When Michihiro Omigawa
enters the cage on Saturday at UFC 126
to fight Chad Mendes
, the weight of Japanese MMA will be on his shoulders. The judoka will be the only example of a born and bred Japanese fighter that has fought in the UFC in his prime, and the fight could not come at a more important time.
The days of Pride FC are long gone. We are waiting patiently to see if DREAM is also dead. We are hearing that Sengoku Raiden Championship may be losing their financial backing.
Omigawa is not just fighting for himself. He will be fighting to maintain the relevance of Japanese MMA.
First things first: Caol Uno, Kazuhiro Nakamura, Yoshiyuki Yoshida, Akihiro Gono, Yoshihiro Akiyama and most other Japanese fighters fight (or fought) in the wrong division in the UFC. If they were to stand any chance of making a run at a title, they would need to drop a weight division. This is not a new thought and has been discussed ad nauseum.
At the risk of sounding overly negative, let's take a look at some of the individual Japanese fighters in the recent history of the UFC.Yoshihiro Akiyama
was a star in Japan and Korea and was considered among Japan's best, but he had taken some time away from stiff competition following his dramatic knockout loss (later declared a no contest) to Kazuo Misaki at Dynamite 2007. His run in the UFC has been middling but entertaining and has earned him three "Fight of the Night" bonuses.Takanori Gomi
is considered by some to be the best lightweight ever, but he was struggling to win fights in Japan before he was signed by the UFC. It seems as though Nick Diaz stole Gomi's mojo in their February 2007 war. Caol Uno
was in the same boat as Gomi, going 2-2 in the two years prior to his most recent UFC run. Uno recently faced Kazuyuki Miyata at Dynamite 2010 and was thoroughly dominated.Akihiro Gono
is a legend of Japanese MMA but he was always one step away from the top of the pack, falling in semifinal rounds of the Pride 2005 and 2006 Welterweight GPs. He is also having problems back in Japan now.Yoshiyuki Yoshida
won a Cage Force GP (via disqualification) and was regarded as a solid prospect but not among the top fighters in Japan by any stretch of the imagination.Kazuhiro Nakamura
had a strong name following his tenure in Pride FC but that was due to his toughness, style and backing of Hidehiko Yoshida rather than people genuinely think he was among the sport's best.Norifumi "KID" Yamamoto
will be making his UFC debut this weekend but following a 2008 knee injury, has been unimpressive and picked up two losses to Joe Warren and Masanori Kanehara. Yamamoto in his prime would have easily handled both of these fighters.
As a one time contender for the title of pound for pound number one in the world, Hayato "Mach" Sakurai
is arguably the best Japanese fighter to ever step inside the Octagon. But Mach's sole UFC appearance against Matt Hughes came after the horrific car accident that dramatically changed the course of his career and was a lop-sided beating. One could also argue that Kazushi Sakuraba could claim that title but his legend began with his UFC Japan tournament win and so also did not fight in the UFC in his prime.
Yes, I am leaving one notable name out of all of this.Yushin Okami
an exception. Okami is of course Japanese, but the perpetual middleweight contender made his name in the UFC, has not been featured on the grand stages in his home country and so is largely unknown in Japan. His style and training methods are also distinctly American and so for the sake of making my argument stronger, let's leave him out of this.
Let's now take a look at Michihiro Omigawa.
It is not difficult to argue that he is the best featherweight in Japan and he is easily among the top featherweights in the world.
He holds a recent win over Shooto and Sengoku champion Hatsu Hioki. He holds a recent win over former Sengoku champion Marlon Sandro. He holds a recent knockout victory over Dream champion Hiroyuki Takaya. He gave Masanori Kanehara all he could handle in the finals of the Sengoku Featherweight GP despite entering the bout badly beat up. The dominating wins over American fighters Micah Miller, LC Davis, Nam Pham and Cole Escovedo cement his place among the sports elite.
Unlike Sakuraba or Sakurai, Omigawa is in his prime. Unlike the majority of Japanese fighters, he is fighting in the correct weight class. And unlike Okami, his Judo backbone, training methods and recent fight history make him a distinctly "Japanese" fighter.
Chad Mendes is the perfect embodiment of a stereotypical "American" fighter as they are perceived in Japan. The undefeated Team Alpha Male product uses his All-American wrestling base to smother opponents and never give them an opportunity to get their own game going.
Omigawa is not one-tenth of the star that Norifumi "KID" Yamamoto or Yoshihiro Akiyama are locally, but the hopes of the Japanese hardcore MMA fans rest firmly on his shoulders.
Japanese MMA is the lowest it has ever been right now. American promotions Strikeforce and the UFC seem like the only hope for the immediate future of the sport across the pacific. Omigawa has a chance to prove that Japan should be considered among the sport's powerhouses and he is the first example of Japanese fighter in the UFC who is worthy of carrying that responsibility.