UFC has taken up the challenging task of making Japan a MMA hotbed again, something many considered a waste of resources. In truth, though, perhaps they are onto something. They're a long way away from returning to the kakutogi boom years of PRIDE and probably won't ever get there again. What they might achieve, however, is a re-popularization of the sport on terms that make it less susceptible to a boom and bust cycle.
Tonight's event is only the second UFC show in Japan since the organization decided to reconstitute its efforts. It's a strong event, but even the UFC would tell you it's not a premier showcase of talent. It's a strong show, but not the best the organization has to offer. There aren't any huge implications one way or the other for the show, although they do need to demonstrate a non-A class show can still generate sufficient Japanese fan interest.
Tonight's show is but one in a larger continuum of UFC shows aimed at the end of making MMA (and more particularly, UFC) relevant again in Japan. As long as tonight's show goes as most UFC shows go, they'll be just fine.
At stake: legacy fight. This is similar to the Gomi-Sanchez bout stakes (more on that in a minute), but with bigger career implications. The fight is ultimately at a weight class where neither currently calls home (but once did) and both have been rebuffed enough to know this has nothing to do with title implications. But it does offer bragging rights and significant scalps. For Stann, being able to say he defeated Wanderlei Silva (even if he's a diminished form of himself now) is no small matter. It could represent the most valuable win of his career at least as far as image or impressions are concerned. That's one of the better names he can have claimed to defeat, if not the best. For Silva, a win over a still viable competitor pushes off retirement and allows him to somewhat credibly claim he can still compete.
At stake: becoming something others thought impossible. I still don't buy the idea either of these guys are close to title shots. I also believe both would get absolutely murdered by either Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez (Struve already has been). Still, both are on the precipice of achieving something special. Struve is widely considered to be a top 10 fighter and Hunt is knocking on the door. A win for Struve wouldn't automatically place him in the top 5, but I suppose it's fair to say nothing is out of the question. As for Hunt, a win over Struve would absolutely place him among the world's ten best heavyweights. Truthfully, Hunt has more to gain here. A forgotten heavyweight given fights in the UFC because of contract obligations is now in the middle of a late career surge, one that could see him reach heights unimaginable just two years ago.
At stake: finishing strong. Gomi and Sanchez have probably done their best MMA work. At this point, their top career moments are behind them. That isn't to say, however, that they are on their way out the door immediately or that several more high and low points await them. The value in tonight's bout is that both Sanchez and Gomi have name value. A victory over either will stand out on their resume. It could also lead to other opportunities to do the same against similarly placed, respected talent on future UFC cards.
At stake: Anderson Silva sweepstakes. To be honest, is anyone at middleweight ever that far from a title shot? If, for a moment, we discount the capricious and flighty whims of the champion and his apparent lack of a desire to consistently defend his title, are contenders who win important fights ever truly out of the discussion? I would submit they are not.
All of this is to say the discussion that only Lombard was knocking at the door of a title shot should he win seems misplaced. Yes, he rebounded against Rousimar Palhares nicely, but needs another victory over a verified, more well-rounded talent to truly move ahead in the division. If there's anyone who fits that bill, Okami is it.
Okami, on the other hand, will probably have to move mountains again to get a title shot. He was begrudgingly given one in the first place. Getting another is a herculean task, to put it mildly. Still, a rebound win over Alan Belcher followed by one over Lombard is an excellent way to foist one's self back to the top of the middleweight division.
At stake: being card filler. Yes, Hirota and Yahya fight in the largest and most successful show in MMA, but that doesn't necessarily mean there's any larger narrative to their bout beyond the importance winning. It is impossible to imagine any realistic scenario where either man ever strings together multiple wins against top-flight divisional competition, muc less contends for a title. This isn't to say they're bad fighters or diminish their achievements, but we also have to place them and the fighters themselves in a realistic light. Hirota and Yahya are here to serve a role: Hirota as partly a 'hometown' draw, Yahya as a stylistic foil. All things considered, it should be a fun contest.
At stake: welterweight contender sweepstakes. This one is simple. Both Kim and Bahadurzada are welterweight contenders, although still fairly far back in the queue. Still, neither is in any position to absorb a loss. Both are conceivably capable of being groomed to eventually contend for a title or, at a minimum, go on a contender's run to the top. First, however, they must get past each other on Saturday after both most recently using Paulo Thiago wins to springboard their efforts.