December 21, 1997 was the first and last time The UFC was in Japan; that was until Saturday night when they went back to the land of the Samurai in a big way. The Saitama Super Arena was home once again to mixed martial arts, only this time it was UFC 144. Headlining this event was a lightweight (155 lbs.) championship between now former champion Frankie 'The Answer' Edgar (14-2, 3 KO's 3 subs) and new champion Ben 'Smooth' Henderson (16-2, 2 KO's, 8 subs).
'The Answer', who fought valiantly, just didn't have one against Henderson, who proved too be too big for Edgar in the long run. Henderson, a huge lightweight with tree trunk sized legs, used a combination of punches and kicks that did some serious damage to Edgar's left eye (as evidenced in the photo above) and his body. One perfectly placed up kick from his back to the bridge of Edgar's nose towards the end the second round seemed to be the momentum changer in this one.
Up to that point, Edgar appeared to be in control using constant movement and different angles to effectively strike on Henderson. He also used an approach of catching all of Henderson's round kicks to the body then throwing punches with his free hand and countering with round kicks of his own. However, in the end Henderson's size, as Edgar should truly be fighting at featherweight (145 lbs.), proved too much for the game former champion. Henderson now follows Carlos Condit as former WEC champions who have won titles in the UFC; albeit Condit's title is an interim one.
Speaking of former champions, former light-heavyweight (205 lbs.) champion Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson (32-10, 14 KO's 7 subs) returned to Japan where he was once a star during the Pride Fighting Championships. Unfortunately, The Prodigal Son's return was not a good one for Jackson as he was manhandled by contender Ryan 'Darth' Bader (14-2, 6 KO's, 3 subs). Bader used his former All-American collegiate wrestling skills to consistently take Jackson down, control him and ground and pound a unanimous decision victory.
Bader has now come back with two wins in a row, including this big one against a former champion, after suffering his only losses back to back last year to Jon Jones and Tito Ortiz. Jackson meanwhile, always a fan favorite, continues to show his lack of evolution when it comes to the ground game and his deficiency against wrestlers. In his defense, he did come into this fight with a knee injury sustained during training. Nonetheless, I believe his days as a contender are long behind him.
Stocked heavily with Japanese fighters, eight in all, UFC 144 disproved a theory had by MMA fighter Phil Baroni. He states that the reason Japanese fighters have not faired extremely well in the octagon is because of the long trip they have to endure to fight in the states. Japanese fighters went (4-4) on the night although one of those fights did feature two Japanese fighters facing off against each other.
Of the Japanese fighters on the card, featherweight Hatsu Hioki (26-4-2, 4 KO's 12 subs), was clearly the homegrown star with his second consecutive win in the UFC. Hioki put on a dominating performance against Bart Palaszewski (36-15, 17 KO's 11 subs) earning a unanimous decision and putting himself in the discussion as a possible opponent for featherweight champ Jose Aldo. Although Frankie Edgar, when asked after his fight by Joe Rogan if he would consider a drop to featherweight to challenge Aldo said, "I don't know; that's something I'm not thinking about right now."
As for the fight everyone would like to see besides Edgar vs. Aldo, lightweight Anthony Pettis (15-2, 6 KO's 6 subs) has laid his claim as the logical next opponent for new champ Henderson. Pettis continued to live up to his nickname 'Showtime' as he scored the knockout of the night, a beautiful left round kick to the face of Joe Lauzon (21-7, 4 KO's 17 subs) in the first round. Joe Rogan called it "a perfect shin to the chin shot."
The former and last WEC champion, who won the belt from Henderson in a five round classic back in December 2010, which featured the now legendary kick off the cage heard round the world, is primed and ready for another shot at the now UFC champion. With both of these exciting young fighters in their primes and at the top of their games, I think this fight would rival any of the other exciting fights fans are clamoring for. The UFC definitely went back to the land of the Samurai in a big way.