Could the UFC’s return to Land of the Rising Sun for UFC 144 equate to rising fortunes for some Japanese warriors who have struggled lately?

Legendary fighters Takanori Gomi and Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto sure hope so.

The two fighters were once among Japanese MMA royalty, but they’ve had a hard go of it in recent years.

Yamamoto, once looked at as the Japanese featherweight top dog opposite the American Urijah Faber, has managed just one win in five outings since 2009. Although he has joined Faber in dropping to bantamweight, “Kid” continues to reside on the preliminary card, whereas Faber remains firmly entrenched in the title mix.

Gomi was once king of Pride’s 155-pound division.  A dominant force in those days, he was one of many Pride stars that MMA fans wanted to see matched up against his UFC counterparts.  By the time Gomi arrived in the Octagon, his momentum was gone. He had gone just 4-2 since Pride’s demise and he was rebounding from back-to-back losses under the Sengoku banner that had tarnished his legacy.  He found little redemption in the Octagon though, losing three out of four, including his two most recent battles.

Now, as the UFC sets foot in Japan for the first time in over 11 years, both men have a chance to recapture past glory and turn it into future success. Gomi, still relatively young at 33, gets a stiff challenge in the debuting Eiji Mitsuoka.  Yamamoto, one year the elder of Gomi, meets Vaughan Lee, a British fighter still seeking his first Octagon victory.

Will Gomi and Yamamoto remind their countrymen in the stands of the Saitama Super Arena of how great they can be, or will the two be met with yet another disappointment in careers that see them declining in their early thirties?

The answers will come via the FX cable network, on which Yamamoto and Gomi will both ply their trade.  The FX prelims broadcast, which begins at 8 p.m. ET, will also feature a middleweight showdown between Riki Fukuda and Steve Cantwell and a bantamweight clash between Takeya Mizugaki and Chris Cariaso.

Before the action gets underway on FX, UFC turns to Facebook at 7:30 p.m. ET to stream the opening match-up of the evening, a featherweight tussle between Tiequan Zhang and Issei Tamura.

The MMA Corner’s panel of Chase Buzzell, Josh Davis and Bryan Henderson share their thoughts on all five prelim bouts in this edition of the Round Table.

FW: Tiequan Zhang (15-2) vs. Issei Tamura (6-2)

Buzzell: Tiequan “The Wolf” Zhang will be making his third appearance in the UFC. Zhang currently stands 1-1 inside the Octagon, showing some flashes of an upper-echelon fighter, but for the most part also showing his limitations. Zhang was China’s first BJJ brown belt, and his fight record supports his grappling prowess. Of his 15 victories, 12 have come by an assortment of submissions (e.g. kimura, triangle, guillotine, ankle lock, etc.). Zhang has been able to finish opponents with striking; however, it is no secret that Zhang’s objective is to get the fight on the mat and work a submission.

Issei “Krazy Bee” Tamura will be making his first UFC appearance and is coming off two losses in his last three fights. Usually when a fighter makes their UFC debut, the fighter is on a winning streak or won a big fight in another promotion. It will be interesting to see how Tamura will respond to a big opportunity. Tamura prefers wrestling as opposed to Zhang’s preference for BJJ. Tamura has had a relatively short career, but his signature style is fully developed. He offers very little in the stand-up and is highly susceptible to strikes. Once on the ground, he is slow and patient, rarely compromising position while slowly grinding his opponent into fatigue before attempting to finish the fight.

Tiequan Zhang (James Law/Heavy MMA)

My money is on Zhang. Tamura is a formidable opponent and his quick, explosive style in the wrestling game makes him dangerous. However, because it is almost certain this fight will be fought on the ground, Tamura will be subjecting himself to Zhang’s BJJ for up to 15 minutes. I don’t think he will last. Zhang, submission, third round.

Davis: I have to agree with Chase in this fight. Tamura will be a very good opponent for Zhang, and this fight will really give Zhang the opportunity to showcase his talents, but Tamura does not possess the skills to win this fight.

In a fight, anything can happen, but Tamura has the deck stacked against him. He is an excellent fighter, but Zhang has the better overall game.

This will not be total domination, but look for Zhang to get this victory. Zhang wins by second-round submission.

Henderson: Let’s be honest here, Issei Tamura’s fighting history and style runs antithetical to everything the UFC looks for in a new recruit.  The only reason he seems to be here is his nationality – though I’m certain the promotion could have found someone in the Japanese MMA circuit with a better resume if they had the desire – and the fact that Zhang’s original foe, Leonard Garcia, bowed out due to an injury, leaving the promotion with a small window for securing a replacement.

Tamura has not only lost two out of his past three outings, but he’s also gone to a decision in all but one of his fights.  He’s not a finisher, and he has already started losing fights before ever making the step up to the top-level promotions.  What more could the UFC see in him than a somewhat legit opponent to help put Zhang back in the win column?

That’s really Tamura’s primary purpose here.  You’ll find little argument from me in this one.  Zhang should be able to find a way to submit Tamura within the allotted 15 minutes.

BW: Takeya Mizugaki (15-6-2) vs. Chris Cariaso (12-3)

Davis: In what should be another exciting bantamweight bout, Takeya Mizugaki will take on a very tough and dangerous opponent in Chris Cariaso. Mizugaki is an eight-fight veteran of the WEC and the UFC, but he has never enjoyed consistent success. In his eight bouts, Mizugaki is 4-4. So far, he has followed up every win with a loss, and he is currently coming off a win at UFC 135. This would lead me to believe that it is time for another loss, but that is why they fight the fight.

Cariaso is a very exciting fighter, and he is looking to take back the momentum that had propelled him to stardom. After winning 10 of his first 11 fights, he has gone just 2-2 in his last four and Mizugaki is not going to be a push over.

Both of these fighters are very well-rounded and have the skills to win this fight wherever it goes. These two match up so well against each other that this fight is going to come down to who wants it more. Cariaso is the future of this division, and he is going to show the world that he belongs. Cariaso wins this fight by unanimous decision.

Henderson: Mizugaki’s last eight fights: a loss to current No. 8 bantamweight Miguel Torres, win over unranked Jeff Curran, loss to No. 5-ranked Scott Jorgensen, win over unranked Rani Yahya, loss to No. 2-ranked Urijah Faber, win over unranked Reuben Duran, loss to No. 4-ranked Brian Bowles and a win over unranked Cole Escovedo. As my four-year-old son would say, “I see a pattern!” And in this case it’s more than just alternating wins and losses. Mizugaki has a tendency to lose to ranked opponents and beat non-ranked foes. Could Joe Silva be throwing Mizugaki a bone here by giving him back-to-back adversaries who fall outside the top-25 bantamweight rankings?

Chris Cariaso (Sherdog)

Well, all four of Mizugaki’s losses over that span came against legit competition, even if those fighters were unranked. It shows that the Japanese fighter really has excelled against all but the cream of the crop, especially over the last four-plus years.

That means Cariaso really has his work cut out for him. Could “Kamikaze” be the future of the division, as Josh suggests? It’s possible, though I don’t agree with that assessment. Cariaso squeaked past Vaughan Lee in his last outing and is not much of a finisher. The 30-year-old more likely fits the profile of Mizugaki’s victims, rather than those who have defeated the seven-year veteran.

With that in mind, I think we’ll see a hard-fought bout with both men keeping it close. Cariaso has been on the wrong end of one split verdict and the right end of another in his last two go-arounds. I think he’ll be looking at another tense reading of the scorecards and end up falling on the wrong end of another split decision.

Buzzell: Mizugaki has had a mixed bag of results since coming over to the United States, fighting first in the WEC before the brand’s merger with the UFC. Mizugaki has alternated wins and losses over the last eight fights and looks to post his first back-to-back wins since 2008. He possesses a good chin and strong striking skills. He also can compete on the ground, but must continue to work on his grappling skills and his BJJ. Mizugaki has recently lost by decision, so there must be a sense of urgency tonight or else I could see the UFC growing tired of the hot and cold performances.

Cariaso, like Mizugaki, can strike. However, Cariaso is a muay Thai fighter that boasts the ability to use leg kicks to carve up his opponent. At the same time, Cariaso can get trigger shy and not use his strikes when given the opportunity. Often such seizing up seemingly occurs out of Cariaso’s fear of being taken down. Oddly for Cariaso’s size – he stands 5-foot-3 – he likes to fight on the outside, which plays into the hands of Mizugaki’s size advantage.

Although Mizugaki is a very talented fighter that could be dangerous, his recent fight record is too uncertain for me to believe he will win. Cariaso’s two recent losses were to elite bantamweight fighters, and I believe Cariaso continues to get better and will be able to take care of business. Cariaso, KO, first round.

MW: Riki Fukuda (17-5) vs. Steve Cantwell (7-5)

Henderson: I know I tend to sound like a broken record with fights like this, but how can Cantwell still be under the employ of Zuffa? I know some guys can be exciting win or lose, but I hardly consider Cantwell to be near the top of that list, and it’s hard to see why the UFC sees the need to keep a guy around who bragged about snapping a fighter’s arm – in his win over Razak Al-Hassan – and backed up that cockiness by losing his next four fights, all by unanimous decision.

Riki Fukuda didn’t exactly impress in his UFC debut though, losing to Nick Ring. Still, he was on a seven-fight winning streak prior to the loss, with at least a few victims who are at a comparable level of competition to what Cantwell offers. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but Fukuda now has his UFC debut behind him, is back on home soil and brings more experience and success to the table.

Cantwell has a good mix of striking and grappling skills, but he’d probably be best served taking this fight to the mat. If he gets it there, he could have a chance of finishing. Fukuda has only been finished once, however, and that came via knockout back in 2006. He’s a grinder who has seen a bulk of his fights land in the hands of the judges.

Riki Fukuda (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

Cantwell can’t let this fight go to the judges, but I think that’s exactly where it ends up, with Cantwell on the losing end. While Fukuda picks up his first Octagon win, Cantwell will be picking up his pink slip.

Buzzell: This may provide the most exciting fight on the card. On one hand, you have Riki Fukuda, a cagey hard-nosed veteran of MMA, and on the other, you have Steve Cantwell, who is young and loaded with talent. Cantwell’s record is not impressive by any means. Only two wins above .500 does not open anyone’s eyes. But Cantwell did not make it to the biggest stage in MMA on mere hype; there is truly talent here. He is quick and explosive, and is very athletic for a middleweight. Cantwell, however, has significant struggles with grapplers, which in part has contributed to his four-fight losing streak.

Fukuda is a grinder that always comes forward, works diligently for a takedown and is not afraid to stand and trade either. Once in a while, Fukuda ignores his defensive responsibilities when getting caught up in the fight and is susceptible to getting tagged. Fukuda’s defense on the ground is another story; he is constantly aware and has solid submission defense.

Despite all of Cantwell’s striking potential, he has relied on submissions to secure wins. That approach may be difficult against Fukuda. Nonetheless, I believe Cantwell will find a way to win and put to use his striking ability, as Fukuda’s straight-forward style will not match well with Cantwell’s athletic fluid striking. Cantwell via KO, second round.

Davis: I have to agree with Bryan on this one. Other than the fact that Cantwell is still living off of his victory over Brian Stann and the success that he enjoyed in the WEC, he does not deserve to be fighting under the Zuffa banner. Sure, I will concede that Cantwell has been a part of some exciting fights in his day, but that does not change the fact that he is a mid-level fighter taking a roster spot from someone who really deserves it.

Fukuda, on the other hand, is still trying to prove that he belongs. As mentioned, he did lose his UFC debut to Nick Ring in less than spectacular fashion, but he did do enough to earn himself another shot. The fact is both of these guys are fighting for their UFC lives.

Cantwell has never been able to live up to his potential. He has all the talent needed to be successful, but he has never been able to put it all together and this is not going to change. Fukuda finds a way to win this fight. Fukuda, unanimous decision.

BW: Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto (18-5) vs. Vaughan Lee (11-7-1)

Davis: In a fight where the loser will likely be released from the promotion, both Yamamoto and Lee will need to be at their best if they want to come away victorious. Yamamoto is currently riding a two-fight losing streak and has lost four of his last five bouts. Once considered one of the best in the world, Yamamoto needs a victory just to stay relevant.

Lee, however, is not enjoying any more success at the moment. He is coming off a loss in his UFC debut at UFC 138, and he will need to get this victory to prove to the world that he belongs in the UFC.

On paper, this is a very intriguing match-up, as both of these fighters match up very well against each other. Yamamoto will need to use his kickboxing skills to keep this fight standing and to dictate the pace. If Yamamoto can stay on the outside and use his striking to set up the rest of his game plan, he has a good chance of coming out victorious.

Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto (James Law/Heavy MMA)

This is going to be a very interesting fight, but look for Lee to get the victory. Lee wins this fight via unanimous decision.

Buzzell: In looking at Vaughan Lee’s record, one will notice a lot of rear-naked chokes. Lee has shown a propensity to smother his opponent and sink in a rear-naked choke, but at the same time he has been choked out and submitted plenty of times. Lee has the British brawler mentality, but severely lacks in ground-game defense and has continued to pay throughout his career.

The “Kid” possesses it all. He is quick, explosive and powerful. Yamamoto can get it done on the feet or on the mat, but all things considered, people love to watch this guy bring the power, provide a highlight-reel clip and knock his opponent out. “Kid” has struggled as of recent, going 1–4 in his last five fights, including his transition to the UFC in 2011, with each of his losses coming by way of decision. The one win occurred when Yamamoto was able to keep the fight standing, allowing his hands to be let loose.

Yamamoto’s game can be neutralized when he gets wild with his striking and is put on his back. However, neither fighter will be too interested in going to the mat or the cards. Since Yamamoto will not have to worry about being put on his back, I believe he will be able to outstrike Lee. Yamamoto, second-round KO.

Henderson: I’ve lost faith in “Kid” Yamamoto, and I never really had faith in Vaughan Lee.  Perhaps that makes this match-up fairly even?

In the last three years, Yamamoto has won just one fight while losing four.  The win was a knockout of Federico Lopez at a Dream event.  The good part of that is that the win came in Japan; the bad part is that Lopez is arguably the lowest level of competition Yamamoto fought in that span.

The good news for “Kid” is that Vaughan Lee is no world-beater.  The British fighter lost his UFC debut on home soil and has yet to post a victory against a notable name over the course of his 19-fight campaign.  With seven losses mixed in there, it’s easy to doubt Lee’s chances in any UFC pairing.

If there’s a chance for Yamamoto to pick up an Octagon win, this is it.  “Kid” might no longer be the elite fighter he once was, but his striking prowess should still be enough to allow him to dispose of Lee.  Yamamoto wins this one by first-round knockout.

LW: Takanori Gomi (32-8) vs. Eiji Mitsuoka (18-7-2)

Buzzell: Takanori Gomi is a MMA veteran and fan favorite, amassing 41 fights throughout his career while still just 33 years old. MMA has seen fighters fight well into their 40’s, but biological age and ring-age are two entirely different matters. Gomi is a great fighter and is always dangerous, but one has to begin to wonder if all the wars that “The Fireball Kid” has been in may start to catch up to him and be on display in the way of diminishing skills. Earlier in his career, which dates back fourteen years, Gomi was as exciting as they came. He was quick with explosive knockout power and endurance to take the fight the distance. However, in his last four fights, Gomi is 1-3, and 3-5 over his last eight. Gomi still looks for the big punch, but has had difficulty staying on his feet against strong grapplers and is highly susceptible to submissions.

Eiji Mitsuoka possesses the skills that have given Gomi trouble. Mitsuoka is a strong grappler that likes to gain top position and use his effective ground-and-pound. However, striking his opponent is not the strongest aspect of Mitsuoka’s game. Mitsuoka has a good single-leg takedown that he uses to get his opponent to the mat and begin working for a submission, a method by which he has ended eleven of his fights.

This fight could yield two very different outcomes. Gomi struggles with strong grapplers and submission defeats, and those are Mitsuoka’s strengths. Conversely, Mitsuoka is comfortable on his feet, but in no way compares to Gomi’s unorthodox, unpredictable, extremely lethal stand-up game. I believe Gomi is too good and too much of a professional not to work on his game as to avoid repeating the mistakes in his recent losses. Gomi keeps the fight standing and finishes Mitsuoka in the first round by KO.

Henderson: We can debate where Gomi’s career is headed all day. The man was a star in Pride, but he just hasn’t captured the same level of success, whether in Japanese rings or in the UFC’s Octagon, since the legendary promotion’s demise.

Eiji Mitsuoka (Taro Irei/Sherdog)

Both Gomi and his foe have been nothing if not inconsistent. Mitsuoka has strung together more wins as of late, but he still can’t claim a steady record against top competition after losses to the likes of Kazunori Yokota and Satoru Kitaoka (who also finished Gomi) in the recent past.

There are two things I look at in picking Gomi as the victor in this fight.

First, this will be Mitsuoka’s UFC debut. While it doesn’t follow the standard line of Japanese fighters hitting US shores since this event is actually in Japan, I think that might actually make matters even worse. The pressure of fighting on such a large stage in front of a home crowd could cause Mitsuoka to falter. Gomi has already had the chance to get comfortable with the UFC attention, and he’s no stranger to high-profile fights in Japan. This could be a big homecoming for him.

Second, Mitsouka has only fought twice since 2009.  Although both of those contests ended with Mitsuoka’s hand raised, one came against a fighter making his pro debut and the other came against 6-2 Bruno Carvalho. Gomi will be a big step up in what Mitsuoka has encountered since returning to action.

Gomi’s experience and skills will lead him to victory here via an early knockout.

Davis: I have to agree with both Chase and Bryan here. It is undeniable that Gomi is a legend in the sport, and at one time he was the best fighter in the world at 155 pounds. Obviously, things have changed and Gomi has certainly lost a step. He is no longer the explosive fighter that earned him the nickname “Fireball Kid,” but he is still a very dangerous opponent. If he can keep this fight standing, he will certainly have the advantage.

As Bryan stated, Mitsuoka has only fought twice since 2009. Even though he was victorious in both, I do have to question whether or not he will be up to the challenge of fighting Gomi. If he is up to the challenge, he does possess the tools to beat Gomi. As both Chase and Bryan stated, Gomi struggles with bigger, stronger grapplers, and if Mitsouka can get this fight to the ground, he can certainly grind out a victory.

Gomi may not be the fighter that he once was, but look for him to return to his glory days in this fight. Gomi wins this fight by second-round knockout.

Top Photo: Takanori Gomi (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

The MMA Corner Staff

Your home for all things MMA. News, Interviews, Event Coverage, Editorials. If it is MMA related, you will find it on The MMA Corner.