Alan Belcher (18-6) came in at 9-2, on a 7-fight roll, and mostly as a raw, Thai-based kickboxing aggressor. His best trait back then was his steel-hardened toughness, and it probably still is. While that core has remained intact, Belcher has gradually polished up a lot of little areas in his striking, much of which was orchestrated under the watchful eye of Duke Roufus at Roufusport, and also strengthened his prowess in both wrestling -- offensively and defensively -- and submission grappling.
For evidence of the latter, look no farther than Belcher's courageous unhinging of leg-lock aficionado Rousimar Palhares; one of the smoothest when it comes to chaining submissions together and one of the cruelest when it comes to wrenching them. "Toquinho" locked horns with Belcher and the duo disappeared into a confusing tangle of limbs that consisted of an unending onslaught of submission attempts from Palhares and concluded with Belcher spoon-feeding him right hands.
Those frenzied exchanges with Palhares are a perfect example of a scenario in which the old Belcher would've been in trouble, as heart, willpower and grit aren't enough to survive such an astronomical level of Jiu Jitsu. That required prestigious technique, execution, intelligence and composure, and signifies how far he's come. Belcher was a nasty striker from day one, but was also fairly upright and would often get caught off-balance and exposed when over-committing on his combinations. Nowadays, he holds a lower, crouched stance, which complements his lateral movement and overall mobility as well as putting him in a better position to defend takedowns. He maintains that balance throughout and stays poised to uncork a blistering collection of strikes at all times.
Yushin Okami (27-7) arrived as an established Judoka from Japan's renowned Wajyutsu Keisyukai gym with a 16-3 record. He was not far removed from the rare honor of defeating middleweight overlord Anderson Silva, though the laurel was exacted via Disqualification when "The Spider" lamped him with an illegal up-kick in the stacked Rumble on the Rock 175-pound tournament.
Amidst the plethora of disappointing turns from trumpeted overseas fighters and Pride crossovers in the Octagon, Okami stands as a bright exception. Starting with Belcher, Okami pierced through 4-straight opponents by imposing his physicality and swarming clinch control to earn himself a #1 contender bout with recently unseated champion Rich Franklin. Having cemented his top-shelf potential, Okami was subjected to criticism that rang of his excessive complacence, and those complaints came to light in his decision loss to Franklin. Despite a dominant 3rd round that unfolded with grappling dominance and a near Kimura finish, the initial stanzas were punctuated by Okami's lack of aggression and killer instinct.
Similar to an inexperienced wrestling specialist, Okami's size, strength and Judo base equipped him with reliable application of stifling control, but his offensive potency was severely limited. Though he'd notched a fair amount of stoppages preceding his encounter with "Ace," they all transpired against inferior competition and through an accumulation of punches or basic submissions from a suffocating top-side perch. This reduced Okami to the mold of a predictable, one-dimensional fighter; his overbearing clinch prowess offset by a glaring weakness in striking.
And that's precisely what he improved: Okami's painfully tentative and unkempt punches quickly transformed into a tight and functional boxing acumen, making him not only a legit threat in open space, but one with considerable length and range-fighting abilities. His advanced handiwork supplemented his adhesive-like clinch qualities with effective dirty boxing, and attacking with crushing knees in tie-ups was a simple add-on.
After 3 consecutive wins, Okami was back in the title race, this time squaring off with unforgiving wrestler Chael Sonnen. Okami's new striking weaponry was useless when greeted by Sonnen's unending volley of power doubles, but that 2nd UFC defeat fostered a surprising union in which Okami took up training with Sonnen, and the addition of traditional wrestling fundamentals was the perfect companion for his Judo background and complete his arsenal. It was also instrumental in defending the takedowns of 2-time D1 All-American Mark Munoz and equally so from an offensive standpoint in planting Nate Marquardt on his back; decision wins that propelled Okami to an unsuccessful title bid in a rematch with Silva.
The strides that Belcher and Okami have made will be pivotal in their showdown this Saturday, as Belcher will be better equipped to withstand Okami's clinch and takedown onslaught whereas Okami will have many more avenues to exercise offensively. From a pure match-up standpoint, Okami presents a complex challenge, mostly because his improvements have left him with serious effectiveness at every range of combat. He'll always be a monster on the ground and at contact range with his dual-pronged assault of Judo and wrestling, but now he poses a formidable threat as a distance striker and counter puncher.
That means Belcher will not have a free-for-all on the feet. In their first meeting, Belcher was forced to be hesitant when unloading strikes for fear of an incoming takedown, and now Okami can answer with long, straight and stinging punches. This will give Belcher a good amount of unfriendly distance to cover in order to assume his ideal range and another element of concern besides being wrapped up and taken down.
Conversely, Okami still struggles in seamlessly blending all of his tools together. He enjoys the advantage of alternating between striking and dropping levels, yet his takedown attempts can still be somewhat telegraphed and his head remains in a riskily vulnerable position when attacking the waist. He also has a bad habit of lowering his hands when deciding how to engage after he's cornered his opponent and, perhaps most importantly, the tendency to retreat in a straight line when pressed with strikes, which is exactly what Tim Boetsch capitalized on to fuel his comeback victory.
The way Belcher and Okami have rounded out their skills leaves fewer weaknesses to exploit and, overall, makes this prediction a toughie. At the time of writing, the betting lines are unusually dead-locked at +100 for either, reinforcing the logical case for a win on both sides. The big X-factor is Belcher's hard-nosed durability and punching power, which could easily recreate the scenario we saw Okami crumble in against Boetsch.
Initially, that X-factor was enough to sway my vote toward Belcher but, after walking through the analysis, that doesn't seem substantial enough to overcome Okami's height, length, range, physicality and general diversity. I think he can replicate the outcome of their initial match as long as he's vigilant in protecting his chin and avoiding a straight-line retreat while countering Belcher's heated striking salvos. Belcher's scorching right high kick magnifies the emphasis on striking defense and presents an oddly specific danger to Okami, who's a southpaw with a busily prodding straight left.
My Prediction: Yushin Okami by decision.