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Yushin Okami: Not the Contender We Want but the Contender We Need

After a fairly disappointing card of action at UFC 122, about the only thing that’s really changed in the MMA world is that perennial contender Yushin Okami is finally in line to challenge for the UFC Middleweight Championship. It’s an opportunity that he’s been on the cusp of getting for several years now, but only after a close decision win over Nate Marquardt has Okami finally staked a definitive claim as the next #1 contender. He can now wait patiently on the sidelines while current champ (and pound-for-pound king) Anderson Silva prepares to defend his belt against Vitor Belfort.

Okami has had a mildly strange run of fights since joining the UFC. After racking up four straight wins in the Octagon Okami had his first chance at a title shot, but he came up short against former champ Rich Franklin. He bounced back with two more victories and when the middleweight division needed a new challenger, Okami got the nod and was penciled in for a shot at Silva in April of 2009. An injury forced Okami out of the fight and Patrick Cote got the opportunity instead. When Okami returned he wasn’t granted a title shot, and instead he was regulated to the preliminary portion of the card for his next two fights. Following his loss to Chael Sonnen Okami has now won three straight and should finally get his opportunity to fight for UFC gold. But does anybody care at this point?

The short answer, it would seem, is no. Okami’s style isn’t exactly designed for winning over fans, and the fact that he doesn’t speak English has given the UFC limited options for promoting him. The win over Marquardt was hardly inspiring, and it did little to convince people that Okami would have much of a chance against Silva if the two should meet again.

Now let me tell you why Okami is the best possible choice for a UFC Middleweight Championship fight. For the purposes of this argument we’re going to assume that Silva will retain his title against Belfort in February.

For starters, let’s not overlook what Okami brings to the table. He’s spent a good chunk of time training with Sonnen and the guys at Team Quest, and as we all know Sonnen is the man that has come closest to beating Silva. His insight and training, combined with Okami’s improved striking and wealth of judo skills, means that Okami could conceivably be more well-prepared to beat Silva than anyone else in the world right now (aside from Sonnen himself, of course). There’s still not much of a reason to believe that Okami can hang with Silva on the feet, but he’s got the ability to take Silva down (and at this point it’s common knowledge that takedown defense is Silva’s lone weakness) along with a solid chin that can absorb plenty of punishment.

Of course the biggest reason to set up Silva vs. Okami is the two men’s prior history with each other. As I’m sure we’ll be reminded plenty of times in the days and weeks leading up to the fight, Okami is the last man to record a win over Silva. Anyone who watches the fight will clearly see that Silva was dominating Okami before the illegal kick that caused the DQ, but the fact remains that a win is a win. This gives the UFC a built-in storyline to promote the rematch, something that will be sorely needed as neither man is known for their ability to sell a fight to the public. I expect that the UFC will likely promote this fight as a real “grudge match,” and that shouldn’t be hard given some of the things Silva has said in the past.

Speaking on his first fight with Okami in 2008, Silva appeared to be visibly upset when thinking back on what happened. He called Okami’s DQ victory, “a cheap, cowardly way of winning,” and said that, “people that were there saw that he was in the condition to come back and keep fighting, and he didn’t.” According to Silva, “it wasn’t really a fight.” At this point in his career Silva has not yet had the chance to avenge any of his four losses, but I’d be willing to bet that if he had to pick one to try and get back, it would be this one.

What about Okami? He beat Anderson Silva, currently considering by many to be the best fighter on the planet, but nobody gives him much credit for the accomplishment. A second fight with “The Spider” is a second chance for Okami to prove that he really is the better fighter, and a legitimate win over Silva would cement Okami’s place in MMA history.

He may not be the most exciting man to challenge for the UFC Middleweight Championship, but Okami is the right man for the job.