The UFC has been aggressively signing Japanese fighters as of late, picking up established stars such as Tatsuya Kawajiri and Katsunori Kikuno, mid-level veterans like Kiichi Kunimoto and Shunichi Shimizu, along with a bright prospect such as Kyoji Horiguchi. When it comes to the top unsigned Japanese talent though, two young rising stars usually top these lists with analysts and fighters (such as Kawajiri) saying that the UFC should pick up Yuta Sasaki (15-1-2) and Michinori Tanaka (9-0).
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Sasaki, who is sometimes called 'Ulka' or 'Uruka', is a large bantamweight at 5-foot-10 with a dangerous and well-rounded game. He has won the Shooto Pacific-Rim title, and last competed on Monday-night in Japan, where he quickly submitted ZST champion Keisuke Fujiwara to remain unbeaten in his last 9 bouts.
Tanaka on the other hand, is a high level grappler who has continued his unbeaten streak to claim and defend the PXC bantamweight title. He has a dominant submission win over recent UFC standout Russell Doane, and also has a 'UFC-out' clause on his contract with the Guam and Philippine-based promotion, making him a prime candidate to move to the big leagues.
Both Tanaka and Sasaki started out as Shooto Rookie champions on 2010 and 2011 until they blossomed to be two of the most exciting prospects to have come out from Japan as of late. Unfortunately, we may have to wait a little bit more before we get to see these men in the Octagon as their management has said that they won't be rushing into the world stage.
"Both Uruka and Michinori are clients. They're probably not going (to sign with the UFC) for the whole year," Shu Hirata told BloodyElbow.com, "They're going to stay out, and they're going to try and sign in 2015."
They are both still very young at 23 and 24 years old respectively, and while they're clearly a class above most prospects in Asia, both realize that simply making it into the UFC won't be enough.
"Uruka wants to be Shooto champion first, and Michinori wants to defend the PXC title a few more times," Hirata said as he explains why they aren't rushing to the big leagues, "They want to get even better first."
With the UFC's aggressive Asian expansion plans targeting 5-7 shows this year, a lot can change within the next few months. So while this decision to stay out certainly isn't set in stone, it's good to see these young rising stars have that UFC goal and at the same time understand that this is a marathon, not a sprint.
The western audience won't see them on the big stage just yet, but these young stars are banking on the next few months of seasoning and improvements to make it worth the wait.
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