In the early 2000s, Japan was considered an equal to the U.S. on the MMA scene. The top end of PRIDE's roster was arguably better than what the UFC was offering. That started to change when the UFC bought PRIDE. At the same time, MMA's popularity spread across the U.S., more top notch athletes got involved in the sport and training methods in Japan didn't keep pace.
As a result, many of the Japanese fighter imports in recent years have been pretty disappointing. That might change if Hatsu Hioki decides to sign with the UFC. The 27-year-old is ranked No. 2 in the world at 145 pounds by the USA Today/Bloody Elbow rankings.
MMAjunkie reports Hioki passed on a recent off to fight at DREAM 17 and his manager announced the he's vacating his Shooto lightweight title. Hioki is going to attend UFC 131 next week in Vancouver.
"I think he's going to have a sit-down with (UFC matchmaker) Sean Shelby and try to work out a deal," Hirata said. "There is ... pride in wearing the Shooto world title, but I think that in the near future I would like to challenge a new stage of pride."
Hioki needs to break the recent slide by Japanese fighters who've come stateside. Of all Japanese-born fighters, Yushin Okami has probably had the most success in the U.S. over the last five years. Okami is scheduled to challenge Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title in Rio de Janeiro in August.
Shinya Aoki is incredible, but looked lousy last June in losing to Strikeforce 155-pound champ Gilbert Melendez. Aoki has won five straight since, including a victory over Lyle Beerbohm in the U.S., but is still seeking that signature win. Tatsuya Kawajiri was destroyed by Melendez in April. Takanori Gomi, 1-2 in the UFC, has had a little success in the states and Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto is still looking for his first UFC win. He lost his debut against Demetrious Johnson and is now sidelined with an injury.
Hioki is 24-4-2, winning nine of his last 10 fights. His recent win over Marlon Sandro was an eye opener, but he also lost a 2009 fight to Michihiro Omigawa. Omigawa tried the UFC recently and was beaten easily by Chad Mendes.
Will Hioki help restore Japan's fighting reputation or find the same fate so many of his fellow countryman have in recent in years in the U.S.? The search is on for someone to dethrone UFC featherweight champ Jose Aldo. Maybe Hioki can be the guy.