Though he's been widely considered the biggest threat to Jose Aldo since signing with the UFC, Japanese featherweight Hatsu Hioki has been relegated to the Fuel TV preliminary card for this Friday's UFC on FX 4 event. Hioki will face the gritty Ricardo Lamas, who ironically just defeated main-carder Cub Swanson, in the featured bout of the Fuel TV broadcast, which begins at 6:00 p.m. ET and houses 6 undercard fights in all.
Hatsu Hioki (26-4-2) is the latest of heralded Japanese prospects to be scrutinized by fans, who are eager to stamp him as either "force" or "farce." Thus far, despite an unfavorable match up and close call against George Roop in his Octagon debut, Hioki is holding his own -- but the jury is still out.
"The Child of Shooto" is a little different from past iterations of overseas fighters in that, unlike imports such as Takanori Gomi or Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, Hioki is still in his prime at age 28 and wasn't acquired on the heels of a notable decline. A glimpse of his true potential could be seen in his sophomore effort against Bart Palaszewski; a unanimous decision in which his crafty clinch tactics, under-rated striking and cunning ground game were on full display.
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Pre-MMA, Ricardo Lamas (11-2) was a NCAA Division III All-American wrestler (Elmhurst College) and deemed the "Most Outstanding Wrestler" in the CCIW (College Conference of Illinois-Wisconsin) from 2003-2004. He began his career as a lightweight and made his WEC debut after a flawless 5-fight stint, scoring an impressive decision over veteran Bart Palaszewski at WEC 39. Including that win, Lamas would peg a 4-2 clip in the WEC with TKO losses to Danny Castillo and Yuri Alcantara, the latter of which propagated a drop to 145-pounds for the transition to the Octagon.
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Lamas has looked like an angry beast in his pair of Octagon finishes: he booted Matt Grice in the head and followed up with punches for a 1st-round TKO and submitted BJJ black belt Cub Swanson with an arm-triangle in the 2nd. "The Bully" is an apt nickname for his unflinching aggression and overall toughness, yet the fact that Lamas' striking has been looking more fluent than ever and that he's achieved a brown belt in BJJ gives him quite a unique blend of power and finesse.
Much like the undercard's Ken Stone, Lamas has exhibited an understated prowess and creativity with his striking arsenal, such as:
- Unleashing a "Martelo" style Capoeira kick and peppering frequently with lead-leg, inside low kicks from the fringe
- Cutting a hard-left angle to center up his right cross after leading with a left hook (his go-to combination)
- He tagged Grice with an on-balance switch kick twice (the last of which triggered the TKO flurry)
- He's adept at reading his opponent's reactions and head position to formulate his kickboxing attacks; examples being the way he faked a level drop and transitioned to a stiff uppercut against Grice as well as the left high kick that led to the stoppage and his flying-knee decapitation of Bendy Casimir
The reason I'm high on Lamas is that, in addition to the observations above, his wrestling was functional enough to ground Grice, a D1 wrestler, and he choked out Swanson, a BJJ black belt, though much of that is attributable to Cub's recklessness.
Regardless of the latter, Hioki is a truly elite submissionist and that's the only area that Lamas won't be able to match him. On the mat, Hioki is a grappling machine of the highest caliber: he's icily composed, a master of position, deadly with sweeps and in scrambles and transitions and able to latch on a fight-ending catch at any time.
Known mostly for his ground game, Hioki also has under-rated stand up, though it's not quite as vicious and dynamic as Lamas', but his height (5'11") and daunting length (73" reach) increase his effectiveness. His boxing, footwork, head movement and overall flow have drastically improved and he flings a nice high kick with no forewarning or noticeable set up. Generally, Hioki's striking is a smokescreen that enables him to clinch up and start working his clever trips and throws from the clinch, which is another under-valued trade. However, he's extremely patient on the feet and rarely telegraphs his advances or forces the issue.
The way I can see Lamas taking this fight is by 3 rounds of focused phase shifting: using his coercive demeanor to control the pace and location of the fight by harassing Hioki in open space with short power shots, keeping him honest by rifling for duck-under double legs and then faking the takedown attempt to complement his striking. The key to this strategy is to avoid prolonged exchanges with Hioki on the mat and keeping strong posture so he can back out and reset on the feet, i.e. the "Melendez vs. Aoki" blueprint.
The betting lines have yet to assess this match up, but I'm assuming I'm giving Lamas a much better chance than most. Were it not for Hioki's invulnerable chin and proven durability, I'd peg Lamas as a high-percentage upset. Though he's still a very live dog, Hioki is a potent specialist with the best ground game at 145, yet he's not one-dimensional; he implements his striking and clinch capabilities very well to impose his unparalleled grappling. Pursuing takedowns from the clinch helps him to set up his advances and quickly transition to a library of follow-up attacks.
He chains things together smoothly and applies a lot of pressure once he has his mitts attached. I envision him catching Lamas with a submission, either on the floor, in the clinch or in a transition, or enforcing his length and clinch game often enough to compensate for Lamas' power and striking edge.
My Prediction: Hatsu Hioki by submission.