Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
The featherweights get a chance to stimulate Saitama Super Arena this weekend with the patented 'clash of styles' battle between Rani Yahya and Mizuto Hirota.
The lone featherweight card on the evening pits Mizuto Hirota against Rani Yahya. It's a classic 'striker versus grappler' matchup. But despite the cliches, it's a little more dynamic on paper than "Fighter X will do the thing Fighter Y isn't good at".
Like many Japanese fighters, Hirota is finally making the drop down in weight long passed the due date. Unlike many Japanese fighters, his style won't distract the judges from halfwit observations about what determines victory in a mixed martial arts fight. He's got a strong striking game, and will look to keep it on the feet as long as possible.
Hirota started his career in Shooto, going undefeated until falling victim to the Shooto lightweight round-robin elite; in this case, back to back losses to Takashi Nakakura and Ganjo Tentsuku (two very underrated fighters who deserved the spotlight at one point). Since then he bounced around, fighting in Cage Force, and Sengoku. Along the way he scored his most impressive victories to date, both by TKO against Mitsuhiro Ishida and Satoru Kitaoka (where he won Sengoku's LW belt).
Unfortunately, he's known less for his success, and more for his fight against Shinya Aoki, where Aoki broke his humerus who then added childish insult to injury by flipping him the bird (though people that predicted Pat Healy would truck him might argue otherwise). It was a bizarre incident, and until I had to write this breakdown, one I had forgotten.
Rani Yahya, like many jiu jitsu aces making the transition into MMA, has had to deal with his ups and downs as well. Although Yahya didn't start his career out with tough losses to strikers. Instead his first loss via finish was to Gesias Cavalcante, who submitted him with a guillotine. He's had what I think has been a successful transition for the most part. Which brings us to...
What both men can do: Yahya has won gold in the CBJJ World Championships and ADCC. Unlike a lot of brilliant grapplers, he doesn't hesitate on the ground. It's a mistake I see a lot of BJJ aces make. They hit the ground, and when presented with large gloves that make rear naked chokes clunkier and the desire to punch their opponent in the face, either freeze or take too long setting up.
Yahya doesn't have that problem. When he's on the ground it's as if he's still on the mat; his transitions are seamless, and because he has two real go-to submissions (the north south, and the rear naked), he's never at loss for set ups, be it from the top, or strapped to his opponent's back.
Hirota's game hinges on his striking. I wouldn't call him a power puncher, but he's got natural power. He doesn't load up, and swing big punches. Instead he likes to chamber short, but hard rights and lefts. He has a nice lunging left hook as well, which he caught Ishida with in 2009.
What both can't do: Hirota doesn't have any real major weaknesses. His problem here is that Yahya is a genius on the ground, so if it gets there, Rani can submit him. The problem for Rani is that he's still not a great striker, nor does he do a great job of getting fights to the ground when he needs to.
I don't think Yahya is that bad on the feet though. I also think he doesn't get enough credit for being kind of tough. He had no business on the feet against Kid when Kid was still good, but he turned what should have been a one-sided affair into a ballsy (if ill-advised) firefight. His boxing has come a long way, and he posses decent power for a guy his size. None of this adds up to "Rani has underrated striking", but I do think he can potentially grind out an ugly win.
The biggest problem for Yahya is that Hirota's already sturdy takedown defense is backed by his strong base on the feet. Hirota always keeps a solid stance when boxing, and is rarely out of position. This means Rani can't rely on mere timing. He's got to create chances. That's when Rani tends to fail.
Prediction: Mizuto Hirota by Decision.