This is the fourth installment of London-based writer Brian Mallon's column on the Ultimate Fighting Championship for The Asahi Shimbun. Mallon has been a martial arts practitioner, UFC fan and journalist for many years. The biweekly feature will appear every other Monday.
In this week’s column, we look forward to Hatsu Hioki’s pivotal bout in Atlantic City this weekend. We also learn more about B.J. Penn’s motivation for taking on surging welterweight Rory MacDonald in Toronto and discuss a Japanese fan favorite’s octagon return.
HIOKI WELL POSITIONED
Hatsu Hioki is on the brink of being granted a UFC title fight. The former Sengoku champion was offered one a number of months ago against current champion Jose Aldo but decided to hone his skills further by taking another bout in the octagon. That bout takes place this weekend against the teak-tough Ricardo Lamas.
While Lamas is certainly no stepping stone, Hioki knows that if he is to truly trouble the peerless Aldo over five pressurized championship rounds, he must deal with fighters such as Lamas with ruthless efficiency. Some may point to the Brazilian jujitsu brown-belt’s request for an interim bout as lack of confidence, but to me it speaks volumes of an athlete who is sufficiently confident in himself that he wants to strike at just the right time. Finding a fighter who can resist the urge to simply jump right in there and roll the dice in the hopes of toppling an established divisional champion is difficult.
Indeed, when a contender suffers a crushing defeat in a title fight it can have negative consequences when they attempt to get back on the proverbial horse--Thiago Alves and Dan Hardy’s failed attempts to dethrone Georges St-Pierre being cases in point. While Hioki’s desire to be optimally primed for a featherweight title fight is laudable, the time to strike is unquestionably now as the UFC’s 145-pound (66-kilogram) division is becoming increasingly competitive. With Ross Pearson and Dennis Siver two lightweights who have recently made the drop, Hioki knows that 2012 is his year to take a shot at that coveted UFC belt.
First, however, he must overcome “The Bully” in New Jersey this weekend, a task UFC President Dana White highlighted to Fox Sports as being fraught with difficulty.
“Many pegged Hioki as the next possible challenger for Jose Aldo’s title, but he wants one more test before going for the belt,” said White. “In his way is Lamas, who has proven to be a tough competitor for anyone to deal with, especially since moving down to featherweight and finishing both opponents at 145 pounds.”
While Lamas is a commendable 2-0 in his UFC career to date following a solid WEC run, Hioki, a talented 28-year-old Nagoya native, still enters the bout as a clear favorite. Hioki has solid transitions from the striking to grappling spheres but there is some concern over his tendency to go to decisions in recent outings. Garnering a five-round decision win over Aldo, who throws leg kicks accurately and incessantly, is not a plausible route to victory. Displaying a sound grappling defense and offense against the above-average wrestler from Chicago is imperative if Hioki is to emerge victorious in this pivotal bout.
I believe that Hioki is possibly Japan’s best hope for a UFC title in the short term. I expect him to secure a featherweight title shot later this year by virtue of a second-round submission victory on America’s East Coast.
PENN EXPLAINS TORONTO MOTIVATION
B.J. Penn’s decision to come out of his self-imposed retirement last week was not surprising. His choice of opponent for the return bout, however, certainly was. At 33 years old and with a wealth of experience behind him, Penn still has the undoubted potential to make another title run ... at lightweight. But his decision to lock horns with surging welterweight Rory MacDonald in Toronto in September has left many industry observers perplexed. Speaking to America’s Fuel TV this week, “The Prodigy” explained his decision and spoke about a newfound passion for the sport that the Hawaiian native helped bring to mainstream acceptance.
“I want to go up there and I want to show them that I'm someone to be reckoned with,” said Penn. “This isn't going to be, ‘Let's go push B.J. Penn up against the fence, hold him on the fence for a little bit and now we got him.’ … I think it’s going to be great.”
Penn is clearly alluding to the tactics employed by long-time nemesis Georges St-Pierre. With MacDonald being a training partner of GSP, and also being trained by Firas Zahabi at his renowned TriStar gym in Montreal, Penn’s motivations are clear. With a third fight against St-Pierre a virtual impossibility, MacDonald represents the nearest opportunity Penn will get to somewhat settle the score with his Canadian adversaries. In MacDonald, however, Penn may have picked a fight with an even more imposing foe.
RENZO GRACIE TO MAKE OCTAGON RETURN?
Japanese fans have this week been surprised to learn of the octagon return of Pride veteran Renzo Gracie, now 45 years old. Having competed in Tokyo, Yokohama and Osaka throughout the 1990s, Gracie was a firm favorite of the Japanese martial arts community. His most recent octagon appearance, however, was in a lackluster defeat to Matt Hughes in Abu Dhabi more than two years ago.
Gracie has this week intimated that he is preparing to fight again. Given his decorated career and outstanding grappling ability, perhaps Gracie can indeed turn back the clock one last time ... perhaps in Japan.
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