For UFC 144, the UFC returns to Japan for the first time since 2000.  For its return to the Land of the Rising Sun, the UFC has put together a card to appeal to the Japanese MMA fan base.

The Japanese fan base supported the lighter weight classes long before their US-based counterparts.  Shooto and Pride Bushido were all about the lower weight classes.  They appreciated the speed and skill found in the lighter fighters.  In response, the UFC headlines this card with a lightweight title fight between Frankie Edgar and Benson Henderson.  Both Edgar and Henderson will deliver the frenetic pace and high skill level the Japanese love.

UFC 144 will also feature a number of Japanese fan-favorite fighters and stars.  “Rampage” Jackson, a long-time Pride veteran, became a true star in the sport during his days in Japan.  He won over the fans with his KO power, crowd-pleasing slams and dog howls.  I expect “Rampage” will get the loudest applause of the night when he faces Ryan Bader.

Another Pride veteran who faced some of the best fighters in the world under Pride’s banner – including Wanderlei Silva, Mirko Cro Cop, Josh Barnett and Fedor Emelianenko – is Mark Hunt.  In addition to being a veteran of Pride, Hunt is also a  former K-1 champion who won that crown in front of the Japanese fans.  Hunt will square off with fellow striker Cheick Kongo at UFC 144.

On the other end of the spectrum, the UFC booked the most hated fighter in Japan.  Yoshihiro Akiyama was the single biggest draw in Japan when the UFC signed him away.   After Akiyama was caught on video greasing against MMA legend Kazushi Sakuraba, fans tuned in to root against him and hopefully watch him lose in huge numbers.  The UFC is hoping they still have that level of hate towards Akiyama when he faces off with Jake Shields, a veteran of Shooto.

The remainder of the record seven-fight main card is rounded out with several Japanese fighters, including Yushin Okami and Hatsu Hioki.  All that is missing from UFC 144 is the freakshow match-up Japanese fans love so much.

UFC 144 takes place in the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan, on Sunday, Feb. 26.  However, because of the time difference, the fights will air live on Saturday, Feb. 25, at 10 p.m. ET in the US.

The MMA Corner panel of Corey Adams, Rob Tatum and Richard Wilcoxon make their predictions on all seven main card fights in this edition of the Round Table.

LW: Anthony Pettis (14-2) vs. Joe Lauzon (21-6)

Adams: Even though the main event is a spectacular match-up for the UFC belt, don’t overlook these two lightweight warriors who also are sure to put on a great fight.

Pettis is known more for his “Showtime” kick off the cage against Ben Henderson, but has much more to his game. Yes, Pettis has excellent striking with many different unique ways to land shots, but he is also solid in other aspects. His jiu-jitsu game is underrated, but he owns a purple belt and has six submission wins. In preparing for this fight, Pettis will be focusing on his ground game more than any other time before, as he will be stepping into the Octagon against submission ace Joe Lauzon.

Lauzon has always had the potential to do very well in the sport, but until recently he hasn’t been consistent. But now he has won his last two bouts, with his last coming against top contender Melvin Guillard, and has put himself in line for a title shot in the future. “J-Lau” is a specialist on the mat, with 17 wins by submission. Also, Lauzon has only gone the distance once in his career and will have the experience advantage in this fight. Those two points will be key for the Boston native to win.

Anthony Pettis (James Law/Heavy MMA)

I could easily see Pettis pulling this one out, but I keep going back to the experience of Lauzon to be too much for the 25-year-old rising star. Look for Lauzon to come out looking to finish the fight early in round one, but I think the finish will come in round two. I have Lauzon winning by second-round submission.

Tatum: I’m going to have to disagree with Corey on this one. Although I certainly agree that Lauzon is the better submission fighter, I believe that Pettis’ striking will be too much for the Boston-based fighter.

Lauzon has always been an overachiever, but has failed to take the next step into title contention. Expect nothing less in this bout. Although his win over Guillard was impressive, it appeared the result was more a product of Guillard’s overconfidence. As is the case in the majority of his fights, Lauzon will be at a significant disadvantage on the feet, and he does not possess the type of takedowns needed to bring the fight to the mat.

Pettis, meanwhile, had his biggest weakness – wrestling – exposed in his UFC debut against Clay Guida. In this bout, it is unlikely that he will be forced to defend takedowns and therefore will be able to let loose on the feet. Should the fight hit the ground, Pettis has exhibited a strong ground game that should prevent him from being submitted by the grappling ace Lauzon.

As Corey pointed out, Lauzon rarely goes the distance, and I do not see him surviving the onslaught from Pettis for a full 15 minutes. Look for Pettis to wrap this one up with a second-round TKO.

Wilcoxon: It looks like I get to be the tie-breaker. Both of my colleagues have laid out the fighters’ skills very well.

Lauzon generally starts off very quickly, swarming and overwhelming his opponents. This, in part, accounts for his 14 first-round stoppages. As my colleagues have said, he prefers to get the fight to the ground, where he can latch on a submission. However, do not underestimate his striking skills. In his recent victories, he may have won by submission, but he got there by stunning his opponent with a well-placed strike.

Pettis will look to keep this fight standing. His striking is both technical and inventive. Who could forget the kick he landed on Benson Henderson?  Even though we don’t often think of Pettis’ submission skills, he has never been submitted and does have several submission victories on his record.

In the end, I have to agree with Rob. Pettis will need to survive the early storm to win, but I think he will. I look for a third-round TKO.

FW: Hatsu Hioki (25-4-2) vs. Bart Palaszewski (36-14)

Tatum: This is an important fight in the featherweight division as both combatants look to establish themselves as the clear No. 1 contender in the 145-pound weight class.

Despite a lengthy winning streak, Hioki failed to impress in his UFC debut against George Roop. As a result, many believe that he is not ready to challenge current champion Jose Aldo. The Japanese fighter will look to use his well-rounded attack to show that his first Octagon appearance was only a fluke.

Palaszewski, on the other hand, quickly made his mark on the featherweight division. He became only the second fighter to finish Tyson Griffin with strikes. By doing so, he entered the title mix. The cagey veteran will look to put his experience to the test and derail Hioki’s title quest.

Hatsu Hioki (R) battles George Roop (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

The outcome of this fight may very well be decided by where the fight takes place. On the ground, Hioki possesses a slick submission attack, but on the feet it will be Palaszewski who holds the advantage. I expect Palaszewski to do damage on the feet; however, Hioki will survive and eventually use his grappling to secure a submission victory.

Wilcoxon: Both of these fighters are exciting and will look to finish the fight early and often. Both fighters have also had their problems with the judges’ scorecards.

As Rob said, this fight will be determined by where it takes place. Palaszewski will look to keep this fight standing, where he holds a notable power advantage. He has ended 17 fights with big strikes.

Although Hioki does have some striking skills, he is outmatched on his feet. He will look to get the fight to the mat to showcase his submission skills.

Though I had high hopes for Hioki, his fight with Roop left me uninspired. He is now facing a much more experieinced and much more powerful fighter in Palaszewski. I am not convinced Hioki can get this fight to the ground and keep it there. I am going to go the other way from Rob: I think Palaszewski ends this fight in the second.

Adams: When comparing the two combatants, Hioki’s resume is much more impressive than Palaszewski.

“Bartimus” has had some good performances against solid competition, but now he’s up against the second-best featherweight in the world. If he gets past Hioki, then I’ll be impressed, but I can’t see that happening.

While Palaszewski is known basically for his striking, Hioki has many more ways to win the fight. Hioki can lock up a submission hold, or I think he can actually take this one to the judges to get his hand raised.

I’ll echo Rob’s prediction and pick Hioki by submission.

MW: Yushin Okami (26-6) vs. Tim Boetsch (14-4)

Wilcoxon: This is a fight between a fighter who is looking to maintain his position near the top of the division against a rising prospect. Okami climbed to the mountain top of the middleweight division. He came up a little short of the ultimate goal in his title fight last August and will look to re-establish himself against Boetsch. For his part, Boetsch is undefeated since dropping down from light heavyweight.

Okami is a long-time veteran who is getting his first chance to fight on his home soil in half a decade. A rarity among Asian fighters, Okami has shown strong, dominating wrestling mixed in with solid striking. He also has enough knowledge of submissions to have never had to tap out in his career.

In Boetsch’s middleweight career, he has won both of his fights via decision. He has shown a nice mix of striking power and submissions.

Yushin Okami (Tracy Lee/Combat Lifestyle)

Okami is the top of the division. He only loses to elite fighters. Boetsch’s two victories at middleweight have come against fighters who are far from the top of the division. Okami wins this by decision.

Adams: This is a key fight for both men in the division. Boetsch is trying to put himself near the top, whereas Okami is looking to avoid losing two straight.

As Richard stated, Okami usually only loses against guys that are highly talented. So that means he’s supposed to run through Boetsch, right? Well, not exactly.

“The Barbarian” has been a beast since moving down to 185 pounds. Once he gets on top of his opponent, the fight is basically a rap, as Boetsch’s gameplan is to smother his opponent for all three rounds to earn the decision nod.

Okami will want to keep this one standing. He will be a smaller fighter than Boetsch and doesn’t want to end up like Kendall Grove and Nick Ring, opponents Boetsch dominated. But “Thunder” is a vet who has fought the best middleweights in the world and will come in with a game plan that will get his hand raised.

I’m going to agree with Richard and go with Okami by unanimous decision.

Tatum: Honestly, it is a bit of a surprise that the promotion decided to televise this bout. Both of these middleweights are grinders and are unlikely to engage in a fight that is pleasing to casual fans. That said, the technical expertise of these two grapplers should equate to quite the chess match.

The former title challenger Okami will look to get back on track after suffering a knockout loss against Anderson Silva. The Japanese fighter should have an advantage, as he is fighting on his home soil. The concern for Okami is the possibility of a letdown under the favorable conditions.

Boetsch has nothing to lose in the bout. As both of my colleagues have mentioned, he has been on a tear since dropping to 185 pounds. Although both of his victories were dominant, they were against lesser competition.

As neither of these fighters is known for their finishing ability, it is hard to envision this fight not going to the scorecards. I believe both of my fellow writers nailed this one on the head: Okami will walk out of the Octagon with the unanimous decision victory.

WW: Yoshihiro Akiyama (13-4) vs. Jake Shields (26-6-1)

Tatum: One of the more controversial fighters in Japan, Akiyama will make his welterweight debut against the former Strikeforce champion Shields.

Yoshihiro Akiyama (James Law/Heavy MMA)

Akiyama, an Olympic-level judoka, fell out of favor with fans in his homeland following a greasing controversy in late 2006. Despite winning his UFC debut, the former middleweight has now lost three straight fights and will look for a career resurgence at 170 pounds.

Meanwhile, Shields is in the midst of the first two-fight losing streak of his career. After taking champion Georges St-Pierre to a decision, Shields was knocked out by rising contender Jake Ellenberger. The California-based fighter will look to use his American Jiu-Jitsu to stifle his Japanese opponent and get back to his winning ways.

Although both fighters possess strong grappling backgrounds, it is Akiyama that has developed as the more proficient striker. The question is whether or not his heavy hands will translate to the new weight class. If so, Shields’ losing streak could very well extend to three. However, conditioning issues plagued the fighter at 185 pounds and the drop in weight may only compound those issues.

Look for Shields to take home a unanimous decision victory after a back-and-forth battle.

Adams: With many Japanese fighters competing on this card, none are more talked about than Akiyama. He has had his problems winning the fans over, but still he’ll have the entire arena chanting his name this weekend. Akiyama has a very impressive judo game, which is something his opponent hasn’t seen all that much. But, as Rob mentioned, this weight cut will drain him out, so it will be interesting to see how his cardio will be on fight night.

Shields was considered as the one of the best welterweights on the planet during his run with Strikeforce, but he has dropped two straight in the UFC. I just don’t see a guy with that much talent losing three fights in a row. Sure, those losses were against the champion and a future No. 1 contender, but this will be a suitable fight for him.

This will be a close fight that goes to the judges’ scorecards, but Shields thrives in those types of fights and will use his ground game to gain points. I also have Shields winning by decision.

Wilcoxon: As Rob indicated, Akiyama is not well liked in Japan. In fact, he is the most hated fighter in the country. The fans in the arena will be out for blood in his return to the Land of the Rising Sun.

Jake Shields (James Law/Heavy MMA)

Shields is still one of the best fighters in the welterweight division. Don’t put too much stock in his back-to-back losses – one was against GSP and the other happened just a week after his father passed away. Shields’ grappling cannot be understated. He out-wrestled Dan Henderson and his submission skills are off the charts.

Akiyama may be a hated fighter in Japan, but he also demonstrated a lot of ability when he fought there.  Although his skills haven’t translated as well against UFC competition, his judo, submission skills and solid striking are all weapons he possesses.

While I do think Akiyama will have the better striking in this fight, I do not believe he will get the chance to showcase it. Shields will take this fight down. He will either lock on a late-round submission or grind out the decision.

HW: Mark Hunt (7-7) vs. Cheick Kongo (17-6-2)

Adams: In a heavyweight battle, Samoan Mark Hunt will look to improve his MMA record to above .500, while Cheick Kongo wants to make it three wins in a row.

Hunt has come on strong as of late with a knockout of Chris Tuchscherer and a decision win over a very tough Ben Rothwell. “Super Samoan” trains at both American Top Team and Jackson’s, which has certainly helped him get to this point. Being one of the best strikers in the heavyweight division, Hunt has an impressive kickboxing record and should be prepared to use it, as this looks to be a stand-up war.

Wolfslair’s own Kongo is also a guy that has looked impressive recently. After his crazy knockout of Pat Barry, Kongo came back to defeat Matt Mitrione by decision. Now Kongo is right back in the mix in the division, and a win over a veteran like Hunt would put him even closer to title contention. What Kongo has going for him is his vast athletic body, standing 6-foot-4 with an 82-inch reach.

Cheick Kongo (R) battles Matt Mitrione (Paul Thatcher/Fight! Magazine)

I see this staying on the feet the entire duration. Both men strike alike, but Kongo’s reach advantage may be the deciding factor. I’m going with Kongo to defeat Hunt by knockout in the opening round.

Wilcoxon: Hunt rose to the height of his popularity in Japan. He is a former K-1 champion and went on a five-fight winning streak in Pride, defeating both Mirko Cro Cop and Wanderlei Silva in that run. Hunt is known for his KO power and iron chin.

Kongo also has his foundation in kickboxing. However, he has rounded out his game in recent years.

If Kongo is lured into a striking battle, he will lose. Other than his come-from-behind victory over Pat Barry, Kongo hasn’t knocked out anyone since 2009. I don’t think Kongo has the power to get past Hunt’s chin. However, it is Kongo’s other skill sets that will win this fight. He takes the fight to the ground, where Hunt is like a turtle on his back.

Kongo grinds out a decision.

Tatum: Although it is understandable that those only familiar with the sport of MMA would have reason to doubt Hunt, ignoring his kickboxing prowess is laughable. If there was a Mount Rushmore of the combat sports world, you could make a strong case for Hunt’s chin having a rightful place amongst it. Obviously, I strongly disagree with Corey’s assessment of this fight.

Richard’s take is much more plausible. However, Kongo has failed to take the next step as a fighter. Despite his kickboxing background, he will be at a significant disadvantage on the feet against the former K-1 champion. Realistically, grinding out a decision may be his only path to victory.

Hunt has shown marked improvement since an embarrassing loss to Sean McCorkle in his UFC debut by scoring two straight wins inside the Octagon. Although he will never be an expert ground fighter, his time with American Top Team and Jackson’s MMA has been apparent in his last few bouts.

I will cast the vote of dissent and take Hunt to continue his unexpected rise through the heavyweight division with a devastating first-round knockout.

LHW: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (32-9) vs. Ryan Bader (13-2)

Wilcoxon: This fight features a legend in the sport and a rising prospect. “Rampage” became a star during his time in Japan and is excited to return to the country. Bader looked to be the next great light heavyweight before he got sidelined by back-to-back losses.

Everybody pretty much knows what you get with both of these fighters. “Rampage” has KO power in either hand and solid boxing technique. He also has a wrestling background, and although we no longer see the big slams he used earlier in his career, he still utilizes his solid takedown defense.

Bader is almost a mirror image. The former NCAA All-American used his wrestling as his primary weapon early in his career. He has slowly added KO-power striking to his skill set.

"Rampage" Jackson (James Law/Heavy MMA)

With such similiar skill sets, you have look at the intangibles to find a winner.  Jackson’s motivation is always a question these days, but I think fighting in Japan will get him excited again. His experience will be the determining factor. I think “Rampage” takes this by either a late TKO or decision.

Tatum: Although Richard is correct in his observation that these fighters possess similar skill sets, I think he failed to point out one obvious difference: experience. Jackson has faced the upper echelon of the light heavyweight division for the majority of his career, whereas Bader has faltered of late.

It will take a smart game plan for Bader to win this bout. He will have to scored takedowns and prevent Jackson from finding a rhythm on the feet. This is no easy task. Bader possesses the power to end the fight, but few have ever put away Jackson.

The excitement that Jackson has shown leading up to this bout leads me to believe he is hungry to get back on track following his loss to Jon Jones in September. Jackson is a much better striker and is likely to expose the holes in Bader’s standup technique.

I will echo Richard’s prediction and take “Rampage” to finish this fight with strikes in the second round.

Adams: Actually, Richard did mention experience as being the advantage already, but I agree that is what will be the key for a “Rampage” win.

Both men have gone over all the points, which makes my job easier. Bader is very talented and is capable of being a force in the division, but when matched up to “Rampage,” there’s no comparison.

My hunch is that “Rampage” will be as focused as ever in this bout in Japan and will make the crowd explode once he gets the win. Jackson by second-round knockout.

LW Championship: Frankie Edgar (14-1-1) vs. Benson Henderson (15-2)

Adams: After two fights with B.J. Penn and a trilogy with Gray Maynard, UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar will finally move on to compete against one of the best fighters to come out of the WEC, Benson Henderson.

Benson Henderson (James Law/Heavy MMA)

Henderson held the WEC lightweight championship for a year before falling to Anthony Pettis in what was one of the most spectacular fights in the promotion’s history. However, “Smooth” went on to dominate the UFC competition with wins over three contenders: Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida. Even with all three of those fights going to the judges’ scorecards, Henderson has certainly earned his right to fight for the belt.

After winning the belt from Penn and defending it against Maynard, Edgar is now making people start to believe that he is for real. The New Jersey native is arguably the fastest lightweight in the world. His stand-up is so difficult to face, as he is always light on his feet and bouncing in and out of the pocket when he looks to land shots. His ground game is often overlooked, but is solid, as he trains with one of the best grapplers in the world, Ricardo Almeida.

For Henderson to walk out of the cage crowned the new champion, he’ll have to be the best he can be…times two. Edgar is going to use his same attack on the feet, so Henderson will have to use his slight height and reach advantage to not let Edgar get in close. I think “Smooth” will have to keep the fight standing to earn a win, as Edgar has some of the best wrestling in the lightweight division. If Henderson can use his Taekwondo effectively and own the striking game, there may be a new champion on Saturday.

But then there’s Edgar, who is very hard to pick against with the all-around game he possesses. In just about every fight he is in, he is the underdog, and many will pick against him in this title bout as well. In terms of having all the tools to be a top of the line MMA fighter, Edgar has everything. Excellent wrestling, solid striking and a good ground game have all been used to get him to this point. But the question is, will he have an “Answer” to what Henderson will have for him?

I don’t think I’ve ever broken down a fight in such depth, but in this evenly contested bout, it’s crucial to determining a winner. My hunch is that the majority of this fight will be conducted standing, where I give the slight edge to Henderson. I also see this going the distance, which Henderson has done numerous times in both the WEC and UFC. So in the end, I’m going to go with Henderson to be named the new lightweight champion by unanimous decision.

Tatum: I believe my colleague has come to the correct conclusion, but the way that he got there ignores a very crucial factor of this match-up. Edgar is essentially a featherweight competing at lightweight, whereas Henderson is a massive 155-pound fighter. This will likely be the deciding factor in the bout.

Edgar will possess a significant speed and cardio advantage over Henderson. His crisp boxing and high-level footwork have frustrated nearly every opponent he has faced. Coupled with his strong wrestling background, those skills make the New Jersey native one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division. Unfortunately for the champion, it is hard to envision him finishing this fight, so he will have to rely on outpointing Henderson to claim victory.

For the contender, Henderson, his strength and size may both be an asset and his Achilles’ heel. In order to defeat Edgar, he will be forced to maintain a relentless pace and pressure the champion for a full five rounds. His aggressive style has gotten him this far, but he will need to be smart in regards to his attack against Edgar. Perhaps the wildcard in this bout is Henderson’s lethal guillotine choke.

If Edgar’s fights with Maynard were any indication, it is clear that he is a slow starter. Henderson will need to capitalize on this fact. Look for Henderson to score early and often in the opening rounds and stave off the resilient Edgar in the championship rounds en route to becoming the new UFC lightweight champion.

Wilcoxon: Poor Frankie Edgar. He is the Rodney Dangerfield of the MMA world – “No respect.” For some reason, critics, pundits and fans are constantly picking against him. He was written off as not even deserving a shot at B.J., and it was decreed a fluke when he won, so he had to do it again. Then Maynard was too big and too strong for Edgar. After being dominated in the first round, Edgar won three of the next four rounds to force a draw. In the rematch, again people doubted him and all he did was KO Maynard. Now he is facing Benson Henderson and my colleagues are again doubting the champ.

Frankie Edgar (James Law/Heavy MMA)

What more does he have to do? He owns victories over Jim Miller, Sean Sherk, B.J. Penn (twice) and Maynard. Edgar is the best boxer in the lightweight division. He outstruck Penn. He KO’ed Maynard. His combination of speed and technique has been impossible to defend. Add in his wrestling credentials and you have a well-rounded fighter.

Benson Henderson has been surprising in his transition from the WEC to the UFC. He was not one of the fighters I tabbed to rise through the ranks of the much deeper UFC talent pool. But he did, claiming wins over Clay Guida and Jim Miller. He has used his quick pace and wrestling talents to earn decision victories.

The fight will be full of action. I ultimately think it will end like the rest where Edgar was doubted. He will earn a unanimous decision and retain his title.

Top Photo: Frankie Edgar (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Richard Wilcoxon
Staff Writer

An East Coast native, Richard Wilcoxon grew up a die hard fan of traditional team sports. In the early 1990's, he stumbled onto the sport of MMA and has been hooked ever since. He started writing about the sport on his Sporting News member blog in 2005 where he worked to spread his passion for the sport. He eventually became an official staff writer for Sporting News' "The Rumble" MMA/boxing blog before joining The MMA Corner.