Katsunori Kikuno and Tatsuya Kawajiri often stood out in the past as two names that fans wanted to eventually see in the UFC but never thought they would. After all, Kikuno and Kawajiri won against respectable names, but Kawajiri owned losses to the likes of Shinya Aoki and Gilbert Melendez, while Kikuno owns losses to Eddie Alvarez and Mizuto Hirota on his record. While no shame ever came in losing to Aoki, Alvarez, Melendez or Hirota, they didn't help the case that begged the UFC to sign them.
Still, the promotion decided that in order to make its mark in Asia, it needs the best competitors in the Asian MMA circuit to deliver on their cards. Kawajiri and Kikuno present familiar names to MMA fans around the world, and they present rather challenging styles that promise their share of action and excitement. If one real knock exists on signing both, it only comes as a result of the track record of past Japanese talent that crossed through the UFC.
As many fans know, recently released Yushin Okami compiled 13 wins and just five losses in the promotion, standing out as the most successful Japanese competitor in the UFC. Hatsu Hioki owns two UFC wins, Kyoji Horiguchi scored his first UFC win over Dustin Pague in Houston last month at UFC 166 and Takeya Mizugaki recently defeated highly touted Erik Perez.
In contrast, Hioki owns his share of UFC losses, Norifumi Yamamoto remains winless in the UFC, Takanori Gomi experienced mixed success in the UFC thus far and nothing on paper suggests that Kawajiri or Kikuno will fare any different.
Just because everything suggests that Kikuno and Kawajiri will flop, however, doesn't necessarily mean they will. Kawajiri and Kikuno may possess flaws that prevent them from achieving consistent success in MMA bouts, especially against top competition, but most other MMA fighters undergo the same.
Now, that doesn't speak to any problems that fighters and athletes from their nation possess, especially when looking back at Okami's success. It just highlights the need for fighters to continue evolving with the sport and keeping their skill sets as a well-mixed bag of tricks.
Most would focus on Kawajiri, as he would need to prove that he can mix things up more than the man people remember from bouts in Strikeforce and DREAM. Yet, few know Kikuno and even fewer know about the magic he can whip up when his head remains on straight.
Will both of them need to improve in certain areas along the way? Of course they will, because every fighter holds at least one area in which they need improvement. Will either man find themselves near a title shot? They know what they need to do in order to get one, but that should not serve as their main focus right now.
For Kikuno, Quinn Mulhern awaits, while Nova Uniao prospect Hacran Dias awaits Kawajiri. Kikuno and Kawajiri can put their skills in effect to where they change the way the MMA world views Japanese fighters, starting with wins over Mulhern and Dias, respectively. However, they must remember to focus on them first.
Once they get by their respective debut foes and then subsequently chalk up two or three more wins, then we can flirt with the prospect of another non-Okami getting a title shot. Until then, let us watch and see what both men offer to the UFC roster.