In 2010, something unexpected happened. Pride veteran and 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix champion Mark Hunt, in the midst of a five-fight losing streak, was signed by the UFC. His Octagon debut, which took place at UFC 119, played out exactly as many would have predicted—Hunt lost via first-round submission to Sean McCorkle. Then, something even more unexpected happened. Hunt started winning fights.
First, there was Chris Tuchscherer. Then, Ben Rothwell, Cheick Kongo and Stefan Struve. Hunt was turning into a contender. With that streak, he earned a fight against a member of the heavyweight elite, Junior dos Santos. Hunt fell short, and then fought to a draw with Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva. But it was that unexpected string of victories, combined with Hunt’s ability to take punches and score thunderous knockouts, that has allowed the New Zealander to carve out a special place in the hearts of UFC fans.
Now, Hunt seeks to get back in the win column against possibly the only man who can rival him in terms of both power and chin. That man would be Roy Nelson. The perennial contender has just one win through his last three outings, but he has scored 13 career victories by some form of knockout and has only been stopped on one occasion.
Can Hunt stop Nelson? Will Nelson provide yet another setback to Hunt’s amazing career turnaround? The two big men will answer those questions on Saturday, when the UFC touches down in Saitama, Japan for UFC Fight Night 52.
The 12-fight card takes place at the Saitama Super Arena and airs live on UFC Fight Pass, with the preliminary card kicking off at 12:30 a.m. ET on Sept. 20 and the main card getting underway at 3:30 a.m. ET. Combat Press writers Bryan Henderson and Vince Carey take a look at the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
There aren’t many UFC Fight Pass headliners that could spark a lot of anticipation from fight fans, but putting Mark Hunt and Roy Nelson in an eight-sided cage is sure to do the trick. But will it deliver? Do Hunt and Nelson stand and bang for the entire fight, or will Nelson, who is well versed on the mat, try to test Hunt’s takedown and submission defense in hopes of finding an easy route to victory?
Henderson: Hunt is 40 years old. He hasn’t won a fight since he destroyed Stefan Struve in early 2013. He’s just one win above the .500 mark in an 18-fight pro career and he entered the UFC in 2010 on a five-fight skid that soon became a six-fight skid. Read those stats off to anyone who doesn’t follow the sport, and they might think you’re talking about a fighter buried deep on the preliminary card. Show them some video of Hunt’s fights, though, and they’ll understand why he’s headlining UFC events.
Roy Nelson has more wins and a higher winning percentage, but his career, too, is defined more by his ability to endure a severe amount of punishment and his knack for landing one big punch that separates his opponent from their senses.
These guys have a combined 19 KO/TKO victories on their records, and any fight fan who has watched these men in action is salivating at the thought of seeing them throw down. Why, then, is it that my mind keeps flashing back to Nelson’s appearance on The Ultimate Fighter and his dominant victory over Kimbo Slice? I’ll tell you why: Nelson’s brawling style tends to make people forget that he’s an extremely competent grappler. He’s a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and holds five wins by submission. He’s competed in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club tournament and in Grapplers Quest. The 38-year-old is no fool, and his smart strategy against Kimbo proves that he isn’t afraid to dismiss his brawler tendencies if, in doing so, it equates to a better chance at victory.
For the sake of the fans and my own selfish desire to see which of these men can withstand the most punishment, I do hope we see a stand-up affair. But Nelson has to be looking at Hunt’s struggles on the ground, regardless of “The Super Samoan’s” recent improvements in that area, and his six submission losses and thinking that there’s one surefire route to the victory. Don’t be surprised if Nelson gives the fans what they want for a brief period of time, then shoots for a takedown. Hunt can be controlled on the mat and he’s still prone to submissions. Nelson showed his opportunistic side in the Slice affair, and he might be willing to do so again in this contest.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Hunt can coax yet another top heavyweight into a toe-to-toe showdown, but my gut is telling me this one ends with a submission finish from Nelson on the mat.
Carey: I think Bryan’s hesitation to get overly excited by this fight is shared by the entire MMA community. We all know that Nelson and Hunt can deliver a classic if given the opportunity, but there are too many holes in Hunt’s ground game to be confident that Nelson won’t play the spoiler here.
The comparison to Nelson’s victory over Kimbo Slice is interesting, both because of how well that strategy may work against Hunt and how disappointed the MMA world will be if Nelson puts it into effect. Hunt tends to draw his opponent into slugfests more often than not, but when he fails to do so he usually ends up in trouble, especially against fighters with any sort of submission game. The last time this happened was actually Hunt’s most recent win over Stefan Struve. Although “The Samoan Bulldozer” ended up winning that bout, Struve was able to put Hunt in trouble multiple times on the mat. Perhaps more importantly, it didn’t seem like the much scrawnier Struve had too much of a problem getting the fight where he wanted it.
The difference between the Hunt we saw in the Struve fight and the Hunt of the past was Hunt’s surprising ability to defend whatever Struve threw at him on the mat. Admittedly it wasn’t “The Skyscraper’s” best performance, especially from a grappling standpoint, but Hunt did prove he could get out of a tight spot on the ground when pressed. That could be key against Nelson.
Common sense says that Nelson is going to take this fight to the floor and make it ugly, but I think Hunt may have enough time before and after that happens to pull off a minor upset. Call it a gut feeling, but I think Hunt lands something big before the first takedown attempt, or he survives long enough to get the fight back to its feet and scores the win then. As indestructible as Nelson’s chin has been over his career, you can’t take as many shots as he has from 265-pound men and keep surviving. Nelson’s chin has to fail him someday, and considering Hunt hits like a freight train, he may be the guy to put Nelson away. It may be optimistic, but I think these two are going to give us at least a good portion of the slugfest we desire.
Takenori Gomi was once a young gun as a member of the Pride roster, but the 35-year-old has only managed a mediocre 4-4 mark inside the Octagon. Now, he’s on home soil against a new young gun, the undefeated Myles Jury. Will this fight serve to cement Jury as a top lightweight and a title contender?
Carey: Look, I understand the reasoning behind this question. Jury’s definitely on his way to becoming a top-level lightweight at the moment and a win over Gomi in front of the Japanese crowd seems like a huge feather in the cap of Jury’s young career. But can we honestly sit here and act like a win over Gomi means anything in 2014?
As much as I still love watching old “Fireball Kid” highlights from Gomi’s Pride days (especially the Bushido fights—the dude was an animal), the truth is that we’ve only seen flashes of that version of Gomi over the last five years. He can still brawl with the best of them, and his ability to put on a “Fight of the Night” performance won’t come into question anytime soon, but beating a undefeated up-and-comer like Jury seems out of the question at this point.
Let’s be clear, that isn’t meant to slight Gomi. “The Fireball Kid” still could take out about half of the lightweights on the UFC roster, and he’d probably look good doing it, too. But Jury is just better than him at this point in his career, and after seeing “Fury” pick apart a highly aggressive Diego Sanchez earlier this year, it’s hard to be optimistic about Gomi’s chances. I don’t know if the UFC assumed it would get a better performance out of Gomi on Japanese soil or what, but the company has set Gomi up for failure here.
As for Jury, the easy win isn’t going to help him all that much. As sexy as a win over Gomi in Japan would have looked on Jury’s resume just two years ago, it doesn’t hold the same clout as it used to. This fight is likely going to serve as Jury’s transition to the top tier of lightweights if he can win impressively, but no one is going to consider him a legit title threat until he actually beats someone near the top of the division. This isn’t a fight to turn Jury into a contender or a top lightweight, this is the fight that will determine whether he’s even worth getting that shot in the first place.
Henderson: Gomi’s 4-4 UFC mark certainly suggests he can take out about half of the lightweights on the roster. But it’s also telling of where the line stands between those he can defeat and those he can’t. Gomi topped Tyson Griffin, Eiji Mitsuoka, Mac Danzig and Isaac Vallie-Flagg, but he fell to Kenny Florian, Clay Guida, Nate Diaz and Diego Sanchez. It’s unfortunate, but Gomi’s post-Pride days have certainly led to a much less inspiring—and inspired—Gomi. His name still retains a lot of its value, though, and for Jury to go into Japan and emerge with the victory would say a lot about where the 25-year-old is headed.
Jury has already put himself in the top-15 discussion and currently sits at No. 9 in the UFC’s own lightweight rankings while Gomi is nowhere to be found. The Alliance MMA fighter has posted some pretty significant wins, decisioning Michael Johnson and knocking out Ramsey Nijem, and a win over Gomi only adds one more notable name to that resume. If he gets the “W,” it’s time to see him in the cage against a Donald Cerrone or Benson Henderson.
My only concern for Jury is the location of this contest. Sometimes location can make all the difference—ask any Japanese fighter who has come to the United States—and Jury’s farthest trip from America was for a fight in Toronto. Now, here he is heading to Japan and fighting one of the nation’s more popular fighters. A stunning upset could be in the cards.
Yet, I think Jury comes out of this one just fine. He’s demonstrated a well-rounded skill set and simply needs to avoid being lured into a brawl. The top of the division awaits Jury, and he’ll prove he belongs there by scoring a submission win over Gomi.
So, Amir Sadollah and Yoshihiro Akiyama are back. Both men have been out for roughly two years, and things weren’t exactly going well for either fighter before their extended absences, with “Sexyama” dropping his past four fights and Sadollah a lackluster 2-2 since 2010. Does this fight interest you at all, and are you interested in seeing either of these two inside the Octagon after this?
Henderson: This fight has one simple purpose: to attract Japanese fans. Despite Akiyama’s lack of recent success, he still holds a special place in the minds of Japanese fans as one of MMA’s greatest villains due to his use of lotion to make himself slippery in a fight against the legendary Kazushi Sakuraba. “Sexyama’s” actions were even enough to prompt public outrage when he appeared in a Nike commercial shortly after that infamous bout. As UFC President Dana White might say, this fight isn’t for us, it’s for Japan.
That’s also what makes the choice of opponents so interesting. Sadollah has been inactive for a similar amount of time and represents a decent but not overwhelming challenge for Akiyama. The decorated judoka probably possesses enough talent on the ground to keep Sadollah from locking on the submission, and his power gives him a strong chance for a knockout win, whereas Sadollah’s striking tends to be of the variety that scores points with judges but accomplishes little else.
Does this fight interest me? It might have, had these two men engaged in combat in early 2013. Now, though, it feels like a showcase fight between two fighters who won’t ever reach title contender status in a talented and crowded welterweight division. Akiyama has a lot of appeal for his past storylines, but not much to compel fans to take interest in his present-day fate. Sadollah, meanwhile, hasn’t been an interesting fighter in a long time. In fact, the only appeal I can see in him is a rematch with C.B. Dollaway, purely to see if Dollaway has figured out Sadollah’s armbars yet.
Carey: This fight is for Japan, and any MMA fan coming out of a coma after the past two years.
All jokes aside, I am a little excited to see both of these guys step into the cage again, even though they’re both sitting well outside of the UFC title picture. Even through the injury woes both guys have faced over the years, they usually manage to entertain when thrown into the cage in the right match-up, and since both men have been out for well over a year, I’m guessing they’ll be chomping at the bit to get some action in.
Much like the Nelson-Hunt main event, this fight has “Fight of the Night” potential but could also turn out to be a bit of a snoozer. If Akiyama comes out swinging and makes Sadollah fight his torrid pace the entire time, this will be a lot of fun. However, if Sadollah gets comfortable and starts firing off his jabs and leg kicks, the former TUF champion might put together a clinical decision win.
This is a fun fight and I’m sure casual fans will get a kick out of it, but in the long term I’m not sure if I see any obvious match-ups for either one of these guys in the future. The welterweight division is a shark tank, and outside of a fight with another longtime middle-of-the-pack fighter like Patrick Cote or Dan Miller, it’s hard to find anyone that really makes sense as an opponent for either of these two men. But if Sadollah and Dollaway want to figure something out, I’m also more than willing to see if “The Doberman” has solved that armbar.
Rin Nakai is finally in the UFC after years spent fighting in her native Japan, where many of her fights were contested under the banner of a promotion that also happened to manage Nakai’s fight career. Her first test in the UFC: former title challenger Miesha Tate. Will Nakai prove that she really is one of the best female 135ers in the world, or will Tate expose her as an overrated fighter?
Carey: The real problem with evaluating Nakai is that her lack of competition is almost frightening. Outside of Invicta vets Sarah D’Alelio and Tara LaRosa, Nakai hasn’t beaten anyone fight fans would be able to pick out of a lineup, and even the combined record of the cans she’s crushed over the course of her career allows serious doubts about her true talent. When you compare that resume to Tate’s, it’s almost laughable.
While it looks like Nakai’s management team did her a few favors in the matchmaking department over the years, unless Nakai had decided to pack up and fight for Strikeforce and/or Invicta at some point over the past four years I’m not sure we would be able to figure her out any better. The regional women’s MMA scene is still struggling all over the world, and if you’re not fighting the best, you’re pretty much fighting nobody the majority of the time. As a result, even though Nakai’s been dominant in most of her bouts and possesses an undefeated record, it’s hard to take her seriously against one of the UFC’s best in Tate.
As badly as the UFC needs to add a fresh face to the women’s bantamweight title scene, this wasn’t the way to do it. Compared to Nakai’s prior competition, this isn’t even throwing the Japanese vet into the fire in her Octagon debut, it’s Sparta kicking her into the mouth of a volcano. Tate has fought some of the best competition in the world over the past five years. Nakai has fought a declining LaRosa and that’s about it.
We’ve never seen Nakai face off against real competition, so there’s a chance that she’ll be able to hang with Tate for a while, but can I actually see her pulling off a victory here? Absolutely not. As good as Nakai has looked against the competition she’s fought so far, Tate should be on another level, and if she doesn’t get a stoppage, “Cupcake” should easily win a decision. Nakai may be able to hang with some of the lower-ranked girls at 135 pounds after this and then start to make her run, but Tate is too much, too soon.
Henderson: Let’s not forget that it could be argued LaRosa beat Nakai, not the other way around. And there are also the questionable, last-minute rule changes in her title fight with Danielle West, where West only discovered mid-fight that she was not allowed to throw knees or attempt chokes while Nakai could still do either. Nakai’s 16-0-1 record looks great, but how much of that was influenced by Pancrase? It’s difficult to say.
Nakai, for all the controversy surrounding her, is still a talented fighter with a strong judo background and an ability to grind out decisions or win fights standing and on the ground. However, she’s entering a new chapter in her career where she won’t have Pancrase telling fighters to cut weight on the day of the fight. She won’t have judges who might be inclined to favor her. Those close fights, like her contest with LaRosa, might not always go her way like they have in the past. And although D’Alelio and LaRosa are still stiff competition, she’ll now be fighting the division’s elite.
Tate is a perfect example of this, as Vince pointed out. “Cupcake” has locked horns with Ronda Rousey twice, including one fight that made it to the third round. She has fought Cat Zingano and former Strikeforce champion Sarah Kaufman. She has defeated former Bellator champ Zoila Frausto Gurgel, former Strikeforce champ Marloes Coenen and former UFC title challenger Liz Carmouche. Tate is a wrestler who is quite capable of standing with her opponents as well. Then there’s the height disparity—Tate checks in at 5-foot-6, while Nakai stands 5-foot-1.
Nakai is going to find the road in the UFC much more difficult, and a fight against a top contender is going to quickly knock her down a peg. She won’t have the reach to overcome many of the division’s better strikers, and her grappling, though excellent, won’t be enough to allow her to compensate. She’s headed for a loss on the scorecards and a future fighting the UFC’s lowest-ranked 135ers. In one aspect, however, I can’t agree with Vince. I don’t think Nakai ever quite pulls herself up to the next level and makes a run in the UFC. She’ll win enough fights to stick around and fight on the Japanese cards, but that will be her ceiling in the promotion.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Henderson: For a UFC Fight Pass card, this lineup is surprisingly deep. From fights featuring such prospects as Michinori Tanaka and Kiichi Kunimoto, to more established Japanese veterans like Katsunori Kikuno and Takenori Sato, to the streaking Alex Caceres and the let’s-take-a-time-machine-back-to-2012 pairing of Yoshihiro Akiyama and Amir Sadollah, there are plenty of interesting elements that could go overlooked at first glance. Another such fight is the flyweight duel between Japan’s own Kyoji Horiguchi and Guam-based Jon delos Reyes.
Remember, Horiguchi was originally slated to meet Chris Cariaso, but Cariaso was pulled from the bout and inserted in a pay-per-view-headlining championship tilt against Demetrious Johnson. If Horiguchi had a few more UFC fights under his belt, I’d venture to guess the UFC would have called him up rather than Cariaso. Horiguchi is certainly the more compelling fighter, but he has thus far only managed to notch UFC wins over Dustin Pague and Darrell Montague (and only the Montague fight was contested in the flyweight division). The 23-year-old trains under Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, holds a black belt in karate and has eight wins by some form of knockout.
Reyes is coming off a loss in his last outing and represents a step down in competition after Horiguchi’s fight with Montague, but the Pacific Xtreme Combat veteran is a threat on the feet and on the ground. He has never been knocked out either, which provides Horiguchi with a challenge.
Horiguchi’s fight with Cariaso was meant to usher the Japanese prospect into the elite, giving him an opportunity to prove himself against a borderline top-10 fighter before moving to even bigger things (assuming, of course, he topped Cariaso). Now, Horiguchi is left in a situation where he has everything to lose and little to gain. If he wins here, which I think he will do by knockout, it won’t be long before he’s locking horns with the John Linekers and Ian McCalls of the division.
Carey: This is a really good card that’s kind of flying the radar right now and, honestly, there are a few prelims that I’m looking forward to as much as anything on the main card. Bryan already mentioned Caceres, but it is hard not to when you’re talking about guys with the potential to steal the show. The same goes for Hyun Gyu Lim, who has won two straight “Fight of the Night” bonuses heading into Saturday. However, I’m going to go with what I’m predicting will be an absolute barnburner at 145 pounds between Katsunori Kikuno and Sam Sicilia to make a strong push to steal the show. The old cliché is that styles make fights, and I like the match-up between an aggressive karate-based fighter in Kikuno and a straight-up brawler like Sicilia.
This fight will be Kikuno’s first at featherweight after spending almost a decade competing at 155 pounds, but it’s a change that the Japanese fighter needed to make in order to be successful in the UFC. Kikuno was extremely undersized at lightweight compared to some of the behemoths that have been wrestling and cutting weight their entire lives, and since Kikuno needs to be upright to work his striking skills, the drop in weight was essential.
However, Kikuno’s problems came on the feet, not the mat, the last time he was in the Octagon. Tony Ferguson’s aggression completely overwhelmed the former Deep champion during the first round of their UFC 173 bout, and it only took four minutes for Kikuno to suffer the first knockout loss of his career. That could be a problem against Sicilia, who possesses some serious knockout power of his own and likes to come out of the gate aggressively. While it’s true Sicilia’s striking probably isn’t as devastating as Ferguson’s, he should have more than enough talent to put Kikuno away if given the opportunity.
Given Kikuno’s tendency to get into his bizarre stance and leave his hands down, I have a feeling that Sicilia is going to smell blood in the water quite often. That should lead to some awesome exchanges. Don’t be surprised if these two fall into the “Fight of the Night” checks at the end of the evening.
Pair this card with…
Carey: An after-dinner nap and lots of coffee. The 12:30 a.m. start time on the East Coast is going to cause serious havoc on marriages everywhere when fight fans are forced to explain they were up until the wee hours of the morning watching fights, even if you have the built-in excuse of it being Roy-Freaking-Nelson and Mark-Freaking-Hunt. So, get some rest while you can and make sure that coffee is strong enough to keep you upright until after the main event. From top to bottom this looks like a fun night of fights, and that has to be worth sleepwalking through the rest of your weekend, right?
Henderson: Breakfast. This card’s start time is going to be hell on the average fan, especially those who are dying to see Nelson and Hunt swing for the fences. While the diehard fans will put a strain on their marriage and interrupt their natural sleep cycles, the average fan is going to take advantage of the UFC Fight Pass and the convenient replay access it provides. That said, nobody can wait too long in this day and age without taking the risk of running across spoilers. So, set your alarm clock for bright and early the following morning, brew up a fresh pot of coffee and plop down on your couch with a plateful of bacon and eggs to enjoy this entertainment-packed card. What better way to start the day than with some fights?
Main Card (UFC Fight Pass, 3:30 a.m. ET)
HW: Roy Nelson vs. Mark Hunt
LW: Takanori Gomi vs. Myles Jury
WW: Yoshihiro Akiyama vs. Amir Sadollah
Women’s BW: Miesha Tate vs. Rin Nakai
WW: Kiichi Kunimoto vs. Richard Walsh
FlyW: Kyoji Horiguchi vs. Jon delos Reyes
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 12:30 a.m. ET)
BW: Alex Caceres vs. Masanori Kanehara
FW: Katsunori Kikuno vs. Sam Sicilia
WW: Hyun Gyu Lim vs. Takenori Sato
BW: Michinori Tanaka vs. Kyung Ho Kang
LW: Kazuki Tokudome vs. Johnny Case
FW: Maximo Blanco vs. Dan Hooker
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