As with most heralded crossovers from Japan, the great Tatsuya Kawajiri's (32-7) UFC debut is a few years too late. I'll attempt to summarize a full 14-years and 41-fights worth of his indelible career:
Kawajiri made his MMA debut in April of 2000 under the Shooto banner with a submission loss and a draw. He then proceeded to reel off seven straight wins with six stoppages, turning heads in the process. He would lose to future Shooto champion and obscenely decorated sport grappler Vitor Ribeiro by decision in his next confrontation, but the defeat triggered a wrath-of-god like sequence that would vault Kawajiri to the apex of his weight class and into the running as planet Earth's alpha-lightweight.
As an aside for anyone shocked or offended at that statement -- the UFC curiously removed themselves entirely from the lightweight business after Yves Edwards nearly beheaded Josh Thomson to become the unofficial, de facto lightweight king. Simultaneously, former lightweight ninja B.J. Penn vacated the lightweight division to fight overseas in weight classes ranging as high as middleweight. Thomson won one fight in Pride but opted for Strikeforce instead, where he lost his debut outing to Clay Guida and slumped in the lightweight rankings. Edwards crossed the pond to compete in Pride Fighting Championships where the world's best lightweights, most of which who'd risen up in Shooto, had amassed for the legendary Bushido tournament.
Now let me backtrack to Kawajiri after his loss to Ribeiro: "Crusher" tore through five of his next six opponents, the likes of which included Edwards (in Shooto and before Yves' surge in the UFC) and Shooto staple Ryan Bow, and ended the streak by avenging his loss to Ribeiro (2nd-round TKO) and becoming Shooto's welterweight (154 lbs.) world champion.
Though they still fought sporadically under the Shooto banner, the organization's elite echelon -- such as Joachim Hansen, Hayato Sakurai, Takanori Gomi and, a bit later, Shinya Aoki -- set up shop in Pride as the nucleus of the world's best lightweights, and the results of the ridiculously stacked and unforgettable Lightweight Gran Prix literally re-chiseled the lightweight world rankings. The three top dogs were undoubtedly Gomi, Kawajiri and Sakurai, and Gomi earned alpha-lightweight status by defeating Kawajiri (rear-naked choke) in the quarterfinals and "Mach" Sakurai (KO) in the finals.
Since then, Kawajiri has posted a 12-4 pace with wins over Hansen, Josh Thomson, Gesias Cavalcante and Drew Fickett with only cream-of-the-crop lightweights besting him in Gilbert Melendez, Eddie Alvarez and Aoki. After an 11-year tenure as a lightweight, Kawajiri descended to featherweight late in 2011 and has three submission wins (Hansen, Kazuyuki Miyata, Donald Sanchez) and a dominant decision (Michihiro Omigawa) to show for it.
As a voracious wrestler with a fluent blend of power, aggression, agility and submission grappling, Kawajiri's style is quite atypical for an overseas prospect, and his wrestling dominance led many to believe he'd fare better in the Octagon than his Pride and Shooto counterparts. As of now, Kawajiri boasts 12 wins by TKO and nine by submission with 10 decisions.
OK, so ... I never said it'd be a brief summary.
Sean Soriano (8-0), a fellow UFC debutante, is the half of this equation I've yet to mention. Hailing from the Blackzilians camp, Soriano is a wrestling-oriented fighter with a perfect record (3 TKO's, 3 subs, 2 decisions). He appears to have only wrestled in high school.
It's at this point where I'd typically lump in Kawajiri's incomparable career and level of past opposition before writing Soriano off, but this kid is a legit talent. Despite his lack of big-name collegiate credentials, Soriano is a highly competent wrestler and unquestionably skilled on the mat. What's even more impressive is how comfortable and dynamic he is on the feet, which is a consummately under-appreciated feat for a green fighter with a wrestling background.
Striking wise, Soriano throws a wide assembly of kicks, turning his hips over nicely to add torque to his low kicks and unlatching high kicks quickly and with almost no forewarning. His boxing is decent, his clinch game is replete with stiff knees and takedowns and Soriano is highly aggressive but not out of control. All aggressive fighters are generally a bit more susceptible on the defensive end and Soriano is no exception, but, overall, I think he's balancing most of MMA's give-and-take factors very well.
While he can't possibly compete with Kawajiri's decade-plus experience against a murderer's row of lightweights, Soriano has done exactly what a promising prospect should do against low to mid level competition, which is to dominate them thoroughly. Though his opponents have a cumulative fight record of 37-34, Soriano's latest win, Elvin Leon Brito (6-2), is no slouch and gave us plenty of footage to study.
The video reinforces that Soriano is an excellent acquisition for the UFC with a bright future ahead of him. And, although Kawajiri is my pick, as he would be over most of the established UFC featherweights on the roster, Soriano has the skill set to give "Crusher" a really rough debut. Soriano has the right combination of mysteriousness, inexperience and electrifying horsepower to either pull off an amazing upset or make Kawajiri look somewhere between average to "not nearly as awesome as all the old school fans made him out to be."
While his striking might be an exception, Soriano has the same package of skills that Kawajiri does and it's just too difficult to fathom that such a green fighter will implement them better than one of the all-time lightweight greats. In my opinion, the betting lines aren't too far off in this one though.
My Prediction: Tatsuya Kawajiri by TKO.