Whenever a veteran of the defunct Japanese fighting organization steps into the cage, my Twitter feed becomes inundated with the phrase, and I can’t say I’m innocent either in terms of partaking in the fandom. Although it may not have the same feeling as the days of old, the UFC returns to the home of PRIDE this Saturday, as UFC 144: Edgar vs Henderson comes to the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. Featuring a lightweight championship bout between unlikely 155-pound kingpin Frankie Edgar and former WEC lightweight champ Benson Henderson, as well as the long-awaited return to Japan for PRIDE legend Quinton “Rampage” Jackson who takes on Ryan “Darth” Bader, UFC 144 promises to be explosive, exciting, and a night where MMA fans young and old scream and shout “PRIDE NEVER DIE” at their television screens using their best Lenne Hardt impressions
Before the epic seven fight main card takes place, fans will be treated to one preliminary fight on Facebook and four other preliminary bouts live on FX. Here is my breakdown of those particular pairings:
Tiequan Zhang (15-2) vs Issei Tamura (6-2)
The lone Facebook preliminary fight features WEC import Zhang, making this his third UFC appearance. Widely regarded as one of, if not the, best mixed martial artist to come out of China, Zhang looks to get back into the win column after a unanimous decision loss to Darren Elkins in his most recent appearance. “The Mongolian Wolf”, who is known for having an excellent guillotine choke, enters this fight looking to make his fellow countrymen proud.
Late replacement Tamura steps in on only two weeks notice. Replacing injured Leonard Garcia, the Shooto vet looks to rebound from a loss of his own, having lost to Guy Delumeau in November. The Krazy Bee fighter has shown in his previous fights that he loves to throw leather and will absolutely run through someone while searching for a takedown. However, when he gets to the ground, he really doesn’t do much.
While Zhang has the clear advantage in this bout, the decision-friendly Tamura is no slouch. Despite stepping in on short notice, and not having fought in a cage before, Tamura could very well grind out a decision victory as he did against accomplished grappler Gustavo Falciroli. That said, I feel he over-commits to some of his takedowns, and Zhang should be able to capitalize and lock in a Guillotine Choke. He’ll have to make it happen early though or he’ll be dropping a decision.
Winner – Tiequan Zhang defeats Issei Tamura via Submission Round 1
Takeya Mizugaki (15-6-2) vs Chris Cariaso (12-3)
Longtime WEC fighter Mizugaki returns to the octagon following his brutal TKO of Cole Escovedo. Having mixed success in his Zuffa career, Mizugaki has traded wins and losses in all of his eight fights inside of a Zuffa cage. While that doesn’t look so good on paper, his losses have come to the some of the best in the division and along the way he has defeated the likes of Rani Yahya, Jeff Curran, Reuben Duran, and the aforementioned Escovedo. With nine of his fifteen victories coming by decision, the Shooting Gym Hakkei fighter is not afraid to leave it all out there and go fifteen minutes with anyone.
With eight decisions in twelve wins, “Kamikaze” Cariaso comes into this fight trading wins and losses in his own Zuffa career. Losing to Renan Barao and Michael McDonald is nothing to be ashamed of, and along the way Rafael Rebello, Will Campuzano, and Vaughan Lee have all fallen to the American bantamweight. Cariaso brings a variety of striking to this bout, and has no problem going the distance if needed.
This fight could very well be a fire fight. Both men have effective striking, stamina, and can take a punch or twelve. In what I feel is a very even fight, the difference comes down to speed and technical prowess and I feel Mizugaki has the edge in those categories. If he can keep the pressure on and go toe to toe with Cariaso, he should be able to treat himself to the victory, and treat the fans to a very entertaining fight.
Winner – Takeya Mizugaki defeats Chris Cariaso via Unanimous Decision
Riki Fukuda (17-5) vs Steve Cantwell (7-5)
After a car accident took him out of action Fukuda finally returns to the cage. Nearly a year to the day removed from a controversial decision loss to Nick Ring, the Japanese wrestler is looking to score his first UFC victory. The DEEP veteran is tough as nails, relentless in his assault, and is a threat to many middleweights inside the Octagon.
The Dan Hardy of the middleweight division, Cantwell is undoubtedly fighting for his job this Saturday. Despite a promising start in his Zuffa career, going 3-1 in WEC and absolutely destroying the arm of Razak Al-Hassan, “The Robot” has lived up to his nickname, fighting like one through his four straight decision losses. Relatively even with submission and TKO victories, Cantwell can finish fights, but for whatever reason he hasn’t in over three years.
I don’t like to discredit any fighter, but Cantwell is likely going to be looking for a job after this fight. I like him, don’t get me wrong, but Fukuda is relentless, a strong wrestler, and can hold his own on the feet. Ring rust and recovering from an injury might be a factor for him, but I doubt it. He’s going to make Cantwell pay for taking this fight from opening to closing.
Winner – Riki Fukuda defeats Steve Cantwell via Unanimous Decision
Norifumi Yamamoto (18-5 1 NC) vs Vaughan Lee (11-7-1)
A former Olympic hopeful, the K-1 Hero’s 2005 Lightweight Grand Prix winner, or a legend. Any of these can be used to describe “Kid” Yamamoto. A knockout artist, a fantastic wrestler, the man I watched smash Royler Gracie, Caol Uno, and Genki Sudo in previous outings. To say I am a fan of “Kid” is an understatement. Having only one victory since his 2007 win over Rani Yahya, “Kid” has not faired well in the UFC, going 0-2. Noticibly slowing, Yamamoto is 1-4 in his last five and likely needs a win here to remain relevant (let alone in the UFC).
The Brit, Lee, makes his second UFC appearance, coming off a loss to Cariaso in his debut at UFC 138. A well-rounded grappler, Lee has nine first round finishes to his credit and hopes to make “Kid” number ten. Lee has had the benefit of facing several fighters far below his level, which may attribute to his finishing rate, but that is no fault of his own. Lee has the potential to go far in his MMA career and Yamamoto may be the stepping stone he needs at this point.
All fanboyism aside, I’m taking “Kid” in this fight. While Lee has some clever submissions in his arsenal, I don’t believe he has the wrestling to get into any advantageous positions, nor is he a good worker off of his back. While the submission threat is always there, I think Yamamoto dictates where this fight goes, and puts Lee to sleep within the first ten minutes.
Winner – Norifumi Yamamoto defeats Vaughan Lee via Knockout Round 2
Takanori Gomi (32-8 1 NC) vs Eiji Mitsuoka (18-7-2)
A PRIDE icon, “The Fireball Kid” looks for his second UFC win this weekend, as well as the likely the continuance of his UFC career, when he steps into the Saitama Super Arena this weekend. Having stood across the cage from some of the best fighters in MMA history, Gomi is no stranger to the attention that surrounds his UFC 144 appearance. With powerful fists, as demonstrated when he dispatched of Tyson Griffin and Hayato Sakurai, Gomi is dangerous for anyone with a chin. While the Gomi of old is long gone, he is still a force to be reckoned with.
A replacement for George Sotiropoulos, Mitsuoka is a accomplished grappler in his own right. With eleven wins by submission, it’s no question what his bread and butter is. Holding over victories over notable fighters such as Joachim Hansen and Bruno Carvalho, Mitsuoka is clearly a threat to all he faces even if he’s not the most known competitor.
Gomi’s best weapons are his fists and his weaknesses are clearly submissions. Mitsuoka’s best weapons are his submissions, and unfortunately for Gomi, he has never been knocked out with his one TKO loss caused by cuts. While this on paper looks like a clear cut win for Mitsuoka, he has his weaknesses. While he has the submission chops required to secure the victory, his wrestling is lacking and he doesn’t set up his shots well. Should Gomi be prepared for telegraphed and lackadaisical takedown attempts, he should be able to keep this on the feet. However, I can’t see him knocking out Mitsuoka and fifteen minutes is a long time when you’re locked in a cage. This fight could go either way, but I’m going to take Gomi.
Winner – Takanori Gomi defeats Eiji Mitsuoka via Unanimous Decision
The UFC 144 preliminary card is action-packed and several fighters could very well be fighting for their jobs. With two legendary Japanese fighters competing on FX, this is not a card which should be overlooked. With several interesting and exciting fights taking place on the preliminary card, it serves as the perfect lead-in for the seven fight main card…much like this piece does for my main card breakdown. Make sure to check it out tomorrow!
PHOTO CREDIT – FEG