UFC Fight Night 52 Recap: Saitama Super Arena Still Magic

For the first time in nearly two years, MMA fans had the opportunity to stay up all night watching fights from Japan. The card looked like it was going to be fun on paper, and in practice it was even better. Personally, I had no intention of staying up until 6am watching fights and foregoing sleep, but with few exceptions the fights were simply too entertaining for me to stop watching. That’s the sign of some quality MMA. It helped that the event was held in the legendary Saitama Super Arena, which has been host to some of the greatest fights in MMA history throughout the year. Even without all of the pomp that PRIDE (and even DREAM) brought to the arena in their heyday, the building still holds a special charm to MMA fans and fighters. In the wee hours of Saturday morning, the venue was the site of yet another memorable card, and one which may have produced 2014’s fight of the year when all is said and done. The main event was a highly anticipated heavyweight bout between Mark Hunt (10-8-1) and Roy Nelson (20-10). Many had tapped this as a potential fight of the year, and while it didn’t turn out that good (although a fight on the preliminary card took it’s place), it was a fun fight with a fantastic finish. Despite some overblown talks of weight issues leading up to the fight, Hunt looked in the same shape that he always does and certainly looked more prepared than Nelson, who was visibly tired in the second round. Lost in all the talk about Hunt’s weight was the fact that Nelson tipped the scales at 260 — one of his higher weights since entering the UFC — and he looked sluggish as a result. Nelson couldn’t connect solidly with his overhand right against a seasoned striker like Hunt, and his wrestling was largely ineffective, as Hunt scrambled up quickly the one time Nelson was able to get a takedown. As ‘Big Country’ began to tire, Hunt started to pick up on his nuances in the striking game. Using his jab to push Nelson back towards the cage, Hunt anticipated that his foe would duck, something he did right into a right uppercut which planted Nelson and ended the fight. It was another impressive outing for Hunt against a top fighter, and he’s now a shocking 5-2-1 in the UFC.

The UFC will probably have Hunt headline another card. However, with the UFC’s next trip to Australia already scheduled for November, he could rest until the new year and then be put on a card somewhere in Asia or the South Pacific. As far as an opponent, I suggested last week that Andrei Arlovski face the winner of this bout, and I stick by that suggestion. With the sorry state of the heavyweight division, it could even be a title eliminator. The co-main event was not quite as enjoyable for the local fans, as Myles Jury (15-0) continues to look impressive and scored the first ever TKO victory over Japanese legend Takanori Gomi (35-10, 1 NC). Fury needed just 92 seconds to end Gomi’s night. While everyone expected this to be a clear mismatch heading into the bout, very few expected it to end quite so quickly, and certainly not in that fashion. Jury has been criticized in the past for playing it safe in his fights, so it was nice to see him a bit more active and aggressive against a heavy hitter in Gomi. This should be the last time the former PRIDE champion is in a relevant bout, but he remains an entertaining fighter and can have some good performances if matched correctly moving forward. As for Jury, it’s time for a step up in competition, and while many have suggested a bout with Rafael dos Anjos, I would prefer to see a bout with Bobby Green.

In a fight that ended up better than most expected Yoshihiro Akiyama (14-5, 2 NC) returned to MMA for the first time in nearly three years and defeated Amir Sadollah (6-5) by unanimous decision. Sadollah was the more varied striker, but Akiyama had a clear power advantage on the feet. In fact, while Akiyama held top position for a good portion of each round, he only scored one takedown in the fight, a beautiful judo trip in the first stanza. Aside from that, Akiyama got the fight to the ground by rocking Sadollah with hard, straight punches. The Sexy One looked to have improved his cardio and worked on his hand speed (not to mention his tan) since his last UFC appearance, and put on his best performance in the Octagon. He called out recently retired light heavyweight Wanderlei Silva following the fight, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him take on another fun, aging fighter in Cung Le despite the difference in weight class. The dud of the night was certainly the atrocious women’s bout between Miesha Tate (15-5) and Rin Nakai (16-1-1). Tate won a clear decision, but talks of her improved striking were vastly overstated. The former title challenger looked slow and awkward as she attempted to put combinations together. Luckily Nakai’s striking was completely non-existent so Tate was the more effective fighter standing. Nakai was able to drag the fight down on a couple of occasions, but Tate was able to avoid the takedowns for the most part as we plodded along to a 15-minute decision that just about put me to sleep. Honestly, Tate seems to be on a severe decline, and there’s no way she gets back in title contention with performances like this. She asked for a rematch with Cat Zingano following the fight, but I think a rematch with Sarah Kaufman would be more appropriate, as they represent some of the old guard of women’s 135ers. In the contentious decision of the night, Kiichi Kunimoto (18-5-2, 1 NC) picked up a split decision over Richard Walsh (8-2). I’m not convinced that Walsh won the fight, but at the very least he deserved a draw. A clear 10-8 first round saw the Aussie hurt Kunimoto badly on multiple occasions. Kunimoto clearly took the third round, so it came down to the scoring of a close second round. I’ll admit that I was dozing off a bit when the pace slowed in the second, but in my eyes that round could have gone either way. Most of the round was spent in the clinch, but Kunimoto landed some solid combinations to get in tight which barely edged it out in my eyes. It’s unfortunate that judges in MMA are so hesitant about scoring 10-8 rounds, as this fight was the perfect case of each round not being equal. Staying geographically close, perhaps Walsh’s coach from TUF Nations Kyle Noke would like to exact some measure of revenge against Kunimoto. Kyoji HoriguchiKicking off the main card, Kyoji Horiguchi (14-1) cemented himself as perhaps the best Japanese fighter in MMA today. There were already quite a few people on Horiguchi’s bandwagon prior to this fight, but his vicious TKO victory was a signal for everyone to jump on board. After hurting Jon de los Reyes (7-4) with a body kick in the opening seconds, Horiguchi nailed him with a left hook later in the first round that started the beginning of the end. Some contended that de los Reyes had the power advantage heading into this bout, but Horiguchi may be the hardest hitter at flyweight outside of John Dodson and John Lineker. A surefire future title contender, I’d like to see Horiguchi face former title challenger John Moraga in his next bout, saving the can’t-miss fight with John Lineker for when both are a little more entrenched in the title picture. Normally I just cover the main card in these recaps, but there’s no way to ignore two of the best fights of the year from this undercard. At the very top of my list for MMA bouts in 2014 was the bantamweight bout between Kyung Ho Kang (13-7, 1 NC) and Michinori Tanaka (10-1). Everyone expected this fight to be good, close, and fun to watch, but it blew those expectations out of the water. The transitions between these two were absolutely insane, and they put together some exciting exchanges on the feet as well. Kang came out with the split decision victory, but the stock of both men went through the roof with this fight, and it would be foolish to miss their next bouts. Starting off the entire card was a fantastic featherweight scrap between Maximo Blanco (11-6-1, 1 NC) and Daniel Hooker (11-5). Hooker should be commended for his cardio, constant pressure and, most of all, his chin in this bout. The real story was the striking of Blanco however. The Venezuelan landed strikes at will on the hard-charging New Zealander, mixing in hooks uppercut and anything else he decided to throw on Hooker. Almost looking like the third Diaz brother out there, Hooker ate everything that Blanco threw at him and eventually turned the tide of the bout. Unfortunately, he had clearly dropped the first two rounds, so simply winning the third was not enough to take the fight, but it was another case where both men made an excellent account of themselves. Next up for the UFC is the highly anticipated UFC 178, which will be live on pay-per-view. Odds have already been released for the main card of the event, and the remaining bouts will be released early in the week. That will be on Saturday night, but Friday will be a busy day for MMA fans as well, with Bellator, Titan FC and Legacy FC all putting on cards at the same time. Keep an eye out for betting lines on all of those cards as well, and MMAOddsBreaker.com will have analysis of each card.

Written by Brad Taschuk

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