Click below for the UFC 144 Prelim Card report
SAITAMA, February 26 - The UFC’s first event in Japan since 2000 started strong, with a loud fan base soundly in place for the event, which began at 9:30 am local time. But if there’s anything that can wake up a crowd, it’s a massive KO from a hometown hero, and from the first fight on, the Saitama Super Arena was in full-on MMA mode. While they politely applauded every win, the cheers for their countrymen were deafening, as Japan eventually went 3-3 in the first five fights (one being a bout between two Japanese fighters).
Takanori Gomi vs. Eiji Mitsuoka
In the “headlining” bout of the UFC 144 prelims, two Japanese fighters and PRIDE vets met inside the Octagon, with Takanori Gomi ruining the UFC debut of Eiji Mitsuoka via 2nd round TKO.
Though Mitsuoka was heralded as a submission expert, the lightweight appeared to pack power in his hands, too. Gomi started in the center of the cage with his hands down, but one touch from Mitsuoka was all it took to inspire Gomi to keep his hands up. Mitsuoka found a home for his right straight and left hook, then went for a takedown that Gomi avoided. Gomi landed some solid kicks and goaded Mitsuoka forward with some flapping jabs reminiscent of the Diaz brothers, both of whom he has fought.
After scoring with a kick, “The Fireball Kid” came in wild, and Mitsuoka caught him flush with a right, dropping Gomi. Mitsuoka took his opponent’s back high up and locked him in a mounted triangle choke from behind. Though Gomi looked like he was about to tap, he waited out the round and survived.
The wounded Gomi came alive in the second, as his counters connected regularly and he became much more aggressive with his striking. A wild slugfest left Mitsuoka backpedaling, and uppercuts and knees from the clinch seemed to overwhelm the UFC newcomer. Mitsuoka desperately dove for a leg and tried to drag Gomi to the ground, but Gomi used the cage to stay in control and chipped away at his opponent with body shots. Finally, the former PRIDE champion spun into top position and hammerfisted away at Mitsuoka, who could do little more than curl up as the ref called the fight at 2:21 of the second round.
Gomi’s latest win leaves the legend with a 33-8 (1 NC) record; Mitsuoka departs 18-8-2.
Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto vs. Vaughan Lee
Birmingham, England’s Vaughan “Love” Lee got his first Octagon win against one of his heroes, the hugely popular Dream, K-1 and Shooto vet Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto.
Lee staked out the center of the Octagon to begin, as Yamamoto circled. Though each one tested his range, there was no clear advantage between the two bantamweights. But that quiet two-minute feeling-out process paid off for the fans as Yamamoto connected with a punch that rocked Lee. Sensing that his opponent was hurt, Yamamoto swarmed, unleashing lefts, rights and knees as the crowd screamed and Lee covered up against the cage.
Having weathered the onslaught, Lee came out more confidently, charging forward with his own combos. A right hand clipped Yamamoto, and as Lee moved forward to capitalize, the wrestler in Yamamoto took over. Despite being jarred, Yamamoto instinctively and easily got the takedown. From the bottom, Lee quickly worked for a triangle choke, delivered elbows to Yamamoto’s head, then locked in an armbar and got the tap 4:29 in.
The win – Lee’s seventh by submission – improves the Brit’s record to 12-7-1; Yamamoto slips to 18-6 (1 NC). Watch Lee's post-fight interview
Riki Fukuda vs. Steve Cantwell
A US vs. Asia middleweight matchup between a striker and a wrestler sounds like a recipe for three rounds of lay and pray, but when the American in the formula is the striker and the Asian fighter the grappler, things can look mighty different. Such was the case as Riki Fukuda took on Steve “The Robot” Cantwell in a three-round war that featured the kind of non-stop action usually seen between bantamweights. Fukuda brought the night to 2-1 for the Japanese fighters by outstriking and grappling the American to a unanimous decision win.
In the wild first round, Fukuda immediately caught a Cantwell kick and bulled him to the mat. Fukuda came on hard, relentless with blows to the body, then elbows and finally hammerfists to the face, the crowd reacting happily to each connect. Cantwell alternated between submission attempts and survival mode, and eventually Fukuda let him up and pushed Cantwell against the cage briefly before returning to the center of the cage. From there it was a back-and-forth stand-up match, with Fukuda moving forward but Cantwell connecting with strikes of his own, “The Robot” closing the round with a loud kick.
The second round started with an emphasis downstairs, as both men scored with huge leg kicks. Fukuda got a single-leg that landed him squarely in a guillotine, with one leg caught in Cantwell’s guard. Cantwell rolled to shore up the choke, but apparently decided it wasn’t going to work and stood up. From there, Fukuda took the offensive on the feet, and though both landed throughout the round, Fukuda pushed the action. Twice Fukuda stunned Cantwell into dropping his hands, but the Las Vegan's inhuman chin let him weather the storm despite an increasingly swollen, bloodied face. As Cantwell moved forward despite the punishment, the crowd – nearing 20,000 – cheered loudly mid-round.
The combatants' power began to fade in the third, but their pace didn’t, with more of the same from both and an impressive head kick from Cantwell. Fukuda used the fence to drive the exhausted Cantwell to the mat, where again a struggle for an armbar ensued. Fukuda briefly took Cantwell’s back in the scramble, but both men were back on their feet soon after. With about 90 seconds left, Cantwell stood with his arms down, and Fukuda came forward with hooks and uppercuts. For the last 40 seconds, the crowd screamed as Fukuda unloaded punches, body blows and kicks as the former WEC light heavyweight champion struggled to muster up any sort of offense (or, at times, defense) .
Judges scored the bout 29-28 and 30-27 twice for Fukuda (one judge gave the first round to Cantwell). The loss was Cantwell’s fifth in a row, sending him to a 7-6 record; Fukuda is lifted to 18-5. Hear why Fukuda felt nervous going into the fight
Takeya Mizugaki vs. Chris Cariaso
The television portion of the preliminary card opened with what’s usually a surefire recipe for fireworks – two bantamweight strikers. Kanagawa, Japan’s Takeya Mizugaki faced fellow WEC vet Chris Cariaso, and while Cariaso scored few Japanese fans with the nickname “Kamikaze” and his stifling ground defense, he did enough to please the judges, who gave him a 29-28 unanimous decision win.
Mizugaki set the pace to open, as the two tested one another with an assortment of kicks and jabs. Cariaso fired off a few successful strikes from the clinch, countered well when Mizugaki whiffed, and shook off a takedown attempt. More confident with the reach differential, the shorter Cariaso then chased Mizugaki backward until – bulled against the fence – Mizugaki scored from the inside with a huge trip. With Mizugaki positioned low in his guard, Cariaso rolled into a convincing armbar, but Mizuagki stood up and shook him off. For the rest of the round, the two struggled for position, the biggest action coming as Mizugaki postured up on his knees to land one crowd-pleasing blow from the top.
In the standup to start the second round, Mizugaki got off a few more combos and kicks, while Cariaso scored more on the exits. Another takedown attempt from Mizugaki landed them back on the cage, but this time it was Cariaso working harder for the takedown until Mizugaki got the trip. Again, Mizugaki was able to land a few big shots from inside guard, but was otherwise smothered by the NorCal fighter’s close guard.
Cariaso landed a significant head kick at the beginning of the second, but the next couple of minutes were spent against the cage, mostly with Mizugaki on the outside, both men using kicks and working for takedowns. A second high kick from Cariaso caused him to slip to the mat, and Mizugaki followed into guard for more of the moves we’d seen so far. Mizugaki worked his way into half guard for just a second until going back into guard for essentially the rest of the fight.
The decision – resoundingly booed by the Tokyo crowd – lifts Cariaso to 13-3 as a pro, while Mizugaki falls to 15-7-2. Watch Cariaso's post-fight interview now
Tiequan Zhang vs. Issei Tamura
In the morning’s first bout, Chinese guillotine specialist Tiequan Zhang fought Tokyo’s own Issei Tamura. The Krazy Bee-trained Tamura, a late replacement for the injured Leonard Garcia, turned the one-in-a-million opportunity into a star-making turn, scoring a huge KO win in front of his hometown crowd.
The fight opened with both featherweights swinging wildly -- Tamura connected first, Zhang dropped Tamura, and then Tamura dropped Zhang and followed him to the ground. The Japanese fighter did damage from the top with elbows and hammerfists, but Zhang eventually neutralized him enough that referee Herb Dean called for a standup with two minutes left. Back on the feet, Tamura made an impression with with two counter rights, then worked for a takedown. He succeeded, but landed with his head inside one arm of Zhang’s vicious guillotine. Tamura weathered the risk, popped out and finished the round on top.
Zhang opened round two more cautiously, the China Top Team product throwing several low leg kicks. As he began his flurry, however, Tamura landed a perfect right hand that sent Zhang to the mat for several minutes. Herb Dean called the fight 32 seconds in, and the crowd – nearly at capacity by the end of the first bout -- erupted into thunderous cheers.
The loss drops Zhang to a record of 18-3, with all of his losses coming inside the Octagon; Tamura now stands at 7-2. Hear what Tamura had to say in his post-fight interview