People say absence makes the heart grow fonder.

It has been thirty months since Yoshihiro Akiyama last competed for the UFC. Since losing by unanimous decision in his welterweight debut to Jake Shields at UFC 144—his fourth loss in a row—”Sexyama” has been neither seen nor heard by MMA fans.

Finally scheduled to return in against Amir Sadollah on the September 20th UFC Fight Night 52 card, Akiyama’s lengthy layoff raises several questions about the Osaka Japan native and his upcoming performance. Being inactive for long, one query stands out as the most prevalent:

Why is Yoshihiro Akiyama still contracted with the UFC?

Unwrapping the charismatic enigma that is Mr. Akiyama, and examining his contribution to the UFC as the organization aggressively pursues an international presence underlined by the promotion of Garry Cook in the last week, we will explore the reasoning behind Yoshihiro Akiyama’s continued employment under the UFC banner.

 A familiar face in a less familiar market

Upon the UFC’s first return to the Saitama Arena in over two years, Yoshihiro Akiyama is a familiar face in a less familiar market. Including a Japanese resident and speaker as notable as the Hero’s 2006 Light Heavyweight Grand Prix winner on UFC Fight Night 52’s card reflects an awareness towards the Japanese MMA market.

Here, the success of the UFC’s predecessor, Pride Fighting Championship, was notably paralleled by the presence of stars hailing from the Land of the Rising Sun. Kazushi Sakuraba, Takanori Gomi were two of Pride FC’s fan favourites during the promotion’s heyday. Among the wave of smaller companies that tried to fill the void left by Pride FC’s acquisition by Zuffa, Hero’s MMA touted Akiyama and Norifumi ‘Kid’ Yamamoto as two of its greatest home-grown and most beloved home-grown talents.

Catering to this patriotic element to establish an international presence, the UFC’s decision to retain Akyama’s services and use him on a Japanese card reflects his value as an asset to the UFC. This tactic has been used to great effect tin other smaller markets as well, including Dublin, Ireland; Stockholm, Sweden; and Melbourne, Australia. In these countries, the likes of Conor McGregor, Alexander Gustafsson, and Mark Hunt (a New Zealander who calls Oz his home) have helped boost live gate attendance in conjunction with the brand strength of the UFC.

The hometown hero is one of the most basic and successful narratives in combat sports; not only attracting fans to the show but also giving local and national media extra incentive to promote a show that will provide economic gains to the region.

By retaining Akiyama, and saving the Japanese native for a card in his country of residence, we see the UFC embracing one of the fundamental aspects of promotion psychology.

Value inside the Octagon

Another motive behind the UFC preserving ties with Akiyama is the mixed martial artist’s entertainment value inside the cage.

Looking back on his UFC career, the Asian Games gold medallist Judoka racked up three ‘Fight of the Night’ bonuses in his first three fights.

While other factors including the performance of the opponent and the strength of the card factor into the UFC’s decision to award this bonus, the promotion has an extensive history of showing good faith towards fighters who come to finish the contest.

The likes of Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone, who have racked up five and three “Fight of the Night” bonuses respectively, is a testament to the UFC’s appreciation of entertaining talent. ‘J-Lau’ has now been with the company for eight years, an impressive achievement in its own right, while “Cowboy” has just come off his first main event.

Win or lose, Akiyama has cemented his ability to put on an intriguing and entertaining bout whenever he steps into the Octagon. A high-caliber background in Judo has provided several memorable trips and throws that have popped the crowd, while Akiyama’s calm entrance to the moving tones of Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye” also makes for great viewing in a sport often populated by rock and metal music.

Time heals most wounds

As a rare counter to the notion that time away from the spotlight hurts a fighter’s momentum or credibility, the unsavory actions of some of Akiyama’s previous opponents under the UFC banner has actually benefited him, easing the negative the stigma of his four consecutive losses.

As Akiyama’s significance as a promotional asset has spared him from being cut since last fighting in February 2012, Chris Leben, Vitor Belfort and Jake Shields—who have registered wins over “Sexyama”—have all failed drug tests for banned substances ranging from painkillers to elevated testosterone levels. While these infringements did not come to public light during their respective bouts against Akiyama, they offer a vital caveat for those defending Akiyama’s among the MMA elite on the UFC roster.

The UFC has previously acted favorably towards fighters who have succumbed to opponents later found to be cheating. Back in 2011 at UFC 125, Brandon Vera’s loss to Thiago Silva marked his cut from the promotion. Ironically, “The Truth” was reinstated once the facts of Silva’s falsified drug test urine sample surfaced. Vera lived to fight another day, so it should be no surprise that the same courtesy is extended towards Akiyama.

A cross cultural asset

A final unique benefit of Akiyama as a UFC competitor is his versatility as a performer. With a skillset and presence that crosses over to other entertainment markets including music and modelling, Yoshihiro Akiyama hold a mainstream appeal that separates him from other Japanese UFC alumni including Yushin Okami and Riki Fukuda.

In less established markets where marketing requires added investment to compensate for lower brand strength, Akiyama’s familiarity across different industries makes him a huge promotional asset; garnering coverage in media outlets that the UFC and the sport of MMA in general would not necessarily be exposed to otherwise.

Akiyama’s versatility as an entertainer and bona fide stud can be seen as he sings in front of thousands of people.

In a sport not always dictated by logic and rationality, Yoshihiro Akiyama’s presence and value to the UFC is a reminder that MMA is fundamentally underlined by entertainment value. Now over two years in the making, who knows what Akiyama will bring to the Octagon come September 20th.

Until then, the world awaits.

About The Author

Aidan O'Connor
Staff Writer

A native of Maidstone, England, Aidan has been covering MMA in a news or feature capacity since 2010. In addition to writing for The MMA Corner, Aidan also runs the MMAmusing Twitter account and enjoys the sport as an avid enthusiast. A graduate in English and American Studies, he currently works in marketing and public relations.

  • Jason Schielke

    I love that the UFC has kept the Sexy one around. He’ll be a great asset to the UFC’s expansion into the Japanese market.