Title: Yoshihiro Akiyama – Coming to America (and Canada)

By Thomas Gerbasi

Picture this. You are one of the biggest mixed martial arts stars in Asia, unable to walk down the street without someone recognizing you and asking you for a picture or autograph. There are book stores packed with fans hoping to catch a glimpse of you as you sign your autobiography.

Frankly, there's no reason for you to leave your home shores, as your mere presence on a fight poster means big money and even bigger exposure. But when you're an athlete, a real athlete, it's not all about the money or the fame. When you're Yoshihiro Akiyama, what matters at the end of the day is that you fought the best in the world. So when it came down to putting his name on a contract, there was no question where he was going. He was coming to America.

"To me, it's the best organization that's out there in fighting, so I chose the UFC," Akiyama told UFC.com through translator Ryo Ishibashi during his trip to Montreal last week for UFC 97. "The comparison to me is that this is like Major League Baseball."

Good comparison, especially since there is a host of heavy hitters waiting to welcome him to the Octagon, including 185-pound boss Anderson Silva, who Akiyama describes as "the perfect MMA fighter." But first things first, and Akiyama's journey begins with Alan "The Talent" Belcher at UFC 100 on July 11th. The two met for the first time last Friday, and Akiyama is expecting a tough fight from Belcher, who could be nicknamed "The Welcoming Committee" if he treats Akiyama the way he treated Denis Kang in his UFC debut earlier this year.

"He's young, his striking is good, and he's got more experience in the UFC than I do, so I think he's an excellent fighter," said Akiyama of Belcher.

Currently on a two fight winning streak that has seen him submit Katsuyori Shibata and Masanori Tonooka, the 33-year old Akiyama has less than three months left to prepare not only for Belcher, but for his first fight in the Octagon, and for a fighting culture that is significantly different from that in Japan. Akiyama is attempting to cover all his bases though, first by training with Yushin Okami - yes, the same fighter who is currently in the upper reaches of the UFC's middleweight division. It's an odd pairing, especially considering that the two could cross paths with each other in the future.

"I'm aware of it," said Akiyama, "but to me it's more important that he holds information on fighting in the Octagon."

As for the move from fighting in a ring to fighting in the Octagon, he says he has no worries about the transition, and if he does, he's certainly not revealing them.

"To me, the transition from the ring to the cage isn't too big, but I try not to think of it as much as possible, because that will get to my head," he said.

As for the switch from fighting in Japan to fighting in the United States, that may take some getting used to, even though last week's event was his second trip to a UFC show, the first coming last November when Brock Lesnar took the heavyweight title from Randy Couture in Las Vegas.

"I came and saw Couture and Lesnar at UFC 91 in Vegas," he said. "It helped me draw an image of the UFC and better understand it."

Following that first UFC event, Akiyama signed with the UFC in February, garnering a fevered response from the diehard MMA community in the process. It was a pleasant surprise for the Osaka native.

"I'm not sure how much the American fans know about me," he said. "I was not expecting huge excitement from the fans, but to be told that, I'm very grateful."

Canadian fans certainly welcomed Akiyama with open arms during his stay in Montreal, with scores of autographs and pictures being taken around the host hotel and at the Bell Centre. And though it was a great response, it's only a fraction of what he receives in Japan. When asked to describe the level of popularity he has back home, he simply smiled and said, "Like Chuck Liddell in the US."

So you would think that being a "regular guy" in North America would be a good thing. But while Akiyama is getting used to that, he's also using it as motivation.

"It's fresh and it motivates me to think that I have to do better in the UFC," he said.

He'll have more than ample opportunity to do that come July 11th as a participant on the biggest card in the UFC's history, and he admits that right now, he's got a few butterflies in his stomach about his debut.

"Right now I'm nervous, but sooner or later it will turn into excitement," he said, and at UFC 100, Akiyama is looking to make a statement - not only for himself, but for Asia.

"The Asian fighters aren't doing too well in the UFC, so as someone that represents the Asian fighters, I want to do my best."

For a video diary of Akiyama's visit to Canada, click HERE
Flash Page

April 22 2009
Splash - Welcome to the UFC 100 Official Site - Making History July 11, 2009. Trailer - UFC 100 will be the biggest event in mixed martial arts history. Two championship belts are on the line. UFC Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar will defend his title against Interim Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir in their long-awaited grudge match, and UFC Welterweight champion Georges "Rush" St-Pierre will fight #1 contender Thiago "Pitbull" Alves. Also, The Ultimate Fighter coaches collide as Dan Henderson takes on Michael "The Count" Bisping in a pivotal middleweight showdown. News - Official site for all UFC 100 news, articles, videos and images. Analysis - Exclusive analysis from UFC President Data White. He talks about such topics as the early days of the UFC, UFC 100, The Ultimate Fighter and more. He also analyzes the featured fighters that headline UFC 100, namely Brock Lesnar, Frank Mir, Georges St-Pierre, Thiago Alves, Dan Henderson and Michael Bisping. Fightcard - The fight card for UFC 100 is as stacked as they come, featuring some of the best mixed martial arts experts in the world. The featured bouts include Heavyweight Champion Brock Lesnar vs. Interim Heavyweight Champ Frank Mir and Welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre vs. Thiago Alves. Also, The Ultimate Fighter coaches Dan Henderson and Michael Bisping will face off to see who move up the middleweight rankings. Predict - In the Predict 100 section of the UFC 100 event site, fans get a chance to predict the outcomes of the main fight card. Will it be Lesnar by submission or Mir by KO? Share your thoughts. Watch - UFC 100 will be shown live on pay-per-view on Saturday July 11 at 10PM ET/7PM PT. UK fans can enjoy the event live on Setanta Sports or online on Yahoo! Sports. Visit the site for additional information. Overview - Official UFC 100 site - Making History July 11, 2009.