Look out, Dana, because Yushin Okami is getting very close to another title shot.
So much talk around the MMA world lately has been about Jon Fitch, his release, and what it says about the UFC these days. What many people are forgetting is that Fitch isn't the only fighter out there that made it very, very high on his division's rankings utilizing a less-than-exciting, distance-focused fighting style.
Yushin Okami, like Fitch, has a game centered around taking opponents down, keeping them there, and punching them intermittently until a horn tells them to stop. Few fans swoon over fights like that, but a 13-4 record over six years of fighting in the UFC speaks for itself.
Last week, Okami overcame a terrible stylistic matchup to beat former Bellator champion Hector Lombard. While Lombard is primarily known for his dynamite hands, few bring up the fact that he went to the Olympics for Judo (Judo, by the way, is the sport about not getting taken down).
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In that victory, the Japanese circled around Lombard with a quickness we haven't seen out of him before. This is, by the way, on top of the fact that he is one of the most physically-imposing specimens in the middleweight division.
All that is to say, Yushin Okami looks better than ever. Even before his Renaissance, he was good enough to beat the likes of Nate Marquardt, Mark Munoz and pre-injuries Alan Belcher. This new Okami is a nightmare for any potential middleweight opponent.
He holds back-to-back wins over top-ten opponents and is on a three-fight winning streak. If he faces another name on the UFC's rankings, it's basically impossible to deny that he is both the on-paper top contender, and the greatest threat when it comes to beating Anderson Silva.
That, however, is a nightmare scenario for the UFC, and Silva's always-opinionated management team.
Again, Okami has been near the top of the division for a long, long while now and fought Anderson Silva less than three years ago at UFC 134. That was one of Silva's least-successful pay-per-view headlines as a champion and given how selective his management team is these days, it is difficult to believe his handlers would be willing to move forward with a fight like that.
As UFC fans have agonized over, consensus top contender Chris Weidman has been stuck in matchmaking hell for a long, long while now. While he will likely be getting his fight with Silva in July, this is a process that has been working itself out for months now, and Weidman is regarded by hardcore MMA fans as one of the hottest young fighters in the sport (and also, was not knocked out by Silva just a couple years ago).
So what is next for Yushin Okami? In a perfect world, where title shots were based on a blend of merit, resumes and actual ability to beat the champion, Okami would be lined up to face the winner of Vitor Belfort vs. Luke Rockhold.
Belfort, like Okami, has been perched near the top of the middleweight division ever since rejoining the UFC in 2009 and it's actually remarkable that, to this point, the two have successfully avoided each other. This would set up for, perhaps, the most clear-cut matchup of grappler vs. striker since Royce Gracie vs. Gerard Gordeau.
Rockhold, meanwhile, remains a young up-and-comer, in spite of the fact he earned the Strikeforce middleweight belt and defended it twice. He is, at the very least, yet to face a wrestler of Okami's caliber (and, perhaps, hasn't faced a fighter as good as Okami yet).
Unfortunately, there is no way the UFC would make such a fight. That could, potentially, result in Okami becoming so obviously the top contender in the middleweight division that all other potential opponents for Silva would just seem laughable. While Dana White has been (proverbially) pulling out his hair over “The Spider” and co. resisting every title fight put in front of him, there is no question that both parties are ultimately interested in the same thing.
That thing is getting PPV buys and no matter which way you slice it, Okami doesn't do much in the way of drawing fans.
Luckily for “Thunder”, there is no shortage of quality middleweight opposition these days.
The winner of Costa Philippou vs. Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza has been thrown around, and that definitely makes sense. Should Michael Bisping beat Alan Belcher, a title against the British striker would be a fun match between long-time top middleweights. Last but not least, there's always Cung Le ready to headline a Fuel TV or FX card.
Ultimately, though, those are just stopgaps to a problem the UFC is going to have to face. Yushin Okami is coming very close to deserving another title shot.