On Thursday in the grand ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton in Tokyo, six UFC fighters graced a stage for a press conference to publicize UFC 144. Scattered somewhat anonymously in the audience along with journalists and MMA cognoscenti was one of the highest ranking fighters in the world at his weight class, ignored until the end of the proceedings.
Given the laborious process the UFC undertook to return to Japan for the first time in over a decade, the Saitama event is a headline subject unto itself. Add in Quinton "Rampage" Jackson rekindling his love affair with the Land of the Rising Sun, and sprinkle in the expected barnburner between lightweight champ Frankie Edgar and challenger Ben Henderson, and that's about all the story lines one can handle.
But there is also a forgotten man in UFC 144, the highest-ranked fighter on the card aside from Edgar. If you're looking for at least a small way of jump starting MMA in Japan, how about the possibility that featherweight Hatsu Hioki wins in front of his home countrymen, and is immediately granted a championship match against Jose Aldo?
Perhaps it's because Hioki (25-4-2) was a bit underwhelming in his octagon debut against George Roop last October, but few have seemed to notice or care or even believe that his bout with Bart Palaszewski is among the most significant on the card.
Remember, it was only a few months ago when many felt Hioki was worthy of an immediate title shot against Aldo upon signing with the UFC.
Instead, he got the rangy Roop at UFC 137, and struggled with his length in a fight that went the distance and was scored as a controversial split-decision win for Hioki. That performance seemed to lighten his bandwagon a bit, with many wondering how he would fare against some of the UFC's top strikers, particularly those with enough wrestling ability to keep things standing. Others looked at it and saw yet another Japanese fighter coming into the UFC and appearing unable to adapt to the perceived increase in competition level.
On the other hand, many fighters seem to get the benefit of the doubt upon struggling in their UFC debuts, with "octagon jitters" often cited as the cause. In those cases, there seems to be a built-in expectation for improvement in their second effort.
Things don't get any easier for Hioki in his next try. In Palaszewski, he faces an opponent who largely prefers the striking game. Palaszewski (36-14) has won five of his last six, and most recently, knocked out the durable Tyson Griffin in a bout that was supposed to serve as his featherweight debut (Griffin missed weight, making it a catchweight bout).
Palaszewski is also a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, and since Hioki is mainly a grappler (12 of his wins are by submission), the prospect of him running over Palaszewski on the ground seems slim. Instead, it will be a win he must work for and earn. In other words, a win that would prove him to be deserving of a title opportunity.
A look around the division shows there isn't much else out there for Aldo. He's already beaten Chad Mendes and Mark Hominick. Top 10 contender Dustin Poirier is locked into a May bout with Chan Sung Jung, and no else -- aside from Palaszewski -- seems seasoned enough to challenge him right now. Despite all that, the UFC hasn't made a peep about the possibility of the winner drawing Aldo next. Perhaps it's to temper expectations, or unleash a surprise, or more likely, they simply haven't decided what to do next.
But the landscape of the division certainly makes Hioki-Palaszewski a bout where the winner can legitimately stake a claim as Aldo's next opponent. Hioki isn't a major star in Japan right now, but winning this weekend would be a good start for him, and for Japanese MMA. The sport there needs a shot in the arm, even if it's as simple as a tap from Hioki's opponent.