Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Friday, Feb. 24, 2012 | 3 p.m.
One glance at the fights scheduled for Saturday night’s UFC 144 card reveals that the Las Vegas-based promotion is making up for lost time in Japan.
The UFC visits the Land of the Rising Sun for the first time 11 years with a pay-per-view card that begins at 7 with preliminary bouts airing at 5 on FX.
Officials held nothing back in booking a blockbuster event for the Saitama Super Arena. Twelve fights will take place at the former unofficial home of Pride Fighting Championships. They feature five fighters who have held championship belts in major organizations, nine Japanese combatants and seven bouts on the pay-per-view portion of the card.
Check below for the five most pressing questions ahead of the UFC’s monumental return to Japan.
Photo by Sam Morris/Las Vegas Sun
Can mixed martial arts regain its popularity in Japan?
Pride events would pack Japanese arenas with as many as 100,000 people a decade ago.
The UFC is pleased with the expected sellout crowd of 22,000 Saturday, but it’s still a far cry from the old days. Japan fully embraced MMA before any other country, but it may have also let it go faster.
The decline began when allegations of Pride’s ties to organized crime swirled five years ago. Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, ultimately purchased Pride and disbanded what was formerly the biggest MMA promotion in the world in 2007.
Although smaller shows remain successful in Japan, no other major promotion has consistently captivated the masses.
“If anybody has a chance, it’s the UFC,” said Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a former PRIDE middleweight who fights in the UFC 144 co-main event. “If I have anything to do with it, I’m going to go there and fight my heart out. I’m going to put on a big show and put on the most exciting fights Japanese fans have ever seen to make them want to have the UFC come back.”
Photo by Sam Morris/Las Vegas Sun
Will Frankie Edgar avoid another severe first-round beating?
Media, fans and even UFC President Dana White have basically renamed the lightweight champion.
After coming back to win from near first-round knockout defeats twice against Gray Maynard last year, he’s no longer Frankie Edgar. He’s Frankie Balboa.
Edgar will grin at the comparisons to Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky, but knows there’s a deeper issue at hand.
“Taking beatings like that, the victory isn’t always so great,” Edgar said. “If I’ve got to do that to win, so be it. Being known for having a good chin is twofold. I don’t know if it’s the best thing because it means you get hit a lot.”
Edgar’s UFC 144 main event opponent, Ben Henderson, is certainly capable of making it three in a row. Henderson is one the best-conditioned and biggest fighters in the 155-pound division.
Photo by Steve Marcus
Is Rampage Jackson on his way out of the sport?
The former UFC light heavyweight champion, who meets Ryan Bader in the co-main event, has always maintained that he would walk away from fighting before he was 35-years old.
Jackson turns 34 in June. He provided some candid words in an interview with Fighters Only magazine regarding his retirement, which he said would come “pretty soon.”
“One time I was the best in my weight class, but now it’s (Jon Jones),” Jackson told Fighters Only. “He’s the guy now. My time has passed.”
Jones defeated Jackson by fourth-round submission at UFC 135 last September. Jackson said that if he had beaten Jones, he would have asked to defend his belt in Japan and then retire.
Win or lose against Bader, the UFC has a few matchups that would still pique Jackson’s interest. Rematches against Rashad Evans, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Dan Henderson stand out.
Photo by Sam Morris
Will Anthony Pettis ever earn back his once-promised title shot?
If Pettis gets past heavy underdog Joe Lauzon in Japan, he’s well on his way to reclaiming the top-contender status he won by becoming the WEC lightweight champion.
A victory against Lauzon and perhaps one more opponent in the coming months would give “Showtime” a three-fight winning streak. Watch out Edgar or Henderson or whoever else may hold the lightweight belt near the end of 2012.
Pettis has already beaten Henderson by unanimous decision. That’s how he captured the WEC crown in the promotion’s final event.
At 25-years old, Pettis is one of the UFC’s best bets as far as marketing the next lightweight star. The Milwaukee native’s striking is as flashy as anyone’s in the UFC, giving his fights a distinct what-will-happen-next feel for viewers.
Photo by Sam Morris
Is Hatsu Hioki the next challenger for Jose Aldo?
There’s often debate over whether Anderson Silva or Georges St. Pierre have cleared out their respective divisions during their long title reigns.
The UFC, however, has plenty of viable options for St. Pierre at welterweight and even a few for Silva at middleweight. Featherweight is where the promotion is most desperate.
Aldo has wrecked six opponents during his three-year championship reign, making everyone wonder who’s next. Enter Hioki.
If Hioki can defeat Bart Palaszewski Saturday, he will have won five in a row. Although only two of them have come in the UFC, the 28-year old Hioki is the most seasoned opponent left for Aldo. Hioki is a 10-year veteran of the sport and has gone 12-1-1 since 2008.