Japanese MMA will be well represented at UFC Japan 2013, taking place March 3 in Tokyo.
So with such a rich history in the sport, who are the best Japanese fighters to ever grace the Octagon? Here’s the best of a nation…
TOP TEN (in alphabetical order)
Yoshihiro Akiyama - Osaka
UFC Debut – UFC 100 – W3 Alan Belcher
Key UFC Win – UFC 100 – W3 Alan Belcher
A skilled judo black belt who has no qualms about standing and trading with anyone, Yoshihiro Akiyama made his UFC debut to much fanfare in 2009, and he didn’t disappoint as he decisioned Alan Belcher over three exciting rounds. The bout earned Akiyama Fight of the Night honors, and he went on to win the award in his next two bouts as well, tough losses against Chris Leben and Michael Bisping. After a KO loss to Vitor Belfort, Akiyama dropped down to 170 pounds, only to lose a hard-fought decision to Jake Shields at UFC 144.
Takanori Gomi - Kanagawa
UFC Debut – UFN 21 – Lsub3 Kenny Florian
Key UFC Win – UFC Live 2 – KO1 Tyson Griffin
The only man to hold the PRIDE lightweight title, Takanori Gomi ruled the Japanese organization with an iron fist, going 13-1 with 1 NC from 2004 to 2007. In 2010, he arrived in the Octagon, and he struggled in losses to Kenny Florian, Clay Guida, and Nate Diaz, he showed off that “Fireball Kid” style with impressive knockouts of Tyson Griffin and Eiji Mitsuoka, and November 10th’s showdown with Mac Danzig is a pivotal one for the Japanese icon.
Hatsu Hioki - Nagoya
UFC Debut – UFC 137 – W3 George Roop
Key UFC Win – UFC 144 – W3 Bart Palaszewski
Former Shooto and Sengoku champion Hatsu Hioki dominated the Japanese scene 2007-2011, going 12-1-1 while establishing himself as one of the top featherweights in the sport. But in late-2011, he decided it was time for him to hunt down some bigger game, and in October of that year, he made his UFC debut with a win against ultra-tough George Roop. It wasn’t the most impressive performance, but Hioki made up for it with his victory over Bart Palaszewski. An upset loss to Ricardo Lamas in June was a setback, but expect to see him bounce back sooner rather than later.
Yuki Kondo – Niigata
UFC Debut – UFC 27 – TKO3 Alexandre Dantas
Key UFC Win – UFC 27 – TKO3 Alexandre Dantas
A 1-2 UFC record really doesn’t tell the whole story when it comes to the 16 year career of Yuki Kondo. In fact, his UFC 27 win over Alexandre Dantas and Octagon losses to Tito Ortiz and Vladimir Matyushenko barely touch the surface when it comes to one of the most underrated fighters of his time. A King of Pancrase who defeated Frank Shamrock, Semmy Schilt, and Guy Mezger, among others, Kondo also starred in PRIDE, where his dance card included Wanderlei Silva, Dan Henderson, and Igor Vovchanchyn. Still active at 37 years old, Kondo’s impact will always be felt at home, even if he wasn’t able to break out on the UFC scene.
Tsuyoshi Kosaka - Kusatsu
UFC Debut – UFC 16 – WUD Kimo Leopoldo
Key UFC Win – UFC 21 – TKO2 Tim Lajcik
A staple of the UFC’s heavyweight division in the late 90’s, Tsuyoshi “TK” Kosaka - like his countryman Yuki Kondo – suffered from being in the Octagon during the organization’s “Dark Ages,” almost guaranteeing that he wouldn’t get the respect he deserved from later generations of fight fans. But for those who never saw him, rest assured that he was the real deal, a courageous fighter with legitimate skills who never backed down. The first man to beat Fedor Emelianenko (albeit controversially via cut), Kosaka was a long time training partner of Maurice Smith and Frank Shamrock, and his UFC resume included wins over Kimo Leopoldo, Pete Williams, and Tim Lacjik. In his final Octagon bout in 2002, he was stopped by Ricco Rodriguez, one of seven PRIDE or UFC champions he faced in his career.
Yushin Okami - Kanagawa
UFC Debut – UFC 62 – W3 Alan Belcher
Key UFC Win – UFC 122 – W3 Nate Marquardt
The most successful Japanese fighter in UFC history, Yushin Okami is a powerhouse in the Octagon who is a tough out for anyone at 185 pounds. Winner of 11 of 15 UFC bouts, including victories over Nate Marquardt, Mark Munoz, Mike Swick, and Evan Tanner, Okami is the last man to defeat Anderson Silva (via disqualification in a non-UFC bout), and in December he will meet Alan Belcher for a second time after defeating “The Talent” in their first bout in 2006.
Kazushi Sakuraba - Akita
UFC Debut – UFC Japan – NC1 Marcus Silveira
Key UFC Win – UFC Japan – Wsub1 Marcus Silveira
Kazushi Sakuraba’s UFC career lasted all of one night, but he was unbeaten with one win and one no contest that night, earning him the Ultimate Japan heavyweight tournament title. It was the rest of Sakuraba’s career that earns him a mention here though, as he became a PRIDE superstar dubbed “The Gracie Hunter” for his wins over four of MMA’s first family, and a true legend of the game.
Hayato Sakurai - Ibaraki
UFC Debut – UFC 36 – TKO by 4 Matt Hughes
Key UFC Win – None
Like Sakuraba, one night in the UFC wasn’t enough to show just how good Hayato “Mach” Sakurai was. But consider this: the one fight he was brought overseas for, against a prime Matt Hughes, was one many thought he was going to win. He didn’t, but his lone UFC appearance was a mere blip on a career that saw him compete in PRIDE, DEEP, Shooto, and Dream against the likes of Anderson Silva, Nick Diaz, Shinya Aoki, Takanori Gomi, Jens Pulver, Dave Menne, Jake Shields, Frank Trigg, and Caol Uno.
Caol Uno - Kanagawa
UFC Debut – UFC 30 – L5 Jens Pulver
Key UFC Win – UFC 32 – KO1 Fabiano Iha
A two-time title challenger in the UFC, Caol Uno gave Jens Pulver and BJ Penn fits in those championship fights but was unable to secure the victory and become the first UFC champion from Japan. As for the rest of his two UFC stints, he was able to defeat solid contenders like Yves Edwards and Din Thomas, but the big win always eluded him.
Kid Yamamoto - Kanagawa
UFC Debut – UFC 126 – L3 Demetrious Johnson
Key UFC Win – None
A longtime star on the Japanese circuit, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto was a pioneering force for the lighter weight classes, and long rumored to be coming to the United States to face the likes of Urijah Faber and Miguel Angel Torres in Super Fights. In 2011, the dream became a reality as he signed with the UFC, but Yamamoto has come up empty in three Octagon bouts against Demetrious Johnson, Darren Uyenoyama, and Vaughan Lee.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Yoji Anjo - Tokyo
Though Yoji Anjo will be remembered as a fighter who never experienced the thrill of victory in the UFC, the Suginami native was a pretty big deal in the world of pro wrestling, where he played the “bad guy” role. That notoriety led him to MMA, and after debuting at home against Sean Alvarez in a bout that lasted over 34 minutes in 1996, he was a natural for a bout against Tank Abbott in the UFC’s first visit to Japan in 1997. He lasted the distance against Abbott in a losing effort, but was finished by Murilo Bustamante and Matt Lindland in subsequent Octagon bouts. In 2004, he lost his final match to Ryan Gracie in PRIDE.
Ryo Chonan – Yamagata City
You wouldn’t know it by walking around Tokyo, but many of the buildings in the Japanese city bear the fingerprints of former construction worker Ryo Chonan. Similarly, you wouldn’t know how good a fighter Chonan is by looking at his UFC record, but fans who followed him during his time in the PRIDE and DEEP organizations know that he has earned his place in MMA lore. The last man to finish Anderson Silva, Chonan did it in their 2004 PRIDE bout with one of the greatest submissions ever – a flying scissor heel hook. Chonan also defeated Carlos Newton and Hayato Sakurai, but never seemed to catch a rhythm in his four fight UFC stint.
Riki Fukuda - Gifu
Longtime Japanese contender Riki Fukuda finally made it to the UFC in 2011, and he was matched up with The Ultimate Fighter’s Nick Ring at UFC 127 in Australia. And though he lost a decision to Ring, the decision was so controversial that UFC President Dana White awarded Fukuda his win bonus anyway, soothing the pain of the defeat a bit. Since then, he’s gone 1-1 in the Octagon, defeating Steve Cantwell and losing a decision to Costa Philippou. On November 10 he faces New Jersey’s Tom DeBlass.
Akihiro Gono - Saitama
Charismatic Akihiro Gono made his debut in mixed martial arts in 1994, compiling over 30 wins. Along the way, he faced a Who’s Who of the sport from welterweight to light heavyweight (such as former UFC champions Matt Hughes and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, UFC and PRIDE vet Yuki Kondo, and two division PRIDE champion Dan Henderson), while making a name for himself in the PRIDE, Pancrase, and Shooto organizations for his aggressive style and well-rounded attack, not to mention his memorable ring entrances. In the UFC, Gono’s resume included a win over Tamdan McCrory in his UFC debut in November of 2007 and hard-fought decision losses against Dan Hardy and Jon Fitch.
Sanae Kikuta – Tokyo
Longtime Pancrase star Sanae Kikuta was another one of those ‘What If’ stories, as he only competed once in the Octagon, submitting Eugene Jackson at UFC 25 in 2000. A top level talent, Kikuta made his name by fighting all comers, including Renzo Gracie, Murilo Bustamante, Ikuhisa Minowa, Yuki Kondo, Elvis Sinosic, Minotauro Nogueira, and Hidehiko Yoshida.
Naoyuki Kotani – Kanagawa
Currently riding a seven fight win streak in Japanese organizations, 30-year-old Naoyuki Kotani seems to finally be hitting his stride after an up and down career that included losses to Thiago Tavares and Dennis Siver in a two fight UFC stint in 2007.
Ikuhisa Minowa – Nagoya
One of MMA’s most popular fighters, the 54-34 record of 36-year-old Ikuhisa Minowa should say it all. A one and done UFC fighter who defeated Joe Slick at UFC 25 in 2000, “Minowaman” made his legend in PRIDE, where his dance card included bouts with Wanderlei Silva, Rampage Jackson, Phil Baroni, Ryan Gracie, Gilbert Yvel, Kazushi Sakuraba, Murilo Bustamante, and Mirko Cro Cop.
Dokonjonosuke Mishima – Osaka
Charismatic and talented, Dokonjonosuke Mishima didn’t get any favors in his two UFC bouts, losses to Joe Stevenson and Kenny Florian, but with years of fighting top competition in Japan like Yves Edwards, Marcus Aurelio, and Takanori Gomi, it was no shocker that he was tossed in the deep end of the water immediately.
Takeya Mizugaki - Kanagawa
Takeya Mizugaki, one of Japan’s finest exports, started a new chapter in his mixed martial arts career in the UFC’s new bantamweight division in 2011, when he defeated Reuben Duran and Cole Escovedo, but he may be best remembered by fight fans for his classic WEC title bout against Miguel Angel Torres in 2009, a five round battle for the ages that served as quite an introduction for the exciting 135-pounder. 2-2 in the UFC, Mizugaki can gain win number three in China if he defeats Jeff Hougland.
Kazuhiro Nakamura – Hiroshima
Judo black belt Kazuhiro Nakamura debuted at PRIDE 25 in 2003 against Rogerio Nogueira, giving you a prime example of the type of competition he was willing to face, and he was a staple in the Japanese organization for years, fighting the likes of Dan Henderson, Murilo Bustamante, Kevin Randleman, Wanderlei Silva, Igor Vovchanchyn, Josh Barnett, and Shogun Rua. 0-2 in the Octagon, with losses to Lyoto Machida and Sokoudjou, Nakamura returned to Japan, where he remains an active competitor.
Keita Nakamura – Tokyo
Winless in three UFC bouts against Brock Larson, Drew Fickett, and Rob Emerson (all by decision), Keita Nakamura was tough, but he could never adjust to the Octagon. Still competing successfully in Asia, he has won seven of his last eight bouts.
Koji Oishi – Tokyo
Probably best remembered for his bizarre standup attack in a loss against Nick Diaz at UFC 53, Koji Oishi (0-2 in the UFC) was nonetheless a solid competitor in the Pancrase organization who owned wins over Nick’s brother Nate, Chris Lytle, and Naoyuki Kotani, while also fighting Carlos Condit.
Michihiro Omigawa - Ibaraki
A decorated judoka on the international level and a protégé of Olympic Gold medalist Hidehiko Yoshida, Ibaraki native Michihiro Omigawa turned to mixed martial arts in 2005, and after a shaky start, the PRIDE veteran rebounded to win three in a row and earn his first call to the UFC’s Octagon in 2007. After an 0-2 run, Omigawa went 8-2-1 back in Japan, earning a second call back. And though he was in several tough three rounders, he only went 1-4 in his subsequent UFC stint.
Genki Sudo - Hokkaido
A free spirit in the best sense of the word, Genki Sudo built a stellar reputation among hardcore fans both at home and Japan as a true showman who could still deliver the goods when the bell rang. He even submitted Butterbean in a Japanese show in 2003. That bizarre victory aside, Sudo earned his keep in MMA because he always fought not only to win, but to entertain, something lost on many fighters. Whether it’s a flying triangle, his quirky movements, or a quick flurry of fight ending blows, Sudo always brought it, and as victories over Royler Gracie, Nate Marquardt, and Mike Brown showed, the Neo-Samurai could always fight at the top levels of the lightweight division as well.
Daiju Takase - Tokyo
One of the hard luck stories in UFC history, Tokyo jiu-jitsu fighter Daiju Takase was a solid competitor who suffered from a case of poor career management, leading him into match after match against a killer series of opponents. Winless in three UFC bouts against Jeremy Horn, Kenichi Yamamoto, Fabiano Iha, Takase was nonetheless able to make a decent living fighting at home for the PRIDE and Pancrase organizations. His 9-13-2 record was obviously nothing to brag about, but he will always have one thing to hang his hat on, and that’s his 2003 triangle choke submission win over future UFC superstar Anderson Silva in PRIDE, a stunning upset that no one can ever take away.
Yasuhiro Urushitani - Ehime
As the first Japanese fighter to help inaugurate the flyweight division in the UFC, Yasuhiro Urushitani was the perfect choice, given his talent, experience, and status as one of the best 125-pounders on the planet. An 11-year MMA veteran, Urushitani won five fights in a row leading up to his UFC debut in March of 2012, including a victory over Ultimate Fighter winner John Dodson, and though he was stopped by Joseph Benavidez, he gets to even up his UFC slate in Macao against John Lineker.
Kenichi Yamamoto - Osaka
2-1 in three UFC bouts, Kenichi Yamamoto was technically the first Japanese fighter to challenge for a UFC title when he fought Pat Miletich at UFC 29 (countryman Yuki Kondo battled Tito Ortiz in a title bout in that card’s main event). Yamamoto was submitted in the second round by Miletich, and went back to compete in Japan, including three fights in PRIDE. After a five year layoff, Yamamoto returned in 2011, but was stopped in the first round by Sanae Kikuta.
Yoshiyuki Yoshida - Tokyo
Owner of a fourth-degree black belt in judo and numerous titles in the art, Yoshiyuki Yoshida made a smooth transition to the world of MMA. And though he was a relative unknown in the United States when he entered the Octagon for the first time against The Ultimate Fighter’s Jon Koppenhaver in May of 2008, less than a minute later, a packed house in Las Vegas knew who he was after his impressive submission win. Losses in three of his next four UFC bouts followed against Josh Koscheck, Anthony Johnson, and Mike Guymon, leading to his 2010 release.