The Ultimate Fighting Championship is bringing its brand of mixed-martial arts back to Japan with not only one of the most highly anticipated heavyweight bouts in recent memory, but also what may be among the most important UFC debuts by a Japanese fighter in some time.
UFC Fight Night Japan 2014 is scheduled for Sept. 20 at Saitama Super Arena. The headline match will be a showdown between heavyweights Mark Hunt and Roy Nelson.
“This is actually a fight most fans have wanted for the last couple of years,” Nelson told The Japan Times Thursday afternoon. “I’d say probably the biggest heavyweight fight in UFC history, from just what fans actually want.”
Hunt’s last fight was Dec. 7, when he fought to a draw against Antonio Silva in a bout that’s already gone down as the stuff of legend. “He put on the best heavyweight fight I have ever seen in any MMA organization ever when he fought down in Australia against ‘Bigfoot Silva’,” UFC president Dana White said. “One of the greatest fights I’ve ever seen in my life.”
That fight was the main event of the card in Brisbane, Australia, and Hunt is happy to be the main attraction once again.
“It’s actually a bit of an honor for me to be able to headline here in Japan,” Hunt said. “I thank UFC for giving me the top billing again. Privileged and honored to fight here in Japan. It’s like my second home.”
Also scheduled to compete is Rin Nakai, a 27-year-old Japanese fighter who will be making her UFC debut while also participating in the first UFC fight in Asia to feature female athletes.
“UFC is uncharted territory for me,” Nakai said. “So my feeling is that I’m a newcomer and I’d like to stick to the basics. I’d like to fight with that in mind.”
Nakai is 16-0-1 as an MMA fighter, but is taking a step up to compete in UFC.
“A lot of people have come from a lot of different shows around the world,” White said. “You’re first fight in UFC is always … people get very nervous, no matter how big the event they’ve been in before that, and she’s coming into a big fight with a tough well-rounded veteran in Miesha Tate.”
Tate is a former Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight champion and 2008 FILA Grappling World championships silver medalist. She’s 14-5 in her MMA career and the first woman to win two UFC “Fight of the Night” awards.
Tate is a formidable opponent, but there’s no understating the opportunity that lies in front of Nakai. It’s a chance so great White agreed when someone asked if Nakai might be one of the most important Japanese fighters in the world right now.
“I didn’t really think about that way until you said it, but it’s true,” he said. “Because if she wins this fight, she’s in line for a fight with Ronda Rousey (the current UFC Women’s Bantamweight champion), which is huge. Massive.”
Hunt is no stranger to Japan. The New Zealander, known as the “Super Samoan,” is formerly of Japan-based MMA circuit PRIDE and has also fought K-1 matches in Japan.
He expects the bout against the 182-cm, 118-kg Nelson in September to live up to expectations MMA fans have when two heavyweight clash.
“I think the aspect of the smaller guys is they’re more technical and you see a lot technique-wise, ground and standing,” the 178-cm, 119-kg Hunt said. “With the heavy guys, there’s not much technique. The fight could end anytime with a knockout. People like to see people get knocked out. This is the whole business, and that’s why the heavyweights get the top billing, because people want to see people fly out the ring, or the octagon.”
A number of Japanese fighters, including Takanori Gomi, Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, and Yoshihiro “Sexyama” Akiyama are expected to take part. White would also like to have a number of fighters come over from the U.S. to compete.
As of right now, the actual card, including matchups, is still undecided.
“I would like to be in title fights in the future, so I want to face a quality opponent,” Gomi said. “I’d like to fight against a quality opponent and I’d like put on an exciting fight for Japanese fans.”
Nelson thinks Japanese fighters put on a good show for their fans, and says he and Hunt have that same fire.
“What I’ve seen is that most Japanese fighters have more of that warrior spirit versus just being an athlete,” Nelson said. “An athlete is just trying to go and win for 15 minutes or 25 minutes, whatever. While a warrior is like, ‘If there was no cage, if there was no ring if there was no anything, I’m going to win this fight. My life depends on it.’
“That’s why I respect Mark, because Mark is that type of fighter. I’m that type of fighter. That’s what makes exciting fights. Fighters that fight.”