to begin with.
A look at his record reveals that he has be great against mediocre Japanese fighters and has a rough time when challenged by any who are talented. He became a villain in Japan for cheating during his match with Kazushi Sakuraba. It was this fight that really brought him to the forefront of Japanese MMA. He had defeated Sakuraba but the result was overturned because he got caught greasing after the fight. The Japanese MMA community needed revenge and got it when Kazou Misaki stopped Akiyama. The fight was later ruled a no contest because of an illegal kick, but Sakuraba was avenged.
His UFC debut, while Fight of the Night, was an underwhelming one. He was expected to walk through Alan Belcher, a middle of the road fighter who failed to move beyond the role of gatekeeper. The fight was a wild slug fest and Akiyama was award a split decision. This fight should have set off some signals that maybe Akiyama wasn't the fighter he was advertised to be. He was expected to run through Belcher and then take on the top of the division. Instead, his performance left much to be desired as he barely squeaked by a career 5-3 in the UFC fighter.
It would be a year until Akiyama would step back in the Octagon, when he was expected to face Wanderlei Silva. In fact, Silva was the only fight that Akiyama wanted and he turned down multiple match ups with other fighters. The Silva fight never happened as Wand went down with injury. Instead, he faced Chris Leben who took the fight on short notice. Akiyama was most likely ahead on scorecards going into the third round but was fading midway through the second. Leben locked in a triangle choke and the Akiyama era had effectively ended.
He would get another fight in the UFC, though the booking was curious. Akiyama was the only fighter that I can think of who lost and got a more marquee name in his return bout. He would fight Michael Bisping at UFC 120. The fight wasn't close with Bisping dominating the stand up and Akiyama failing to remember that part of his skill set involves judo. He opted to stand and trade and was battered by the Count for three rounds. He lost a Unanimous Decision and questions started to be asked whether he could actually compete in the UFC.
This weekend's fight against Vitor Belfort could be the last time we see Akiyama in the UFC. He isn't coming cheap and not matter how exciting he is, the fight game requires wins. As previously hinted, the UFC is rumored to be announcing a Japan event later this month and Akiyama would be a likely piece of that card. But if he can't get past Belfort, does he even get the opportunity to represent his adopted home nation of Japan? His MMA career has essentially been a shell game. He hasn't be able to captivate North American fans like he did in Japanese MMA but still is pushed as an elite fighter.
The selling point for Belfort vs Akiyama has been a clash between two elite middleweights. I'll respectfully disagree with the Zuffa marketing machine. This fight is between two athletes who have never impressed when given the opportunity to do so. It is the fight for mediocrity and the expected winner is Belfort. But really, is there really a winner when mediocrity is on the line? Akiyama's UFC career will be remembered as the biggest disappointment in combat sports history. His signing had people expecting him to challenge Anderson Silva. Now he's fighting to justify his paycheck and employment. Sure he could defeat the Sakara's of the UFC, but when the fights don't justify the contract, it's hard to find your role in a company. Which for him, is his future in MMA.