On February 26th, the UFC will make it's long-awaited return to Japan after more than a decade, and three of Japan's most recognized fighters will represent their country in the main card at UFC 144.
Yoshihiro Akiyama, Yushin Okami and Hatsu Hioki will battle it out before Frankie Edgar and Benson Henderson go to war for the lightweight title. All three men have competed and enjoyed success in some of Japan's greatest organizations before joining the UFC, but fighting on the sport's biggest stage in front of the home crowd could top that before all is said and done.
Hatsu Hioki vs. Bart Palaszewski
Highly regarded as one of the top featherweights in the world, Hatsu Hioki will make his second UFC appearance against fellow MMA veteran Bart Palaszewski. Hioki is a former title holder in TKO Major League MMA, Professional Shooto Japan and Sengoku Raiden Championships.
The Japanese star made his UFC debut in June at UFC 137, where he defeated George Roop by split decision. Coincidentally, Palaszewski made his debut on that same card with a first round KO of Tyson Griffin that earned Knockout of the Night.
In terms of experience, Palaszewski has 19 more fights than Hioki and is the more rounded fighter, but Hioki's ground game is one of the best in the featherweight division. If Hioki can take this fight to the ground, he'll have the advantage and take the submission victory.
Prediction: Hioki via submission in the second round
Yushin Okami vs. Tim Boetsch
Yushin Okami is a 10-year veteran of the sport and one of only four men to hold a victory over Anderson Silva. Okami was not so fortunate in his second meeting with Silva, as he was finished off by the Brazilian last August in the middleweight championship by TKO.
The Judo black belt makes his return to the Octagon in a middleweight bout against Tim Boetsch. Since his release from the UFC in 2009, Boetsch has gone 3-1 and his move down to middleweight has been a success. Okami should have the strength advantage and is capable of putting Boetsch away in the standup, but I could see this fight going to a decision.
Okami needs to win in impressive fashion if he wants to make the climb back to another title shot.
Prediction: Okami via unanimous decision
Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields
Yoshihiro Akiyama will be making his UFC welterweight debut against former No. 1 contender Jake Shields in what could be an overlooked matchup.
Shields suffered a first-round knockout defeat to Jake Ellenberger last September—just weeks after the passing of his father. Shields denies that his father's passing was the reason for his loss, but it's easy to understand how such a tragic event could have impacted his focus that night.
Akiyama is currently riding a three-fight losing streak and is potentially facing a release from the UFC should he lose a fourth. The multi-talented Osaka native is a brawler with Fight of the Night potential in every event he competes in.
Akiyama will have his back against the wall in this one, but Shields is still one of the best in the world at 170 pounds. This matchup could win Fight of the Night, but I don't see Akiyama coming out on top.
Prediction: Shields via split-decision