By Dwight Wakabayashi
The UFC returns to Japan this weekend with a card filled with exciting matchups and some with title-shot implications.
Here is a preview of the six-fight main card for Saturday’s Sportsnet: Silva vs. Stann.
Dong Hyun Kim (16-2) vs. Siyar Bahadurzada (21-4) – welterweight
These two welterweights will face each other to determine who will continue his climb up the welterweight ladder into the top-10.
Kim is a 31-year-old South Korean who has only two losses in his career, to Carlos Condit and Demian Maia. He has a very solid overall game with a judo and grappling base. Kim is coming off a nice bounce-back win over Paulo Thiago in Macau last November. He is facing a very good striker in Siyar Bahadurzada and will want to close the distance and use his wrestling to try and grind out a win or get a finish from the top.
Bahadurzada burst onto the UFC scene in April of last year with a devastating knockout in the first minute of his debut against Paulo Thiago. Bahadurzada was supposed to take on Thiago Alves at UFC 149 last summer but the fight was called off due to an Alves injury. Canadian Chris Clements stepped in for Alves but Bahadurzada then withdrew due to his own injury. Siyar is an aggressive striker with 11 knockouts in his 21 wins in the cage.
The winner of this fight stays right in the mix with the very best welterweights in the UFC, possibly securing a fight with the loser of Ellenberger-Marquardt or possibly Robbie Lawler before the end of the year.
Mizuto Hirota (14-5) vs. Rani Yahya (17-7) – featherweight
In a showcase for one of Japan’s best little fighters, Mizuto Hirota makes his UFC and featherweight debut against name veteran Rani Yahya.
Hirota has been a Cage Force, Sengoku, and Dream champion while competing in Japan and Japanese fighters are always more comfortable fighting in the their own country. Hirota is very capable everywhere in the cage but prefers to strike for the knockout and has eight in his 14 wins. He has never been knocked out but is coming off a loss to Pat Healy in Strikeforce last year.
Yahya is only 28 years old, but he has been battling the very best fighters in the world in both the bantamweight and the featherweight division throughout his solid career. It’s no secret that Yahya loves the ground game as his 15 submissions in 17 wins suggests. He has tapped out some of the best fighters in the world, including Josh Grispi in the first round at UFC on FOX: Shogun vs. Vera last August.
If Hirota gets a win here it will be considered an upset and vault him up the consciousness of fans throughout the world, but Yahya should win this fight with his smothering game.
Yushin Okami (28-7) vs. Hector Lombard (32-3-1-1) – middleweight
A very intriguing battle between two top-ranked middleweights as Okami gets a chance to take on a nice name in Lombard in front of his home fans in the Saitama Superdome.
Okami has turned a two-fight losing streak into a two fight winning streak and will look to make it three in a row and get back to middleweight title contention with a statement win against Lombard. If he can use his wrestling and top game to dominate Lombard, he could put the Cuban/Australian bomber on the UFC’s large new chopping block. Okami has a bit of a size advantage in this one, and should look to the Lombard-Boetsch fight for a nice blueprint to victory over Lombard.
After a tough debut loss against Boetsch, Lombard lived up to the knockout hype in his last fight by taking out Rousimar Palhares in the first round with some loaded shots. Lombard is not a guy you want to let get comfortable enough to plant and throw. He will hurt and finish Okami if Okami gives him the chance. Lombard is in a tough spot in the UFC as he has been pegged as an immediate contender and gets paid like one already. If he loses this fight, not only will it set back his hopes at a title shot but it could get him bounced from the UFC.
Takanori Gomi (34-8) vs. Diego Sanchez (23-5) – lightweight
This event marks Diego Sanchez’s return to the 155-pound division and he gets Japanese star and fan favourite Gomi in his first test back. After getting a shot at the lightweight title in 2009, Sanchez has since fought four times at welterweight with two wins and two losses against some of the best at 170 pounds. Losses and weight shifts aside, Sanchez’s last three fights have all won the “Fight of the Night” on the card and he always brings a fury and excitement to the Octagon. He is determined to make another run to the top of the lightweight division and a dominant win over Gomi is a good place to start.
Gomi is in tough in this one as Sanchez’s pace will be an issue if he can’t dispose of him quickly. He has real power and can knock Sanchez out if he catches him on the feet, but I don’t think he will have too much to offer if Sanchez comes out and puts him on his back. Gomi is on a two-fight win streak and edged out Mac Danzig in his last fight in Macau. He is a great draw in Japan and the place will be electric when he comes out to the cage. “The Fireball Kid” must beat Sanchez to show that he can indeed hang with some of the top guys, after past losses to Nate Diaz, Clay Guida and Kenny Florian exposed him as one-dimensional.
The winner here should get a legitimate top-10 lightweight for his next opponent.
Mark Hunt (8-7) vs. Stefan Struve (25-5) – heavyweight
In the only heavyweight tilt on the card, Hunt and Struve will cross paths to determine who will keep an incredible winning streak going, and who will be knocked out of contention for the remainder of 2013.
Hunt is the veteran looking for that last shot at UFC title glory and his kickboxing, power and ability to stuff the takedown will all be vital to his success in this fight. He must keep this fight on the feet as much as possible if he wants to play to his strengths for the win. If Hunt can keep it standing and get past Struve’s reach, he will land that knockout shot before this one is said and done. Hunt has fought in Japan his entire career, and will be a fan favourite due to his early exploits in the Pride organization.
Struve is a 25-year-old, 7-foot high rise and is just reaching the front of his potential heading into this fight against Hunt. This is his first time being within legitimate reach of the UFC heavyweight title. His last four fights have been game-planning and execution masterpieces and he will play to his strengths here as well. Struve has a great submission game and should look to take Hunt to the mat right away. If he can get it down to the ground, this could be a tough night for Hunt, or a very quick finish for Struve.
This one is do or die for Hunt, while Struve is young and established enough to absorb a loss and bounce back.
Wanderlei Silva (34-12) vs. Brian Stann (12-5) – light heavyweight
All-American hero Brian Stann moves up to 205 pounds for his chance to take on Brazilian fighting legend Wanderlei Silva in the land that made Silva a worldwide star in his prime.
Silva is on his last legs of a Hall of Fame career and many are very worried that he is a lamb being sent to the slaughter in this matchup with the powerful Stann.
While I don’t entirely disagree, if Silva goes in with a strategic game plan to win, he may be able to make this fight closer than people think it will be. The veteran does have the experience and intelligence to fight a smart fight, but it is tough to teach an old dog new tricks and Silva loves to go in there and swing for the fences. The raw aggression and entertainment has always been his trademark, but he has nothing to prove in that regard, and should try to take this fight to the ground for his best chance at an upset and his own personal safety.
Stann is a very green mixed martial artist compared to Silva, but if Silva decides to go in and brawl, Stann will surely oblige and put his lights out. His striking is devastating and his chin is solid, but the rest of his game can be exposed by the right plan. Stann obviously took this fight as a chance to fight a living legend, and says that he will immediately move back down to middleweight win or lose, after this fight.
There isn’t much on the line here in terms of divisional or title implications, but it should be a very entertaining and electric fight for the fans in the Saitama Superdome, and could be the last time we see Silva in the UFC Octagon.
Dwight Wakabayashi is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report UFC and regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca’s UFC section. Follow him on Twitter @wakafightermma.