Fresh off a big win in his last bout, Michael Bisping will attempt to take one more giant step toward returning to middleweight title contention on Saturday night when he faces Asian superstar Yoshihiro Akiyama at the O2 Arena in London, England. The Brit knows that a win over Yoshihiro likely puts him back near the top of the division—a position he held two years ago before dropping two out of three fights.
Akiyama is still trying to figure out how to capture the same mixed martial arts superstardom that he enjoyed during his fighting run in Japan, where he racked up a 12-1 record, with his lone loss coming courtesy of a savage knee from a world-class heavyweight kickboxer. Two fights into his UFC career, he’s 1-1, but the elite-level judoka could easily be 0-2 thanks to the razor-thin split decision he scored against Alan Belcher in his UFC debut. A decisive win over Bisping would erase the bad taste of his last two bouts.
Keep in mind, though, that the bad taste is only in the judoka’s mouth. UFC President Dana White awarded Akiyama with a “Fight of the Night” bonus after both of his UFC bouts, making him the only fighter to win that award in consecutive bouts to begin his UFC career.
Bisping should prove to be a willing participant if Akiyama wants to continue his string of thrilling back-and-forth bouts. “The Count” may not be willing to go toe to toe with killer strikers like Wanderlei Silva, but I don’t imagine him hesitating to plant his feet and swing away against Akiyama, despite the fact that such an approach to the fight isn’t in Bisping’s best interest.
Don’t misinterpret those words. Bisping has the better standup skills by leaps and bounds. There is no doubt about that. But engaging in a firefight creates unnecessary risks for the former winner of The Ultimate Fighter because it opens the door for a takedown.
Akiyama’s most dominant skill is his judo. And that is the only area of the fight where he enjoys any sort of significant advantage over Bisping. Watching the former gold medalist from the 2001 Asian Championships and 2002 Asian Games throw around Chris Leben erased any doubt in my mind about this guy’s ability to transition his judo skills to mixed martial arts, and he needs to rely heavily on those skills if he wants to defeat Bisping.
Keep in mind that Chris Leben has excellent takedown defense after spending the first several years of his career as a member of Team Quest. That affiliation gave him the opportunity to train on a daily basis with some of the best wrestlers that the UFC has ever seen, including Greco Roman guys like Randy Couture. Leben never imagined that Akiyama would be able to take him down with any regularity, but that is precisely what happened when the skilled judoka got his hands on the star slugger. In fact, Akiyama was able to take him down basically whenever he wanted. His throws and trips are that good.
Bisping has a very good sprawl, but I would not rank him above Leben in terms of defending throws and trips. I’m sure the Brit has worked hard on that aspect of his game heading into this fight. But he hasn’t spent years training with elite judoka or world class Greco guys, so it is unlikely that he is better than Leben at defending throws and trips from the clinch.
The key to avoiding those throws and trips is to control the distance with the jab and keep Akiyama off balance by using lots of lateral movement. Bisping has a very good jab. He snaps it with speed and accuracy, which is a key to staying on the outside. More importantly, Bisping is very good at stepping to his own left while snapping the jab. Lateral movement like that creates angles for Bisping to land a straight right hand, but the biggest benefit is the fact that Akiyama is left out of position to secure a clinch because he can only try to reach across his own center point in an attempt to corral the Brit with his right arm and otherwise chasing while his foe circles away from his lead arm.
Akiyama should counter Bisping’s attack by circling to his own right, while angling forward, and firing his right hand. By doing that, he can effectively cut off Bisping’s retreat and force the Brit to circle in the opposite direction and into Akiyama’s lead left side. That will increase Akiyama’s odds using his left arm to wrap up Bisping in a clinch.
If Bisping can avoid the takedown, he should win the fight. Keep in mind, of course, that anything can happen when two highly trained athletes begin exchanging punches with those tiny vale tudo gloves. Anyone can get knocked out at any time. But Bisping wins a kickboxing contest with Akiyama move than 90 percent of the time, in my opinion.
If the fight goes to the ground, Bisping should take a page out of the game plan that Josh Koscheck created for Andrew Main on the current season of The Ultimate Fighter. Main was told that if he found himself on his back that the only options were sweep, submit or stand up. Bisping needs to take those words to heart. Akiyama is a skilled judoka, but like most who transition into mixed martial arts from that sport, his ground game isn’t designed to methodically hammer away on an opponent defending from his guard until a limb or neck presents itself for a submission. Instead, judo is a game of hand and body position that relies heavily on the use of the gi by the attacker. Strip a judoka of his gi and his submission game typically deteriorates, at least a bit.
Bisping has a very sound Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu base. He should be able to survive on his back. The problem, however, is that if he focuses solely on defending from his guard, he will lose points on the judges’ cards for the time that he spends on his back. I am very confident in that statement. Thus, Bisping needs to be very proactive if he finds himself heading to the canvas. He should instantly look for a submission or sweep during the transition. If neither opportunity presents itself, then he should do whatever it takes to quickly rise back to his feet. Whether that means walking the cage, posting up with his arms or turning his back, it doesn’t matter. Akiyama is not a slick MMA submission guy, so Bisping should take some chances to get back to his feet, where he has the overwhelming advantage.
If Bisping is able to keep his time on the mat to a minimum, he should win the fight. Again, anything can happen with two guys firing away with fists, knees, shins and elbows. But I like Bisping’s chances in the standup realm. Akiyama’s best chance at scoring an upset victory is to rely heavily on his judo to quickly transition the fight to the ground early in each round, and then rely on his overall ground prowess to keep the action there in order to grind out a victory.
Thus, this is another in a long line of classic examples of a fight that will likely be decided by which man is able to control where the fight unfolds. If I had to pick, I’d side with Bisping. He has proven to be exceedingly difficult to take down inside the Octagon. If he doesn’t get cocky about his takedown defense, a la Leben, he should be able to keep the action standing and force Akiyama into a firefight, something that Akiyama loves but that plays right into the Brit’s hands.
• 31 years old
• 6’2, 185 lbs
• 75.5-inch reach
• 19-3 overall (9-3 UFC)
• 3-2 in last 5
• 7-3 in last 10
• 5-2 as a middleweight
• 63% of his wins have come by KO/TKO (12 out of 19)
• 21% of his wins have come by submission (4 out of 19)
• Only 5 out of 22 professional fights have lasted the distance (3-2 in those fights)
• Winner of Season 3 of The Ultimate Fighter (light heavyweight)
• Fight of the Night twice (TKO2 over Denis Kang on November 14, 2009; and TKO2 over Elvis Sinosic on April 21, 2007)
• Current layoff is 140 days (UD3 over Dan Miller on May 29, 2010)
• Longest career layoff is 266 days (UD3 over Chris Leben on October 18, 2008; until KO2 by Dan Henderson on July 11, 2009)
• 35 years old
• 5’10, 185 lbs
• 75-inch reach
• 13-2, 2NC overall (1-1 UFC)
• 3-1, 1NC in his last 5
• 7-1, 2NC in his last 10
• Loss to Chris Leben in his last bout was his first loss in over 5 years
• Both professional losses occurred by stoppage – 1 by knockout and 1 by submission
• 16 out of 17 professional fights have ended inside the distance (14-2 in those fights)
• Only 3 out of 17 professional fights have made it out of the first round (2-1 in those fights)
• 54% of his wins have come by submission (7 out of 13)
• 38% of his wins have come by knockout (5 out of 13)
• Current layoff is 105 days (SUB3 by Chris Leben on July 3, 2010)
• Longest layoff of brief UFC career is 357 days (SD3 over Alan Belcher on July 10, 2009, until SUB3 by Chris Leben on July 3, 2010)
• Both of his UFC bouts were selected as the Fight of the Night