For countless fans, Wednesday night's UFC Fight Night 21 main event showdown between former PRIDE lightweight champion Takanori Gomi (31-5, 0-0 UFC) and former UFC lightweight contender Kenny Florian (12-4, 10-3 UFC) will be a culmination of years of hoping Gomi's presence would be felt inside the Octagon. Like many of PRIDE's successful fighters, fans were curious to see how Gomi would fair against the UFC deep division of talent, and while March 31st, 2010 might be a bit later than fans had hoped -- Gomi will finally try to prove that he can compete with the upper-echelon of talent in the UFC.
Gomi enters this contest with a fairly mediocre record in the last couple of years. He went 2-2 in his stint with World Victory Road, defeating current UFC fighter Duane Ludwig and Korean fighter Seung Hwang Bang. He dropped a split decision to Sergey Golyaev at Sengoku VI, a loss that many felt was the upset of 2008, and lost via Achilles lock to submission specialist Satoru Kitaoka at Sengoku Rebellion 2009. Gomi rebounded with a knockout victory over Takashi Nakakura at a Shooto event in May and defeated Tony Hervey via decision at Vale Tudo Japan 2009 back in October.
Florian is coming off an impressive rear-naked choke finish of Clay Guida at UFC 107 after being defeated by UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn at UFC 101 via submission. He previously rattled off six straight wins before his loss to Penn with wins over Joe Stevenson, Roger Huerta, Joe Lauzon, Din Thomas, Alvin Robinson, and Dokonjonosuke Mishima.
Gomi's UFC debut won't be as simple as a walk to the cage, a performance, and the aftermath of a win or loss. No, it'll be a much more significant milestone in the career of the once-dominant PRIDE lightweight champion. It will be a fight in two different arenas, one physical showdown with the UFC's #2 lightweight and a mental battle with Gomi's own demons.
Stylistically, both fighters have specific strengths that should give them edges within a particular gameplan. For Florian, his well-roundedness is obviously a great tool to have in any situation, but his destructive elbows in the clinch and on the ground could prove to be Gomi's undoing. Gomi has stated that the damaging elbows that are allowed in the UFC are something he's concerned about, and it just so happens that he'll face one of the most successful elbow strikers in the sport in Florian. That surely can't bode well for his chances if Florian can put him to the ground or hold him in the cage.
For Gomi, his strengths in wrestling and striking will be the one-two combination he needs to defeat the always-improving Kenny Florian. His wrestling is substantially better than most people give him credit for, although his most recent outings in the ring have proven that he's slouched in maintaining its strength. His boxing has always been his bread-and-butter offensive weapon, and it's the sole reason why he's been highly successful in the past. Heavy-handed and accurate, Gomi can end an opponent's night with a one strong combination.
Overall, Florian should have the edge in this fight. Sure, Gomi has some vaunted striking ability and very good wrestling, but the ultimate x-factor in his mental instability could prove to have diminished every area of his game. Florian has showed good striking ability, improving grappling acumen, strong wrestling, and a killer instinct to finish his opponents. If Gomi shows up with even an ounce of self-doubt, Florian has this fight in the bag.
It's a tough pick for many fans. Some fans are emotionally attached to fighters because they identify with what they're going through in their heads, and other fans simply love what a fighter stands for when he is a respectful winner or gracious loser. Fans love Jens Pulver because he wears his heart on his sleeve, and there are fans who see some of that in the way Takanori Gomi spoke about his depression following PRIDE's demise and his subsequent lack of motivation.
My heart will stay in Japan for this fight. I'll be rooting heavily for Takanori Gomi to pull through, but I'm going to pick Kenny Florian in this fight. It's very rare that a fighter can overcome his mental problems quickly and also return to top form in such a small amount of time. Paulo Filho has yet to do it. It may take some fighters years to bring themselves back from a mental breakdown, and if Gomi happens to somehow win on Wednesday night -- we should all vow to stand up where we sit and clap. It's no easy feat, but Gomi is in the position now to shock the world by battering two opponents in one feeding.
Good luck to you, Takanori Gomi.