Yoshihiro Akiyama: Big In Japan

(Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)
(Courtesy of Zuffa, LLC)

Yoshihiro Akiyama‘s dramatic decision win left the Korean-Japanese star on the mat crying, but even with his back on the floor, Akiyama’s star rose.

The K-1 veteran made his UFC debut at UFC 100 from the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Nevada on Saturday night and earned “Fight of the Night” honors, pocketing an incredibly generous $100,000 bonus from the UFC for earning a split decision over Alan Belcher.

Akiyama dealt with the best “Talent” the Octagon has seen. And while both got tired throughout the fight, it wasn’t for lack of preparation. Taking a beating simply diminishes cardio. Akiyama beat up Belcher with his speed and aggression, while Belcher worked Akiyama with leg kicks and powerful counter shots.

Akiyama foreshadowed the outcome of the bout in the UFC’s pre-fight interview: “I realize that American fighters are bigger and their techniques are good. I’m not sure how well my techniques will translate here in the U.S. What I want the fans to see is my heart and my spirit for the game.”

Most Japanese imports cite Octagon jitters, unfamiliarity with the cage and rules, but Akiyama handled the pressure of kicking off the UFC’s historical card without flinching. He had no issues with the cage, outworked an underrated fighter who is simultaneously finding his rhythm and hitting his prime, and did what highly ranked middleweight and fellow countryman Yushin Okami has not; excite the fans.

Akiyama maintained his style: Andrea Bocelli entrance music, gi and certified gameness. He was one of the best who stuck around the Land of the Rising Sun after PRIDE’s death. But the Japanese mystique started evaporating when Yoshiro Maeda, Hiroyuki Takaya and Akitoshi Tamura fell short in the WEC. Akiyama may not have restored that aura, but he carved his place as a UFC middleweight contender based on his performance-not his mega-celebrity in Korea and Japan or his North American cult following due to the “Sexiyama” persona.

And he did it all while being the man men want to be and women want to be with, foregoing his world-class judo for a fight that sacrificed his good looks for at least a few days.

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