The UFC brings MMA action to Saitama, Japan for their latest production of UFC 144 this Saturday night. In the main event, “Smooth” Ben Henderson (14-2) will attempt to add the UFC lightweight title to his mantle when he takes on current champion, “The Answer” Frankie Edgar (14-1-1). “Rampage” Quinton Jackson (31-9) will make his return to Japan for the first time since his PRIDE FC days when he battles fellow power hitter “Darth” Ryan Bader in the co-main event (13-2). It is a kickboxer’s dream match-up when “Super Samoan” Mark Hunt clashes with fellow heavyweight Cheick Kongo (17-6-2). “Thunder” Yushin Okami (26-6) will meet with “The Barbarian” Tim Boetsch (14-4) in the middleweight division in a return match since his attempt at the 185lbs. strap. Submission-savvy Hatsu Hioki (23-4-2) and seasoned vet “Bartimus” Bart Palaszewski (35-14) will lock horns and in the card’s opener, “Showtime” Anthony Pettis (14-2) and “J-Lau” Joe Lauzon (21-6) will engage in a lightweight showcase. The middleweight highlight of the card is between one of Japan’s favorite sons, “Sexyama” Yoshihiro Akiyama (14-5), and American wrestling stand-out Jake Shields (26-6-1). Each competitor has dealt with a persistence of loss but when they are locked within that eight-sided cage, the stakes could not be any higher to come out with a win.
At First Glance: They have been part of some memorable battles in MMA but when Yoshihiro Akiyama and Jake Shields meet in Japan, it would be fair to say it is a “do or die” situation for both men’s career within the UFC. Akiyama has given three “Fight of the Night” performances out of his four showings but when on the heels of a three-fight losing streak, a victory at UFC 144 is crucial. Shields has tasted two consecutive defeats for the first time since 2005. Although his past tribulations were made well known leading up to his recent loss to “Juggernaut” Jake Ellenberger (26-5), he likely is still on the chopping block if he does not provide an exceptional showing in Saitama.
In Depth: “Sexyama” is on a losing skid that is unfamiliar to him but even with that he has always put up a valiant effort. Akiyama’s esteemed Judo has always been his bread and butter as his three-round war with “The Crippler” Chris Leben (22-9) at UFC 116 will attest. What Akiyama is admired for however is his willingness to challenge his competition in their biggest strengths. This courage though may seem misguided as his efforts to challenge superior strikers as “The Count” Michael Bisping (22-3) and “The Phenom” Vitor Belfort (20-9) have been losing efforts despite being a credible striker in his own right. Fortunately for him, unlike the talent he has fought in the UFC already, Akiyama for once will hold the decided advantage on the feet. Jake Shields might not be the most polished pugilist Akiyama will face but with his well-meshed mix of wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu, he will be one of the most complex grapplers to challenge him. The Olympic-level wrestling of “Hendo” Dan Henderson (29-8) found difficulty in outworking Shields when he could not secure an early knockout and submission ace “Mayhem” Jason Miller (23-7) was unable to find much success in implementing his own Jiu-Jitsu game. Akiyama’s Judo credentials support he too can handle a fight on the mat but his submission IQ is nowhere near that of Jake Shields. The longer the fight can remain standing and outside of the clinch at the very least, Akiyama can keep Shields away from taking the fight to the canvas.
Wild Card: Akiyama’s newfound weight cut to the welterweight level will easily call for questions. Granted Shields reigned supreme in Strikeforce as their middleweight king, but his class of choice had always been at 170lbs. Akiyama’s conditioning was always hit or miss at 185lbs. and would contribute to his loss to Leben and Split Decision win over “The Talent” Alan Belcher (17-6). Should the cut for his upcoming fight be too debilitating, Akiyama’s performance in his native Japan could be disastrous and mark his last appearance in the Octagon for some time.
The Verdict: Akiyama will always be an enigmatic figure when he steps into action but what will likely be his undoing in his match-up with the American will be his weight cut. Akiyama might find early success with crisper hands landing but the more he engages with Shields, especially on the ground, the faster his gas tank will deplete. At this point, the more seasoned and conditioned welterweight, Shields, should be able to handle the match-up to his liking. Shields via Unanimous Decision