UFC 144 will mark the return of the world's largest mixed martial arts promotion to the land of the rising sun as the UFC holds its first event in Japan since UFC 29.
On this historic card will be a very intriguing welterweight bout featuring two former middleweights that will be fighting for their jobs as former Strikeforce Middleweight champion Jake Shields takes on Japanese superstar Yoshihiro Akiyama.
Both men are coming off tough, knockout losses and are riding losing streaks that force both men into a must-win situation.
Here is an early breakdown of this exciting welterweight bout.
Akiyama and Shields are better known for their grappling skills rather than their prowess as strikers, although both men have gotten better in the stand-up department.
In his MMA career, Akiyama has knocked out five opponents, including a first round knockout of Denis Kang in 2007.
Akiyama is not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Chirs Leben and Vitor Belfort and has shown that he possesses heavy hands.
Despite making improvements in his striking game, Shields still has a long way to go as guys like Jake Ellenberger and current UFC Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre have exploited this area of his game in the past.
Fans should expect to see an aggressive, grappling heavy match when these two fighters face off in February.
Akiyama is an accomplished Judo practitioner, holding a third degree black belt in the art as well as numerous gold medals on the national and international stages. He uses this background very effectively in the cage, often sweeping his opponents to land the takedown.
Shields, however, is on another level when it comes to grappling.
The former Strikeforce champion is one of the best grapplers in the sport, using his mix of wrestling and jiu-jitsu in what he calls American Jiu-Jitsu to effectively control opponents on the mat.
A former collegiate wrestler and highly skilled jiu-jitsu practitioner, there are few in the sport who so effortlessly and efficiently dominate the game on the ground.
Because of their propensity to take fights to the ground, both men have numerous submission wins on their record.
Of his 13 victories, seven of Akiyama's wins have come via submission with one by way of gi choke—something that will not be present when he steps inside the Octagon.
Shields has 10 submission wins on his record including tap outs of Robbie Lawler, Paul Daley and Mike Pyle. His high level of jiu-jitsu expertise gives him a wide arsenal of chokes and arm locks that Shields is constantly attacking with.
Akiyama, although a highly skilled judoka, just does not have the same submission game as Shields.
UFC 144 will mark Akiyama's debut as a welterweight, dropping from middleweight after suffering three straight defeats.
Always considered somewhat small for 185 anyways, Akiyama will have a huge strength advantage if the weight cut is not too intense for the Japanese superstar.
Shields is no stranger to this strategy, as he has bounced back and forth between the divisions on numerous occasions.
However, on a purely physical appearance level, Akiyama seems to be the bigger, more muscular fighter.
Akiyama's biggest weakness has always been his cardio,
Constantly gassing as his fights progressed, the Japanese superstar has lost on many occasions due to his poor stamina in the cage. Against Chris Leben at UFC 116, Akiyama was winning the bout until the third round, getting caught with a triangle choke and too tired to defend it despite only a few seconds remaining on the clock.
Shields is the opposite story, having been a champion in multiple organizations and going to a decision 18 times in his career. Shields has great cardio and has shown on many occasions that he is not afraid to go into the later rounds.
If this fight goes into the later rounds, Shields will have a huge advantage.
Akiyama and Shields have fought all over the world against some of the best guys in the sport, bringing in tons of experience in each of their bouts.
With the UFC, Akiyama has had the chance to face some of the hardest hitters in the sport, including former champion Vitor Belfort as well as top middleweights Chirs Leben and Michael Bisping.
Shields has faced the upper-echelon of the sport as well, including title fights against Dan Henderson, Georges St. Pierre and Jason Miller.
A champion of Strikeforce and EliteXC, Shields has a wealth of experience gained from his many title bouts as well has having fought professionally in 14 more bouts than Akiyama.
Because of this, Shields has an edge in this category.
For the Japanese superstar, this is a huge fight as he is in danger of suffering his fourth straight loss, possibly resulting in a pink slip from UFC President Dana White.
Going down to welterweight for the first time in his career, it will be interesting to see how the weight cut effects Akiyama. Known for a less-than-stellar cardio, a bad weight cut would only act as a further detriment to his game.
Also, as someone who likes to challenge his opponent's skills, going toe-to-toe with Shields on the ground may not be a good idea for Akiyama. If he can keep the fight standing and hit Shields with his heavy hands, he might be able to take the win while fighting in his home country.
The former Strikeforce champion is in a similar predicament to Akiyama as he is riding a two-fight losing streak entering this bout.
Coming off a title loss to Georges St. Pierre at UFC 129 and a devastating knockout loss to Jake Ellenberger in September, it will be interesting to see how Shields can comeback after a string of losses.
As usual, Shields will look to get the fight to the ground where he will have a huge advantage and can work his submission game.
If Shields can avoid Akiyama's heavy hands and take top control in the later rounds, he will have a great shot at submitting the Japanese superstar.
With both fighters having their backs against the wall, expect fireworks as neither man wants to receive a pink slip from Dana White.
The clinch will be a major factor in this bout as Akiyama will most likely look to keep the fight standing while Shields is almost guaranteed to be planning to take the fight to the ground. The man who has the more dominant clinch game will be able to dictate where this fight will go.
If the fight goes on into the later rounds, Shields will gain a huge advantage as Akiyama is notorious for his lack of cardio. When he gets tired, he tends to make too many mistakes that get exploited.
Shields will likely want to drag the fight out to a third round, waiting for Akiyama to get tired before attempting to take the fight to the mats. If he can get top control over a gassed Akiyama, Shields will be in the best position for a submission or decision win.
Prediction: Shields via unanimous decision.