Opportunity knocks for Takeya Mizugaki. The 30 year old Japanese fighter has been handed a chance to defeat the biggest name in the division, a once beaten former champion who is returning after a three year injury layoff.
The matchmakers have nominated him as the man to welcome Dominick Cruz back to the Octagon at UFC 178 in what will be the former bantamweight king’s first fight since October, 2011 and by far the biggest night of Mizugaki’s career.
Question marks hang over Cruz because after almost three years away from the sport fans are wondering if he will ever be the same fighter who tore through the division defeating the likes of Ian McCall, Joseph Benavidez, Uriah Faber and Demetrious Johnson.
However this UFC 178 bantamweight bout is not just about whether Cruz can recapture the form which thrust his name to the forefront of the pound for pound argument, it is also a chance for Mizugaki to put his name on the map by beating one of the most recognizable fighters in the division.
Mizugaki is riding a five fight win streak stretching back to February, 2012 but it’s fair to say that none of the names on his resume have quite the allure of Cruz’ and he says he is preparing for the fiercest test of his career to date.
“My approach towards this fight and training camp is that I am taking on my toughest opponent ever,” he told Fightland.
Cruz’ credentials are the best in the bantamweight division and arguably as strong as anyone’s in the sport. His only loss was to Faber but ‘The Dominator’ bounced back to beat his fierce rival.
Ten of his 20 fights have taken place in either the WEC or the UFC and Cruz is currently riding a ten fight win streak which has taken in victories over some of the top fighters in the lighter two divisions.
It would be in the UFC’s interested for the former champion to mount a successful comeback and challenge immediately for the belt but Mizugaki rejects the suggestion that he was hand picked as an easy opponent for Cruz.
“I think in order for Cruz to get back into title contention fast he would have to fight someone high in the ranking and that is probably the reason why they chose me,” he said.
Mizugaki has reached #5 in the UFC rankings while Cruz is languishing at #12 although given his most recent results and the long layoff it would presumably only take one win to catapault the former champion much closer to the top spot.
Conversely a win for Mizugaki would potentially be enough to secure an immediate title shot and he certainly believes this should be the case.
“Yes, if I win then definitely I should be the next challenger."
One thing that both these bantamweights have in common is that they tend to go the distance. Cruz’ last four fights have all ended up in the hands of the judges and at one stage Faber famously described him as ‘The Decisionator’ while Mizugaki hasn’t finished an opponent in almost three years.
It is something which the Japanese fighter is acutely aware of and while you sense he would settle for any sort of win against Cruz there is no doubt that he feels under pressure to start finishing fights.
“Believe me I always want to finish my opponent so in that sense this fight is same, but I would like to secure my title shot so it is particularly important for me to finish Dominick in this fight,” Mizugaki said.
There has been an influx of Japanese fighters into the UFC since the acquisition of Pride and subsequent demise of de facto replacement Dream. Mixed martial artists from the Land of the Rising Sun may have held their own in the Octagon but the closest any of them has come to claiming a title was when Yushin Okami was well beaten by Anderson Silva in 2011.
Misugaki is currently closer than any of his compatriots to a title shot but much of the talk in Japan has been about how fans are disappointed that the matchup there didn’t make its way onto the Tokyo card which is set for September 21st, barely a week before UFC 178.
However while fans in Japan would have loved to see Mizugaki fight in his homeland he is just happy to be travelling to Las Vegas for one of the biggest cards of the year.
“I’m not disappointed that the fight isn’t in Japan, not at all. I was thinking, if I have to fight Dominick then probably has to be US anyways and I am extremely honored to be able to fight in the main card of a PPV show.”
There are various theories as to why Japanese fighters have not been able to replicate the success they enjoyed on promotions like Pride and Dream inside the Octagon with one of the most popular being that the standard of training there is not as high as in the US, Canada or Brazil.
Mizugaki does not necessarily subscribe to this school of thought but he acknowledges that to put together a proper training camp it is necessary to divide his time between multiple facilities.
“For MMA training I go to Hearts which is owned by Kenji Osawa or Shooting Gym Yokohama. I also go to Hosei University for my wrestling training and do physical strength and conditioning sessions with my personal trainer and I am looking to do more boxing sparring with world ranked boxer Daiki Kaneko,” he said.
Since Cruz last stepped foot inside the Octagon Mizugaki has fought no fewer than six times earning multiple paydays in the process while the former champion has been stuck on the sidelines, deprived of any income from fight purses.
It’s a horrible situation for a fighter to be in and Mizugaki says he has some sympathy for his forthcoming opponent.
“I do feel little bit of sympathy for Dominick because he got injured when he was at the top. He was the champ and he looked very solid back then and also, in terms of age, he was peaking when he had to take three years of break. But I guess this is a sport where injures do happen so this could have happened to anyone.”
There is some suggestion that Mizugaki has caught Cruz at the perfect time and could expose any physical weakness or lack of fight fitness in the former champion but he says he hopes to fight an opponent in his prime.
“As a fighter I know it’s hard to come back from and injury but I prefer to fight Dominick Cruz at his best so that is what I am hoping to face in September,” Mizugaki told Fightland.
If there is anything to be taken from Cruz’ misfortune it is that opportunities in the sport can be few and far between and that when they do arrive it is imperative for an MMA fighter to seize the moment.
UFC 178 is Mizugaki’s moment. The questions may surround Cruz and whether he can recapture the form which made him a champion but the Japanese fighter knows that after five years competing in the US he could now be just a win away from that elusive title shot.
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