On Tuesday, the Shooto 143-pound Lightweight Champion Hatsu Hioki made waves by announcing that he was relinquishing his belt, starting rumors all over the mixed martial arts community that one of the consensus top-five featherweights in the world was on his way to the UFC.
Along with the collapse of Sengoku, where Hioki reigns as its featherweight champion, it seems as if the path is soon to be clear for the Japanese superstar to make his way to the United States.
As per @thefightshow on Twitter,
While he is still technically under contract with Sengoku, the promotion’s financial difficulties and impending doom mean his release and subsequent signing with the UFC should only be a matter of time.
There is no doubt that UFC featherweight matchmaker Sean Shelby is licking his lips at the possibility of bringing in Hioki to prop up one of the promotion’s shallower weight classes.
Hioki is a world-class fighter who has defeated the likes of Mark Hominick, Marlon Sandro and “Lion” Takeshi Inoue.
The 27-year old holds a career record of 24-4 and has lost only once in his past 14 fights, a tough split decision loss to fellow featherweight kingpin Michihiro Omigawa at Sengoku '11.
Clearly, the UFC could use someone of his caliber to challenge its own featherweight champion, Jose Aldo, because right now there aren’t many contenders at 145 pounds.
According to Mauro Ranallo, the former Pride commentator and current voice of Strikeforce, Hioki isn’t far away from getting a shot at the UFC’s 145-pound title. When asked on Twitter where he thought Hioki stands in the current featherweight ladder and whether he would get an immediate shot at Aldo’s belt, @mauroranallo responded
“I think they want to introduce him first but he would be no more than a win over a contender away.”
Who could that contender be?
Chad Mendes, the UFC’s top guy outside Aldo as of this moment, just took a fight with Rani Yahya and so he’s booked.
Mark Hominick is on a medical suspension after his head almost exploded at the hands of Aldo during UFC 129. But since Hioki is being introduced at UFC 131, it could be that the UFC wants to set up a fight with someone competing that night, barring injury of course.
So it comes down to three names: Kenny Florian, Diego Nunes and Dustin Poirier.
Although Florian is making his 145-pound debut after competing as a middleweight, welterweight and lightweight during his UFC career, he is a recognizable name and the UFC would surely love for him to defeat the unknown Nunes and challenge Aldo for the belt.
But if Nunes wins, he’s probably next in line, and it wouldn’t make sense to give Hioki someone coming off a loss, which is why Poirier might make the most sense. He destroyed Josh Grispi at UFC 125 even though he was a heavy underdog and if he defeats Brit Jason Young at UFC 131, he needs to fight a top guy next. Cue Hioki.
Obviously, this is all speculation at this point. Hioki first needs to sign with the UFC and the two big featherweight fights at UFC 131 still need to occur first. But with Aldo recovering from a shoulder injury and getting ready for a fall return, the UFC needs to have a viable contender ready for him.
Whether it’s Florian, Nunes, Poirier, or even Hioki himself is not clear yet. What is clear, however, is that the UFC seems ready to bring in another top-ranked fighter, furthering its status as the premier mixed martial arts destination for not just North Americans, but for fighters from all around the world.