With the UFC returning to Japan for the first time in a decade for this Saturday's UFC 144 in the storied Saitama Super Arena, the UFC has done its best to stack the card with Japanese fighters from their roster.
That roster includes fighters who rose to prominence in Japan after the boom like Hatsu Hioki, fighters who toiled in the smaller Japanese promotions like Riki Fukuda and Takeya Mizugaki, Yushin Okami, a fighter who has fought in the UFC for almost his whole career and even fighters who were big stars during Japan's MMA boom such as Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto and Takanori Gomi.
But no Japanese fighter on the UFC 144 card is a bigger star in his homeland* than Yoshihiro Akiyama. Frustratingly for Akiyama and the UFC, his 1-3 run with the promotion keeps him out of the headliner or co-main event slots.
But the 36-year-old has finally decided to cut weight and fight against men his own size in the welterweight division. Former Strikeforce champ and UFC #1 contender Jake Shields will be his test case.
He talked to UFC.com about the decision:
"I am not tall and big enough among other UFC fighters and decided to change to my "original" division," said the 5-foot-11 Akiyama through translator Takashi Iizuka. It was at 81 kilograms (178 pounds) that Akiyama won numerous judo titles, and while he will retain the technical knowledge and gritty competitiveness that has marked his seven year MMA career, he'll also be competing on a level physical playing field, and he believes that "I think that I could acquire more speed."
It will be very interesting to see if Akiyama can get a win over the tough Jake Shields and if the fight will make any waves in Japan. The UFC did manage to buy some TV time on TV Tokyo, the smallest broadcaster in Japan. Unfortunately the fights will air at midnight Tokyo time, hours after the fights are over but it's a start.
Based on reports from Fight Opinion, it looks as if the UFC's deal with the Dentsu advertising agency and sponsor Don Quixote to book the event as a "sold show" was a very smart play. UFC 144 is a low-risk proposition for Zuffa and just might represent a first step in rebuilding the MMA market in Japan.
*Akiyama is a native of Japan but of Korean descent.
Photo via Getty Images.