After decisive back-to-back losses against Nate Diaz and Clay Guida, the once dominant Pride champion returns to his native land for a fight that could seal his fate with the UFC.
Gomi, 33, earned his nickname "The Fireball Kid" for a string of spectacular finishes during his prime, including his crushing six-second knockout of Ralph Gracie at Pride Bushido 3, the fastest knockout in the now-defunct organization’s history, as well as finishes over Charles "Krazy Horse" Bennett, Jens Pulver, Luiz Azeredo, Tatsuya Kawajiri and Hayato Sakurai.
From 2004 to 2006, Gomi was indeed the man to beat at 155 pounds. The Japanese southpaw began a decline in recent years, losing numerous fights by submission against the likes of Kenny Florian, Satoru Kitaoka, Marcus Aurelio and Nick Diaz, a result that was later changed to a no-contest due to Diaz testing positive for marijuana.
Gomi’s UFC tenure has not been entirely unsuccessful as he managed to knock out Tyson Griffin in a little more than a minute when they faced off last August. Still, he remains in imminent danger of being cut unless he turns in an impressive performance against his debuting countryman, one that might be reminiscent of his glory years.
Mitsuoka, 36, possesses a wealth of experience with notable wins over Gleison Tibau, Brian Cobb, Joachim Hansen and Rodrigo Damm.
After returning from a two-year hiatus last April, Mitsuoka has rattled off successive wins over Jung Gyeong Lee and Bruno Carvalho. He enters this bout as a short notice replacement for submission ace George Sotiropoulos, who suffered an injury during his training camp.
With 11 submissions in 18 career victories, Mitsuoka is a seasoned grappler with a granite chin. He has rarely been finished as he outworks most opponents and makes the most of his opportunities on the ground.
Most pundits are viewing this fight as an opportunity for Gomi to re-establish himself in the UFC, but Mitsuoka could be a tougher opponent than some are anticipating.
If the UFC first-timer can drag Gomi into deep water, the former Pride ruler will begin to fade and give up valuable positions. By capitalizing on his exhausted countryman, Mitsuoka will seal Gomi’s fate in the UFC, effectively signaling the culmination of Gomi’s journey competing at the highest level.
Verdict: Mitsuoka via submission, Round 3
Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto (18-5) vs. Vaughan Lee (11-7-1)
In a similar position as Gomi with his contract hanging in the balance, the endeared Japanese knockout specialist Yamamoto looks for his first UFC victory against British bantamweight Lee.
The 34-year-old Japanese southpaw nicknamed "Kid" needs no introduction to hardcore mixed martial arts fans as he was widely regarded as the best featherweight in the world during an unbeaten run spanning from 2002 to 2007, which saw the crowd-pleasing showman defeat the likes of Jadamba Narantungalag, Caol Uno, Genki Sudo, Kazuyuki Miyata, Bibiano Fernandes and Rani Yahya.
After taking time off to nurse a knee injury, Yamamoto returned in 2009, dropping surprising decisions against Joe Warren and Masanori Kanehara under the Dream banner.
The weight cut to 135 pounds was a crucial move for Yamamoto, who entered the UFC shortly thereafter. However, he continues to struggle for a win as he tries to bounce back from consecutive losses at the hands of Demetrious Johnson and Darren Uyenoyama, two fighters actually dropping to 125 pounds.
Yamamoto, the same man who recorded a four-second knockout against Miyata while competing for K-1 Hero’s, is a shell of his former self. Or perhaps the competition has simply become that much stiffer.
A rarity among most Japanese fighters, Yamamoto carved his niche as a standout high school and national wrestler, while focusing on his kickboxing and striking arsenal. He remains one of the bantamweight division’s most explosive hitters with firepower in his fists, but he needs to do whatever it takes to ensure he emerges triumphant Saturday night, including reverting to his wrestling roots.
Lee, 29, a product of Birmingham’s Ultimate Training Centre, suffered a split decision setback against Chris Cariaso in his UFC debut this past November.
Lee has proven to be a proficient grappler with a strong base in submissions, which will be his key to victory.
Yamamoto has other plans, however, as he will feed off the Japanese crowd before tearing through Lee with a violent blast of blows.
Verdict: Yamamoto via KO, Round 1
Riki Fukuda (17-5) vs. Steve Cantwell (7-5)
The Grabaka product Fukuda returns to Japan for a middleweight bout with the former WEC champion Cantwell.
Fukuda, 31, lost his UFC debut in highly controversial fashion as he dropped a close decision to Canadian Nick Ring last February. Fukuda suffered a knee injury in a car accident shortly thereafter, forcing him to sit out the majority of 2011.
Owning career wins over Yuya Shirai, Ryuta Sakurai and Murilo "Ninja" Rua, Fukuda is an established middleweight with an entertaining style.
Cantwell, 25, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, has failed to impress in his last five fights, dropping a slew of decisions in both the 205-pound and 185-pound divisions. Most recently, Cantwell was outpointed by Mike Massenzio at UFC 136 in October.
After defeating Brian Stann to win the WEC light heavyweight title in 2008, the two fighters have gone on separate paths. While Stann has established himself with wins over Chris Leben and Jorge Santiago, Cantwell has experienced immense trouble adjusting to his new home.
A pink slip undoubtedly awaits Cantwell unless he delivers his best performance in recent memory. The pressure of competing in Fukuda’s backyard could be too much, however, as the Japanese fighter outworks the American from bell to bell en route to a one-sided decision.
Verdict: Fukuda via decision
Takeya Mizugaki (15-6-2) vs. Chris Cariaso (12-3)
Bantamweights kick off the UFC 144 prelims special on the FX network as Mizugaki seeks his second straight win in his first fight in Japan since 2008.
Mizugaki, 28, finished Cole Escovedo at UFC 135 in September. Since his North American debut at WEC 40, Mizugaki has traded wins and losses and he hopes to finally assemble a streak.
The well-rounded Japanese talent took then-bantamweight champion Miguel Torres to the limit in his WEC debut before amassing quality wins over Jeff Curran and Rani Yahya.
Cariaso, 30, edged Vaughan Lee by split decision in November. The Californian holds wins over Rafael Rebello and Will Campuzano along with losses to Renan Barao and Michael McDonald.
Mizugaki’s record doesn’t do him justice as he’s constantly paired up with elite competition. Cariaso marks a significant step down from some of Mizugaki’s prior conquerors and the fight should sway in his favor.
With the home crowd advantage, Mizugaki will pressure Cariaso over the course of three rounds to take home a hard-fought decision.
Verdict: Mizugaki via decision
Preliminary bout (on Facebook):
Tiequan Zhang (15-2) vs. Issei Tamura (6-2)
In the lone bout airing live on the UFC’s Facebook page, Chinese featherweight Zhang battles Japanese UFC newcomer Tamura.
Zhang, 33, known as the "Mongolian Wolf," is often regarded as China’s best mixed martial arts export. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt is 1-1 since dropping to featherweight, submitting Jason Reinhardt in his UFC debut last February before dropping a decision to Darren Elkins in October.
The China Top Team member is most proficient at submissions, but he also possesses a background in Sanshou.
Tamura, 27, a product of Japan’s Krazy Bee camp, makes his promotional debut after losing majority decisions in two of his past three appearances, including his most recent fight against Guy Delumeau in November.
A training partner of Japanese knockout specialist and wrestling standout Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, Tamura will likely rely on his wrestling background to dictate where the fight takes place.
The Chinese sensation desperately needs a win and his slick chokes will be the deciding factor as Tamura succumbs to a submission.