Desperate to dodge the ominous curse of 3-straight losses, perennial middleweight contender Yushin Okami squares off with Buddy Roberts on the main card of Saturday's UFC 150 pay-per-view. The show is headlined by the rematch between Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar for the UFC lightweight championship.
Yushin "Thunder" Okami (26-7) now has 6 years and 14 turns in the Octagon, where he's posted a solid 10-4 record and established himself as elite. Up until his last pair of fights, his trajectory has been steadily rising despite a few understandable bumps along the way (decision losses to former champ Rich Franklin and alpha-challenger Chael Sonnen). Okami was long pegged as having the best chance to dethrone the untouchable Anderson Silva, but was relegated to the champ's highlight reel after finally earning his shot at UFC 134 last August.
In the follow up, Okami convincingly handled the opening 10 minutes against Tim Boetsch but succumbed to a bloodthirsty turnaround from "The Barbarian." The 3rd-round TKO was just the 3rd time Okami has ever been finished in 33 outings which, including Silva, made it 2-straight TKO defeats and his first stoppage-losses since Amar Suloev in 2003.
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Buddy Roberts (12-2), a Jackson/Winklejohn product, was a 4-year football player at Howard Payne University who dropped to middleweight for his Octagon debut against Caio Magalhaes. Backing up his raw athleticism and spidery reach (76") with composed kickboxing and a methodical sprawl-and-brawl, Roberts snared a convincing decision and extended his winning roll to 6-straight with the victory.
Though his natural talents, surprising overall technique and determined adherence to the game-plan raised his stock, Roberts faced a mutual debutante in Magalhaes, who was considerably inexperienced (5 fights deep), under-sized and limited from a diversity standpoint. The match up represented the lower-end of the middleweight totem pole, whereas Okami has been sitting high atop it for over a half-decade and will present an alarmingly formidable leap in competition.
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While keeping in mind the important disclaimer about Magalhaes' limitations, Roberts looked excellent in his UFC premiere. A fighter's coach and team are often mentioned as an attribute and Roberts showed why against Magalhaes: he displayed an atypical level of composure, intelligence and wide-ranging fundamentals for a newcomer, and that only comes from an absurd amount of gym-time with top-level training partners and guidance.
Roberts' athleticism is a big part of his style: his reactions, instincts, explosiveness, balance and agility are integral to his cage motion and takedown defense. What might separate Roberts is that he's picked up a broad array of sound fundamentals to match his physical gifts. He stays busy on the trigger with a long, piercing jab and always hops to one side while throwing it to change his position. He's able to maintain steady pressure without sacrificing defense or leaving himself wide open to counter-fire and he seamlessly switched back and forth from attacking persistently to defending with textbook takedown defense when he was cornered and/or contained.
While Roberts plugged away consistently with basic but wholly effective tactics, he occasionally turned up the volume with leaping front kicks and bursts of meaningful combinations rather than chip away safely to nurture his obvious lead. By all accounts, Roberts seems to be a hefty middleweight with excellent attributes and a strong fight I.Q.
Okami is an entirely different animal than Magalhaes, however. Magalhaes is a burly BJJ specialist with average takedowns and predictable striking tendencies whereas Okami has gradually honed every facet of his game to apex standards. The most noticeable improvements Okami's made are with his boxing, which has become startlingly precise and crisp, and by further tailoring his Judo base to adopt more traditional and functional wrestling skills.
The Japanese southpaw was rightfully criticized for his complacent approach and lack of killer instinct early in his UFC tenure, but now has the type of complete arsenal that allows him to stay busy with a steady stream of offense. Okami relies on his active jab to maintain his presence from a distance and wreak havoc from the fringe. This lead punch can knife through the guard and slowly wear his opponent down, throw them entirely off-track and disrupt their offense or set up his nasty follow-up left hand.
His stand up used to be a simple smokescreen to enable his domineering clinch game and takedown prowess, but now Okami can handle his business almost entirely on the feet -- as he did against Boetsch, successfully, at least in rounds 1 and 2. His height (6'2") converts to massive leverage in standing entanglements, as Okami gets a wide base and either thwacks knees from the Thai plum grip or snakes in underhooks and looks for trips and throws. On the top, he's workmanlike in maintaining position, threatening with medium-power ground strikes and prowling for an arm to wrench, an open avenue to the neck for chokes or opportunities to improve position.
Since this will be a southpaw vs. orthodox match, the classic chess match of lead-foot position will ensue, as either fighter will always be trying to keep their extended foot on the outside to center their opponent in the cross-hairs. Both are active and effective with long jabs and, while Okami might be a little quicker and crisper, Roberts' exceptional length and timing might frustrate Okami. Roberts takedown defense looked stellar against Magalhaes, especially his balance, but it's virtually unproven against the steep caliber of MMA takedowns that Okami will impose.
Other than a mental lapse or late-fight fadeout, the overall experience and status disparity between these fighters makes it hard to side with Roberts. All of Okami's losses came to top-tier middleweights and most were highly competitive, so Roberts would have to seriously shine with his footwork, range-striking and defensive clinching in order to survive such a perilous upgrade in competition.
My Prediction: Yushin Okami by decision.