Yushin Okami in an Ultimate Fighting Championship main event, and at 205 pounds? What year is this?
For the fourth time in the last four UFC cards, we have a late substitution in the main event or co-feature, as Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s decade-long battle with brutal knee injuries was reignited, forcing the Brazilian out of his rematch with Ovince St. Preux. In his stead, former UFC middleweight title challenger Okami returns to the Octagon for the first time in four years, bumping up to 205 pounds for the assignment and hoping to recapture his prime, at least for one evening, by pulling off the upset. As the most successful Japanese-born fighter in UFC history, Okami is a natural-if-unexpected fit in the role. It is nonetheless ironic, however, as inserting a Japanese fighter into the main event seems like a standard play to rouse the Saitama Super Arena crowd. Yet because Okami’s prime came largely stateside in the UFC, he is virtually anonymous to the mainstream Japanese public.
Nonetheless, as compromised an anemic as UFC Fight Night 117 “St. Preux vs. Okami” may be, the co-headliner is still a brilliant bout between former strawweight title challengers Jessica Andrade and Claudia Gadelha; we have the Octagon debut of K-1 and Glory kickboxing star Gokhan Saki, plus two exciting and undefeated debutants in Daichi Abe and Syuri Kondo; maybe this will even be the last time we are forced to watch Takanori Gomi -- or whatever shell of him remains -- get embarrassed.
Let us take a closer look at each UFC Fight Night 117 matchup, with analysis and picks:
Light HeavyweightsOvince St. Preux (20-10) vs. Yushin Okami (32-10)
This ersatz UFC main event is not as absurd as it seems at first blush. In fact, four of five years ago, I may have picked Okami outright in spite of the late substitution status and the difference in size. Nonetheless, one of the best Japanese fighters to ever do it will still have the chance to kick over St. Preux’s apple cart inside the hallowed halls of Saitama Super Arena, even if those hallowed halls are set for the basketball arena-sized configuration of the venue as opposed to the baseball stadium setup.
Okami’s size as a middleweight was overstated throughout his career, perhaps as a result of UFC color commentator Joe Rogan screaming about it or perhaps because opponents like Mike Swick and Kalib Starnes famously remarked on his size and strength to their corners in the middle of Octagon losses. Regardless, Okami’s body is deceiving; he is not a prototype middleweight begging to bump up to 205 pounds, like a Luke Rockhold or a Chris Weidman. While Okami may be 6-foot-2, he has thin legs, a tiny waist and no upper body development apart from big biceps and shoulders. He is essentially built like a palm tree. In fact, he will give up eight inches of reach to St. Preux despite giving up just one inch in height.
Size is not everything, though. Okami is a defensively responsible southpaw who will keep his hands up, work a jab and diligently look to counterpunch. When he sees an opportunity, he will duck his head, close the distance and look to pummel and muscle his opponent inside the clinch, aiming to set up a trip takedown. The Wajutsu Keishukai product does not move his head much, but he jabs coming forward, he jabs going backwards and uses his strong boxing base as the linchpin of his defense. As a strong exponent of boxing and wrestling fundamentals, Okami is tailor-made to give St. Preux some problems, as “OSP,” now 13 fights deep into his UFC tenure, still fights like his shorts are on fire every time out.
While he is a slow starter, St. Preux frenetically changes in and out of his own southpaw stance. He is not much of a boxer, preferring to probe the striking range with a variety of kicks, from your standard low cut kicks to spinning wheel varieties. While there is an unfortunate tendency in MMA to lump every black fighter into the “athletic and explosive” category, it is actually apt for St. Preux, as the former University of Tennessee outside linebacker’s game is predicated on those sudden explosions of offense. His striking is unusual, and while he has become known for hitting the low-percentage Von Flue shoulder choke in the Octagon, St. Preux is just as liable to roll around for leg locks or other exotic submissions when he is on the ground. While Okami is an example of textbook fighting technique, St. Preux is the MMA equivalent of holding down the right trigger button in a video game to unleash unorthodox power attacks.
Age is formative in this case. Okami, 36, has slowed as he has gotten older. He may be competitively buoyed as he ages because of the fact he is such a classy, crafty pro, but the classic conceit of “losing a step” shows up in his recent performances. Okami used to be a great defensive wrestler -- he is still a strong one -- but his ability to turn the corner and circle from a charging foe has diminished, and as evidenced in his encounters with Jon Fitch and Paul Bradley, he is slower and less successful at peeling foes off his body and getting back to his feet. By the same token, he is slower to react in striking exchanges. Bradley -- a man derisively nicknamed “Stall Bradley” for his general lack of activity on the mat during his time as a University of Iowa wrestler -- found a home for his left hand consistently. This is going to be a problem.
Despite that aforementioned eight inches of reach and because of his lack of boxing generalship, St. Preux will not maintain that distance. In fact, he is likely to invite the clinch himself, which is actually where St. Preux does a lot of his best work. He will have to pummel and do hard inside labor to gain an advantage, and given his usual slow starts, OSP may even concede the first round, as he did against Marcos Rogerio de Lima in April or Volkan Oezdemir in February. However, 25 minutes is a long, long time, and with or without the late notice, an aging Okami is not likely to hold out. “Thunder” has always had an average chin at best but has been able conceal and protect it with tight defense. However, the wear and tear of a 15-year fighting career has made him just a bit slower to react or counter; this will be his downfall. While St. Preux may still frustratingly lack the boxing skills you would hope a light heavyweight of his size and athleticism would develop, he still packs a wallop in his left hand, which he excels at landing inside or on charging opponents. He has even gotten better at putting combinations together and digging to the body. Meanwhile, Okami has become an increasing liability on the feet, especially as it concerns eating left hands.
Like I said, if this was five years ago, Okami would have a brilliant chance to string out St. Preux over the first 10 minutes, get him tired and then exploit his athleticism-over-technique mentality. A half decade ago, Okami could have survived OSP's early and unpredictable offense, then gone to work in the clinch, muscled the bigger man with leverage and skill and gone to work on the ground. In 2017, being late in the game, not the late-notice nature of this bout, that will be Okami’s undoing. The rudiments of an upset are still here, but a 25-minute fight is too long for Okami to last before OSP southpaw stings him for the finish. St. Preux may start predictably slow and look out of sorts early, but in the first 10 to 12 minutes, he will eventually put his left mitt on Okami’s head, rock him and then turn out his lights. Shoutouts to the Que Dogs.
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