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The Blueprint - Belfort vs. Akiyama

Vitor Belfort faces Yoshihiro Akiyama at UFC 133 on August 6th...
Fresh off a devastating loss to Anderson Silva in his last bout, former champion and global fighting star Vitor Belfort will attempt to take a major step toward reestablishing himself as a middleweight title contender when he faces Asian superstar Yoshihiro Akiyama in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  Back-to-back losses, by contrast, would set him well back in the 185-pound pack.

Akiyama, who is in the midst of a two-fight losing streak, is still trying to figure out how to capture the same mixed martial arts superstardom that he enjoyed during his fighting run in Japan.  Three fights into his UFC career, the elite-level judoka remains an enigma. On one hand, he could easily be 0-3, but for the saving grace of two judges who surprisingly scored things in his favor when he faced off against Alan Belcher in his UFC debut.  On the other hand, each of his three UFC bouts was awarded the lucrative “Fight of the Night” honor by UFC President Dana White.

Akiyama remains the only fighter to earn that honor in each of his first three UFC bouts. Nonetheless, a third consecutive loss could spell problems for his fighting future.

It suffices to say that this fight has major career implications for both men. That sort of stress often causes fighters to clam up. I just don’t see that happening on Saturday night.

Belfort should prove to be a willing participant if Akiyama wants to continue his string of thrilling back-and-forth bouts.  “The Phenom” is on another level from Akiyama in terms of his standup skills. There is no doubt about that. But he isn’t at his best when pressured, so Akiyama’s best chance at winning, aside from utilizing his great judo skills, is to try and test Belfort in a barroom brawl.

Notice the qualifier? Akiyama’s most dominant skill is his judo.  And that is the only area of the fight where he enjoys any sort of advantage over Belfort.  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 Belfort.

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.

The problem, of course, is that Belfort has serious game in the clinch. I would rank it above Leben, in terms of his ability to defend and counter throws. His knee strikes are also far and away superior to those possessed by Leben. But many would take Leben’s judo defense and uppercuts over Belfort’s great athleticism, physical strength and knees. Who knows who is right?  

One way Belfort can guarantee that the fight remains on the feet is control the distance with the jab and keep Akiyama off balance by using lots of lateral movement.  It probably isn’t a shock to anyone who has watched the Brazilian throughout his career that he rarely relies on the jab, despite the fact that he displays an excellent one in sparring. Instead, he prefers to stand with his left hand cocked and wait for his foe to make a mistake so he can counter with a lights-out left.  

Akiyama should counter Belfort’s tendency by smothering him with pressure.  That is dangerous against a standup savage like Belfort, but it is the judoka’s best chance at winning.  Belfort’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and overall grappling skills are otherworldly in the training gym, but he has never really brought them to a fight, for whatever inexplicable reason.

If Belfort can avoid the takedown, he should win the fight fairly easily and inside the distance.  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 Belfort wins a kickboxing contest with Akiyama move than 99 percent of the time, in my opinion.

If the fight goes to the ground, Belfort should take a page out of the game plan that Josh Koscheck created for Andrew Main on the 12th 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.  Belfort 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, by major margins.

I don’t think Belfort has anything to fear in terms of submissions if he finds himself on his back. He is an elite black belt. Few debate that point. The problem, however, is that if he focuses solely on defending and resting from his guard, he will lose points on the judges’ cards for the time that he spends on his back.  There is no doubt about that based on the judging history over the past decade.

Belfort 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 Belfort should take some chances to get back to his feet, where he has the overwhelming advantage.

If Belfort is able to keep his time on the mat to a minimum, he should win the fight.  And Belfort winning the fight almost always means winning by knockout. All eight of his UFC wins have come inside the distance, and seven of them ended in a knockout. That doesn’t bode well for Akiyama if the fight remains on the feet.

Typically, I would spend at least 200 words on the fact that Belfort has a notoriously light gas tank. I would write at length about how his foe should look to survive the first round and then begin forcing the action in the next two stanzas.  But, alas, Akiyama is known to have the exact same issue. So, this is a fight that seems destined to end early. Neither man wants it to last until the final bell.

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 Belfort.  He is one of the game’s best finishers, and I just don’t see where Akiyama has a decided advantage.  I view this matchup a lot like I did Belfort versus Rich Franklin, and we all know how that one ended.

Then again, Akiyama has surprised me before. He may very well do it again on Saturday night.

QUICK FACTS

Vitor Belfort

•    19-9 overall (8-5 UFC)
•    34 years old
•    6’0, 185 lbs
•    74-inch reach
•    3-1, 3 KOs at 195 lbs or less
•    4-1 in last 5 fights
•    7-3 in last 10
•    All 8 UFC wins inside the distance (7 by KO/TKO and 1 by SUB)
•    68.4% of career wins by KO/TKO
•    10.5% of career wins by SUB
•    21.1% of career wins by decision
•    33.3% of career losses by KO/TKO
•    11.1% of career losses by SUB
•    55.6% of career losses by decision
•    Former UFC Light Heavyweight Champion
•    Former UFC Heavyweight Tournament winner
•    Current layoff is 182 days
•    Longest layoff of his career is 504 days

Yoshihiro Akiyama
•    13-3, 2 NC overall (1-2 UFC)
•    35 years old (will be 36 by fight night)
•    5’10, 185 lbs
•    75-inch reach
•    3-2 in last 5 fights, including back-to-back losses coming into this fight
•    6-2, 2 NC in last 10 fights
•    Lone UFC win by split decision
•    16 out of 18 professional fights have ended inside the distance (12-2, 2NC in those fights; 1-1 in fights that lasted the distance)
•    14 out of 18 professional fights ended in the first round (10-1, 2 NC in those fights)
•    38.5% of career wins by KO/TKO
•    53.8% of career wins by SUB
•    7.7% of career wins by decision
•    3 career losses: 1 KO, 1 SUB and 1 decision
•    All 3 UFC fights won Fight of the Night
•    Current layoff is 294 days
•    Longest layoff of his career is 357 days

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