If Rich Franklin (Pictures) hopes to regain the UFC middleweight title anytime soon, he must be triumphant over Yushin Okami (Pictures) on Saturday.
That's the obvious storyline surrounding the Cincinnati-based fighter as he headlines the UFC's initial foray into Ireland. Less clear is exactly how he'll get past his tough Japanese challenger.
Franklin (21-2-0, 1 NC) will undoubtedly have his hands full with the gritty Okami, who enters the octagon on June 16 looking for his seventh consecutive win (the last four came within the UFC).
Okami is as tough as they come and Franklin, back on the winning track since his heartbreaking knockout loss to current 185-pound champion Anderson Silva back in Oct. 2006, expects nothing less from his fistic counterpart.
UFC 72's main event originally pitted the American against Martin Kampmann (Pictures), but five weeks out Okami was brought in as a replacement after the Dane tore his ACL while training for the fight.
Rumors swirled that Zuffa was going to bring in prized middleweights Dennis Kang or Paulo Filho (Pictures), but the UFC brass didn't take long to settle on the white hot Okami.
"I was actually at a show here in Ohio when I heard the news that [Kampmann] blew out his knee," Franklin recalled. "I had to call my manager, Monte Cox, to verify that what I heard was true and it was. Two days after he got hurt, I heard it was going to be either Filho or Okami and about two days after that, the UFC decided on Okami."
Having already kicked off training camp for a fight instrumental to his chances of regaining the UFC middleweight crown, was it frustrating to have opponents, who aren't exactly carbon copies of one another, change on him?
According to "Ace," it really wasn't.
"The skeleton of my training still stays the same," he said. "I still do all of my same boxing and jiu-jitsu training but I brought some Greco-Roman wrestlers into the camp because that's what Yushin mostly brings to the table. When you're sparring someone like that, they usually tend to close the gap really quickly as opposed to someone like Kampmann, who likes to pick at you."
Franklin, possessing enough C-4 in his fists to implode a small casino, has done his homework on Okami, which is no surprise considering the former champ's diligence in the gym.
So what must the 32-year-old Franklin do to win?
Over the course of three five-minute rounds, against the patient Japanese mixed martial artist, that'll be an accomplishment in itself. Franklin said he has concentrated heavily on avoiding the pitfalls found in Okami's deceiving style. Any uncalculated outburst in reaction to an opening could cost one of the most disciplined fighters in the sport his shot at the belt.
"I don't think he's going to run from me but what I think he'll do is try to create a situation where I become impatient and start over-committing to some strikes, which would possibly give him the opportunity to clinch me," Franklin elaborated. "Okami's a really big middleweight too, and based on what both Kalib Starnes (Pictures) and (Mike) Swick said, I'm looking for him to be strong. I don't necessarily think he's stronger than me, but I've kind of convinced myself that he is -- and this way if he is, I'm not surprised if that happens.
"I know he likes to sit back and wait -- that's how he attacks. He was very active with his left cross against Swick and he threw a lot of rear leg kicks when he fought Starnes, and I know he just likes to sit and wait for stuff like that. But I know not to over-commit or get silly or greedy. When you get greedy by throwing a triple jab and then trying to follow that with a loopy cross, that's when he'll catch me with a cross of his own, which is a little straighter than mine. So I'll just have to pick and choose my combinations carefully."
Saturday's UFC main event in Belfast should be an entertaining affair between two rugged middleweights equidistant to the belt currently held by Silva.
Okami (20-3-0) has flown under the radar and for reasons unbeknownst to many within the sport of MMA he remains a mostly overlooked warrior.
With a division as deep as 185, guys like Franklin, Dan Henderson (Pictures), Filho, Matt Lindland (Pictures) and Silva hog the hoopla. A win would force Okami into the discussion.
While the Kanagawa, Japan-based fighter hasn't put down a murderer's row of elite middleweights, Okami has certainly feasted on worthy opposition. Franklin freely speaks about how tough and dangerous of an opponent Okami is and he knows how careful he must be when the horn sounds to start the action.
At 25 years of age, however, Okami has never been comfortable when faced with relentless pressure. That doesn't bode well against Franklin, whose forte has always been applying wilting heat on his opponents.
Franklin will likely be the more aggressive fighter on Saturday and he loves to throw bombs from all angles, but it's a fighting style "Ace" understands might fall into Okami's hands.
"Everybody knows I like to come out there and pressure my opponents right away," he said. "But there's a fine line between pressure and being careless. I noticed he got into a little trouble with Swick when Swick was pressuring him and I hope that I can do the same things to him."
If Franklin commits perfectly for the majority of the bout, he'll take one step closer to recapturing the UFC belt. He knows he can't afford to stumble against Okami and the beauty of the match-up is that Franklin is conscious of his opponent's well-rounded reputation.
Franklin will be walking the tight rope between fighting how he naturally does -- aggressive and throwing his bombs -- and how he's been training -- cautious and not over-committing.
Late Saturday evening in Ireland, depending largely upon which Franklin enters the cage, we'll know the name of the next No. 1 contender in the UFC middleweight division.