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Opening Round: The PRIDE of Japan

With yesterday’s addition of Quinton Jackson vs. Ryan Bader to the UFC 144 lineup, the world’s foremost MMA promotion poised itself to deliver an extremely special card to the people of Japan who haven’t seen the Octagon visit their shores for more than a decade. The UFC’s decision to do so rather than rest on the laurels of a featuring a few stars from the area in throwaway bouts, as has so often been the case in the case of recent U.K. shows, is a tremendous tribute to the region’s significance where MMA is concerned. The Land of the Rising Sun has roots running deep in a variety of martial arts disciplines as well as the sport itself, the most famous Japanese organization being of course PRIDE.

Currently the UFC has nine match-ups scheduled for the card despite it still being two months away meaning a few vacancies still exist for bringing in more recognizable talent with ties to the Far East. However, before speculating, let’s examine exactly how excellent the February 26 festivities look thus far.

Headlining things will be Frankie Edgar vs. Ben Henderson, a “Fight of the Year” candidate as soon as it was made even if a championship wasn’t on the line. To treat Japanese fans to a pair of pugilists going at it who have displayed dazzling technique and “warrior spirit” on multiple occasions is something I’m positive the people in attendance will appreciate. Better yet, if action hits the ground, the audience is likely to applaud in anticipation of each ensuing attempt at advancing position, sweeping, or simply escaping rather than shower the two lightweights with disapproval as some American audiences would.

The same is true regarding another of the show’s highlights, Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Jake Shields. While each man has serviceable striking neither is truly proficient when it comes to executing stand-up. That being said, both are incredible grapplers who could put on a clinic against most adversaries in that department making their bout not only intriguing but also, like Edgar/Henderson, a great fit for the arena’s atmosphere.

There’s Anthony Pettis vs. Joe Lauzon, another fantastic “Fight of the Night” contender. Pettis and Lauzon two of the lightweight pool’s shining stars who will be around for years to come. I also expect each to be in awe when the lights dim since both have loved MMA from a young age and will no doubt view the ability to fight on a UFC event in Japan as a genuine honor.

Then you have Hatsu Hioki vs. Bart Palaszewski, a featherweight fight guaranteed to entertain and equally assured to impact divisional contendership. Hioki is a top 145er with a 13-1-1 record in his last fifteen forays into the ring, while Palaszewski recently cut down to the weight but had a very respectable run at 155 pounds. He’s coming off a huge knockout of Tyson Griffin and can finish an opponent from any position (17 TKOs / 11 submissions). Again, how can you not love this fight, let alone it being soaked in by the always-informed audience at Saitama Super Arena?

You’ve got Japanese fan-favorites like Yushin Okami, Takeya Mizugaki, and Riki Fukuda set for action. You’ve got Mark Hunt, a familiar face in Japan, up against Cheick Kongo in a clash certain to feature a knockout. And, as mentioned in the lead, there’s “Rampage” vs. Bader with Jackson standing out as one of PRIDE’s legitimate icons during the company’s heyday.

With a few more slots available, the UFC should also look at adding Takanori Gomi since “The Fireball Kid” hasn’t fought since September and is huge in Japan. Other names I could see being at home on the card include Stefan Struve given the country’s love of giant heavyweights, Jason Miller if he comes out relatively unscathed against Michael Bisping based on his personality, or one of the many Japanese free agents on the market for obvious reasons.

Truly, UFC 144 is shaping up to be a gift to both the people of Japan and longtime fans of MMA who remember the golden days of PRIDE. It’s a reminder that at their core the UFC higher-ups aren’t so different from you or I when it comes to their passion about the sport and appreciation for its history. Now if they can just figure out a way for Bruce Buffer and Lenne Hardt to co-exist…

What do you think about the subject on today’s “Opening Round”? Tell us on our Twitter account (@mmatraining)!

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