Japan is a hotbed for martial arts. It's home to fighting styles such as karate, jiu-jitsu and judo. It's also the home of the famous Pride organization.
The world's biggest MMA organization, the UFC, will be making its long overdue return in a little over a week at UFC 144. This will mark the first time a UFC event has been held in Japan since UFC 29 in 2000.
It's scheduled to take place on Sun. Feb. 26 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. For you North American viewers, that's Sat. Feb. 25, because of the time zone difference.
After a long 12-year wait, you can bet that the UFC wants to make this a memorable event. They have stacked the main card and included many Japanese fighters.
Read on to find out my predictions for each main card fight.
You've got to feel bad for Anthony "Showtime" Pettis.
After defeating Ben Henderson at the last WEC event ever (WEC 53) and becoming the WEC Lightweight Champion, he now finds himself fighting in the first fight of the night.
Why is that so bad?
Because the man he defeated, Ben Henderson, is also fighting tonight. The difference is that Henderson's fighting Frankie Edgar for the UFC lightweight title in the main event of the night.
Pettis was originally supposed to fight for the UFC lightweight title after the WEC folded, but he instead had to wait for a Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard title rematch. That bout had to be rescheduled due to injury, and in the meantime, Pettis fought Clay Guida. Pettis lost.
Meanwhile, Henderson repeatedly impressed in the UFC and even defeated Guida. So now, Pettis finds himself fighting on the same card as the man he once defeated. That man is getting the shot he never did.
Pettis will have plenty of motivation at UFC 144.
However, you can never count Joe Lauzon out.
He shocked the world by knocking out Jens Pulver in his UFC debut at UFC 63. He's rattled off six straight "Submission of the Night" or "Fight of the Night" performances, including his most recent upset over Melvin Guillard at UFC 136.
This is a tough one to call. Lauzon is riding high right now, as his last four UFC wins have come by submission. Pettis hasn't really looked that great lately, but he only has two losses and they have both come by way of decision. "Showtime" really lives up to his namesake, and we'll always remember the "Showtime Kick" against Ben Henderson. However, J-Lau just looks too good right now.
Prediction: Lauzon by Round 2 submission.
Hatsu Hioki is relatively new to the UFC, with his only UFC fight being a split-decision win over George Roop at UFC 137. He has fought mostly in Japanese organizations, so even though most Japanese fighters haven't fared well in the UFC, he'll feel right at home at UFC 144.
Bart Palaszewski also has one fight in the UFC, and that was an impressive knockout victory over Tyson Griffin at UFC 137.
Hioki has won 13 of his last 15 fights, while Palaszewski has only won seven of his last 13. Granted, they fought in different organizations, so the competition is different. But the numbers still speak for themselves.
Hioki usually wins by submission or decision, and while Palaszewski has been submitted, it doesn't seem like a glaring weakness.
Prediction: Hioki by decision.
Okami is one of the few Japanese fighters to achieve success in the UFC. He's strong and is usually able to grind out decision victories.
His last fight was a TKO loss to Anderson Silva at UFC 134, in Brazil. It was bad, but c'mon, does anyone look good against Anderson Silva? (Besides Chael Sonnen.)
Actually, since 2006, Okami has only lost to two other men: the aforementioned Sonnen and former middleweight champ Rich Franklin.
"The Barbarian" Tim Boetsch burst onto the scene with an impressive TKO victory over David Heath at UFC 81. Since then, his success has varied. He's won five of his eight UFC fights.
There is definitely a difference in quality of opponents faced between these two men.
Boetsch's most recent victories have come against Nick Ring, Kendall Grove and Todd Brown.
Okami's most recent victories have come against Nate Marquardt, Mark Munoz and Lucio Linhares.
Okami just fought Anderson Silva for the middleweight title, and now he's fighting in his home country. This fight seems almost too easy to call. I assume the matchmakers put this one on the card to give the Japanese fans something to cheer about. The outcome seems all but decided, but you never know what can happen in the UFC.
Prediction: Okami by decision.
Akiyama, or "Sexyama" as he is sometimes referred to, is one of the biggest stars in Japanese MMA. His record was 12-1 2NC coming into the UFC. He won a split-decision victory over Alan Belcher in his UFC debut at UFC 100.
Since then, all he's done is lose.
He's lost three straight, but his competition has been pretty fierce. I don't think anyone would snicker at the prospect of facing Vitor Belfort, Michael Bisping or Chris Leben.
Jake Shields is renowned for his ground game and is the former Strikeforce middleweight champ. He's coming off of two losses: one to up-and-coming Jake Ellenberger and the other to the welterweight champ, Georges St-Pierre.
Frankly, when it comes to "Sexyama" and Shields, I want to pull a GSP and say in a French Canadian accent, "I'm not impressed with your performance."
They have both looked pretty lackluster in their last couple fights, and I think this upcoming fight is good for them. They both have big names, and are overrated underachievers.
Prediction: Shields by decision.
This is going to be a war. At least, that's what the UFC execs and all the fans hope.
This is what fans want to see: two giants with tremendous power fighting in a cage.
Cheick Kongo is a physical specimen. He's physically imposing, and just looks like he can beat someone up. He's a longtime UFC fighter, and he's won 10 of his 15 UFC fights.
If you look at his record, you'll see that his most recent losses were against seriously tough guys, such as former heavyweight champs Frank Mir and Cain Velasquez. He has done quite well against lesser competition, however.
His last win was a decision victory over Matt Mitrione at UFC 137, and before that was, of course, the crazy "greatest comeback" KO ever against Pat Barry.
Mark Hunt has a lot of power, and he's displayed that in the UFC. He recently scored a decision victory over Ben Rothwell at UFC 135. This really should've been a TKO or KO victory, but that dude Rothwell just doesn't go down. Prior to that, Hunt scored a KO victory over Chris Tuchscherer at UFC 127.
Before those two fights, Hunt was on a six-fight losing streak. But, if you look at some of the names on the list, it doesn't look so bad; Alistair Overeem and Fedor Emelianenko are on there.
I really hope this fight is the slugfest it's designed to be, but you just never know in the UFC.
Hunt has shown a susceptibility to submissions in the past, so maybe Kongo will surprise us all and try his luck there.
We just haven't really seen that same vicious Kongo that we saw earlier in his career. I don't think he really wants to stand and trade with Hunt.
Prediction: Kongo by Round 2 TKO.
Quinton "Rampage" Jackson is undoubtedly a fan favorite, and I'm sure the Japanese fans will love seeing him again, as he once fought in the Pride organization.
He's coming off a loss to Jon Jones at UFC 135, a fight in which he simply got outclassed by a new generation of fighter. He has great boxing and power, of course, but he doesn't incorporate many leg kicks or other strikes besides punches.
He has faced the greatest competition in the world, and has proven successful until recently. To be honest, he hasn't really looked to be at that "elite" level since he knocked out Chuck Liddell to become the champ. But even then, Chuck was nearing the end of his career; we just didn't know it at the time.
Jackson's an exciting fighter, but he's not really elite. That's okay, though, because neither is Bader.
Bader was, until recently, thought to be one of the contenders for the light heavyweight title. That is, until he ran into Jon Jones at UFC 126, and then a surprisingly resurgent Tito Ortiz at UFC 132. His most recent bout was a KO victory against Jason Brilz at UFC 139, in what was a nice comeback fight for Bader.
So, where do these two guys stand?
They both have losses to Jon Jones, and, let's be honest, they were both dominated in those fights. Then again, Jones is the champ, and probably one of the best fighters in the world.
Bader has only lost twice, both times by submission. Do you really think "Rampage" is going to try and submit Bader?
It seems this fight will end by either decision or knockout, and Bader's not the one who's going to be delivering the knockout.
Even though Bader has never been knocked out, he hasn't faced anyone with Jackson's knockout power. I want to say that Jackson will win by decision, but let's make it exciting.
Prediction: Jackson by Round 2 KO
Here it is: The main event of the night. It should be a good one, as both fighters look to be at the top of their game.
Ben Henderson's most recent loss came against Anthony Pettis at WEC 53. Since then, he's rattled off three consecutive decision wins. However, these weren't boring decision wins (I'm looking at you, Gray Maynard). He's looked thoroughly impressive in each fight and has really earned this title shot.
The champ, Frankie Edgar, has been equally impressive. For some reason, it doesn't seem like he fights that much. Maybe that's because in his last four fights, he's fought the same two guys, and both times they were immediate rematches.
He shocked the world by defeating B.J. Penn to win the lightweight title at UFC 112. Penn had been dominating up until that point. Edgar won a fairly close fight, so the UFC bosses decided that they should fight again.
All Edgar did was beat Penn even more decisively.
Edgar then fought Gray Maynard at UFC 125. Maynard came out strong in the beginning of the fight, and Edgar looked to be finished on multiple occasions. Edgar battled back, and the judges ended up scoring the fight a draw. Since it was a draw, of course they had to have a rematch and complete "the trilogy" (they fought once before the title bout).
The rematch started similarly, with Edgar once again looking like he was finished early in the fight. But, once again, Edgar bounced back, and this time even stronger, as he stopped Maynard in the fourth round.
Edgar's nickname is "The Answer," and it suits him perfectly. Every time he's questioned, or put in a tough spot, he responds.
Edgar and Henderson have similar records. Edgar is 14-1-1 and Henderson is 15-2. Edgar usually wins by decision, while Henderson usually wins by decision or submission. This should be a hell of a fight.
Prediction: Edgar by decision.