Posted 06/29/2014 by McKinley Noble in UFC

Hatsu Hioki’s Fall and Japan’s Next UFC Title Hope

UFC champion Jose Aldo was once supposed to fight Hatsu Hioki.

Back in the day, that didn’t sound so weird.

Heck, there was a time not too long ago when Hioki was widely considered the best featherweight competing outside of the UFC. That was also an argument you could also make for fellow Japanese MMA veteran Tatsuya Kawajiri and Bellator champion Pat Curran, at a time when the UFC was still busy fleshing out their own 145-pound division.

That’s been over for ages.

Today, it’s pretty much a given that the UFC has a solid lock on the world’s best 145-pounders. And although Hioki’s got insane credentials as an all-time MMA featherweight, a triple-crown regional champion at 145 pounds, and possibly one of the greatest fighters to ever come out of Japan, he’s likely done a title contender following his loss to unranked Brazilian standout Charles Oliveira. While the match wasn’t a blowout, it’s as clear as ever that the Aldo fight is/was never going to happen.

Ehhh. Maybe Hioki dodged a bullet there. (H/T UFC via MMA-GIFs)

Where Hioki goes from here is uncertain, although it would still be a shock if he was cut. He’s only 30 years old and hasn’t taken that much damage in his career, so a gatekeeper role to the “Top 15″ of the UFC featherweight division isn’t out of the question. At the very least, there’s probably going to be main card spots to fill out in future Asia-bound UFC events.

But thankfully, Japan’s title hopes won’t die with Hioki.

As a direct response to their “World Fucking Domination” edict, the UFC as a promotion has done a relatively good job of signing and retaining some valuable Japanese talent in recent years, both old and young. Even now, things are as interesting as ever with the UFC’s recent acquisitions, as the company maintains a healthy number of top-ranked names from the region. As things stand right now, there’s four names in particular you should watch:

Under the right circumstances and matchmaking, any one of those fighters could likely challenge for a UFC title within a year, and Rin’s definitely the front-runner. Miesha Tate’s tough, but just flawed enough that she can lose her scheduled fight against Nakai in September. If that happens, Rin could challenge and—stay with me—beat Ronda Rousey for her UFC title.

Granted, it wouldn’t be the first time a Japanese fighter won a UFC title.

That distinction wryly enough, goes to Lyoto Machida.

Yes, Machida is a Brazilian-born smorgasbord of various nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. But while the UFC (very appropriately) markets him as a Brazilian star, everything from Machida’s name to his fighting style serves as gentle reminders that his Japanese heritage is an unmistakable part of his identity. Interestingly, that aspect has rarely (if ever) been addressed by the UFC, thanks in equal parts to the short span of the “Machida Era” and the UFC’s limited global scope in 2009/2010.

However, this title shot is arguably more important.

It’s been over six years since a UFC fighter won titles in two divisions. For that reason alone, Machida’s middleweight resurgence is doubly important. Although the consensus distinction for “greatest MMA fighter of all time” may eventually rest with Jon Jones, double-division UFC champions are a special breed in their own right just on sheer rarity.

But even if “The Dragon” manages to dethrone Weidman and make history as the third-ever UFC two-division champion, it’s not as much a victory for Japanese MMA as it is for Brazilian MMA.

And so, Japan continues to wait for their UFC star.

Hioki has dropped the torch, but perhaps he’ll stick around long enough to see his one of his countrymen pick it back up.


McKinley Noble is an MMA conspiracy theorist. His work has appeared in PC World, Macworld, GamePro, 1UP, GamesBeat, Cox Sports, Bleacher Report, CNN, and The Los Angeles Times. Follow him at @KenTheGreat1 on Twitter.

McKinley Noble