The UFC’s return to the Land of the Rising Sun this Saturday will feature a stacked six-fight main card, headlined by Wanderlei Silva’s Japanese homecoming against Brian Stann in a light heavyweight special attraction.
Airing live on Fuel TV, the event also features a heavyweight clash between Mark Hunt and Stefan Struve, the lightweight return of Diego Sanchez against Japanese legend Takanori Gomi, a middleweight showdown pitting Hector Lombard against Yushin Okami, a featherweight tilt with Mizuto Hirota debuting vs. Rani Yahya, plus a welterweight scrap as Siyar Bahadurzada seeks another knockout in his sophomore UFC outing against Dong Hyun Kim.
With no shortage of star power and intriguing matchups, the UFC’s return to the Saitama Super Arena has all the potential to be one of the year’s most memorable cards.
Here’s a closer look:
Main Card (Fuel TV):
Wanderlei Silva (34-12-1) vs. Brian Stann (12-5)
"The Axe Murderer" competes in Japan for the first time since September 2006 as he squares off with the US military hero Stann.
Silva, 36, a product of the original Brazilian Chute Boxe Academy, has endured a rocky stretch since his tenure with the Pride Fighting Championships, where he was considered the sport’s most fearsome competitor.
During his heyday, Silva defeated Dan Henderson, Kazushi Sakuraba, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Ricardo Arona. Since returning to the UFC in 2007, Silva has amassed a 3-5 campaign, beating Keith Jardine, Michael Bisping and Cung Le, while losing fights to Chuck Liddell, Jackson, Rich Franklin (twice) and Chris Leben.
Initially expected to battle Vitor Belfort after they served as coaches on "The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil," Silva instead took on Franklin in a rematch at UFC 147 last June, dropping a competitive five-round decision.
Renowned for a style synonymous with aggression and violence, Silva has fought with more technique since reuniting with former coach Rafael Cordeiro in the US.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, Silva typically fights with reckless abandon, winging wild hooks in pursuit of a knockout.
Silva’s chin has come under scrutiny over the years after a number of knockout losses, but the Brazilian legend insists he still has some fight left in him.
Stann, 32, a former captain in the US Marine Corps, was awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for valor in combat, after guiding his team of 42 Marines to survival in a near-death situation during Operation Matador in Iraq.
As a competitive fighter, Stann was a former WEC light heavyweight champion who found his niche after joining the UFC in 2009.
Stann, who looks to rebound from losses to Chael Sonnen and Michael Bisping in two of his past three fights, has notched knockout wins over Leben, Jorge Santiago and Alessio Sakara.
A member of Greg Jackson’s New Mexico-based camp, "The All-American" is a heavy power puncher with underrated submission skills.
If this fight occurred five years ago, Silva would have to be considered the heavy favorite. In 2013, however, Silva’s careless style, fading chin and slower reflexes could be detrimental to his success.
With Silva likely to oblige in a customary brawl, Stann could add another knockout victim to his resume as he catches Silva charging in, starching the former Pride king with a heavy right hand to spoil his long awaited Japanese return.
Verdict: Stann via KO, Round 1
Mark Hunt (8-7) vs. Stefan Struve (29-5)
In heavyweight action, the New Zealander Hunt looks to continue his unlikely career resurgence with a fourth consecutive win against the rising Dutch contender Struve.
Hunt, 38, has fought all but three of his professional bouts in Japan. The "Super Samoan" powerhouse defeated Silva and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic in Pride before his career took a turn for the worse in 2006.
Despite a six-fight losing streak, Hunt reinvented himself in the UFC, racking up a trifecta of victories over Chris Tuchscherer, Ben Rothwell and Cheick Kongo.
Most pundits had already written Hunt off by this point of his career, but the former K-1 World Grand Prix champion has returned to his winning ways, blitzing opponents with thunderous power shots.
Armed with a great chin and devastating knockout power, Hunt’s recurrent weakness throughout his career has been his inability to fend off submission attempts.
Struve, 25, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, has finished his last four adversaries within two rounds, including Pat Barry, Dave Herman, Lavar Johnson and Stipe Miocic.
The 7-foot "Skyscraper" made his UFC debut in February 2009, improving considerably over the years as he’s added mass to his lanky frame.
Struve’s chin was often criticized after knockout losses to Junior dos Santos, Roy Nelson and Travis Browne, but the Bob Schreiber-trained youngster has addressed holes in his defense, which should make him a prominent threat in the division.
In addition to being a technical striker, Struve is a savvy ground player with 16 submission victories to his credit.
Although Struve is a capable striker, he would be well-advised to avoid trading shots with the slugger Hunt.
The Dutchman should waste little time seizing an opening to take Hunt down before exposing his weak submission defense.
Verdict: Struve via Submission, Round 1
Takanori Gomi (34-8) vs. Diego Sanchez (25-5)
In a scintillating scrap with all the makings of a "Fight of the Night" classic, the former Pride lightweight champion Gomi battles "The Ultimate Fighter 1" winner Sanchez.
The 34-year-old Gomi is coming off back-to-back wins over Eiji Mitsuoka and Mac Danzig.
"The Fireball Kid" has been inconsistent since his dominant run 10 years ago, but he still possesses legitimate knockout power.
The southpaw Gomi has also spent some time at San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy to familiarize himself with the American style.
One of the most successful combatants to come out of Japan, Gomi could reinsert himself into the lightweight title landscape with another victory on Saturday night.
The 31-year-old Sanchez returns to 155 pounds after an up-and-down stretch at welterweight that saw him defeat Paulo Thiago and Martin Kampmann, while suffering setbacks against Jake Ellenberger and John Hathaway.
A native of New Mexico, Sanchez left the lightweight division after a one-sided beatdown at the hands of B.J. Penn in December 2009.
With a frame better suited for the division, the Jackson’s MMA pupil hopes to make another run for the title.
The BJJ brown belt and Gaidojutsu black belt is an explosive fighter with a wild style. In addition to being dangerous everywhere, Sanchez pushes a frantic pace and often capitalizes on his exceptional cardio.
Sanchez also is armed with a granite chin, so he should be able to absorb some punishment if he takes Gomi into deep waters.
With more tools at his disposal and a significantly bigger gas tank, Sanchez will likely put Gomi through the ringer to emerge triumphant after three action-packed rounds.
Verdict: Sanchez via Decision
Hector Lombard (32-3-1) vs. Yushin Okami (29-7)
Top middleweight contenders Lombard and Okami look to build on impressive wins this past December as they face off in a pivotal bout.
The 35-year-old Lombard failed to impress in his July 2012 UFC debut, dropping a split decision to Tim Boetsch. The Cuban southpaw rebounded with a first-round knockout of BJJ ace Rousimar Palhares.
A longtime Bellator middleweight titleholder, Lombard has all the credentials to be a force in the Octagon. A 4th dan black belt judoka and BJJ black belt, the American Top Team product exhibits patient striking as he anticipates openings to bulldoze foes with a cavalcade of bombs. Lombard may seem overly passive at times, but he possesses the power to end a fight with a single punch.
The 31-year-old Okami is hoping for a better performance in his native Japan than we saw the last time around as he was stunned in the third round of his fight with Boetsch.
The two-time middleweight title challenger bounced back with impressive wins over Buddy Roberts and Alan Belcher.
A judo black belt, the Japanese southpaw works behind a potent jab and a strong wrestling base.
Okami will likely have a difficult time putting Lombard on his back as the Cuban’s strength could be overwhelming. However, Okami could shock observers with his underrated boxing.
Look for the Japanese veteran to take advantage of Lombard’s unassertive style, peppering away with a stiff jab and implementing intelligent movement to avoid big counters. If Okami can effectively defend during Lombard’s brief spurts of offense, the decision should be his.
Verdict: Okami via Decision
Mizuto Hirota (14-5-1) vs. Rani Yahya (17-7)
The former Cage Force, DEEP and Sengoku lightweight champion Hirota makes his promotional debut against the submission magician Yahya in a 145-pound affair.
Hirota, 31, was last seen dropping a contentious decision to Pat Healy on a Strikeforce card last July.
The well-rounded Japanese veteran comes into this featherweight bout with notable wins over the likes of Ryan Schultz, Mitsuhiro Ishida, Satoru Kitaoka and Katsunori Kikuno at lightweight.
Yahya, 28, a 2nd degree BJJ black belt and former ADCC submission grappling world champion, submitted Josh Grispi last August.
The Constrictor Team product has competed at both bantamweight and featherweight, but recent success at 145 pounds could transform him into a title contender.
Yahya’s striking is still largely rudimentary, but his submission game is as dangerous as ever. Hirota has only been finished once in his career, a first-round submission against Shinya Aoki in December 2009.
While Yahya will have a significant advantage on the mat, Hirota is a far more dangerous striker who should find success by battering the Brazilian with combinations over the course of 15 minutes.
Verdict: Hirota via Decision
Siyar Bahadurzada (21-4-1) vs. Dong Hyun Kim (16-2-1)
An intriguing welterweight pairing will kick off the main card festivities as the Afghan knockout artist Bahadurzada faces the South Korean judo sensation Kim.
The 28-year-old Bahadurzada made a successful UFC debut last April, knocking Paulo Thiago out cold in under a minute.
The former Golden Glory representative now trains with the Blackzilians in Florida, where he should be training closely with submission guru Mario Sperry in hopes of addressing the biggest weakness in his repertoire.
Throughout his run abroad, the former Shooto middleweight champion and Glory tournament winner has defeated Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, John Alessio and Tommy Depret.
The 31-year-old Kim returned to the win column last November, notching a decision over Thiago in China.
In his prior appearance, Kim lost to Demian Maia after suffering a muscle spasm in the first round. His only other blemish was a flying knee knockout at the hands of Carlos Condit in July 2011.
A 4th dan black belt in judo, the South Korean southpaw owns key wins over Matt Brown, T.J. Grant, Amir Sadollah, Nate Diaz and Sean Pierson.
This compelling clash of styles will come down to execution. Bahadurzada would like nothing more than to keep the fight upright, while Kim has excelled by grinding out opponents on the ground.
Kim’s judo pedigree is nothing to scoff at and his additional experience in the Octagon should come in handy. Kim will avoid trading and he’ll dominate the positional exchanges en route to a decision victory.