Yoshihiro Akiyama is a major mixed martial arts superstar in his native Japan; a fighter whose talents and approach resonates with the fans, while his sartorial selections and overall appearance makes him popular with the ladies. Sponsored by Nike and known as “Sexyama,” there may not have been a bigger home-grown star in all of Japanese MMA.
Despite not having a great deal of cache with North American fans, Akiyama’s international stardom and impressive record was enough to earn him a place in the first bout of the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view event to date. At UFC 100 last July, Akiyama and Alan Belcher kicked off the company’s centennial show with a back-and-forth battle that earned the duo Fight of the Night honors, and a questionable split decision victory for the debuting judoka.
One of the biggest stars to arrive in the UFC from the Land of the Rising Sun, Akiyama’s win over Belcher extended his unbeaten streak to fourteen and should have been a launching point for a quick climb up the middleweight ladder. Instead, a fractured left orbital bone left him on the sidelines recovering, and waiting for another opportunity.
It was expected that Akiyama would face former PRIDE star Wanderlei Silva at UFC 110, the company’s first foray to Australia and the closest they would come to Japan where the two 185-pound competitors are both major draws. But Silva instead faced – and defeated Brit Michael Bisping – while Akiyama continued to wait. At the post-fight press conference, Dana White announced he would make Akiyama’s wish come true and pair him with “The Axe Murderer.”
Fast forward to last week and the announcement that Silva would be forced to withdraw from their fight due to numerous injuries sustained in training, the greatest of which are a pair of broken ribs. Chris Leben was immediately tabbed as Silva’s replacement, but a crestfallen Akiyama initially balked at the late replacement. After all this time, Akiyama wanted Silva, and Leben didn’t seem like a big enough challenge.
The Judo black belt decided to go ahead and face Leben, and the two will meet in the co-main event Saturday at UFC 116. After a high profile arrival, a questionable debut win, and nearly a year on the shelf, Akiyama needs an impressive performance against “The Crippler” to show that he belongs amongst the best middleweights in the world.
As of right now, it’s hard to place Akiyama.