Fantasy Fights

Intelligent, unique MMA analysis

UFC 144 Preview: Preliminary Fights

Right now, it looks like UFC 144 from Saitama Super Arena in Japan is slated to feature one preliminary fight on Facebook, four preliminary fights on FX, and an unprecedented seven main card fights on a four-hour pay-per-view. I don’t know if the four-hour pay-per-view broadcast is a one-time thing, or a sign of things to come. In this post, I’ll tackle previews for the five preliminary fights.

Before I get into it, though, do yourself a favor this week and read Fight Opinion. No, I haven’t written anything for the website, but Zach Arnold is pretty much the go-to guy for anything and everything about the business of Japanese MMA. Since Japan is a very unique market for mixed martial arts, it can be difficult to understand why their wants and needs would be so different from other places, but reading Zach’s work will go a long way towards clarifying things.

145 lbs: Issei Tamura vs. Tie Quan Zhang

If you haven’t been the kind of person to religiously watch every fight the UFC broadcasts on Facebook, I’m not sure talking about this fight would convince you to take up the practice. Tie Quan Zhang is a fighter whose identity seems tied up in one move: the guillotine choke. As I’ve written before, executing the guillotine choke isn’t really an indicator of overall fighting ability. It’s not something that’s necessarily the result of good jiu-jitsu; it’s a specific move that can be attempted from a standing position. And if Zhang doesn’t get his choke, he seems to wither, as he isn’t a particularly good striker, and in his last fight, was completely controlled on the ground by Darren Elkins.

I don’t know much about Krazy Bee product Issei Tamura, but from limited YouTube scouting, he seems to be a wrestler himself, one whose boxing is somewhat rudimentary and whose ground game stems almost completely from his wrestling knowledge. So Tamura appears to be one-dimensional, but let me put things this way. If I’m given the choice between two one-dimensional fighters, with one being a wrestler and the other being somebody really good at a guillotine choke, I’ll choose the wrestler.


Fortunately, SILVA agrees, giving the 6-2 Tamura the nod over the 15-2 Zhang. Even though Tamura is just 6-2 as a professional, and actually lost his last fight, he has a decent SILVA score because all eight of his fights were against experienced opponents. Meanwhile, Zhang does have a win over Pablo Garza – by guillotine choke – but a loss to Danny Downes is really an indicator that he’s not going to survive in the UFC long-term. When the guillotine choke is all you have, I’ll put your chances of winning a UFC fight at less than 50-50 against anybody. That goes for Cody McKenzie as well, by the way.

135 lbs: Chris Cariaso vs. Takeya Mizugaki

I’m not sure what to make of Chris Cariaso. This is a fighter who is 2-1 in the UFC. He skated by Will Campuzano, but then arguably out-struck Michael McDonald, losing a split decision. Cariaso followed that with a split decision win against Vaughan Lee, in a fight where Cariaso landed more significant strikes, but Lee landed more total strikes and more takedowns. We hear about sports teams playing to the level of their competition, but maybe Chris Cariaso fights to the level of his competition?

If that’s the case, we might be seeing another split decision in this fight, and Takeya Mizugaki has been on the winning end of two of those: against Reuben Duran and Jeff Curran. In fact, I’ve often said that Mizugaki, for as highly as he’s ranked, is probably the most vulnerable bantamweight on the UFC roster, in the sense that he’s maintaining his highly-ranked status by the skin of his teeth. If two judges had something different to eat for breakfast in two past Mizugaki fights, we could be talking about a guy who is 2-6 in his last eight fights. Mizugaki scored a nice TKO of Cole Escovedo in his last fight, but given Escovedo’s subsequent performance against Alex Caceres, Mizugaki’s win doesn’t look quite as impressive in hindsight.


SILVA sees a close fight, which is very appropriate for these guys. I anticipate a striking battle, in which both fighters enjoy a moderate level of success. The question is: are we going to get the Chris Cariaso who barely got by Will Campuzano, or the Chris Cariaso who arguably should have been awarded a decision victory against Michael McDonald? If it’s the latter, then we’re going to see Cariaso score the upset of the overrated Mizugaki.

185 lbs: Steve Cantwell vs. Riki Fukuda

It was about 12 months ago that Riki Fukuda made his UFC debut, at UFC 127 against Nick Ring in Australia. It was a pretty competitive fight, but Fukuda appeared to get more effective as the fight went on, particularly with his wrestling. However, the judges awarded Ring with the decision victory. Fukuda has been on the sidelines for a long time with what has to be a bitter taste in his mouth, and on Saturday, he’ll finally get the opportunity to remove that taste when he fights Steve Cantwell.

Cantwell is in a unique position because he’s on a four-fight losing streak. It’s a rarity for a UFC fighter to lose four fights in a row, because he’s usually released from the promotion after that, but Cantwell has been through a lot of adversity outside the cage, so the UFC is giving him one more chance. Cantwell is a pretty active striker, one with a TKO win over Brian Stann to boast, and he has some submission skills as well, having won three fights by armbar and one by rear-naked choke. The big problem with Cantwell is that his striking defense is just plain porous. In his decision loss to Cyrille Diabate, an excellent Muay Thai fighter, Cantwell looked not unlike a pinata.


Cantwell is hard to trust at this point. He can produce some offense, which is good, but again, his defense is just not worthy of the UFC. At this point, Fukuda is the better striker, and the better wrestler, and he’s a good bet to win this fight.

135 lbs: Vaughan Lee vs. Norifumi Yamamoto

Perhaps no fighter better represents a microcosm of the dimished state of Japanese MMA than Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto. Back in November, when Yamamoto was to face Darren Uyenoyama on the preliminary fights of the UFC’s debut show on Fox, I speculated that the UFC was bringing in Uyenoyama to lose to Yamamoto, and set up a bigger fight for what became UFC 144 in Japan. Instead, it was Uyenoyama who got Yamamoto to the ground repeatedly and dominated en route to a clear decision victory. It wasn’t all that long ago that fans were clamoring to see Yamamoto face Urijah Faber. Now, Yamamoto, a fighter who was a legitimate superstar in Japanese MMA, is a man struggling on the fringes of the UFC.

Will he manage to beat Vaughan Lee? Lee had a decent showing in his UFC debut against Chris Cariaso, showing some ability in all phases of the MMA game, but no exceptional ability in any one aspect. He ended up losing by split decision, but his record shows that whenever he takes on an opponent who is even above-average, he loses. Victory Score has his top two wins being over a 6-5 Antanas Jazbutis and a 7-6 Mark Chen.


The prudent thing to do is to pick the fighter who actually has some success against good opponents over the fighter who has no such success. With that said, I can’t help but think that even if “Kid” wins this fight, it’s likely to be in very uninspiring fashion. A knockout is possible, but with his only exciting recent win being a KO of the unheralded Federico Lopez, it’s just difficult for me to envision a return to the old days for Yamamoto.

155 lbs: Takanori Gomi vs. Eiji Mitsuoka

I just mentioned “Kid” Yamamoto as a representation of the tattered state of Japanese MMA, but I could have easily said that about Takanori Gomi as well. The former PRIDE lightweight champion has been struggling to win fights since 2006, to be honest. Since then, Gomi lost to Marcus Aurelio, skated by him in the rematch, lost to Nick Diaz before that result was overturned, and lost to Sergey Golyaev, Satoru Kitaoka, Kenny Florian, Clay Guida, and Nate Diaz. Gomi still has knockout power, but at this very late stage of his career, that’s probably all he has.

His opponent will be Eiji Mitsuoka, a fighter who has enjoyed a moderate amount of success in his career. Mitsuoka has defeated guys like Joachim Hansen, Rodrigo Damm, and Clay French, among others. Those names likely aren’t recognizable to many fans, but they’re all tough, veteran fighters, and nice names for Mitsuoka to have defeated. Mitsuoka likes to work on the ground, and his fights don’t feature a whole lot of good striking – in three fights tracked by Fight Metric, he’s landed just 31 significant strikes in 34 minutes, while his opponents have landed just 22. Mitsuoka is likely to try to take Gomi to the ground in this one.


This prediction surprises me, but doesn’t shock me. Call me a PRIDE fanboy if you want, but I can’t go along with it. Gomi isn’t the easiest fighter to take down, and even in his relatively shot state, if this fight is at striking distance for any length of time, Mitsuoka is in danger of being knocked out.


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