In 2005, it would have been virtually unimaginable, but inside the Saitama Super Arena on Saturday, the possibility of Takanori Gomi falling to Eiji Mitsuoka seemed very real indeed.
Even on the heels of back-to-back losses against Nate Diaz and Clay Guida, Gomi -- who seven years ago reached the summit of Pride Fighting Championships’ lightweight division just as Mitsuoka washed out of the organization -- came to UFC 144 fight as a betting favorite. Though Mitsuoka entered with a good record (18-7-2), a two-fight winning streak and a relative wealth of cage experience, he was making his Octagon debut on one month’s notice, a late replacement for injured Australian George Sotiropoulos.
Not long into the first round, however, any notion of an easy or favorable matchup for Gomi went out the window. An unfortunate motif of the 33-year-old’s recent outings reappeared, as Gomi seemed hesitant to pull the trigger, repeatedly coming up short with punches and shaking out his hands. Meanwhile, ground specialist Mitsuoka was faring well on the feet, sticking his southpaw jab in Gomi’s face and looking for an opportunity to come inside.
Uppercuts and hooks connected for Mitsuoka, as he walked Gomi toward the fence. With a minute remaining in the opening period, after absorbing a solid left, Gomi drew a deep breath and mustered a hard kick to the body with a few jabs behind it. Gomi moved off the cage, but when he dropped his guard and telegraphed a lead uppercut, Mitsuoka countered perfectly with a short right. Gomi’s legs buckled beneath him and Mitsuoka pounced, applying a reverse triangle choke from high on Gomi’s back.
This looked like the end of the line for Gomi, if not in MMA, then at least in the UFC. That the bout immediately preceding saw onetime Japanese star Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto handed his third straight defeat suddenly seemed all the more ominous. With five seconds to go, Gomi’s hand hovered just off the canvas, the international indicator of “I’m about to tap.”
Gomi emerged for round two looking recovered, with a bit more urgency behind his strikes. He was still eating punches in the pocket, but now he was giving Mitsuoka some in return. Thirty seconds in, Gomi found his chance to turn around the fight when a three-punch combo left Mitsuoka swinging wildly. The damage was not evident at first, but, as Mitsuoka ran along the fence to avoid the heat, his footing appeared unstable. The immediate swell in Gomi’s confidence was almost visible.
Pushing his man into the cage, Gomi bombarded with knees and punches in close quarters before being forced to defend against a single-leg takedown. Brought to the ground for only a second, Gomi used the fence to quickly stand up and resume his assault, with more knees to the face and uppercuts from the clinch.
One of Gomi’s most valuable assets, his sound takedown defense, came into play as a dazed Mitsuoka desperately tried to move the fight to the floor. The labored takedown attempt yielded nothing, and Mitsuoka could only cling to Gomi’s left leg as the Kugayama Rascal leader tenderized his ribs and punched under his armpits. When Gomi turned the corner to secure his kneeling opponent’s back, it became clear Mitsuoka was done. Some 20 unanswered strikes later, referee Leon Roberts waved it off.
The finish was definitive though unspectacular, a far cry from the blistering knockouts Gomi once served up in the Pride ring. However, and perhaps more importantly, the come-from-behind nature of the victory showed that Gomi still possesses the mental fortitude and drive to win that many thought long-extinguished. At least for one night, “The Fireball Kid” was reignited.