When Yoshihiro Akiyama debuted in the UFC in 2009 as part of the stacked UFC 100 card, there was a lot of excitement among fans of the Japanese MMA scene. Three years later, Akiyama is 1-3 in the UFC (and that one win is debatable) and when he faces Jake Shields at UFC 144 this weekend, his job could be on the line. For UFC fans who had never seen Akiyama before his trip into the Octagon, it's hard to look at him as an impressive force in any way.
But fans who have followed him from his start in Judo, through his rise up the Japanese MMA scene and into the UFC know just what he is capable of. And what is that? In a word: entertainment.
Akiyama may not be the best fighter, and his UFC career may be something of a bust so far, but what Akiyama brings to the ring is a great level of exciting unpredictability - a sense of the dramatic that many more well regarded fighters often lack. The best way to show just how dramatic Akiyama can be is to focus on the beautiful story of what I consider his most entertaining fight. And that story begins at the 2003 World Judo Championships.
In 2003, Akiyama was a well respected and decorated judoka. He entered the World Judo Championships and made the semi-finals. But his first three opponents, all of whom lost to Akiyama, claimed his gi was greased. Officials examined the gi and found there was no issue, however he was required to wear a reserve gi to continue, and subsequently dropped his next two fights. Though officially cleared in the situation, doubts remained in the eyes of many.
Fast forward three years. After making a successful transition to MMA in 2004, Akiyama had become a force in the Japanese MMA scene, putting together a 9-1 record that culminated in a win over Melvin Manhoef. With that momentum, Akiyama was invited to take part in the year's biggest event - the 2006 New Year's Eve Dynamite!! show. And he would face the greatest, most beloved fighter in Japan - Kazushi Sakuraba. In the main event of the evening, in front of Japan's biggest annual crowd, Akiyama defeated Sakuraba to establish himself as the new name in Japanese MMA. Or did he?
Immediately after the bout (and even during it), in a repeat of 2003, Sakuraba complained of Akiyama being greased. This time, officials were not so easily won over. They determined that Akiyama had indeed applied an illegal substance, and the bout was ruled a No Contest. This was devastating to Akiyama's perception. It's bad enough that he cheated - but to have done so against the legend Sakuraba was unthinkable. He was suspended, and did not return for 10 months.
His second bout back was again on New Year's Eve - this time against Kazuo Misaki. The two would meet one year after the Sakuraba controversy. Misaki, who had once trained with Sakuraba and his legendary mentor Nobuhiko Takada, originally stated that he would never fight Akiyama because he was a cheater. But he decided to defend Sakuraba's name and accept the challenge. Their fight in 2007 was a classic.
Right from Akiyama's dramatic, operatic, entourage-heavy entrance, you can hear the energy in the crowd. The scene was dynamic, the crowd and the fighters all riled up. It's a fight you really must see. Note, there are two videos here - the first is the entrances, the second the fight. Don't skip the entrances - they are worth it:
Late in the first round, Misaki pulled off what was something of an upset, KO-ing Akiyama. The pro-Misaki crowd went wild, culminating in Takada showing his respect to Misaki with the Antonio Inoki style fighting spirit slap. But with Akiyama, there's always more news around the corner.
Post-fight, Akiyama protested that the KO kick was illegal as he was grounded, and kicks to downed opponents were not allowed in this fight. Officials agreed, and for the second time in a row, Akiyama's New Year's Eve fight was a No Contest. Misaki's amazing win and celebration were gone. There was talk of a rematch, but Akiyama went to the UFC before it could materialize.
It may seem odd that I point out two instances of cheating and one KO turned into a No Contest to show why Akiyama is great. But these are the moments that make him such a unique fighter. They're the moments that transcend the skill in the ring and bring in the drama. And that flair for the dramatic? That is what I have always loved about Yoshihiro Akiyama. It's also what has mostly been missing from his UFC run. Will we see it this weekend at UFC 144? I hope so. If not, and he is cut? So be it - I'll tune in wherever he shows up next, just to see what happens this time.