by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
At the upcoming Rumble on the Rock January 20th show there will be a gathering of eight of the best fighters around to compete for the company’s first ever 175lb tournament title. Among the eight fighters is one that not many American fans may be familiar with, but he could just end up being the dark horse that wins the whole thing. That fighter is Yushin Okami, the tournament’s Japanese seed and x-factor.

Okami is a veteran of nearly every promotion in Japan, including Greatest Common Multiple, Pancrase, Pride and K-1. He’s faced off against some of the toughest competition in each promotion and has so far amassed an impressive overall record of 17-2.

Originally debuting as an amateur on Pride’s Pre-Pride and The Best series in 2002, Okami quickly proved that he was an all-around style fighter that could take the fight anywhere. During his first 10 fights, all of which he won, Yushin showed a penchant for standing and trading, while also being able to take advantage of the ground game and if necessary, outlast opponents to decisions.

It was only until he fought Amar Suloev at an M-1 show in Russia that Okami could be stopped. Perhaps going too far above his natural weight, Okami had difficulty against the larger, hard-hitting Russian fighter. In the end the size difference was just too much to overcome as Suloev ended Yushin’s winning streak at 10 via KO in the first round of their bout.

Determined to not let the loss set him back, Okami returned and knocked out fellow Japanese fighter Kousei Kubota and was impressive enough that he would be welcomed back to Pride, this time on their Bushido imprint. At Bushido 2, Okami stifled Ryuta Sakurai for 15 minutes and won the fight by unanimous decision.

While not as impressive as his previous fight, his performance was strong enough to earn him a trip to Hawaii to take on fan favorite Niko Vitale at in Superbrawl. During one of the closest fights of the year in the company, Yushin lost a tight split decision to Vitale.

Since the loss Yushin has been on a tear, winning five straight, including a win over future UFC veteran Nick Thompson in GCM. Most recently Okami steamrolled Myun Joo Lee at K-1 Hero’s Korean event this past November and continues to look impressive both on the ground and standing. With his successes in Japan Okami would be invited to be the Japanese representative in ROTR’s 175lb tournament.

In the first round of the tournament Okami is set to face off against UFC alum Renato “Charuto” Verissimo. And while Yushin has faced off against some tough talent in the past, this fight could easily represent the toughest of his career, as when Verissimo is on his game, he’s one of the toughest fighters to beat in the middleweight division.

Patience should be the key for Okami against Charuto. If he rushes and decides to slug it out right away with the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu blackbelt, he could find himself being taken down, as Verissimo has used such a tactic against past opponents. If Okami takes his time and picks his shots carefully he can neutralize Charuto’s attempts to get Yushin to rush in and eventually work his way to guard where Verissimo is dangerous.

Charuto in the past has been prone to set himself in a submission and not continue to work to stop position changes. Such is the case when Verissimo fought Matt Hughes and Frank Trigg, in those fights he had both in a lot of trouble but was too content to sit in one submission and got caught with position changes. So if Okami gets caught in a submission he must continue to work and use the overconfidence of Charuto against himself.

Some feel that Okami is being used as a set-up opponent for Verissimo’s advancement in the tournament, but he has shown in previous bouts, he’s not someone to be overlooked or underestimated. If the field does that, you could very well see Yushin make a long run in the tournament, possibly to the finals and ultimate victory.

Not many fans are expecting much out of Okami, with possibly less to lose than the other fighters, and that makes him a most dangerous opponent in the tournament. With the Japanese market always on the lookout for the next great hero to get behind, Okami could quickly fill that role and become a star overnight if he does well. And that’s incentive enough to play the role of the tournament’s wild card fighter, win the whole thing, and be overlooked no more.