As we draw closer to the UFC's historic return to Japan it's hard to hold back the excitement. From top to bottom this card is stacked with fights that promise to be barn burners. As always, Ben and myself are here to look at the main event, top locks, best 'dogs and, tonight, the most intriguing fight outside of the two feature bouts.
Who you got in the Main Event?
Ben: As a fellow guy named "Ben" I will be quite pleased should Ben Henderson win the UFC Lightweight title at UFC 144. That said, Edgar should win, and probably with more ease than his previous title defenses against B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard. Edgar has beaten better strikers (Penn) and better wrestlers (Maynard, Sean Sherk of 2009), so it is hard to see how Henderson gets the advantage on the champ. Edgar was rocked pretty badly by Maynard in round one of both fights, yet I cannot recall Ben Henderson rocking a high-caliber opponent with strikes during his UFC and WEC run. Ben Henderson is a well rounded fighter and will probably hang for the full five rounds, so for me the pick is Frankie Edgar by decision, with medium confidence.
Bobby: When in doubt (though, honestly, I never really was) I like to err on the side of trading on insider information by asking people who know more than me. Jim Miller has faced both men in his career, having fought Henderson last year and Edgar in the early years of their careers while also training with the champion from time to time. Jim said Edgar was trickier to deal with physically during their healthy rolling sessions than Henderson, who he unknowingly fought with a kidney infection and mono. If Hendo really can't offer more of a grappling threat against a weakened opponent than Edgar can to the same guy at full strength, this is a terrible match-up for "Smooth" because Frankie's speed on the feet is likely too much for Bendo to overcome without forcing a ground battle.
What under-the-radar fight absolutely can not be missed?
Ben: A pink slip derby on the main card is pretty interesting schadenfreude. Basically the loser of Akiyama vs. Shields is getting cut from the UFC. Yoshihiro Akiyama has lost three straight UFC fights at middleweight, so he is dropping weight 15 pounds and making his welterweight debut. Jake Shields has lost two fights in a row (albeit to the champ GSP, and to a top contender in Jake Ellenberger) and a trip overseas seems like a tough way for Shields to pickup that comeback win. I like Shields to get a decision win here, although I have very low confidence in his ability to do so.
Bobby: While the footie fan in me is instantly more intrigued by anything described as a derby (particularly on the eve of my beloved Arsenal's London derby tomorrow) I'm paying my extra attention to Bart Palaszewski and Hatsu Hioki. Hioki is the #2 ranked featherweight in the world, the highest rank for any Japanese fighter in any class, and winning a title shot before the home crowd would be a sight to see. That said, don't count out Palaszewski who has fantastic submission escapes and dangerous striking. This fight strikes me as one that's going the distance without a boring moment.
Surest lock since Rickson by armbar?
Ben:For UFC 144, my top lock is going to be Riki Fukuda (-250) over Steve Cantwell by decision. Over on MMA Playground, the odds are surprisingly very even, so definitely jump on that if available. Fukuda has not fought in quite some time, so there is risk there that he is rusty. That said, I am all in on Fukuda to grind out a decision win in his homeland.
I am not trying to completely dismiss Cantwell. Cantwell was such an exciting prospect after his run in the WEC and he opened his UFC career with a submission of the night win. It's been all down hill since with four straight losses, and after this trip to Japan is over, Cantwell will leave with five straight losses and his walking papers. Cantwell can still be a good fighter someday, and he was one of my favorites in the UFC 201 0 video game (love his dashing punch and the spinning wheel kick), yet he just needs some time in the regional MMA leagues or Strikeforce to build some confidence.
Bobby: Sometimes it's easy to forget that Yushin Okami is the all-but-unanimous #3 middleweight in the world. Sure, his bouts with the top two did not go well for "Thunder" but everyone else put before him has found themselves in for a very uncomfortable 15 minutes. Tim Boetsch is a gamer, but nothing he's shown me to date says that he is ready to be taking on a guy like Okami who has an uncanny ability to overpower and physically dominate foes, particularly given Boetsch was recently chased from light heavyweight, a class Okami would not seem out of place in.
Who is the livest dog in the fight?
Ben: Vaughan Lee (+300) has the wrestling tools to beat a shopworn "Kid" Yamamoto. Yamamoto is favored for three reasons. First the fight is in his home country. Secondly, he is still getting too much street cred for his string of great wins from 2005 to 2007 -- that was five years ago, he has gone 1-4 since. Thirdly, his opponent Vaughan Lee, is not a very good UFC fighter himself. Yamamoto is 34 years old, and at the smaller weight classes, fighters age much faster. Like great NFL receivers in their 30s, speed is the first thing to go. If you're like most UFC fans, you've been picking Kid Yamamoto to smash his last two opponents and you have a bitter taste in your mouth. Don't abuse yourself a third time by picking "Kid".
Bobby: Earlier this week I spoke of the virtues of Ryan Bader in the co-main event, not as a straight pick but as a fantasy (and actual) bet. "Rampage" Jackson's biggest flaw is the ability to be outgunned in the grappling by younger, stronger wrestlers as Jackson gets on in years, and that's Bader to-a-T. The inverse concern is Bader's questionable chin against Jackson's undoubted power. After Jackson badly missed weight, however, and attributed to an injury preventing him from running in camp, it becomes increasingly enticing to think Jackson may well be ground into the mat for 15 tiring minutes.