By Jaime C. Feal
Now the dominant global figure in MMA, the UFC returns to Japan for the first time in 12 years. Once considered enemy territory, Japan is now fair game for UFC shows to be the main attraction after Zuffa acquired all the PRIDE assets in 2007. The question is why they waited so long to bring a show to Japan with some of the greatest Japanese and Asian mixed martial artists in the world on the UFC roster. Nevertheless, the return to Japan should be worth the wait: An action packed seven-fight main card will air live on pay-per-view Saturday night at 10 p.m. EST, headlined by a lightweight title fight pitting champion Frankie Edgar against #1 contender Ben Henderson.
Welterweight Division (170 lbs.):
Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-4, 1-3 UFC) vs. Jake Shields (26-6-1, 1-2 UFC)
Both these fighters are on losing streaks, something you rarely see on a main-fight card. This can be attributed to the fact that Akiyama is a decorated Japanese judoka who is very beloved in his native country and figures to draw a significant amount of fanfare for the fight. Akiyama has lost three straight, and Shields has dropped two in a row for the first time in his career, but the good news is that barring a draw or no-contest, one fighter will end his losing streak on Saturday night. Shields needs the win particularly badly as he once contended for the UFC welterweight strap, but most recently got demolished by a Jake Ellenberger knee and follow up punches in 53 seconds in September. Shields is one of the best jiu-jitsu practitioners in the world, and showed improved stand-up skills in his fight against GSP. This fight is a grappling war, where Akiyama will try to use his judo and strength to toss around Shields, who will be looking to counter with submissions and sweeps.
Prediction: Jake Shields wins by submission, Round 3.
Light Heavyweight Division (205 lbs.):
Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (32-9, 7-3 UFC) vs. Ryan “Darth” Bader (13-2, 6-2 UFC)
Rampage is finally back in front of his beloved Japanese fans, where he built his name fighting for PRIDE FC, and Jackson is promising some of his patented fireworks for this fight. The matchup is tailor-made for him, as Ryan Bader is essentially a poor man’s Quinton Jackson. Bader is a wrestler who likes to use his heavy right hand. He has little to no jiu-jitsu and doesn’t throw leg kicks. Rampage also has no jitz and barely ever throws leg kicks. But he has more power in his hands and is a much more patient and technical striker. Rampage has proven he can take punishment in his fights, whereas Ryan Bader got dropped and finished in the first round by an aging Tito Ortiz. Essentially, Bader’s only chance is to take Jackson down and control him for three rounds. This figures to very difficult to do, however, as Jackson has shown great takedown defense his entire MMA career, and with all his experience he may even have better ‘wrestling for MMA’ than Bader. What this means is that although Bader was an All-American collegiate wrestler at Arizona State, once striking and all the other aspects of MMA are involved, Jackson has better wrestling for MMA than Bader. Neither fighter figures to threaten any type of submissions, and Rampage has already stated he wants to stand and bang in this fight. Expect a patient Rampage to thwart Bader’s takedown attempts, slowly picking him apart and setting him up for a big punch that will signify the beginning of the end.
Prediction: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson wins by TKO, Round 2.
UFC Lightweight Championship (155 lbs.):
Frankie “The Answer” Edgar (14-1-1, 9-1-1 UFC) vs. Ben “Smooth” Henderson (15-2, 3-0 UFC)
As Edgar slowly climbs the pound for pound greats list, he silences his critics and doubters with every victory. Once thought to be a decision fighter relying on cardio and footwork, Edgar showed the ability to finish in his last fight with a 4th round TKO victory over Gray Maynard. Edgar has many tools in the tool shed with amazing heart, recovery, cardio, speed, footwork, and wrestling. The one knock on him is he is undersized for the division, but his footwork and quickness make up for that. He faces a very prodigious grappler in Ben Henderson, a man who is accustomed to making fights scraps and using his size and athleticism to impose his will on the fight. This is exactly what Henderson will need to do if he is to dethrone Edgar. This fight figures to be a test of who can impose their game plan. Ideally, Edgar wants to run around in circles and frustrate Henderson with counter punching and take down defense. Henderson, conversely, wants to take this fight to the mat and beat up Edgar on the ground, something no one has been able to consistently do. The lone exception has been when Gray Maynard has rocked Edgar on the feet and followed up with strikes on the ground, which of course Henderson would love to repeat if he is fortunate enough to clip Edgar while standing up. The submission game should be a non factor here as Ben Henderson is virtually impossible to submit and Edgar does not have top-notch jiu-jitsu. Additionally, Henderson strongly favors ground and pound over going for submissions when he is on top. This fight will be a strictly wrestling and striking battle. Ultimately, fans should expect a wildly entertaining back-and-forth brawl, starting with a fast pace from the onset and sustained with solid intensity throughout.
Prediction: Ben “Smooth” Henderson wins by split decision.